Saturday, December 15, 2007

SDD's top 100 series of all time: Places 60-51





60) Get Smart
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.





59) The Odd Couple
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.





58) The Larry Sanders Show
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.





57) King of the Hill
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.





56) Friends
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.





55) Soap
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.





54) thirtysomething
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.





53) SportsCenter
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.





52) Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood
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!





51) Jeopardy!
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:
51) Jeopardy!
52) Mr Rogers' Neighborhood
53) SportsCenter
54) thirtysomething
55) Soap
56) Friends
57) King of the Hill
58) The Larry Sanders Show
59) The Odd Couple
60) Get Smart
61) Saturday Night Live
62) 24
63) The Shield
64) The Dick Cavett Show
65) Monday Night Football
66) Mad Men
67) The Rockford Files
68) Undeclared
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
76) Frasier
77) The Waltons
78) Friday Night Lights
79) The West Wing
80) M*A*S*H
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
87) Futurama
88) Everwood
89) The Cosby Show
90) Beavis and Butthead
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: 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.

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“Oooh, medium.” – The Adventures of Pete & Pete



Big Pete can be kind of a bitch. He spends almost the entirety of “Tool and Die,” this week’s adventure , whining about how the power tools involved in a shop class could kill him. However, it’s obviously apparent that his real reason for hating being involuntarily enrolled in shop is the “socketheads” for which he holds nothing but disdain. Granted, Big Pete nemesis Endless Pete is a sockethead, and Mike even gets a monologue establishing himself as a leader amongst shop class newbies. But, all in all, Big Pete largely comes off as a bitter whiner.


Ellen is able to adapt herself just fine to Mr. Slurm’s class, finding a deeper philosophical meaning to metallurgy. She is outright adorable as she espouses her theory that she is setting the metal free through her welding. And more importantly (as far as the plot is concerned), she serves as a foil to suggest just how much of a party pooper Big Pete is when he complains endlessly on how dangerous and stupid shop class is.


Even Little Pete gets in on the fun, selling insurance to students of the class and even Mr. Slurm (played by Jude Ciccolella, AKA 24’s Mike Novick). Yet, Big Pete tries his damnedest to slack his way to a C. His attempt to build what is by his approximation a halfway decent project (“It’s Danish modern!”) is hilarious for those of us who have tried to pass of obviously subpar work as worthy of passing grades. But Mr. Slurm, he of the improbable extensions to his artificial arm, can see straight through Big Pete, and assigns our humble narrator to work on his “secret project,” which is normally reserved to socketheads or students who have shown particular noteworthiness. Thus, Ellen’s dismay when Big Pete receives his fateful assignment carries a noterworthy irony.


That isn’t to say that Big Pete’s distaste for shop class isn’t entirely unfounded. There’s a wonderfully subtle gag where Mr. Slurm describes a student whose hair got caught in a machine, tearing his scalp clean off. For the rest of the episode, Big Pete’s friend Teddy wears a hairnet, obviously taking that cautionary tale to heart. But again, Big Pete’s worrying is misplaced. Nobody in this episode suffers any real injury, no matter what Mr. Slurm’s stories or Little Pete’s schemes might portend. Largely, Big Pete is a stubborn animal, convinced that shop class is dangerous and for the foolish, and it is not until the end of the episode, where he is revealed for the slacker he is, that he makes any effort in the class.


“Tool and Die” is one of the wonkier Pete & Pete epidodes, as if the 2x4 wipe that begins it weren’t enough to let you know. Even as students conspire about how Mr. Slurm’s secret project might be a cryogenic chamber or ballistic missle, you know that they are wrong. But when the episode reveals that the secret project is an air conditioner for Mr. Slurm’s office, there’s an untold insidiousness that comes with a teacher forcing children to make him a luxury on the school’s budget.


When Big Pete comes to an understanding towards shop class, it isn’t that shop class is an underrated art form (like Ellen discovers it to be) or an opportunity for the marginal parts of civilization to be heroic (as Endless Mike seems to take to it), but a simple way to prove that one isn’t the asshole that one appears to be there is a unique compromise that’s somewhere between the heroics of a typical climax and reality – where Big Pete discovers that delivering on an expertly-made spice rack doesn’t make him a sockethead, but proves that he doesn’t take life for granted. His conclusion isn’t exactly Chariots of Fire or Rocky, but he reaches something like a happy ending on his own terms, terms that can please the Mr. Slurms, the Ellens, the Endless Mikes and the Big Petes alike.

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“I have the worst Secret Santa ever!”: Smallville
















As Smallville prepares to take another lengthily break, ‘Gemini’ is at once a very silly and very encouraging story for it to go out on. (Obviously intended to tide over the fans, ‘Gemini’ is the last Smallville original until late January at the earliest.) Silly actually isn’t a nearly strong enough word to describe the ridiculous plot twists of this episode, which plays like writer Caroline Dries dared herself to up the ludicrous ante with each act. But if you look past this absurdity (and if there’s one thing Smallville fans have to be good at, it’s looking past absurdity) ‘Gemini’ is a satisfyingly plot-heavy story that fills in a lot of gaps and sends the season gliding nicely forward.

Lois gets a call from a mystery antagonist, claiming Chloe has a bomb on her and threatening to set it off unless Lois follows his instructions. Turns out the caller has a vendetta against Lex (join the club, man) and wants Lois, who is conveniently doing an interview with Lex, to ask him about Project Gemini. Turns out it’s a cloning program, and the caller is one of Lex’s (many) failed experiments. Why do we care? Well, it all ties into Grant Gabriel – or should I say, Julian Luthor. He’s one of Lex’s clones too, only he’s the one that worked (you can tell because he’s so handsome, whereas the other guy is all spotty). Grant/Julian is not too happy to realise this, and angrily tells Lex to just let him live his life. Knowing Lex, Grant/Julian’s days are looking numbered – which is a shame, as Michael Cassidy continues to turn in good work, even if the shifts in his character have weakened his impact somewhat.

Meanwhile, Chloe and Jimmy get stuck in an elevator with a ticking bomb as their only other company. As nice as it is to see these two together again, you’d think Smallville’s two best characters stuck together in a lift would make for better scenes than these. How about the occasional injection of FUNNY, writers? You’ve got two comically adept actors here – let them flex their muscles a bit, for the sake of my sanity if nothing else! I was happy to see Chloe finally confess to Jimmy that she was a meteor freak, as that storyline was getting tired; and their kiss at the end was welcome, if predictable. Sadly, for reasons I don’t understand, Chloe quickly (and harshly!) brushed the kiss under the carpet after the crisis had passed. Despite her saying earlier that her secret was the real reason she’d broken it off in the first place. Lame, pointless stall tactic then? Suppose so, but I can’t wrap my head around any possible reason for it.

Finally, Clark and Lana had a few meandering scenes featuring some very out-of-character behaviour from Clark. Suddenly over his anger at Lana for stalking Lex, he instead agrees to help her bring Lex down. Why the sudden one-eighty? When Clark suggests doing something malicious, there’s only ever one explanation – he’s been overtaken by something evil! In this case Bizarro, Clark’s doppelgänger who we last saw in the season premiere. While I wasn’t a big fan of Bizarro on his first appearance, I’m cautiously optimistic now as his return suggests an evil team-up with Braniac (James Marsters, returning next episode), a promising dynamic.

While none of these three storylines came together as well as they should have, played in sync they made for a fast-moving, entertaining forty minutes. Smallville is at its best when it does the unexpected, and ‘Gemini’ offered a hitherto unprecedented level of plot movement for a typically plodding show. I also liked how writer Dries avoided any sentimental, saccharine uses of the Christmas party setting, instead turning it on its head with Chloe’s discovery that her Secret Santa present was a ticking bomb. Further, the Daily Planet set is quite beautiful, so setting the majority of the episode there was a nice move.

Finally, I’d liked to single out a moment that I especially loved. When Lex tells Lois that she’s been taken off the story, she says that he's not his boss. His response is perfectly attuned to Smallville’s comic book roots (not to mention another lampooning of the Christmas theme): “Merry Christmas Lois. I’ve just bought the Daily Planet.” Ha! Love it. Michael Rosenbaum needs more lines like that one – give him a genuinely great piece of dialogue, no matter how asinine, and he will knock it out of the park every time.

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SDD's Top 100 Series of All Time -- Supplemental list #5: New-ish shows I like that didn't make the list


American television is in a pretty good spot at the moment, even if this fall, thanks to fears of a writers strike, boasted the weakest slate of new shows in years. Because of the sheer number of networks and the need to just program that many hours, more and more interesting things are slipping on the networks than would have decades ago. A show like Journeyman hasn't quite lived up to its promise yet, but would something that ambitious have been programmed in the 60s or 70s? Probably not. The series doesn't accomplish everything it sets out to do, but it sets out to do so much. The failures of television at present tend to be those of over-ambition, rather than just doing enough to get by.

To that end, here are 10 shows in their first and second seasons that are worth keeping an eye on, along with some advice as to how they could crack the list in the future. Obviously, 30 Rock, Mad Men and Friday Night Lights made the list already, so just consider them grandfathered in.




10) Chuck
NBC, in its first season

I almost wrote Chuck off after its sixth episode or so. The central structural problem of the show -- how do you get the computer nerd who stays in the office on most spy shows out into the field in every episode? -- led to some really strained and strange plotting in the early episodes, and the fake relationship between Chuck and Sarah struck me as something that was a better idea on paper than it was on screen (largely because Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski have had to grow into their chemistry). But the show has really grown into itself in its last few episodes, and there's the potential for more here, even if it seems the series deliberately wants to be a throwback to the light action dramas of the 80s. There's the potential for something more like Buffy than Alias here -- a lightly-plotted, mostly comic hour that occasionally tosses in some relationship angst. I don't know that there's anything weighty enough here to reach the level of Buffy at its heights, but if this show can really pull everything it wants to do together, it could become the kind of comic souffle that lands in the 80s or 90s. Keep getting better, Chuck!

How can it get on the list?: While the interpersonal relationships on the show are starting to light up (even if they should have kept Rachel Bilson around longer), I think the show could be benefited by improving the spy stories just a little. Even Buffy's monster-of-the-week outings were rarely this dull.





9) Aliens in America
The CW, in its first season

Shows that accurately portray the alienation and strangeness of high school are few and far between, usually ignored in favor of crazy teen soaps. Sitcoms that portray this are even rarer (there's what? Room 222 and Square Pegs?), and that's what makes Aliens in America such an impressive accomplishment, even if it hasn't quite ironed out all of its quirks to the point where it's completely solid. Still, there's a lot of promise here, thanks largely to a talented ensemble cast and a skewed vision of what it's like to go through high school that owes more to Freaks and Geeks than Beverly Hills 90210. The Midwestern setting allows the show to do a little wry commentary on American xenophobia (even if that commentary occasionally pushes too far), and the characters are quite well-drawn.

How can it get on the list?: The series feels a little jokey, and I think it could do better if it stopped making the broad comparisons between the alienation of a young nerd in high school and the alienation of someone who's not actually from this country. Still, there's a lot to like here, and the show gets better from week to week.







8) Tell Me You Love Me/Brotherhood
HBO, in its first season/Showtime, in its second season

It's the "depressing cable dramas that play better on DVD" hour! Tell Me You Love Me and Brotherhood can be almost excruciating to watch from week to week, with plots that crawl along and oft-depressing storylines that seem fraught with the inevitabilities of modern life. HBO's hour is about three couples in couples counseling and the woman who is their therapist. At first, it seems like something you could probably skip (one commentor memorably described it as "Like watching paint fuck"), but over the hours, it wraps its tendrils around you and gets you invested in these couples, offering up, finally, a nicely bittersweet denouement. I watched the whole series on DVD this summer, and I think that's a much better way to watch the show than to wait weeks between episodes. Brotherhood is a similar treat. It moves glacially if you're watching week-to-week, but on DVD, it attains a real tragic weight, as this family (anchored by two brothers -- one a politician and one a criminal) tries to find a way to make its way in the world of Providence, Rhode Island. I'm not surprised the show hasn't been a big hit, but these two series just might be the best two you're not watching.

How can they get on the list?: Both of these series need to find a way to boost their weekly excitement quota. Even the slow-moving Wire has at least one bit of the case snapping into place from week to week; you don't get that sense on Tell Me or Brotherhood.





7) Heroes
NBC, in its second season

Maddeningly inconsistent, Heroes was held up by many in its first season as the anti-Lost, the show that would provide big plot twists and big answers, all at once. The series' first season was riotously entertaining, scooping up the audience and zipping them along through a story of superpowered individuals on their way to saving the world. It wasn't great TV, but the sheer narrative momentum that the show attained roughly halfway through the season meant that it could keep the audience along for the ride, provided the finale and final chapter in the saga was as good as it seemed it might be. Then, the finale dropped the ball, and the flaws in the show became more glaring, simply because they were easier to overlook when it seemed as if this might be one big fun adventure. Instead, it became obvious that the show WAS the anti-Lost -- full of fun and adventure but mostly consisting of empty calories. In its second season, the show floundered around for a bunch of episodes, creating false drama, before righting itself with a couple of good episodes that still couldn't match up to the handful of really good ones in season one. Heroes is the latest case of the emperor having no clothes, and it remains to be seen if it can pull off a Lost and reveal what it was doing all along later on. Lost, at least, had a compelling thematic basis; it's questionable that Heroes has even that.

How can it get on the list?: Learn about better serialized story construction -- Heroes' second season feels like a blatant attempt to ape the series' first season, while the best serials (even the ones with seasonal resets like 24) take time to build upon prior seasons' work. Heroes just scattered the characters to the winds arbitrarily in season two because that was what happened in season one.





6) Pushing Daisies
ABC, in its first season

Slightly overrated when it debuted, Pushing Daisies had a fine pilot that promised it might do great things if it found its footing. The episodes that followed were all very good but hadn't quite nailed the mixture of mystery, character stuff and quirk, usually skewing too heavily toward one or the other. The recent string of episodes, however, managed to get most of that balance correct, and it's starting to seem as if the show might find its footing as early as the middle of its first season. Now, of course, the show is going to be cut short by the strike, but this feels like a show that could return from that sad eventuality (ratings pending) and reel off a string of great episodes. It's another show on this list more for promise than anything else, but those episodes give me hope that promise will be realized.

How can it get on the list?: The biggest thing Pushing Daisies can do is have faith in its crazy convictions. The character stuff on this show doesn't feel like it should work, but it does more often than not, so I think they could pursue that a little further. They also might beef up the mysteries a little and cut down on the cutesy endings where Ned and Chuck realize just how much they wuv each other.





5) The Boondocks
Cartoon Network, in its second season

The Boondocks is another inconsistent show, but when it's on (which is all too rarely), it's better than almost any other show on this list -- an incendiary blend of social commentary, political jokes and solid small-town sitcom. The story of two young boys and their grandfather who live in the suburbs, the series is almost like a more-political, African American King of the Hill (if you can wrap your brain around that). Sometimes, its jokes lean toward the too obvious, but when the show is on, it's like nothing else on TV in terms of what it aims to do and say. At its best, The Boondocks is scabrous and brilliant, ready to mock anyone and everyone but always with a consistent emotional core (unlike its most obvious forebear, South Park). If The Boondocks could just throw together a consistent season, it could easily land in the top 30 on the next list.

How can it get on the list?: Too often, The Boondocks takes the easy route to humor. Its strongest episodes (A Huey Freeman Christmas, Return of the King) are the ones that examine all viewpoints and find them all wanting, and that complexity drives the inner engines of the show (which also have a mournful quality to them). The show would be better if it embraced that complexity and didn't continually give in to the easy jabs.





4) Dexter
Showtime, in its second season

What a difference a season makes! In its first season, Dexter was an uneven show with a strong through-plot but an episodic nature that often left the show struggling along, largely due to its bland and uninteresting supporting cast. The central performance on the show was as good as everyone said it was, but the stories on the show were often boring, and the series felt as though they had to give the rest of the cast things to do, when they were only interesting insofar as they were connected to Dexter (and some of them were so blandly drawn that their connection to Dexter was similarly bland). Dexter in its second season is a show that thrillingly takes chances, doing things with its form and function that the first season simply wouldn't allow. As Dexter is forced to tap dance his way away from being caught by the Miami PD and occasionally gets sloppy when he lets his inner monster out (this season has seen him ignoring the "code" that he lives his life by to great effect). Not everything here works (Dexter's new girlfriend/sponsor is a weakly conceived character, though watching Dexter's hopes that she'll understand him is interesting; the supporting players are still very weak), but Dexter in its second season is doing the bold sorts of things we expect out of the best dramas. Paradoxically, it seems to have turned off fans of the more procedural-esque first season, even as it gains fans in first-season skeptics like myself. Here's hoping it doesn't cave in to its fans' demands. (In fact, I wrote this a few weeks ago. The recent episodes have been so good that were I making the list now, instead of back in October, I probably would have pushed it into the bottom 10.)

How can it get on the list?: Perk up those supporting players and make them something more than people whom Dexter has to avoid.





3) Brothers & Sisters
ABC, in its second season

I actually have my doubts Brothers & Sisters will ever make the list, but it's enjoyable enough socks-folding TV, and that has to be good for something. I'm actually surprised the series hasn't caught on more quickly than it has, as it's an enjoyable update of the family soaps that used to dominate TV in the '80s (it's not quite as wacky as Dynasty, but it's certainly on the level of, say, Falcon Crest). A big, talented ensemble anchors the show, and the strong hand of uber-producer Greg Berlanti has given the show its well-earned tear-jerkiness. The show's far from perfect, and it's mostly a surface-level one, but it has its charms, and it's insanely addictive. This one could be the sort of show that we watch for years to come with the proper care and feeding. Brothers & Sisters isn't horribly flawed like some other shows on this list, but it doesn't aim as high as most of them either.

How can it get on the list?: I think that if the show maybe opened its universe up a little more to incorporate some interesting characters outside of the family and those they date, it might gain a little dimension, which is really what it needs to deepen its world.





2) Ugly Betty
ABC, in its second season

I usually hate camp, but I love Ugly Betty, one of the most riotously over-the-top shows in the history of television, and a program that's half telenovela and half soap opera parody. Anchored by an effortlessly sweet performance by America Ferrera, Ugly Betty is kind of uneven, even inside of individual episodes, but the cast is so winning, and the writing is so daring in its discussion of American class differences and racial imbalances that it gets away with more than it probably should. It helps that the supporting players are excellent, especially the wacky Michael Urie and Becki Newton. It also helps that the show locks all of its storylines into an emotional core. I really don't know why Ugly Betty isn't on the list at present. I just want to see that it can last a little longer at this level of quality. The better-than-the-first-season second season (so far) is helping its case immensely.

How can it get on the list?: Just keep doing what it's doing and do it for seasons to come. This is one show where the accretion of time will really help push it over the top.





1) Flight of the Conchords
HBO, second season upcoming

The only thing that kept Flight of the Conchords off of this list was the fact that the tone of a goofy, lackadaisical comedy is perhaps the hardest thing to sustain in television. The number of basically plotless but hilarious comedies that had a strong first season and a disastrous second season is legion, and the Conchords ran through almost all of their stage songs in season one. Will they have enough material for a second season? I'm cautiously hopeful, as Newsradio creator Paul Simms is a creative consultant on the show. Simms managed to make a low-key, goofy show run for season after season in hilarious fashion, and I don't think there's anything stopping him from doing so here. Conchords deserves to be the next huge cult hit, and here's hoping that it can pull off a second season as hilarious as its first.

How can it get on the list?: Really, just be as funny as it was in season one in season two. That should be enough.

Today's Christmas tune: One of the most popular new Christmas tunes in recent years is Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You." Here's an old friend offering a cover version from him and another of his friends (from 2003, no less). I actually haven't listened to it, so let me know how it is!

Tomorrow: Places 60-51, including lots and lots of sitcoms and a children's TV phenomenon.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

"You fudging touch me again I'll fudging kill you.": A Very Supernatural Christmas


Who could have predicted that the most heartwarming Christmas episode of the television season would come from Supernatural? And that said heartwarming episode would feature pagan sacrifices, impalements and a fingernail extraction scene right up there with the worst of Saw? (Or the best of Saw, I suppose, depending on your feelings on torture porn.) Unlikely as it was, last night's episode managed to be the perfect combination of scares and heart, and it left this normally cold-hearted viewer's chest cavity (and tear ducts) pretty darn full.

One reason this episode was so wonderful was that it felt like classic Supernatural -- it was completely about Sam and Dean fighting some evil and showing some man-love, with no distractions from unnecessary cast members of the female persuasion. I don't mind the new cast members to a certain extent, but it was nice to see they weren't shoehorned into a story where they obviously would not belong. I consider this the writers' Christmas present to all the fans, frankly.

The mystery story wasn't particularly tricky or inspired, as the "perky suburbanites with a sinister side" beat has been done to death in movies and film, but the actors embodying the roles gave the story the needed spice (particularly Merrilyn Gann, playing beautifully off her reputation as the lovely Rose on Everwood) and the idea of a savage Santa taking advantage of unsuspecting people at Christmastime made the story just relatable enough to make it creepy. I'm never going to look at my fireplace the same way again, that's for sure.

The meat of the episode, though, and what made it so wonderful was what happened when Sam and Dean weren't chasing pagan Gods and getting their fingernails pulled out by pliers. When Dean expresses a desire to have a real Christmas for once, Sam becomes overcome by memories of his past and this means we get FLASHBACKS! My love for flashbacks is well known, and these ones definitely did not disappoint. Winchester Christmases were obviously not a joyous affair due to John "Seriously, What a Bad Father" Winchester, and these flashbacks looked back on an especially upsetting Christmas where Sam learned that monsters were real and John didn't even bother to show up on Christmas day, so poor Dean had to resort to stealing a tree and presents from a nearby family. Too bad that family only had a girl, and when Sam opened his new Barbie Sam learned all too early what all kids realize someday -- that parents are human, and actually sometimes suck. This leads to one of the most heartbreaking, heartwarming, emotionally resonant scenes ever on the show, where Sam gives Dean a present he intended for his father, and we learn it's the amulet Dean has worn around his neck in every episode of the series. The tears that came then (and are embarrassingly coming again now as I write about it) are earned, and wonderful. For those who watch this show in large part for the brother relationship, that scene was like a love letter. And boy, did I love it.

To add to this lovely and surprisingly not mawkish sentimentality, the episode ends to the sounds of Rosemary Clooney's wonderful "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and a scene of true Christmas cheer between Sam and Dean. They give each other presents from the local convenience store (motor oil and a candy bar for Dean, shaving cream and skin mags for Sam) and it couldn't be more perfect. I might just have cried throughout the last five minutes of the show.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

SDD's Top 100 Series of All Time: Places 70-61





70) 30 Rock
NBC, produced 2006-present

What: Perhaps the funniest new comedy in years (at least since the debut of Arrested Development), 30 Rock had a bit of a rocky start, having to extensively reshoot its pilot, then suffering through a handful of rough episodes that didn't quite gel as quickly as the show must have been hoping. Then, inexplicably, the series started to play to its strengths and simply took off, having barely a dull episode since that point in time. Low-rated and zany, 30 Rock seems more and more the spiritual heir of Arrested Development with every episode.

Why: In a time when there are fewer and fewer shows that aim for nothing more than comedy at all costs, 30 Rock is the funniest show on the air, blending madcap plotting with one of the best ensemble casts on television (featuring everyone from Alec Baldwin to Judah Friedlander). What makes the show work is that it isn't JUST a show-business satire; in fact, it's barely a show-business satire. What it is is a workplace comedy, set in what must be the goofiest workplace in the history of the world. 30 Rock takes old storylines and wrings new relevance out of them by giving them a fresh coat of political paint and tossing them to its expansive ensemble cast of recurring players. 30 Rock, more than anything else, is about how we've all been living with a conflict between people who want to change the world and the corporations that employ them since the 1980s. Slyly subversive, the show managed to somehow come back better than ever in its strike-shortened second season, adding a hard coat of political satire to its bag of tricks. Despite the low ratings, here's hoping 30 Rock lasts long enough to hit syndication.

Best season: Despite the fact that it has been shortened by the strike, season two is pretty terrific, held back only by a lackluster premiere that gave too much time over to Jerry Seinfeld.

Best episode: "Greenzo" is possibly the best episode of the show, taking equal time to mock well-meaning environmentalists and the corporations that would exploit them.

Did you know?: NBC greenlit the show only when executive producer Lorne Michaels called them angrily about Aaron Sorkin's behind-the-scenes series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Fey's script was rushed into production.

Available on DVD?: Season one is available on DVD. Season two is airing right now.





69) CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
CBS, produced 2000-present

What: A huge surprise hit when it debuted (it had barely been promoted in favor of lead-in The Fugitive, and then it debuted with better ratings than The Fugitive), CSI has become such a huge pop-culture monolith that it essentially recreated an entire network (CBS) in its own image. What most people don't remember is just how fresh and different the show felt on a structural level when it debuted, largely because every other cop show is ripping it off now. But while other cop shows focused more on the personalities in the squad room or quirky detectives, CSI was all about the science, the characters revealed slowly through terse one-liners delivered over rotting corpses. Sure it's gotten long in the tooth, but the original series is still one of the most dependable stops on the television dial -- you always know what you're going to get, and you won't be disappointed.

Why: CSI is another show where escaping the series' influence becomes frankly impossible. I would have probably had the show on the list in a much lower slot (for a few seasons there, this was one of my favorites on the dial) if not for the fact that its stripped-down, back-to-the-basics approach has become TV's crime show default. In many ways, CSI's closest spiritual forebear is probably The X-Files, which also had a case-of-the-week structure and slow-burning character development, but its REAL ancestor seems to be Raymond Chandler short stories. CSI has become a bit hard to take, simply because it seemingly takes place in a universe where dark danger lurks around every corner (on a network where the same is true -- oh WHEN will dark crime procedurals stop being popular?), but in its first few seasons, CSI was dark and glittery, the perfect example of a glitzy TV noir and the absolute perfect series to give light to the darker side of Las Vegas. CSI is another series where the pleasures aren't found in profound ruminations on the human condition but rather in the series being almost exactly what you would expect it to be from week to week. To that end, it's almost impossible to watch with any sort of passion now, but at its start, there was really nothing like it on the air.

Best season: The third season moves with the swagger of a show that KNOWS it's the biggest thing going and knows nothing can stop it. It introduced the idea of serialized arcs to the series and gave virtually every member of the capable cast something to do.

Best episode: "The Execution of Catherine Willows" is a great showcase for Marg Helgenberger and the introduction of a fiendish character who would bedevil the show's detectives in seasons to come -- the Blue Paint Killer.

Did you know?: Developed for ABC, CSI got a pass from that network. It then went to CBS, where Les Moonves also passed on it, unable to figure out what it was all about. The series was off the schedule in favor of a Tony Danza series until Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal, anxious to go to lunch with Moonves, convinced him that CSI, which he liked the promo reel for, should be on the schedule. The rest was history.

Available on DVD?: The first seven seasons are on DVD. Season eight is airing right now.





68) Undeclared
Fox, produced 2001-2002

What: The last of Judd Apatow's critically acclaimed trilogy of one-season wonders, Undeclared is probably the series to best nail down the hazy fun of college life. Low-rated and generally unseen by the larger public (though reportedly quite popular on college campuses), the series, with its loose, improvisational style, was so not what America wanted to see after Sept. 11, so it bounced around Fox's schedule before dying an unceremonious death. The series is probably the best chronicle television ever came up with of how much fun it is to be a nerd who goes off to college to find that there are other people just like you, who want to be your friends. It's not as earthily tragic as Freaks and Geeks, but it doesn't have to be. Apatow called college the "reward for surviving high school," and this series makes that all too apparent.

Why: Undeclared is just really funny. There's an element of a continuing story to it (mostly in how main character Steven Karp slowly realizes that he's no longer just the picked-on nerd at his new school), but the series was mostly an excuse for the talented ensemble and recurring players to goof on what it's like to go to college. College has never been as successful a setting for television shows as high school, largely because the pain of high school is so universal, while the joys of college are very different for everyone who goes there (it also hurts that a network television show can't be honest about the things many college students do in their free time). Undeclared mostly got around that problem by being just so strange and silly; the VERY loose structure of the show really did feel a lot like some of the improvised adventures you might come up with with your college friends. The series brims with the freedom and possibility that come with going to college and finding out who you really are, and it gets a great boost from a perfectly cast Loudon Wainwright III as Steven's emotionally crippled dad.

Best season: There's only the one, but it's a great one.

Best episode: "God Visits" gets great jokes out of college Christian groups AND existentialism and hones in on one of the series' central themes -- when you're in college, you try on as many personas as you can to find the one that works best.

Did you know?: (This is pulled directly from Wikipedia, because it's just so great.) During a question-and-answer session, Judd Apatow stated that if the series had gotten picked up for a second season, there would have been an episode entitled "Eric's Birthday" in which Lizzie and Steven would go to the birthday party mentioned in episode Eric's POV. Linda Cardellini of Freaks and Geeks would have played his new girlfriend. In the episode, Eric would have gotten a cake with a picture of him and his new girlfriend printed on it. Lizzie would have gotten the piece with Eric's new girlfriend's face. At the time Jason Segel was dating Linda Cardellini.

Available on DVD?: The series' full run is available on an excellent DVD set from Shout! Factory (the Criterion of TV on DVD).





67) The Rockford Files
NBC, produced 1974-1980

What: In the 1970s, two detectives emerged as seriocomic foils to the typical macho, always-right detective. One was Columbo, but the other, more successful detective, was Jim Rockford. The series followed a fairly standard "case of the week" format, but within that format, lots of room was made for star James Garner to play around. Garner is one of those people who manages to make any series he touches work one way or another, and The Rockford Files is his finest hour as well. The series doesn't seem so revolutionary now, but it was seen as a new sort of drama at the time, with a new sort of hero. Later, the series would find great success in syndication to local stations, picking up a whole new generation of fans.

Why: Jim Rockford would rather run than fight. He isn't registered to have a gun and keeps the one he has in a cookie jar. His life is far from glamorous, and he lives in a beaten-up trailer down by the Malibu Pier. He rarely collects his fee (which is steep), and he has his share of other vices. On top of all of that, he was in prison for five years, and people from his prison life keep finding him and trying to rope him into their schemes. Many darker and more complex characters have succeeded on television since Jim Rockford, but he was the start of TV's gradual move to the embrace of the antihero. There had certainly been antiheroes before, but Rockford was the first who was so charming that you just HAD to like him, maybe even in spite of yourself. It helped that the series was quite funny when it wanted to be, lampooning other detective shows of the time with the straight-laced Lance White (played by a young Tom Selleck). Rockford also gave a lot of promising young television writers their start, including none other than Sopranos creator David Chase. Things about Rockford feel creaky to modern eyes (especially the action sequences), but the central character and Garner's portrayal of him still feel incredibly fresh. This is one well worth checking out on DVD.

Best season: The series got better after season two, and season four was its best year, when it finally gave up most of its pretenses of being a serious drama and embraced its comedic side wholeheartedly.

Best episode: The introduction of Lance White in "White on White and Nearly Perfect" was hysterically well-done, and Selleck was the perfect foil for the rumpled Garner.

Did you know?: The series was not felled by low ratings or creative disputes; it was felled by James Garner's health, which was poor and forced him to shut down production. He tried to make up his contract to NBC with a new Maverick series, which did not do well.

Available on DVD?:
The first four seasons are available, and the fifth season is scheduled for release in January.





66) Mad Men
AMC, produced 2007-present

What: The current trendy pick for the next great drama series is a show about the lies and deceptions of a group of advertising managers in the early 1960s. Mad Men tells its story through a deliberately slow pace and a filming style that recalls movies and TV shows of the time-period (the camera doesn't move a lot, and the cinematic grammar is very, very simple). The production values are sumptuous, and the cast is phenomenal, especially Jon Hamm as Don Draper, the go-to man for the ad agency, who's hiding a very big secret. Mad Men isn't as perfect as some critics want it to be, but it's a darn good series with every chance of becoming so much more.

Why: Few shows have had as confident a debut season as Mad Men had this summer. Creator and executive producer Matthew Weiner started his story out well with a stellar pilot, then carefully carried us along from strength to strength, highlighting the hypocrisies of both '60s society and the society of our own time. Some of the story points didn't entirely hit their mark, and there was stuff here that didn't quite work as well as the writers must have thought it would, but Mad Men at its best deeply respected its audience and their ability to figure out what was going on without underlining every point. Also, at a structural level, the series is phenomenally inventive. Most shows tell their stories through a simple collection of plot points -- even The Sopranos has a storyline that follows a rough plot in every episode. Mad Men, however, structures each episode as a collection of mini-sequences or mini-stories that have a thematic or character-based link. In this manner, an episode can start out in one place and end up somewhere completely different. The plot's still there, but the series finds a different way of getting at it. In a season one episode, Don and his boss Roger go to Don's home for dinner, where Roger hits on Don's wife. The sequences plays out almost as a tiny short story, but it informs the next one, where Don and Roger try to impress some clients. Don, angry at Roger, but unable to directly retaliate without losing his job, sets up a situation where he is able to indirectly humiliate Roger and show him just how old and washed-up he's becoming. By not feeling that every single story thread has to perfectly lead in to the next one, Mad Men is giving television a feel closer to a film comedy of social mores, like one Billy Wilder might make.

Best season: Season one is some tremendous television, aside from a handful of missteps late in the season.

Best episode: The season finale, "The Wheel," is amazing in the way it ties together everything that has gone before in the season in a quiet and restrained fashion, rather than, say, blowing up the Draper marriage. And Jon Hamm is perfection in a scene where he pitches a bunch of men from Kodak on a slide projector. Watch it now.

Did you know?: Written as a spec pilot in 2000, Mad Men was passed on by every major network, even though David Chase (creator of the Sopranos) talked it up to HBO. AMC picked it up as their first original series since the mid-90s, hoping it would become a flagship program for the series and attract new talent. Needless to say, it worked.

Available on DVD?:
Season one will be out in early 2008.





65) Monday Night Football
ABC/ESPN, produced 1970-2005/2006-present

What: Before Monday Night Football, the NFL was just a mostly regional league, and if you had a team nearby, you followed their exploits. If you didn't, the league didn't mean a whole lot to you. Sure, the championship game was on national television, but the league had yet to attain any of the pageantry associated with it today. In the late 1960s, though, two things happened: The NFL started the Super Bowl, and it signed a contract with ABC to broadcast one game to the whole nation in primetime weekly. The game was supposed to be one of the week's highlights, featuring two powerful teams beating on each other. Similar things had been attempted for baseball, but football's season perfectly corresponded with the fall TV season, and the innovations of MNF made the game more of an entertainment venture than anything else. The Super Bowl and MNF were the beginning of the modern NFL and maybe even modern sports.

Why: Monday Night Football has gotten less relevant as league parity has come to pass in the last ten years (thanks to the salary cap), and it's not even on a broadcast network anymore (with the NFL choosing to move the week's flagship game to Sundays -- a move that has had mixed results for the league), but in its 70s and 80s heyday, the game was THE event of the NFL week. What's more, the show pioneered many advances in sports programming, including packaging the game as an entertainment event (through an opening title sequence, etc.). Perhaps the series' most important innovation, though, was in putting three people in the booth to comment on the game, including a commentator, a play-by-play man and a "color" man, who would say things intended to comment humorously or insightfully on the game. The chemistry between two of the series' three teams (Meredith-Gifford-Cosell and Gifford-Michaels-Dierdorf) has become near legendary, and Howard Cosell managed to become one of the oddest media personalities in the history of American popular culture.

Best season: Not really applicable, but I think the Gifford-Michaels-Dierdorf teaming is a bit underrated.

Best episode: Again, not really applicable.

Did you know?: The two most common Monday Night Football matchups are the Denver Broncos vs. the Oakland Raiders and the Dallas Cowboys vs. the Washington Redskins. Both matchups have been broadcast on the series 14 times.

Available on DVD?: No.





64) The Dick Cavett Show
ABC, produced 1968-1975

What: The name seems like something of a misnomer now. Talk show. Most of these shows have very little to do with anyone besides the host talking. Even the great, acclaimed Oprah's show is mostly a vehicle for her to tell her captive audience all about her assorted obsessions. The great talk shows, though, featured a give and take between the host and his or her guest. The guest was usually a celebrity of some kind on these shows, and said guest usually had something to say. Often, the guest might be a writer or philosopher or even someone like John Lennon, who had ideas about the world and humanity's place in it. Probably the best of these talk shows was the Dick Cavett Show, a free-wheeling hour where Cavett would talk and talk and talk with his guest. While never as successful as the show if often competed against (The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson), The Dick Cavett Show lives on in occasional reruns on cable channels and offers a fascinating time capsule of the decade in which it was filmed.

Why: What makes The Dick Cavett Show work is its affable host. Cavett really was interested in what the people he had on his show had to say, and he was willing to invite people from outside of the usual talk show mainstream on, including various rock acts and faded celebrities. A Cavett conversation was usually wide-ranging, covering everything from the artist's life story to their political philosophies and other beliefs about the world. Vintage Cavett shows have been a draw on various cable channels over the years precisely because of the wide-ranging nature of the conversation, which has not dated as much as the political digs of, say, Carson. Plus, because these people had something to say and Cavett knew how to get those things out of them, it's still interesting to see what people in the '60s were thinking about. We could use a similar show on a major network now.

Best season: Not really applicable, but look for his late-night talk shows, not his morning or primetime shows.

Best episode: Two of his finest conversations, with John Lennon and Yoko Ono and Lucille Ball, are both up in their entirety on YouTube.

Did you know?: Cavett moved to CBS at the end of his ABC run and put on a variety show.

Available on DVD?: A handful of collections of some of his best conversations are on DVD.





63) The Shield
FX, produced 2002-present

What: The first basic cable show to really seize on to all that The Sopranos had opened up as possible for television, The Shield was a raucous show about very bad cops who wanted to protect people but also wanted to take their own share off the top. Anchored by a riveting Michael Chiklis performance, the series took every cop show and action movie ever and made them all grist for its mill. If Andy Sipowicz was willing to do anything to get a perp to talk, Vic Mackey* was REALLY willing to do anything to get them to talk. Never subtle, The Shield was occasionally a bit too over-the-top, but when it was on, it was thrilling, fun, complex TV that asked us just how far we were willing to go to be safe. Vic Mackey would get good results, but did we REALLY want him in our corner?

Why: The Shield is a bruiser of a show, and that occasionally holds it back from being all that it can be, but its performances are so great, and its plotting is completely perfect, for the most part. The Shield probably isn't as complex or thought-out as, say, The Sopranos, but it makes up for that with sheer gusto, simply plunging forward in big, compelling stories that arc across whole seasons or just a handful of episodes. Because it's so adept at building storylines for all of its characters, The Shield never wants for something interesting to cut to, and that means that most of its characters have become incredibly well-developed, especially Dutch, Shane, Claudette and Mackey himself. The series' bigger issues were what kept it compelling; at some point, Mackey was going to have to be taken down, but did we really want that to happen? While some of the attempts to soften the character were a bit hamfisted (I mean, did he REALLY have to have autistic kids?), Chiklis' work was so strong that he made it somehow believable that Mackey kept escaping just by the very skin of his teeth. The show also attracted A-list guest stars, including a memorable turn from Glenn Close, of all people. Creator Shawn Ryan took the cop show and gave it a kick in the ass with a show that never really let-up. That's what it was. Bruising.

Best season: The fifth season, sporting an incredible guest turn from Forest Whitaker, tightened the noose around Mackey's neck and then made it even tighter. Compelling television.

Best episode: "Postpartum," the fifth season finale, is an episode that leaves you gasping and kills off a series regular in probably the most heartbreaking scene the series has filmed.

Did you know?: Shawn Ryan wrote the pilot script on a whim while working on Nash Bridges. His agent sent it around, similarly on a whim, and both were surprised when FX wanted to pick it up. In the process, Ryan almost singlehandedly invented the new way that young writers break into the TV business -- through spec pilots.

Available on DVD?: The first five seasons are available.





62) 24
Fox, produced 2001-present

What: Fox's bold, enthralling and frequently dumb real-time action series traced the ethical dilemmas and cliffhanging action of a group of counter terrorism agents who were willing to do literally anything to save the world. The series plays off of their interpersonal conflicts and relationships, but it mostly just wants to portray an action-packed ride that blows past the suspension of disbelief and heads right toward making the audience giggle in delight at the preposterousness of it all. Filmed beautifully and utilizing split-screens to great ends, 24 makes the most out of its real-time gimmick. It, perhaps, didn't seem as though the series could have made it past its first season, but Jack Bauer and his pals have saved the world six times now, with at least one more time in their future. 24 is one of the most influential shows of the decade.

Why: Here's the thing about bad seasons. A bad season doesn't utterly ruin everything that came before unless that bad season plays up flaws that were always present in the series' conception and execution before, making it easier to see the flaws in prior seasons. The sixth season of 24 brought out just how strange, strained and ridiculous the real-time concept could be and just how much the show used its characters as chess pieces, regardless of how much fans of the show loved those characters (brief break for Luke to rhapsodize about Tony and Michelle). It made it harder to go back and watch earlier seasons, simply because it was easier to see those flaws always present in the show's design. So 24, which might have been up in the 40s on an older list, now sits much lower, buoyed by just how many other shows it has influenced. It's a wonder that 24, which is famously made up by the writers as they go along, works at all. Usually, these sorts of serials require intense plotting to make sure that everything makes sense, but the seat-of-the-pants approach of 24 does give it a bit of freedom to ditch storylines that aren't working as quickly as they come up (something that a much more intensely plotted serial like Lost has trouble doing). 24 is still a strikingly gorgeous show, and the performance of Kiefer Sutherland is an iconic one, if not an especially incredible one. And I'll always look back on the show with quite a bit of nostalgia -- I mean, who could forget the time Jack's wife died? Or the time the nerve gas got loose in CTU? Or the time Kim was threatened by a cougar? 24 has never been perfect, but it's always been an entertaining and thrilling show, well-served by its real-time gimmick. Here's hoping it either pulls itself back together or doesn't go on too long.

Best season: Season two took the real-time gimmick of season one and used it to invent the 24 we know -- about a group of agents dedicated to saving the world at any cost, nothing else there to stop them.

Best episode: "Day 1: 11:00 p.m. - 12:00 a.m." is one of the most shocking season finales of all time and one of the first episodes ever to kill off a series regular who didn't want to leave the show. The final shot is harrowing.

Did you know?: The series employs cameramen who are not told where the actors are going to go when. This forces them to scramble to catch the action, often giving the show the appearance of news footage or a documentary.

Available on DVD?: The first five seasons are available. Season six is available later this year.





61) Saturday Night Live
NBC, produced 1975-present

What: Not given much of a chance of success, Saturday Night Live revolutionized what people watched on the weekends. When they were supposed to be out partying, they were staying home to watch the original cast, still one of the most storied casts in the history of television. SNL was a collection of wacky skits, musical performances, political satire and (in the first season and change) Muppets. One of the most successful shows of all time with young audiences, SNL continues to draw an audience, year in and year out, even when it's pretty bad. Uneven by its nature, SNL bounces from good years to terrible years, good skits to terrible skits. Few television shows are on long enough to have eras, but SNL has at least six of them, if not more.

Why: So I don't really like sketch comedy. Just a personal thing, I'm sure, but I don't like how uneven it is by its very nature. And that's why I've never been a huge SNL fan, though I'd wager I've seen most of it, right up until this lame, disappointing set of seasons in these last few years. But there's no denying the show's influence on the popular culture. SNL sketches and quotes and jokes have so permeated the culture, largely driven by baby boomers and Gen-Xers, for whom the show was essential, that to try to rank the show any lower than this would just seem silly. That said, SNL is just too uneven for me, and I think too many of its seasons have been too bad to rank it much higher. The show has launched so many great talents that I don't want to make it sound as if it deserves disparagement (I mean, who doesn't love Bill Murray, Will Ferrell or Tina Fey?), but for all of the show's influence, it's ALWAYS been uneven (check out the season one DVD set if you don't believe me) and it's always been trapped by its format -- switching over to more taped pieces might make the show a hair better, honestly. But that wouldn't be what the show has always been, and I do appreciate that the show is keeping the flame of live television alive, even if the illusion that anything can happen is mostly just that. Saturday Night Live isn't as essential as it once was, but it's too influential to ignore.

Best season: It's hard to pick a season, so I'm going to say that the seasons from the late '80s, for the most part, were the show's most consistent. In those seasons, the writing wasn't quite as sharp as it could be in other eras (especially in those first seasons), but the ratio of funny-to-crappy was much more in favor of funny.

Best episode: My favorite recurring SNL segments are probably Celebrity Jeopardy and TV Funhouse. Sad, I know. Also, sadly, I really like Toonces the Driving Cat.

Did you know?: Salt Lake City NBC affiliate KSL does not show Saturday Night Live.

Available on DVD?: Seasons one and two are on DVD, complete and uncut. The series also boasts a number of "best of" DVDs.

The list so far:
61) Saturday Night Live
62) 24
63) The Shield
64) The Dick Cavett Show
65) Monday Night Football
66) Mad Men
67) The Rockford Files
68) Undeclared
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
76) Frasier
77) The Waltons
78) Friday Night Lights
79) The West Wing
80) M*A*S*H
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
87) Futurama
88) Everwood
89) The Cosby Show
90) Beavis and Butthead
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: Everybody likes "White Christmas," but do you like it IN FRENCH? Find out! If you like it, consider buying the excellent compilation I found it on.

Tomorrow: New-ish shows that could make future versions of this list -- assuming I made future versions of this list, including twee-ness, camp-osity and goofiness.

____________________________________
*--Originally, I said his name was Frank Mackey. I blame the eggnog.

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