60. My Name Is Earl: My exposure to this show is a legacy of my friend Nate, who introduced it to me about 4 or 5 years back. Part of an NBC mini-renaissance that included The Office (#18), the show had a unique premise. A low-level con artist and petty thief finds out about the concept of karma and spends the rest of his days using his lottery earnings to make things up to all the people he has wronged over the years. Strong casting is the key here– from former Boy Meets World bully Ethan Suplee to Earl’s scheming ex-wife played by Jaime Pressly.
59. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: The first of three Star Trek series we will encounter on this list, a number of my friends (including the veritable twilighttreader), believe this to be the best Star Trek franchise. I certainly see the appeal behind this claim– for one, the longer story arcs that Next Generation experimented with are taken to the next level here. There is a long Dominion War, complex characters who often make bad choices, countless secondary recurring characters, and a subplot about Marquis insurrections that causes us to question the benevolent Federation’s motives.
Yet, the show never appealed to me as much as the first two series (although I will always watch it over Voyager and Enterprise). Part of this is the characterization– Sisko is a grim cold warrior, avaricious Quark is played to perfection by Armin Shimmerman, and Rene Auberjois is wonderfully deadpan as Odo. But the others– not so much. Jadzia Dax, Bashir, and Jake Sisko have good backstories but aren’t well integrated into the whole– as if an ensemble cast wasn’t the point. And it had a very rocky first two seasons as it struggled to find its way– it sputtered, but it sputtered in less interesting ways than the equally troubling first two seasons of Next Gen. What is fascinating is that this show had its run through the 1990s, yet the themes it addresses– a long, protracted war against an inchoate enemy, questioning one’s own government, fairweather friends and unreliable allies– make it eerily prophetic of the early 21st century. Although some wags said that Deep Space Nine’s tagline should have been “to stay where no one has stayed before,” nobody stayed in higher style or with greater drama.
58. Who Wants to be A Millionaire: For a few years, Millionaire was the ultimate pop culture meme. Hyped up and perhaps overexposed, it was still great fun to watch, with the jocular Regis Philbin hosting the proceedings. This changed the dynamics of the game show to one where the format favored being contestant-based. In a concession to reality television, it was the contestant’s inner turmoil– do I use a lifeline? Do I guess? Do I concede and take the money?– that made the show work well. But it also changed the dynamics by making the game show high-tech– lots of flashy lights, dramatic music- I thought game shows were supposed to be low-budget padding? But by upping the prize money, enhancing the glitz, and making the contestant rather than the information or the format the star, this was a novel glimpse into the American psyche.
57. The Daily Show with John Stewart: How did a show that started off as a bad riff on Saturday Night Live news segments become the voice of a generation? Part of the answer is through the courage of the comedian– John Stewart effortlessly used comedy to highlight the absurdity that drives our public discourse. He points out hypocrisy, contradiction, and sinister talking points– and does so under the guise that as a comedy show, he is unbound by the false objectivity that news shows are supposed to project. Although Stewart is not exactly partisan, this freedom gives him the moral tools he needs to come down on one side of the argument and point out that another side has no merit whatsoever. Compare this to the network news, which pathologically gives both sides of an issue equal credibility even when one side has facts, evidence and merit, and another does not. (The “Experts disagree on the shape of the earth” argument that some have mentioned.) When Colbert makes bad arguments look merely foolish and self-inflated, The Daily Show makes them look immoral and unethical. In doing so, The Daily Show became one of the only trustworthy sources of information for an entire generation that grows increasingly, and justifiably, cynical. While some would have problems with a generation who gets most of their news through a comedy show, I would respond that earlier generations have created a world where one of the only reliable, forthright news shows IS a comedy show.
56. Shining Time Station: Based off of the popular British series of books, Shining Time was delightfully anachronistic. Hearkening back to the days of the railroad, it followed two children, their guardians, and the aptly named Schemer. But as everybody knew, this show was about Thomas the Tank Engine and his escapades– the live action segments and the jukebox marionette bits were just padding. Shining Time was also anachronistic in more troubling ways– as one author from Slate points out, the show is also a vestige of imperialism. Mayor Topham-Hat makes the trains fight for meaningless distinctions in a manner not dissimilar to the collaboration and divide-and-conquer tactics used by nearly every European power in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Even more troubling, the trains are valued only for the labor they produce, their “usefulness” in the lexicon of the show– compare this to the message that each person is unique and of innate value that guides the other children’s shows on my list. While it is easy for academics to misread the intentions of television shows, there is something insidious going on in Thomas the Tank Engine.
However, I can’t hate on this show too much– after all, it introduced me to Ringo Starr, who was the first Mr. Conductor in the American version of the show. In fact, it wasn’t until many years later that I pieced together who Mr. Conductor really was– years after I became a Beatles fan. Ringo was a great choice for the role, bringing a humble affability to Mr. Conductor that no actor since has been able to duplicate.
55. A & E Biography: Although it didn’t intend to be so, A & E Biography is the linear ancestor of every overblown Washington- the Warrior piece on the history channel, every E: True Hollywood Story, and every VH1: Behind the Music, which took more sensationalist approaches to their subjects, but the same visual-heavy, interview-laden approach to bring the story of one’s life to the masses on cable television. While of real historical and artistic merit, the need to trim a figure’s life story into a sensational hour-long narrative set the mold that less scrupulous television producers would follow forever after.
54. EWTN Religious Catalog: Once in a great while, when I was at my grandparents’ house after a long day of school, I would watch a bit of EWTN Religious Catalog while doing my homework. It was hypnotic. Mother Angelica would shamelessly peddle- in her soft, deliberate voice, the saints’ biographies, St. Francis statues, gold-plated rosaries, and other “holy reminders,” as she liked to call them. EWTN was so much better when it was merely trying to sell me something, rather than engaging in the culture wars;– it is the only station I can think of that got better the more it emulated QVC.
53. The Wonder Years: Every single man and woman of my generation has the same problem– it would be impossible to get through an episode of The Wonder Years without our parents interrupting us with their own reflections and commentary. “Hey, I remember that! I had bell bottoms like that! Groovy!” Nostalgic before the nostalgic was streamlined, this was a very thoughtful glimpse into the late 1960s.
52. Today’s Special: Oh, PBS. Their ability to deliver worthwhile children’s programming was second to none during this time. Lower in budget than Sesame Street, and lacking the charm of Mister Rogers, this show was still a fine one to watch, although I wonder in hindsight whether the only reason I watched it was its proximity to those two shows in the schedule. Set in a department store, it follows the adventures of a department store clerk, Jody, and a mannequin named Jeffrey who comes to life whenever he wears a magic hat and the words “hocus pocus allamagocus” are uttered. There’s also a humanoid puppet named Sam– a senior citizen security guard– and a mouse named Muffy. (This would never happen on a television show today, right?)
51. The Weakest Link: Speaking of kitschy, turn-of-the-milennium game shows with high tech lighting- we have Weakest Link. Cold and insulting, Anne Robinson was the perfect host for this show– a rare match of premise and casting. In fact, the show worked better when I was able to see it in London, where the contestants took their comeuppances in a more stoic manner, while the Americans often winked back at Anne or tried to subvert her. I loved how the show’s structure was punishing in and of itself. To get any money, you had to “Bank” before receiving your question. This means that you would receive less money than if you had gotten your question right– so the only way to score is by discounting your own ability to answer correctly! A good combination of interesting trivia, interpersonal dynamics, short-term gain over long-term interest, and an ideal host, The Weakest Link may have been a fad, but it was a fine one while it lasted.