Since the first general television broadcast took place in New York City in 1936 (it was a Felix the Cat cartoon), thousands of TV series and shows have been produced. Most of them were mediocre. Many were aimed at a female audience.
When you think about it, it’s a wonder guys can find anything good to watch on TV that is, first of all, of consistently high quality, and second, intended to entertain them. And are not sports.
But there are a few television series that stand out — TV shows that will please a male viewer and make him say, “Damn, that’s a pretty good show!”
In the last 50 years, around 100 TV series have been made that could qualify for a list of the “all-time best television shows for men” — TV series and miniseries guaranteed to satisfy guys, that consistently strike a chord with a male audience, that do not apologize for gratifying manly viewers, and also do not skimp on artistic quality and integrity.
Fortunately, many of these “best” shows are now out on DVD and Blu-ray. Which means you don’t have to depend on whatever happens to be on the tube right now. Instead, you can build a collection of the best television shows for yourself and have it available for viewing whenever you like — thousands of hours of guaranteed, can’t-miss entertainment.
That’s what this review is about: top-quality television shows that you won’t feel stupid for watching. In fact, many of them will make you feel smarter. Or make you laugh.
(A corollary to this “best of” list is to watch these shows on the best TV tech — so if you’re interested in finding out about that, see my other posts on buying HDTVs and blu-ray players.)
In 1946, there were only 6 television stations in the United States. Now there are more than 1,500. I have personally been watching television for almost that entire span of time. There have been relatively few shows that made me a fan, that motivated me to commit to sitting down and watching them every week. Then I wanted to get them on DVD and/or Blu-ray to watch again. (Who says guys are afraid of commitment?)
This is my list of the all-time best: 50+ shows that are worth viewing and re-viewing.
If you haven’t seen some of these shows before, I hope you’ll give a few of them a try. You can acquire these DVD and Blu-ray releases through the links in this post. Let me know what you think of my picks…
Why do guys watch TV?
There are so many aspects as to why guys watch TV that it’s almost impossible to come up with a list of criteria that would satisfy every guy as to what constitutes a top-grade TV show. Some guys use TV to learn how to triumph against competition. Other men want to feel like they’re on the cutting edge of culture. Some want to explore a particular interest. Some guys want to challenge themselves mentally and emotionally. Others just want to relax their brain.
And we can’t forget the joys of watching hot women.
As guys, we want to live on our own terms. Many of the characters in the shows listed here do that. These TV shows and characters can inspire you. They can teach you something. They can help you understand life, or relationships, or your role in society in a deeper, more visceral way. They can expand your understanding of what it means to be a man.
On the other hand, it’s not all about drama. After a stressful day, sometimes all you want is a good laugh. There are several almost-perfect comedies included here, too.
When you read through this list, you’ll note that my personal taste tends to run away from shows that facilely use murder as a plot device (e.g., CSI). Nor have I included any number of sitcoms in which the male characters behave almost exclusively like idiots (Seinfeld being a prime example). I prefer my comedies with at least a shred of self-awareness, or conscious irony. Portraying men as hapless fools has been a staple of sit-coms for over 40 years. I don’t know what it does for most men, but it doesn’t make me laugh much.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Click on the image or text links in the following reviews to get these TV shows for yourself on either DVD or Blu-ray. Or email the URL of this post to family and friends to point them at gift-giving opportunities. (There’s a “sharing” function at the bottom of this post for email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.).
How to build your library of the all-time best TV shows for men that are out on DVD and Blu-ray:
99% of the following television shows are available for discounted prices from the online retailers I recommend in this post. In general, the most complete, customer-friendly, and inexpensive places to get television shows on DVD and Blu-ray are: CD Universe, Barnes & Noble, Buy.com, Best Buy, J&R Computer/Music World, and DVD Empire.
Hey, man, don’t leave your entertainment to chance.
Here are the best television shows for men, in no particular order:
I’ll list MacGyver first and end the suspense. It’s got to be included on any list of best TV shows for men, without a doubt — the show with the most inventive man-of-action ever. Most of the important action took place in his mind… He’s not your “Mr. T” type of hero, though he could fight (reluctantly) when he had to.
The show, starring Richard Dean Anderson, was on for 7 years, from 1985 – 1992. It took a little while to hit its stride, but after the good recurring characters were added, it was reliably entertaining. Two movies were also produced after the series ended. There’s talk there may be another movie in the works. All seasons are available on DVD in various configurations, including here.
The Iliad set the definitive tone for how to deal with the ironies, paradoxes, vagaries, and tragedies of war in an artistic way over 2,500 years ago. M*A*S*H is definitely in that canon, examining the absurdities of war and military life through the lens of a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War. However, subsequent to The Iliad, we’ve also had Catch-22, and so this show was able to grapple with the story of war through cynical and/or ironic comedy — laughing through the madness and tears. Essentially, this show said, war comes down to human beings and their foibles, their nobleness, and their individual ability to cope with untenable conditions — conditions they’ve brought on themselves. Viewers came to feel that the characters on this show — perhaps the most popular TV series ever made — are their friends and neighbors. And they are. Only funnier than your real neighbors. All seasons are available.
Firefly was one of the best ideas for a science fiction series ever, and it was idiotically canceled after less than one season (alas, the fate of all too many creative, unique television series). However, all 14 episodes shot for that first season are available on both DVD and Blu-ray. And there was a subsequent movie made, as well — Serenity — which was quite good.
The characters (especially Nathan Fillion’s Malcom Reynolds) are individualistic, engaging, complex, and likable; the writing shows Joss Whedon at the top of his form — witty, sophisticated, inventive — and the milieu (sort of Gunsmoke meets Battlestar Galactica) is like nothing before or since.
Here’s one telling stat: on Amazon as I write this there are 2,914 customer reviews for this show and 2,713 are 5-star (the rest are 4-star) — this for a show that was canceled after only 11 episodes were broadcast.
For comparison, the DVD of the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer— a very successful Joss Whedon effort that ran for 7 seasons — has 558 reviews on Amazon. People don’t just love Firefly, they are fanatical about it.
See the book Firefly: Still Flying to learn more about Firefly, get interesting background info, and read new stories about the crew. It’s not only a great science fiction series, it’s a great series period. Oh, and did I mention Morena Baccarin?
Are you a Browncoat? Then check the entertaining collection of limited-edition Firefly products by clicking the image below. Entertainment Earth has many things relating to Firefly/Serenity…
Entourage showcases the fun of being rich and popular in a creative, insular, ego-driven, multi-billion-dollar industry.
No, not Silicon Valley — Hollywood.
The main characters are young guys navigating the ups and downs of striving for success in their chosen field — movie stardom (except Johnny Drama, who is on the verge of being over the hill). So what we have here is funny entertainment about entertainment set in the Land of Oz known as southern California, complete with good witches, bad witches, munchkins, castles, and a dog.
One driving reason to watch Entourage is Jeremy Piven, who plays agent Ari Gold. The four main guys are pretty hilarious, but the screen seems to get a little brighter whenever Piven is on. Can you figure out how he does that? If you can, you will have divined the secret of charisma. Then ask yourself: can you duplicate it?
All in all, the show is addictive entertainment, one of the best shows for men of all ages, with liberal helpings of stuff guys like. Some have termed Entourage the male version of Sex and the City. A total of 8 seasons are planned. Five seasons are available on DVD and Season 6 can be ordered now from J&R Computer/Music World. Season 6 is also available on Blu-ray.
After Hill Street Blues, television drama was never the same. It may be the most groundbreaking dramatic series ever. The most successful TV series since then — especially cop dramas — have had to tip their hat in some way to Hill Street Blues. It won 8 Emmy Awards in its first season and was nominated for a total of 98 in its 7-season run. It won the Emmy for best drama 4 years in a row. One television critic wrote: “Hill Street Blues is to TV what Citizen Kane was to film.” A lot of that has to do with the style of the direction. Two seasons are currently available on DVD. It’s ridiculous that the whole series is not out. Blame 20th Century Fox (which, remember, also killed Firefly; dirt bags).
For one thing, this guy is a true alpha male (you must watch the show to see what I mean). The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan is a show about rehabilitating dogs with serious behavioral problems. But after you watch for awhile, you begin to wonder exactly what’s going on. Is he training dogs or training people? Are the dogs training their owners? He refers to energy often and seems to be one of the few people who understands vital energy (“in tune with nature” is another way to put it).
In his native Mexico, he was known as “the dogman” for his instinctive rapport with dogs. The Dog Whisperer has been the most popular show on the National Geographic Channel almost since it debuted in 2004 and it was expanded to an hour-long format in 2006.
Three seasons of episodes are currently available, plus compilation DVDs. The show is quite watchable — dramatic, compelling, and inspiring (plus he’s got some cute women on from time to time). It’s not often that a “counselor” comes into a situation where, if he fails, the patient will be put to death. But Millan’s intervention is sometimes the difference between life and death for his canine clients. Watch it with your dog.
Kung Fu was the first television show to introduce Asian martial arts to American audiences in a focused way. But what really set the show apart was all that paradoxical Buddhist and Taoist wisdom. David Carradine made it work, playing the exiled Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Kane with a combination of poignancy, grace, equanimity, and detached fortitude not seen before in a hero in an American TV show.
The fight scenes were pretty good, too, accurately dramatizing the Shaolin use of “chi” and body/spirit technique, rather than devolving into a flurry of flying fists, as had been typical in most fight scenes up to that time. It was a groundbreaking series and it has held up well. The hour-long show (withsome special longer episodes and related movies) lasted for 3 seasons, from 1972 – 75.
Note: the first season DVD was cropped to be in wide-screen format but thankfully the manufacturer went back to the original, full-screen format for the second and third seasons. You can get the entire series as a set by clicking on the links above — or if you’re a Member at Barnes & Noble and you have a coupon, get it here (and if you’re not a Barnes & Noble member, you should join).
The West Wing is to other political television series as…well, really, is there any other political television series? It is as immediate as the nightly news and as artistically rewarding as anything by Chayefsky, O’Neill, or Miller. Profound, funny, moving, inspiring, educational, aspirational, this show had it all. In its first season (1999) , it won 9 Emmy Awards, still the record for a first-year show. It went on to win a total of 27 in its 7-year run. Everything about this show was razor sharp, from the production values to the music to the casting (it still holds the record for the most Emmy acting nominations for a show in a single season — 12 in 2001-02). But above all, it was the writing. Just watching this show makes you feel smarter, wittier — and yes, more optimistic. And for anyone with a hardon for politics, it’s like crack. This is the way you wish the people in the White House really were. All seasons are available on DVD, including the entire series as a set. The image link at left goes to CD Universe, and you can also find it at Barnes & Noble here (currently for up to 50% off) and Buy.com here.
One reviewer called it “Television’s first true masterpiece.”
The Prisoner was a cutting-edge series when it debuted in the UK in 1967 and it remains so to this day (which doesn’t say much for the pace of innovation in television creativity).
It was first broadcast in the US on CBS in 1968. From the opening shots, when you see the main character driving his unusual Lotus 7, you suspect that you are in for something different. The brainchild of star Patrick McGoohan, The Prisoner consists of 17 enigmatic, sophisticated episodes.
When an instrument of the state (a spy) attempts to end his obligation to the state, what does the state do? It attempts to find out why, and it does so by attacking and subverting the subject’s social contract by imprisoning him in a place that appears not to be a prison — sort of Jeremy Bentham meets Kurt Vonnegut. Not that this series was a dry exercise in philosophy. It is more like a puzzle box that takes on themes of control versus freedom, solipsism, and cultural conditioning — all with an underlying implication (and actuality) of violence as the consequence of going against the institutional grain.
The series was meticulously filmed, produced, and directed, and it has recently been released in an outstanding Blu-ray version. Watch it and see if you can figure out its riddles. A couple of interesting factoids: the final episode, “Fall Out,” was nominated for science fiction’s highest award, the Hugo, for best dramatic presentation in 1969, but lost out to 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the movie The Matrix, in the closing action sequence where the agents are chasing Neo, he runs through an apartment living room and there is an image of a man on the television — it is one of the “Number 2” characters from The Prisoner.
By the way, AMC’s recent remake of the series is, unfortunately, lame, so don’t judge the original by that.
Best. Satirical. Show. Ever. From Cartman to Mr. Mackey, Lemminwinks to Towelie, South Park has been lodging indelible characters in society’s craw for 13 years now. And we’re all the better for it (except for Kenny, who has been killed 103 times).
No topic or person is too sacred for the show’s inventive creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, to skewer, lambaste, ridicule, lampoon, mock, caricature, or turn into a laughingstock. But they never forget that laughter is what it’s all about and the show’s humor has remained consistent and edgy year after year.
Sometimes it’s just about kids and their ability to delve into the fertile regions of the imagination. Sometimes it’s about saying “shit” 162 times in one show. Whatever, it’s funny as hell (and yes, they have ventured into hell, too, where Satan sleeps with Saddam). Nothing about South Park is lame or weak. There are now even books out by philosophy professors on South Park philosophy. Every season is available on DVD. Season 12 is available on Blu-ray and Season 13 will be available on Blu-ray in March, 2010.
Here are the quirky, offbeat, intelligent, irritating, delightful friends you wish you had but have never met. This is the place you wish you could live but have never found, except in the 110 episodes of Northern Exposure.
One of the smartest, most original, and charming TV series ever done, producers and writers have occasionally tried to reproduce its unique blend of chemistry and idiosyncrasy since it went off the air in 1995, but none have come close.
The overall arc of the show concerns the fish-out-of-water tale of New York doctor Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow), who is required to go to a tiny town in Alaska to pay off his med-school education. He encounters characters who eventually transform his world view, as well as his view of himself, and in that sense, he undergoes a sort of hero’s journey.
His muse in that journey is bush pilot Maggie O’Connell (the radiant Janine Turner), who by turns infuriates, captivates, and injures the cranky doctor. This is one of the best examples of sexual tension between characters in a TV show ever. But a plethora of other odd occurrences and people are encountered throughout the proceedings and you can never be sure of what will happen next, except that it will be interesting, funny, and possibly surreal.
There are excellent turns by guest stars, including Adam Arkin as a Sasquatch-esque ex-Vietnam special forces operative who is a brilliant chef and Anthony Edwards as a man who must live in a bubble. Just about every viable way a man can choose to relate to life and others is examined in this show.
John Cody, a professor in San Francisco, wrote: “[Northern Exposure] consistently exhilarate[s] us, the viewers, by honoring our capacity to delight in, to relish, the play of intelligence and psychological nuances. Each drama served a wonderful 10-course gourmet banquet for our starved imaginations: magic, myth, ritual philosophy, religious wisdom, folklore, fantasy, and living sparks from the moral dialectics of diverse characters.” In other words, he liked it. I love this show and have almost every episode recorded on VHS tape. Though it’s been close to 15 years since the series ended, fans still hold an annual “Moosefest” in Roslyn, WA to celebrate the show’s magic and camaraderie. Every season is available here (and a new Season 1 & 2 “Value Pack” is coming April 20, 2010).
Columbo is one of the greatest TV characters ever. He is famous worldwide. In addition to the nuances and charming idiosyncrasies of Peter Falk’s performance (for which he won 4 Emmys over a span of 18 years), the show was innovative in that it always began with the murder and then we saw how Columbo inexorably honed in on the culprit.
The series was also known for the quality of its guest stars. It is fun to see Columbo match wits with the likes of Patrick McGoohan, William Shatner, and Leonard Nimoy and see how they become increasingly frustrated by this bumbling police lieutenant who will not leave them alone. The show was clever, stylish, humorous, and suspenseful. It was from a “simpler” time as well, and in that sense remained a classic detective drama — solving the crime through the use of observation, deduction, leg-work, and knowledge of human nature. And it was not about the murder per se, but rather about the life-and-death contest of wits between the murderer and this humble, unassuming, occasionally empathetic, yet relentless sleuth.
Certainly one of the top 5 most successful television characters of all time, Columbo TV episodes and movies appeared from 1968 – 2003. (When the actual series began in 1971, 25-year-old Steven Spielberg directed the first episode.) Seven seasons of the show and some of the “ABC Mystery Movie” versions are currently available. Season 4 in particular is very good.
And, oh, just one more thing… On a side note, as you go through this list of TV shows, you’ll notice that there are none based strictly on murder as a dramatic focus (such as Homicide, Criminal Minds, etc.). Frankly, I have little use for the aesthetic of American television that fixates so obsessively on crime, and particularly murder, as a dramatic device. It’s too easy. Our generally dysfunctional relationship with death is simple enough to exploit, as is our fascination with unexpected violence, and that’s why the networks devote tens of hours of programming to it every week. But who wants to regularly inhabit that kind of world, even if only in the imagination? If your favorite show is Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, no problem. I suppose violence-and-retribution porn has its place, but it’s a place I rarely visit.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 is about a man trapped on a space station forced to watch the worst science fiction movies of all time by an evil scientist. In self-defense, the man builds some robot companions to help him deflect the badness of the movies by making flippant comments (“MSTing,” as it came to be known). Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But it worked as one of the most hilarious shows ever to ride out of Minnesota on a tide of viewer enthusiasm.
It was picked up by Comedy Central and then the Sci Fi channel, running from 1988 to 1999, first with the original creator Joel Hodgson as the human, later replaced by Mike Nelson. The shows are available on DVD as collections rather than seasons. They feature not only commentary on some of Hollywood’s worst B-movies but original sketches and riffing on lame “shorts” as well. The show has inspired a fanatical fan base and a movie was made in 1996. This is recycling at its finest. Who knew all those crappy movies would come in so handy?
Two PI shows stand out as the best of their genre and this is one of them. The Rockford Files first aired in 1974, continued for 6 successful seasons, and remains in syndication to this day. Several “reunion” movies were made between 1994 and 1999.
The show was anchored by James Garner’s easy-going, good-natured, savvy performance as a wise-cracking former convict turned private investigator. Noah Beery as his father added some character-actor gravitas and an element of family chemistry to the mix. But it is the writing that elevates this show into a place among some of the best television ever, thanks to Stephen J. Cannell, Juanita Bartlett, and David Chase (writer for Northern Exposure and creator of The Sopranos). Oh, and then there was that Pontiac Firebird… (I had a Firebird myself for a few years.) And his classy, sexy attorney, played by Gretchen Corbett. The regular series eventually ended due to the physical toll doing all his own stunts was taking on James Garner. Interesting factoid: the show’s theme song won a Grammy. All the seasons are available on DVD. Also hereand here.
You don’t get to be named the 20th century’s best TV show by Time magazine by being shabby and, of course, The Simpsons isn’t. Shabby, that is. It’s the most successful animated show of all time and may never be surpassed (just as no playwright has ever surpassed Shakespeare). Whereas the relationship dynamic of South Park is based on friendship between kids, that of The Simpsons is based on the nuclear family (including a father who works in a nuclear power plant).
Beyond that, and again similar to South Park, the show lampoons everything, parodies countless human and social foibles, and raises the ridicule of stupidity to a high art. Plus it makes you laugh. It almost always does that.
The show is book-ended by the irreverent, high-spirited Bart and his indolent, loutish father, Homer. Both have become cultural icons. (“Don’t have a cow, man.”) The Simpsons is the longest-running American sitcom (21 seasons and counting), the longest-running American animated show, and the longest-running American prime time entertainment series ever. The writing, acting, and animation are all as good as it gets (the show has won 25 Emmys) and there has been a who’s-who of guest stars (including Paul Newman, ElizabethTaylor, Joe Namath, and Thomas Pynchon). The Simpsons can get a laugh with a single word (“D’oh!”) or a sequence lasting 2 seconds. It remains pretty fresh after 20 years. Twelve seasons and special compilations are available on DVD. Season 20 will be released on Blu-ray in January 2010. (Factorama: Conan O’Brien was a staff writer for the show.)
One of the greatest miniseries and finest television productions ever, Brideshead Revisited captivated American audiences when it was presented on PBS’s “Great Performances” in 1981.
Boasting a stellar cast that included Jeremy Irons, Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom, and John Gielgud, it is based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel of the same title, and tells the story of an English Army captain who has been assigned to a headquarters located at an English country estate at which he had spent an idyllic summer many years before. The story of his passionate friendship with the aristocratic scion of the Marchmain family, Sebastian Flyte, as well as his subsequent embroilment with the rest of the family is told in flashback form.
This story plumbs virtually every human emotion, examines some important questions about life, and delves deeply into relationships between friends, lovers, and families. The gorgeous production has an ethereal, magical quality about it, a refreshing senseof discovery, and a nostalgia so intense as to be painful. The acting is superlative, without flaw; each character is indelible. Why is it included on this list? Because it portrays things about men, women, parents, children, art, and religion that are important to consider, and because it gives one a sense that purity is possible, even as innocence is forgotten. The 25th Anniversary Collector’s Edition includes all 11 hours, plus a documentary. Also find it here and here.
The broadcast of the miniseries Roots in 1977 was one of those significant cultural events that everyone who experienced at the time will remember for the rest of their lives.
Based on Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same title, the 12-hour miniseries followed the story of an African boy captured and forced into slavery and his (and his descendants’) subsequent fortunes in the United States.
It is hard to over-state the cultural impact this show had at the time it was first shown. It is estimated that over 130 million Americans saw all or part of the series, and the final program, broadcast January 30, 1977, remains the third highest-rated show of all time (behind the M*A*S*H finale and the Dallas episode “Who Shot JR?”). This represents over half of the nation’s population at the time — a staggering number, when you consider that television executives are ecstatic nowadays to approach an audience of 40 million, when the US population is over 300 million.
Roots received 9 Emmy awards, a Golden Globe, and a Peabody. The performances and production values are excellent (especially Louis Gossett, Jr. as Fiddler, which was a breakthrough role for him). Basically, the value of the miniseries lies in its depiction of the human spirit (via characters that many whites at the time still considered not quite as human as them), the expansion of consciousness through the interplay of relationships over time, and the quest for freedom. Freedom is always the bottom line. This dramatic series leaves one feeling both freer and more hopeful. A landmark achievement.
The average person lies 3 times in a 10-minute conversation… Even though it’s only in its second season, sometimes you just know that a show is going to be worth following and recommending and that’s the case with Lie to Me.
Tim Roth is one of the best actors currently working in television and his performance as Dr. Cal Lightman combines cool intellectualism with an undercurrent of brooding and at times visceral passion.
The idea here is that he is an expert at reading facial expressions and body language and can thus ascertain whether someone is telling the truth or somehow attempting to deceive. The premise is like nothing that’s been done before, and it’s used to excellent dramatic effect as Cal Lightman and his team of experts assist in cases from criminal to civil to military (and sometimes just to help out a friend).
The science of interpreting facial cues actually exists (courtesy of Dr. Paul Ekman, the source of the assertion at the top of this review), which makes it more fascinating, yet the human element is never submerged.
This show does not condescend at all to the viewer; the writing is topnotch and all the cast members do a good job (including Brendan Hines as a guy who chooses to always tell the truth, regardless of consequences). And, of course, there’s sexual tension between Lightman and his most experienced colleague, Dr. Gillian Foster (Kelli Williams) — who, of course, he cannot deceive. Or can he?
Season one is available on DVD and Blu-ray. A show that makes you feel smarter as you watch. It’s interesting how they juxtapose give-away facial expressions of real people (politicians, criminals) with the expressions of actors playing characters on the show. (Note: in later seasons, Cal becomes much more opaque, and the show went downhill a bit until it was canceled.)
If you want to know how not to act or think about 80% of the time, all you have to do is spend time with Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) on All in the Family. The genius of this show is that it managed, under the guise of comedy, to introduce all sorts of previously forbidden topics and issues to prime time network television (racism, homophobia, menopause, impotence, etc.) and in that sense it was groundbreaking.
It was consistently funny, too, which is one reason it was rated number 1 from 1971 – 1976 (running 8 seasons in all). Only 3 shows have ever held the top spot in the ratings for 5 or more consecutive seasons and All in the Family is one of them (the others being The Cosby Show and American Idol).
Each of the characters is a distinct individual and the cast had great chemistry. It’s like sitting down with your neighbors (or people who could be your neighbors) and experiencing all the squabbles, discoveries, frustrations, and rewards of that relationship.
Like life, only with a sharper, more humorous focus.
When TV Guide named its 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time, All in the Family was #4. Bravo named Archie Bunker TV’s greatest character of all time. Six seasons are available on DVD. The show was shot on tape and transferred from tape so it may not look stellar, but this timeless classic is still definitely worth watching.
If nothing else, the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) has shown the difference between the choreographed, stylized martial arts portrayed in movies and TV and what really happens in a fight (or as close to a no-holds-barred confrontation as the UFC’s minimal rules allow). The UFC demonstrates what real martial arts look like when applied in a practical situation. It’s not much like the stylized dance you see in films.
It’s brutal, it’s based on physical talent, conditioning, and efficient technique, and sometimes a little luck. And to a large extent on “heart.” Occasionally you’ll see something fancy like a spinning back kick, but mostly it’s a war of attrition using muy Thai techniques and boxing when standing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu on the ground. As such, it is kind of fascinating.
A reality show based on fighters who want to be in the UFC is therefore an intriguing concept, and that’s what we have in The Ultimate Fighter: Season One, which aired on Spike TV. The producers didn’t really know how it would all work out when it began, but it turned out to be pretty darn interesting. Two great UFC fighters (Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture) were brought in as opposing coaches along with a bunch of up-and-coming middleweight and light-heavyweight fighters. They went against each other for the prize of a six-figure contract (one for each weight class) and a shot at making it in the UFC.
What sort of personality does an MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter have? Turns out, rather diverse, from college grads to neanderthal types who are sketchily house-broken. They all lived together in a house which they proceeded to beat — along with each other — to hell. What does it take to make it as a professional UFC fighter? This show answered that question and a lot more. It also culminated in a legendary light-heavyweight fight that put the UFC on the mainstream map and exponentially raised its popularity. If you want to know about men who fight, this show is the one to watch and Season 1 is still probably the best of the bunch. A number of the fighters from this show went on to success in the UFC.
George Peppard’s cool, stylish performance as freelance insurance investigator Banacek is the main reason to watch this show, which lasted for 2 seasons on NBC, from 1972 – 74.
Banacek was hired for cases that no one else could solve, and if he solved them he got 10% of the value of the insured item. Since he was brilliant, this had made him a wealthy man and one of the pleasures of the show is watching him enjoy his debonair luxury lifestyle.
The show was known for its intricate heist mysteries: how did an armored truck get stolen while under police escort? How could a valuable race horse disappear from a track as it was being exercised? Only Banacek can find the clues and make the correct deductions, assisted by some quirky supporting characters and, of course, cutting a swath through the ladies as he did so (not to mention periodically declaiming inscrutable Polish proverbs).
An enjoyable show that combined mystery and humor, it was only canceled because Peppard didn’t want to hand over his salary to his ex-wife in his divorce settlement. Season 1 and Season 2 are both available on DVD, with the Season 2 collection containing the original pilot, and there is a “best-of” compilation as well.
24 is the most white-knuckle, pulse-pounding series currently on television, and maybe ever. It has managed to up the ante every year — not easy to do when you start off at a pretty high level. It’s hard to believe that there have already been seven action-packed 24-hour days wherein Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) has had to save whole cities, and sometimes the entire country, from terrorists almost single-handedly, as he is hindered, obstructed, and persecuted by the very people who are supposed to be on his side — CTU, the FBI, CIA, the President, the Secret Service, the Cabinet, police departments, postmen, etc.
It’s an interesting dichotomy that society calls on Jack Bauer to channel his dark energy to oppose the moral darkness of the enemy, and then castigates and condemns him when he does so.
It adds to the tension that no cast member is safe, meaning anybody can be killed at any time, including Jack. (Thank god Chloe is still around.) This is the ultimate anti-terror revenge fantasy. It works because of the terrific pacing (each show unfolding in more-or-less real time), action sequences, and performances. The show has won Golden Globes and Emmys for best drama, best actor (Kiefer Sutherland), best directing, and supporting actors. Seasons 1 – 7 are available on DVD; Season 7 is also on Blu-ray. You can also get 24 – The Complete Series for a good discount.
I hesitate somewhat to recommend WKRP in Cincinnati — not because this fresh, funky comedy isn’t worth your time (it is) but because the only season available on DVD is Season 1, and when it was released a lot of the original songs used in the series were removed and replaced with more “generic” music due to the expense of purchasing rights (stupid IPR), and the syndicated, 22-minute versions of the episodes were used.
Die-hard fans of the show howled in protest (yes, they howled) at what they thought was an unforgivable blow to the show’s artistic integrity and vowed not to buy the disc. And there the issue has sat, with no more seasons being released.
I guess you could look on the positive side and say that a show that got fans that riled up would have to be awfully good. And this sitcom really is that good. In fact, many fans have been able to look past the music issue and enjoy the show for what it was — a look at the wacky, delightful, off-beat personalities who have come together to work at the bottom-rated radio station in Cincinnati.
There’s Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman), a slightly burned out, slightly stoned DJ who says, during a bomb scare on the show, “If I die, who will teach the children about Bo Diddley?” There’s Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid), hip and soulful, who thinks he’s a little too cool for it all, but isn’t. And the Laurel and Hardy and Hardy of the station: Less Nessman (Richard Sanders), Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner), and Arthur “Big Guy” Carlson (Gordon Jump) who are, respectively, the worst newsman in Cincinnati, the worst salesman in Cincinnati, and the worst radio station general manager in Cincinnati. The sane Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) tries to hold it all together.
And, of course, two of the main reasons to watch are Jennifer Marlowe (played by blond bombshell Loni Anderson), who is the station’s receptionist; and Bailey Quarters (the lambent Jan Smithers), who is the station’s shy traffic manager (but who, you come to realize, is more desirable than Jennifer). Ah, one of those classic debates: Jennifer or Bailey — who would you do? WKRP was seventh in the ratings when it was canceled by some boneheads at CBS in its fourth season. Fortunately, the first season has some of the show’s funniest episodes, including the unforgettable “Turkey’s Away.” On balance, I’d say the show on DVD is still worth watching. Get it now and see what all the fuss is about.
It’s fitting that an unknown actor named Tom Selleck guest-starred on The Rockford Files as debonair private eye Lance White — ethical to a fault, highly educated, wealthy, a ladies man — in short, everything Rockford was not, and of course he drove Rockford nuts. Thus the best PI show of the 1970s shares some television DNA with the best PI show of the 1980s, as Tom Selleck went on to star in Magnum P.I. playing a character very much like the one he played on Rockford.
However, he is a little cooler as Thomas Magnum, ex-Navy SEAL and intelligence operative, who refuses to settle for the “real world” and instead hunkers down in the guest house of an estate in Hawaii and takes on various PI jobs, oftentimes for beautiful female clients.
Magnum P.I.‘s ratings consistently placed it among the top twenty shows in most of its 8 seasons. In fact, when the show’s producers tried to kill off Magnum at the end of the seventh season, the public outcry was such that they brought him back for an eighth.
Aside from Selleck’s laid-back charisma, there was a cadre of memorable supporting characters (including two of Magnum’s friends who had, like him, served in Vietnam), and the show was notable for its smart writing, variety of stories, and occasional wink-at-the-audience humor. Did Tom Selleck make the right move in turning down the role of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark to star in Magnum P.I.? Watch the shows — which are all available on DVD — and decide for yourself. (At least he got to be the first TV PI to drive a Ferrari.) Many think there has never been a better PI series made.
I loved The Wild Wild West when I was a kid and the show has stood the test of time as a one-of-a-kind combination of espionage and western.
Robert Conrad and Ross Martin play special agents of President Ulysses S. Grant, traveling around the west in their own tricked-out train, foiling nefarious plots, bringing evil-doers to justice, and saving the country from takeover by mad villains.
The show is an engaging combination of action, James-Bond-like gadgetry, camp, humor, good acting, suspense, stunts, science fiction, and romance (James West (Conrad) did most of the seduction duties). Artemus Gordon (Martin) supplied West with all kinds of cool weaponry, including a derringer that would extend out of his sleeve. Martin also was a “master of disguise,” and got to show off his ability to speak in many different dialects in the show’s 4-year run.
The show was also known for its collection of deranged villains, including one of the best of all time, Dr. Loveless (Michael Dunn), who was the duo’s arch-nemesis in several episodes. The series was filmed in black and white in its first season (for which it received an Emmy nomination for cinematography) and in color after that. It also had a bevy of beautiful but dangerous vixens with whom West and Martin had to contend. They don’t make ’em like that anymore. All seasons are available on DVD.
There has never been a funnier sitcom than Scrubs. I’m pretty picky when it comes to sitcoms — if it doesn’t make me laugh out loud at least two or three times in a half hour, why bother? And Scrubs has been a consistent laugh-producer year after year. They managed to keep it fresh and surprising and even when you got used to a particular character’s shtick, it was still funny, unlike many other sitcoms.
The writing has been consistently good; the subtle, silly touches (like sound effects and JD’s reveries) have been spot on, and the cast always seems to be having fun giving their performances. It is a true ensemble cast and every character is memorable (“I do love a moist cake”).
The fact that the show never got stellar ratings means nothing — in fact, you might assume, since banality like Two and a Half Men is highly rated year after year, that it’s a sort of compliment to the show’s quality. Sure, sometimes quality and ratings converge (such as All in the Family), but there are gems out there you might have missed. If you haven’t seen it, this is one of them.
And one unusual and interesting thing about the series is that they can transition between goofy slapstick and a poignant story about the fate of a patient in the same show and make it work. That means good writing. They get excellent performances out of their guest stars, too (Michael J. Fox, Heather Graham, etc.).
From Perry’s rants to the Janitor’s hobby of creating an army of stuffed squirrels over which to be king, Scrubs is uniquely humorous. And if you don’t believe me, go stand in the corner and try to remember why your name is Sheila.
Alias is the best series about a female spy ever. This is a truly modern suspense drama, with complex characters worrying about their purpose in life, as well as stewing over the meaning and quality of their relationships. But the fight scenes are good. And there’s a 500-year-old prophetic manuscript to deal with.
Combined with having to save the world from the depredations of shadowy terrorist cabals, the show is a multifaceted experience. It’s interesting that the show premiered in September, 2001 (it lasted 5 seasons).
One unique aspect is that we follow the career of Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) from before it begins and takes her through numerous adjustments and transformations (her own “hero’s journey”) in an increasingly complex search for, ultimately, truth and love.
Along the way there’s plenty of intrigue, style, humor, and action (love those scenes where Sydney’s running). The male characters are all interesting, individualistic, and entertaining, especially Sydney’s father, Jack Bristow (Victor Garber), who is one of the most emotionally-controlled and cold-blooded “good guys” ever. It’s intriguing to watch as the layers of his character are revealed over the course of the series. Another favorite is Kevin Weisman playing Marshall Flinkman, the show’s “Q”-type genius, who can always be counted on for a laugh.
The show was known for having interesting guest stars, too, including David Cronenberg, Richard Roundtree, Quentin Tarantino, and Faye Dunaway.
Factorama: the show was a big hit with CIA employees, who appreciated its portrayal of the world of espionage. The agency had Jennifer Garner make a recruitment video to show to grad student prospects. Find the show here and here.
Moonlighting is about a detective agency run by David Addison (Willis) and Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd). The show was groundbreaking in that it was one of the first series to combine drama and comedy, as well as throwing in “departure” shows where the cast would do something completely different (e.g. perform Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew).
The writing was good, the dialog clever (with rapid-fire patter and verbal jousting), and the plots featured serviceable who-dunnits.
It was primarily the sparks generated by Willis’s manic, youthful wise-cracking and the elegant Shepherd’s sophisticated, exasperated tolerance that made the show entertaining. As oil and water, of course they created a lot of sexual tension. Their witty byplay is still some of the best ever in a TV show.
The mix of elements that led to the term “dramedy” was exemplified by the fact that the show was nominated for Emmy Awards in the dramatic series category and for Golden Globe Awards in the comedy series category in several of its 5 seasons. Factorama: Al Jarreau wrote the lyrics and performed one of the most popular theme songs for a series ever. All seasons are available on DVD.
Breaking Bad is another new show that makes the cut here because it’s excellent and like nothing else that’s ever been done.
Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher who is informed that he has terminal cancer. Being not just some schlemiel HS teacher but actually a good-enough chemist to have partnered with a Nobel Prize winner in the past, and, his financial situation not being the greatest — and under the influence of too many broken dreams and self-castigating thoughts — he decides to begin cooking and selling crystal meth in order to secure his family’s financial future.
That is the premise of one of the most original and unpredictable shows of recent years. There are hilarious moments; there are tragic moments. There are sometimes both together. There are moments that make your jaw drop.
The first season was consistently unpredictable, funny, gritty, and excellent. The second season descends into the blackest of black comedy. It will be interesting to see how season 3 plays out.
Set in Albuquerque, New Mexico (which provides a different and effective type of atmosphere), and penned, directed, and produced by Vince Gilligan (former producer of the X-Files), it features an outstanding performance by Bryan Cranston as he begins a journey into the heart of darkness and yet finds himself more vividly alive than ever before. Cranston has won the Emmy for best actor in a drama series for Breaking Bad’s first two seasons, which are available on DVD and Blu-ray. The show has also won an Emmy for editing.
There are no weak spots — the cast is superb (great touch to have his brother-in-law be a DEA agent, which adds an undercurrent of absurdity to the whole war-on-drugs thing), the writing is vigorous and insightful, and the plot holds your attention. As you watch, you keep being blown away that something this edgy and good made it to TV (thank god for the cable networks). For more perspective on Breaking Bad, see Chuck Klosterman’s evaluation that it is the best show of the last 10 years.
When Robin Williams was at the height of his newfound fame as a result of Mork & Mindy, I went to see him do his standup comedy act at the Boarding House in San Francisco. His performance that night was the most overt display of creative genius I had ever seen. Whether performing prepared material or improvising off audience input, he was brilliant and hilarious. And that’s the reason to watch this show.
There will never be another performer like Robin Williams, and in this series he was unleashed on the world for the first time.
The series, a spinoff from a single guest appearance Williams made on Happy Days, appeared for 4 seasons on ABC from 1978 – 1982.
It starred Williams as an alien from Ork, sent to earth to report on human behavior, and Pam Dawber as Mindy, the girl from Boulder, Colorado who he rooms with. Mork has a lot to learn about how things work from a human perspective, and that unleashes Williams to do all kinds of riffs, double-entendres, misunderstandings, and faux pas on human thinking and relationships.
After awhile, the writers of the series left gaping holes in the script where it would say, in effect, “Robin improvises.” And the show is funny to this day, especially to young people who’ve never seen it (and even to us older folk who might better get some of the jokes that went over our heads when Williams was unleashing them at breakneck pace).
The show became a hit in its first season. After that, the network messed with it to try to “improve” it and, while it remained entertaining, it became a little uneven. But each season is still worth watching. (The second season featured a guest-star appearance by Racquel Welch as “Captain Nirvana” of the Necrotons, an alien race of beautiful women who were enemies of Orkans (hubba hubba).)
Tom Poston also appeared as Mork and Mindy’s grumpy, greeting-card-writer neighbor, Mr. Bickley, and his comedic talent and timing added to the humor.
Factorama: in the second season, ABC moved Mork & Mindy into the time slot where the canceled Battlestar Galactica had been. If you haven’t seen it (or even if you have), try Season 1. You’ll be hooked (or re-hooked). Just think what the world would be like without Robin Williams… A lot less funny. To date, three seasons are available on DVD. Also find it here.
Baa Baa Black Sheep was the kind of TV show my father liked.
In 1976, Stephen J. Cannell (who also created The Rockford Files, among others) created a series about a squadron of Marine pilots in the south Pacific in World War II. The show was loosely based on the real-life exploits of Major Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, who commanded squadron VMF-214, which flew F4U Corsairs against the Japanese. Boyington became an ace and led the “Black Sheep Squadron” to fame (in one 12-week period in 1943 they downed or damaged 197 enemy planes). Boyington himself was eventually shot down, captured by a Japanese submarine and was a prisoner for 18 months. He was awarded the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross.
The opening credits of the show state: “In World War II, Marine Corps Major Greg “Pappy” Boyington commanded a squadron of fighter pilots. They were a collection of misfits and screwballs who became the terrors of the South Pacific. They were known as the Black Sheep.” This indicates the fictional direction that was taken with this series. It doesn’t go as far toward comedy as M*A*S*H, but Boyington and his pilots are portrayed as hard-drinking, hard-fighting, laissez-faire kind of guys, chasing nurses and cutting loose whenever they aren’t engaging in dog fights.
Robert Conrad (after his stint on The Wild Wild West) played Boyington and was nominated for a Golden Globe for his portrayal. One great thing about the show is that the flying scenes were done with real F4U Corsairs (no CGI in those days), and they pioneered the use of helmet-mounted cameras to capture aerial footage. I love warbirds, so maybe that skews my interest a bit toward this show. But then again, my father liked it. It lasted for 2 seasons and all Season 1 episodes plus the 2-hour pilot are available, spread over two DVD volumes.
Bosom Buddies was a fun 1980s comedy that just happened to co-star a guy who would become only the second man (Spencer Tracy was the first) to win back-to-back Academy Awards as Best Actor.
Here is Tom Hanks getting his first big break at age 24 and making the most of it, along with Peter Scolari and the ever-smoldering Holland Taylor. Hanks and Scolari play Kip and Henry, two guys who work at an ad agency as an artist and writer, respectively. The apartment they’re sharing gets condemned so their coworker (Wendy Jo Sperber), who has a crush on Henry, suggests they move in with her. The only problem is that she lives in a place that’s for women only.
So begins a riff on Some Like It Hot: Kip and Henry must dress in drag in order to inhabit their new digs. And there, Kip meets Sonny(Donna Dixon), who he decides is the love of his life. Complications, as they say, ensue.
The series lasted for 2 seasons (37 half-hour episodes). Apparently the network wasn’t paying much attention to the show, so the young writers and actors were free to experiment and Hanks and Scolari discovered comedic chemistry together, frequently improvising their scenes. It made for some good laughs.
In 1952, Superman made his first appearance in a TV series in The Adventures of Superman, and many feel that this is in many respects the best series featuring Superman that has been made. It was groundbreaking, thoughtfully-produced, well-acted, and well-written. It deservedly made a star of its leading man, George Reeves; it was popular when it was broadcast and remains popular to this day — a feat accomplished by few series from the vintage days of television.
George Reeves was the quintessential man of steel — smart, confident, and a kickass superhero fighting for “truth, justice, and the American way.” His Clark Kent was not a bumbler, but was instead professional about his job, cool, and well-rounded.
The show used some special effects that were advanced at that time to portray Superman flying. Many of the cast members became popular, particularly Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane in the series’ first two seasons (she would be replaced by Noel Neill in the remaining four).
The producers wanted to create a show that would appeal to both adults and kids and they succeeded admirably. The first two seasons in particular have the feel of the noir crime films of the day. After shooting the first two seasons in black and white, the producers decided to move to a color production, one of the first TV series to do so. Even though the network had not yet committed to broadcasting in color, the producers saw the handwriting on the wall and realized that it would eventually increase the value of the series.
The series added science fiction elements in later seasons and even became somewhat campy, though the final season toned down the camp and returned to more of the serious style with which it began.
Every season is available on DVD. A feature film entitled Hollywoodland, which deals with the show’s production and the deathof George Reeves, was released in 2006. Not too many series or their stars warrant the making of a feature film about them. This series is well worth adding to your library of classic television — it will entertain you and inspire your kids.
One of the few military dramas that isn’t cheesy, The Unit was created by writing heavyweights David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, The Verdict) and Shawn Ryan (The Shield) in 2006, based on the book Inside Delta Force: the Story of America’s Elite Counterterrorist Unit, by Eric Haney. It ended after 4 seasons in 2009.
It follows the training, missions, and family life of 5 – 7 of Delta Force’s elite soldiers, as they travel around the world clandestinely fighting terrorists and other bad guys that pose a threat to the United States. The episodes are smart, suspenseful, and the action is well-done.
Dennis Haysbert (who formerly played President David Palmer on 24) plays Sergeant Major Jonas Blane, the non-commissioned officer in charge of the unit’s 5-man team, as a no-nonsense, creative commander, who can be both ruthless and compassionate as circumstances require. Robert Patrick (Terminator 2, The X-Files) plays Colonel Tom Ryan, The Unit’s overall commander, who presumably reports only to the President.
There is a strong element of family and relationship dynamics involved, as the show examines the toll taken on the soldier’s wives and families due to the top-secret and dangerous nature of their work. All the main characters, including the wives, are well-acted, and the dynamic situations the characters confront always keep one’s interest as they are presented in a non-clichéd, “realistic,” morally-ambiguous way. All seasons are available on DVD and Season 4 is also on Blu-ray.
St. Elsewhere is the reason ER* is not on this list.
Saint Elsewhere is the original — the granddaddy of all ensemble medical shows. But it was much more than that, so much more that critics have acknowledged it as one of television’s finest series ever. The writing was superb, the cast excellent, and the directing served the show’s combination of drama, black humor, inside jokes, pop culture references, and surrealism.
It concerns the fortunes of a staff of doctors at St. Eligius Hospital in Boston’s South End neighborhood. The hospital is run down and the butt of many jokes, one of them being that it is known as “St. Elsewhere.” In that environment, a slew of medical cases and issues are grappled with in ways that are both funny and tragic.
The show is legendary for its ensemble of actors, some just launching careers that would lead to stardom. The cast includes: Ed Flanders, Norman Lloyd, William Daniels, David Morse, Alfre Woodard, Bruce Greenwood, Helen Hunt, Ed Begley, Jr., Stephen Furst, Howie Mandel, Christina Pickles, Mark Harmon, and Denzel Washington.
The show, which was created by Joshua Brand and John Falsey (who would go on to create Northern Exposure — which just goes to show once again that good writing is the most important aspect of a successful series), was nominated for over 60 Emmys in its 6-season run, winning 13 of them. It is #20 on TV Guide’s list of the 50 greatest shows of all time.
Now the bad news: there is only one freakin’ season available on DVD.
For some misbegotten reason, Fox has chosen not to release the remaining 5 seasons. But one season (22 episodes) of St. Elsewhere is better than just about any 10 other television series. Maybe if you buy Season 1 and then write to Fox and ask them nicely…?
If you haven’t seen this show (which premiered in 1982), you are in for a treat. Watch the first 2 – 3 episodes and you’ll see what I mean.
[*ER was good in its first few seasons but when the stars started to leave it began to die the death of a thousand paper cuts. Plus, one medical drama is enough here — watching too many isn’t healthy.]
Remington Steele showcased the talents of future-James Bond Pierce Brosnan and helped make him famous in the U.S. after some early success on the British stage.
Stephanie Zimbalist (daughter of actor Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., who was well-known for 77 Sunset Strip and The F.B.I.) plays Laura Holt, owner of a private detective agency. She finds that clients are reluctant to hire a woman and so makes up a fictitious boss named Remington Steele in hopes of drumming up more business. A white-collar thief and con man (Brosnan) overhears the name and decides to take on the identity as his own. As he and Laura Holt work things out, it turns out that he is a good detective, and a new team (sort of an updated Thin Man concept) is born.
The mysteries are pretty good, sometimes borrowing from classic plots such as The Maltese Falcon, and there is an element of romantic comedy that worked well between Brosnan and Zimbalist (of course, the sexual tension was milked for all it was worth). The show had style (including a 1936 Auburn Speedster), both stars had charm and panache, the writing was good, and it became one of the best male/female detective series ever.
In its later seasons it was in competition with Moonlighting — which is ironic, since Moonlighting creator Glen Gordon Caron wrote and produced the first 10 episodes of Remington Steele (once again demonstrating the influence of a good writer on a show’s success). The rivalry between the shows led to Brosnan making a cameo appearance as Remington Steele on a Moonlighting episode entitled “The Straight Poop.”
The NBC network supported Remington Steele pretty aggressively, which led to the capability to shoot episodes in foreign countries.
Factorama: when it appeared that Remington Steele was about to be canceled in 1986, film producer “Cubby” Broccoli offered the part of James Bond to Pierce Brosnan, whom Broccoli assumed was about to become unemployed. The offer of the James Bond role generated a lot of buzz in the U.S. and fans of the TV show wrote in asking that it not be canceled. Since the network had Brosnan under contract for another year, they brought him back and shot a 5th season of Remington Steele. Timothy Dalton got the part of Bond instead, and Brosnan had to wait until 1995 to utter those immortal words: “Bond… James Bond.”
All seasons of Remington Steele are available on DVD.
Now it’s so easy to just accept Monty Python as another fact of life, like pop-top cans, professional wrestling, and the Milky Way, that we may forget that this was an actual group of individual human beings who came together from diverse backgrounds and managed, serendipitously, using their own minds and leveraging their inventive chemistry, to remake not only comedy, but to change the way we think about what’s funny.
I mean, yeah, a naked guy playing the organ is funny, but who first thought of it? Python. Who first thought it would be funny to have German and Greek philosophers play soccer against each other? Python. Who first sang a song about a lumberjack who likes to dress in women’s clothing? Python. Who treated Spam the way it ought to be treated?
Monty Python’s Flying Circus is the smartest, most original, silliest, and sneakily subversive sketch show of all time. We can all remember the first time we cracked up at a Python routine (for me, I heard them on radio before the TV show had even made it to the United States). One response, as you are laughing, is that you can’t believe that these guys are making something funny that seems not at all suited to humor. I mean, if someone said: I have an idea for a comedy sketch — this guy goes into a cheese shop and asks for different kinds of cheese and they don’t have any — would you think that would be funny? Yet it’s routines like “The Cheese Shop” that make one think there may still be hope for western civilization — or, if not hope, at least we’ll have a pretty good time watching it degrade into oblivion and making fun of it.
Monty Python has an interesting way of attenuating reality. And, just as important, they have the acting chops to pull off their best ideas.
There are many collections and specialized sets available on DVD. You can get the entire series plus extras, for example, with the 16-Ton Monty Python Megaset. And you can find Season 1’s first bits and see how it all started. One way or another, the best sketch show is alive and kicking for your viewing pleasure. What Tolkien did for elves, Monty Python did for dead parrots. They weren’t kidding when they said, “And now for something completely different.”
In The Equalizer, Edward Woodward stars as Robert McCall, a former secret service agent with no illusions about life, a set of lethal skills, and too much regret. To atone for past sins, he decides to use his experience as a spy to help people who are somehow overmatched — in too deep with the wrong crowd, facing dire threats alone, victimized by bullies… Each show starts off showing McCall’s newspaper classified ad: “Got a problem? Odds against you? Call the Equalizer.” And equalize things he does, with an efficient ruthlessness and British style that ‘s a breath of fresh air among otherwise run-of-the-mill suspense television.
As played by Woodward (one of the great actors of his generation), McCall is a man who’s stared too long at something that will, in the end, overwhelm him. But he’s not done yet. He kicks ass and takes names on behalf of average citizens at the end of their rope.
Broadcast on CBS from 1985 – 89, The Equalizer is an urban revenge fantasy that isn’t afraid to be raw and poke at the tension between strength and compassion. A spare, driving theme song and musical score by Police drummer Stewart Copeland helps create a noirish yet contemporary feel.
Of course, McCall is aided by former intelligence service associates and lowlife buddies. He has lived on the ugly underside of life for too long and hopes, if not to earn his angel’s wings, at least to thumb his nose at the devil before he’s called to answer for his transgressions.
The show is notable for some of its guest stars — young actors who would go on to popular success — who play both victims and victimizers: McCauley Culkin, Vincent D’Onofrio, Kevin Spacey, Christian Slater, Bradley Whitford, Adam Ant, Lori Petty, Laurence Fishburne, William H. Macy, Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub, and Ving Rhames, among others.
But it’s Woodward’s performance (for which he was nominated for an Emmy for Best Actor all 4 seasons the series was on, and for which he won a Golden Globe) that drives this drama. Season 1 (22 episodes) is currently available on DVD. Also purchase it here.
If you are one of the four people in the western hemisphere who hasn’t ever seen an episode of Cheers, you are in for a pleasant discovery — namely, the best male-bonding-as-women-monkey-wrench-everything sitcom ever.
If any show doesn’t need an introduction, it’s this one. 11 seasons. 273 episodes. World-wide syndication. 117 Emmy nominations (the most ever for a comedy series) and 28 wins. Pretty good for a show about guys sitting around a bar having a beer.
In most dramatic situations where a character goes into a bar, the cliché is that the bartender dispenses wise advice that the character uses to solve some problem. Cheers turned this paradigm on its head. The bar’s patrons often dispensed advice to the bartenders and, really, except for the cool Sam Malone, the other Cheers bartenders (Coach and Woody) were too clueless to offer anything but misunderstanding. In that respect, it was the bartenders and the staff (Diane, Carla, Rebecca) who changed the most during the show’s run, while the patrons stayed pretty consistent. The flawed humans (who all thought they were correct) and their relationships made for comedy gold.
The cast was outstanding, the writing better, and America eventually agreed (after the show almost got canceled in its first season), propelling Cheers to #1 in the ratings. No show has ever made more effective use (to the point of self-parody) of sexual tension between characters. Nor has any show ever elevated the put-down to a higher level.
Cheers was the human condition bottled and fermented each week into a humorous concoction. It didn’t shy away from touching and poignant moments, either. There was nothing weak about Cheers — that’s why it was the place you wanted to go.
Every season is available on DVD. (Factorama: John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, won an Emmy in 1987 for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series for his portrayal of marriage consultant Dr. Simon Finch-Royce on Cheers. He counseled — who else? — Sam and Diane.)
Star Trek: The Next Generation is the broadest, deepest, most varied and creatively fertile of the various Star Trek series and that’s why it gets top billing here. Make no mistake, the whole Star Trek franchise is rewarding and the original Star Trek deserves its legendary status. But for repeated viewing, longevity, complexity, and science fiction inventiveness, Star Trek: The Next Generation can’t be beat.
Some of the best television writing, bar none, took place in this series. (Can you ever forget the episode where the opening teaser shows the Enterprise blowing up — and it then blows up every 15 minutes throughout the show (before every commercial break) as the crew tries desperately to figure out how to avoid this disastrous time continuum? Kelsey Grammar, of Cheers and Frasier fame, makes a cameo in this season 5 episode.)
Star Trek: The Next Generation comprises 178 episodes over 7 seasons (1987 – 1994). In the Star Trek canon, it begins about 80 years after the original series left off, with a new Enterprise and a new crew. As the Captain, Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) is about as different from James T. Kirk as you can get and still be a starship captain. But his strong performance, more than any other, anchors the series and harmonizes the dynamics among the other characters. Yet all the other characters are strong and memorable in their own right and the series simply worked on many levels (excpet maybe sex — there wasn’t enough of that).
It added interesting new characters, too, such as Q and Data, and was successful enough that 3 more Star Trek series followed. Star Trek: The Next Generation won 18 Emmy Awards, 2 Hugos, and was the first syndicated television show to be nominated for the Emmy for Best Dramatic Series. It provided the basis for 4 Star Trek feature films. Fifteen years after it ended, it is still being re-run around the world.
The entire series is available on DVD, and it’s recommended to get individual seasons rather than the whole series if you can afford it, since the packaging of the entire series collection is a little flimsy. You can also find many specialized compilations — such as The Borg Fan Collective.
The Office (U.S. version) generates big laughs but it does something that few successful sitcoms have ever accomplished — it walks the razor’s edge between hilarity and tragic embarrassment so precariously that at times it is painful to watch. It never falls over the edge into irredeemable humiliation and that is part of its genius — but as it approaches that point, you can’t help but cringe. And then it pivots right into silliness and your laughter is tinged with relief.
Few shows are more precise in their ability to explore the nuances of humor. A lot has to do with the performances. The main character is Michael Scott, the manager of a paper wholesaler, who is a prism of stupidity through which all the colors of idiocy are refracted. He is played so well by Steve Carell that it hardly seems to be acting (which, of course, is what the best actors do). He rarely takes a wrong step in portraying a man who has so many deficiencies that you wonder how he could have survived to the age of 40-something — and then he flips aside the curtain for just a few moments to reveal the redeeming qualities of a human being who at other times personifies the phrase “a waste of space.”
Part of the effectiveness of Carell’s performance, along with all the other cast members, is the show’s style of being shot as though it’s a documentary. An unidentified crew is filming the day-to-day operations, experiences, problems, and progress of a paper company. So we get not only dramatic scenes but interviews of characters either before or after the scene has taken place. Quite frequently, the interview provides the delightful cherry on top of the comedic sundae.
This aura of verisimilitude makes The Office just a bit more intense and realistic than the average 1-camera sitcom. It is not easy to make performances of this type work. Steve Carell has won a Golden Globe and an Emmy, Jenna Fischer (Pam) was singled out by the Women’s Image Network Awards, and the cast has twice been honored by the Screen Actors Guild for best ensemble acting in a television comedy.
Awards aside, every cast member is effective, especially Rainn Wilson as the monomaniacal geek-troglodyte Dwight Schrute, and John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer as Jim Halpert and Pam Beesly, who provide a lifeboat of sanity in a shipwreck of loopiness, not to mention a romance that still works even though it’s been consummated. (Guys, if you want to know how to be cool and charming, pay attention to Jim.)
The writing, directing, and editing are all razor-sharp, so it’s no surprise that The Office has won the Emmy for best comedy series. It has become such an indelible part of the American comedic landscape that it’s hard to believe it only premiered in 2005 (to very shaky ratings). Yet we know so much about these vivid characters that it’s amazing they continue to develop and surprise us.
Dismaying fact: Bosses like Michael Scott actually exist (which is part of the show’s cathartic appeal, I suspect). I had one.
Boston Legal is a delicious blend of drama, weirdness, charm, offensiveness, earnest activism, and elitist snobbery. Oh, and sexual harrassment.
Along with writer/producer/director David E. Kelley’s typical blend of facts and fancy (which doesn’t quite shade into magic realism in this series, in contrast to Ally McBeal), the main reason to watch is James Spader’s mesmerizing performance as Alan Shore, a predatory lawyer with a wit exponentially greater than his rivals’, a voracious libido, and the naughty charm of a Girl Scout selling crack.
The cast of this show (or should I say, foils for Shore) is effective across the board, especially William Shatner, who plays larger-than-life Denny Crane — an infectious combination of unapologetic chutzpah and unfettered id.
One of the best dramedies of all time, the show was so irreverent, different, and good that it was treated shabbily by the network and often threatened with cancellation — this despite James Spader twice winning the Emmy for Best Actor in a drama series and William Shatner winning an Emmy and a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actor.
One thing that helped the show survive as long as it did was that it drew the viewer demographic with the highest income in all of television. (This is borne out in my experience — the richest guy I know liked it.)
The show toyed with and satirized concepts of masculinity, both on individual and societal levels, and it was touching and funny in presenting the friendship between Alan Shore and Denny Crane. James Spader’s portrayal of Alan Shore is masculine to the core, projecting both strength and seductive sensuality.
Boston Legal is a stylish and intelligent television show, by turns dramatic and goofy, educational and outrageous (check the episode where a female objectophiliac falls in love with a clock radio). It took on important topics yet was not afraid to poke fun at itself. I also like that it parodied the subject of prime-time murder, including having Betty White wield a frying pan in a preemptive, deadly way. All 5 seasons are available on DVD. Also find Boston Legal here.
There’s nothing like a good farce at the end of the day, and there’s never been a better one than Fawlty Towers, John Cleese’s paean to bad hoteliers and second-rate lodgings everywhere.
That it’s set in England has not hampered the show’s popularity; it has been shown in more than 17 countries and has inspired a fanatical fan base. In 2000, when the British Film Institute created a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes and asked for votes by industry professionals, Fawlty Towers placed first. It is likely the most successful 12-episode series ever produced. But those 12 episodes, spread over two seasons, are gems.
It’s also one of the least politically-correct TV series ever. John Cleese and his then-wife Connie Booth (who also appeared as a player in several Monty Python productions) would work for at least 6 weeks to write each script for the half-hour sitcom (which first appeared in 1975). Their efforts yielded comedic gold.
Cleese plays Basil Fawlty, an unpromising wretch of a man, who runs a second-rate hotel that he wishes was first-rate and longs to have recognized by the finer elements of society.
Instead, what he actually gets is a sharp-tongued wife critical of his hare-brained schemes, an incompetent waiter from Spain who barely understands English, and a parade of guests, both normal and eccentric, who never meet his snobbish standards.
The show employs both physical and verbal comedy, with each episode generally culminating in an apoplectic Fawlty desperately trying to hold together the shambles of some stupid scheme he has cooked up to increase his social status and bolster his diminished sense of self-worth. As performed by Cleese and the rest of the cast, it is a window into what happens when the polite veneer of society gets gradually ripped away to reveal the desperation underneath. Somehow, the hotel (named, of course, Fawlty Towers) survives for another week until the next crop of inconvenient guests arrives.
Factorama: if you watch the opening credits, the marquee in front of the hotel degrades over time (perpetrated by the unappreciated paper boy), with the name of the hotel becoming more and more garbled: Fawlty Tower, Watery Fowls, Flay Otters, Fatty Owls, Flowery Twats, Farty Towels, etc.
The Wire has been hailed by critics (and many impressed viewers) as the finest TV series of all time.
It’s certainly one of the all-time best television shows for men.
Though it never won any major awards or even garnered a huge audience in its 5-season run, it is being increasingly hailed for the brilliance of its writing, acting, and unique approach to telling the story of a big city and how living in one affects, and is affected by, its human inhabitants. It’s without a doubt a top TV series that you can catch up on via DVD.
If you have not seen The Wire, I would recommend it as the number one show for you to get now.
David Simon was a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun before launching this project with HBO and in that respect (and in many others) The Wire is not typical of how most television shows have been produced.
It is set in Baltimore and each 12-episode season deals with a different facet of the city, including the drug trade, the port system, the city government, the schools, and the print news media.
No big stars appeared on the show but instead a large ensemble of excellent character actors were cast who temperamentally and physically fit the wide diversity of roles.
Another major departure was the writers that Simon assembled to create scripts for the show. He himself did most of the writing but also brought in a distinguished group of authors and journalists (several of whom had not worked in television before) to write or collaborate on a number of episodes. His main series writing partner was Ed Burns, a former Baltimore police detective and public school teacher. Other writers include detective novelist George Pelecanos, novelist Richard Price (Clockers), Rafael Alvarez (a reporter for the Baltimore Sun for 20 years), and novelist Dennis Lehane (Mystic River; Gone, Baby, Gone; Shutter Island). Once again, this demonstrates the fundamental need for high-quality writing in order to create something of true artistic substance on television. In that sense, critics cited The Wire as being “broadcast literature.”
Entertainment Weekly named it the best show of 2004 and described it as being “the smartest, deepest, and most resonant drama on TV.”
After season 4 had appeared, the critic for Newsday wrote: “A critic for the paper once declared The Wire ‘the greatest dramatic series ever produced for television’ and as the fourth season gets under way Sunday night, there’s no reason to quibble with that assessment.”
The San Francisco Chronicle wrote: “The breadth and ambition of The Wire are unrivaled and [when] taken cumulatively over the course of a season — any season — it’s an astonishing display of writing, acting and storytelling that must be considered alongside the best literature and filmmaking in the modern era.”
The Chicago Tribune said, simply: “If you have only one hour a week for television, give it to The Wire.” The entire series is available on DVD.
Sometimes the guy gets the girl. That’s what happens in Once and Again — and, along with the girl, he gets the family (including teenagers), two careers, in-laws, ex-husband, and various and sundry other associates and colleagues.
Once and Again is a beautiful show about modern romance and relationships and their attendant challenges. It is human and moving, artistic and down-to-earth. One of those heartfelt gems that comes along every few years on television and never manages to please its network with its ratings, Once and Again was able to last for 3 seasons due mostly to the heroic efforts of its fans to keep it alive.
Created by the esteemed Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (Thirtysomething; My So-Called Life; Traffic; The Last Samurai; Shakespeare in Love; Blood Diamond), the writing is stellar and the cast terrific, headed up by the luminous Sela Ward. She plays Lily Manning, a single mother raising two daughters and working at her sister’s book store. Billy Campbell plays Rick Sammler, a single father with his own architectural firm raising a teen boy and girl (Evan Rachel Ward at the start of her career).
Lily and Rick meet at a school function and the rest is chemistry — and angst, adjustment, drama, and passion.
This show has a little bit of everything. It’s easy to relate to, while at the same time being dramatic enough to take you out of your own life. As an added bonus, all the women on the show are hot.
Admittedly, watching a number of the shows listed on this page will not necessarily make you feel “good” (though they will entertain you), but watching Once and Again will.
Only two of the three seasons are available on DVD and it’s been discontinued by the manufacturer so it’s becoming hard to find; your best bet is to rent it from Netflix. Even though it’s only two seasons, what you get are 44 excellent 1-hour episodes of a show that’s got more depth than 85% of the derivative cop/doctor/lawyer dramas currently available on network TV.
“Honorable mention TV series”: Sea Hunt; Lost in Space (“Danger, Will Robinson!”); The Waltons; Upstairs Downstairs; The Sopranos; Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip; Chuck. (And a really promising new show, Men of a Certain Age, is about to begin season two on TNT. The first season will be available on DVD on November 9, 2010.)
If you can’t find something enjoyable to watch out of the 50+ shows listed here, then you don’t like television. Re-visit old favorites or discover a new love.
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