Friday, June 20, 2008

Dean's List: My 100 Favorite TV Shows (#70 - 61)

Once again, here we are, trotting our way up the list...

70) It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (1986-90) Given the popularity of Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show, one wonders why his first TV series, originally on Showtime, hasn’t gotten an equal amount of lip service. Both simple and complicated in its fourth-wall-exploding concept, this sitcom send-up has all its characters realizing that they’re in a sitcom. Shandling, playing “himself,” acknowledges this “apartment” we see is a set, and that there's an audience watching (he’d go on whiny tirades while strolling out into the crowd to have contact with one its members, and he’d even let people hang out on his living room set while he was away). It’s post-modern in the extreme, and I bet it’s only gotten better with age so, please, a DVD release for this soon. In the excellent supporting cast, I particularly liked Paul Willson as Garry’s sniveling, meddling neighbor Leonard Smith (who would come over to complain about the theme song being played too loud). Weird, and funny as all get out, with that excellent opening tune by Flo and Eddie of The Turtles!

69) Sessions at West 54th (1997-99) For live music on TV, it’s hard to beat the roster that PBS’s Sessions at West 54th provided to us--everything from David Byrne to Daniel Lanois, from Tori Amos to Lou Reed. Beautiful production kept the frills down to a minimum, thereby upping the class factor. I like MTV Unplugged, too, but their selection of guests, while sometimes incredible (Nirvana, Tony Bennett), is often uninteresting (Korn, Mariah Carey). Give me the work of the more creative bookers at Sessions at West 54th instead. Here are appearances by World Party and Ben Folds to support my contention:

68) The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle em> (1959-64) Another old Saturday afternoon tradition involved plopping down with my dad as the sun was setting and catching Bill Scott and Jay Ward’s amazing cartoon creations Rocky J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle Moose. Somehow—probably since the show was not included with all the rest of the Saturday afternoon fare—enjoying Rocky and Bullwinkle was an adult pleasure, like sipping on a fruity drink you know has some liquor in it. Even as a grown-up, I’m still in awe of its urbane wit and extremely fast pace—you really have to be paying attention to get all the jokes. As a character, I love Bullwinkle especially (Bill Scott’s voice work is amazing), but R&B are really a warm-up act for the real meat of the show: each episode gave us a “Fractured Fairy Tale” narrated by Mercury Theater veteran Edward Everett Horton, and a visit with Mr. Peabody (an intelligent talking dog with glasses) and Sherman, his boy companion. The voices here—June Foray as Rocky and Natasha, William Conrad as the forceful Narrator, Paul Frees, Daws Butler and so on—are superb. Just to let you know, I'm also a big fan of George of the Jungle and Dudley Do-Right! This "Fractured Fairy Tale" is a stand-out!

67) The Forsyte Saga (1967) One of the four miniseries I have on the list is a work I caught on DVD a few years ago, at my mother’s insistence. The Forsyte Saga is based on three books by John
Galsworthy, and was adapted for BBC TV by producer Donald Wilson. It follows a well-to-do family through their romantic, Victorian-era shenanigans, then drops the 1920s onto them to test how they hold up under extreme social changes. Shot in glorious black-and-white with a live TV feel to it (almost the whole show was produced in the studio, as opposed to the location-filled 1990s remake), The Forsyte Saga is addictive TV. If you don’t think you can get into all the stuffed shirts and tea-drinking, believe me, if you give it half a chance, the show will have you hooked. Its cast—including the wonderful Eric Porter (as the bitter Soames Forsyte), Susan Hampshire (as Fluer), Margaret Tyzack and Michael York—is perfect, and its writing is consistently stunning and epic-flavored. This landmark BBC production was almost as popular in the US as it was in Britain, where it was a television phenomenon; it was the first presentation under the Masterpiece Theater umbrella, and was nominated for an Emmy for Best Dramatic Series—a first for a British program.

66) Sanford and Son (1972-77) It’s all on Redd Foxx, this one. His portrayal of the scheming, heart-attack-having Watts junkman was one of the most complete comic portrayals ever on TV. His shambling
walk, his scraggly grey beard, his irascible sense of humor, his sandpaper-rough voice…all very much belong to this character specifically. Seeing video of a tuxedoed Foxx doing stand-up on stage in Vegas is always a trip because I can’t picture that voice coming out of anyone but the shabbily-dressed Fred Sanford. Of course, there are supporting characters I love on this NBC show—Grady (Whitman Mayo), Aunt Esther (LaWanda Page) and even Lamont (Demond Wilson). And I adore the funkified Quincy Jones theme song and the detailed art direction (I find the junky Sanford living room endlessly fascinating to look at). But I always tuned in—and still do—for Foxx.

65) Green Acres (1965-71) I used to get irritated watching this CBS sitcom. I’d always wonder why one-time city lawyer Oliver Wendall Douglas (played by the always exasperated Eddie Albert) could never achieve any of his goals in his new life as a farmer. Almost everything becomes a massive headache for him. Meanwhile, his elegant wife Lisa (Eva Gabor—VERY funny) floats above it all, and even though she once objected to starting a rural life in Hooterville, it’s she who adapts so well to the surreal quality of this country ‘berg. This show was quite maddening to me as a kid. Then I grew up and realized that, seen as a whole, Green Acres is a metaphor of sorts—and a rather cosmic one
at that. If I may get a little Buddhist here, it’s a show about desire and how freeing yourself from it frees you from unhappiness. The more Oliver wants to be a successful farmer, the further away that aim gets from him. But Lisa wants for nothing—she’s given up everything she had just to be with her husband--and she is perfectly happy. With this in mind, Green Acres achieves a whole new level of success in humor. If you can just accept the fact that Oliver is never going to win against all the Hooterville craziness—Arnold the pig, Mr. Haney (the excellent Pat Buttram), Eb (Tom Lester), handy "men" Alf and Ralph, and all the rest—then you’ll have a fine time with Paul Bettany's show, and if you can get with it on a meta-level, then, well, all the better. It should go without saying that its opening, with that unforgettable theme song, is a classic of TV filmmaking: an iconic spoof of iconography.

64) Schoolhouse Rock (1974-2000) When producers Tom Youe and Radford Stone set out to teach youngsters how to do their multiplication tables through song and animation, do you think they had an inkling of how successful they would be? could they? Who would have thought the Preamble to the Constitution would be so memorably singable? Or that the philosophical concept of
the number zero could be explored so deeply in three minutes flat? Who could’ve foreseen that, because of those songs, even the most uninformed among us would forever know what a conjunction or an interjection is? I mean, I STILL count my fives out like Bob Dourough does in his number about the…ahhh…number. I still recall the path of a bill to the White House, thanks to Jack Sheldon’s inimitable voice. I still get chills thinking about that lonely girl skating in a figure eight while Blossom Dearie’s little-girl voice fills the air. Schoolhouse Rock, produced by ABC starting in 1974, has touched my life in a profound way, and I can only assume there are others that feel similarly. There are more ambitious, far-reaching children’s shows—after all, this one would only last three minutes at a time, played in between longer Saturday morning programs—but I don’t think there has been a more effective teaching tool produced by TV in my lifetime. Just try to get these two songs, for example, out of your head.

63) The Rockford Files (1974-80) There is only one private eye show on my list, because only one had the real-world charm of James Garner to drive it along. His confident smirks in the face of violence or his own failings as a ex-con-turned-P.I. form the
center of this excellent show that was, in the mid-70s, a totally fresh take on the tired “Quinn Martin” formula. Rockford was falable, funny, clumsy, and smart—he could puzzle things out better than he could land a punch. He has independence, but he also has his dad (Noah Beery Jr.) and his ex-con pals (like Stuart Margolin as former cellmate Angel) to lean on. And he had an answering machine instead of a leggy secretary (the answering machine openings and the Top Ten theme song by Mike Post always went a long way for getting me into the mood for the show). Created for NBC by Roy Huggins and Stephen J. Cannell, and an early employer for Sopranos creator David Chase, The Rockford Files chugged with life and vitality. Here's the opening and a few closing scenes from an episode co-starring Isaac Hayes and Dionne Warwicke!

62) thirtysomething (1987-91) This is perhaps one of the most dated shows on my list, but I still love it. I find that the number of TV series dealing with normal people living everyday lives is, at any given time, relatively low. So when a show
dealing with family/friendship issues pops up, I give it my attention, usually. ABC’s thirtysomething was a phenomenon at the time of its release; it really crystallized the late 80s/early 90s for a lot of people--so much so that it now seems like it belongs under glass at a museum. But so what? It still makes me root for Michael Steadman and Elliot Weston (Ken Olin and Timothy Busfield) as they try and play the ad game at work (there was nothing like the string of episodes that had them trying to mount a secret takeover of their company, with the snakey David Clennon as their boss/nemesis Miles Drentell). I
still cry a bit inside as Nancy Weston (Patricia Wettig) battles self-esteem and then health issues, or when Elliot fails his first time out as a commercial director. I still have a massive crush on Hope Steadman (the beautiful Mel Harris), and another one on pixie-cute Melanie Mayron as Michael’s sister, Melissa (who'd undergone a big change since her says as a chubby supporting actress in movies like Harry and Tonto and Car Wash. thirtysomething is nicely shot, designed, and scored. Its direction and writing are always top-of-the-line (it was created by Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskowitz, who went on to some distinguished film work like Glory and Shakespeare in Love and its head writer was Crash/Million Dollar Baby screenwriter Paul Haggis). For those who are still rubbed the wrong way by the series: Maybe it's strange to have a whole storyline devoted to, say, Hope getting mad at Michael for not helping with the laundry but, hey, people DO argue about these things. Why not make a show about it?

61) The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite (1962-81) It’s a cliché, but it’s the truth: no newscaster in my lifetime was ever more trusted and authoritative than Cronkite. He was a riveting joy
to watch and listen to, truly like a trusted father figure. Of course, I remember his speechless, beaming reaction to the Apollo moon landing (from when I was three) and I really remember relying on him for my news during the Watergate era. I was only eight years old then, but I was hooked on that Nixon drama (All The President’s Men and The Final Days are two of my favorite books). Of course, he’s famous for pronouncing the death of Kennedy (his emotional reaction to the announcement is a heroically calming one) and the impossibility of winning in Vietnam, but he was just as surefooted in his reportage of much less earth-shattering news. Almost religiously tuned into every night by a rapt America who’d not yet even conceived of a thing called CNN, Cronkite will live forever as the TV newsman most TV newsmen (and women) desperately, desperately, oh-so-wanna be.


Lisa said...

As always, a sterling list. The Canadian version of TV Land recently replayed "It's Garry Shandling's Show" and it holds up magnificently; the series is still utterly hilarious. Yes, DVD please on that one! It's nice that many of the shows on your Top List involve watching with somebody else; I guess I've been mostly a solitary watcher and reading your takes on the experience lend a sweet touch. Can't wait for the rest!

Jane said...

The Larry Sander's show was way, way ahead of it's time. It really paved the way for hyper-realistic scripted programming. My favorite character in the series was Rip Torn, who played Larry's ruthless producer. Of course, I would enjoy watching Rip Torn read the proverbial phone book.

Regarding ThirtySomething, I will never understand why there was such a backlash against it. I thought it was one of the best programs ever produced. Look how Zwick and Herskovic have gone onto great careers in film.