I do not think I have watched an inordinately excessive amount of television. Perhaps a bit too much in my early years, contributing to my childhood pudginess, but certainly from high school on, the amount of tv I’ve watched has been kept to a minimum.
But it appeared to be unseemly to just let my assumption go unanswered. Just how many shows DID a watch with some regularity over the years? So, I did a thought experiment to see if my recollections were accurate: I would try and count 100 television shows that at some point I had followed somewhat faithfully at some point or other. In fact, I got to 100 quite easily, with only minimal help from the internet.
So, why not share the fruits of my experiment with you, my faithful readers? (Can I even use readers, plural, anymore?) I’m counting down the 100 top television shows of my life so far. My ranking criteria is based on 1) residual influence the show may have had over me, 2) quality or interest of the show itself, and 3) how much I enjoyed the show at the time.
The results show a bias toward 1) my youthful years, about age 5 to perhaps age 13 or 14. Not coincidentally, my television exposure went down dramatically when I started getting involved in extracurricular clubs, church choirs, and so on. 2) network biases. My family was an ABC family throughout this time, and rightly so, for ABC had a mastery of the family sitcom during this era that no subsequent network has quite done so well. There is also a heavy Nickelodeon emphasis, and a little bit of a VH1 tendency as well.
Let the ranking begin! For each show, I’ve noted the years I watched it regularly, as best as I can recall.
100. Hanging with Mr. Cooper (ABC,1992-1994): A paint-by-numbers situation comedy about an African-American bachelor and two bachelorettes living in the Bay Area. This show is memorable chiefly for an episode where Mr. Cooper joins the Golden State Warriors– and Chris Mullin, Tim Hardaway, and the rest got to show off their acting chops.
99. Life is Worth Living (EWTN/internet, reruns, 2009-2011): As a historian of postwar religion, I find “Life is Worth Living” to be endlessly fascinating, and perhaps the tiniest bit horrifying. Amazingly, a show hosted by a prominent Catholic clergyman was on prime time network television through the late 1950s and early 1960s. In full ecclesiastic regalia, Bishop Fulton Sheen addressed the problems of the day, with no visual aid except a chalkboard (presaging Glenn Beck, perhaps?) Sheen’s show dealt with loneliness, confusion, loss of faith, but he really hit his stride when discussing the lingering threat of communism. By focusing on a common Judeo-Christian heritage, Sheen played a role in carving out a place for Catholics within the mainstream, making them seem less of a cultural outlier by targeting areas of affinity between Protestants and Sheen’s Roman Catholic flock. It’s difficult to see someone like John Kennedy getting elected without Sheen blazing a trail for mainstream Catholicism, and his tv show avoided conspicuously Catholic topics like Marian reverence, the role of women in the church, ecclesial structure, and so on. Jaunty and wrathful in turns, Sheen was a television personality well suited to the McCarthyite era.
98. Super Mario Brothers Super Show (Family Channel, 1991) One of the most dreadful television shows that ever erred, my brother and I were so enraptured by Nintendo-mania that we watched regularly. the mario segments were bad enough, with Mario and Luigi facing Koopa Paratroopers and the such with bad Italian accents. But the Captain N: the Game Master segment was, in hindsight, downright manipulative– the characters included Mega Man, Kid Icarus, and Simon Belmont of Castlevania fame. These shows were little more than badly animated commercials, and to make things weirder, Mario was played by a professional wrestler, and the theme song actually put words to the famous music from the Super Mario Brothers 8-bit Nintendo game.
97. The Beatles (the cartoon series), (internet reruns, 2009-2010): In the throes of Beatlemania, Al Brodax decided to put together a Beatles animation series on the cheap– poorly drawn, poorly animated, threadbare plots– all of which are punctuated by the occasional Beatles singalong. This went on for three agonizing seasons, 1964-1966, mercifully stopping by the time the show would have had to deal with Sgt. Pepper redux. The results of the animated series are dreadful, appalling, and borderline racist (just watch what happens when the Beatles visit China or Mexico). And the Beatles don’t even provide voices, nor do they have distinguishable personalities aside from dumb, dull, slapstick Ringo. Yet amazingly, many of the veterans from this effort would go on to make the fine, psychedelic Yellow Submarine feature film just a few years later.
96. Win Ben Stein’s Money (Comedy Central, 1997-1999): He has gone off the deep end in the last several years, but Ben Stein was, for a while, the coolest brainiac in town, as the Nixon economic adviser-turned-actor (Bueller? Bueller?) pitted his formidable intelligence against an endless barrage of challengers. I always loved how the final round would find Ben in a luxurious soundproof booth, while his adversary was stuck in a dirty, dingy hovel of a waiting room.
95. Beyond Belief (Fox, 1997-1999): Unable to be the Robin to Patrick Stewart’s Batman after Star Trek: Next Gen was canceled, Jonathan Frakes hosted his show, which aired perhaps 4 or 5 segments each week, dramatizing a series of spooky supernatural events: astonishing coincides, evidences of ghosts and specters, urban legends. At the end, they would tell the viewer which were verified, and which were made up by the show’s writing staff. That the show lasted 5 seasons, 60% longer than the original Star Trek is what is truly beyond belief.
94. David the Gnome (Nickelodeon, 1991): The Nick Jr. lineup of the Early 90s was something amazing to behold. David the Gnome wasn’t the best show on the docket, but it was endearingly wholesome, slow paced, and clever. The show’s total lack of guile, lack of manipulation, and disinterest in selling its young viewers any products was a welcome change, and a good introduction to Scandanavian mythology.
93. Mr. Bean (PBS, 1998): It took an American public broadcasting station to make us aware of the wonders of British comedy. While not precisely Blackadder in its quality, Mr. Bean was some of the best silent comedy of our generation, as Rowan Atkinson gives his character a childlike innocence with a bit of a vindictive, dastardly edge to him.
92. Eureka’s Castle (Nickelodeon, 1990-1992): You have no idea how novel it was to see competent children’s programming on a station that wasn’t PBS. Eureka’s Castle hit all the right buttons- well-developed and well-loved characters (I still get a kick out of Magellan the dragon).
91. You Can’t Do That on Television (Nickelodeon, 1991-1992): A refugee from Canadian television, as were many early Nickelodeon shows, YCDToT inaugurated Nickelodeon’s trademark act of hazing: the dumping of green slime on an unsuspecting bystander. (On the show, it happens when the victim says “I don’t know.”) There were all kinds of funny segments- the firing squad guys, the dungeon guys, connected by Pythonesque animations. While not as boundary-pushing as the title suggests, it was a delightfully surrealist take on pre-teen’s television.