Lists and Classes


More blog silence from me, as I’ve been focusing my energies preparing to teach classes this fall. I’m teaching two courses: Television and American Culture, my annual offering, and The Art of Animation, which is a writing-intensive first-year seminar. Feel free to follow along with the course websites – TV is less web-based (and the syllabus is still being tweaked, so check back on Tuesday), while Animation will be my first time using a WordPress-based course site. We’ll see how it goes.

And for a recommended link, check out Time Magazine‘s list of the 100 best TV shows ever. As always, such lists are artificial and arbitrary – but I’m impressed with this collection hitting most of my favorites and important highlights of the medium (thanks for including Dragnet, Mary Hartman, and Soap!). I think such lists are important to help validate television as a legitimate form, as there are many who would (wrongly) doubt that there are even 100 shows worth valuing. But there are, and still some gaps – personally, I’d argue that Burns & Allen, The Muppet Show, and Northern Exposure all belong. (Although one noticeable gap is warranted in my book, as the overrated David E. Kelley is thankfully omitted!)

So what shows do you think belong or should be left off – or should such lists even be taken seriously?

8 Responses to “Lists and Classes”

  1. I think these lists are always a bad idea, but this one is especially narrow: so much presentism, so little awareness of life outside the USA, so little representation of non-prime-time programming. The emphasis on the present seems so self-congratulatory: aren’t we blessed to live during such a golden age of television! We easily forget that it’s only so golden because we say it is.

    Anyhow, some favorite old shows that miss the list are Match Game, The Muppet Show, Northern Exposure, Happy Days, Three’s Company, The Love Boat, thirtysomething, Once & Again, and Iron Chef. Of the newer/current ones, Laguna/The Hills/Newport Harbor, Veronica Mars, Friday Night Lights, and Mad Men. I would include Degrassi, too, which falls in both generations, and Hockey Night in Canada. But these are really just favorites and I wouldn’t force them on anyone else. Some of the officially significant programs missing here would include Monday Night Football, Laugh In, Dynasty, Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place, Murphy Brown, Ally McBeal (which I liked at first, though I agree that a snub for DEK is nice, and you know he’s paying attention, too), Jerry Springer, Meet the Press, and big events like the Oscars, Olympics, and election coverage. Of all the ones left off I think Match Game, Three’s Company, Northern Exposure, thirtysomething, and The Muppet Show most deserve a place in some kind of pantheon.

    I guess at least we can be thankful that Time didn’t rank these from 1 to 100, sparing us the torture of seeing all the crap put higher than My So-Called Life.

  2. Right off the bat I would delete American Idol, Dallas, Friends, Real World, 24 and Sex and the City. While these shows may be many things–influential, complex, popular, etc–none of them were very good. While I agree with Michael that lists like these are a bad idea, that doesn’t keep me from being irritated by the inevitable glaring omissions (like a few years back when Spin left the Kinks off a list of the 100 best rock bands.)

    Shows I really, *really* can’t believe didn’t make it:

    Mr. Rogers Neighborhood–has there ever been a show so calm, so gentle or so respectful of its intended audience?

    Cosmos–a personal favorite, but it represents a general lack of non-BBC public television programming on the list–other choices might include the NOVA documentary series or Austin City Limits

    Rockford Files–I consider Jim Garner to be perhaps the quintessential TV actor, and to see neither this nor Maverick is a mystery to me

    Ren and Stimpy–both massively influential (see essentially every TV cartoon ever made after it) and sick genuis-style funny in its first couple of seasons

    Barney Miller–a show which seems to have fallen off the critical radar, but which I think perfected the multi-camera, limited set sitcom

    Andy Griffith–a phenomenal ensemble, a core of non-violent conflict resolution and Barney freaking Fife

    –and okay, I can completely see why the 1960s Batman is not on the Time list, but it certainly would have made mine

  3. 3 Jonathan Gray

    I agree with Michael that the list’s American-centric nature, when not actually called a list of the best 100 AMERICAN television shows, makes the whole list a deeply problematic endeavor — why does Best nearly always imply American in so many lists across so many fields? Are Monty Python, Prime Suspect, and The Office the only important things to come out of the rest of the world??

    With that in mind, first let me give a big “hell, yeah” to Hockey Night in Canada. Find another television show that means as much to as many citizens of a country for as many years as HNIC and I doff my hat to thee. Also, where are Black Adder or Fawlty Towers (both shows that have made it across the Atlantic)? I’d put Brass Eye, Doctor Who, East Enders, and Newsnight on too from England. Indeed, I’d like everyone in the US to watch the latter, just so they can see how journalists can ask questions with vigor. Some of the ones I’m listing had few eps, but why do we need to privilege the American model of multiple seasons? Along that line, then, how about Das Boot from Germany, or The Kingdom from Denmark — both of which are so good, they’re often elevated to filmic status and showered with praise by film scholars who think TV sucks. And how about Heimat, one of Germany’s most important television shows?

    Closer to home, I agree that The Muppet Show not making the list is absurd. It really was the predecessor to The Simpsons and its attitude, which made most of today’s celebrated satires and parodies possible. I’d like to see Colbert Report, Dexter, Countdown, and Iron Chef on there too, and I could take a bunch off, but dissing the Muppets and the TV deity that is Jim Henson is a television sin, ensuring the people behind this list will spend the after life watching reruns of Charles in Charge, and the premier of Emily’s Reasons Why Not for eternity.

  4. Thanks for the comments. Mike – it’s actually a fairly non-presentist list. I counted 37 shows that debuted since 1990, but given that the past 17 years account for around 29% of television’s history, that seems fair. Obviously TV is harder to periodize than other media – what era does 60 Minutes or Price Is Right belong to? – but when you factor in that there is so much more TV today than in the classic 3-network era, the list is quite representative of earlier eras.

    As for representing a good cross-section of genres, it probably should include a bit more kids’ TV, game shows, PBS, and the like, but 17 fall outside the primetime model, which seems like a fair sample of such programs. And it is American-centric, but as James Poniewozik, the critic who assembled the list wrote, he’s writing from his perspective of an American TV viewer, so only shows with significant US distribution were considered. And, in a rule I don’t quite agree with, he refused to consider 2 shows with parallel talent/lineages, so Fawlty Towers is subsumed by Python, thirtysomething by My So-Called Life, Colbert by Daily Show. Maybe he thought The Muppet Show fell under Sesame Street? If so, he’s wrong.

    Agreed that Barney Miller and Andy Griffith are also key oversights, and I’d add Bewitched to the list. And I noticed that Burns & Allen was actually on the list, under George Burns & Gracie Allen Show, so I retract that one.

  5. 5 Jonathan Gray

    Fair enough that one can only assemble a list from one’s own perspective (my own suggestions for additions included nothing outside of Europe, Canada, or the US), but it’s telling that Time — a magazine that prides itself on being such a global entity — didn’t even bother to find other more globally-aware critics to work with or bounce off this one. If this list was in the Louisville Courier-Journal, fair enough, but in a major international magazine that purports to cover the world, this really isn’t adequate (maybe it doesn’t appear in the international edition? I’d love to know this)

    The rule about not repeating from the same creator or creator team is plain bizarre too. If I was listing my favorite plays, would choosing King Lear mean I coudn’t have any more Shakespeare? Or for films, why can’t Coppola be listed for Godfather, Godfather II, and Apocalypse Now (as the AFI top 100 list does)?

    While we’re at it, Blue Planet and the 7up series are stark omissions, as is anything by Ken or Ric Burns.

  6. My point about presentism was based only on a subjective sense, so maybe I’m overreacting. And like you say, Jason, it’s usually not possible to place a television show in a single moment in time. But of the 100 titles on the list, I count 35 that were on the air in the past ten years. Lots of these are long-running shows like 60 Minutes and The Price is Right, sure. But the number would be even higher if Poniewozik hadn’t specified, for instance, that the Tonight show is only the Johnny Carson years and that Letterman only counts on NBC. Like all such lists, this one reveals as much about the person making it as the object under description. I predict that ten or twenty years down the road, this one will look especially limited by its having been made in 2007 (and by a 40-ish American white guy who writes for Time).

    As for the provincialism of having such a strong American focus: the fact that this is acknowledged upfront doesn’t get them off the hook, does it? The point isn’t that they should be more aware that there is a big world out there. Ok, they know that. It’s that lists like this one function to reassure us that we don’t need to care so much about that world.

  7. 7 rbhardy3rd

    I’m interested that the list includes, specifically, Brideshead Revisited and I, Claudius, but not, more generally, Masterpiece Theater. MT would have been a good Americo-centric catch-all for some of the best British television (for example, the excellent 1995 Pride and Prejudice that launched Colin Firth as a wet-shirted costume-drama sex god is absent from the list). Yes, The Muppet Show and Northern Exposure are inexcusable omissions. On Bewitched: where do you draw the line between “the best television shows ever” and “the reruns that got us through days when we stayed home from school with a fever”?

  8. 8 lynn liccardo

    too tired to discuss the particulars of what’s in or out on this list, but am in general agreement that these lists are pretty arbitrary and reflect little more that the perspective of the listmaker, which given the extremely short accompanying commentary, tells us precious little.

    for a more in-depth look, i highly recommend steven stark’s 1997 book “glued to the set; the 60 television shows and events that made us who we are today.”

    will follow up sam ford’s comments re the soap opera aspect of the list on c3

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