Please be sure to catch up on the previous entries in this series here, here, here, and here. I will be taking a brief intermission from this series before we get to the highly anticipated (I hope) Top 10. God has laid it on my heart that it is time to get back to writing about some more meaningful things. Please be sure to read those when they are finished, and we will get back to the exciting conclusion of this adventure eventually.
I hated MASH as a kid. First of all I was way too young to “get it”. To me it was just another “war story” that my Dad watched that bored the crap out of me. Secondly, as I recall, it came on at 9pm on Monday night…the same time as Monday Night Football. I always had a bedtime (which I loathed since I’m a night owl but am now thankful for because left to my own devices I would have stayed up til 3am every night and probably flunked out of school), and I wanted to spend my last 30-60 minutes of “freedom” watching the ball game. Unfortunately my father was King of the Castle (something which I now truly understand) and he wanted to watch MASH…hence my animosity. However, a strange thing occurred in my adult years. I began to watch reruns of MASH and realized what a remarkably well written, well performed show it had been. This may have been the genesis of my affection for the dramedy genre, because sometimes one has to laugh to keep from crying.
I called WKRP in Cincinnati one of the most underrated sitcoms ever, and here we have a similar situation…yet another workplace comedy that didn’t last as long as it should have and has never gotten the love it deserves from the masses. Set in a NY City cab company, the casting director gave us such luminaries as Danny Devito, Tony Danza, Judd Hirsch, Christopher Lloyd (who would star as Doc Brown in the Back to the Future trilogy a few years later), and Andy Kaufman. I think that is why Taxi outranks WKRP…its stars went on to become even bigger stars. Devito’s Louie DePalma was your typical smarmy, immoral, narcissistic boss character, but Devito played it for laughs…lots of them…instead of making the audience hate him. My father LOVED Louie, and my father isn’t easily entertained. Personally I was as amused by Lloyd’s Rev. Jim Ignatowski, a former Harvard student turned hilariously burned out reminder of the drug infested 60’s. Every sitcom writer ought to study Taxi like a science experiment and learn how to create memorable characters and a funny show.
18 Later with Bob Costas
I ranked The Late Late Show with Tom Snyder 25th on this list, and coming in just a few spots higher is a show with the same general vibe…two people sitting down to have a meaningful tete-a-tete for an hour…no band, no comedy, no sidekicks, no live audience. I think Bob Costas may be one of the smartest people on television, and what makes him so cool is that he seems blissfully unaware of that fact, unlike smug windbags like Oprah, Bill Maher, Dr. Phil, Bryant Gumbel, Matt Lauer, ESPN’s Skip Bayless, or just about any successful movie star of the past 20 years (really George Clooney & Brad Pitt…we don’t care what your opinions are on sociopolitical issues). I also like the fact that Costas has always pretty much stuck with his first love…sports. Could he do weightier, supposedly more important things?? Sure. He is probably the most talented person to walk the halls of NBC in my lifetime. But he enjoys doing sports and doesn’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone. However, the one time he did step beyond his usual boundaries was this show, and it’s a crying shame it didn’t last very long. I read somewhere that Costas himself stepped away because he & his family lived in St. Louis and the show taped in New York, which became too much of a grind. If I would have been in charge I would have moved the damn show to St. Louis. In what rule book does it say that every movie & TV show has to be produced in New York or Los Angeles?? At any rate after Costas’ departure Later went thru a plethora of hosts, including Greg Kinnear, MTV’s Cynthia Garrett, & comedienne Rita Sever, and even “presented” old reruns of SCTV (Canada’s answer to Saturday Night Live), before ultimately being repackaged as Last Call, hosted by former MTV tool Carson Daly. Not that it matters to me, because after the departure of Bob Costas I stopped watching.
17 The West Wing
I really didn’t want to like this show. The writers, producers, and practically the entire cast were complicit in presenting an obviously liberal spin on political issues, but I’ll be darned if it wasn’t amongst the best written, best acted, best directed dramas in my lifetime. I have no idea if what was portrayed on screen was in any way an accurate representation of how the real White House works, but I must say that, regardless of party affiliation or philosophy, if the American people were ever fortunate enough to be able to vote for a guy like Jed Bartlet we could do much much worse. Unfortunately I don’t believe for one second that real politicians…especially liberals…are as honest, honorable, compassionate, and intellectually sincere as those portrayed on The West Wing. Writer/producer Aaron Sorkin…leftist though he may be…is a terrific scribe and I enjoy almost anything with which he is involved. The performers on this show were sublime…folks like Richard Schiff, Allison Janney, John Spencer, Joshua Malina, and Bradley Whitford. Martin Sheen was already a proven commodity and The West Wing was just the cherry on top of a memorable career, but the majority of the rest of the cast were little known character actors who probably plateaued with this show. Even former Brat Packer Rob Lowe was made to look like a credible actor, either due to the company he was in the midst of or because of Sorkin’s deft skill. In my humble opinion this show…this concept…is tailor made for an eventual revival. Would Sorkin return?? Would the idea work with a whole new cast?? I don’t know, but it is an interesting idea to ponder.
16 Late Night with David Letterman
David Letterman circa 2012 is a bitter old man who doesn’t even try to hide his extreme left political bias. It is my opinion that the events of September 11, 2001 combined with a month long hiatus due to heart surgery in early 2000 changed the Letterman we’d all known and loved for two decades. I rarely watch these days because I just don’t find him funny anymore. However, before 9/11, before his heart problems, and even before his move to CBS & the 11:30pm time slot in 1993 Letterman spent a glorious decade at NBC in the 12:30am period immediately following Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, and he was absolutely brilliant. Late Night in the 80’s was quirky, bold, sardonic, original, irreverent, unpredictable, odd…and most of all very very funny. Every effort was made to be different from Carson and attract a younger, hipper demographic. Letterman utilized his actual staff…bandleader Paul Shaffer, stage manager Biff Henderson, producer Robert Morton, director Hal Gurnee, and a host of others…in comedy bits unlike anything that had been done on late night television. Current staples like the nightly Top Ten list, Stupid Pet Tricks, and Viewer Mail were fresh back in the 80’s. Letterman made a star out of little known actor Calvert Deforest (aka Larry “Bud” Melman), dropped things off buildings, wore crazy Velcro suits, crushed things with a steamroller, introduced the world to his mother Dorothy, had frequent (and amusing) phone conversations with paper pusher Meg at Simon & Schuster, and mercilessly berated his bosses at NBC & General Electric. It was all quite silly, but hey…silly is exactly what most people enjoy at 1 o’clock in the morning.
15 Star Trek:The Next Generation
I have to give a shout out to my friend The Owl for turning me into a Trekkie. Before college I had a passing familiarity with Star Trek, but hadn’t really paid all that much attention. 20+ years later I love almost all the films and dig the original series. However, my initial affection started right here, with Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Lieutenant Commander Data, Commander Riker, Dr. Beverly Crusher, Lieutenant Worf (a Klingon!!), chief engineer Geordi LaForge, and Counselor Troi. This show is more character driven and explores more interpersonal relationships than the original, yet it still has its share of ass kickin’ action. Alot of plot points seem to involve a bit of sociopolitical commentary, but it is rarely preachy or trite. My preference for TNG over TOS (if you don’t get the acronyms then you obviously aren’t a Trekkie) is simply due to TNG being something I watched while it was actually on television instead of watching two decades after it was over like TOS. The series finale “All Good Things”, originally aired on May 23, 1994, remains one of the finest TV episodes I have ever seen. Indeed, the trial never ends. See you…out there.
14 Night Court
I have been in a courtroom exactly twice in my life, both times in a supportive role for friends who were facing legal battles. But it only took those two occasions to solidify my notion that a real court isn’t nearly as interesting as the stuff we see on TV or in movies. Usually what we see are dramatic situations in shows like L.A. Law, Perry Mason, and Law & Order, or films like To Kill A Mockingbird, 12 Angry Men, A Time to Kill, and Presumed Innocent. But in the 80’s NBC decided to give us a courtroom comedy, and oh what fun it was. Set during New York City’s night shift, the presumption was that most cases at that hour are of the eccentric, offbeat, absurd variety. That premise combined with the court’s quirky cast of employees made for a unique & memorable (if not necessarily accurate) take on America’s legal system.
13 Happy Days
Happy Days is the TV equivalent of the movie Grease…a story about high schoolers created in the 70’s, set in the 50’s. I am a sucker for that kind of thing. Creator Garry Marshall also gave us notable shows Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy (both spin-offs of Happy Days), as well as The Odd Couple. He would direct the Julia Roberts hit film Pretty Woman in 1990, and a host of other less celebrated movies. However Happy Days remains his most endearing legacy. In many ways it was your typical family sitcom, but the characters were so unique and, with one notable exception, very relatable & real. I loved the fact that it was set in Milwaukee instead of New York, L.A., or Chicago. Ron Howard, who had been a child star on The Andy Griffith Show and went on to become a big time movie director, embodied the classic awkward, insecure teenager yearning to be cool alongside his best buddies Ralph & Potsie (one of the all-time great sitcom nicknames). Ritchie’s parents…hardware store owner Howard and homemaker Marion…were the kind of parents every kid dreams of having. And of course eventually the real star of the show became a bike riding, leather jacket wearing, finger snapping ladies’ man named Fonzie, who wasn’t necessarily realistic (trust me…I’ve tried slapping a jukebox…fetching young ladies did not emerge from nowhere), but was such a well written, well performed character that it didn’t really matter. Sitcoms like Happy Days simply aren’t made in the cynical, vulgar, envelope pushing 21st century, and we’re all worse off because of that fact.
Timing is everything, and this show about a group of young adults trying to make their way in the world came along just as I was a young adult dealing with many of the same issues. Unfortunately for me my close pals from college spread out across the country…Texas, Ohio, the Carolinas, etc.…so I wasn’t able to live across the hall from them or gather on a daily basis in the neighborhood coffee shop. Looking back I suppose Friends allowed me the chance to live vicariously and envision just how awesome it’d be to have the opportunity to hang out with my chums. Plus the characters had really cool jobs and lived in a kickass loft that I would never be able to afford. I most closely identified with Ross, the lovelorn, neurotic, socially awkward nerd, whose unrequited love for the beautiful Rachel eventually blossomed into an on-again off-again relationship that was the centerpiece of the show for much of its run. Friends probably lasted a year or two too long, but one cannot blame the suits for keeping their cash cow alive. Hindsight is always 20/20, and what one recognizes all these years later is that Friends was actually a very well written program, a skillful mix of old school sitcom with an edgier 90’s sensibility.
11 The Dukes of Hazzard
Corny?? Yes. Wholesome?? Sure. Entertaining?? You bet. And what exactly is wrong with any of that?? I may have mentioned previously that my friend The Owl contends that much of entertainment today embodies “the spirit of the age”…dark, profane, violent, and proudly sacrilegious. Dukes of Hazzard may not have been highbrow, culturally refined, or intellectually enriching in any way, but it was good clean fun that promoted family values, good triumphing over evil (if you can go so far as to call Boss Hogg & Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane evil), and a general sense of morality & friendship. That’s more than one can say about 99% of the crap currently on TV. I have fond memories of happily sitting in front of the television at 8pm every Friday night for several years loving every minute of the adventures of The Duke Boys, their wise old Uncle Jessie, and their exquisite cousin Daisy. Sure there were car chases and stuff got blown up, but unlike the vacuous special effects productions so prevalent these days there was also a storyline. It wasn’t exactly Shakespeare, but it was cool enough to put a smile on the faces of young boys nationwide, and I think that’s a pretty decent legacy.