Friday, December 07, 2007

The Top 100 TV Series of All Time: #100-91

100) Aqua Teen Hunger Force
Cartoon Network, produced 2001-present

What: What's probably [adult swim]'s finest original series is a weird blend of stoner humor, bizarre non sequiturs and strange characters. It's about a bunch of fast food items that go on basically plotless adventures. A series of models of brevity, each episode of the show is 12 minutes long.

Why: The [adult swim] ethos of trying to be as random as possible has reached out to infect every inch of the televised comedy landscape, but no one does it better than the original [adult swim] cartoons (Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Sealab 2021, The Brak Show, Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law and this). Aqua Teen is probably the best example of this random version of humor, simply because it builds its stories on four very recognizable characters -- the overworked, underpaid Frylock; the egotistical Master Shake; the innocent Meatwad; and the harried, hateful Carl. It's basically a classic '50s sitcom with jokes based on Space Invaders. Even though the show's gone downhill in recent years, its first three seasons are funny enough to keep it in my good graces.

Best season:
Probably the first season, which handily introduced the characters but never got so out there that it became unwatchable (a problem the show would have in later seasons).

Best episode: "Dumber Dolls," in which David Cross voices a character named Happy-Time Harry and the guys go on an extended riff about Highlander and the process of becoming immortal.

Did you know?: Originally developed as an episode of "Space Ghost: Coast to Coast," Aqua Teen is probably a spinoff of that show, though not officially or anything.

Available on DVD?: The majority of the show's run is available on DVD.

99) The Adventures of Pete & Pete
Nickelodeon, produced 1993-1996

What: Two brothers with the same name try to kill time and deal with the minutiae of American life in the 1990s while living in the suburban town of Wellsville. They're surrounded by quirky, but endearing, friends and family members, including the strongest man in the world and a mother with a plate in her head. Originally a series of commercial-length shorts on the same channel.

Why: There have been a lot of series about the suburbs, especially in recent years, but Pete & Pete is probably the American television show about the suburbs that most nails the strange, disconnected feeling of living there. Nothing about it is all that bad, and much of it is quite nice, but there's no way to reconnect with your primal nature. So you do the best you can at making something of each and every day, just so your soul doesn't die. Unusually perceptive about suburban life, Pete & Pete was also a nearly perfect kids show. The adults were secondary characters, important to the lives of the kids but decidedly tertiary. What's more, the series had probably the coolest eye for casting of any basic cable series of the '90s -- where else could you see Michael Stipe, Steve Buscemi and Iggy Pop all turn up as bored, suburban adults?

Best season: The second season offers the best blend of wacky adventures, adolescent angst and the show's suburban milieu and contains the superb two-parter saying goodbye to Artie.

Best episode: "Saturday," the series finale (written as a season finale, actually), which just played out a normal day in the life of these suburban kids and saw the world as full of potential and possibility, just as they would have.

Did you know?: The creators of Pete & Pete went on to make movies, but their first effort, Snow Day, was not nearly as well received as their television series.

Available on DVD?: The first two seasons are. Sadly, the release of the third season has been canceled.

98) How I Met Your Mother
CBS, produced 2005-present

What: A man sits down his two teenagers and tells them the story of how he met their mother. But he insists he's going to tell them the WHOLE story, which involves lots of detours, rewrites, hasty edits and stories about his friends that might seem to have nothing to do with the romantic comedy we were promised. Perhaps no other sitcom is as in love with the process of storytelling itself.

Why: HIMYM survived a rocky and uneven start to become the new standard-bearer for the laugh-tracked sitcom for one reason -- its characters. While all of them appear to be people you've seen before on sitcoms before at first glance, you soon realize that these are new spins on those types, from the glumly romantic Ted (who's also kind of a dick) to the dopey best friend Marshall (who's a genius law student and afraid of Sasquatch). The show's also got THE breakout character of the last few years in Barney, a cad and jackass who somehow makes it all look charming. HIMYM also wins points for just how much it enjoys playing with its timeline and changing things around in its storytelling in a manner much more reminiscent of dramas. The series also hasn't forgotten that the best sitcoms of the past were able to wring pathos out of their characters, and it does so, often when you're not expecting it too. If this show can keep it up and have a long, healthy run, it could easily move up.

Best season: The second season is one of the most consistent seasons of a comedy in recent memory.

Best episode: "Slap Bet," an episode so good that it could have secured the show a place on the list singlehandedly. Fortunately, there are plenty of other good ones, but "Slap Bet" is that once-in-a-show's-lifetime episode that keeps you glued to the set when you run across it in syndication decades later.

Did you know?: Ted and Marshall are based on the show's creators, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas. Lily is based on Thomas' wife, but she made the two basing a character on her contingent on their casting of Alyson Hanigan, as she was a big Buffy fan. Thomas and Bays also sing the show's theme song. How's THAT for versatility?

Available on DVD?: The first two seasons are. The third season is airing right now.

97) Project Runway
Bravo, produced 2004-present

What: This reality competition series pits a handful of talented wannabe fashion designers against each other in a battle to the death. The winner garners the usual assortment of reality show prizes. But it's not easy to win, as you have to put up with cranky judges, Heidi Klum and MASTER OF FASHION Tim Gunn, not to mention a long assortment of goofy challenges, designed to keep you on your toes.

Why: I have the usual problems with reality TV -- the editing makes it too easy to guess who will leave that week; the general savvy of most reality show contestants since the debut of Survivor means they all know exactly what to expect; the genre often celebrates the worst of human nature, rather than the best. But that's all different on Runway, which just might be the best portrayal of the creative process reality TV will ever have to offer. Runway is interested mostly in talent and pressing that talent to its breaking point. It will engage in the sorts of interpersonal conflicts other shows would make whole episodes out of, but only to a point. The designers are here to design, and the show's focus on how these people look at a swath of fabric and turn it into a piece of clothing keeps it fresh and fun from season to season. I have absolutely no interest in fashion, and Runway keeps me riveted.

Best season: The second season had the most bizarre challenges (designing from a grocery store?) and the best casting, so we'll give it a slight advantage over the more competitive season three.

Best episode: The aforementioned episode where the designers had to create a garment out of grocery store finds. Some truly impressive work where you'd least expect it.

Did you know?: Tim Gunn was originally supposed to have a very limited role on the show. He became so popular that not only was his role expanded, but the producers went back through the season one cutting room floor to reedit him into episodes.

Available on DVD?: The first three seasons are. Season four is airing right now.

96) WKRP in Cincinnati
CBS, produced 1978-1982
You'll find a constant theme of this countdown is me trying to find theme songs from Fox-owned shows. Since the WKRP theme isn't up on YouTube, please enjoy it performed on an accordion. Or watch a bunch of Cincinnatians singing it here.

What: The last of the great MTM-produced sitcoms was one the production company gave little respect, despite the fact that it commanded a loyal cult of fans and turned into a sensation in syndication. Full of strange characters and great music, the show was one of the first truly surreal workplace sitcoms, paving the way for shows as diverse as Newsradio and Scrubs.

Why: I think there's some unwritten rule of TV that sitcoms about radio stations will always be at least half funny, and WKRP was one of the first. WKRP derived its humor from its assortment of oddball characters, but never pushed them so far that they would become completely unbelievable. MTM always seemed a little embarrassed that this bizarre show was doing so well when its other, classier sitcoms were going one-season-and-out, but the characters in those shows were boring and overdone. The characters in WKRP were nothing if not original and outrageous. WKRP isn't the world's most subtle comedy, but it's one of the funniest.

Best season: The show got better as it went along, so my pick is season three, despite the lack of the show's most famous episode -- you know; that one with all the turkeys that Fox keeps taking clips of off of YouTube.

Best episode: The turkeys hitting the ground like bags of wet cement has become one of the most famous sitcom moments of all time and for good reason. That's what makes "Turkeys Away" a classic Thanksgiving treat.

Did you know?:
The lead role of Andy almost went to a young comic named David Letterman. Instead, MTM decided to take Letterman and put him on their Mary Tyler Moore variety show, Mary. That show bombed, and the rest is history.

Available on DVD?: The first season is available, but the music clearance issues have made a mockery of some of the show's scenes. Buy at your own risk.

95) Veronica Mars
UPN/The CW, produced 2004-2007

What: The very definition of a cult show, Veronica Mars was a hard-bitten, noir-ish look at the seedy underbelly of the modern American class war with a blonde teenager as your guide. Blessed with a great cast, the show was a fascinating blend of season-long storytelling, soap opera arcs and self-contained mysteries.

Why: Here's the first point where we have to question just how much some lesser material can weigh an otherwise stellar series down. The first season of Veronica Mars is just awesome, as is the second half of its second season. The first half of season two and season three are both very good, but they're not top 100 shows of all time good. Still, I'm going to give the show the benefit of the doubt because it was so funny, so perfectly plotted and so in touch with the class war in the U.S. Kristen Bell is that rare thing -- someone who feels like a TV star but has an energy that suggests more of a character actress -- and the show played that disparity up to the hilt. It helped that the rest of the cast was excellent (aside from weak link Teddy Dunn, who was ditched in season two) and that the writing, led by Rob Thomas, was so sharp and witty.

Best season: While I generally think season two is a little underrated and I actually liked the much-maligned season three, season one is just unbeatable, featuring the perfect blend of episodic mysteries, big arc storytelling and relationship angst.

Best episode: Everyone loves "Leave It to Beaver," but I've always preferred "A Trip to the Dentist." To be honest, though, if you watch these two back to back, you'll leave satisfied.

Did you know?: Rob Thomas conceived of the series as a series of young adult novels. At that time, the protagonist was a male. Sadly, his name was NOT Veronica Mars.

Available on DVD?: All three seasons are available on DVD. They're fairly bare bones sets, but the episodes are worth the cash.

94) Picket Fences
CBS, produced 1992-1996

What: David E. Kelley's series tend to turn into insufferable morasses around season three four, so this is the only one of his shows I can still stand, largely because he left before season four, and then the show was canceled after that. The series is a broadly theatrical look at the life of a small town that combines elements of law shows, medical shows, cop shows and political shows. Not to mention quirky humor and odd characters. (And please enjoy the clip above, since the theme song is, again, not available.)

Why: I was pretty sure this was me overrating something I liked as a teen until I went back and looked at the first season of the series again on DVD. Surprisingly enough, it was still really solid television. The quirkiness can get a little unbearable, but this was the first show where Kelley worked out his issues with the national discourse in televised form, and it was probably one of the shows where he did it the best. It helped that he had a great cast to give speech to his words, including Kathy Baker, Ray Walston and even Fyvush Finkel. The show wasn't perfect, but its blend of politics, humor and mystery made for an intriguing blend. And, as you'll see throughout this list, I'm a sucker for a small-town show (there are, like, 500 of them coming up).

Best season: The first season leaned a little too heavily on the quirky small town characters, so the second season, which was much more interested in the issues of the town of Rome, was the best.

Best episode: The first season's "Thanksgiving" is an unusually subdued hour for the show, focusing more on relationships than on issues and political statements. Kelley can write this sort of thing well when he wants to, and this is a great reminder of that.

Did you know?: Despite the show's chronically low ratings, it won 14 Emmys, including two best series trophies and seven trophies in the top four acting categories (where it won all four trophies at least once).

Available on DVD?: The first season is available on DVD and worth a purchase. It's a good set.

93) Alfred Hitchcock Presents
CBS/NBC, produced 1955-1962

What: The great director graced U.S. small screens with an anthology series of tales of suspense and mystery. Most of the stories were adaptations of famous mystery tales, but some were original works. The series sported several episodes directed by Hitchcock himself, as well as a number of notable guest stars.

Why: Like most anthology series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents could be pretty bad when it missed the mark. But when it hit, it was a ghoulishly enjoyable little treat. Predating The Twilight Zone by a few years, you can see a lot of the tricks that Rod Serling would perfect first being used here. It helped that the best scripts were wickedly enjoyable little one-act plays of deceit and murder most foul. While the ratio of bad-to-good here was a little too uneven for me to rate it any higher, Alfred Hitchcock Presents is still an enjoyable treat if you can find it in syndication and a show I'm surprised hasn't been resurrected for today's crime-story-hungry crowd.

Best season: The third season, which combined Hitchcock's direction with scripts by Roald Dahl on a number of occasions. Two great tastes separately, together at last!

Best episode: The ghoulishly funny "Lamb to the Slaughter" was one of those Dahl scripts, containing one of the show's best grim punchlines in the identity of the murder weapon. It's either this one or "Man from the South," that one where the guy has to light the lighter ten consecutive times or lose his finger.

Did you know?: Hitchcock was resurrected in 1985 for a network revival of the show, as old host segments were colorized to fit in with the new show. This did not work as well as the network had hoped it might.

Available on DVD?: The first three seasons are available on DVD but can be hard to find in stores.

92) Leave It to Beaver
CBS/ABC, produced 1957-1963

What: One of the original "adventures of little kids" shows was all about the sweet, suburban life of the Cleavers, from the all-knowing dad (played with a hint of what-might-have-been by Hugh Beaumont) to the loving mom to the little boy looking at life through wide eyes. All this and Eddie Haskell too!

Why: Leave It to Beaver is a show that has been unfairly maligned simply because of its innocence, I think. There's nothing edgy here, and there wasn't even when the show was airing first-run. This is just a sunny story of one boy's journey toward adolescence and his attempts to understand the world around him and his own family. It's post-war America captured honestly and almost mournfully, giving the series a sense of instant nostalgia. When people talk wistfully of returning to the '50s, they invariably want to return to a time when families like this were the norm. Pity they never were. We all could have used Ward and June as a mom and dad.

Best season: Season two strikes exactly the right balance between the kids as kids and as growing human beings -- Wally isn't TOO old yet to engage in adventures with the Beav.

Best episode: There were so many that it's rather hard to narrow it down, but season two's "The Pipe" is a fine example of the small-scale family sitcom done right.

Did you know?: The series was updated in 1987 -- as a depressing drama, of all things.

Available on DVD?:
The first two seasons are available on DVD and remarkably cheap in most stores.

91) Firefly
Fox, produced 2002

What: So there's these people, see? And they're in outer space, see? Except, the technology has kind of broken down around the galaxy so a lot of them have to use horses, see? And, um, it all has to do with the Civil War somehow, and there's an evil Alliance, and our heroes ride the outer reaches of the galaxy in a ragtag spaceship and, um, do stuff. This was one of the three series that debuted in the aughts that took on the Star Trek mythos head-on. While not the best (we'll see that one later), Firefly was set in a fascinating universe and had a plethora of great characters. (And that title sequence is TOTALLY not the one that was on the show. This is some fanvid.)

Why: Let's be honest here. Firefly started out pretty weakly. That second episode that was supposed to be a new pilot was not the show's finest hour, and the next few episodes after that left a bit to be desired too. But the cast was so great and had such fantastic chemistry that I rode out the rough patches and was richly rewarded with a string of fantastic episodes (some of which were not seen until DVD), capped with the airing of the original pilot (which was, at the time, the most expensive pilot in history) a few days before Christmas. Firefly is on the list more for its potential than what it actually accomplished, sure, but it also had some crackerjack story construction and it pulled off things that you just didn't see on sci-fi TV at that time, most notably the "us against the world" feeling of the occupants of the titular ship. Consider this a stand-in for every one-season wonder genre show that I got inexplicably attached to only for the cancellation axe to fall swiftly.

Best season: Season one is the only season, so it wins by default.

Best episode: The movie spinoff -- Serenity -- is pretty good, but the episode "Out of Gas" is my pick, as it boasts incredibly intricate story construction, flashbacks within flashbacks and a genuinely emotional story of how a bunch of bruised people became an ad hoc family in the far reaches of space.

Did you know?: Creator Joss Whedon asked Jewel Staite, who played Kaylee, to gain 20 pounds for the role, telling her he thought of Kaylee as someone who enjoyed a hamburger every so often. When the movie rolled around, Staite had lost all of the weight, so even though the movie ostensibly takes place a few months after the events of the series, it looks as though Kaylee has gone on a crash diet.

Available on DVD?: The whole run of the series is on DVD, as is the movie.

The List So Far:
91) Firefly
92) Leave it to Beaver
93) Alfred Hitchcock Presents
94) Picket Fences
95) Veronica Mars
96) WKRP in Cincinnati
97) Project Runway
98) How I Met Your Mother
99) The Adventures of Pete and Pete
100) Aqua Teen Hunger Force

Today's Christmas tune: "Last Month of the Year" by the Blind Boys of Alabama

Tomorrow: Supplemental list #2 -- Ten Cable Networks That Changed the World, featuring music, news and sports.


Filipe Furtado said...

I'm almost surprised that you made anthologies elegible, given how hard is to compare them to regular shows.

For all the praise it usually got there were one major flaw in Veronica Mars that always made me rate it a little bit lower than most people: with few execeptions the show was always awful with the stand alone mysteries. And as wonderful as the characters were, the fact that the show was driven by larger investigations made storytelling more central to it than something like Pushing Daisies. All this rambling is to justify my opinion that not only season 2 is stronger than the first one, it's far stronger. It's more confusing with too mny parallel arcs and it sort of loses itself when during the half dozen eps where the focus shift to what's going on with Duncan, but it has far fewer episodes were the main focus was not in one of the larger arcs that the show did so well. As often happens on great or near-great first seasons, a lot of the praise seems to exclude the minor flaws that were already there, so the great first season of Veronica Mars ignores how often the episodes had a weak main storyline with a lame plot but good character bits, a more amusing Keith plot whose subplot status help it to get away on characterization alone and a compelling C-plot that get something to do with Lily's murder.

Carrie said...

It's interesting that Joss asked Staite to gain weight. If only he would have done the same when Sarah Michelle Gellar lost all of her weight in seasons two/three of Buffy. Although I doubt that would have gone over well with SMG.

Felipe, I definitely hear what you are saying there, but by my money season one is still far superior because it had so much more emotional depth to the characters. The mysteries in season two might have been better, but the episodes were so concerned with twisty detective details that we never got the emotional resonance that was so essential to making season one special.

I used to love Adult Swim. ATHF, Sealab 2021, The Brak Show. All very amusing stuff. I just can't get into any of the new shows at all, it seems.

I just added Picket Fences to my Netflix queue...that was one show I somehow missed.

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