So, I’m sitting at lunch, enjoying a sushi burrito, with two actor friends. And we get to talking about what we’ve seen and what we’ve enjoyed, and Parks and Rec came up, and one of us said, ‘hey, what would you say were the Ten greatest television shows of all time?’
Coming up with lists like that are fun precisely because they’re nonsensical, and therefore lead to absurd arguments and preposterous controversies, all the more vehemently disputed precisely because of the extreme subjectivity of any and all artistic tastes. I’m putting my apples against your oranges, and against Barry’s bananas, with all of us sure that Alice, if she’d been there, would tossed in the trashheap. Besides the greatest television show I ever saw in my life was Game Seven of the 2014 World Series, which those other two bozos didn’t even watch. (Losers). Still, we came up with a list. Join the free-for-all, mock our choices. Just be prepared for us to mock back.
First, we had to make some rules. We’re only talking scripted feature television; shows that tell a sustained story. That lets out Sixty Minutes, excludes Johnny Carson, leaves out Letterman, bids Jon Stewart sayonara, counted out Colbert and omits Sid Caesar and That Show of Shows. No variety, no news, no fake news.
With considerable reluctance, we also decided to keep it to American shows only. Our game, our rules, though it meant leaving out Ab Fab and Fawlty Towers and Monty Python, and the British Office, which also led to the exclusion of the American Office, because the British one is better.
But we did decide to include both comedies and dramas, in part because we know, as professionals in the field, how hard funny can be, and also in part because that’s how people watch TV. We just watch. Nobody says ‘I can’t see Walking Dead; I only like sit-coms.’ Or, rather, you could say that, but you’d be wrong. Ecclesiastes-via-The Byrds: ‘to everything, there is a season and a time.’ We decided that applies to TV as well as life.
So here’s what we came up. And understand, we did not work historically or anything like that. We mixed-and-matched; modern shows and older ones thrown willy-nilly together, with no rhyme or reason to our choices.
Top Ten Television shows of all time, in no particular order:
Mad Men. Critical darling, plus it starred a friend of ours. We love its bitter condemnation of the past, and the open sexism and racism of a period historically within my lifetime. Plus, for an essentially realist period piece, it kept tossing in these astonishing moments of surrealism; a guy losing his leg to a riding lawnmower in the office, dead men dancing, Don Draper’s long affair with women who may or may not have actually existed.
I Love Lucy. It changed everything. It changed the way television was shot and transmitted. It was the first great star vehicle. Plus, we love this irony. Every episode of the show had the same plot; Lucy wants to do something, Ricky tells her she can’t do it. She does it anyway, and makes a frightful (but hilarious) hash of it. Ricky condescendingly forgives her. The message: those silly dames, thinking they can actually do things, even compete with men. But the show deconstructed itself at every turn. In fact, the show was a vehicle for Lucille Ball. It was about her comic genius. She made all the business decisions too. It was a show about a brilliant woman, playing a goofball brilliantly.
M.A.S.H. It lasted a good deal longer than the actual Korean War lasted, and it surely got gooey and preachy at times. But it was still an astonishing show, a dark comedy about America’s nightmare adventure in
Vietnam Korea. And because it was about war, characters died, people we cared about. And every time an old character left the show, the character that replaced them was even better.
The West Wing. I know, it exhibited every Aaron Sorkin fault and flaw; his preachiness, his obsession with failed romances, its knee-jerk liberalism. And to some extent, it’s true; during the Bush years, The West Wing created, in Bartlett, the President we wished we had, as opposed to the actual President we were stuck with. But the characterizations were rich, the writing powerful, and the actors were up to the challenge.
Breaking Bad. Such an extraordinary depiction of a man gradually, day after day, choice after choice, descending into criminality, murder, and evil. With Aaron Paul’s and Bryan Cranston’s superb performances, we had two of the most compelling characters in the history of television, with Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. And the amazing Anna Gunn, as Walter’s wife, Skyler.
Friday Night Lights. Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose. And yes, I know some of the teenagers were played by 29 year-olds. I don’t care. It was a show about football that my wife, who hates football, loved. Kyle Chandler was terrific as high school coach Eric Taylor, but my favorite character, always and forever, was Connie Britton’s amazing Tami Taylor. The most thankless possible role, the coach’s wife, and she made her the most dynamic woman in the town.
It’s interesting to me, BTW, how many actors were in multiple great shows. Connie Britton starred in Friday Night Lights, but also had a crucial smaller role on The West Wing, which also featured Alan Alda, Hawkeye Pierce on M.A.S.H. And Christina Hendrix not only held the company together in Mad Men, she was one of the most memorable characters ever in Firefly.
All in the Family. It’s the show that changed everything. It’s the show that demonstrated that serious discussions of the most important issues facing the United States could take place in a situation comedy, and also, that those discussions could be more than thought-provoking, they could be riotously funny. Not just historically important; it was brilliant, night after night, for 9 years.
Firefly. I know. It failed. Fourteen episodes only. We only got part of one season to fall in love with Captain Mal and Wash and Zoe and Inara and, OMG, the wonderful Kaylee. But fall in love, we did. So inventive, so wonderfully creative. I will never, ever, forgive Fox for cancelling the show just as it was finding its audience. And now it’s probably the most popular show on Comic-con.
Parks and Recreation. It passes the first and most important test of a sit-com. It was never, ever, not-funny. But it did something even more difficult. It managed, for seven seasons, to create leading characters who, though flawed, were all essentially good-hearted. That’s a magnificent achievement, and incredibly difficult. Plus, just watching the apotheosis of Chris Pratt as an actor is worth the price of admission.
E. R. I hesitated to include it. It went on much too long, got self-indulgent and grew ever soapier as time went on. But my gosh, those opening episodes were incredible. The fast dialogue, the incredibly realistic wounds and surgeries and illnesses. I’m not sure it ever survived George Clooney leaving, but for awhile there, it was appointment television.
So what shows did I leave out? What shows should I have left off? Because, here’s what’s fun; we’re all right. And we’re all hopelessly wrong.