At the dawn of the medium, television was hailed as a way to bring quality cultural events directly into the family living room. Even the name "television" means "to see at a distance," allowing us immediate access to global audio and video content. It would entertain, educate and illuminate. It was going to turn audiences into geniuses overnight (oh yes, they said that). Instead, it devolved into cacophonous noise half-consciously absorbed by beer-swilling couch potatoes, whose general IQs slipped, rather than rose. With the exceptions of the Moon landings and a handful of programs (noted below), television has assiduously failed in its grand promise to elevate the general population. As one of the greats of early television, Ernie Kovacs, famously stated, "Television is called a medium, because it is neither rare nor well done."
All of that aside, we doggedly press on in hopes of salvaging something of value from this vast cultural wasteland. This list will have a decidedly Western cultural slant, because we've watched a lot of Asian programming and well, except for the drop-dead (unintentional) laugh factories of Thai and Indonesian soap operas, daiz slim pickin's.
Some criteria were selected to guide us:
- By definition, a show had to be created specifically for television - no movies or movie-to-teevee content, and freely available on the public airwaves, so no cable-only or pay-per-view.
- The series had to have more than one episode, but didn't necessarily have to have "seasons" or be temporally consecutive, so mini-series and shows that featured different casts and stories in each episode were allowed if they had a common framework tying everything together.
- The shows had to have exceptional writing, acting and/or other qualities, though not necessarily large budgets (very few of the really good stuff gets sufficient funding).
- The shows had to have impacted the general culture in a profound and positive way, and not just with personalities or gimmicks.
- And finally, we have to like it, since it's our list and we can do whatever we want.
Note that the years given are for the broadcast premiers.
Without further annoyance, the Top 10 Television Series of All Time!
Masterpiece and split into three formats, this is one of the few shows to fully deliver on the promise of television. The content is produced by British television networks, like the BBC and ITV, and this program amalgamates the very best programmes (sic) into a weekly presentation platform. The long-running public television series has consistently brought the greatest cultural treasures to our living rooms, including most notably adaptations of famous novels and dramatized biographies, though its original productions are among some of the finest examples of writing and acting for the small screen, as well. The show's achievements include a staggering list of some of the finest made-for-television dramas ever produced, and its repertoire includes our #1 pick on this list. The show's multi-decade success (no Emmy event is complete without at least one entry from Masterpiece) is a testament to the wisdom of having PBS, as well as proof that there is still intelligent life to be found in America.
9. Columbo (1971) - One of the longest-lived mystery/detective show ever created, this series almost single-handedly popularized the inverted exposition style (howcatchem vs. whodunit), while creating one of the most iconic detectives in the genre's history, including Agatha Christie's and P. D. James' master detectives. Peter Falk's rumpled, absent-minded, cigar-champing, glass-eyed, underestimated eponymous character became one of America's favorite sleuths. Audience's waited for the detective's signature phrase, "Oh, just one more thing," that told them he was finally ready to spring the trap and take down his opponent. With 69 episodes over 32 years (1-1/2 to 2 hours each), Columbo is probably one of the most successful underdog sleuth shows ever (Scooby Doo excepted), with only two recurring characters, one of whom (Mrs. Columbo) is never seen or heard (we could also include his car). The show also featured the cream of television's A-list character actors as the perps, making for some quality moments in the medium's history.
8. Saturday Night Live (1975) - Inspired by Chile's long-running Sabado Gigante, this show has been in production continuously for so many years that there are now generations of people who consider "their cast" to be the definitive one. When we started watching, the Not Ready for Prime Time Players were the undisputed kings of late-night comedy. Forty years and a dozen casts later, the show's format has little changed, but the faces have blurred in a rapidly revolving door to stardom. There is no dispute that the show launched dozens of major careers, from Chevy Chase to Will Farrell, from movie spin-offs and star franchises to catch-phrases and unforgettable characters. One is hard-pressed to think of another show that has had such a profound effect on its cultural milieu, and it shows little sign of relenting.
Robert Altman's blackly satirical film left off and took its place alongside Hogan's Heroes, F-Troop and Gomer Pyle, USMC in the war comedy genre. However, instead of poking fun at military life in a lighthearted superficial manner, this show went straight for the heart of war itself, balancing the gallows humor with gory scenes of "meatball" surgery and the reality of human brutality. This show arguably added to the growing anti-war movement of the time, while concurrently providing a release valve for social tensions. The show also features fine acting by master craftsmen. From Hawkeye's food sniffing and Blake's obsession with fishing flies, to Radar's exceptional hearing and the faceless Announcer, the characters are some of the most fully developed in television universes. The secret of the show's long run was the way in which it put three-dimensional characters in horrific situations who protected their sanity with a barrier of humor. After 45 years, it still works.
6. The Simpsons (1989) - There is little we can add to the great piles of writing about this world-famous, culturally significant series. The eponymous family in this animated comedy have spent the past quarter-century lampooning and lambasting American culture. The iconoclastic series started as a 2-minute short segment on The Tracy Ullman Show, and developed into an entire industry that has satirized so much of modern culture that it has now turned on itself, ridiculing its own success and place in the society at which it once poked unrelenting fun. Sure, maybe its overstayed its usefulness, but few will disagree that the first ten seasons were some of the finest moments in television comedy and satire, slaughtering every sacred cow it could get its yellow, three-fingered hands on. The show has lent characters, catch phrases and situations to our common core. What we really appreciate about it, though, is the more you know about Western culture and history, the funnier it gets, and even if you don't get the subtler jokes, there's always the signs in the background.
5. I Love Lucy (1951) - This consistently funny series is partly notable for the creation (by Desi Arnaz) of the multi-camera production technique and the formation of Desilu Studios, which brought the world such things as Star Trek (see below) and ultimately became Paramount Television. Real-life husband-and-wife team Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball created one of the most enduring situation comedies of all time, still in re-runs over 65 years later, and still just as funny. It brought the world such iconic skits as the Candy Factory, the Vita-meata-vegamin skit, and the unforgettable recreation of the Duck Soup mirror bit with Lucy and Harpo Marx performed in front of a live audience in a single take. If you aren't laughing out loud watching these sketches, please check your pulse and call a doctor pronto!
4. The Twilight Zone (1959) - This incredible series had no single story line, no consistent characters (other than the host) and only a broad theme of irony and mystery to tie it together. Yet, it became one of the most iconic shows in television history. The show's opening titles, score and narration style have become synonymous with "strange." Host Rod Serling's squinty-eyed, cigarette smoking vignettes have spawned hundreds of parodies and imitations. The stories themselves have inspired countless other shows and spin-offs. Each 30-minute segment was a self-contained morality play, using plot twists and reveals to jar the viewer into another dimension of thought, playing with perceptions and turning prejudices on themselves. In the real world, the show launched dozens of careers for writers, directors and actors. It also featured masterful performances by such craftsmen as Burgess Meredith and Robert Redford.
a fanatical cult following unlike any other cultural phenomenon in history (religions excepted). This show is arguably responsible for automatic doors, cell phones, 3-D printers, Bluetooth devices, floppy disks, and piles of real-world technologies (good, bad or indifferent). It also created cultural catch phases (Beam me up, Scotty) that are so embedded in the language that many people don't even know their origin now. Hell, real-world spacecraft have actually been named from this show. That's influence! The show broke so much ground that its wake looks like a plowed field of broken taboos and cultural firsts. If imitation and parody are measures of success, then this show is likely to be as durable as any of the classical composers, and one of the most significant cultural products of the 20th century.
2. Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969) - Though comprised of only 45 episodes spread originally over three years, this series has left a massive footprint in the center of modern Western culture. The first time we saw this show (at midnight on Saturday nights after SNL), we were left slack-jawed and completely mystified. This show took every convention of the medium, as well as history, pop culture, politics, and daily life, and flogged them until they were minced hulks of quivering flesh. Featuring a series of five- to seven-minute sketches tied together with non sequitur, this show has attained the position of legend and a great many people can quote entire segments verbatim, even today. There is truly nothing like this show before or since, though it has inspired entire careers and it's own adjective (pythonesque).
We felt it was necessary to highlight such popular, long-running shows as Britain's Dr. Who, Chile's Sabado Gigante, and Germany's Tatort. Each of these shows has run more than 40 years, meaning they offered something of value to audiences, and have had lasting impacts on their genres and cultures, inspiring spin-offs and imitations, though never equaled.
We should also note that Masterpiece Theatre has included some of the most respected productions of any kind for television, such as Brideshead Revisited, Upstairs/Downstairs, and The Jewel in the Crown. We selected I, Claudius because it has the greatest appeal to large and diverse audiences, as well as a story line as timeless as the city of Rome itself. Unlike other productions, it is distinctly less Anglo-centric and stuffy than the normal British fare.
We welcome reader comments and additions. We try to make our criteria as objective as possible, but at some point, we have to inject our personal values into the equation.
From L.K. in the US:
Since TV has gotten so bad anymore, I watch the oldies and most are on your list. My favs are Columbo and Mash. Another one I enjoy is Murder She Wrote.
There is a program called Me TV that plays all the old situation comedies too.
I fail to see humor in most of the new shows, and I love humor. Carol Burnetts shows have always had me on the floor, with Tim Conway as the old man.