I need to end this series, in hopes of discussing some more serious things on this blog. And a great many serious things are on the docket. So, I’m limiting my analysis to very brief parenthetical comments. Rounding out the top 50 tv shows that have influenced my life in some way are…
50. King of the Hill: I’m convinced that there’s nothing this show ever attempted that couldn’t have been done live-action. But its low-key style is one of the elements that made this show work.
49. Frasier: More of a dumb person’s idea of how smart people behaved, the interplay between David Hyde Pierce and Kelsey Grammar made this show one of the greats of the 90s.
48. Countdown with Keith Olberman: Or in short, “How Alex Voltaire spent 2008.” Not quite the Ed Murrow that he aspires to be, but a strong, badly needed moral force in newscasting. Some people think hes a blowhard. I don’t.
47. Family Matters: This show actually had a solid cast irrespective of Jaleel White’s turn as Urkel. And unlike The Cosby Show, Family Matters would often deal forthrightly with the struggles of being black in America. Not very well—but it would at least address the issue.
46. Home Improvement: Although the show looks less impressive with time, basing nearly 10 seasons off of Tim Allen’s 30-minute stand-up act, Richard Karn’s work as Al Borlan and the mysterious, never-seen neighbor Wilson make this show one of the deans of the 90s “hanging around the house” sitcoms.
45. Ren & Stimpy: If the dada artists of the interwar era decided to turn their attention to cartooning, they probably would have come up with something not terribly different from Ren & Stimpy
44. Futurama: Clever, cutting-edge satire from Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons.
43. The Secret World of Alex Mack: One of the anchors for the 1990s SNICK lineup (Saturday Night Nickelodeon, you see), Alex Mack featured a young, pre-Ten things I Hate About You Larisa Oleynik as a girl gifted with telekinesis and the ability to transform into an amorphous liquid state.
42. Gumby: Good wholesome claymation from Art Clokey. Like Mickey Mouse, he started off as a mischievous character who got more polite and lost much of his character over time.
41. Square One: In retrospect, this was about as entertaining as a show about mathematics had the potential to be. I still remember a line-dancing number about how a number with 9 as a factor had digits that added up to nine (e.g. 9 x 7 is 63, 6+3 is 9), and the hilarious Dragnet parody, Math-net. This was above all our heads at the time, yet strangely entertaining. Good show, PBS.
40. The Weird Al Show: This show should have been a slam dunk. Putting Weird Al on Saturday morning TV had the potential to be every pre-teen’s dearest wish come true. It is a shame that regulations mandating a certain level of educational content on Saturday morning took a possibly brilliant dada-style tv show, and diluted it into a series of bad sketches, stock characters, and moral lessons.
39. Step by Step: A 90s riff on the Brady Bunch (with divorce, rather than death, as the cause for two broken families), this was part of the “fun around the house” genre of sitcoms that thrived in the Bush-Clinton era. For a whole generation of kids, we know Patrick Duffy and Suzanne Summers in this setting, rather than Dallas and Three’s Company.
38. Rachel Maddow Show: While Olberman is strident, Maddow is perceptive (the Oliver to Olberman’s Roland, if you will.) Smart, crisp, direct, and rarely making statements she has to apologize for, she is a gem in the progressive-tv lineup at MSNBC.
37. Star Trek: I know I should love this show, but I have difficulty watching it consistently. The music in a melodramatic, romantic, or humorous situation is unbearably bad. The underdevelopment of Sulu, Scotty, Checkov, and Uhura’s characters is one of the great lost opportunities of 60s television. The special effects were cheap, and there were far too many aliens who were amorphous gas clouds or indistinguishable from humans. And yet, the show was bold, inclusive, and the best “time capsule show” for 1960s idealism that I can conceive of.
36. Seinfeld: Even though I was too overprotected at the time to grasp the “Master of my domain” joke, even in middle school I could understand that Seinfeld was something special. A good episode felt like an event in our lives. A show about nothing with a pitch-perfect cast during the 90s break between the Cold War and the War on Terror was the decade to a tee. It damns that era in retrospect, I suppose, with its self-serving characters focusing on pointless minutia, but, like #37, a great “capsule show.”
35. Muppet Babies: A show about the vividness of the imagination of young children, Muppet Babies did some excellent pastiches of Star Wars, Indy, Jaws, and other strongholds of the 1970s and 1980s. But it leaves unanswered a great question: what happened to Skeeter? She was a full-fledged Muppet Baby, but we never see her adult incarnation in any Muppet tv show or movie.
34. Drawn Together: Probably the crudest show on the list, Drawn Together marketed itself as the first animated reality show. It used thinly veiled parodies of media archetypes (a Pokemon-style character, a Sponge-Bob rip-off, a cruel mockery of a Disney Princess, etc.) living together in a house and competing for a mysterious and elusive grand prize. Violent, sexually deviant, unafraid to discuss every bodily fluid and solid, the show skewered both the awful reality show genre and its attention-whoring ways, and the origins of its characters as well.
33. Reading Rainbow: The first of three Levar Burton shows on this list, Reading Rainbow introduced my generation of schoolchildren to the pleasures of reading, and the ideas it could open up. The show’s thematic approach worked very well, and Burton’s enthusiasm (go find this clip on youtube where he explores a his small personal quarters on a train) always carried the day.
32. Seventh Heaven: I don’t think this show will hold up well over time. Its Norman Lear approach of a crisis-of-the-week, dealing with teen addictions, or oppression of women in the third world, or bullying, etc., gives the show’s urgency a bit of a dated feel. And its generic feel-good vibe tried, and succeeded, at winning acclaim from Christian and non-Christian audiences alike. It never rocked the boat, it always played it safe, it was wholeosme but not cloyingly so. For a while, this show about a minister, his wife, and their 5 (then 7) children successfully did everything, and ultimately nothing. But hey, Beverly Mitchell was hot when I was 17, so it gets to #32.
31. Behind the Music: VH1: Is there anything more turn-of-the-millennium than that dramatic intro music for “Behind the Music”? Rather than intelligently discussing the musicianship and artistic development of its subjects (which, to be fair, other VH1 shows of that era did reasonably well), interpersonal conflict and addictive vice drove this show. (This lent itself wonderfully to parody– seriously, go check out the “Behind the Laughter” parody The Simpsons did. It’s one of my favorite episodes.) Through this simple, ingenious device, somebody who couldn’t be paid to listen to a four-minute song by Tony Orlando all the way through could be drawn in to watch a 47-minute biography.