And on up the list we go, all the time gettin' better and better...
60) Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62) It’s Hitch himself who propelled this show to its place on the list. I think that ol' Alfred still remains the world’s most recognized director largely on the basis of his droll intros and outros for this delectably morbid anthology series. As far as the stories themselves, peopled with an incredible array of movie and TV stars, well, the series would find its way here simply based on the episode titled “A Perfect Murder.” I won’t spoil things by recounting this segment’s story; those of you who know what I’m talking about will agree, and those of you who don’t have a clue, well, this let's you know you have something to look forward to catching on the tube.
59) Iron Chef America (2005-present) The excitement I feel as this quicksilver approach to TV cooking shows begins each week is heart-stopping. Two teams of culinary pros are assigned to concoct a full meal, in an hour's time, with each course having to include one surprise ingredient. Even if I know who’s gonna win (and it’s like that most every time), I still gobble up the rush I get watching the unbeatable Mario Batalli whipping up some kinda ice cream with rhubarb in it, or some wannabe Iron Chef sizzling a fillet of sole with a delicate sweet potato garnish. It’s perfect TV—a
combination critique, game show, and cooking show! My foodie friend Tom Georganakis and I gorged on it every time we whiled away the late-night hours looking for something good on cable; coming upon this show, the decision as to what to watch was always certain. The Japanese counterpart from which it sprung is good, too, but I feel distanced by its cultural stick-to-it’veness ("The secret incredient is what now? Some kind of slimy bean pod? Ewwwww...") Give me the American version of Iron Chef, which we all can enjoy with relish and, hey, can I get a some onions with that?
58) Saturday Night Live (1975-present) When I was nine years old, this NBC show slammed onto the late-nite airwaves like nothing else before it or since has ever done. Back then, I looked forward to going over to my cousin Greg’s house every weekend to watch it, and I still remember being with him in the darkened TV room, staying up later than any pre-teens had the right to do, drinking Pepsi and withstanding the barrage of oh-so-naughty adult entertainment being thrown at us. Given our age, of course when Walter Williams’ Mr. Bill came on the air (invariably towards the end of the show), me and Greg went absolutely apeshit, we loved it so! Thinking about it now—where the couch was in the room, the position of the TV, the light coming in from the streetlamp outside, the silences as the show came back from station breaks--my heart still races!
I recall reacting in so many different ways to Saturday Night Live’s offerings: I was puzzled and intrigued by “Bad Theater” with the unctuous Leonard Pinth-Garnell; cruelly fascinated by The Nerds (Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and Jane Curtain in full goofball, so-unhip-it’s-hip territory); totally creeped out by Buck Henry as the pervy uncle who comes to babysit for Radner and Larraine Newman, taking pictures of them in suggestive poses as they were joyfully unaware of his real intent (could this skit even be done today?); weirdly touched by the longing tones of the Scotch Tape store sketches, with their quietly funny doodlings of a sad, inevitably failed commercial enterprise; struck dumb by the legendary Star Trek skit, where TV execs came in and stripped Spock of his ears and Kirk of his command; comically horrified by Dan Ackroyd’s Julia Child, heroically keeping on with the show as her life’s blood drained away from a nasty knife wound; extremely hopeful when Lorne Michaels offered the Beatles $4000 to reunite on the show (turns out, Lennon and McCartney were then watching the show in NYC, toying with the idea of hopping a taxi to 30 Rock so's to take Michaels up on the offer—oh, how close we came); sent zooming into outer space by the glorious dance that Steve Martin and Gilda Radner did together as desperately lonely people who exchange glances in a crowded bar (still my favorite moment of SNL's run); deliciously confused by the then-new idea of spoofing TV commercials so well that you couldn’t tell whether they were real or fake until the optimum moment. These memories, and so many more, have become an inextricable part of me, and if the series had ended at its sixth year, this show would be way higher up on the list. I don’t have to tell you what happened; mediocrity and even plain sludge sometimes intervened.
Don’t get me wrong: I still love Will Farrell and Cheri Oteri’s cheerleader bits, Harry Shearer and Martin Short’s indelible synchronized swimming, and absolutely anything that Eddie Murphy, Phil Hartman, Amy Pohler, Tina Fey, the great comic poet Jack Handey, and unofficial cast members Steve Martin and Christopher Walken have contributed. I find that almost every episode, even today, has at least a few laughs in it (I'm really starting to like Kenan Thompson these days). But will Saturday Night Live ever reach the heights it reached in those first few years with Chase, Belushi, Newman, Ackroyd (the series’ single best performer), Curtin, Murray, Radner, Morris, and company? No way. No matter. I love SNL still, and hope it never goes off the air.
57) Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge (1994-95) Ahh-haaaaaa! Yes, it’s Alan Partridge, making his way through bottom-of-the-barrel entertainment drudgery with as much enthusiasm as his nervously toothy grin could muster. Even if most of us stateside have no idea of what this show is, this BBC phenomenon--a spoof of British chat shows--was the Seinfeld of its time and place, the comedy that everyone in the UK was talking about the next day ‘round the teapot. And with good reason. Steve Coogan’s desperate alter-ego is a big ol’ guffaw in the face of the present day tomfoolery surrounding the entertainment biz. I love how he has his bandleader WAYYYYY up in the rafters, a hilariously comic misfire of art direction, as he tries to communicate with him as well as he can. I revel in Alan Partridge's fawning over bigger names (Roger Moore?) supposedly coming to join him as the lesser guests sit uncomfortably on the couches next to him; and his guests are always on to his game, giving him as much crap as he deserves. The brilliant Steve Coogan deserves to be a big star worldwide and I hope he gets that prize ASAP.
56) M.A.S.H. (1972-83) Has any other series, drama or comedy, led double lives like this one? I get just a little bit tired when I hear someone say “Oh, I like the earlier funny episodes.” Well, I like them all. Head writer Larry Gelbart and second head writer Alan Alda did incredible work transforming Robert Altman’s landmark movie into a television show—so much so that I’d bet most people would identify M.A.S.H. as a TV series before they’d note it as a film, too. Now, looking back on it, if Robert Altman had wanted to return to his TV roots, I think he would’ve easily pegged this as a TV-friendly enterprise and jumped on the wagon with it. As it stands, this CBS series, following a group of doctors patching up the wounded during the Korean War, has much more life to it than the very great movie that birthed it. Alda’s Hawkeye was a funny but pained, longing-for-home presence, and when dedicated family man B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell) entered into his tent, that
longing became much more intense. That’s why I can accept the seriousness of the latter-day entries, when home became some place the characters just couldn't wait to return to. I can recall being a teenager and, biting my knuckles, witnessing the program’s greatest episode: a battle for a single soldier’s life, with a ticking time clock at the bottom of the screen to keep us informed of the situation’s gravity. I’ll never shake the black-and-white documentary episode, with its heartbreaking frankness about the costs of war. I treasure the characters in the show, particularly Gary Burghoff (the only veteran of the movie to make it to the TV show) as the gentle Corporal O’Reilly and Henry Morgan as the stern but understanding Col. Sherman Potter. And never has there been such hoopla surrounding what is still the single most watched episode of any TV series in history: the shattering finale called “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen.” Yes, I revere the laughs the show provided but, in the end, I think I really prefer the more serious M.A.S.H., the one without the laugh track but with a beating heart to it. But I’m thankful for the series as a whole, and it really, to the core, affected America and its politics for the better. Here's a great fan-vid, set to the original song "Suicide is Painless," brought to YouTube by CrazyDiamond1966.
55) Get A Life (1990-92) Whoa! This wackiness was DETERMINED to make you laugh, whether you wanted to or not. Late Night with David Letterman refugee Chris Elliott assayed an incredibly irritating hero as Chris, the housebound, childlike “paperboy” who’s ignorance of the world outside comes up to bite him on the be-hind when he decides to venture out and see what it’s got in store for him. Elliott’s singular style hasn’t found an outlet yet like this one, truly one man’s doggedly warped vision of bringing as much silliness into households as he was allowed by FOX to transmit. I find it very poignant that he gets to play alongside his father, the legendary Bob Elliott, who has just as many laugh lines as his son. Thinking about the series now, I can’t get the image of Spewy, Chris’s vomiting alien friend, out of my mind. If you’ve never seen Get A Life, this clip will let you know what you are in for: unbridled chaos.
54) Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (1986-91) I have to admit, I’ve seen precious few episodes of this incredible kid’s show that takes its place alongside Soupy Sales, Romper Room, Bozo, and Howdy Doody as the premier TV clubhouse where little ones come to run rampant. But that doesn’t stop me from placing this expertly produced CBS program so high up on the list (I’m GLAD I haven’t seen so many episodes—so much more for me to enjoy in the future). I don’t need to see any more than what I’ve already taken in to know that this is one of the finest kid’s shows—hell with it, SHOWS--ever made. The direction, writing, editing, art direction, animation, acting, photography—everything is top-of-the-line in Pee-Wee’s world of play, where adulthood looms just around the corner. Thanks, Paul Reubens, for all you’ve done to bring childlike joy to grown-up hearts, and vice-versa.
53) Extras (2005-present?) At first, I was skeptical. Imagining Ricky Gervais as anyone but the unforgettable David Brent from The Office was a hard sell for me. The first three episodes sailed by on HBO without me giving in to its charms. But then the last three hit me, and something was afoot. When the second season hit, I was hooked, because the show had an arc: What do we do if we want to become famous, and then get what we want? This is why Extras exists. In it, Gervais, as ambitious actor Andy Millman, and his lovely cohort Ashley Jensen as the equally hungry Maggie Jacobs, try to find their way towards success in the most demeaning job imaginable: as movie extras. I find their friendship (and IT IS a friendship, not a boring ol’ love affair, as far as we now know) to be one of most finely illustrated relationships of its kind in TV history. They have an indelible affinity for each other that not even accomplishment can come between, and I find that stirring in the truest, most un-corny sense.
I marvel at the show’s second season, where Andy achieves a success of sorts as the goofy star of a dumb British sitcom (actually, a pretty funny one), and is still unhappy. The Extras Christmas season finale is one of the best hours you’ll ever spend watching television—the tears it brings are true drops of glowing happiness, stung with the bitterness of failure in success. With Extras, Gervais and his new counterpart Jensen (so endearing as she valiantly struggles to maintain her dreams) proved to me that, amazingly and appropriately, there are still excellent actors out there for me to root for. I have to mention here my favorite joke in the show: Andy Millman, in his sitcom guise, doing a series of spit-takes, then going to take another drink to do it again, and finding there’s no more liquid in the glass. How friggin’ funny is that? So, here, against my better judgement (and for those who haven't seen the series, don't watch this because it's a big payoff) is my favorite scene from the series. It's not the funniest bit, but it's the most important.
52) Roots (1977) I have revisited ABC’s Roots only once since its premiere back in the late 70s, when I was riveted for weeks taking in its revelations. Watching it in the mid-80s, I was still struck by how engrossing and important the mini-series was (and I've still never
caught its sequel, Roots: The Next Generation). This is the work that made the idea of a “mini-series” a viable option. But that is a minor point, really. May I just recount a partial list of remarkable cast members here to help transmit the import of Roots? Levar Burton (still unforgettable as Kunta Kinte), Maya Angelou, Louis Gossett Jr., Ben Vereen (in the show’s stand-out performance as Chicken George), Cicely Tyson, Thalmus Rasulala, Moses Gunn, John Amos, Raymond St. Jacques, O.J. Simpson, Scatman Crothers, Olivia Cole, Roxie Roker, Richard Roundtree, Leslie Uggams, Laurence Hilton-Jacobs, Yaphet Kotto, Todd Bridges, and Alex Haley (author of the novel on which the series is based) himself. An amazing collection of black talent who were given the best
material ever with which to work. I now dare to wonder if Roots could be considered the apex of the Civil Rights movement. Not at all to denigrate Dr. King and X's obviously monumental contributions, but Roots really spoke to all of America--at just the right time, when we were all truly ready and starving for it--regarding the most shameful episodes in our history. It still speaks to each of us, reminding white America of something black America has known all along: while Europeans can uncover their family heritage, African-Americans still have yet to, and unfortunately may never, discover their true background. Can a television effort get more consequential?
51) Soap (1977-81) Up to, and ever since this ABC series hit the airwaves, I've been mystified by the appeal of soap operas. I just don’t get their deal. It’s the same thing over and over again—who’s screwing who, either in the bed- or the board-room. It’s not for me (maybe it’s a guy thing). I used to get headaches listing to the drony dialogue of As The World Turns or General Hospital as they polluted the airwaves, and still to this day wonder why my mother and her mother before her--like so many mothers around the nation--put so much stock in this unneeded, ungainly drama. It was such a relief
when 4:00 pm rolled around and we were on to better programming. So when Soap debuted, I was glad there was at least one group of people who found this TV fascination equally as puzzling. The thing is, Soap turned out to be the soap opera for me. In the time of the uproar over Dallas and Who Shot J.R., I was more interested in who killed Peter Campbell (Robert Urich) in the first few episodes (now that I think about it, this came before the J.R. stuff, so I wonder how much of an influence Soap had on Dallas). And when it came time to unmask the killer, I was spellbound, and was so for the entire run of the series. There were no boundaries to where this program would travel. It could get quite outlandish, as when the unbalanced Burt Campbell (the incredible Robert Mulligan) felt he was possessed by an alien power that could make him invisible at will. But then there would be real drama as we followed his wife Mary (Cathryn Damon) and her sister Jessica (an amazing performance from Kathryn Helmond) as they sincerely tried to make sense of all that the world was putting their families through. Add to the mix certified laugh-getters Robert Guillaume as the fed-up butler Benson and Jay Johnson as Campbell brother Bob and his dummy alter-ego Chuck, and I was an unqualified fan.