Welcome back to TV Month 2016, and the conclusion to our week-long countdown of the 100 Greatest TV Shows of the Last 35 Years. We’ve reached the Top 10.
10. Arrested Development
Few comedies have ever come close to matching the pacing, depth, acting, characters, writing, spectrum, pop culture knowledge, satire and self-parody displayed in just one episode of Arrested Development. I feel very fortunate that I lived in a moment of TV history where a show like this existed, if only for three* short seasons. It was that good.
The jokes were everywhere. The wordplay and puns were Shakespearean in their execution. Taboos were destroyed. The very network that took a chance and just as quickly left them for dead was mocked mercilessly. Guest stars trusted the material enough to play so far outside of their ranges that their careers could have been ruined had it been anything less than perfect.
And that’s what Arrested Development was. 100% perfect, from start to finish.
(*Season 4 never happened.)
9. 30 Rock
Each of 30 Rock‘s first three seasons won the Emmy Award for Best Comedy Series. This is what’s known as ‘Batting a thousand,’ and apart from Frasier, I honestly don’t know of any other comedy that has ever accomplished something like that.
Drawing influences from every nook and cranny of the TV Comedy (and TV History) universe, 30 Rock was one of the smartest, most brilliant, most hilarious, cynical, satirical and unrelentingly perfect shows you’ll ever see on network television. The cast was top-to-bottom airtight, and they even stuck the landing with one of the best series finales ever. Each week, I watched 30 Rock with the same breathless appreciation that I did for Arrested; a silent applause for the genius it takes to write such material on a week-to-week basis.
8. The Wonder Years
I’m big on influences, and to me, there were few programs that had such a positive influence on television (and my writing style) as The Wonder Years. This was the first show that I can remember as a child that had no definable genre. It was set in Vietnam War-era America. It was narrated by an adult version of the main character. It was brilliantly funny. It was heartbreakingly sad. It had moments of true emotion and deep nostalgia. The soundtrack was amazing.
Nowadays, plenty of programs attempt to combine as many genres as possible, but The Wonder Years was one of the first (if not the very first) to do it so perfectly. In a standard sitcom, you knew that the main character’s girlfriend wasn’t going to be killed by the end of the episode. In The Wonder Years, everything was open for interpretation and flux, just like real life.
7. The Walking Dead
The comic was (and still is) a hit, but the concept of a weekly survival horror series, with zombies no less, was never really attempted on TV. If done incorrectly, it would be a laughingstock of a flop, and there are so many ways this could be done incorrectly. Instead, they assembled a Murderer’s Row of actors, directors, producers and special effects wizards, and the result is the most popular (and well done) show on TV today.
What’s more, I think The Walking Dead is getting better with time. Going into Season 7, I think their best work is still ahead of them, which is insanity. The cast is nuts, seriously; they’re so ingrained in their work that this series will be their calling card for the remainder of their careers (see Lost). It’s gut-wrenching, gory, suspenseful, unrelenting and heartfelt. In short, they nailed it.
I wrote this blurb years ago, and it’s still apt today. I’ve written enough about this show already:
“Lost is one of the greatest television dramas of all-time, weaving the very best elements of survivalism, action, horror, mystery, sci-fi, fantasy and surrealism, while opening discussions concerning the topics of fate, religion, free will, conspiracy and karma. The cast is nearly flawless, the storyline is genius personified, the storytelling elements are unlike anything ever put on network TV, and the writing team of Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof have created a world so deep and entertaining, we should be paying them a residual every week to even be allowed to think about this masterpiece. I’m done.”
5. Friday Night Lights
Season One of Friday Night Lights is the greatest season of television I have ever seen. Better than Season One of Lost. Better than Season Four of MST3K. Better than the final season of The Fugitive. I watched it when nobody around me watched it. When everyone was convinced it was a show about nothing more than football. Slowly but surely, my living room started to fill up on Friday nights, as the deepest, most emotional, most beautiful and best written show on TV (at the time) won people over one by one.
…Okay, maybe not Season 4 of The Simpsons, but that shit was essentially royalty. You get the point.
When Friday Night Lights got renewed for a second season, I was a bit shocked. I thought for sure that we’d never see the Taylor family on TV again. But to NBC’s credit, they stuck with them in their ratings slump and promoted the hell out of it. When the Writer’s Strike struck in the middle of Season 2, only 15 of the 22 scheduled episodes aired, which I once again speculated would spell the end of the line. But NBC did what they could to compromise, and Season 3 aired in conjunction with DirecTV’s 101 Network, alleviating some production costs and keeping the show alive.
Now, when Season 3 had ended, I thought that was it (again). I figured NBC was done playing nice with an astounding show that just couldn’t seem to make its point and wrangle in more viewers. Again, not the case, as they did the unbelievable and ordered two more 13 episode seasons, guaranteeing a 4th and 5th Season, and making certain that Friday Night Lights was allowed to tell the story they want to tell. That is amazing.
Look, I’m not even going to get into the dynamics of the show and explain to you why its impact is clear to anyone that watches it (the music of Explosions In The Sky doesn’t hurt, that’s for sure). Just, for God’s sake, watch Season 1 and go from there.
4. Mystery Science Theater 3000
Taken from MST3K Info; a perfect epilogue that I’ve probably read 100 times over the last 8 years:
“So, after nearly 200 bad movies, ten years of production and fifteen years of television audiences joining the crew of the SOL for “movie sign!”, it’s fair to ask what it was that kept this show so beloved.
Joel said something very profound about his show in an interview in 1990: “It’s about liberty, in a small, goofy way,” he said. And that is probably at the heart of it. It appeals to an innate human desire to unabashedly say what you think. And for young kids, that seems to be the principle draw: the whole notion of grown-ups in power being heckled and ridiculed for their obvious inadequacies is irresistible.
But there’s more going on here. More importantly, MST3K is a call to arms in a war most thinking people are waging every day: the battle against the mediocrity that floods our lives. MST3K is an object lesson, a demonstration that we don’t have to–and shouldn’t–passively accept the garbage we are spoon-fed on a daily basis. Indeed, the series places the ‘bots and their human companion on the front lines of that battle. It’s in this way that MST3K rises above mere heckling and becomes a compelling metaphor about fighting the good fight.
But beyond that, there is no mistaking the genius at work here. It shines so clearly that toddlers are instinctively drawn to it and senior citizens smile knowingly — even if neither gets all the jokes. From Joel’s forehead-slappingly simple concept to its loopy-yet-graceful execution, the show has a cool elegance, an endearing off-kilter brilliance. It engenders an astonishing loyalty in its viewers — a loyalty that stems in part from the way it makes its viewers feel like they are “in on” a very special secret. It manages the near-impossible by being one of the most delightfully unpredictable programs on national TV, while also being one of the most reassuringly formulaic. MST3K rewards knowledge and insight, punishes inattention and passivity. But most importantly, it always has been — and always will be — really, genuinely funny.
In the theater, the give-and-take rhythm between movie and commentary can be, at its best, dazzling and exhilarating; while the host segments often build to the kind of antic cartoon chaos that is a tonic for anyone who feels trapped in a dreary, workaday world. The overall result is an entertainment experience that leaves its viewer a little happier than when he or she found it.
On January 31, 2004, fifteen years of Mystery Science Theater 3000 came to an end on broadcast television. But the show lives on in the hearts and minds of fans all over the world who continue to live by those four magical little words: “Keep circulating the tapes.”
MST3K didn’t run forever. But it will never leave us.”
TV Guide states that Seinfeld is the greatest sitcom of all-time. Of course, the nation was in the grips of Seinfeld-Mania at that particular point in time, so I have to believe that the list might be slightly altered should it run again in 2016. A quick scan of my high school yearbook even unearths tons of Seinfeld quotes and musings scribbled into margins and back pages by friends and teachers. Truly, Seinfeld was a defining moment in time, not just for television, but for comedy and culture in general.
Within the confines of a ‘traditional’ sitcom, they broke taboos, seamlessly intertwined genius with wackiness and practically begged you to realize that the four main characters were some of the most selfish, shallow and self-centered characters ever created. We saw ourselves in those characters (I used to be mostly George, but I’m mostly Jerry now), and it allowed us to root for them, even as they ruined lives, obsessed over the trivial and broke up with people on a weekly basis for the most superficial of reasons.
There are only two shows I still watch in syndication: The Simpsons and Seinfeld. I am constantly blown away by how much it holds up and is still so contemporary, even though it was created before cell phones and the Internet. How can a show about social foibles and the mundane frustration of daily life still seem so fresh? How can their slang and vocabulary still be a part of our cultural lexicon even 25 years later?
That’s the definition of ‘timeless,’ I guess.
2. Breaking Bad
September 15, 2013. Season 5, Episode 14. ‘Ozymandias.’
Something happened to me while I was watching this particular episode. By this point, I was like everyone else- Totally and completely enraptured with the story of Walter White and his transformation to full-on meth kingpin. The way it unfolded over the course of five seasons was transcendent, and we were now deep into the horrific unraveling that would careen us into the Series Finale. Each episode got progressively better, building off of the story told a week prior, crescendoing into a symphony of violence, tension and brilliant, brilliant acting.
In the second half of ‘Ozymandias,’ there’s a scene where Walt and Skyler get into a physical altercation at their home. The scene is outstanding on its own, but the weight of the scene, knowing how far we’ve come with this family, was almost too much to bear. This was when I realized, for sure, that I was watching the greatest single episode of Television I have ever seen. I’m not alone in this thought. I almost couldn’t believe what I was seeing. When it was over, I only then realized that I had been shaking and sweating for the last 20 minutes of it.
Two years ago, we had a tournament here on the CDP to determine the greatest TV show of the last 25 years, and Breaking Bad beat out 127 other shows in a worldwide vote over the course of nearly two months. I didn’t have a problem with it then, and I don’t now. Breaking Bad is a triumph of TV Drama, now and forever.
1. The Simpsons
The Simpsons is, quite simply, the greatest Television show ever made. From The AV Club:
“Here’s a no-brainer: The Simpsons is the best animated series of all-time, and Television’s crowning achievement regardless of format. Some may try to peel the rose-colored filter from the show’s classic era, others bemoan the creative direction of the past dozen or so seasons—but the fact that it’s survived long enough to even have 12 “bad” seasons is an achievement in and of itself. (And let’s be honest: Anything is going to look bad in comparison to the unprecedented eight-year run of near perfection that The Simpsons pulled off between 1989 and 1997.)
The Simpsons redefined the American sitcom, made primetime safe for animation again (effectively making every animated show from then on possible), and (for better or for worse) influenced the way people in the real world speak. The show even captured a culture so effectively that it built its own living, breathing universe that’s currently nattering away in millions of smartphones—this is no “meh” achievement. The Simpsons is cromulent, plain and simple, and we are all embiggened for having it in our lives.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
NEXT WEEK: THE NUCLEAR NIELSEN FAMILY II.