NBC/CBS, produced 1965-1970
What: One of TV's smartest spoofs, Get Smart was a concentrated burst of silliness every week that presaged the movies creator Mel Brooks would make in the 1970s and some of the crazy comedy co-creator Buck Henry would come up with in his own films, performances and series. Winner of two Emmys for best comedy series during its run, Get Smart was never the most sophisticated show, but its commitment to fondly mocking the spy genre it ostensibly belonged to came at the perfect time, as the Bond movies were one of the central elements of pop culture the world over. From the Cone of Silence to the shoe phone, the series' silly gags became instant bits of the culture and touchstones for generations of viewers. Perhaps surprisingly, the series only lasted five seasons (and was actually canceled twice), but its long legacy from showings in syndication and on Nick at Nite have ensured its continued success.
Why: I'm not one for spoofs, generally, which tend to become grating and unbearable, especially on television, where the show has to spoof the genre it's mocking week after week after week. Police Squad was fun, sure, but it only lasted six episodes. What would it have done in a second or third season? That's what makes Get Smart's long, relatively quality-ridden run so impressive. It had the usual amount of missteps in its later years (when they had Max and Agent 99 get married for some reason), but those first two or three seasons were about as strong as a goofy spy spoof could be. It helped that Don Adams was truly terrific in the role of Max and that Barbara Feldon added a level of sexy mystique to the cast. Unlike many other shows of the time, Get Smart slowly constructed a whole universe for itself, with primitive attempts at things that would evolve into running gags and callbacks to previous episodes. In its own silly way, Get Smart was one of the most influential shows of its time. It's not the best sitcom of the '60s, but its smart take on the silliness of the day's sitcoms and the spy genre has meant it remains satisfying to this day.
Best season: Season two is probably the season when the silliness felt the most grounded, meaning that it wasn't completely insane.
Best episode: "The Groovy Guru," a parody of hippie culture, is awfully dumb, but it's a good kind of dumb, the one that keeps you chuckling through Brooks' movies. It's one of Adams' best performances, and Larry Storch makes an excellent foil for the actor.
Did you know?: A theatrical movie, a made-for-TV movie and a remake of the series (starring Andy Dick!) all followed the original series. The remake aired on Fox, and the made-for-TV movie aired on ABC, making this the first series to air on all four of the current major broadcast networks.
Available on DVD?: The five seasons of the show are available in a spendy set from Time-Life.
ABC, produced 1970-1975
What: The Odd Couple is one of TV's most durable sitcoms, a show that seems to give each new generation that watches it some amount of pleasure. Rather underrated at the time it aired and always on the edge of cancellation, the show survived long enough to get to syndication where its crystal-clear premise and razor-sharp central twosome turned it into one of the all-time sitcom classics. Based, to some extent, on the movie, which was based on the Broadway play, the show took Neil Simon's terrific idea (which allowed either character to be the straight man or the buffoon given the episode) and ran with it, easily constructing some top-notch comedy. The series also functioned as a kind of comedy writing class for many of the top talents who would create some of the biggest hits of the 70s and 80s.
Why: One of the things that makes the great sitcoms so great is clarity. The premise is iron-clad, and to a certain degree, you're just laughing at what you expect to happen, finding yourself pleasantly unsurprised when the show goes exactly where you're expecting it to. The best classic sitcoms can all be boiled down to a sentence or two, and The Odd Couple may be the simplest of them all -- a fastidious neatnik and a slob have to share an apartment after both of them get divorces. What's so appealing about this show is its simple purity, the way it automatically draws the audience in and tells the audience things it already knows but wants to be reminded of anyway. Don't believe me? Check out the first season DVD, when the series arrives as if it's been on the air for two or three seasons already. Most of this was due to Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, who took the airtight scripts and made them sing. Any collection of classic TV moments is bound to have at least one Odd Couple moment on it (often from the episode I list below), and that's because of the love for the show's simplicity and for its terrific cast. The Odd Couple is the sitcom as a finely-defined little gem. Other shows were more ambitious and probably better, but no TV comedy is as perfectly crafted as The Odd Couple at its finest.
Best season: It's hard to go wrong with this show, but season two is the best of the seasons currently available on DVD, so I'll give it the nod.
Best episode: "Password" is the perfect blend of taking characters you know and putting them in a situation where you can't wait to find out what they do. It's the rare "sitcom visits a game show" episode that actually works, to hilarious effect.
Did you know?: The show was frequently canceled, as it could never draw an audience, thanks to constant timeslot shifts, only to be brought back by strong ratings for summer reruns.
Available on DVD?: The first two seasons are available on DVD, with the third season arriving in January. The sets are handsome ones, packed with extras, from Time-Life.
HBO, produced 1992-1998
What: HBO's first big critical and awards success, this edgily misanthropic sitcom wasn't for everyone, what with it being a dark showbiz satire and all, but for the people it was for, it was great, presaging the terrific single-camera sitcoms of the 2000s by almost an entire decade. Larry Sanders is another show you have to get into the rhythm of, but once you do, it becomes something you'll want to see every episode of. Filled with pitch-perfect self-mockery from a slew of celebrity guests, Larry Sanders is perhaps the definitive dissection of the slow painful growth of the culture of celebrity. The series' three main players (Garry Shandling, Rip Torn and Jeffrey Tambor) all brought the right level of self-loathing and unctuousness to their characters, and the series trained lots of the finest writers of the time, including Paul Simms and Judd Apatow.
Why: Larry Sanders is one of the bleakest shows ever to make it big. Every character on the show is filled with some level of self-doubt (even the often oblivious Hank), and that gives the show a sheen of realism that many other show business satires lack. Everyone in the show wants to be in show business, but they can't believe some of the stuff they had to do to get there. Sanders also brimmed with smart cameos from people like David Duchovny, Jon Stewart and Alec Baldwin, all of whom came on the show to make fun of their public personas, tweaking just what the world thought of them and having a few good laughs in the process. Unfortunately, Sanders has mostly been forgotten as it was never re-edited for syndication, and the first-season DVD release didn't sell well (this was at a time when few series were released on DVD, and the first is one of the weaker seasons). It deserves rediscovery by a new generation of fans, and the DVD set of the series' best episodes released this year (and packed with extras) is a great entry point to one of the funniest comedies television has ever produced. If you happen to run across an infrequent rerun, give the show a shot. It's not for everyone, but there's a lot of terrifically black humor hanging out in there.
Best season: The series got better as it went along (culminating in a terrific final season when Larry was about to step down and Jon Stewart was being groomed to step in), but I think season four was when it was at its height, both of cultural relevance and episode construction.
Best episode: "Everybody Loves Larry" features a slyly comic David Duchovny tweaking his heartthrob status by sending Larry a jacket that convinces the talk show host Duchovny's in love with him. Elvis Costello also features.
Did you know?: This was the first ever HBO series nominated for a best series Emmy. Despite numerous nominations for series, it never won. Sex and the City would be the first HBO series to win.
Available on DVD?: Season one is available on DVD, as is a best-of set. Season two is rumored to be forthcoming.
Fox, produced 1997-present
What: Everyone forgets it now, especially after all of the time-slot shifting, but King of the Hill, Mike Judge's follow-up to Beavis and Butthead, was a huge hit when it debuted between The Simpsons and The X-Files, one of the biggest breakouts of that season and big enough to demand the number one spot on the "best shows" lists of TV Guide, Entertainment Weekly and Time. Then Fox moved the show to Tuesdays in its third season, and it mostly sunk off the pop cultural radar, even though it was still a fairly solid hit. It continues to run under-the-radar to this day. What made the show work was that it wasn't really like most other animated sitcoms. Instead of being another Simpsons ripoff, the show aimed at telling small, observational stories, of the sort you might see on The Andy Griffith Show. The series' setting of Arlen is a perfectly-realized place, just detailed enough to be specific, and just vague enough to be universal.
Why: A good television show has a finely drawn set of main characters; a great television show feels like it occupies a wholly thought-out WORLD. While Arlen is never quite as expansive as The Simpsons' Springfield (which often feels like it incorporates every person or culture who ever lived), it boasts a wide world of characters and places that gently mock the suburban Texas subculture Judge arose from. The show's best, earliest seasons sprung from close collaboration between Judge and Greg Daniels (a Simpsons writer who would go on to develop The Office for American television). The push-pull between the two (with Judge's sense of drawing laughs from portraying things as accurately as possible and Daniels' love of satire and wilder scenarios) made the series less of an animated series and more of a sitcom that just happened to be animated. The series' best moments often came from the Hill family itself; there really hadn't been anyone as conservative and uptight as Hank Hill on TV in a while, and his delusional wife, Peggy, and strange son, Bobby, offered up a perfect portrayal of a family that worked, almost in spite of itself. Even more fascinating is that Hank was often proved to be right to be skeptical of the strange changes in the world around him, tying in with a deeply suspect vibe that runs throughout most of Judge's work. The well-defined townspeople and friends of the main characters were just the icing on the cake of this show, one of the most underrated in the history of the medium. It's a weird show, but it's a GROUNDED weird show, and that's incredibly hard to do well.
Best season: Everything was clicking in season two, when the show was justifiably a pop culture sensation.
Best episode: "Meet the Manger Babies" blends all of the show's pet obsessions and oddities into one terrifically funny half hour of television that somehow turns children's church into big laughs.
Did you know?: King of the Hill was technically canceled, leading Judge to prepare a series finale. Then, the show was renewed at the last minute for one season, then another. The series finale will still air at the end of the show, though that may now be several years from now.
Available on DVD?: The first six seasons are available. There are no plans currently to release the others.
NBC, produced 1994-2004
What: One of the most successful series of all time, Friends tapped into the zeitgeist in a way that few shows had before and few shows would after. After a while, it grew kind of cloying and over-the-top in the way that most sitcoms eventually do, but over its ten-season run, the show was good more often than it was bad, and its finest moments have entered the cultural lexicon. Friends was not the first show to have its characters end up sleeping together in various configurations and patterns, but it was the first sitcom to do it to this extent, creating a sort of "soap-com" formula that numerous other shows over the years would copy and run into the ground. It's hard to remember just how non-groundbreaking Friends seemed when it debuted, often labeled as just one of a myriad of Seinfeld clones (though usually labeled as the most promising one). Friends took everything that was unpalatable and uncopyable about Seinfeld and sheared it off, ending up with a show that was often gooey, about how when you're young and single in the city, you have to create your own family. It wasn't perfect television, but it commanded legions of fans, and the show's scripts have some solid stuff in them -- indeed, the first season is a master class in how to set up a lot of storylines and plot points that will pay off in the years to come. And that crackerjack ensemble of young unknowns certainly didn't hurt matters.
Why: Friends has gotten slagged in recent years for those weak seasons toward the end (roughly, seasons 7, 9 and 10 and parts of 6 and 8), but at its best, Friends was a tightly-written ensemble comedy that juggled lots of plots all at once and had sharply-drawn characters who fit into broad types but also managed to break those types in subtle ways. In many ways, it doesn't seem like the show should be as big as it was, as it's premise is just so undefined as to be completely unnoticeable. Credit, then, goes to the fine hand of director James Burrows, who guided the show in the first season, the solid scripts and the perfect cast. While the show's overarching plot could get a bit hoary (hooking up Monica and Chandler was a masterstroke; Rachel and Joey? Not so much), it was frequently affecting, and the show wasn't afraid to go for a dramatic moment in the middle of a sea of punchlines. Like it or not, Friends really INVESTED in its characters and demanded the audience do so as well. I don't know how Friends will age (since it's such a time capsule of its era), but the show's influence can't be written off, hence the relatively high ranking.
Best season: Season five saw the Monica and Chandler pairing take flight, and the show took a deep breath and relaxed after it managed to cast aside the Ross/Rachel pairing for a little while.
Best episode: "The One With the Embryos" plays off of everything we know about the characters (and some things we don't know) to offer the audience what felt like an instant classic. The finale with a pregnant Phoebe still works too.
Did you know?: Larry David's feature film Sour Grapes features an elaborate and angry parody of Friends, as the Seinfeld creator felt the show to be a complete ripoff of his program.
Available on DVD?: The complete series is available, as are a handful of best-of DVDs.
ABC, produced 1977-1981
What: From a show probably all of you have seen at least an episode of to a show that very few of you have probably heard of, Soap was the original controversial sitcom. Derided sight unseen by religious conservatives, the broad parody of soap operas gained a toehold on the ABC schedule for a handful of years and garnered a considerable cult audience with its goofy storylines, bizarre characters and endless plot reversals. The series took the boundary-pushing of some of the Norman Lear factory sitcoms (like All in the Family and Maude) and pushed them even farther, adding all of this to a great cast that boasted such stars in the making as Billy Crystal, Robert Guillaume, Katherine Helmond and Richard Mulligan. Even Jerry Seinfeld starred for a time. The tone of Soap is very broad, but it's also very funny. In many ways, it's the most accurate predecessor to Arrested Development, and that makes sense, as this show's creator went on to do Golden Girls -- where AD creator Mitchell Hurwitz trained.
Why: For a while there, ABC ruled the sitcom roost, boasting shows both popular (Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley) and critically acclaimed (Taxi, Barney Miller, Soap). Soap's broad storytelling has made it age more poorly than the other two series, but its cast and wacky stories have managed to hang on. The writing is acrid and often biting, leaving no real room for the audience to sympathize with anyone (and the most sympathetic character was spun off into his own show eventually). There's nothing on the mind of Soap beyond making you laugh by making fun of soap operas, and if you're a fan of that genre, Soap carries an added benefit by being one of the better parodies of that format (well, it and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman). While Soap may not have predicted the stranger plot turns of soaps like Passions and Days of Our Lives, it does nail the bed-hopping nature of the shows and the mundane nature of the plots often given to the older cast members. The show even had the first gay regular in the history of television, even if Billy Crystal's character wasn't QUITE indicative of the gay experience (he often seems more transsexual than gay). Soap used to be a cable staple, but the only place you can find it nowadays is on DVD. It's worth a look, especially if you enjoy broad humor and ridiculous stories.
Best season: Season one set the tone for everything that followed, and its still a mostly enjoyable blend of soap tropes and funny acting.
Best episode: "Episode 36" from season two is a terrific blend of every possible soap storyline -- from kidnappings to weddings. It's a highpoint from a show that often had its highpoints in episodes where lots of plots converged.
Did you know?: The national PTA declared Soap one of the ten worst shows on television.
Available on DVD?: The entire run of the series is on DVD.
ABC, produced 1987-1991
What: thirtysomething all but invented the demographically desirable drama in the 80s, when it attracted basically no audience that was older than 49 but managed to reel in the baby boomers who felt a deep kinship with the show's rootless yuppies. thirtysomething was almost narcissistic television, focusing on people who were rather obsessed with their own lives and selves, to the ignorance of almost all else. This approach grated on some but won the praise and plaudits of others, and the intense, personal kitchen-sink drama of the show became a touchstone for a legion of television dramatists. In a way, whether or not you were watching thirtysomething when it was running showed whether or not you were trying to stay "up" with the new breed of television that was rapidly changing the medium with its closely observed stories and small-scale human drama. Some of thirtysomething is still insufferable today, but much of it accurately captures a time and a place and a subculture in the way of the best novels.
Why: The Marshall Herskovitz/Ed Zwick style of drama is mostly out of favor today (just look at how the two had to go to the web to get Quarterlife set up), but the three turned out four wonderful series that traced life in four decades -- teens (My So-Called Life), twenties (the mostly forgotten Relativity), thirties (thirtysomething) and forties (Once & Again). thirtysomething was probably the most popular of these shows, especially with that target demographic, but it's mostly ignored today, in favor of MSCL and O&A. That's really a shame, too, as thirtysomething is a fascinating show and an even more fascinating attempt to put an entire generation under a microscope -- in some ways, it's almost as if the creators saw Michael Apted's 35 Up and decided to turn it into a full series. The episodes sung with exquisitely crafted dialogue, and the best scripts had the feeling of a really good play. It's easy to write thirtysomething off as a drama for whiners (as that's what most of the characters do frequently), but they were whining about SOMEthing, their lost hopes and dreams, their inabilities to fix the world, their slowly deteriorating relationships. This style of minute television is out of favor now, but it would be fascinating to reunite this cast and see something like fiftysomething. Can we hope for a reunion?
Best season: The strike-shortened season two makes every one of its episodes count, including the best episode in the series' run.
Best episode: "The Mike Van Dyke Show" is a marvelous Christmas episode and one of the show's few stylistic departures, as it sent the characters in search of solace in old sitcoms.
Did you know?: thirtysomething was the first series to show two men in bed together. The rather chaste scene would seem ridiculously tame by today's standards, but at the time, it caused a huge controversy.
Available on DVD?: None of the seasons have been released on DVD, reportedly due to problems with the master tapes and converting them to the correct format.
ESPN, produced 1979-present
What: ESPN's signature program put the world of sports under a microscope, elevating even the most obscure of events into something worthy of coverage. The series started out as more or less a nightly sports news broadcast, but in the 90s, it evolved into a nearly mythic evocation of the pageantry of sport mixed with a snarky takedown of the same. ESPN wanted to build up your anticipation and then mock you for caring in the first place. At the same time, the series destroyed modern sports coverage by inventing the highlight reel, which reverberated out through sports coverage, creating an atmosphere where athletes did whatever they could to make the reel. It didn't help that only ESPN seemed capable of putting these sorts of things together. SportsCenter's influence has been a net negative, probably, but at its height, the show was terrific entertainment.
Why: One of the most influential shows of the last few decades, SportsCenter's snarky guy talk has ended up reflected in weird places around the culture, from lad magazines like Maxim to The Daily Show. The series is tired now, largely due to its smug self-satisfaction, but at its height (roughly the Olbermann-Patrick years), SportsCenter was like Mystery Science Theater 3000 with sports footage, a witty, literate run through centuries of cultural references. SportsCenter dared you to keep up with what it was doing or saying and all in the genre where you'd least expect to find references to 18th century naval warfare or The Locomotion. The show's influence on culture as a whole is a bit more dubious, largely because it's created an unfortunate sports culture within the larger culture, but the series' value as entertainment at its height couldn't be beat.
Best season: Not really applicable, but the Olbermann-Patrick years (1992-1997) were the finest of the show's run and they cemented the idea of what SportsCenter was in the national consciousness. Also, without these two, you get no Sports Night.
Best episode: Again, not really applicable.
Did you know?: SportsCenter was almost canceled on Sept. 11, 2001, but the network decided to air one half-hour long broadcast announcing the cancellations of various sporting events. The broadcast kept the network's streak of having one SportsCenter broadcast every day since its inception alive.
Available on DVD?: A handful of highlight DVDs are the closest you're going to come.
PBS, produced 1968-2001
What: The longest-running program in Public Broadcasting's history, and the second-longest in production (after only Sesame Street), Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was a formative show in the history of children's television. For the first time, there was no attempt to teach kids, nor was there an attempt to give them superficial excitement. Instead, this was a show hosted by a square, friendly man in a sweater, who greeted each day with the familiarity of routine. A small island of quiet in the television broadcast schedule, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood was a place to sit and talk about your feelings and admit that maybe sometimes you got scared of the vacuum cleaner or the toilet. Consisting of puppet shows and congenial chats between Rogers and various guests (usually people on to talk about what they did in their real life occupations), Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood never pandered to kids but somehow talked directly on their level.
Why: It's hard to watch Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood in today's television landscape. Unlike most other children's shows, there's no pressure to be exciting or get kids up to dance or anything like that. The benevolent and grandfatherly Fred Rogers simply wanted to give kids a little space in every day to be contemplative and to make believe about living in a world with kings and talking cats and trolleys that transport people between the land of reality and the land of imagination. A lot of what Rogers was doing seems a little retrograde nowadays, and the simplistic view of childhood jibes against a lot of what we know of childhood psychology, but speaking as someone who was a frequently frightened and overwhelmed child, that small oasis in the daily TV schedule was a lifeline, a way to realize you weren't alone in a big, scary world. And sometimes, that's invaluable.
Best season: Not horribly applicable, but some of the puppets Rogers added in the later seasons were kind of. . .weird. King Friday forever!
Best episode: Again, not really applicable.
Did you know?: My aunt and uncle were featured in a Mr. Rogers picture book about different occupations and what people did in them. They were featured as the doctors.
Available on DVD?: A few best-of DVDs, but that's pretty much it. Look for the "Songs of Mr. Rogers" compilation CD, featuring Ricky Skaggs and Donna Summer!
syndicated, produced 1984-present
What: The best American quiz show is a blend of brainy contestants, an ingeniously backwards structure and an affable host. While Jeopardy! had seen numerous earlier attempts at becoming a lasting hit, the version that started in 1984 and was hosted by Alex Trebek was the one that took, going on to become the second most-popular game show in the syndicated ratings, week after week. Trebek's goofy charm and the show's devotion to asking smarter questions than the average quiz show meant that the series garnered a reputation as being for brainiacs. While the level of the questions has gone down in recent years, the show continues to skirt along based on casting a large swath of America as its contestants.
Why: Jeopardy! is simply my favorite game show ever and one of the few I can still bear to watch. While the questions have gotten easier over the years, I like how the series is constantly putting people who aren't exactly telegenic at the forefront, giving the nerds of America a place to show off their large knowledge bases. Jeopardy! is the only show that could possibly make someone like Ken Jennings a nationwide superstar, and it's one of the few game shows that you can understand almost immediately after only watching an episode or two. The best game shows tend to either have an air of elitism or an air of populism -- The Price Is Right (#84) is the best populist game show, and Jeopardy!, with its air of barely suppressed superiority, is the best elitist show. In a dumbed-down culture, it's one of the few places to turn to get a daily dose of something you didn't know.
Best season: The first season, with its mind-bendingly difficult questions, is still the best.
Best episode: Whichever one they show in Groundhog Day.
Did you know?: The single biggest moneymaker in Merv Griffin's storied career wasn't the creation of Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune -- it was his penning of the 30 second Jeopardy! "Think!" theme (you know. . .doo doo doo doo doo doo doo. . .sing it with me now!).
Available on DVD?: Nothing.
The list so far:
52) Mr Rogers' Neighborhood
57) King of the Hill
58) The Larry Sanders Show
59) The Odd Couple
60) Get Smart
61) Saturday Night Live
63) The Shield
64) The Dick Cavett Show
65) Monday Night Football
66) Mad Men
67) The Rockford Files
69) CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
70) 30 Rock
71) NYPD Blue
72) Sports Night
73) The Phil Silvers Show
74) The Office (US)
75) Green Acres
77) The Waltons
78) Friday Night Lights
79) The West Wing
81) The Bob Newhart Show
82) Everybody Loves Raymond
83) Sex and the City
84) The Price is Right
85) Big Love
86) The Amazing Race
89) The Cosby Show
90) Beavis and Butthead
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: This Weepies song, "All That I Want," is featured in a J.C. Penney commercial, so there's your television connection.
Tomorrow: 10 glaring blind spots, including the show The Simpsons is chasing.