6/12/2009

12 Favorite Television Shows



I'm not a huge student of television - just a regular kid growing up in the 60s/70s/80s, the time period when television expanded from 3 fuzzy channels to 1000+ channels so crisp you could sharpen a ginsu knife with the resolution.  As a result, not a lot of internal debate was required to compose this list.  I imagine my picks aren't be too dissimilar from the choices of critics who actually know what they're talking about (which came first: critics or public opinion?), with two notable exceptions:

(1) Unlike critics, I'm allowed to omit shows that may have been brilliant and ground-breaking but that I personally didn't care for - so long, All in the Family, Seinfeld, and The Mary Tyler Moore show!  (All of the share the same fatal flaw: too whiny.)

(2) Also unlike critics, I'm allowed to include shows that are widely acknowledged as cheesy/unoriginal/awful, but that I thoroughly enjoyed anway.  See, isn't my way more fun?

Feel free to suggest shows that I've omitted but that would have made your list.
  1. West Wing. The show had everything: brilliant writing, superb acting, and often-gorgeous cinematography, overlaid over the inherent tension generated by setting the show in a melieu in which people are forced to make decisions that impact millions.  Though the show had a definite liberal bias, it never shied away from moral, ethical, or political complexity.  And somehow it managed to do all this without losing its sense of humor.  Once Aaron Sorkin left the writing staff the quality of the scripts somewhat declined, but a bad episode of West Wing is still far superior to a great season of most other shows.
  2. Meet the Press.   For those who preferred the non-fiction version of West Wing, there was Meet the Press.  Loved the show's format and ability to explore issues in-depth, from a variety of different perspectives - back when that meant inviting guests that represented a genuine spectrum of political views, not just radicals from the left or right.  I never watched the show without feeling simultaneously smarter and dumber than I had been an hour before.
  3. M*A*S*H.  Come to think of it, I liked M*A*S*H for many of the same reasons I liked West Wing.  It was topical, edgy, tense, and yet always funny.  You laughed because otherwise you'd have to cry. The stuff of great drama.  
  4. Star  Trek.  It was cheesy.  It was melodramatic.  It was poorly acted.  And yet, it still managed to explore universal themes that no other TV program was addressing.  Star Trek made me ask myself questions I otherwise wouldn't have considered, such as 'Is it ethical to interfere with another race, even if  your motives are noble?', 'Is there any way to safely travel back through time without jeopardizing the future?' and 'Will life on other planets look like humans with prosthetic ears - or does the universe have a bigger budget for special effecits?'  I still think of the show everytime someone opens a flipphone, makes a note on their ipad, or doors whooosh open at my approach.  Still waiting for someone to invent the transporter: it can't be long now, can it?
  5. Mission Impossible. You knew that every show would have the following: a basic caper/heist plot, things that weren't what they seemed to be, a moment when you thought everything was going to blow up in the team's face, and a happy ending that featured the members of the MI team converging on a car/boat/plane for their successful escape.  And yet you still watched it, because what the writers/actors did, they did well: kept you thinking and entertained for an entire hour. Also, the show had the best television theme song ever.
  6. Law & Order.  So many cop shows to choose from!  From Dragnet and Adam-12 to more recent additions to the canon like Cold Case and New Amsterdam.  What sets Law & Order apart is the "order" part: the way the show forces its audience to understand the interrelationship between crime solving and prosecution ... and the compromises that both sides are all too often forced to make in order to keep the system notionally functional.  Though the cast has changed over the years, the acting has generally been quite good, and the writers of the show continue to produce scripts "ripped from the headlines" that defy pat, sitcomly solutions. 
  7. Hill Street Blues. If I had to pick a single favorite cop show, however, this is the one I'd pick.  Sure, I enjoyed Magnum and Miami Vice, Rockford and Kojak, Starsky & Hutch, Hawaii 5-0, Dragnet, and NYPD Blue - but in my mind Hill Street Blues stands apart as the first show that slapped me in the face with the reality and complexity of what it really means to be a law enforcement agent: the violence, the damaged lives, the moral ambiguity, the ethical compromises.  The show was raw and rivetting, and spawned a host of followers (Homocide, In the Heat of the Night, NYPD Blues, The Shield, The Wire) that probably show up on other lists - but I'm giving the nod to the one that initially inspired them.
  8. The Simpsons.  And now for something completely different ...!  Simply put, no show produces laughs as consistently as this animated series, and what makes it better is that the laughs are usually at our expense.  The show has an equal-opportunity approach to satire, sparing neither easy marks (sci-fi fans, fast food, disco) nor issues of political/social sensitivity (immigration, racism, global warming).  My personal favorites are the episodes featuring Sideshow Bob, but asking someone to name their favorite episode of The Simpsons is like asking them to name their favorite flavor of ice cream - they're all good.
  9. The Wonder Years.  Of all the family-based shows (Cosby Show, Brady Bunch, Andy Griffith Show, Full House, etc.) this was my favorites because it felt both nostalgic and real at the same time. The plots were seldom exceptionally memorable - but then, it's not exceptional moments that make childhood memorable: it's the sum total of all the summer days, first loves, dogs, bicycles, snowstorms, favorite teachers, broken bones, best friends and life lessons that one accumulates during those first 12 years that forms the memory you carry with you for the rest of your life, a concept that this show seemed to get.  The acting was lovely, the scripts sweet, and I admit I cried at the last episode when the first person narrator wraps up the show with the following words: Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you're in diapers, the next day you're gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. I remember a place, a town, a house, like a lot of houses. A yard like a lot of other yards. On a street like a lot of other streets. And the thing is, after all these years, I still look back...with wonder.
  10. The Daily Show.  Lots of shows have done political comedy well (Saturday Night Live, Smothers Brothers, Laugh-In, etc.) but Jon Stewart (a graduate of my alma mater, the College of William & Mary, by the way) took the genre to a whole new level, for which I am eternally grateful.  The successful operation of our democracy is predicated on the existence of a free Press acting as a fourth check and balance: as newspapers downsize and evening news programs increasingly devote their air time to traffic, weather, and stories that tie-in with whatever new show their network is about to launch, thank goodness we have shows like The Daily Show (and the ever-improving Colbert Report) to remind us of the sometimes merely laughable, often much more serious activities of our politicians and leaders. 
  11. The Twilight Zone.  Before there were X-Files, Twilight Zone challenged viewers to disbelieve the obvious, consider the improbable, and accept the impossible.  Some episodes were chilling, some were thought-provoking, some moralizing, some just plain weird - but they all made you think.
  12. Picket Fences.  I gather most critics default to Twin Peaks when choosing an edgy, weird, noiry drama series for their lists.  Unfortunately, I somehow missed Twin Peaks (am only now catching up thanks to Netflix) - but thoroughly enjoyed Picket Fences, which was cut from the same mold.  The town of Rome seems like any other small town ... until the mayor dies of spontaneous combustion, a cow gives birth to a human child, and the sheriff's son develops stigmata.  You had to watch every week just to see what wild new subplot the writers would come up with next.
Other shows that I've enjoyed but that don't quite make the list: Murphy Brown (Mary Tyler Moore Show with less whining), Northern Exposure, ER, Frasier, Scrubs, Friends, The Carol Burnett Show, Cheers, My Name is Earl (The Simpsons without animation),  Jeopardy, Saturday Night Live, Malcolm in the Middle, Spin City, Wild Kingdom, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, Scooby Doo, and Pinky and the Brain.

As you may have figured out by now, I've never gone for subscription services like HBO, so I'm not intentionally dissing The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Mad Men or Carnivale - just haven't had a chance to watch them.  I am, however, intentionally dissing American Idol, the Oprah Winfrey Show, 24, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  (Oh, and I can't comment on Lost because I had a class that night and so never became a regular viewer.)

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