10. Talespin: Another Disney Afternoon staple, I think Talespin holds up better than any of the others. Using a few characters from The Jungle Book, it sets them in an entirely different situation– Cape Suzzette, a harbor town during what appears to be the 1920s. I can’t think of an animated show that more skillfully evokes its setting– radio serials, art deco architecture, airfoils, foreboding and overreaching corporations (She’re Khan is an industry mogul on this show– a great touch!)– this is the 1920s to a tee. Lovingly created, skillfully voiced (Jim Cummings as Don Karnage and Sally Struthers as Rebecca Cunningham were particularly inspired choices)– it is no mistake that this show coincided with Disney’s animation renaissance in motion pictures.
9. Captain Planet and the Planeteers: All of a sudden, in the early 1990s, saving the earth became both cool and urgent. We all wore “Get Earth Smart” tv shows, we all read “50 Simple Things YOU Can Do to Save the Earth”, planted trees, etc. Captain Planet spoke to this era brilliantly. Now, granted, you couldn’t quite get away with this today. Essentially, Ted Turner told an animation company, “look, I want you to make an animated show about a superhero who saves the earth. Oh, and he must have 5 sidekicks– one from every major continent.” And the animation executives scribble this down. “Oh, and this superhero must have blue skin– and a green mullet, if you can swing it.” more scribbling. “Sure, Ted, whatever you say.” We could get away with watching this show all hours on the grounds that it was education (and it was!). Conservatives have argued that this show was propaganda, and I suppose that is true– but it was necessary propaganda that we needed at the time. Sometimes, providing balance is the most dishonest thing one can do, and the writers of this show understood this truth. So, yes, while there were a number of silly and over-reaching episodes (particularly the later ones on overpopulation and The Troubles in Ireland), I’ll still stand by this show as a significant generational awakening.
8. Doug: I don’t think there was ever a television character I identified with so much as Doug. Doug was the creation of Jim Jenkins for the Nicktoon series- a less well-remembered contemporary of Rugrats and Ren and Stimpy. An introspective and awkward kid, the show transitions between Doug’s everyday life and struggles– bullying, unrequited love, physical fitness tests in school, etc.– and his daydreams. There is a delightful Walter Mitty-ish character to the show that made for both good television as well as reflecting how I approached problems at the time. As an aside, I loved a recurring fictional band called The Beets that would show up on Doug— allowing for several sly Beatles references. And one of their songs, “Killer Tofu” is actually one of my favorite songs from the 1990s.
7. X-Men: Making a good television series off of a comic book can be extremely difficult to pull off, but X-Men broke significant ground. How does one make sense of what was, at that point, thirty years of backstory? It wisely chose 8 X-Men (and unwisely chose Jubilee over Kitty Pryde), and Professor X, and simplified the complex milieu that Stan Lee, Chris Claremont, Scott Lobdell, etc., had created. Like Captain Planet, it could claim to be quasi-educational– questions of bigotry loomed large, and the I can’t think of a television show grappling with religion more intelligently than the show’s Nightcrawler episodes. While 90s X-Men still used mutants vs. homo sapien as a metaphor for racial struggle, I can see why the show gained traction among the gay community– for whom matters of difference and identity were well addressed on the show.
6. All That: Nickelodeon’s answer to Saturday Night Live, this show had me in stitches as a preteen. Although some of the skits were troubled (two black kids hosting a cooking show where everything they eat is chocolate??), a vast majority were incredibly fun to watch– Kenan Thompson, for example, played a Frenchman taking a bath in a raincoat, while teaching children such crucial French phrases as “kiss me under the baloney tree.” Goodburger, Katrina Johnson’s Ross Perot impression (which was pretty damn good, let me tell you), and Lori Beth Denburg’s “Vital Information”. I would routinely be laughing at skits from this show days after I had watched them– even in church. While only one member from the crew (Thompson) graduated to the big leagues, it was still one of the most entertaining things you could have watched when you were 11.
5. Whose Line Is It Anyway?: Putting an improv show on prime time television was risky– but one that paid dividends for ABC. Although sent to languish opposite the time slot of NBC’s Friends, a revolving cast of four improv actors set out under Drew Carey’s direction to act out scenes spontaneously. While Ryan Stiles, Colin Mocherie, and Wayne Brady anchored the show, other participants included Greg Proops, Robin Williams, and in one unforgettable cameo, Richard Simmons. There are shows that make you laugh when you are by yourself, and shows that make you laugh in the company of others- and Whose Line was certainly best as a shared experience. I don’t think there are many moments I enjoy more than watching this show with my dad, and watch Wayne Brady pull off another successful impersonation, or watch Ryan Stiles grimace as he’s given another near-impossible role (e.g. a foal being born).
4. Jeopardy: I think I’ve watched more episodes of this show than any other on this list– not difficult for a game show, but still. One of the small joys of the show is watching Alex Trebek evolve from being a small, busy man with an unattractive mustache to a more urbane, debonair, sophisticated, but ultimately sympathetic host. The show has changed a bit over the years– greater dollar amounts, the right to stay on the show until you lost (hence Ken Jennings), the Clue Crew and more audio-visual clues, a greater sense of humor, and a wider range of topics. Most shows die when you change the format like that, but Jeopardy towed the line carefully and remained fun to watch. Perhaps I like the show too much for selfish reasons– it lets me show off what I know– but it is the sort of thing that each of us is better for watching.
3. The Simpsons: I’ll be the first to admit the show is in irreversible decline, and has been since I was in high school. It seems that the writers have simply run out of good scenarios, and that most episodes since the mid-Clinton administration have been retreads of older episodes, The Simpsons on location to Brazil or China or India or something, three-Simpsonsized Bible stories/history lessons/tall tales etc., or an episode revolving around a guest star who badgered the show’s producers into letting him appear on the show. But from its third season until about its ninth or tenth, this was the best comedy on television. Its animated form allowed it to defy physics, have a deep bench of 100 or so minor characters, and effortlessly visit any locale. And it did so many types of humor well over the years. Much of it was character based. Knowing that Waylon Smithers was an ambiguously gay sycophant, for example, made every interaction with his character more interesting. And much of it was absurdist. (One of my favorite scenes involved Homer saying something along the lines of “I’m a nerdy sad loser with no life who has a stupid mustache” to successfully get into Ned Flanders head and guess his whereabouts). And sometimes it expanded the boundaries of animation itself. (One of my best friends’ favorite episodes is one such feature, Homer’s peyote-freakout in “El Voyaje Mysterioso del Nuestro Homer”). The Simpsons have become like family over the years, and what began life as a rude, in-your-face sitcom that drew the ire of Barbara Bush became, without changing very much of its substance over time, one of the most well-loved things on television.
2. Star Trek: The Next Generation: TNG was both immaculately character-driven and immaculately vision-driven. The cynicism of Firefly is all too believable– i would argue that it took more energy and more imagination to sustain the Roddenberry vision that TNG best embodies– that humanity CAN become better, that peace can be brokered, that race and religious differences can be overcome, illness is not unconquerable, that greed need not guide society. To make this point, you had a number of generation-defining actors to actualize this vision. Patrick Stewart’s turn as Jean-Luc Picard is the most well-performed role on television in my lifetime (only my opinion, of course), but consider also how damn good Brent Spiner was as the android Data, forever aspiring to become human, or Levar Burton as nice-guy engineer Geordi LaForge, or John de Lanci’s brilliant work as the omnipotent Q. I like this better than the original Star Trek partly because of its superior budget, its more thoughtful storylines, its willingness to engage with controversy more often (I still think the “gay’ episode of TNG, “The Outcast”, was riskier than the interracial kiss on the original series’ “Plato’s Stepchildren” for its time).
1. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: There’s so many different things that made this show great, and so many different ways that this show has had an impact on my life. To limit it to just a few: Mister Rogers validated the worth of every young person watching the show, and affirmed their importance and uniqueness as individuals. He also translated these ideals effectively in how he carried himself in his own life. He sensitively discussed issues that children needed to hear– things like divorce and grandparents dying when I was young, weightier topics like the Sept. 11 attacks during his final years. He clearly distinguished between reality and fantasy, unlike other childrens’ television shows. In Mister Rogers’ house, the normal laws of the universe were obeyed. In the Neighborhood of Make Believe, all bets were off. Although cruelly mocked by many of the years (regretfully, including myself), Mister Rogers and his television show were national treasures. Frankly, we did not deserve someone quite like him. For those of us growing up watching PBS, he made each day special, just by being himself. Can you say ‘transcendent’, television neighbor? I knew you could.