Saturday, November 26, 2011
Top Twenty Favorite TV Shows of All Time
First of all, here’s what didn’t make the list and why.
Pinky and the Brain: This series was very close to making the list. It was a hair away from making it. But it was just slightly edged out by another show. So, consider this #21 on the list.
Any Star Trek Series: Don’t get me wrong, “Star Trek,” particularly the original series, has a lot of brilliant episodes. But over time, it became less about telling great stories and more about franchising outward. I’ve always considered it to be the Burger King of science fiction, while “Star Wars” is the McDonalds… they are less about telling stories and more pop cultural institutions.
Battlestar Galactica: I’ve never seen an episode, and I’m told I’m missing out.
Berserk: I considered it, but ultimately, I prefer the manga and decided to give the spot to something else.
Buffy & Angel: I love both of these shows, but when they were weak, they were very weak. When they were great, they were genius. Sadly the weaker seasons bumped both shows off the list.
Mad Men: Like “BSG” I’m told I’m missing out. I have seen the first three episodes though, and I do like it.
Avatar the Last Airbender: I like this series. I like it very much. But I don't love it. I don't mind the occasional fling, but I won't go steady with it. I don't think it broke any new ground, but I do think it did what other shows did extremely well.
Any Dr. Who: Never seen any of it, sorry.
Christopher Titus’ semi-autobiographical series was truly one of the great, underrated sitcom comedies. The relationship between Titus and his father, played by Stacy Keach, was my relationship with my father. Right down to my brother’s ability to walk away from conflicts with him while I would stand up to him, and often make mistakes on when to pick and choose my battles.
The series was a black comedy, and it went places that many sitcoms didn’t go. If other shows did go there, it would usually be with “a very special episode.” Not this show. This show adapted the true story of Titus’ mother killing one of her husbands and later committing suicide herself and it made it funny. Let me repeat this, Christopher Titus took his own mother’s suicide and played it for laughs. The fact that it worked is a testament to how brilliant this show was.
19. Black Adder
I love British comedy, I love the works of William Shakespeare, and I love history. This series was the perfect combination of all three. This series was a hard sell for me, because I was not a fan of Rowan Atkinson prior to this. I did not like “Mr. Bean” and I still don’t. But I rented the first season, and it opened with a satire of Richard III. I was sold.
The series is brilliant, especially if you’re well read. There are a lot of jokes in here that the layman is not going to understand. I suppose that makes the series, or at least my write-up of it sound a tad elitist. But it is what it is, especially in later seasons. But I think there is a lot in there to enjoy even if you are not well versed in Shakespeare and British history. The jokes are great, and the timing is perfect.
You’ve heard me talk about this series. A lot. I’ve reviewed the entire seventh season episode by episode. So, I’ll keep this brief.
If I were to have created a TV series, this would have been it. In fact, when I was in film school, we were pitching ideas for movies or TV, and I suggested a series about an expose on suburbia starring a drug dealing single mother. Then I was asked if I’ve seen “Weeds.” Well, I did later, and I was jealous because Jenji Kohan got to it first and she did it far better than I could.
Mary Louise Parker plays the character of Nancy Botwin to a tee. And the rest of the cast is terrific. It’s a great ensemble piece featuring a lot of funny characters played by great actors. While some people didn’t appreciate the series re-inventing itself every few seasons, I rather like it. It helps the series stay fresh and exciting. The first season dealt with suburbia, seasons four and five dealt with the Mexican border and their drug cartels, season six was the Botwins seeing America, and season seven took place in Manhattan. All the while, Nancy sinks deeper and deeper into the world of crime.
If you went to High School in the 1990’s, then you can relate to this show. This show really caught the culture, and was, honestly, way too smart for MTV. Daria Morgendorffer spun off from “Beavis & Butt-head,” a show that, quite frankly, she was way too good for. While “Beavis & Butt-head” seemed to glorify and revel in crass stupidity, Daria was smart, witty, intelligent, and to this day I’m surprised MTV ever produced it. Smart, witty and intelligent are not in MTV’s vocabulary. But what should we expect from the network that imposed “Jersey Shore,” “Teen Mom,” and “My Super Sweet 16” on the culture.
Daria was a likeable protagonist who approached the idiotic world with the perfect weapon, witty sarcasm. I related to her in High School, and I still relate to her now. Although I like to think I’m more social than she is. Her supporting cast was terrific, and everyone was funny. It was great, character based humor and I don’t suspect we’ll ever see anything quite like it on TV again.
I honestly have no idea what happened here. Jerry Seinfeld is generally not funny. His stand up is weak, and except for this show, I have never enjoyed one of his projects. But, throw him into a writing partnership with the brilliant Larry David, and team him up with three characters to play off of, and that not only saved him, but created the “Citizen Kane” of television sitcoms. Let me clear this up, Jerry is the least interesting character on this show. He’s the comedian and yet he plays the straight man. I can only conclude that he knew this to be the case. George Costanza, Elaine Benes, and Cosmo Kramer made this show what it was. Jerry was simply the glue that held them together.
The series is fairly timeless, I can still watch it and except for a few movie references here and there, and the lack of cellular phones, it plays today as well as it did during the 90’s where it both reflected the culture and influenced it. And it influenced every single sitcom that ever followed it. Seriously, watch a sitcom now, you can trace something in its DNA back to “Seinfeld.”
I’ve been a fan of Joss Whedon’s work since “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” premiered. It was consistently a brilliant show, but it hit a few bumps in the road in its seven year run, same with “Angel” in its five year run. But along the way was a short lived series whose fans will never let the world forget it, the space western, “Firefly.”
Before he was Richard Castle, Nathan Fillion was Malcolm Reynolds, a once idealistic man who lost his faith in the universe around him. Knowing he was out of place in this world, he decided to gather together a rogue band of misfits and build a life with them, traveling the solar system and doing odd jobs here and there. If the jobs were illegal, well, it was his way of giving the oppressive government the finger.
Space really is the final frontier, and nowhere is that concept truer than in “Firefly.”
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came. Cheers was the archetypal hangout. If we didn’t have a place like this in our lives, we all wish we did. This series also had the perfect ensemble. Everyone was an archetype as well as a fully realized character in their own right. And they all grew and changed as the series progressed, with one exception.
The first five seasons, especially, are brilliant TV. We watched our two leads, Sam Malone and Diane Chambers’, relationship grow from hate to love back to hate, and go through every emotion in the book. It was hilarious and it never felt forced or dishonest. And everyone was growing around them, especially a relative latecomer to the series, Dr. Frasier Crane. If there was one flaw, it was after Diane left the series; Sam Malone began to regress as a character while everyone continued to grow around him.
Still, it was smart, every episode was funny, and the show knew when it was time to finally bow out. “Cheers” was a huge part of the pop culture, and it did not overstay its welcome, nor did it leave to early. It knew when it was time to go, and it left us feeling nostalgic to this day.
13. South Park
“South Park” is terrific. As “The Simpsons” before it, it changed the face of primetime animation. Unlike “The Simpsons,” the show never declined, in fact with their formula of producing an episode in six days, it has always managed to reflect where we are as a culture and a society and holds a mirror up to us to show us how stupid we’re behaving. Every time something big happens in the news, or in pop culture, I always wonder what “South Park” is going to say about it. It even had me questioning at one point what was worse “Jersey Shore” or al Qaeda.
No one is safe on “South Park,” there are no sacred cows. And honestly, this is a good thing. There shouldn’t be any sacred cows. And anytime a sacred cow is propped up, I think the best thing one can do is to tear it down. And through four foul mouthed fourth graders, “South Park” does this week after week.
12. Married With Children
Once upon a time, this was the most crass and irreverent series on television. And it’s still up there. Meet Al Bundy, a former High School football star who became a poor shoe salesman. Adding to his misery is his lazy, unemployed wife, Peggy, his vapid, bimbo daughter, Kelly, and his scheming, perverted son, Bud. Not to mention his feminist neighbor who hates his guts.
The original title for this show was going to be “Not the Cosbys” and it shows. Where the Cosbys were wholesome, loving, supportive, and so sweet they made you want to puke, the Bundys were the exact opposite. I think every family is dysfunctional, some are just more dysfunctional than others. And it was funny; it was laugh out loud funny.
I prefer the earlier seasons with David Garrison as Steve Rhodes to Ted McGinley’s Jefferson D’Arcy. Steve was the exact opposite of Al, a successful banker, kind of a geek, and utterly whipped by his wife. So it was fun to watch Al slowly, over time, destroy this guy. I didn’t care for Jefferson’s lame “I’m a CIA agent” past. That was around the time the show became a live action cartoon. It was still funny, but it wasn’t the same.
11. The Venture Bros.
In the past, I’ve pitched this show to people by describing it as Greg Weisman getting together with Matt Stone and Trey Parker to make an adult cartoon. “The Venture Bros” is brilliant. Brilliant in its satirical humor, brilliant in its references to comic books, old Hanna-Barbera cartoons, and 60’s 70’s and 80’s music and pop culture. And it’s definitely genius in its overarching story arcs and actual character development.
The theme of the series is failure, and “Venture Bros” presents it in a way that is just sublime. Our protagonist is Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture, a bitter, self-centered, dick who didn’t live up to the expectations the world had for him. He is far more concerned with getting rich and getting laid than he is with raising his sons, Hank and Dean, or worrying about his arch-enemy, The Monarch, who is probably the only person on the planet just as pathetic as he is.
The show always makes me laugh, and it’s also the sort of show I get together with friends to discuss what happened, and what could possibly be coming up. Like I said, the story arcs are brilliant, and if they’re not pre-planned, they certainly feel like it. A little seemingly throwaway line of dialogue in season one becomes an important plot element by the third or fourth season. It’s just genius, and I would love to work on this show in some capacity.
10. Batman the Animated Series
Before anyone crucifies me for daring to put other animated series ahead of this one, I love this series. I love it. I can and often do pop my DVD in and tune into a random episode when I am in the mood. I thought the seasons that ran on Fox Kids were brilliant. I didn’t care much for it after the move to Kids WB, but before the move, this series was the most groundbreaking thing to happen to television animation since “The Simpsons.”
Before this series came out, action cartoons were terribly animated. Take a look at shows like “Transformers” and “GI Joe” and take a look at Batman’s contemporaries like “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” and look at how cruddy the animation was. There were so many details in the character models that those characters could barely move. I feel for the animators in Korea who had to draw Wolverine’s body hairs over and over. Bruce Timm was a genius; he came in and simplified the designs to allow for fluid movement. And the style of the series was dark and moody. It was the most atmospheric cartoon to ever air on American TV.
The writing was brilliant too. While I greatly prefer overarching storylines and character development, when it came to done in ones, Batman was the best at it. Each episode was packed and told a complete story, with some great character writing. Without this show, American animation wouldn’t be what it is today.
Yes, it did spin off an entire universe of shows, “Superman,” “The New Batman Adventures,” “Batman Beyond,” “Justice League,” Justice League Unlimited” and while I like some of those shows better than others, none of them matched "Batman the Animated Series." They caught lightning in a bottle with “Batman the Animated Series” and created a timeless classic for the ages.
9. The Colbert Report
Every time I tune in, I ask myself just what the hell Stephen is going to do next. This man is dangerous, and dangerous in the good way. Stephen Colbert plays himself, sort of (but not really) as a faux conservative commentator very much in the vein of Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. Like a small child who thinks he’s the center of the universe, and he finds a way to make every story about him.
Whether he’s calling President Obama a “scary black man” or warning us about the danger we are in because of the Bear Agenda, Stephen Colbert is fighting for us. Who doesn’t love that he has his own Super Pac? And I do want to know how many people in Iowa voted for Rick Parry. There are so many segments I can point at and say “look at this, he’s brilliant!” But my all time favorites will always be the “Better Know a District” segments where he sits down with these congressmen and makes them look like the fools that they are, except for Eleanor Holmes Norton who had his number. Of course, he doesn’t do this segment much anymore, I think most of Congress is afraid of him and rightly so.
Stephen Colbert, if there is a god, you are doing that god’s work.
Spin-offs seldom work, and it’s even rarer that they exceed the series they’ve spun off from. “Frasier” was better than “Cheers.” I loved the ensemble; I loved the premise, and the setting. After Dr. Frasier Crane divorces his wife, Lilith, he leaves Boston and moves back to Seattle where he becomes a radio psychiatrist while trying to re-connect with his father, who he has always had a distant relationship with.
The writing was funny but mature at the same time. This was definitely a sitcom for grownups. Not that you need to be well read to appreciate it, but it helps. I probably knew more about what Frasier and Niles were talking about than what Martin was talking about when he went on about sports. Niles was my favorite character in the series, and I thought he had the best lines in the series, maybe even on television. His wit and sarcasm still slays me even to this day.
When “Frasier” ended, I don’t think the void has ever been filled. Most sitcoms since then seem to be voids of vapidness. Don’t get me wrong, there have been some gems since then, like “Arrested Development.” But nothing quite like “Frasier.” I hope this is rectified.
I was a latecomer to this series. I didn’t have Showtime. I knew about it, I knew the basic premise, but I had not seen it. Hell, I didn’t even know what Michael C. Hall looked like. I’ve had friends rave about it for years. After one particular friend of mine went several weeks talking about nothing else but “Dexter” I finally checked it out.
This show is brilliant. I love it when ethical questions are raised, and this show raises them and makes our rational sides confront our own inner savages. Dexter is a serial killer who kills other killers, child molesters, the worst dregs of society. We root for him as he does this, but then we ask ourselves is this right? Is he a monster and are we monsters for applauding this behavior?
The closest real life comparison I can think of right now is the death of Osama bin Laden. Was it the right thing to do? I say yes. Was it legal? Well, we did invade a sovereign country. It wasn’t the legal thing to do. But the trash needed to take out, and this was a long time coming.
When my brother and I watch this show, the thing we seem to discuss the most is Dexter’s foster father, Harry. Did he do the right thing or should he have gotten this kid extensive therapy? Would therapy have even helped? Ultimately, Harry was a man; a good man, but a flawed one. I think he loved Dexter as much as he hated the system which let many murderers walk.
Also, one thing about the show is how Dexter is the outsider trying to blend in, I think on some level we can all relate to that one. We all have our own inner demons, and I think each one of us has our own dark passenger. Most of us aren’t killers, but we all have impulses.
6. The Spectacular Spider-Man
I’ve talked about this show a lot, so I will keep it brief. Not only is this the perfect adaptation of Spider-Man and his mythos, this is also the single perfect superhero show. Peter Parker has always been the everyman, and his life has always been just as interesting as Spider-Man’s crime fighting career; maybe more so. This series balanced the two aspects of his life perfectly and every character felt real and alive, as opposed to previous adaptations of Spider-Man where everyone was a walking plot device.
“The Spectacular Spider-Man” did for Spidey what “Batman the Animated Series” did for Batman. As Bruce Timm did before them, Vic Cook and Sean Galloway simplified the designs to allow for fast and fluid movements. And did it ever pay off. I’ve never seen action scenes in an animated series as lively and dynamic as the ones here. It was breathtaking.
This series also, for me, represents a time in my life where the possibilities were endless. I was living in Los Angeles, going to film school, while the series was in production and being aired. I was down at the studio so often I may as well have been working on the series. I didn’t, beyond helping to get a few character references when Marvel was slow in providing them.
Most of all, the series had heart. Everyone involved had a great deal of love, affection, and respect for the series, the character, and the mythos and it shined on screen. Most other adaptations of the wall-crawler lacked that, and were mostly put together by people who didn’t care for much except their paycheck. I’m looking at you Toby Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, and John Semper Jr.! “The Spectacular Spider-Man” shows that a creative team can’t just be competent, they have to love what they do, because the results do pay off.
5. The Sopranos
If “Seinfeld” changed the face of sitcoms, “The Sopranos” changed television dramas, and really put premium cable on the map. For the eight years this show was on, it was the one show everybody talked about. Even presidential candidates made references to Tony Soprano in speeches, debates, and commercials. It was everywhere.
In a lot of ways, it was modern day Shakespeare. Family tragedies in modern America, but instead of royalty, it used a mafia family. When you think about it, aren’t Mafia families the closest thing we have to medieval royal families in this day and age? Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola understood that.
The series benefited from powerful writing, understated acting, and characters we could relate to. These characters felt real, and most of the time it seemed like someone was actually documenting the lives of a real family.
I think what we could all relate to was the feeling Tony had that he was born in the wrong decade. The heyday of the Mafia is long over, and as I look at this terrible economy we’re living in, I wonder if the same could be said about America. Are we over as a country? Is the American dream dead? “The Sopranos” asks this question.
4. Cowboy Bebop
“Where has this been all my life?” That was the first thing I said after I watched this series for the first time. I’m not a fan of anime, but I loved “Cowboy Bebop.” After I was done with “Bebop” I went on an anime/manga spree, and aside from “Berserk” I didn’t find much else that appealed to me. But “Cowboy Bebop” remains one of the best pieces of art I’ve ever exposed myself to.
The music is brilliant, the characters are lively. I love Spike Spiegel, one of the all time great heroes of any medium. The guy running away from his past, but no matter how far he runs, he can never escape it. I adore Faye Valentine, the woman without a past so desperately trying to find it.
It’s funny, it’s tragic, it’s dramatic, it’s sad, and it’s joyous. Except for one mediocre episode, all twenty-six are pure gold. It’s like listening to a classic vinyl album again and again. I always come back to this show. Words cannot describe how in love with it I’ve always been.
3. Babylon 5
I’ve dedicated an entire entry to this show, so again, I’ll be brief. “Babylon 5” is everything good science fiction should be. It asks questions, it speculates, but it doesn’t answer those questions. That’s our job. As series creator, J. Michael Straczynski, said “a good story should provoke discussion, debate, argument… and the occasional bar fight.” And this series is good at that. Great at that.
It also sadly seems to have been forgotten in the annals of television history, and that is a great pity. If anything, it’s done more for television science fiction than any other series. It was the first to stand up to the big bully that is Paramount and prove you could have a successful space faring science fiction series without “Star Trek” stamped to it. And Paramount tried hard to kill it. They stole from the series bible and pitch when J. Michael Straczynski pitched the show to them, announced “Deep Space Nine” shortly after B5 was accounced in the trades, rushed their pilot out to beat it to the airwaves, and tried to pressure sponsors and weaker networks into not supporting it. But “Babylon 5” persevered and told its story. The door was opened for others.
Love the new “Battlestar Galactica?” Thank “Babylon 5.” Adore “Firefly?” Thank “Babylon 5.” Enjoy “Stargate” and “Farscape?” You get the idea. “Babylon 5” picked a fight with the school yard bully and paved the way for you all to come in. It may not have had the best sets or the best special effects, but unlike post original series “Star Trek,” B5 had writing and vision. It was the first five year novel, and it impacted the way I think.
Remember how I said that “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” were the McDonalds and Burger King of television science fiction? Well, “Babylon 5” is that amazing, four star restaurant where the steaks are perfect.
Okay, you’ve all heard me talk about this show before, so instead of discussing the show specifically, I’ll just say what it did for me. “Gargoyles” is what inspired me. It inspired me to become a writer; it was the first time I ever asked myself questions like “who wrote this?” “Who acted in this?” “Where did this come from?” While I’m sure that would have happened anyway, “Gargoyles” was the catalyst.
It also started a life journey. I started reading a lot of Shakespeare, became something of a fanatic, I started reading the classics, really self educating myself, and eventually I went to film school and started writing my own works. I can safely say the path I am on would not have happened if not for “Gargoyles.” And I can watch this series any time and never get tired of it.
"Gargoyles" followed in the path of "Batman the Animated Series" with simplified designs that animated beautifully, but unlike "Batman," it brought long term story arcs and character development to the world of television animation, and a lot of other shows have since followed in its footsteps.
Now, before I move on to #1. I just want to say that this was tough. I didn’t know what was going to be #1. So I flipped a coin and decided that I hated being predictable.
1. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
If “Gargoyles” inspired me on my path in life, “The Daily Show” is what keeps me going and makes me want to kill myself less. I look at the state of the world, the news media, our government, our economy, and frankly our culture and the people in it, and I am disgusted. Then Jon Stewart manages to make me look at it, and laugh at the same time. All the while making sure I never give up hope that this world is worth living in. Make no mistake, I’m not suicidal, it’s all just a figure of speech. But Jon has saved me from complete depression more than once.
Jon Stewart might possibly be both the smartest and funniest man on television. Sure he is just a comedian, but he understands the issues and what’s going on better than many supposed experts and our elected representatives. His shining moments being his first broadcast after the attacks on September 11th, when he brought down “Crossfire,” and when he shamed Congress into passing a bill to take care of 9/11 first responders. The man is an American icon and an American hero.
Jon Stewart is the Mark Twain of our era, and I think he will be remembered as such after he is gone.