Saturday, December 08, 2007

SDD's Top 100 Series of All Time -- Supplemental list #2: Ten Cable Networks that Changed Everything

Picking which of the big networks changed the world more than another is a fool's game. Even though Fox and The WB slightly changed the audience these networks were looking for, all of them ostensibly chased the big tent audience. It took cable to really say, "This network is ONLY going to target this audience; everyone else be damned."

In the 1980s, this seemed like self-defeating behavior -- what good was ONLY courting sports fans or newshounds? But over time, advertisers became aware that you could pitch VERY specific products to very specific audiences. And that's how advertising rates for television continue to climb and climb and climb, even as the ratings overall are dropping. If I can target JUST the science fiction fans, then I can pitch video games or comic books or other things I think they might like JUST to them. A handful of "general interest" cable networks still exist (USA, TNT, to an extent), but nearly every channel, including the channels that started out as general interest ones, has slowly focused on its niche.

I originally thought that these networks would all be ones I couldn't find representative shows for, but that ultimately seemed dishonest. So here are ten cable networks that changed the world and made it a niche-ier place.

10) Fox News Channel
founded 1996

Fox News rode a wave that the below-surface conservative talk radio earthquake had sent careening toward the shore, and it crashed right up against the mainland and its ideas of what news was, of how far a network could go in choosing a side and of how far a news organization would go in jumping over the line between propaganda and news. Fox News has gotten a bit of a black eye in recent years, and its ratings have slipped considerably, but for a while there, especially after Sept. 11, Fox News was THE place to turn for news with a conservative bent. It's incredibly hard to find a friendly word for Fox News on the Internet, which skews more progressive, but the network spoke to a large audience of angry, predominantly white, predominantly middle-aged men (predominantly), who tuned in in droves to watch the network's parade of angry white, middle-aged men, stars like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity and even the glum-faced Brit Hume. Fox News took the news and stripped it of context, turning politics and international incidents into sporting events. Watching Fox News was less about having your preexisting biases confirmed and more about feeling you were a part of the winning team. For better or worse, Fox News' "Home Team" approach has spread out across the cable dial, though it's less pronounced than it was a few years ago.

Signature Program: The O'Reilly Factor, the original angry white man conservative talk show. Bill O'Reilly took Rush Limbaugh's act, dumbed it down for TV and made it a show. Though ratings have slid, it's still very popular.

9) Comedy Central
founded 1991

Out of the ashes of two failed comedy networks -- HA! and The Comedy Channel -- Comedy Central was formed, largely as a place for old sitcom reruns nobody else wanted, stand-up routines that weren't Carson material and Mystery Science Theater 3000. At the time, the idea of a channel dedicated to JUST comedy seemed odd. After all, hadn't the channel's two ancestors been decimated by an audience that just didn't care? Slowly, though, Comedy Central gained a toehold, especially with 18-34-year-old males, who didn't care if a series had lasting value beyond making them laugh. MST3K also slowly caught on, especially with its Thanksgiving Day marathons, and the network discovered the power of brand loyalty. As the channel continued to be successful, more genre-specific cable networks sprung up -- Sci Fi, Chiller, the rebranded TBS, Cartoon Network -- and Comedy Central seemed more and more like an essential for a cable package. And then came South Park, which turned the channel into what it is today -- a casual blend of biting political satire and grossout gags, tailored to the 18-34-year-old male attention span.

Signature Program: South Park. If you look at EVERY OTHER SHOW on Comedy Central, it's amazing how this one show blends them all together into one raunchy package. It helped that it was the network's first huge hit.

8) The Food Network
founded 1993

So just how specific could you GET with your cable network? If you could, indeed, focus on one GENRE, could you focus on one relatively broad subject matter? Like, say, food? The Food Network was another channel that most cultural critics predicted quick failure for. And while the network has never had a huge hit, its influence on the culture of American eating has, for better or worse, been substantial. Food Network rather pioneered the idea of having one network that could be comfort food TV to a very specific type of consumer. If you like food, you can turn on the channel at any time and learn how to cook it or where to go to taste the best examples of it or. . .whatever you like. The Food Network wasn't just selling a channel about food -- it was selling a way of life, a method of making yourself better and showing off to those around you. Its progeny include HGTV, the Fine Living Network and most of TLC. To watch The Food Network is to say, "I fancy myself someone who likes fine food." It's TV as wearing a T-shirt of your favorite band.

Signature Program: Rachael Ray was huge, but Emeril Lagasse got there first, and his high-impact cooking signaled just what the Food Network would be all about.

7) The Nashville Network
founded 1983

Cable wasn't just about serving underutilized genres and topics; it could also serve whole demographics that felt underserved by the big networks. Laugh all you want, but the existence of The Nashville Network helped lead to the giant explosion of country music in the 90s. People in predominantly rural areas could watch programming that was tailored to their interests, from country music countdowns to rodeo broadcasts to hunting and fishing programs. The Nashville Network was never anything very sophisticated, and when you look at video of it from the '80s, it pales in comparison to MTV and other music networks of the time. But it served an underserved niche of customers, and probably helped spread cable beyond urban areas (my grandparents, in particular, only got cable so they could watch the country dancing on TNN). In its own way, TNN helped lead to the influx of complaints about how TV didn't have enough family values. If you could watch completely unobjectionable stuff on TNN, why the heck couldn't you on the other networks? The network sold out to Viacom and is now Spike TV of all things.

Signature Program: Crook and Chase was the original country video countdown, and its two hosts became stars in their own right and popped up all over country radio in the late '80s and early '90s.

6) The Discovery Channel
founded 1985

Where would cable be without the cheap-ass, ostensibly educational documentary about UFOs or the discovery of the polio vaccine or the bald eagle? The Discovery Channel launched as a way to provide a lot of cheap, quick educational content quickly. It was basically a clearinghouse for docs that just weren't good enough to get picked up by PBS or HBO. If your teacher had a VCR, they could tape a Discovery Channel program and take that period off. Discovery was kind of low-rent for a long while, but its content gave it something of a free pass with the critical community, parents and educators. Later, though, the network would start to commission its own programming, and the amount of worthwhile content exploded, especially as the show looked into things on the cutting edge of science and launched theme weeks that let it show off lots of programming. The network has spun off many other networks, most notably TLC and Animal Planet, and it has many direct competitors now, including the National Geographic Channel. While Discovery proper airs a lot more reality shows now than it ever did, most of them are of higher quality than what you might see on A&E (Deadliest Catch is rather riveting, on its own terms).

Signature Program: SHARK WEEK! Now 20 years old, Shark Week is Discovery in a nutshell -- the wonders of the natural world distilled into a documentary designed to scare you.

5) Nickelodeon
founded 1979

The idea of having a channel dedicated JUST to children's programming seems pretty self-evident now, in an age of Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., the Nicktoons network, Nick GAS, The Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, ABC Family, Sprout, etc., etc., etc. But when Nickelodeon started up, no one quite knew if parents would drop their kids in front of it for extended periods of time. Sure parents had used TV as a babysitter for years, but would they use it as the ONLY babysitter? Like you had to ask. Nickelodeon pitched an idea of childhood as a wacky time, full of fun adventures, to its core audience, and the core audience gobbled that up. Nickelodeon has been passed up in the ratings in recent years by some of its copycats, but it remains the first and the standard-bearer, especially for people of a certain age (which would be mine).

Signature Program: Rugrats. The world as playground, animated from a child's point-of-view and full of gentle adventures that didn't try too hard to set the world on fire.

4) Home Box Office
founded 1972

The FIRST cable channel and the first to charge a premium rate to subscribe (rather than just being wrapped in with other channels in a basic cable package), HBO seems like it should be higher on the list, but it never seized hold on the public imagination like the three channels above it did, at least not until the late 90s. HBO was showing great movies, boxing and original series from its very beginning, but its rather pricey fee kept it out of most American homes for a good, long while (as Captain Midnight well knew). Still, it was TV as a luxury item. If you could afford HBO (or its lower-rent cousins, Showtime, The Movie Channel and Cinemax), you were living large, and you could invite your friends over to watch a big movie or a boxing match or something. HBO practically invented TV as something aspirational, rather than something that anyone could get for free if they owned the set. That and it reinvented what we thought of for cable series with The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Sex and the City.

Signature Program: The Sopranos. THE show of the late '90s and early 2000s, and it was on cable. It may have been the first ever time that the biggest stories of the year centered on a channel the majority of the American people didn't even get.

3) Entertainment and Sports Programming Network
founded 1979

Sports has become the new American religion, in many ways. And that can mostly be traced to ESPN. To say that ESPN has had an influence on American culture is an understatement. Before 1979, most American sports (with the possible exception of Major League Baseball) were regional affairs. You cheered for your local NFL or NBA team, and if you didn't have a local team, you mostly didn't pay attention to the league. Before 1979, college sports were a small-time affair, and few people paid attention to the Final Four unless their team was in it. And before 1979, local news sports reports were mostly staid affairs, and no one had ever heard of a highlight reel. ESPN both ramped up sports, turning them into one long snarky party, and hyper-mythologized them, making them seem like the sort of thing that should be held in reverence and awe. It's really sort of hard to overstate the influence of ESPN (both positive and negative -- how many preening jackasses has the network inspired?) and stay pithy, so I'll cut this short and assume you can fill in the rest.

Signature Program: SportsCenter. You can see the influence of SportsCenter EVERYwhere, not just on ESPN -- think of The Daily Show, which is basically SportsCenter with politics or think of the sportscaster on your evening news. Whatever effect the highlight reel has had on American sports coverage, it IS the primary method of sports reporting now. (Also: Did you know the guy who wrote the SportsCenter theme song ALSO wrote Faith Hill's "This Kiss?")

2) Music Television
founded 1981

My first and second place networks are basically in a tie. One had a greater influence on the entertainment culture, while the other had a greater influence on our political and news culture. Since I think the latter is more "important," I ranked MTV lower than CNN, but I can't say I would be surprised if anyone ranked MTV at the top. MTV, of course, all but invented modern youth culture, chasing the 12-24-year-old audience to the exclusion of almost all else. Its initial mission was to provide record companies with a new way to reach the youthful consumers they wanted to buy albums, but it inadvertently touched off a revolution in the WAY things were filmed when its music videos (with their quick cutting) sent seismic waves throughout the culture as a whole. Quick cuts became the order of the day in all types of filmmaking. Meanwhile, MTV carefully segmented its audience, creating shows focusing on metal, rap and alternative music, then abandoned music altogether in favor of chasing increasingly vapid celebrations of youth culture. (The first "Why doesn't MTV air videos anymore?" article appeared in 1988!) MTV is still THE place for 12-24-year-olds to go to get entertainment, but it increasingly feels desperate, especially as it's now too old to be in its own key demographic. Still, MTV is the network you watch when you're 14 and 15, and that means it shapes a surprising amount of your tastes. Just how different am I for having the Blind Melon "bee" video come on at that vital point of my life, as opposed to you, who might be watching The Hills?

Signature Program: I was torn between The Real World, which largely invented the MTV we watch today, and Total Request Live, which tried to blend the old and new MTVs. TRL, I think, is the best example of what MTV was at its height -- fast-paced, largely empty of meaningful content and full of youth appeal.

1) Cable News Network
founded 1980

CNN was another network that struck many pundits as self-defeating. Who would always want to watch the news? How would the network fill that time? As it turned out, the network would fill out that time with lots of talking heads, lots of talk shows, lots of prefabricated debates and lots of useless stories. In short, CNN invented the political and news culture we live in. The network made an admirable effort at filling time with actual news, including international news, but it soon became apparent that what the people wanted was the same stuff over and over and over. CNN got unprecedented access to news events and just kept saying the same things in slightly different ways. And when that failed, it would report stuff on celebrities. CNN all but invented infotainment, the predominant form of news in our culture today. It took something as awful as war and turned it into the awesomest TV show you ever did see.

Signature Program: CNN's coverage of the first Iraq War in 1991 changed the way that people thought about covering war by getting right into the thick of it in Baghdad. It also inadvertently invented the second Bush administration's careful handling of reporters in the second Iraq War.

Today's Christmas tune: Over the Rhine's "Little Town" is an excellent, folky reworking of "O, Little Town of Bethlehem." Like it? Their excellent CD Snow Angels, available here, might be for you.

Tomorrow: Places #90-81, including the Internet's most-hated sitcom, dumb teenagers and a show I don't really like all that much.


“He’s such a silly old bear” – The Adventures of Pete & Pete

It’s a testament to Pete & Pete’s earnestness that it’s able to pull off comparing working a crappy job to humanity’s catastrophic effect on the environment. Big Pete bemoans his status as a rangeboy, clearing balls off his father’s driving range (I believe this is the first time we become aware of what Don Wrigley does for a living). He compares himself to the bears that inhabited the land before civilization sprung up on top of it, and next thing you know, he’s wearing a bear suit to work.

We have all had jobs we hated, so Big Pete’s plight is a sympathetic one. So, it’s a bit unnecessary when he lists off claims that previous rangeboys went insane or left town out of shame. It’s a bit ridiculous, even for Pete & Pete. There are easier and more effective ways to show that being a rangeboy is no fun. The episode hits on one of these methods by revealing that Big Pete’s nemesis Endless Mike frequents the driving range. I buy that Big Pete would fear Endless Mike finding out that he works a degrading job, especially one that involves Endless Mike himself sending projectiles flying at Pete. Big Pete believing that a former rangeboy got plastic surgery so nobody knew of his former job? Not so much.

By painting Big Pete’s hatred for the job so poorly, it almost degrades from the moments where he reflects on the bears. The episode opens with stock documentary footage of bears frolicking in the wilderness. When paired with Big Pete’s narration, the whole thing hits the elegiac tone it is going for. Showing bears looking cute may be something of a cheap pop, but it also makes sense that Big Pete would play to the audience’s emotions so much. And when it results in Big Pete wearing a bear costume, it’s a nice summation of not only his respect for the noble bear, but the fact that he is using it as an excuse to throw a pity party over his job. Also, as anybody who’s seen The Rules of the Game knows, bear costumes are inherently funny.

The episode is padded out with a B-story involving Little Pete training Artie on his long game that involves a turtle friend of Artie’s getting amnesia. While Toby Huss plays the hell out of his scenes with Clark the Turtle, the whole concept a bit too much for me. There’s also an inexplicable Frank Gifford cameo and Dad getting the idea of a promotion where people try to hit his firstborn child.

On the upside, Stu the Bus Driver returns! And once again, he nearly steals the whole thing away, determined to hit the perfect tee-off, if only he could muster the nerve to hit the ball in the first place. Stu gets to end the episode, and in an episode that often played more broadly than Pete & Pete normally does at its best, Stu boils the whole half-hour down to a single moment of transcendence. In a show that’s all about deadpan looks at the absurdity of growing up suburban, does it get any better than those tiny moments?


Friday, December 07, 2007

The Top 100 Shows of All-Time: How I made the list

When creating a "top 100" anything list, you have to decide if you're going to rate based on favoritism, sheer greatness or level of influence. I decided to throw all of that out and rate everything by some weird combination of the three -- in this manner, shows that I don't horribly like that were incredibly influential crept onto the list in the bottom 25, and shows that I really do like that weren't influential at all sit next to those series in the bottom 25.

What doesn't help is that series TV is the easiest artform to overrate, simply because we spend so much time with it that the flaws become less noticeable with time and blend into the background.

The rankings are sort of arbitrary. I wrote out a list of almost 500 series I thought deserved consideration for one list or another, then whittled down at it. First, I ranked all series on a scale of 1 to 10, based on how much I thought they DESERVED to be on the list -- an influential series I didn't like would get a score of, say, seven, while an influential series I DID like would get a score closer to 10. From there, I took everything with a score of five or higher and ended up with a master list of around 200 programs (all of which appear on one or another of these lists).

At this point, I removed the ten programs I consider my favorites of all-time, then ranked them by a combination of influence and critical acclaim, with my own preferences entering in every so often. With the top ten set in stone, I set about ranking the other 190 against each other, simply by putting things I liked more ahead of things I liked less. These initial rankings were a little weird, so I weighted for influence and critical acclaim, then ran them by some other people to make sure nothing stuck out TOO much. After a few minor tweaks, I arrived at the list.

This is why, outside of the top ten, you shouldn't be too concerned with where things rank. I certainly think show #15 is better than show #95, but I'm not so sure it's that much better than show #16 or even show #25. I tried to place shows in "tiers," reserving space in the bottom 25 for a LOT of very recent series I thought deserved a little exposure.

Insofar as recent series go, I decided to err on the side of overpraise than complete caution. We've had enough time with something like Leave It to Beaver to accurately assess it, I think. We haven't had that much time with, say, How I Met Your Mother. But I tend to be someone who is really impressed by ambition, even if that naked ambition falls flat, so I'm more likely to enjoy a modern series that shoots for the moon than an older series that hits its formula consistently but rarely steps outside of the box. Obviously, I tried to make room for older shows, but there are quite a few 2000s shows on the list, which may strike some of you as strange but strikes me as necessary.

But I needed some additional ground rules. So here they are.

1.) Only series. I decided early on that comparing TV series of different genres to each other was hard enough. Grouping in things that were designed to run a specific amount of time made things too odd for me, plus I am not nearly as well-versed in the history of TV movies and miniseries as I am in the history of series. There will be a supplemental list of miniseries, made-for-TV movies and specials that will go up soon.

2.) I ultimately ended up including ONLY shows that debuted on American television, despite having to bump my #2 show to do so. I will go into more detail on this when I do a list of 10 foreign series that I like. I know that such a thing would be impossible in the worlds of film or literature, but the U.S. gets such an incomplete picture of foreign TV (with much of it historically airing sporadically on PBS) that for now, it seems better to exile it. In ten years time, when everything is readily available on DVD, this probably won't be the case.

3.) Anything that started out as a movie in the U.S. was not included. Fanny and Alexander is one of my favorite films of all time, but I came to know it as a film, not a television series.

4.) A show had to have aired one complete season for consideration. Hence, Mad Men was eligible, but not Pushing Daisies.

5.) How bad a show got only affected the show's ranking if it greatly outweighed how good the show was at some point or if a bad season pointed out flaws inherent in the show's template. I cut no shows that I genuinely loved simply because they got awful at some point (as you'll see several times). This has led to some shifting around by shows that are having currently trying times, but that's the nature of serialized television.

6.) I TRIED to limit myself to two shows per creator. Obviously, this isn't exactly fair to them, but I wanted the list to offer up ideas for rentals and such, so there you go. So if you really like one series by Bochco, you might like others by him.

7.) I've tried to gather as much information as possible, but if you have questions, please ask.

8.) I tried to limit myself to shows that I've seen enough of to have an opinion on. There's one VERY highly ranked show that I've only seen a handful of episodes of, but we'll deal with that when we come to it. There will be a list of blind spots I have coming up later.

On with the list!


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.


"I don't like my ice to get lonely, dear.": Gossip Girl

[Before we get down to business, I just need to mention how absolutely FABULOUS the clothes were in this episode. I will be sharing extra pictures throughout to highlight these glorious fashions that only the rich, beautiful and fictional can pull off. -C]

While Todd has been busy writing intelligent articles about television and the effect it's had on his life, I've been busy watching rich teenagers get their angst on. It's good to know your strengths, I suppose. I hope you are all as excited for Todd's list as I am.

Moving on to my less erudite strengths: sitting on my ass and watching teen dramas. This week featured the ubiquitous debutante ball, although what counts as a debutante ball in this world is different from any other interpretation I've seen before. This debutante ball was more like an afternoon tea with ball gowns, and while the clothes were fantastic, it was a bit disconcerting. What was familiar was the pressure by older generations for the younger set to conform to the traditions of their era, and in this case that pressure was masterfully applied by Serena's calculating, manipulative grandmother, CeCe. Sweeping into town and playing both Lily and Serena like a cheap fiddle obviously came naturally to CeCe, although by the end of the episode Lily and Serena are both onto her games which causes a nice moment of mother/daughter bonding. Although I have been critical of the adult characters on this show, I do enjoy the more genuine parent/child interactions, and Kelly Rutherford was pretty fantastic tonight. Grandmother CeCe will obviously be playing a role in future storylines, as her cancer non-secret was slyly outed as a real case at the end of the show. Will she have a deathbed realization that her life was empty and hollow, and will Lily and Serena forgive her indiscretions? I'm sure you've all seen television before and can predict that one for yourselves.

Not as fantastic this week, however, was the maturation of the love story between Rufus and Lily. After learning from CeCe that Lily left him all those years ago because her mother made her choose between Rufus and her inheritance, Rufus semi-tearfully reveals that if he had known that all along, things might have been very different. Am I the only cynic that thinks a 17 years gone relationship should be sort of left alone at this point? No wonder Allison is so insecure about Lily. Gracious.

The best part of the episode was again Blair and her love triangle of doom. It seems that despite her protests, Blair seems to enjoy spending quality horizontal time with Chuck as we see her willingly lounging with him in her bedroom and frantically texting him while hanging out with Nate. Her attitude is even ten times lighter, which is a telling damnation of how her relationship of Nate was bringing her down. Nate notices this change in attitude and like a ridiculous teenage boy decides he wants her back, so jealous Chuck stages a multi-layered manipulation more complicated than the invasion of Normandy in order to ensure that Blair stays away from Nate. (Interestingly, this manipulation involves former hippie, now good-guy-again Carter who is revealed to have a prior, secret relationship with Serena. Hmm.) In the end, what Chuck doesn't realize is you can't manipulate a manipulator, and after figuring his machinations Blair immediately runs to Nate and gets horizontal with him instead. I'm personally wondering when Blair is going to have some sex that isn't revenge-based. It's troubling. In response to Blair's rejection, Chuck dresses in his finest, craziest outfit and leaves town! Oh no! I'm not sure I like this development one bit, because Ed Westwick has grown on me like a rash.

In Humphrey land, it's status quo as Dan's substandard upbringing causes complications with him and Serena yet again which are conveniently and neatly resolved by the end of the episode, and Jenny goes further on her path to social climbing destruction. It's interesting that Allison is the only person who realizes how horrible Jenny is going to become in her quest to be like her peers at school, and I hope they explore this further. Jenny needs to go over the edge, otherwise what is there to her character? The writers seem to be having a problem defining who she is and why she is on the GG landscape. Is she a manipulative, scheming social climber that will do anything to be one of the elite, as shown in the pilot and other episodes? Or is she determined to be a part of that world but still be her own independent, strong person, as shown in her reaction to Blair's manipulation at the slumber party? Personally, I think someone needs a downward spiral and I nominate Jenny, because what she's doing now is quite boring.

Next week: Dan and Serena have sex. In a museum or something. What is this, Friends?


Thursday, December 06, 2007

Swimming in memory: Or, Bad TV, Young Kids, and How a Generation Fetishized Itself -- An Introductory Essay

One by one the bulbs burned out, like long lives come to their expected ends. Then there was a dark house made once of time, made now of weather, and harder to find; impossible to find and not even as easy to dream of as when it was alight. Stories last longer; but only by becoming only stories. It was anyway all a long time ago; the world, we know now, is as it is and not different; if there was ever a time when there were passages, doors, the borders open and many crossing, that time is not now. The world is older than it was. Even the weather isn't as we remember it clearly once being; never lately does there come a summer day such as we remember, never clouds as white as that, never grass as odorous or shade as deep and full of promise as we remember they can be, as once upon a time they were. -- John Crowley, Little, Big

My brother-in-law has this theory. He says if you watch enough episodes of Full House in a row, you'll eventually enter a zone where the jokes are funny and the character interactions believable. He calls it "The Full House Zone," and when he tested it on me with one of those Nick at Nite marathons, damned if he wasn't right. Most people would say this was simply evidence that watching enough TV numbs your brain, but I consider myself a fairly astute viewer, and I was reading a novel at the same time anyway. What I think the Full House Zone says about us as viewers and as humans is that at some level, television stops being just something to look at and becomes ritual. We carve out a little time each week to "drop by" the house of our on-screen friends, and there we are entertained and occasionally edified, filled up to the brim at the great Church of Pop Culture.

My generation (the one born in the late '70s and the early '80s) was the first that was literally carried, cradle to grave, by television. There had always been kiddie programs, and there had always been shows for teens, but we were the first to get whole NETWORKS pitched to us as we hit those ages. We were the generation of Nickelodeon and The WB and the music-free MTV. Without a war or crippling economic depression to harden us, we bounced through life on a constant diet of vapid pop culture. Basically everything was available to us, but we increasingly grew bored with "the classics." Have you seen the biggest hit in Nick at Nite history? It's Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and it's all thanks to the constant bumping up of just what "retro" is. When we were kids, our parents were reliving the shows of the '50s. The Gen-Xers bumped that up to the '60s and then the '70s. But we've mostly been interested in the shows of our youth and teen-hoods. TBS has been ridiculously successful simply by recycling recent hits, and we're watching more comedy than ever, but it's almost all in reruns.

I used to be sort of mad about this, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I didn't have room to. I consume my fair amount of culture, and while I'm not anxiously awaiting sharing the G.I. Joe movie with my kids, I did buy The Muppet Show DVDs for just that purpose. It's all nostalgia; it's all longing for that time we can't quite recapture when the cold stung more sharply on your cheeks and you ran in through the crunchy snow to yell answers you didn't even know at the screen before Alex Trebek could correct you. You might lay under the Christmas tree and stare up through the layers, lights glowing just out of reach, blinking those colors back onto your face.

When you walk into a church -- even one you've never attended -- you can't avoid just how much the very action of taking part in ritual calls to mind memories of that ritual before. (You, of course, may have never been in a church. But you know what I mean.) It's the same with turning on a television. The Golden Girls is climbing up on the couch beside your grandmother and sharing ginger snaps. The X-Files is your mom watching it with you, trying to fix that connection broken in adolescence and finally giving up when she just doesn't understand what's going on. Watch that famous finale where Ross says Rachel at the altar and think back on that spring day, the scent of grass heavy in the air, the sky slate-grey, that boy you liked on the phone.

I don't have any proof of any of this, but I would wager that because my generation had no real hard times, we fetishized everything we did into ritual, into something encompassing meaning. And that's why we're all a little bit crazy about the things we loved as kids.

When you're a kid, you don't understand the value consumer culture puts in making everyone feel valued so they buy more crap. So I think in a weird, subconscious way, we really took the presence of whole networks pitched right at us as a strange form of validation. "Look, kids! You're special!" was what we heard, even if it wasn't the text. "Your parents never got all of this!" Kids are terrible at subtext, but they're also terrific at it, at figuring out just what isn't being said and why it isn't being said. And teenagers are self-absorbed anyway. Give 'em a whole network, and they'll go nuts.

As a child, I didn't get to watch a lot of television, and my television time was strictly regimented. We lived a good hour away from the nearest movie theater (a one-screen movie palace that couldn't quite wait to slough off the skin of its former glory and become a multiplex). I read. A lot. Compulsively. And for whatever reason, a lot of what I read (when I wasn't working my way through the unexplained phenomena section of the library) was about television and the movies, both of which fascinated me, I guess, because I couldn't really get them. In this manner, I worked my way through the canon without actually seeing anything. I remember reading that The Godfather, Part II was the best Godfather and then being shocked when I read someone saying that Chinatown was the better movie released in 1974 anyway. I remember being surprised to find out Bob Newhart was in a show BEFORE Newhart. And I remember being shocked that the few shows I was allowed to watch weren't the ONLY shows out there and weren't even particularly good ones. A whole universe of forbidden fruit, flickering on a screen.

So I devoured. When I was old enough to choose what I watched, I gobbled and gobbled and gobbled and stuffed myself until I was full. And then I ate some more. I read "adult" books, and I watched R-rated movies, and I took a look at television shows that aired at the end of the evening, the shows where the evening news anchors bumped in helpfully over the credits and told you what you'd be looking at in mere seconds. And I loved ALL of it. Indiscriminately. I just liked being a part of the culture, not feeling so isolated and cut off from the world, no longer an island in the prairies of South Dakota.

When I would read that television was bad for you, I would always sort of scoff, even when it came from someone whose opinion I respected. Television was only bad for you, I was starting to understand, if you let it be, if you simply disengaged from it. Television could provide information. It could provide education. It could provide enlightenment. It could provide comfort. Oftentimes, as critics, we value the first three at the peril of the fourth, but that fifth is invaluable. It's EVERYthing. How beautiful is it to be wounded at school and to come home and turn on The Simpsons and laugh and laugh and laugh until none of it matters anymore? To some, turning off your brain is something to be frowned at, but sometimes, turning off your brain is the only thing you want to do. And if you know what you're doing, you can turn it off and turn it back on a half hour or hour later and be no worse for the wear. Yes, it's damaging if that's the only way you watch TV, but if you give it time, you learn better ways of watching.

But now I've been doing this for a while. I grow more and more cynical. Most television disappoints me now, and I often feel ashamed of the stuff I actually do like, terrified that my fellow critics will find out I really like watching Lost and recognize me for the 12-year-old just thrilled to be playing with the grown-ups I still feel like down at some base level. The part of me that grows more and more discerning with every show I watch also feels sort of sad about that. I just want to love things again.

So, this list, which is both an attempt at something like a personal history lesson and a way to reacquaint myself with so many things that I loved. There are 215 shows named in all on either the top 100 list or the 10 supplemental lists. It's not meant to be a 100 favorites list (or it would be a lot more esoteric), nor is it a 100 greatest list (or the rankings would be far different), nor is it a 100 most influential shows list (or I would have had to include a lot of shows I just don't like at all). It's something of an attempt to blend all three into one document that you can print out and look at and argue about and try to understand. Some of the rankings are completely arbitrary; some of them are set in stone (and I'll explain more about the process I used to arrive at this list tomorrow). This is simply an attempt, at the end of a stressful, trying year, to look back at a medium I loved once and figure out what about it is worth preserving. It's about flipping on that screen, letting it shimmer into being, and just letting yourself swim in the pleasures of memory.

But first, look immediately below, where we're going to dissect some shows I loved as a young critic that just didn't deserve to make the list in any way, shape or form. The first step toward becoming a critic is figuring out that some of the things you once loved are things that you no longer love as you grow. The second step is parsing out why that is. And the third step is writing about it.

So let's go back. The prairies are windswept, and you can just hear the fire siren from atop the water tower every day at noon. Tonight, The Cosby Show is on, and for an instant, you'll all be together and there will be popcorn and maybe even soda. You'll have to go to bed after that, but that's OK. The darkness outside is somehow warm, not scary at all. Still, better turn on the set. It'll provide a little light.


Supplemental List #1: 10 Shows I loved as a kid that don't hold up at all

One of the problems I frequently run into as a TV critic (and, yes, I get paid to do it now, so I DON'T JUST CALL MYSELF THAT) is that people get more nostalgic about TV than almost any other medium. I think it's the fact that we make a point of watching these shows week after week, to the point where we feel like these people are our friends. I'm certainly not the first to make this observation, but even I, the cold-hearted cynic, have been touched by this. How hard was it for me to give up Gilmore Girls in that largely awful final season? And I still check in with CSI when I can.

But when compiling a list (even a greatly restricted one) of the best shows of all time, one needs to set aside such nostalgia and look for something of value. So here are ten shows that I was obsessed with at some point in my life and ten reasons these shows didn't make my final list.

10) Gospel Bill
syndicated to Christian stations, produced 1981-1993
and that video has nothing to do with Gospel Bill, but it turned up when I searched for him

Gospel Bill was probably the first television show I watched on a weekly basis (aside, perhaps, from the local CBS affiliate's Captain 11, which served as my first introduction to Looney Tunes and Popeye). Parent-tested and church-approved, Gospel Bill told the tale of a sheriff in a town called Dry Gulch, who came up against a handful of crazy criminals and problems and beat them with the help of the word of the Lord, his good friends and a talking dog (no, really; his name was Barkamaeus). The show was something of a revolution in the world of Christian children's programming, in that each episode had a very basic story that served as a narrative spine for Gospel Bill to sermonize over.

So why isn't it on the list? Because what was probably the best Christian children's show of its time is still a really, really bad show. Gospel Bill is full of the very worst and most unctuous kind of '80s prosperity Christianity, not to mention wooden acting and weak writing. Still, if you want to check the show out, it airs on some Christian networks in most cable and satellite packages. Set your DVR and see the untold wonders I saw as a child.

9) The Wuzzles
CBS, produced 1985

In 1985, Disney made its triumphant return to televised animation with two brand new cartoons. One, Disney's Adventures of the Gummi Bears, went on to become a minor hit. The other, The Wuzzles, lasted only 13 episodes, despite a huge marketing push (and the fact that its creator was Michael Eisner himself). While the Land of Wuz resurfaces from time to time on cable, this was the first show I got really attached to that was summarily canceled (and I watched it first run, not on the Disney Channel). While all of my friends were Gummi Bearing it up, I was in love with the Wuzzles and the whole idea of a world where everything was "two-in-one." (Or, as the theme song puts it, "A little bit of this/a little bit of that/and when you add it up/you get a lot of that.") I still have a ton of the Wuzzles crap I bought at my childhood home, where various young relatives happen upon it every so often and furrow their brows, puzzled by what the 80s wrought.

So why isn't it on the list? Well, The Wuzzles also wasn't very good, if we're being honest. The theme song was catchy enough to stick in my mind all this time (even if I never quite learned all the words), but I have to give significant demerits to any show that purports to be all about a land where everything is a freakish hybrid of two already existing things, yet the main villain is quite simply an anthropomorphic crocodile. No thanks, Eisner!

8) Growing Pains
ABC, produced 1985-1992

By the time I was five, my family was watching a small amount of TV together, including The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Who's the Boss and Growing Pains. Which of these shows became my favorite? Growing Pains, of course, which is probably the worst of the four (it's a horse race with Who's the Boss, but that show, at least, had a weird conviction in its characters -- see a later list). I realize the above may make the reader believe I was totally grooving on Kirk Cameron's ultra-Christianity, but I didn't know a thing about it until the late 90s. I honestly don't know now what so appealed to me about Growing Pains, but I think it was the fact that it was so completely safe and inoffensive. I didn't like the discomfort I felt when I would stay up for Cheers with my parents, and they would glare at each other while Sam and Diane cracked wise about the sex they were or weren't having. ("You turn it off!" "No, you turn it off!" they said to each other with forceful glares.) There was no chance that Growing Pains would devolve into such a thing, and I had Kirk Cameron to thank for that, though I didn't know it at the time.

So why isn't it on the list? Didn't you read the above? This show is awful! I'm still a big fan of Alan Thicke, though, and I think he could strike it big on, say, an ABC ensemble drama as the benevolent patriarch. Don't stop believin', Thicke!

7) Little House on the Prairie
NBC, produced 1974-1983

Little House was a staple of post-school TV in rural South Dakota, and the choice of what to watch vacillated between this and the syndicated "Magical World of Disney," which my sister really enjoyed. Since she liked that and I loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, I would often insist that we watch this, for my own enjoyment and to torque her off. (Also, while we're sharing personal secrets, my friends and I used to play Little House on the playground at recess. My friend and I would always fight over who got to be Laura, while another friend of mine would play Pa as a man who was gifted with superpowers by the Holy Spirit. Listen, I grew up in a weird town, and no amount of stories I tell you will make you understand how I grew up into a relatively normal, functioning adult.) Little House had a seemingly endless number of episodes, many of which were pretty bizarre (from a mime that raped Albert's lady love to Mary's husband having his sight restored by an explosion -- and did you know that guy went on to create Malcolm in the Middle? -- to the WHOLE DAMN TOWN BLOWING UP in the series finale). I'm not going to argue that Little House is awful, but it's incredibly dated, and its heartwarming schtick gets a little forced when you look at it now. Family dramas set in other time periods are inherently more believable to viewers than family dramas set in the present (for some odd reason), so there's a temptation to overrate shows like this, but this was, in many ways, the 7th Heaven of its day.

So why isn't it on the list? Despite Michael Landon's quietly commanding presence and despite the fact that this show and the books it was based on made me want to be a writer (right down to my memoir of my childhood -- Big House on the Prairie), Little House is just kind of lame. There's some good here, but not enough to outweigh the many, many years of just plain odd television.

6) TGIF (the Full House/Family Matters years)
ABC, while both shows were in production for many years, they only aired together from 1989-1991

TGIF was a staple of the life of every kid born between 1975 and 1990, I like to think (and by focusing on these two years, I'm ignoring Step by Step, which was ANOTHER show I really liked for some reason), largely because it was something parents could set their kids in front of for a couple of hours. Cook up a pizza, get out some sodas, and get ready for the weekend. Why, you could even leave the kids alone and go have sex or something. They'd be too entranced by Urkel! TGIF was the last successful programming on Friday nights, and I don't think anyone feels really good about having watched it, even though we all did. For a long, weird period there, Full House was my favorite show on television, and I was always upset that it didn't do very well at the Emmys. Also, during this period, I used to ride around on the lawn mower while mowing the acres of grass on our family farm and sing the Full House theme song to myself slowly and passionately, as I believed a profound piece of music deserved. I really shouldn't have done this list.

So why aren't these on the list? Unless you care to make a reasoned argument for Perfect Strangers (and I don't recommend you do), there's really no reason to even belabor this point. Moving on then.

5) Mork and Mindy
ABC, produced from 1978-1982

In 1992, I discovered Nick at Nite. Also in 1992, I discovered Robin Williams. (I always think this had something to do with Aladdin, but the dates don't line up, which leads me to believe I came to Robin Williams through the comic stylings of Mr. Dave Coulier -- and be thankful I didn't do one of these entries on America's Funniest Home Videos.) Nick at Nite led me to many of the other shows we'll see on the list proper, but the first show I watched through, start to finish, was Mork and Mindy, embarrassingly. At the time, I was sort of hoping that my wacky impressions and crazy mugging would eventually land me a career as a comedian, but I think it just mostly pissed my parents off. Other collateral damage from being addicted to Mork and Mindy? I got really excited for a short-lived 1992 sitcom called Rhythm and Blues that starred some Robin Williams wannabe. Also, after becoming addicted to Mork and Mindy, I developed a sitcom starring myself as a wacky alien boy who landed in a small South Dakotan town and made everyone laugh with his hijinks. Its name? Tigg from Igg. Sadly, it never made it off the ground.

So why isn't this on the list? Despite Williams' agreeably antic performance (OK, agreeably may be too strong), Mork and Mindy was always reinventing itself for no particular reason, so it never quite found any sort of rhythm that would have made it good. Also, it was pretty awful.

4) Home Improvement
ABC, produced from 1991-1999

HERE we go. Home Improvement was the last show my family really watched together as a family. It's also probably the first time I was really aware of a difference between my opinion and the critical consensus. Despite the fact that Home Improvement had its critical champions (Rolling Stone, of all publications, was a big fan) and despite the fact that Home Improvement was nominated for Emmys, the opinion of the show overall has not improved with time (and it wasn't all that hot to begin with). The show was THE show there for a little while (and everyone -- including myself -- was perfecting a Tim Allen-type grunt), though its run atop the Nielsen charts was stopped rather quickly by the Seinfeld juggernaut. I loved Home Improvement, but I also ran into criticism of it and was surprised to find that I sort of agreed with what the critics had to say about it (it was kind of repetitive? Well, yes it was. . .it was kind of unoriginal? Dammit. . .that was true too). Still, for the first three seasons or so, Home Improvement was it. I lost track of it after that, as I entered adolescence in earnest and moved on to other shows (which will turn up on the list proper). The last time I ever saw Home Improvement was in its next-to-last season when it was on at the hospital where I went to visit my grandmother after she had the surgery to stop her breast cancer, the surgery that largely left her a shell of herself. It's weird the way we attach innocuous things to important moments in our lives, and I, apparently, attach television shows to them. Terrific.

So why isn't this on the list? Eh. . .it's not all THAT bad, but it's still pretty bad. And when you reflect on how popular this show was, it just seems so WEIRD, you know? I mean, Tim Allen was THAT popular? Odd.

3) Unsolved Mysteries
NBC and CBS, produced from 1987-1999

Unsolved Mysteries scared the crap out of me as a kid. It's also perhaps the most durable show on this list. I was still watching it when I was in college, finding the Lifetime reruns to be the perfect break between classes (to the point where I would occasionally miss a class to watch them). Unsolved Mysteries isn't particularly great television, but it's an entertaining enough format, and I'm not surprised that Spike TV has resurrected the show for broadcast in 2008.

So why isn't it on the list? Because, despite its durability, this is nowhere near one of the 100 best shows of all time, even with the heavy restrictions I've placed on the list. Also, the acting in the reenactments was pretty bad. That said, I'm still frightened by the story of the couple that drove by the guy who was shoving a bloody corpse into a basement or somesuch.

2) Dark Skies
NBC, produced from 1996-1997

Woo! Dark Skies! Even when I was watching this as a teenager, I knew it was pretty terrible television. But, to be honest, I'm still impressed by just how much the writers would lay it all on the line to keep their complicated alien conspiracies a-going. They were happy to ditch storylines that weren't working, kill off characters, send other characters to the dark side and do whatever was necessary to keep the plot twisting. The storyline behind the show (the last 50 years of human history were a lie) was impossibly convoluted and stupid, but the character stories the show told within that framework were pretty impressive. Since the characters the show had weren't that great, this is all less impressive than it sounds, but I actually learned a lot from Dark Skies about how a television show can take an audience up to a point where it says, "Oh, they'll never do that," and then actually DO it. The moment when the main character (see, I can't remember his name!) lost his lover to the alien menace is still stamped on my brain.

So why isn't it on the list? Because, all things considered, the alien stuff was just too stupid and time consuming.

1) Party of Five
Fox, produced from 1994-2000

(And by now you've realized this list was roughly chronological, right?)

Party of Five is probably the best show on this list of ten, but it wasn't good enough to make the top 100. Its first three seasons are really solid family soap stuff, nicely detailed and hyper-focused, to the point where you wondered if the producers were aiming at making a twentysomething version of thirtysomething. The last three seasons kind of lost the plot after that, what with the show deciding that every season needed to have some sort of MAJOR CRISIS (to complement Julia's pregnancy and Bailey's alcoholism from seasons two and three respectively). The characters were compelling enough still, but the show felt like just another show instead of the slightly dark and offbeat thing it had been. Still, it was my introduction to the wonders of serialized television that DIDN'T have aliens in it, and for that, I'm thankful.

So why isn't it on the list? Honestly, it was on my initial list, but it missed the cutoff for the top 100. It probably would have made a top 200 though!

Every day, also, you get a Christmas song, many of which might end up on the SDD Christmas compilation, coming a little closer to the holiday. Today's is "Imagine Santa."

(If you enjoy this at all, please link to it. And though this is intended to be vaguely scholarly, I hope you'll share your favorite memories of the TV you watched as a kid in the comments.)

Tomorrow: The top 100 begins with places 100-91.