ABC, produced 1994-1995
What: After decades and decades of dumb teen shows (and, no, I don't like 90210, so stop asking), My So-Called Life brought the Herskovitz-Zwick school of ultra-realism to the high-school drama. As the two producers' follow-up to thirtysomething, the series had high expectations, and it mostly met them. Created by young writer Winnie Holzman, the series centered on the adventures of the disaffected and mostly off-putting young Angela Chase. Despite her extreme self-involvement (SO realistic), she became a television icon and hero to millions in her generation -- a generation that hadn't had to go to war or suffer through depression or even protest for change, a generation longing for meaning. The series was revolutionary in the way it delved not only into Angela's life but into the lives of both her current friends and former friends, slowly mapping out an entire high school landscape. At the same time, it delved into the lives of Angela's parents, two contented yuppies who found themselves yearning for the kind of youth they saw represented in their own daughter. At its best, MSCL was the shot in the arm the teen drama genre needed, an intimate look at just how much work it is to keep all those roiling hormones down.
Why: In the mid-90s, realistic, serious teen drama was just something you didn't do. Teen shows tended to be aimed at really little kids (the execrable Saved by the Bell) or feature completely unrealistic storylines and problems (the aforementioned 90210). There was the occasional good teen series (like Parker Lewis Can't Lose), but those series tended to take on the tone of the 1980s John Hughes teen comedies, where the teens were hip, cool and had it together. So when the MSCL producers decided to do something that would attempt to accurately capture just what it was like to be a teenager, no one at ABC seemed capable of understanding just what it was they had (and, indeed, they sat on the pilot for a year, trying to figure out what to do with an obviously brilliant piece of television-craft that they had nowhere to put). So the series landed on the schedule unprotected and had famously low ratings (though those same ratings would be good enough to score a top 30 placement in today's landscape). Even though the series scored remarkably well with teens (who usually skew away from ultra-realistic portrayals of their lives), that demographic was not yet valued by advertisers, so when Claire Danes wanted a raise lest she go off to make movies, ABC let her and the show go. More's the pity. My So-Called Life, even at its most mawkish (that CHRISTMAS episode?!), managed to be a delicate tapestry of the "pressures" of suburban teen life and the ways parents try to keep a lifeline to the kids slowly drifting away from them as they realize their own adulthood. At its best, MSCL is something that very few television shows can even hope to be -- utterly gorgeous. What made it work were the terrific scripts by a team of young writers that filtered out through the industry and brought us other great shows, a riveting central performance by the remarkable Claire Danes and a commitment to verisimilitude, rather than over-the-top dramatics. After 13 years, MSCL still feels fresh and relevant, even as its references march out of date. The series helped kick off the teen boom of the late '90s, and it's hard to imagine series like Buffy, Freaks and Geeks, Veronica Mars or Friday Night Lights without it.
Best season: My favorite was the second season I wrote in my head. Barring that, season one is pretty awesome.
Best episode: "Life of Brian" and "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" are both great episodes, but that incredible pilot is one of the greatest first episodes I've ever seen, instantly dropping you into a world that feels like it's both in another galaxy and just around the corner.
Did you know?: The famously long development cycle of the series stemmed from the inability to find anyone to play Angela. There was this one girl, see, but she was only 13. The producers ultimately cast the 13-year-old, hoping she would grow into the part, and the two year gap between pilot and series saw to that.
Available on DVD?: The whole series is available on a terrific set from Shout! Factory that's not even too expensive by their standards.
CBS, produced 1955-1956
What: The original one-season wonder, The Honeymooners was created as a rough spinoff of a recurring sketch on The Jackie Gleason Show. Canceled at the end of its first season because the ratings weren't so hot and the series' star was feeling the pressure of headlining TWO shows (when the heck did he sleep?), The Honeymooners created a whole subset of TV comedy -- the blue-collar sitcom. In the typical blue-collar sitcom, the loving couple at the center squabbles and worries about work and how they'll make enough money to get by (their living situation usually being the opposite of luxuriousness), even as they have to deal with their friends and neighbors. What I've just outlined is essentially the format that The Honeymooners completely invented. Numerous series have stolen bits and pieces from it, but none have quite gotten the whole thing together. The Honeymooners remains one of the cornerstones of television comedy for this very reason -- the stories are small and relatable, and they're acted out by a terrific ensemble. In only 39 episodes, The Honeymooners defined much of what we think of as television comedy.
Why: Despite its frustrating adherence to the standards of sitcom formula and a troubling undercurrent of joke-y misogyny, The Honeymooners endures because it's an almost perfect example of how to do a show about characters who are scraping to get by and make it amusing. In its own way, it was Death of a Salesman for the sitcom genre. The best episodes of The Honeymooners play out almost like little classical tragedies, where you know what's coming from the very set-up, but you're still watching just to see how the characters will react to it. The dialogue in Honeymooners isn't terribly sharp, but the performances by Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph are so good that it doesn't matter, and the episodes are so thrillingly STRUCTURED (each episode consisting of one big, long setup culminating in an often hilarious punchline) that it carries you along through the weak parts. Like all '50s sitcoms, The Honeymooners can feel a little logy to modern audiences, but the series defines itself so perfectly that it's probably the easiest '50s sitcom to watch in the modern day (even easier to watch than I Love Lucy, its most obvious competition for the title of best '50s sitcom, I would wager). Gleason and Carney's partnership is so well-done that it buoys the whole series, and the stripped-down plots are so perfectly constructed that they seem almost as if they were called down from some comedy Olympus.
Best season: There's just the one. I don't count the numerous, often inexplicable, lost episodes that were added to the syndication package and cobbled together from Gleason show sketches.
Best episode: "The $99,000 Answer" satirizes something that seems quaint to modern audiences (the craze over quiz shows) but closes with one of the best punchlines in sitcom history, something that you need the whole episode to get.
Did you know?: Despite a 39-episode run, The Honeymooners was tremendously popular in syndication -- so popular, in fact, that the syndicator was thrilled to hear of the discovery of tons of sketches from the Gleason Show featuring the characters. These were turned into the "lost episodes," which now are mostly UNsyndicated, simply because they don't make a lot of sense when stitched together into episodes.
Available on DVD?: The whole series is available for a very cheap price, but stay away from those Lost Episodes sets. While there's funny stuff in there, they're all sketches and should have been treated as such.
Sci Fi Channel, produced 2004-present
What: In the early 2000s, there was a real backlash within the TV sci-fi writer community against the strictures of Star Trek. The series had been a huge boon for televised science fiction, but it also had a rigid formula that kept characters from being in conflict (because the Federation would NEVER do such a thing) and meant that episodes would always end up having a disconnected feel. The feel of the series, constructed as a hopeful dream during the Cold War, no longer felt current, especially in a world of paranoia and fear. So Farscape sent modern man into the farthest reaches of space. Firefly did a Civil War allegory about haves and have-nots. And Battlestar Galactica, the best of them all, turned an old, laughed-at series about a human-robot war into the most trenchant commentary on American foreign policy post-9/11 on the dial. Developer Ron Moore, reluctantly agreeing to take a look at the original series, would be shocked to find in its story of a human race picking itself up after a tragedy and constantly on the run from a menace they could never fully stop ideas that resonated in a way they couldn't have in the late '70s (with Lorne Greene). Originally ordered as a miniseries, Moore and co-producer David Eick turned the event into a hidden pilot for a series, which followed a year later. Critics and sci-fi fans responded almost instantly to the ideas of the show and its well-executed action sequences, as well as the meticulously plotted overplot. Battlestar Galactica (BSG to its fans) finds in its characters a kind of human frailty rare in sci-fi television, then sees just how hard it is to survive, at war or in peacetime.
Why: I was a skeptic. "You HAVE to watch this new Battlestar Galactica series," said my friend. "It's REALLY good." But what did he know? Battlestar Galactica was that crappy show from the '70s that was basically greenlit as a Star Wars ripoff for television (and had lots of weird Mormon overtones). Imagine my surprise, then, as I ripped through the first-season DVDs after receiving them in a matter of a week. Darkly gorgeous and shot in a crazy, cinema verite style (recalling nothing so much as Overlord set in space oftentimes), BSG has had its eye-rolling moments (there was a stretch there in season three where every episode was a dud), but at its base level, the series is so ambitious and dares so much that it leaves you, slack-jawed in front of the television set. Where Star Trek was always devoted to preserving the status quo, Moore (who, after all, trained on Star Trek series) seems dedicated to messing with his status quo, taking his characters on a long, devastating journey to a sacred homeland (Earth, of course). The series' cast (making good use of film stalwarts Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell) brings a varied collection of flawed characters to vivid life, while the series' directorial style is like nothing else in its genre (and allows the show to get away with larger space battles than almost any other show on a weekly basis). BSG can get a little too pleased with its "ripped from the headlines" immediacy, but when the series is clicking, it blows almost everything else on television away. It's a passionate war show that's as much about the ways we live as the ways we die.
Best season: Much as I love long stretches of season two (with its fantastic opening episodes and Pegasus storyline) and season three (with ITS fantastic opening episodes and closing quartet), season one is the series' most consistent, and it has some of the series finest hours.
Best episode: It gets unfairly vilified in the fan community, but season three's "Unfinished Business" is an elliptical journey through memory and regret, covering events we needed to see and couldn't have guessed at. There's some silly business in it (President Roslin as a cut man? What?), but the overall effect is emotionally overwhelming.
Did you know?: The battle to bring a remake of Battlestar Galactica to television was led by one of its original stars, Richard Hatch, who was then dismayed to find that his beloved series for families would be reimagined as a dark series about men and robots at war. Hatch, however, came to love the new series and now plays an important recurring part.
Available on DVD?: The first two seasons, the miniseries and a made-for-TV movie are all available on DVD. Season three will be released next year.
ABC, produced 1988-1997
What: One of the most underrated sitcoms of all-time, Roseanne was the last, dying gasp of the All in the Family-style sitcom, where a blue-collar family full of frequently abrasive members struggled to make ends meet and found themselves having fights as often as they hugged each other. Toward the end of its run, when it had turned into a pretty awful show, Roseanne felt like a dinosaur in a world of Friends and Seinfeld clones, what with its focus on one nuclear family and their struggles to make life match up to the one they dreamed of. Outside of the central family, though, Roseanne had a fully developed cast of extraneous characters, including extended family members, coworkers and townspeople. The series often felt less like watching television and more like stepping into an alternate world every week at its height. Its portrayal of Roseanne herself as a "domestic goddess" was hugely influential, inventing a kind of television feminism that would scatter out from the show in waves (indeed, two of the writers trained on the program were Joss Whedon and Amy Sherman-Palladino -- who received her Emmy nomination for writing the show). Roseanne's abrasive character extended to the behind-the-scenes environment, where she often clashed with executive producers, who were sent packing more often than not. This gave the series an occasionally disjointed tone, but in its willingness to tackle things like sex and making ends meet, Roseanne was always earthily real in a time when most sitcoms felt sanitized.
Why: Roseanne's greatest strength comes from its honesty. No, families do not always get along as television has taught us. Yes, sometimes, teenage girls need to go on the pill. And no, life is almost never what you dreamt it would be. But when you're with the people you love, does any of that matter? Roseanne's argument was that sometimes, being with those you love was enough, and sometimes those people you loved were deeply frustrating and inconsiderate. The series also got considerable mileage of its star's willingness to portray herself in an unfavorable light, usually letting John Goodman's Dan Conner be the cuddly one who was more outwardly loving. The relationship between the two was an inversion of the usual sitcom format, and the series got so much mileage out of this (and its two stars' performances -- two of the best in sitcom history) that its early years, which were mostly normal family sitcom stuff, were still bracing. But the unique characters extended to the kids, who included Sara Gilbert's Darlene, one of the finer portrayals of a teen girl swimming in cynicism ever put on TV. The series could have gotten by with just its fine cast (which, let's not forget, also included Laurie Metcalf) and its good scripts, but it then went on to try to chronicle the life of blue-collar America in a country where it seemed these sorts of people had been forgotten (especially during the recession of the early '90s). In its look at how hard it can be to hold your life together, Roseanne both broke new ground and made it seem easy.
Best season: Season five was the season when the show best portrayed the Conners at their financial worst, spinning incredibly funny plots out of storylines of destitution and near poverty.
Best episode: "A Stash from the Past" is maybe the only good anti-drug episode in sitcom history, largely because it reminds us that drugs can be a hell of a lot of fun. . .until you have a life to get back to.
Did you know?: Until this year, John Goodman held the record for the most-nominated actor to never win an Emmy, thanks largely to a long string of nominations for his work here that he was never rewarded for.
Available on DVD?: The complete run of the series is available on DVD, but the quality of the transfers varies from set to set.
NBC, produced 1982-1988
What: In the 1980s, MTM productions took the old drama format and threw it out the window, creating two series that blended many serialized stories together and often mixed humor and tragedy liberally. St. Elsewhere was the second of these series, and it's my pick for the best hospital show of all time, a sometimes goofy, sometimes tearful look at a series of days in the life of a downtown, decrepit institution, a hospital that was falling apart and seemed stuck off to the wayside. The most notable invention of the series was that the patients occasionally died. The doctors were all fallible humans, who made mistakes and sometimes found themselves unable to cope with their personal lives, despite their professional successes. The large ensemble cast was peerless (and launched Denzel Washington to stardom), and the series' ratings, while always low, were terrific with young people, meaning it lasted six years off the beaten path (and never winning the drama series Emmy). Elsewhere at its best was marvelous television, taking its medicine seriously but its characters even more seriously. In its blend of comedy and drama, you can see the seeds for many, many workplace dramas to follow.
Why: I'm a huge fan of the '80s workplace drama, in which a large collection of fallible characters confront their own failings and the issues of the day in an environment where those issues walk through the characters' front door. St. Elsewhere was the first series to pick up the torch lit by Hill Street Blues (well, they hailed from the same production company, after all), and it made the concept more blatantly comic than it had been before. The best of Elsewhere had a feeling of history and a culmination of time that gave the series a real weight -- you felt as though these weary doctors really were fighting against the world, especially as their broken-down hospital would seem to turn against them. And the cast was great too, featuring all-time great performances from William Daniels, Ed Flanders, David Morse and many others. Of course, the finale of the show (where the whole thing was revealed to be the dream of an autistic child) set off a mini-trend of its own (the "It was all a dream!" finale) and created an elaborate universe in which seemingly every show that aired ever is the dream of that child. At its heart, though, St. Elsewhere was a look at the heart of Reagan's America, where the forgotten often poured through the doors of the hospital and a group of doctors battling their own demons had to set those things aside just long enough to try to save a few lives.
Best season: The fourth season has many of the series' best episodes, including a two-parter that managed to make the series seem almost mythic.
Best episode: "Time Heals, Parts 1 and 2" works terrifically if you've never seen the show, but it works even better if you've seen every episode. A series of flashbacks to the history of the hospital features a long string of payoffs for fans of the show -- you just know that that insulation has asbestos, that that event will touch off tragedy in a doctor's life. Few series feel like they have a richly developed history. St. Elsewhere pays off on all of the hints dropped in earlier episodes in this duo.
Did you know?: Every episode of St. Elsewhere featured a universal story, a story about one of the characters, a medical story and a humorous story. These stories often had a thematic link, a concept the show's creators would later bring to Northern Exposure, and a concept that would be brought over to the St.-Elsewhere-as-a-sitcom series Scrubs later.
Available on DVD?: The first season is. Buy it so I can get Time Heals on DVD.
ABC/NBC, produced 1979-1983
What: After the end of Mary Tyler Moore, Paramount, known for its dopey comedies like Happy Days and its spinoffs, backed a dump truck of money up to the houses of that series' creators, urging them to come work for the studio and develop a new series. Together, they left the upper-class, feminine world of Mary Tyler Moore behind to create a series they called a "guy show" about a bunch of blue-collar dudes (and one woman) who drove cabs and hung out in the garage that was their center of operations. Though the series was never as successful as Mary Tyler Moore, it was still a great sitcom in its own right, and it had one of the best ensemble casts in the history of the genre (including Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Andy Kaufman and Judd Hirsch). Taxi was wackier than Mary Tyler Moore, and it had a serious surreal streak, but it also had a very dark, sad side to it, as it was about a bunch of people who had big dreams and were only driving taxi cabs until they could achieve those dreams. Only Alex, the central character, had no goals beyond driving a taxi, and that somehow made him just as sad and bleak as the others. Taxi can get a little depressing for some, but it balances all of that out with some terrific laughs. It's become a little underrated, thanks to being out of syndication in most markets for so long. Check it out on DVD.
Why: Taxi could have had terrible scripts and a bad concept with that cast, which is just terrific and without a weak link after the first season (when the show ditched the derivative and uninteresting Randall Carver). Even Tony Danza works here, as he's essentially playing a dumb galoot. Unlike most other workplace sitcoms of the time, the workplace cast of Taxi is expansive and full of goofballs, a trend that would be copied by most of the great workplace sitcoms of the '80s. If the workplace sitcom is about how Americans tend to make the people they work with into their real families, Taxi is about just how dysfunctional that family can become (from the bizarre immigrant who pops in every so often to the angry little uncle who lords over everyone). While the best thing about Taxi is its ensemble, the scripts are very good too. The series quickly found that it could do broader, more physical stuff than Mary Tyler Moore, making this probably the slapstickiest sitcom from the MTM family. Since the series theme was that of scattered dreams, it also felt free to do things that deliberately broke with its format, such as an episode where everyone revealed their secret fantasy or an episode where everyone revealed what they would do with $1 million. Taxi's vision of New York as kind of a hellhole is dated, but its idea of that city being a place where millions of people come to chase possibly fruitless dreams hasn't. I don't know that there's been a grimmer popular sitcom than Taxi, and when you break it all apart, it's amazing that it works as well as it does or that anyone watched it at all.
Best season: Seasons two through four are the best, and season three is the most consistent. At this point, the Charles brothers (who went on to create Cheers) were doing a lot of the writing for the show, and their bleak view of the world fit perfectly with the series.
Best episode: "Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey" famously features the longest laugh in sitcom history. I'll leave you to figure out what it is, but it's pretty instantly recognizable if you haven't seen it already.
Did you know?: Danny De Vito hosted Saturday Night Live shortly after Taxi was canceled for the first time. The cast, glum about the surprise cancellation (Taxi's ratings had only crashed that season), showed up to get a sense of closure, giving their final bows on the program -- only to find that their appearance prompted NBC to pick up the show for a surprise fifth season.
Available on DVD?: The first three seasons are. There are no plans to release the other two.
Fox, produced 2003-2006
What: Fox's strange satire of the lives of the idle rich and the ways in which they attempt to amuse themselves is one of the definitive cult series of our time, virtually unknown to almost everybody and holy scripture to those who DO know it. Without it, terms like "nevernude," "analrapist" or "Steve Holt!" wouldn't be out there in the culture, but, then again, they really sort of AREN'T out there in the culture. Arrested Development's complex, textured style of comedy seems like it was readymade for an age of TV on DVD and DVRs. At the beginning, Arrested was just a very, very dense comedy, though not necessarily something that you couldn't follow. By the end of its run, though, you had to know all about the show's situation with its network and the gossip about its stars to get the jokes. Plus, you had to have seen EVERY SINGLE OTHER EPISODE for the jokes to pay off. Whether this was offputting or rewarding depended on your resolve, but it made for terrific entertainment for its fans while it was on. In a way, it's good that the show was canceled. Eventually, its insular world would have felt TOO much like an inside joke between the show's writers and its fans, and everyone but the most ardent cult member would have bailed. Instead, the series lives on as a nearly perfect three seasons of goofy television.
Why: In recent years, Arrested Development has become a LITTLE overrated because every one of its fans posts all over the Internet (well, the nature of the show meant this would be so), but there's no denying just how funny the show was and just how well it used its terrific cast. Created by Mitchell Hurwitz to avoid most of the usual sitcom tropes, the series was ostensibly a freewheeling documentary about a family of rich people who hadn't worked a day in their lives and were suddenly forced to. The surreal humor of the show blended with the intricate plotting and made for a show that seemed odd at first but quickly turned into an obsession with repeated viewing. Since I'm fairly certain I'll be pilliored for not having this in the top 20, I'll say that I think it definitely IS the best of the single-camera shows, but I'm still uncertain of its place in history. Toward the end, I was worried that the show was actively disinviting people who hadn't seen every episode of the show up until that point. Obviously, a show like The Wire does the same, but it doesn't seem intentional, and it's a part of the series design. In its third season, Arrested was basically a long pile of inside jokes, and I naturally bristle at something like that (once a cult show becomes aware of its cult, this is often the case). Still, the cast was terrific, and the scripts were among the strongest in sitcom history. And the series' cutaways were always consistently hilarious, every one of them a perfect little sketch of some other sitcom that threatened to wander off on some new tangent of hilarity. See, Family Guy? That's how you do it.
Best season: Most fans pick season two, but I think that season one is basically unbeatable, largely because it's the most accessible and because it's fun to watch the show's writers gradually figure out just what they can and can't get away with.
Best episode: "Pier Pressure," which was the result of a note from Fox about how the family should learn some lessons, is one of the funniest things I've ever seen. Hot Cops? "I was going to smoke the marijuana like a cigarette"? "And that's why you always leave a note"? Genius.
Did you know?: Series producer Ron Howard modeled the production of the series after the way most sitcoms, including Andy Griffith, were shot, not after the single-camera setup common to Malcolm in the Middle or Scrubs. This led to greater elasticity on set.
Available on DVD?: The whole run is.
CBS, produced 1956-1961
What: Most of the great dramatic and "playhouse" anthologies of the '50s are lost, thanks to their being taped on kinescope (the original broadcast of 12 Angry Men from Studio One was found in 2003, but discoveries like this are exceedingly rare), but a surprising amount of Playhouse 90, widely acclaimed as the greatest of them at the time (and I can understand why, given the talent at the time), survives, even on YouTube. I haven't seen all of Playhouse 90 (I couldn't have, since much of it was destroyed), but I've seen quite a bit, especially the series' seminal episodes (many of which inspired big films -- like Judgment at Nuremberg and The Miracle Worker). A deeply ambitious program, Playhouse 90 used its weekly hour-and-a-half timeslot to offer adaptations of Broadway works and original scripts that were like tiny little films for the small screen. Featuring lots of work by people like Rod Serling, Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer and Jack Palance, Playhouse 90 is essentially what people are talking about when they talk about the "Golden Age of Television."
Why: Like Your Show of Shows, I'm placing this here because I have enjoyed what I've seen of it and the people behind the series were so talented that I have to assume they got most of the other episodes right. The dramatic anthology, a basic genre of television for its first 20 years or so, has largely disappeared in recent years, which is unfortunate, as the original anthologies were a terrific way for Americans to be exposed to some of the best playwrights in the world (imagine what our current great playwrights could do with a format like this!). Playhouse 90 tackled subjects that television didn't want to look at in its early days, and it was willing to leap across genres and television types to do so. What's even more remarkable is that for the first bit of its run, the show was completely live -- including most of the series' most acclaimed episodes. While many of these live episodes are gone forever, the very chutzpah of doing this sort of thing week after week is admirable. And the series' second episode is still one of the most famous episodes of dramatic television ever broadcast, winning its scripter Rod Serling a Peabody (look below to find out what it was). Playhouse 90's greatest benefit, though, is giving us a sense of nostalgia for a kind of television that's long gone.
Best season: Not enough of the series' first few seasons remains for us to be able to make a good determination on this. But season one seems like a good bet, as that's when Serling was most active.
Best episode: "Requiem for a Heavyweight" was the series' second episode, and its tale of a beaten down boxer, taking aim at one last fight for glory, even though it could kill him, is famous, even to this day. A feature film was made from the script, but if you can track down the original television episode (on a hard-to-find VHS), it's well worth your time.
Did you know?: In addition to Frankenheimer and Lumet, directors George Roy Hill and Delbert Mann started out on Playhouse 90. Other films that had their start on the program included The Days of Wine and Roses and The Helen Morgan Story. One episode, The Time of Your Life, was actually adapted from a film.
Available on DVD?: A handful of episodes are available on DVD and VHS. Sadly, complete season sets would be impossible.
NBC, produced 1995-1999
What: Perhaps the most perfectly constructed sitcom in television's history is also the medium's most underrated, a perfect combination of screwball comedy, workplace satire and slapstick. Precisely pitched with characters specifically designed so that every single relationship on the show would be interesting in a different way (and there were nine characters, so that was harder than it sounds), Newsradio is so exacting in its creation that it leaves some viewers, looking for the "heart" of other sitcoms, cold. And that's probably why the series remained obscure during its run on NBC and only a cult hit (though it had the love of critics). Despite its hilarious scripts and its perfect ensemble cast, the show always wanted to make you laugh more than it wanted you to get invested in the soap-y stuff it halfheartedly tried at the advice of NBC. For my money, there were better sitcoms than Newsradio, but there were no sitcoms that could match its clockwork-like construction.
Why: Creator Paul Simms, originally of The Larry Sanders Show, created Newsradio to be an homage to the screwball movies of Howard Hawks (with a fair dosage of Sturges and Lubitsch wrapped in). In the process, he created perhaps the ultimate workplace sitcom -- less about doing actual work and more about the ways you goof off to put one over on the boss and the ways the boss tries to deal with the same. Take a look at how perfectly constructed Newsradio is from a comic point-of-view. Dave, the main character, is the focal point of everyone in the office, driving most of the stories with his attempts to get the office more fully under his command. Lisa, his foil and lover, is the intelligent cynic, there to constantly undercut Dave with a word or a quip. Bill, the series' most-obviously comic character, is there simply to go against whatever Dave wants and come at it from a logical point of view. Jimmy James was the power over Dave, subjecting him to his every whim. And so on and so on and so on (I can literally do this for every character). In many ways, this is why Phil Hartman's death so completely wounded the series when other sitcoms could have gotten by without him -- his character played such a specific role in the series' construction that when the cast lost him, it lost a vital part of the comedic clockwork that made the show work. There are whole Web sites devoted to dissecting the perfect construction of Newsradio (here's one!), but the best way to get a sense of just how good TV's most underrated sitcom is is to pick up a DVD set and work your way through it. In so many ways, it's the dying gasp of the MTM-style sitcom, and it's one of the best.
Best season: Season one's all right, and season two is when the show starts to get its footing, but seasons three and four are the series' finest hours. I'll pick season three, when it still maintained a semblance of being tied to reality.
Best episode: "Super Karate Monkey Death Car" is the finest hour for my favorite character (Jimmy James) and features one of the best and funniest scenes in TV history, excerpted above. (To know what's going on, you have to know that Jimmy James' book, a bust in the U.S., was a huge hit in Japan, so it was translated from Japanese back into English.)
Did you know?: The series was actually canceled after its fourth season, but it was then picked up the next day for a fifth season after NBC got a cut of the syndication profits. Phil Hartman died a few weeks later.
Available on DVD?: The entire series is available on DVD.
Which means The Original Series, The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine
TOS: NBC, produced 1966-1969; TNG: syndicated, 1987-1994; DS9: syndicated, 1993-1999
What: The most enduring science fiction franchise in American history, Star Trek had its humble beginnings as "Wagon Train in space." After three seasons of low ratings, mostly from a cult fan base, the series was canceled and that was supposed to be the end of that. Instead, the fans slowly watched as their numbers swelled, thanks to syndicated reruns, resulting in an animated series, then a series of films, then a number of spinoffs, including Star Trek: The Next Generation, perhaps the most successful science fiction series of its time (if not all time). In the 1990s, the franchise grew a bit long-in-the-tooth, as its ideals of humans reaching a point where they never came into conflict meant that the shows kept doing the same stories over and over (despite the admirable attempt at serialized storytelling from Deep Space Nine). But Star Trek is so enduring because of its genuinely '60s ethos (the visuals in those episodes from the original series can be downright trippy) and the way it makes its fans feel like they're about to blast off into untold adventures. The best Treks -- TOS' The City on the Edge of Forever, TNG's Best of Both Worlds and DS9's The Visitor -- are little science fiction masterworks, offering worlds beyond our wildest dreams.
Why: While I think Star Trek has been surpassed by many of the series it inspired (whether through attempts to copy it or go against it), the first three live-action series are still incredibly entertaining television, and there's no denying the effect the franchise as a whole has had on the medium of television. As someone who grew up watching The Next Generation, I'm still impressed by the open-ended ability of the franchise to suggest a whole universe full of adventure and danger and thrills. And even now, looking back on the Original Series (which isn't as hokey as you think it is), it's remarkable how daring it was for its time, for just how much it dared to tell allegories about the injustices of modern American society. The show had a Russian, a black woman and an Asian man onboard the ship. Since there was a guy with pointy ears there, everyone could just say it was all fiction, but the integrated world of Star Trek (which comes closer and closer to reality, even as it seems to get farther and farther away) was pretty impressive in 1966 (just ask my mom). While the original is one of the five most influential shows in television history, Next Generation took that formula and finally turned it into truly enthralling television (after a few seasons to get its act together). The best of Next Generation stands right up there with almost any science fiction series ever. Finally, Deep Space Nine pushed the Star Trek format as far as it could without irreparably harming it, culminating in a series of seasons that unfolded in long arcs that seemed to presage some of the storytelling that would be done on science fiction series in the 90s (even if this happened in response to the popularity of The X-Files). While the other three Star Trek series are not as good, these three are enjoyable television and even more impressive when considered in the spectrum of just all they promised.
Best season: The original Star Trek's best season was its second, which packs in most of the most classic episodes (minus City). TNG's best season was its fourth, which dealt well with the aftermath of Picard's time as a Borg. DS9's fifth season saw the beginning of its story arcs in earnest.
Best episode: I'm still partial to the time-twistingly great "City on the Edge of Forever." Plus, Joan Collins!
Did you know?: A new series featuring the original cast, Star Trek: Phase II, was to be broadcast on a Paramount network in the late '70s, but the network decided to make a movie instead, deciding that a television network was an uncertain investment. The eventual Paramount network, UPN, would launch with Star Trek: Voyager as its flagship show.
Available on DVD?: Everything Star Trek is on DVD in many, many permutations.
The list so far:
21) Star Trek (the good ones)
23) Playhouse 90
24) Arrested Development
26) St Elsewhere
28) Battlestar Galactica
29) The Honeymooners
30) My So-Called Life
31) Northern Exposure
32) Late Night with David Letterman
33) Barney Miller
37) The Wonder Years
38) South Park
39) Gilmore Girls
40) The Muppet Show
42) Rocky and Bullwinkle
43) Your Show of Shows
44) 60 Minutes
45) The Andy Griffith Show
46) The Daily Show/The Colbert Report
47) Michael Mann's crime trilogy
48) Mystery Science Theater 3000
49) Buffalo Bill
50) The Ed Sullivan Show
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: It's almost here, kids! In the 1950s, a company called Line Material put out a yearly Christmas album as a promotional item. These have become highly prized in the world of Christmas collectors for their stellar arrangements and the sheer weirdness of some of the albums. Here's "The Story of Santa" to give you a taste of the Line Material brand.
Tomorrow: Overrated series, which will be sure to anger most of you. I'll try and do my catch up tomorrow, but no guarantees.