30. Arrested Development: I discovered this show a handful of years after it went off the air, but its difficult to imagine a comedy this good getting onto a major network. Immaculate casting, smart interlocking episodes, and sly winking pop-culture references make this show one of the very best of the 2000s decade. I can’t wait to see the film.
29. Animaniacs: If something like 7th Heaven looks worse in the rear view mirror, Animaniacs has aged remarkably well. Absurdist to the hilt, it introduced a number of fantastic characters: Rita the Broadway-singing cat, megalomanical Pinky and the Brain, Chicken Boo- the poultry who is constantly mistaken for an actual person, and of course, the Warner Brothers (and the Warner sister, Dot.) There’s so many great sketches- Good Idea/Bad Idea, Wheel of Morality, the Beatles episode of Pinky and the Brain– and several sly pieces of innuendo that somehow got past mid-to-late 90s censors.
28. The Secret City: This was a low-budget show on drawing and sketching that was on PBS for a couple of seasons, and may have had under 20 episodes. My memories of this show are very dim, but I loved it to death.
27. Mystery Science Theatre 3000: The show that put Comedy Central on the map, two robots and a human are forced to watch terrible movies in outer space in order to help a mad scientist take over the world. Sarcastic riffing on bad B-movies from the 50s and 60s followed for 2 whole hours, punctuated by short sketches that I always enjoyed more than the actual core of the show.
26. Full House: This show is weird– the most wholesome thing on tv in the early 1990s, it nonetheless spawned an entire cast with deep personal problems that belied the show’s innocent and sheltered nature. Having a potty-mouthed comic (Bob Saget) play a father with obsessive-compulsive cleaning tendencies was one red flag. But if you follow the various problems faced by Dave Coulier (tempestuous relationship with Alanis Morrisette that inspired “You Oughtta Know”), Jodie Sweetin (drug problems), the Olsen twins (eating disorders), Candice Cameron (relatively stable, but still in the nutball sector of Christianity), etc., you’ve really gone down the rabbit hole.
25. Sharon, Lois and Brahm’s Elephant Show: My favorite show as a Kindergartener, and the first thing I ever watched on Nickelodeon. My parents would have my brother and I sing the “Skinnerarinki-dinky–dink” song for house guests for years.
24. Where In The World is Carmen Sandeigo: The first game show on PBS, it was an insanely fun way to learn geography– a terrific show even by the high standards of PBS during that era. It also has my favorite theme song of all time, sung by Rockapella.
23. Blackadder: I will never understand why the BBC orders up series of sitcoms, builds sets, hires actors, and then only makes 6 episodes per season. Nevertheless, the four distinct series of Blackadder (alas, 24 episodes total) are a high point of British television for me. Atkinson plays a conniving, sniveling, little character from different eras in English history. Yet, in each timeframe, he is obsessed with his own survival and prosperity, whether avoiding a capricious Queen Elizabeth I (Miranda Richardson), averting death in the trenches of World War I, or handling foppish Prince George (Hugh Laurie’s big break), the show is a treasure trove of insults and memorable comedy.
22. The Red Green Show: PBS was able to produce this oddball show about two handymen in Moose Lodge, Canada, obsessed with demonstrating their own masculinity. While there’s undoubtedly layers of the show that I, as a non-Canadian, cannot understand, it is the funniest not-really-funny comedy show on this list.
21. The Price is Right: In upstate New York, we always looked forward to a snow day– because that meant hot chocolate, instant macaroni-and-cheese, and watching The Price is Right at 11:00.
20. Ducktales: A great piece from the golden age of Disney animated series (which is, oddly, nearly fifty years after its golden age of animated films), Ducktales follows the adventures of Huey, Dewey, Louie and Uncle Scrooge in Duckburg. It was able to copy off of great adventure films, which I didn’t appreciate at the time, and while on other shows, the characters can’t get rich– that would alter the entire show, after all– this element was blissfully removed when it starred the inordinately wealthy (and unquenchably greedy) Scrooge McDuck. The Disney historian in me also likes the homages to the old Carl Barks Disney comics.
19. Ally McBeal: When I teach about the 1990s in my classes, I always use one image to embody the 1990s– the famous cover of Time magazine, showing Susan B. Anthony, followed by Betty Freidan, followed by Gloria Steinem, followed by Callista Flockhart, with the title, “Is Feminism Dead?” McBeal, more concerned with finding love than her career as a successful lawyer, suggested the inward, almost selfish focus, of the decade. The show hints at broader problems– you can’t discuss the show without contending with the eating disorders that the women in the cast contended with– not just Flockhart, but Lucy Liu, Courtney Thorne Smith, and Portia di Rossi, as well. But I love the cast– two of my very favorite male actors– Gregg German and Peter MacNicol, were also prominent.
18. The Office: Absurd, yet at times frighteningly realistic. I disagree with the consensus that the British version is better- the US version has the best (live action) supporting cast on television in the past 10 years, had more time to develop characters, and didn’t have the overrated (yes, I said it) British icon Ricky Gervais at the helm. It expertly balances insane this-could-never-happen-in-a-million-years scenarios with the tedium and boredom of modern service-sector work. No show captures awkwardness, nor relies on it more for its humor, than The Office.
17. Hell’s Kitchen: Delightfully bad reality television, Gordon Ramsay is always at the heart of this show, rather than the putzes who actually serve as contestants. Call me crazy, but there is just something hypnotic about Ramsay’s passion for cooking good food, and his anger at chefs who fail to live up to his standards. I did not learn a single useful fact or technique about cooking in the 8 years I watched this show.
16. Dinosaurs: Taking the concept of The Flintstones, moving it further back in time, and making the stars human-sized dinosaurs produced by Jim Henson’s workshop, this was the cornerstone of ABC’s TGIF lineup for me back in the 1990s. It was, I suppose, dumbed down for the masses, but it still had insightful episodes dealing with consumerism, the environment, groupthink, and corporate America. This gave it, I think, a significant tail up over its stone-age predecessor. I mean, for pity’s sake, the final episode of this series had its protagonist, Earl Sinclair, unwittingly destroying Earth’s ecosystem, ending the reign of the great lizards. As a small aside, my family still uses one-liners from this show, like “I’m the baby, gotta love me” and my favorite tv one-liner of all time. There’s a children’s science show on Dinosaurs called “Mr. Lizard’s World”, where the titular Mr. Lizard accidentally blows up his young assistant, and blithely tells his production crew, “I think we’re going to need another Timmy.”
15. Sesame Street: This show is universal currency for about 3 or 4 different generations of schoolchildren. The show hit, I think, a good stride during the mid-to-late 1980s when I would have watched this. It had some pop culture parodies for adults, but for us kids, we fell in love with the short sketches, the endearing songs (“I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon” is probably my favorite made-for-tv song ever), and how both the puppets and the human characters were both lovable, and believable. I mean, for those of us living in rural or suburban America, a black man like Gordon was just as novel and wondrous to us as a furry fuchsia-coloured Telly Monster, I regret to say. While I still think the show’s best era was its first five years, where it deliberately marketed to an urban and principally minority audience, its broader appeal made for one of my childhood favorites. It was a mid-point, if you will, between the grittier Sesame Street with Roosevelt Franklin and Philadelphia Soul-inspired songs, and the wasteful spoiled-rich-kid feel that Elmo and Abby Cadabby have today. I mean, back in the day, I cared so damn much about this show, that every Sunday at church, I would ask my mom if we could light one of those electric candles for the recently-deceased Mr. Hooper.
14. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Originally a dark independent comic book, a jollier, more kid-friendly show hit the airwaves when I was in Kindergarten and life was never the same. You have no idea how much of a big deal the Turtles were when I was 5– the influence of Pokemon 12 or 13 years ago doesn’t even begin to describe it. Karate classes began selling out, “cowabunga” and “radical” entered the lexicon, and about half of all grade-school violence could somehow be traced back to the show. I was no less a Turtle guy than anyone else, having all the Burger King toys and a complete series of the original action figures. While the show is good, campy fun (as the folks at cinemassacre have done a wonderful job of rediscovering), I don’t think we ever learned anything. But that didn’t matter. It was a wonderful three year ride of using surfer slang and hitting our friends over the head with plastic nunchuks.
13. Family Guy: For years that slot immediately after The Simpsons had been filled with overhyped mediocrities (The PJs), solid but low-key riffs on Texas life (King of the Hill), intriguing but short-lived period pieces (The Critic), and utter garbage (The Sinbad Show, The War at Home). So, hopes were not high when the Simps were followed by another animated family sitcom that riffed off of pop culture and occasionally challenged boundaries. I wasn’t terribly excited about the show until they did one of their first great cutaway sequences, where Ernie and Bert are a gay couple living in a seedy New York apartment– and Ernie eats cookies in the bed while Bert swills whiskey and cusses at him. The gag was juvenile but so jaw-droppingly brilliant and with such loving attention to detail, that I fell in love with the show. While Family Guy would always lack The Simpsons‘ best quality– its voluminous supporting cast and their familiar qualities– Family Guy has given us some expert parodies– the Star Wars riffs are consistently wonderful, and the Brian-and-Stewie takes on the Hope-and-Crosby “Road to….” series are always fun to watch. Add in a sexual predator like Quagmire, a creepy pedophilic old man named Herbert, and several recurring gags to reward hardcore fans, and you have a consistent winner.
12. Chip and Dale’s Rescue Rangers: This was my favorite cartoon from when I was in 1st and 2nd grade– and Gadget was my first crush on a fictional character– an odd choice, given that many from my generation went unerringly for, say, Blossom, or Rogue from X-men. It hasn’t held up as well as other shows on my list, though, so as much as I enjoyed it at the time, it comes in at a respectable #12.
11. Firefly: Only a dozen or so episodes of this series were produced, but damned if it wasn’t the best dozen episodes of nearly any series I have ever seen. The brainchild of nerd-god Joss Whedon, it follows a ragtag band of odd-job men and borderline-criminals in an ingenious fusion of dystopian science fiction with the Old West. Yet, characterization took priority– even in its short run every character had several great defining moments– whether opportunistic hired-gun Jayne, leading man Mal Reynolds, or enigmatic and troubled River Tam. Canceling this show is one of the five most unforgivable lapses made by the Fox Corporation– no small distinction for a media conglomerate that has given Sean Hannity his own show for a whole decade.