When my editors asked me to compile a list of the 100 most influential TV shows as part of the history of television time line, I thought it would be a snap. I am, after all, kinda a fan of the medium. But when I started to pull the list together, I realized that this assignment had a lot of historical significance and would be a lot more complicated than I initially thought.
Some of the shows, like I Love Lucy, All in the Family, The Waltons, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, St. Elsewhere, The Sopranos and Lost (a tiny fraction), were no-brainers while others—The Milton Berle Show, Amos ‘n’ Andy, The $64,000 Question, Julia, Life Goes On, Murphy Brown, much lesser known The Corner Bar—had real historical importance.
Milton “Uncle Miltie” Berle, of course, was the first TV star and a variety pioneer. While I was not alive when Amos ‘n’ Andy aired, I’m aware of the protesters who thought this comedy about two African Americans was racist. The Corner Bar featured the first regularly scheduled gay character. Diahann Carroll was the first black actress to headline her own comedy, Julia. And Life Goes On featured a character with Down’s Syndrome and another who was HIV-positive. They were all ahead of their time.
While I can’t say I am the biggest fan of Candice Bergen (Emmy certainly was), Vice President Dan Quayle created a storm of controversy by criticizing her character on Murphy Brown for being single and pregnant. The power of television at that very moment was never more visible. There have been countless shows over the years that are socially relevant, and hopefully my time line picks reflect that.
A few other examples: CBS canned The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour for being too radical, and on Maude, lead character Maude (played by Bea Arthur) had an abortion. One of the Evans’ neighbors was so destitute she was eating cat food on Good Times, and NYPD Blue broke barriers with seminude scenes.
Top-rated entries like the series finale of original The Fugitive and the “Who Shot J.R.” episode on Dallas are worthy of being included because of their mammoth reach. And so are series like Gunsmoke and Bonanza; Bewitched and The Munsters; The Twilight Zone; The Andy Griffith Show and The Beverly Hillbillies; Charlie’s Angels and Hill Street Blues; Cheers and Seinfeld; and Dragnet, Law & Order and CSI, which helped define genres.
Some shows I loved didn’t make the cut. I passed on Little House on the Prairie because The Waltons came first. I also left off any Norman Lear comedy after All in the Family and Maude and any serialized drama of a certain era after Dallas (Knots Landing and Dynasty, in particular). There were just too many shows I could have selected, so worthy entries like The Lone Ranger, The Untouchables, the original Hawaii Five-O, Barney Miller, Cagney & Lacey, thirtysomething, Arrested Development and Good Times were not included. I’ll hold a spot for them in our next 100.
This exercise was not without dilemma. Do I include rubbish like Gilligan’s Island and Full House simply because viewers loved them? Is The Brady Bunch worthy? And does a long-running entry like America’s Funniest Home Videos deserve to be included because it will never, ever end?
Since the overall goal of this time line was to cater to a variety of tastes, they made the cut. Critical accolades are good, but it is certainly not the determining factor, nor was just high ratings. When setting up this time line, I even took into account fashion (Miami Vice), absurdity (Batman) and empty calories (The Love Boat).
If there’s something you think I missed, or should not have included, feel free to post your thoughts on PIFeedback.com. When it comes to TV, everyone has an opinion…or two.