I bet you thought I forgot, didn’t you?? Well, I didn’t. Today at long last we conclude the Top 50 Favorite TV Shows series with the Top 5. I am sure there won’t be any big surprises here. All five finalists are generally thought of as being amongst the finest franchises to ever grace the small screen. You’ll see three sitcoms, one drama (or nighttime “soap opera” if you prefer), and one comedy/talk/variety show that has stood the test of time & come into our living rooms for over a half century. Television, like movies, sports, and other forms of entertainment, isn’t necessarily vital to our existence, but it certainly adds an undeniable layer of pleasure and relaxation that can enrich our lives. I appreciate the opportunity to learn something and gain knowledge from any medium…books, music, film, radio, and yes…television. However, at the end of the day a good television show should be…used to be…comfort food for our souls. It should be like an old friend that we welcome into our lives for 30-60 minutes every week (or every night in some cases), that makes us smile & feel content, that when it leaves the airwaves makes us kind of melancholy and nostalgic, and that we remember fondly long after the final episode has aired. These five shows are being lauded for a variety of reasons…smart writing, memorable storylines, great acting, and the indelible mark they have made on pop culture in general and my own life in particular. They are indeed old friends that I miss dearly but have provided a plethora of memories that I will cherish always.
One of my fondest childhood memories is sitting in my living room every Friday night at 9pm with both of my parents and my sister watching the adventures of the lecherous & deceitful Ewing clan battle their enemies and each other in the race for power & wealth that only billions of barrels of oil could bring. My father loved the conniving JR Ewing and how he always seemed to be able to come out on top while totally screwing over his wife, his brother, his business rivals, and especially his sworn enemy…the slovenly, woefully overmatched Cliff Barnes. Dallas had elements of Shakespearean tragedy mixed with campy soap opera drama, and in no way resembled the real world. I think that was the key to its charm…even as a child I realized that this was all just great fun and that very few individuals (even rich people) actually behaved that way. It is a show that defined a genre and a generation. It gave us season ending cliffhangers and juicy sneak previews of next week’s episode. It gave us larger-than-life characters and stirring, emotion-filled theater that no “reality” show can ever dream of matching. Dallas was pure escapism, which is kind of the point of watching television, right??
Rarely does a sequel…or in this case a spin-off…excel to a point that it exceeds its predecessor. However, I must say that as much as I love Cheers I love Frasier even more. I think there are a few reasons for that. First of all, Cheers came about in the 80’s and to be honest I started watching it because it was something my Dad watched (not that there is anything wrong with that). Conversely, Frasier came on the scene when I was on my own in college. I made the conscious, independent, adult decision to watch. Secondly, by the time the 90’s rolled around I was past my “I watch way too much TV” phase. I much preferred hanging out with my friends, drinking copious amounts of adult beverages, and even occasionally studying to watching television. I had a life!! I was too busy for TV. Therefore the few shows that I made a special effort to keep up with during that time had to, by definition, be extraordinary. Also, the setting of Frasier…the professional & personal world of two intelligent yet socially awkward yuppies…spoke to me in a very personal way. I have always envisioned myself as a sort of yuppie-country boy hybrid, so I got a kick out of Frasier & Niles’ odd relationship with their blue collar father and their constant effort to ingratiate themselves into culture & society. The writing was about as quick-witted & razor sharp as any sitcom in the history of television. The characters were smart & relatable and the plots as sophisticated as anything you’ll ever see on a 30 minute comedy show. I’m not sure Frasier was as broad & accessible to the masses as many sitcoms, but that’s okay…dumbed down products don’t appeal to this humble Potentate of Profundity anyway.
Anything that has lasted 50+ years like The Tonight Show has to be doing something right and must be given its due. It is undoubtedly the gold standard against which all other shows of its ilk are measured. Now I am way too young to have watched during the Steve Allen or Jack Paar years. Rather, I came along in the midst of the Johnny Carson era, and what a time it was. Admittedly I didn’t get to watch the show back then as often as I would have liked…afterall, 11:30pm is a bit late for a young boy who has school the following day. But I usually watched every Friday night during the school year and in the summertime got to see it more often. Carson was born to host a late night talk show. His monologue was always funny and current, but didn’t have the self-important, smartass edge that seems to be the norm today. He was an easygoing, smooth interviewer. And an appearance with Carson on The Tonight Show…especially if he gave the “okay” sign or waved the performer over to the couch for a chat…could legitimately make a young comedian’s career. That’s how far our society has fallen: from having the goal of making the preeminent funny man in show business laugh in order to launch a career, to saying “Ehhh…maybe I’ll just make a sex tape or do a reality show.” Personally I preferred the former protocol. At any rate, even Johnny’s retirement took late night television to a whole new level. The battle between Jay Leno & David Letterman brought much publicity, and eventually gave us more competition in the time slot, which is good for viewers. Leno took the Tonight Show mantle and was almost as solidly & comfortingly funny as Carson for many years. Then there was more controversy, Conan O’Brien got his shot, and eventually Leno returned. I didn’t like how that whole thing went down but hindsight being 20/20 I guess it all worked out. Conan wasn’t the right fit, and despite the fact that I think he handled the situation poorly the fact is that Leno is a worthy successor to Carson. At the end of the day (literally), we all just want to relax, put our troubles on the backburner, laugh a little, and forget how badly humanity can totally suck. Whether one does that by watching a movie, reading a book, praying, or making sweet love to a significant other, it’s all good. And it’s nice to know that amongst our plethora of choices The Tonight Show has been a viable option for so many years.
I have been dreading this moment. Why?? Well, because while I feel like I am a decent enough writer I am unsure if I can come up with the exact right words to properly encapsulate not only my own but the world’s admiration for The Andy Griffith Show. It was…is…precisely everything a television show should be and more. Mayberry may ostensibly be a fictional town, but it is a place that I desperately wish was real and would absolutely move to in a heartbeat. The people are friendly, the pace is slow, and any problems that arise are easily solved with a little old-fashioned ingenuity and good solid love, understanding, and neighborliness. It is fascinating to think that this show was produced in the midst of the raucous counterculture 60’s but never dared to go near any of the controversy that decade manufactured. Now I suppose touchy feely, bleeding heart, politically correct types would consider that a damning indictment of The Andy Griffith Show, but I think it is part of its genius. Whereas so many modern television programs strive to be current, hip, & edgy, and utilize storylines “ripped from the headlines”, the powers-that-be in Mayberry understood that real life was hard enough, that when one sits down to watch TV they want to be entertained not preached at or talked down to. They understood that traditional values like friendship, family, kindness, hospitality, empathy, and respect for the law could be communicated in a way that was funny, inviting, and palatable. The Andy Griffith Show embodies everything great that America once was and could be again. I know that times have changed. We live in a different world these days. Entertainment seems to be all about sex, drugs, violence, werewolves, vampires, hating God, and embarrassing stupidity (Honey Boo-Boo?? Please, just shoot me.) I am so thankful that, even though this show was long gone before I was ever born, reruns have continued for over 40 years. Think about that for a second. This is such a great show that four decades after it went off the air it is still being shown. That is remarkable!! I get an opportunity to watch it every weekday at 12:30pm right after the afternoon news. I even interrupt my post-midnight shift daytime nap for it. We lost Andy Griffith just a few months ago, and almost all the rest of the cast (Don Knotts, Frances Bavier, George Lindsey, Jack Dodson, Hal Smith, etc.) have also gone to be with The Lord (Ron Howard, Jim Nabors, and Betty Lynn are still with us). However, the memories that they all created over 8 years & 249 episodes will remain forever, and for that I say a most heartfelt Thank You.
As we reach the pinnacle a few things must be said. First of all, Seinfeld beats out Andy Griffith in a photo finish for one simple reason…it was on the air in my lifetime and I enjoyed it as it was happening rather than enjoying it in reruns several decades after it was gone. Secondly, I am more than a little surprised (even though this is my list) that a 90’s show comes out on top. I would have thought an 80’s show would have received the honor. And finally, the contrast between #1 & #2 couldn’t possibly be starker. Whereas Griffith is gentle, benevolent, and laid-back, Seinfeld boldly embraces the brash callousness, egotism, and pessimism of not only its NY City setting but of its era. However, it does this in such a way that is completely hilarious, more than a little ironic, and overwhelmingly self-aware. Jerry Seinfeld was The It Comedian at a time when the thing to do was give comedians their own sitcom. Sometimes it works (Gabe Kaplan/Welcome Back Kotter, Tim Allen/Home Improvement, Bob Newhart/Newhart, Bill Cosby/The Cosby Show, Ray Romano/Everybody Loves Raymond), sometimes it doesn’t (George Lopez/The George Lopez Show, Brett Butler/Grace Under Fire, Roseanne Barr/Roseanne, Ellen Degenerate/Ellen, DL Hughley/The Hughleys), but Seinfeld most definitely worked. When a show has been off the air for more than a decade and folks can still recite memorable lines and recall the plots of entire shows it says to me that the show was memorable and extremely well-written. It was always promoted as “a show about nothing”, and lived up to that promise. While lots of other programs would tackle big topics and have a point-of-view about certain themes, Seinfeld instead concentrated on life’s minutiae and mundane details. The supporting cast (Jerry’s ex Elaine, his next door neighbor Kramer, and his best friend George) was probably amongst the best in television history. As characters they were self-absorbed, insecure, cynical, superficial, and insensitive…but hysterically so. How many shows could take simple, relatable concepts like waiting for a table at a restaurant, forgetting where you parked the car in the mall garage, dealing with an eccentric boss, or leaving a regrettable voicemail, and turn them into 30 minutes of laughs that people remember 20 years later?? The answer is not many. Jerry Seinfeld himself was never a great actor, but he was saved by the writing and his superb co-stars. Seinfeld had the good fortune to come along at the perfect time. A decade earlier and it would have been dismissed as too mean-spirited and esoteric, a decade later it would have been lost amidst the white noise of shows trying too hard to be edgy, post-modern, and sardonic. We the viewers were the beneficiary of that perfect timing, and for that we should all be appreciative.
- Jay Leno – Jay Leno Takes $5 Million Pay Cut To Save ‘tonight Show’ (contactmusic.com)
- Adam Levine Shows Off His Blake Shelton Impression On ‘The Tonight Show’ (huffingtonpost.com)
- Report: Jay Leno Takes Pay Cut as Tonight Show Lays Off 20 Staff Members (seattlepi.com)
- Reports: Jay Leno Takes Pay Cut, as Layoffs Hit ‘Tonight Show’ (newsfeed.time.com)
- Leno takes pay cut to save staff (bbc.co.uk)
- “Roseanne” Or “Frasier”? (theawl.com)
- No Laughing Matter: Tonight Show Lays Off 20 Staffers and Leno Takes Big Pay Cut To Save Jobs (themoderatevoice.com)
- 15 Floor Plans Of TV’s Best Homes (buzzfeed.com)
- like frasier crane on a saturday evening (lovekarlita.com)
- Favorite TV Reruns May Have Restorative Powers, says UB Researcher (engineeringevil.com)