Television in the English-speaking world has always been a medium with a chip on its shoulder and something to prove. It’s been called the ‘boob tube’ and the ‘idiot box’, and social scientists remind us regularly how much time we spend watching it, while social critics condemn us for watching too much. As early as 1961, FCC Chairman Newton Minow called television a “vast wasteland”, although, in a less often quoted line from the same speech, he added, “When television is good, nothing … is better.”
Despite occasional sporadically-enforced bans on television on ‘school nights’, I managed to watch an enormous amount of television while growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. While I have curbed my TV appetite significantly in recent years, during my adulthood I have sat on a couch staring at a screen for more hours than I can count. My tastes as a small child ran to cartoons (Tom & Jerry, Caspar, Roadrunner & Coyote, Bugs Bunny), the Little Rascals and Saturday morning live action shows (Banana Splits, H.R. Pufnstuf, anyone?) By the time Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street came along in 1968, I was moving on to live TV series – Batman, Get Smart, Time Tunnel, Gomer Pyle – and movies. My father and I had a ritual of going through the TV Guide every week so he could pick out great movies for me to watch. Back then, the local stations and PBS played lots of old feature films – horror and science fiction particularly, but it could be anything from The Gold Rush to The Searchers to Gidget Goes Hawaiian. (And of course the annual broadcast of The Wizard of Oz. I’ll never forget the shock I got when my parents bought a color TV and I found out that Kansas was in black and white, but Oz was in dazzling Technicolor.) The local stations also played reruns of cancelled series from the ‘50s and ‘60s, giving me the chance to see I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Twilight Zone and The Burns and Allen Show. (Only later as an adult did I discover the joys of Your Show of Shows and the warped genius of Ernie Kovacs.) Of course, television brought a lot more into the house than dramas and sit-coms, kids’ shows, and old movies. Between 1968 and 1974, I watched battlefield coverage of the Vietnam War on the evening news, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the Miracle Mets winning the World Series, Neil Armstrong taking his first steps on the moon, the Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky chess match, the terrifying Munich Olympics, the Watergate hearings, and Nixon’s resignation – all live on TV.
While I always had my favorite shows, the omnipresence of programming, even before the explosion of channels with cable, meant that sometimes I settled for less – and there was plenty of it. For every M*A*S*H, there was more than one One Day at a Time (ahh, Valerie Bertinelli…). For every Columbo, there was a Charlie’s Angels. By the mid-1970s, we had imported some British television (Monty Python, Masterpiece Theater) and raised sketch comedy to another level with Saturday Night Live. But by the late ‘70s, American TV seemed to be in a slump that was only relieved somewhat by innovative series like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere in the early 1980s. But a renaissance was coming, and it was heralded by two events: the rise of paid cable, particularly HBO, and Rupert Murdoch’s 1986 launching of Fox Television to challenge the big three TV networks.
In 1987, Fox premiered two landmark comedies: Married … with Children and The Tracey Ullmann Show (the latter included a Matt Groening cartoon feature that in 1989 would become The Simpsons.) While they may seem tame now, these irreverent, push-the-envelope series and those that followed on Fox in the early 1990s (Beverly Hills 90210, Get a Life, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, Melrose Place, The Ben Stiller Show, The X-Files, Party of Five, MadTV) shook up the rest of television and injected new life and creativity into the medium, leading to a sustained upsurge that may not have peaked yet. When HBO abandoned its original purpose of showing theatrically-released movies and began producing consistently excellent original series in the late 1980s, the bar was raised even higher, as the major networks and even smaller cable channels like AMC, A&E, FX, TNT and TBS rose to the challenge set by The Larry Sanders Show, Oz, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Band of Brothers, The Wire, Deadwood, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. We’re at a point now when serious critics will occasionally announce that the writing for the best television shows is better than that found in Hollywood’s latest releases. I don’t feel qualified to agree or disagree, but I do think that Mr. Minow may have been right: if you were forced to watch a few hours from every one of the hundreds of available channels on your television (not to mention streaming content on Hulu, Netflix, etc.), you might decide that television is still a vast wasteland. But if you choose carefully, and select the best that TV can offer, it would not surprise me if you concluded that the quality and entertainment value available is as good as anything else out there, if not better.
The above is just a prelude to my meta-list of the Best TV Shows of All Time, based on a compilation of numerous lists by critics, writers and experts (click on link below). Disagree with the top vote-getter? Don’t have a cow, man.