Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Top 100 Best TV Series Of The 20th Century, Part 1 Of 10

In this post last week, I mentioned TIME’s new list of the 100 Best TV Shows of All-TIME. While I more or less was down with TIME’s opinion, I thought I would put together a Top 100 of my own. My rules, however, are slightly different. For one thing, it includes regular television series only—no TV-movies, specials or miniseries. It also includes only shows that aired in the United States (whether they were of American origin or not).

Finally, I decided to limit my picks to shows that premiered before 2000. The reason is that I think it’s too early to gauge whether a series that recent will hold up well enough to make a Top 100 list. I suspect some, like DEADWOOD or THE WIRE, will, but I’ll wait another decade to make sure. One caveat, however: THE SOPRANOS, which debuted in 1999, is not on my list, because it airs on HBO, which I don’t have, and I’ve seen only one episode. Hey, go make your list if you don’t like it. Don’t worry—I’ll catch up with it one of these days.

Of my 100 shows, 33 fall into the category of “Action/Adventure/Crime/Western,” 43 are “Comedy/Variety,” 8 “Drama,” 1 “Educational,” 2 “Game,” 3 “News/Current Events,” 6 “Science Fiction/Horror” and 2 “Talk/Interview.” That seems a little bit off, like there should be more dramas and fewer action shows, but that’s how it came out. I wouldn’t take these categories too much to heart, though, because many of the shows I picked could easily fall into more than one category. I just thought it would be interesting to look at them this way.

I’m not ranking them in order of preference, partially because it’s like apples and oranges, and also because the difference between #100 and #1 is not large enough to matter. Suffice to say that all 100 series are worth watching, and I think you’ll get as much out of the 100th best as you would the first. In order to maintain a semblance of suspense (like you’ll be on the edge of your seat or something), I’m not listing them alphabetically either. Otherwise, by the time I got to the bottom of the alphabet, you’d be easily able to guess what was next.

No, I think I will just list them randomly in sets of ten. I used a random number generator to jumble the list, so I can prepare ten different posts showcasing ten different TV series. I hope you’ll stick around to the end, and feel free to interject your comments at any time.


#1: THE DEFENDERS
4 seasons on CBS
September 1961—September 1965

Noted screenwriter Reginald Rose (12 ANGRY MEN) was the creator of this successful legal drama, which starred veteran E.G. Marshall as attorney Lawrence Preston and young Robert Reed (later to become the patriarch of THE BRADY BUNCH) as his son and law partner Kenneth. Rose had cut his teeth in live television, writing for PLAYHOUSE 90, THE ALCOA HOUR, STUDIO ONE. In fact, THE DEFENDERS began as an acclaimed two-part episode of STUDIO ONE called “The Defender,” which starred Ralph Bellamy and William Shatner as the Prestons, who successfully defended a young pre-WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE Steve McQueen on a murder charge.

It took four years for Rose to bring the Prestons to television on a weekly basis, albeit with a new cast (Shatner actually guest-starred in the second episode, “Killer Instinct,” as a man who accidentally shoots a bully to death in front of a dozen witnesses on a subway platform). With Herbert Brodkin (HOLOCAUST) as executive producer, Rose anchoring the writers, and a staff of freelance directors that included several on their way up the ladder to feature stardom—such as Franklin J. Schaffner (PATTON) and Stuart Rosenberg (COOL HAND LUKE)—THE DEFENDERS was backed with some of New York’s strongest creative talent.

But what put THE DEFENDERS into the upper echelon of lawyer shows was its insistence upon tackling big social issues. Vigilantism, abortion, Red-baiting, capital punishment, religious freedom—all were subjects of DEFENDERS episodes. Sponsors may have been worried, but audiences weren’t, nor were Emmy voters, who awarded the series at least a dozen trophies, including two for Best Drama. You won’t see network series of today using drama to tackle big issues, but THE DEFENDERS proved it could be done with class, style and, most importantly, ratings success.

In the late 1990s, Rose attempted to bring THE DEFENDERS back as a series for Showtime with Marshall reprising his role and Beau Bridges as the son. However, Marshall’s 1998 death ended the run after three made-for-cable movies.


#2: MOONLIGHTING
5 seasons on ABC
March 1985—May 1989

I remember very clearly what I was doing the night of March 3, 1985. It was a Sunday, and I was watching the two-hour premiere of ABC’s hot new detective series MOONLIGHTING. The next day, all we could talk about was the incredible charm and comic stylings of its star, a young actor none of us had seen before, named Bruce Willis. Admittedly, the show did become tiresome before its five-season run concluded, as production delays, rampant egos, personality clashes, network interference and an ill-advised decision to turn a crackling crime drama into a Kafkaesque soap opera made tuning in each week something of a chore. Actually, you couldn’t even tune in every week, since the show had started running so far behind schedule that ABC occasionally had to throw a repeat on the air at the last minute because the current episode hadn’t yet been completed.

However, when MOONLIGHTING was cooking, it was damn hot. Creator Glenn Gordon Caron (MEDIUM) teamed brash young Willis with Cybill Shepherd, whose career as a ‘70s ingénue placed her in some important films, such as LAST PICTURE SHOW and TAXI DRIVER, but who really wasn’t doing much by 1985. She played Maddie Hayes, a former model who lost most of her assets, except for the rundown Blue Moon Detective Agency, which was being run by the cocky, wiseassed David Addison (Willis). Looking for some excitement in her life, she became David’s partner and spent as much time fighting off his advances and irresponsibility as she did the bad guys.

Eventually, the two stars began feuding off-camera, but the chemistry was palpable when they were on the stage, and the first two seasons of MOONLIGHTING were marked with romantic banter and witty dialogue that reminded one of William Powell and Myrna Loy. The mystery plots weren’t much, perhaps, but they didn’t have to be. They only had to serve as clotheslines to get the hero and heroine into danger and allow them to quip their way free. The crime stories eventually dropped by the wayside, and even though MOONLIGHTING expanded its structure to include musical episodes and period spoofs (its hour-long parody of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW is brilliant), I think it was a mistake to get so far away from its roots.

#3: THE ODD COUPLE
5 seasons on ABC
September 1970—July 1975

It was never a ratings smash, but it did well enough with audiences and with critics to last five seasons on ABC, as well as an eternity in reruns and now DVD. Based on Neil Simon’s classic play, as well as a 1968 film starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, THE ODD COUPLE was blessed with some of the finest casting in sitcom history. Though both actors had a long list of Hollywood credits in both film and television, in drama and comedy, Tony Randall as neatnik Felix Unger and Jack Klugman as slob Oscar Madison clicked almost immediately and were so funny that their on-screen bickering never grew tiresome or annoying.

After an average first season that was shot film-style with a single camera, THE ODD COUPLE wisely realized that the stars’ chemistry, as much as the scripts, were what made the series sizzle, and switched to a multi-camera format before a live studio audience. The new format gave Randall and Klugman a boost of energy and made the series more intimate, warmer and funnier. The actors were encouraged to improvise, and both won Emmys as Best Actor in a Comedy Series.

THE ODD COUPLE was executive producer Garry Marshall’s first successful sitcom, and even though he had bigger hits, such as HAPPY DAYS and LAVERNE & SHIRLEY, none of them was as sharp creatively or as smart. Obviously, the classic concept had a lot to do with the success. Not only did ABC bring the series back in 1982 as THE NEW ODD COUPLE (an all-black version with Demond Wilson and Ron Glass), but Klugman and Randall later reunited for a TV-movie, and Lemmon and Matthau starred in THE ODD COUPLE II—three decades after the original film.

#4: QUARK
8 episodes on NBC
February 1978—April 1978

As you know, STAR WARS is one of the most influential films in Hollywood history. The manner in which it, along with JAWS, changed the way in which studios make, brand, market and release films has been written about many times. Of course, it touched television too, most notably with the one-season wonder BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, which came and went during the 1978-1979 season. However, less known but possibly more fondly remembered is a sitcom that predates GALACTICA.

QUARK was the creation of Buck Henry, the fine actor and writer who had co-created with Mel Brooks the funny sitcom GET SMART for NBC. What GET SMART did for spies, QUARK sought to do for science fiction. It was a flat-out spoof that combined intellectual humor and slapstick, which may have been off-putting to mainstream audiences. The fact that it was a SF show likely hurt it as well. Keep in mind that, in 1978, there was not a lot of science fiction on television, and what was on tended to be action-oriented, rather than idea-oriented. Was QUARK too smart for TV? Probably, but I imagine most viewers just didn’t get a lot of the jokes because they were parodying specific SF subjects.

Richard Benjamin, no stranger to smart sitcoms (HE & SHE), starred as Adam Quark, who captained an intergalactic garbage scow and headed a rag-tag crew of oddballs, including the half-male/half-female Gene/Jean (Tim Thomerson); Spockish first officer Ficus (Richard Kelton), who was a plant; sexy twin navigators Betty (Tricia Barnstable) and Betty (Cyb Barnstable), one of whom was a clone (but neither would admit to it); and Andy (Bobby Porter), a clunky ’30-style robot that was something of a coward. Receiving each week’s mission from Otto Palindrome (Conrad Janis), a bureaucratic ninny who liked making Quark’s life miserable, the crew found themselves stumbling into bizarre adventures, such as the black hole that created evil counterparts of each crew member or the alien race that implanted fantasies into the crew’s minds.

Nearly every episode was based on a popular film or TV show, and, in fact, the show’s very premise was a rip of STAR TREK. Much as GET SMART proved to be the exception that proved the rule that parody doesn’t play in prime time, QUARK couldn’t manage much traction in its Friday time slot (just like STAR TREK couldn’t in its final season) and was cancelled after just seven airings (the pilot, which was the series’ worst episode, aired as a standalone nearly a year earlier.

Outside of a brief run on The Comedy Channel a decade or so after its cancellation, QUARK has barely been seen, which is something of a shame. While much of its humor is based on silly wordplay and smarmy sex gags, it is, overall, smartly written and played, and definitely something of an unsung classic.

#5: GET A LIFE
2 seasons on Fox
September 1990—June 1992

Strangely, nearly everything I wrote about QUARK could be applied to GET A LIFE. Although it managed to eke out two full seasons, GET A LIFE was a hilariously silly cult show that bore little resemblance to reality. Its executive producer, David Mirkin, doesn’t have as lofty a reputation as Buck Henry, perhaps, but he did work on NEWHART and THE SIMPSONS, which demonstrates his comic acumen.

Chris Elliott made his name as a writer and frequent player on LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN, where he would pop up in bizarre performance pieces that didn’t always draw huge bellylaughs, but were unusual enough to draw notice to him. You may recall him as The Fugitive Guy or The Guy Who Lived Beneath the Stage or just the guy who drank a bottle of cooking oil. His first sitcom cast him as Chris, a 30-year-old paperboy who lived with his parents, cantankerous Fred, who basically despised his son (and was played by Elliott’s father, Bob, one half of “Bob & Ray”), and clueless Gladys (Elinor Donahue in a gentle spoof of her old show FATHER KNOWS BEST).

To say GET A LIFE was unconventional would be an understatement. Episodes found Chris becoming a male model, fighting a robot, being taken hostage by his old pen pal, and befriending a mucus-drooling alien from outer space. Many episodes saw Chris being killed at the end, only to have him reappear surreally the following week. Fox, of course, hated the show, partially because they didn’t understand it, but mostly because it was losing viewers of its lead-in, THE SIMPSONS.

A second-season format change that dumped the parents and moved Chris into an apartment with a surly ex-cop (Brian Doyle-Murray) didn’t improve the ratings, though it may have led to even stranger plots, if you can imagine. Actually, you probably can, when you realize that some episodes were penned by Charlie Kaufman, who went on to write the screenplays for BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ADAPTATION. Imagine those films as a half-hour sitcom with Chris Elliott, and you get a slight idea of what GET A LIFE was all about.

#6: THE MARSHAL
2 seasons on ABC
January 1995—July 1996

This list is not actually the “Top 100 Shows You’ve Never Heard Of,” I promise. Just the luck of the draw. It was fun to see Jeff Fahey pop up in GRINDHOUSE earlier this year (he played J.T., the proprietor of the barbecue shack where much of the zombie-killing action takes place), the first time the busy actor had appeared in a high-profile big-screen release in quite a while. In fact, the last vehicle Fahey was in that had much buzz attached to it is likely THE MARSHAL, an ABC crime drama that achieved middling ratings, first in a killer Saturday timeslot, and then early on Mondays before MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL. THE MARSHAL’s combination of action and oddball humor surprisingly didn’t mesh with the sports crowd, and ABC cancelled the series in its second season.

Fahey, in an unusual accomplishment for a contemporary hour drama, was the lone regular, playing U.S. marshal Winston MacBride, a family man and federal law enforcer with piercing blue eyes and a somewhat quirky approach to his work. What made THE MARSHAL stand out was its sense of humor. MacBride certainly needed one when dealing with the eccentrics at work, whether it was a nervous government witness (Joe Pantoliano), an adulterous minor-league pitcher or a bank-robbing stripper (Kari Wuhrer). He would much rather use his mouth or his brain than his fist or gun to capture a fugitive, and though he was bright, his trusting nature sometimes led him into trouble.

Amusing guest stars were part of the show’s formula, but the whole thing ultimately fell on Fahey’s shoulders. Not only was MacBride’s determined nature (so much so that he once buried himself in the snow to catch a fugitive fleeing to a hunting cabin in the mountains) and off-kilter unpredictability unusual to the crime genre, but also his status as a family man, which meant no superfluous romantic subplots cluttering up the mysteries. Though MacBride’s family remained something of a mystery themselves, as they were usually only seen at the tag of an episode.

Don Johnson (NASH BRIDGES) was one of the executive producers and even directed the first season’s “Bounty Hunter,” in which he cast his old MIAMI VICE castmate, John Diehl, as a serial killer on the run from both MacBride and an elderly bounty hunter (Brian Keith) who kept getting in the marshal’s way.

#7: SEINFELD
9 seasons on NBC
July 1989—September 1998

I don’t know what I can say about SEINFELD that would be new, since it’s unquestionably one of the funniest, most influential and most enduring sitcoms in television history. It dominated NBC’s Thursday “Must See TV” lineup throughout the 1990s, and, amazingly, never “jumped the shark,” leaving the airwaves at the top of its game (discounting its overlong and excruciatingly supercilious final episode). It violated most rules of successful TV comedy, in that it was about four characters who were not particularly bright or likable, which is perhaps why it took so long to catch on with the general public. No way would it be allowed to grow in today’s television landscape, but NBC was smart enough to leave it on the air with the confidence that its hip, clever and sometimes risqué humor would work. It introduced more phrases into the American lexicon than any other show: “master of his domain,” “no soup for you,” “not that there’s anything wrong with that,” “spongeworthy,” yada yada yada.

#8: THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN
5 seasons on ABC
January 1974—March 1978

Nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh. Make that sound effect in the office or at the sports bar, and every man of a certain age (say, 35—45)—and many women too, for that matter—will know exactly what you’re referencing. If you were a kid during the 1970s, there’s no question of what you were doing on Sunday nights. You were watching “six million dollar man” Steve Austin battle a bevy of traitors, enemy spies, killer robots, misunderstood aliens and a whole slew of exotic baddies, while using his superhuman “bionic” parts: the eye which gave him telescopic and infra-red vision, the right arm that allowed him to toss a baseball at 200 mph, and the two legs that could run 60 mph and leap slightly tall buildings and fences in a single bound. Nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh, as we know, is the international sound effect for “super-cool bionic action.”

Rugged Lee Majors, a veteran of two other popular series by that point, starred as Austin, an Air Force colonel who was badly injured in a jet crash. Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson), head of the Office of Strategic Intelligence, convinced Dr. Rudy Wells (Martin E. Brooks) to outfit Austin with experimental mechanical parts to replace the damaged human limbs. And after spending $6 million to make this “man barely alive” “better, stronger, faster,” Oscar wasn’t going to let Austin return to the Air Force. Instead, he convinced the bionic man to become an OSI agent and travel around the world making it safe for democracy.

Backed by simple family-friendly scripts teeming with globe-trotting adventure, as well as jazzy musical scores composed by Oliver Nelson, J.J. Johnson and Benny Golson (among others), THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN entertained both adults and kids for five solid seasons. It also gave birth to an equally popular spinoff, THE BIONIC WOMAN, which starred Lindsay Wagner as Jaime Sommers, a schoolteacher who received bionics after a skydiving accident, as well as a slew of merchandising, ranging from dolls and record albums to lunch boxes and not one, but two, Charlton comic book series.

THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN’s absence on DVD is head-scratching, considering its massive appeal and Universal’s eagerness to release less popular series like BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP and AIRWOLF in box sets.

#9: SGT. BILKO
4 seasons on CBS
September 1955—September 1959

One of TIME’s most egregious omissions is SGT. BILKO, which is the title it ran under in syndication. Originally called YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH, this crackling sitcom became THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW shortly after its 1955 debut and remained that way during the rest of its four-season run. Nearly every military-set sitcom that followed was an imitation of sorts, particularly MCHALE’S NAVY (oddly, both shows were remade as flop movies during the 1990s) and HOGAN’S HEROES, which would never have existed without BILKO’s blueprint.

Most episodes had more or less the same plot, but that didn’t matter, anchored as they were by the brash Phil Silvers, playing Sgt. Ernie Bilko, a boisterously clever con man who spent his time in the service flim-flamming the brass and dreaming up a series of progressively sillier get-rich schemes. Silvers was one of the funniest and flashiest actors in television history, as any BILKO episode will attest to. His usual foil was dim Colonel Hall, played in a wonderful contrasting supporting turn by Paul Ford, and talented comedians like Allan Melvin, Harvey Lembeck, Joe E. Ross and Billy Sands (later a MCHALE’S regular) backed up Silvers in his grubby schemes. The show’s secret weapon, however, was Maurice Gosfield as slobby Private Doberman, who became so popular that he inspired his own DC Comics series (as did the Bilko show itself).

A triumph of perfect casting and rock-solid comic scripting overseen by the great Nat Hiken, who also amassed credits on YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS and CAR 54, WHERE ARE YOU?, SGT. BILKO, under any name, ranks as the #1 military sitcom of all time.

10. ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS/THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR
10 seasons on CBS & NBC
September 1955—September 1965

“Good ee-vening,” greeted Alfred Hitchcock at the top of each episode, setting the tone for another macabre tale of mystery, murder and suspense. Four seasons before CBS premiered Rod Serling’s TWILIGHT ZONE, here was a dramatic anthology series concentrating on horrific stories hosted by a popular personality. Hitchcock was then the most well-known film director in America—probably the only one who was a household name—so it seemed like a natural idea for him to host. Though he appeared at the beginning and the end of every episode, he had little to do with them otherwise (he did direct a dozen or so), but they all bore Hitch’s unique stamp. In accordance to Hitchcock’s dark sense of humor, the antagonist often “got away” with murder at the end of the show, though network censors forced the host to add a disclaimer of sorts in his outro, claiming that the police managed to catch up with the killer or some such rot. He knew it was b.s. though, and so did we.

ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS’ most memorable episodes were definitely steeped in dark humor. In “Lamb to the Slaughter,” the police suspect Barbara Bel Geddes (DALLAS) of murder, but can’t find the weapon (the title gives a hint to its whereabouts), while in “Man from the South,” Peter Lorre (THE MALTESE FALCON) makes a bet with Steve McQueen with McQueen’s pinky finger as the prize.

After seven seasons, five on CBS and two on NBC, the series returned to CBS with a new format and a title change to THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR. While some feel that the switch to an hour format hurt the show (and some do feel padded), I think whatever slight drop in quality that existed was more likely the result of the show already running through seven years worth of stories. Nearly every actor and director in Hollywood wanted to work on Hitch’s show, and even some big names like Joseph Cotten and James Mason leapt at the opportunity to kill or be killed in an episode. In one of the HOUR episodes, a young James Caan (THIEF) snared the lead in a Harlan Ellison teleplay, “Memo from Purgatory,” about a writer who researches New York street life by joining a gang of juvenile delinquents.

7 comments:

Jeremy Richey said...

These are great...I am really loking forward to the rest of your selections

Hal said...

Great start, Marty. Can't wait to see the next 90.

Seeing THE DEFENDERS on here (very worthy choice) reminds me of the one 1960's series I most want to see someday: David Susskind's EAST SIDE/WEST SIDE which featured George C. Scott and Cicely Tyson and from what I am told was about a decade before its time. Unfortunately it didn't last long; I sure hope it turns up on DVD someday. Diana Sands, Alan Alda and James Earl Jones were among the guest stars.

I'd probably go with REMINGTON STEELE over MOONLIGHTING, I just thought it was more consistent in other areas, and Brosnan was certainly a match for Willis.

BILKO was, along with MAVERICK, the biggest omission from TIME's list IMO.

With a 2000 cutoff, you'll probably be missing THE JOB, my favorite series so far from this decade. Naturally, the second try at the same idea (RESCUE ME) has caught on, and isn't as good.

I wonder where SHERIFF LOBO ranks? :)

Marty McKee said...

THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO = #102. LOBO, however, only makes it to #111.

Kidding, of course!

I haven't seen EAST SIDE/WEST SIDE either, but I'd sure like to.

Kurt said...

I am so, so thankful that the David Caruso-era of NYPD Blue was before 2000. Can't wait to see the entry. Please have the random number generator take this into consideration, because the wait may just kill me.

Marty McKee said...

Kurt, I'm waiting to link to your Caruso impression on YouTube.

Robert Cass said...

Great site, Marty! I'm glad to see you like "Moonlighting" and "Get a Life," two of my favorites from younger years. I don't think "Get a Life" ever followed "The Simpsons," however, since the former aired on Sundays and the latter on Thursdays starting in the fall of 1990, but I can't remember what "Get a Life" did follow. Did it air before "Married ... With Children" or after?

Marty McKee said...

You are correct, Robert (that's what I get for trusting my memory in my advanced age). GET A LIFE followed IN LIVING COLOR on Sunday nights its first season. Fox delayed the sitcom's second season and moved it to Saturday after some terrible reality shows (though one, COPS, is amazingly still on the air), which were not very compatible with GET A LIFE's humor, to say the least.