Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Top 100 Best TV Series Of The 20th Century, Part 2 Of 10

See Part 1 for my rules and guidelines. I’ve actually created a tag for this series, so you can find my Top 100 list easily.

#11: BUFFALO BILL
2 seasons on NBC
May 1983–April 1984

Great show, ahead of its time. I wrote in full about this wicked Dabney Coleman sitcom back in May, so click the link to “Be Good to Buffalo” to read my long post about BUFFALO BILL and its DVD release.

#12: THE WALTONS
9 seasons on CBS
September 1972–May 1981

Sure, go ahead and mock it, but THE WALTONS is television’s finest family drama, a genre that has all but disappeared on network television, particularly now that The WB/The CW’s SEVENTH HEAVEN has been canceled. THE WALTONS ran on CBS at the same time that LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE aired over on NBC, but THE WALTONS is the better show, less treacly and more honest.

Created by Earl Hamner, Jr., who made his first big impact on television by writing several teleplays for TWILIGHT ZONE (you can always tell a Hamner story, because it’s inevitably set in the Deep South), THE WALTONS is based, more or less, on his novel SPENCER’S MOUNTAIN, which was adapted into a 1963 film (it’s on Turner Classic Movies a lot) starring Henry Fonda, Maureen O’Hara and James MacArthur (HAWAII FIVE-0) as the John Boy character. Hamner, a product of Virginia, was naturally drawn to homespun tales that harkened back to his childhood and sold CBS on their potential as a weekly series.

I don’t know whether Virginia was specifically noted as the series’ locale, but it definitely was set somewhere in the South during the Depression. Ralph Waite and Michael Learned starred as the heads of the Walton clan, which included five children and two grandparents, played by noted character actors Will Geer (whose character was killed off when Geer died during the show’s run) and Ellen Corby (whose real-life stroke was also written into the show). The oldest and most popular Walton child was John Boy, who became the focus of most stories and made Richard Thomas, the gentle, mole-faced actor who portrayed him, a major star.

THE WALTONS was not a soap, but it did contain storylines that grew along with the actors. Characters grew up, got married and went to war. Some, like Grandpa Walton (mentioned above), passed away. New characters moved to Waltons Mountain to replace those who left (Thomas left the series after five seasons, though John Boy was eventually recast with a new actor unable to fill some tough shoes). And through it all, Hamner delivered weekly doses of warm drama involving people we knew and loved. A critical favorite as well, THE WALTONS received several Emmy awards, including acting nods for Thomas, Geer, Corby and Learned and the coveted Outstanding Dramatic Series trophy in 1973. It continues to be available in syndication and on DVD.

The show also provided obituary writers with the perfect lede, because you just know perfectly well that when Thomas passes away (he’s 56 years old), every article will begin with, “Goodnight, John Boy.”

#13. TWILIGHT ZONE
5 seasons on CBS
October 1959–September 1964

Chances are that you know as much about TWILIGHT ZONE as I, since it’s one of the most famous television series ever. No matter how old you are, you know who Rod Serling was, and Marius Constant’s legendary theme is as familiar to you as any Top 40 pop standard.

Serling was the creator, executive producer and head writer of TWILIGHT ZONE, which began after Serling became frustrated with network executives censoring his work to appease sponsors. Much as Gene Roddenberry did later with STAR TREK, Serling realized he could use science fiction to subtly comment on politics and sociology without the censors catching on. Smart viewers got it, of course, and many of Serling’s themes are still as potent nearly fifty years later. Take, for instance, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” which evoked America’s anti-Communist hysteria then, but now neatly stands in as a comment on the current administration’s fearmongering as a way to embolden its position. Some were neat twist-in-the-tail stories, such as “I Shot an Arrow Into the Air,” which, bad science aside, packs a neat wallop. And sometimes TWILIGHT ZONE was content to just freak you out, as in “Little Girl Lost,” where Charles Aidman’s young daughter falls out of bed and into an alternate dimension, and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” where nobody believes aviophobe William Shatner’s terrified claims that a gremlin is outside the airplane, trying to crash it.

TWILIGHT ZONE is such a well-known commodity that it will likely never die. CBS brought it back as a weekly series in 1985, and UPN in 2002. Despite several well-produced episodes, the newer incarnations never really caught on. TWILIGHT ZONE has also lived on in books, magazines, radio, even a Gold Key comic book. Warner Brothers released TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE on theater screens in 1983, where it did okay business, but couldn’t get past the negative publicity churned up by the accidental death of actor Vic Morrow and two Vietnamese children during its production.

Every episode of TWILIGHT ZONE is currently available on DVD (Image Entertainment produced marvelous box sets with voluminous extras), and the Sci-Fi Channel continues to air reruns.

#14. CHEERS
11 seasons on NBC
September 1982–May 1993

This Boston-set sitcom, a slow starter in the ratings that was championed by then-NBC president Brandon Tartikoff, is one of television’s most honored. Its 117 Emmy nominations are the most of any comedy, and includes four wins for Outstanding Comedy Series. “Everybody knows your name at CHEERS,” an affable tavern owned by former Red Sox pitcher Sam Malone (Ted Danson). The series, which rarely left the bar, revolved around its well-cast staff and regular customers, including snooty barmaid Diane (Shelley Long), who carried on a will-they-won’t-they romantic relationship with Sam; acerbic waitress Carla (Rhea Perlman); avuncular Norm (George Wendt); know-it-all postman Cliff (John Ratzenberger); and dim bartender Coach (Nicholas Colasanto). When Colasanto died, Woody Harrelson joined the show as equally nitwitted bartender Woody, and Kirstie Alley as fiery Rebecca replaced Long when she left to become a movie actress (that move didn’t work out too well).

A cast addition that probably didn’t seem like much at the time, but turned out to be a great move for NBC, was Kelsey Grammer, who came aboard during the second season as psychiatrist Frasier Crane. When CHEERS left the air in 1993, Grammer got his own series, FRASIER, which ran eleven seasons and won 37 Emmys—more than any show ever.

#15: THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW*
7 seasons on CBS
September 1970–May 1977

Interesting that MARY TYLER MOORE (I’ll abbreviate it to MTM) should pop up after CHEERS, because it was very likely a strong influence on the ‘80s show, as it premiered only five years after MTM left CBS and was also about a workplace “family.” And, like CHEERS, it won a slew of Emmys, including three for Outstanding Comedy Series.

MTM was set in a television newsroom, WJM, in Minneapolis. Mary Richards (Moore), a career woman coming off a bad breakup (creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns wanted to make her a divorcee, but divorce was still a TV taboo at that time), gets a fresh start by moving to Minnesota and getting a job as the associate producer of WJM’s six o’clock news. On her own in a new city, her co-workers become her new family: gruff boss Lou Grant (Edward Asner), dim-bulb anchor Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) and wiseass newswriter Murray (Gavin MacLeod), as well as her vain landlord, Phyllis (Cloris Leachman), and her Jewish neighbor from New York, Rhoda (Valerie Harper). One of the finest ensemble casts in sitcom history eventually grew to include Betty White as saucy Sue Ann and Georgia Engel as na├»ve Georgette, who married Ted.

MTM became CBS’ Saturday-night anchor, and, back-to-back with THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, provided the network with one of TV’s most popular hours. While it didn’t exactly go out on top a la SEINFELD, it was still garnering decent ratings when the producers decided to take it off the air after its seventh season, and its final episode, “The Last Show,” remains one of the most fondly remember finales ever (ironically, the WJM staff is fired, except for inept Ted). MTM also provided what many (including the staff of TV GUIDE) consider to be the funniest sitcom episode ever: “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” which was written by David Lloyd (TAXI), who won an Emmy for it, and directed by Joan Darling. It concerns the WJM staff’s black-comic approach to mourning the death of TV host Chuckles the Clown and Mary’s disapproval of what she perceives as their disrespect.

TV producers had respect for MTM’s cast, nearly all of whom ended up starring in shows of their own, the most successful being THE LOVE BOAT (MacLeod played Captain Stubing) and LOU GRANT, a dramatic spinoff starring Asner. Last year, I wrote a post about MTM’s notable opening titles and the show’s DVD release, which you can read here.

*Although the show is almost always referred to as THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, this title was never seen on-screen. In fact, the words “Mary Tyler Moore” seen during the opening titles could refer to either the show or its star. A case could be made that THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW is the only sitcom in history never to identify itself in its credits.

#16: THE WEST WING
7 seasons on NBC
September 1999–May 2006

I’ll be the first to admit that, when THE WEST WING was rotten, it was very, very rotten. So rotten that there was a period of a year or so when I couldn’t bear to watch it. However, when it was great, which was often, it was as absorbing a drama as television has ever seen. And when it was great were the years it was being shepherded by its genius creator, a former playwright and screenwriter named Aaron Sorkin. THE WEST WING won 26 Emmys (no drama has ever won more), including four straight for Outstanding Dramatic Series. Plus, it was the first television series to prove the exception to one of the networks’ oldest rules, which is that politics and prime time don’t mix.

Sorkin, whose early film credits include the romantic comedy THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT, starring Michael Douglas as a widowed Chief Executive who falls for lobbyist Annette Bening, created WEST WING as a fairy tale of sorts, depicting a U.S. President who was intelligent, witty, well-read, beloved and morally true. Cast as President Josiah Bartlet was the acclaimed actor Martin Sheen (APOCALYPSE NOW), who had never before carried a TV series. Actually, he was supposed to be the star of WEST WING, only make occasional guest shots, but he was so damn intoxicating in the pilot that it was agreed Bartlet should become a visible member of the ensemble, along with John Spencer as Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, Bradley Whitford as the Deputy Chief of Staff, Richard Schiff as the Communications Director, Rob Lowe as Schiff’s deputy, Alison Janney as Bartlet’s Press Secretary and Stockard Channing as First Lady Abigail Bartlet.

The central cast stayed together, pretty much, over the show’s first six seasons (Lowe left after four, and Spencer died during the last year). Unfortunately, Sorkin, who wrote or co-wrote every episode during the series’ first four seasons, either left the series or was forced out, due to late scripts causing shooting delays and his personal drug addiction. His replacement, John Wells of ER, didn’t understand the show and turned it from a smart, topical drama dealing with important social issues into a yammering soap opera in which the characters began sniping at each other unreasonably and unbelievably.

With ratings dropping like a stone, WEST WING tweaked its format, taking its focus away from the Bartlet White House and towards the upcoming Presidential election, which eventually pit Democrat Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) against Republican Arnie Vinick (Alan Alda). The series became an anthology of sorts, as episodes tended to follow one campaign or the other during its seventh season. One, which NBC broadcast live, featured Santos and Vinick in a Presidential debate.

The show’s quality, as well as its ratings, saw a slight uptick during its final year, but the high cost of doing the show (which had over a dozen well-paid cast members) effectively killed it. It wasn’t the same WEST WING anyway, as its first four years were a definite highlight in dramatic television, using the one-hour episodic form to bring national politics into our living rooms like never before.

#17: THE SIMPSONS
19+ seasons on Fox
December 1989–

By the time it finally leaves the air—and it shows no sign of tiring soon—THE SIMPSONS will most likely have passed THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET as the most successful sitcom in television history. OZZIE ran fourteen seasons (THE SIMPSONS based that benchmark long ago), but aired 435 half-hour episodes. THE SIMPSONS aired its 400th in May 2007, and will probably air its 436th during its 21st season in 2009. Not bad for a crudely drawn cartoon that debuted as short animated blackouts on Fox’s mostly forgotten THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW.

Not only is THE SIMPSONS a landmark series in terms of its longevity, but also in the way it saved its network. It was Fox’s first major hit, and was so huge at its peak that Fox moved it to Thursdays to compete with NBC’s behemoth smash THE COSBY SHOW. It was also enormously controversial in its early days, when it focused on son Bart Simpson, a wisemouthed delinquent with no respect for authority. Conservatives detested the series, claiming that the dysfunctional Simpson family was a poor role model. As if anyone watching cared.

Set in the Midwestern town of Springfield, the Simpson family consisted of overeating dad Homer, well-meaning mom Marge, gifted daughter Lisa and baby Maggie. And Bart, of course. However, as the series progressed, Bart tended to move into the background, and the antics of greedy pop Homer took front and center (I suspect he was more fun to write about). Creator Matt Groening and his producers (including MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW creator James L. Brooks) also invented a large supporting cast to revolve the Simpsons around, including Homer’s megalomaniac boss Mr. Burns.

Although one frequently hears complaints that THE SIMPSONS has faded in quality over the years, the ratings remain strong, and its voice actors, including Dan Castellaneta (Homer), Julie Kavner (Marge) and Harry Shearer, are among the most highly paid performers in prime time. Evidence that the show still has plenty of ammunition in its belt is THE SIMPSONS MOVIE, which Fox released theatrically in the summer of 2007 and quickly surpassed $100 million at the American box office. Don’t have a cow, man—THE SIMPSONS are here to stay.

#18: YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS
4 seasons on NBC
February 1950—June 1954

I guess the closest equivalent to YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS that we have today is SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, as it was a live comedy/variety series that aired every Saturday night in a 90-minute timeslot. Unlike SNL, however, it featured only four regulars who had to carry the ball each week: Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Howard Morris and Carl Reiner. The legendary writing staff included Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Reiner—though not Woody Allen, which has been reported through the years. And, like SNL, the show’s humor usually took the form of silly recurring characters (often involving Caesar using an impeccable foreign accent) and parodies of current films and plays.

Since it was live, evidence of YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS’ brilliance is hard to come by. A few kinescopes exist, and clips occasionally arise on nostalgia shows. As a kid, a film called TEN FROM YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS, which assembled ten of the series’ top sketches, often aired on television, and a DVD release would be appreciated. Reiner used his experience on YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS to create THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, which was set behind the scenes of a popular TV comedy show hosted by mercurial Alan Brady, who was played by Reiner himself and was certainly inspired by Caesar, a perfectionist with a vicious temper who didn’t suffer fools—or subpar writing—lightly.

#19: THE FBI
9 seasons on ABC
September 1965—September 1974

It’s a testament to THE FBI’s consistent quality that it managed to anchor ABC’s Sunday prime-time lineup for nine seasons, even though most of the time it was scheduled against an American institution—CBS’ THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW. When it left the air, however, THE FBI was the longest-running crime drama in television history (HAWAII FIVE-0 eventually surpassed it, and NYPD BLUE now holds the record).

As square and conservative as crimebusting gets, THE FBI held the rare distinction of being officially sanctioned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and reportedly assigned an agent, Mark Felt (later identified as the “Deep Throat” informer who helped break the Watergate case), as a technical advisor. Since it was subject to interference from the F.B.I., the TV agents were always depicted as straight-arrow, no-smoke-no-drink types who would never consider using undue force or planting evidence to get their man. Ironic, given that F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover was one of the country’s most corrupt law enforcers. It was said that Hoover chose THE FBI’s leading man himself.

Handsome, stalwart and colorless Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (77 SUNSET STRIP) starred as Special Agent Lew Erskine, who originally was partnered with Stephen Brooks as Agent Jim Rhodes. After two seasons, William Reynolds as Tom Colby replaced Brooks, and former NFL wide receiver Shelly Novack replaced Reynolds as Chris Daniels during the show’s final 1973–74 season. During those nine years, Zimbalist and sidekick investigated dozens of murders, kidnappings, terrorists, bombers, counterfeiters, con men and bank robbers. Produced by Quinn Martin, THE FBI became known for its lofty production values and name guest stars, which helped give the series a ratings lift. Nearly every popular TV actor in Hollywood stopped by as a friend or foe of Lew Erskine’s over the nine years, including William Shatner, Chad Everett, Henry Silva, Richard Anderson, Robert Loggia, Suzanne Pleshette and Anthony Eisley, as well as up-and-comers like Harrison Ford, who appeared in the 1969 episode “Scapegoat.”

Martin was at his peak as a producer of high-quality crime dramas, and during THE FBI’s run, he typically had as many as three series airing simultaneously. THE FBI was his longest-running.

#20: COMBAT!
5 seasons on ABC
October 1962—August 1967

I wrote a little bit about COMBAT! during the Lee Marvin Blog-A-Thon last month. Notable as a gritty, hard-hitting look at war, COMBAT! was a frequently bleak drama about a platoon of Army soldiers based in Europe during World War II. For perhaps the first time on U.S. television, war was hell, as COMBAT! accurately displayed the pestilence of death and despair that afflicted the European theater then. Leading the squad was Rick Jason as Lt. Gil Hanley and Vic Morrow as Sgt. Chip Saunders. There also was a supporting cast of regulars (including Dick Peabody, Jack Hogan and Shecky Greene), but what helped make the series so effective was the jittery feeling that anyone could die at any time. Okay, so maybe Jason and Morrow were going to make it all the way through the war, but members of the platoon did occasionally have their fate sealed on the battlefield, and COMBAT! didn’t flinch from showing death’s effects on the still-living.

COMBAT! made exceptional use of the MGM backlot, which was expansive enough to become Italian ruins or rolling French hills. High production values combined with tough scripts (overseen by executive producer Selig Seligman) and stark black-and-white photography to produce a war series of abnormally high quality. Its visual style was established during the first season by Robert Altman, who directed several episodes using the overlapping speech that became synonymous with his style in films like M*A*S*H and NASHVILLE. Ted Post directed the second-season opener, “The Bridge at Chalons,” which guest-starred Lee Marvin as a hardassed demolitions expert. As Sgt. Turk, Marvin is assigned by the Army brass to blow up a bridge deemed vital to the Nazi cause. Saunders and his men are ordered to accompany Turk to Chalons and provide cover and assistance. For Turk, this simply won’t do, as his bitter attitude and cruel behavior towards Saunders and his men make it clear that Turk is a very hard man who must have suffered some deep loss during his time in combat. After most of the party is either killed or forced to return to base, Turk and Saunders are the only ones left to carry out the mission, which means that the two, who despise each other, will now be forced to rely on each other to survive.

For its fifth and final season, COMBAT! made the switch to color (all of ABC’s series were doing so), which effectively destroyed it. What seemed dramatic in stark monochrome became less real and less important in color. Adding to the show’s woes was its move away from the MGM lot to studio space at CBS and overly familiar scripting. Still, it left behind an incredible legacy, and COMBAT! remains television’s longest running war drama.

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