50 Years and Counting
At television's half-century mark, a look back at the shows that changed the medium.
By Robert David Sullivan
DECEMBER 1, 1997:
Like Play Doh, television is easy to reshape but impossible to return to its
original form. Thanks to quick production turnover and the ability to beam a
program instantaneously to nearly every household in America, television
changes, bit by bit, on a daily basis. Half as old as film, TV has created many
more artistic genres.
The television series began roughly 50 years ago, with the first regular drama
program (Kraft Television Theatre), the first sit-com (Mary Kay and
Johnny), and the first national news program (Meet the Press, still
running today). A successful TV series walks a tightrope: it must have enough
familiar elements to build viewer loyalty, but it must be different enough each
week to hold their interest. The reward for managing this feat is a dozen
copy-cat shows aiming for the same audience.
Below, in chronological order, are some of the most influential television
series during the medium's first half-century -- along with a few that
should have been influential. Most are worthwhile viewing; a few are
regrettable. The most frequent genre on the list is the sit-com, which is the
most popular form of TV programming. In fact, the literate sit-coms of the
early '70s won the television series new-found respect as an art form. More
recently, the once-reliable sit-com format has become stale (the few exceptions
include Frasier), whereas adult dramas like Homicide: Life on the
Street are considered superior to Hollywood films.
As for the future, television fans should rejoice that the medium's hold on
viewers has weakened in recent years, thanks to competition from videos, the
Internet, and maybe the lower crime rate (though TV does its best to frighten
people from going out). More so than at any time since the 1950s, television
must work at attracting audiences, and that could mean more innovative
TV has always been a synthesis of other media, though the influence of each
art form has waxed and waned over the years. In the early '50s, TV was a lot
like theater, with an emphasis on live drama and variety shows. Later in that
decade, Hollywood took over, producing Westerns and adventure series that
resembled old movie serials. The rise of cable TV in the 1980s mirrored the
evolution of radio, with niche channels providing sports, talk, or weather
around the clock. And now videos are being packaged like books, with episodes
of The X-Files sold a few feet away from Stephen King novels.
None of these influences has ever vanished completely, and "television" as an
art form is as ill-defined as it was 50 years ago -- thank goodness. Stay tuned
for future developments.
1947 When TV's first hit kids' show premiered, adult programs consisted
mostly of theater productions, sports, and other "events." The repetitive jokes
and unbending format of Howdy Doody (beginning with the shout
"Hey kids, what time is it?") were considered fit only for undeveloped minds.
But this predictable puppet show outlasted just about all of the
live-drama programs remembered from TV's "Golden Age." When it was finally
canceled, in 1960, viewers were treated to one of the most shocking finales in
TV history: Clarabell the Clown broke his 13-year silence to blurt out,
1948 The Ed Sullivan Show is fondly remembered today, but that's
because there's been nothing like it since. Find the best talents from all over
the world and pack them into an hour of nonstop excitement? It's not worth the
bother, not when viewers are content to watch unknown but sincere performers
like the white-bread vocalists featured on Arthur Godfrey's Talent
Scouts (Pat Boone was the biggest star introduced here.) Talent
Scouts proved that there's always an audience for a parade of 30-second
wonders -- from The Gong Show to Star Search.
1949 The first hit sit-com, The Goldbergs had been on
radio for 20 years before the Jewish family and their crowded New York
apartment appeared on TV. Ethnic shtick was big on radio, where funny accents
and malapropisms could replace the pratfalls and sight gags of the movies. Most
early TV sit-coms followed this pattern, which made sense because picture
quality still wasn't hot. But ratings for The Goldbergs steadily
declined after its first season -- probably because TV-set ownership spread
outward from New York -- and urban sit-coms wouldn't really come back until
All in the Family.
1950 Your Show of Shows was a classy variety show with all the
excitement of live TV. Some of the stuff here, like opera scenes and
pantomimes, could also be found on Ed Sullivan's program. More innovative were
the parodies of current movies, which demonstrated one advantage of television
over film: quick production times. Another reason for these sketches' appeal
was that political satire was verboten on TV, but Sid Caesar and company were
allowed to make other show-business people look silly (a rule that largely
holds true today). Twenty-five years later, NBC introduced another
end-of-the-week live 90-minute variety show aired from New York -- titled
Saturday Night Live. But instead of lavish musical numbers and epic
parodies of great films, SNL featured rock singers in T-shirts and quick
spoofs of cheesy commercials.
1951 I Love Lucy's influence matched its great popularity. It was
the first major series to be filmed rather than broadcast live, so that it
could be rerun forever. I Love Lucy also perfected what would become the
most durable theme of the sit-com genre: frustration. Anti-television critics
have always ridiculed sit-coms for introducing and then neatly resolving
problems within 30 minutes. That claim may apply to Father Knows Best,
but it does not describe the life of Lucy Ricardo. In most episodes, she tried
to transcend the role of housewife, and she always failed. Fortunately, she
never stopped trying, and that kept this series free from poignancy (but not
pregnancy). I Love Lucy proved that someone could suffer complete
humiliation dozens of times and still be a triumphant character.
The Honeymooners was the strongest challenger to I Love Lucy
as a prototype for TV sit-coms, but the Kramdens never really had a chance
against the more polished Ricardos. No one who has seen more than 10 seconds of
The Honeymooners can forget the bleak set that served as Ralph and Alice
Kramden's Brooklyn apartment. Their clothes weren't any better; Lucy could
always get a bullfighter's outfit or whatever else was needed to further the
plot, but when Ralph went to a costume ball, he had to use pots, pans, and some
string to pass himself off as a "man from space." The Honeymooners was
also closer to live theater, complete with ad-libs and improvisation. An I
Love Lucy episode might be written to lead up to an elaborate sight gag;
the laughs on The Honeymooners came from Ralph's volatile temper,
Alice's devastating putdowns, and best friend Norton's ability to stretch out
the simplest action into a three-minute pantomime routine. The Kramdens were
popular on Gleason's variety shows (where they were introduced in 1951), but
ratings were disappointing for The Honeymooners as a separate series (in
1955). Its working-class setting would reappear on All in the Family and
Roseanne, but its raw energy would never really be attempted in another
1952 Although several comedy shows with continuing characters won over
critics in the early days of TV, crime dramas like Martin Kane, Private Eye
were dismissed as cheesy ripoffs of dime-store novels. If you wanted drama,
you watched Studio One or another anthology. Dragnet
overcame the anti-series bias in several ways. First, its regular
characters were in a plausibly dramatic profession (part of TV's holy trinity
of cops, lawyers, and doctors). The cases on the show were real, immunizing
Dragnet from charges that it was contrived. Further, the lead characters
did not undergo emotional crises week after week. Rather, they were so deadpan
("Just the facts, ma'am") that Dragnet became a gift for comic
impressionists seeking easy laughs. Finally, each episode was completely
independent from all the others; a Dragnet episode was just a good story
with some familiar faces to help it along. It would take Hill Street
Blues, nearly 30 years later, to crack the prohibition against continuing
storylines on "serious" dramas.
1953 If Lucille Ball is TV's most influential performer, Ernie
Kovacs may be its most underappreciated. Kovacs's jokes were uniquely
suited to television (out-of-control cameras and other "technical difficulties"
might disrupt a skit), and many relied on repetitive elements. Kovacs's Nairobi
Trio was a metaphor for the TV series itself. Three guys in the same ape
costumes pretended to play the same instruments in synchronization to the same
piece of recorded music, but the finale was slightly different each time.
Kovacs also pioneered music videos, making familiar objects like file cabinets
and roasted turkeys move to some twisted melody. Since his death, nothing on
commercial TV has approached his anarchy, and it seems impossible to recapture
that now. It would be like trying to bring back kids' toys with sharp metal
1954 Another master of free-association television, Steve Allen was a
perfect choice to host the first version of The Tonight Show. His
guests were usually familiar to TV viewers, but the informal setting was a
refreshing change from the staginess of The Ed Sullivan Show or the
interrogation-room feel of news programs. In keeping with the casual air of the
show, Allen was an innovator of "found" comedy. He might switch on a camera
pointed at the sidewalk outside and ad-lib comments about the passersby. Or,
he'd pick up a newspaper and read actual letters to the editor -- in a rising
tone of indignation that was wildly out of proportion to the trivial topic at
hand. In short, Allen specialized in doing the same shtick in a slightly
different way every night.
Disney was the first major film studio to produce a weekly TV series, and
it was an innovation on several levels. First, it refined the
anthology format by making familiar elements as important as novelty. Despite
the wide mix of subject matter on Disneyland, you could always
count on Walt Disney himself to introduce the show, and you could depend on
wholesome family entertainment. The most popular feature of the show's first
season was the story of Davy Crockett, the real-life Western hero with a
coonskin cap. The success of what was arguably TV's first mini-series inspired
Disney to produce several more multi-episode tales about actual figures in the
Old West (as opposed to simplistic heroes like the Lone Ranger) and also led to
a tidal wave of prime-time Westerns. Most important, Disneyland
represented the triumph of film over theater as a model for television
1955 Gunsmoke was the most popular of the dozens of Westerns that
flooded prime-time in the late '50s, and it still holds the record for the most
number of episodes (635) among prime-time series with continuing characters.
Many Gunsmoke knockoffs tried to distinguish themselves with gimmicks
(such as a special type of gun), but these wore thin after a few episodes.
Gunsmoke took a different approach that ensured its 20-year run: it
explored "contemporary" themes, such as the rights of minorities, within a
noncontroversial setting. Moving beyond black-and-white (hat) clichés
also made Marshal Matt Dillon a deeper character, as he sometimes had to
agonize over his decisions.
1956 Quiz shows were a cheap and easy way to generate drama on radio and
early TV. Contestants on the number-one-rated show The $64,000 Question
were put in "isolation booths" and given increasingly difficult questions on
their way to the top prize. Twenty-One raised the dramatic stakes
by pitting players against each other and lifting any limit on how many weeks a
contestant could last. But the show's producers hedged their bets by providing
answers to the more appealing contestants. When the fraud was finally revealed
(as depicted in the film Quiz Show), all of the big-money game shows
quickly collapsed. The question-and-answer format eventually came back with the
more low-key Jeopardy!
1957 Through the late '50s, sit-com regulars could be scatterbrained or
have somewhat of a temper, but they were all basically likable. Leave It
to Beaver introduced a truly loathsome character: Eddie Haskell, the
hypocrite who would bully little kids and then suck up to their parents.
Writers for earlier sit-coms might have found it implausible for nice
characters to have rotten friends. Kids, on the other hand, don't have as many
options in finding people to hang out with, and most of us can recall childhood
"pals" who were real assholes. After Beaver, jerks like Eddie Haskell
crept into the casts of adult sit-coms. Viewers agreed that they belonged there
-- and credibility be damned.
1958 Film noir came to television with Peter Gunn, which
was about a cynical private detective in LA. This was also the first dramatic
series to develop a strong musical identity. Henry Mancini's jazzy theme became
a big hit, and it was echoed in the moody background music that ran throughout
1959 The Twilight Zone was, as creator Rod
Serling explained to viewers, "the middle ground between light and shadow,
between science and superstition." This abstract concept became as familiar as
any continuing character on TV. In most episodes, there came a point at which
the central character realized he was in a situation that defied explanation.
Other times, it was the TV viewer who got trapped in the Twilight Zone, unable
to grasp what was happening on screen until the end. A sense of uneasy
unreality suffused the entire series and kept viewers riveted even to subpar
episodes. The Twilight Zone inspired many other sci-fi and horror
collections, but rarely has an anthology series been so keyed to one man's
1960 The Andy Griffith Show introduced a sense of place to
sit-coms. Like the Dodge City of Gunsmoke, Mayberry had an assortment of
oddballs who could be used occasionally to complicate plots or provide comic
relief. Also, Andy Taylor was an early example of what would become a sit-com
standby, the widowed parent. Contrary to Dan Quayle's assertion, the
proliferation of single parents on TV was not part of a liberal attack on the
nuclear family. A spouse means another major character who must be given
something to do in every episode, and another actor who could hold up
production with salary demands. No one seemed to mind the missing wife on
The Andy Griffith Show, so quite a few others have been killed off
1961 The Dick Van Dyke Show depicted both the New Rochelle
home life and the Manhattan workplace of its central character, a comedy writer
for a TV variety show. No surprise that it was created by Carl Reiner, a writer
from Your Show of Shows. Reiner wrote most of the episodes in the first
two seasons -- which was highly unusual for an American sit-com. As a result,
DVD was consistently good, and Reiner made sure his characters
(including Mary Tyler Moore) remained believable. Unfortunately, the series
didn't become a hit until it followed The Beverly Hillbillies on
Wednesday nights -- and it was the other show that influenced sit-coms for the
rest of the decade.
1962 An argument can be made for the premise of The Beverly
Hillbillies as satire. There are definite comic possibilities in
the collision between the homespun Clampetts and the greedheads who infest
Beverly Hills. But it's hard to justify the production of 274 episodes to bang
away at the same joke. The Beverly Hillbillies held to the tradition of
a sit-com as a collection of interchangeable episodes with no character
development. So, during the series's nine-year run, the Clampetts got dumber
and dumber -- never figuring out how to work the appliances in their mansion,
for example. But TV viewers apparently didn't care about such limitations in
the '60s. The Beverly Hillbillies inspired a wave of "high-concept"
sit-coms with premises so convoluted that they had to be explained in
themesongs every week (Gilligan's Island, Green Acres, etc. --
see "Those Were the Days").
1963 Have Gun, Will Travel and Route 66 put characters on
the road to encounter different people every week. The
Fugitive refined this quasi-anthology genre by adding a
storyline that would make each episode feel like a cliffhanger. Richard Kimble
was being hunted for the murder of his wife; as soon as he found a new home, he
felt the law closing in on him -- and had to move on to search out the next
week's guest stars. If sit-com protagonists occupy a dream world of supportive
friends and family, the central characters of most drama series are trapped in
hell, where any escape from danger is temporary. The Fugitive is perhaps
the best example of this difference.
1964 The French Chef was the first national success on public TV.
But most viewers had no intention of duplicating the host's feats in the
kitchen. Instead, they marveled at the unflappable Julia Child, who was as
confident with the TV camera as Johnny Carson -- and arguably as funny. The
French Chef hooked audiences with its simple blend of enthusiasm and
expertise. Among the many "how-to" hosts since, Martha Stewart presents the
biggest contrast. Where viewers saw the good-natured Child as someone they'd
really like to dine with, the chilly Stewart is enjoyed as a parody version of
the perfect housekeeper.
1965 Hogan's Heroes was truly a creature of its time. This
tasteless sit-com about a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp could not have been made in
the sanitized '50s or the more politically correct '70s, but it fit right in
with the high-concept shows of the '60s. It was established in the first
episode that the American prisoners had built an underground hideout, which was
mildly implausible. In order to sustain this joke, the hideout became more and
more elaborate, and the series became completely divorced from reality. One
saving grace about Hogan's Heroes is that it may have been necessary to
savage the German military before TV could get away with doing the same thing
to American generals on M*A*S*H.
1966 Creator Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek to NBC as
"Wagon Train to the stars," referring to the popular Western about
settlers making their way to California. In some ways, this sci-fi
series did resemble a Western, notably in the way it could address
topical issues like racism in a "safe" context. But the two genres are quite
different in terms of popular appeal. Westerns are ideal for reaching mass
audiences. They're mostly interchangeable in terms of setting, conflicts, and
even vocabulary, so viewers can drop into a series at any time and grasp what's
going on. The fans of a science-fiction series are more like an exclusive club,
in which status is determined by knowledge. Star Trek, with its
background stories about Vulcans, Klingons, and the Federation, left most
first-time viewers baffled and ready to switch back to My Three Sons.
Twenty years later, Roddenberry produced a sequel series whose audience wasn't
much larger than that for the original. Because TV audiences had become so
splintered, however, it was considered an unqualified success.
1967 At first, The Carol Burnett Show favored Broadway
tunes and parodies of old movies, but the series later featured a regular
sketch called "The Family," about a white-trash clan in Texas. "The Family" is
notable because every one of its regular characters, including Burnett's
loudmouthed Eunice, was mean, selfish, and completely irredeemable as a human
being. Married . . . with Children seemed like The
Waltons compared to these screamfests.
1968 60 Minutes hit the Top 10 in 1977 and has been there
ever since, which makes it the most successful weekly series ever. One reason
was its stable of "correspondents," who became as familiar (and distinct) as
the three brothers on Bonanza. Mike Wallace's aggressive interviewing
technique was reminiscent of TV lawyer Perry Mason, and scenes of him barging
into the offices of inept doctors or corrupt politicians, often getting doors
slammed in his face, were parodied on countless entertainment shows.
1969 The Brady Bunch, dubbed by one critic as "the family
that wouldn't go away," is notable as an extreme case of recycling in pop
culture. There were three attempts to revive this cloying series in different
forms, and all were failures. Just when Bradyism seemed safely behind us,
someone came up with a stage show using actual dialogue from the series
delivered in camp style. Its success led to two theatrical films, and no one
would bet that we've seen the last of the leisure-suited family.
1970 The Mary Tyler Moore Show, about a single woman in a
big city, was the first hit in a campaign to win back younger, urban audiences
after a decade of cornpone programs. Together with All in the Family, it
destroyed the high-concept sit-com almost overnight. The most striking change
about MTM is that its characters listen to one another and respond as
normal people. In almost every '60s sit-com, the characters talk at each
other, reacting in the same way to every situation (e.g., Mrs. Kravitz
on Bewitched, or Schultz on Hogan's Heroes sputtering, "I see
nothing!"). The Mary Tyler Moore show could offer surprises all the way
into its seventh season, such as when Mary and her father-like boss, Lou Grant,
share a romantic dinner to see whether there's any sexual chemistry between
them. The series ended with Mary calling her colleagues at WJM-TV a "family,"
reflecting the fact that most adult sit-coms had moved to the workplace.
1971 Archie Bunker was both admirable and despicable, a combination rare
among television characters. All in the Family permanently
widened the range of topics that could be discussed on a sit-com (including
impotence and menopause), but it's unlikely that anyone as complex as Archie
would be allowed in a sit-com today. Creator Norman Lear pointed out that
narrow-minded Archie was proven wrong by the end of every episode. That's
technically true, but an interesting thing happens if you watch several
episodes over a short length of time. Archie seems more like an ordinary guy
breaking his back to feed his family, and son-in-law Mike comes off as an
ungrateful prick who likes to hear himself talk. Archie's prejudices are still
inexcusable, but he probably wouldn't have them if he had been lucky enough to
attend college. Further into the show's run, other critics complained that the
character of Archie was losing its edge, citing episodes where he befriended a
drag queen and stood up to the Ku Klux Klan. But it was more realistic for
Archie to change his views gradually over 13 years than for him to see the
light during a single "special episode." Edith Bunker also evolved over the
long run of this series, and the couple may be the most fully realized
characters in the history of TV.
Whodunits generally don't hold up to repeated viewings. Too often, the way to
keep an audience from guessing the murderer is to make all the suspects equally
dull. Columbo solved this problem by revealing its villains at
the outset, turning the show into a cat-and-mouse tale with deliciously
multi-layered dialogue. Clever writing, a lack of gratuitous violence, and
Peter Falk's puckish delivery helped Columbo stand out among the crime
dramas of the early '70s, most of them with wooden leads like Hawaii
Five-O's Jack Lord. The rumpled detective consistently underestimated by
his opponents grew more popular with each mystery, and several imitators
followed. The best post-Columbo mystery was The Rockford Files,
with James Garner as a persistent private eye who preferred to leave his gun at
home in a cookie jar.
1972 M*A*S*H was the last of the three series that
redefined the sit-com as an art form. Compared with All in the Family
and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, it had a much broader range in tone,
including both Hogan's Heroes-type slapstick and somber musings on the
nature of war. M*A*S*H also crossed the line between sit-com and drama
by making its repetitive elements seem tragic rather than reassuring. "They
just keep coming," more than one character said of the wounded soldiers -- and
the TV series lasted almost three times as long as the Korean War
1973: Long before The Real World, public-TV producer Craig
Gilbert plopped his cameras down in a California home and allowed viewers of
An American Family to watch the Loud household fall apart. This
sort of thing was still called cinéma-vérité rather than
"reality TV," but the titillation factor was the same. As the 12 episodes
rolled on, son Lance came out as gay and his parents decided to divorce. It
seemed too perfect, and critics wondered whether the filmmakers somehow
influenced events to get a compelling story. Meanwhile, light bulbs must have
been going off in the heads of future tabloid-TV producers.
1974 Rhoda violated the rule that a sit-com's premise must
be cemented in its first episode. A couple months into the series, Rhoda got
married, in an episode that one critic called "the electronic equivalent of a
hashish brownie." Then the writers got tired of her husband and made Rhoda get
a divorce. Throwing a lead character in and out of serious relationships
eventually became common on sit-coms, but Rhoda is a rare example from
the swinging '70s.
1975 Aside from The Honeymooners, Barney Miller was
the sit-com that most approximated a one-act play. Almost every episode took
place in one room of a rundown, filthy police station in Greenwich Village.
Barney Miller managed to develop its main characters without showing
their home lives (or their bare butts), thanks to perceptive writing and scenes
that were long enough for actors to breathe. The show is also rare among
workplace comedies in that a steady stream of character actors drop in to spice
up each episode.
1976 By the mid '70s, an entire generation had grown up with TV, and
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman made sense only to people who knew the
conventions of the medium. It was a dead-on parody of soap operas that never
winked at the audience (dispensing with a laugh track), leaving many viewers
simply confused. Telephobes attacked the show as tasteless, partly because of a
storyline about a mass murder -- as if killing off people one at a time on
Baretta made for more refined entertainment. The series spun off
a similarly uncanny spoof of talk shows, Fernwood 2-Night, whose bizarre
guests would have looked right at home on Montel Williams 20 years
later. In 1977, the syndicated series Second City TV took self-reflexive
comedy even farther, showing fragments of all kinds of TV shows on a fictitious
network -- all of which were just a degree or two off from the real thing.
1977 Roots, an eight-part drama about an African-American
family, was such a success that the networks produced dozens of similar
mini-series. Like Roots, most were aired over successive nights,
requiring TV viewers to spend as much as 10 hours a week on a single program.
By the '90s, most adult dramas had continuing storylines, and full-week
spectaculars found it more difficult to wrest viewers away from them.
Mini-series rarely exceed two nights now, and the most successful involve
science fiction or fantasy -- mirroring the rise of such elements in
blockbuster theatrical films.
1978 The popularity of potboiler mini-series like Rich Man, Poor
Man inspired CBS to try a nighttime soap opera. Dallas
soon became the most popular show on TV, in large part because of Larry
Hagman's performance as the villainous J.R. Ewing. Besides inspiring several
other soaps, Dallas began the practice of ending each season with a
cliffhanger -- notably the "Who Shot J.R.?" storyline. Eventually, Dallas
was done in by a paradox of nighttime soaps. Such programs promise twists
in their storylines, but they really depend on stable casts, just as on
sit-coms. So when Dallas writers killed off Patrick Duffy's character
and the ratings slipped, they simply brought him back -- by asserting that an
entire year's worth of episodes was a dream. As more realistic dramas adopted
continuing storylines, prime-time soaps (despite Melrose and
90210) became less common.
1979 Cable channels began to prosper in the late '70s, in part because
of the drek on the major networks. C-SPAN, which covers Congress, shares
many characteristics with series television. There is a regular cast of
hundreds, some with a quick wit but most astoundingly stupid. The action is
divided into two-year sessions (i.e., seasons), with a minor cast
turnover after every production hiatus. Fans are exceptionally loyal, and even
non-viewers would hate to see a cancellation.
1980 Television has become more polished over the years, an unfortunate
development resisted by David Letterman in his early shows. His Late
Night series recalled Ernie Kovacs and Steve Allen in its casual chaos. In
one program, the screen slowly rotated 360 degrees -- so that by the middle of
the hour Letterman and his guests appeared upside down. Over the years,
Letterman has inched over to the lite side, dropping such bits as the dentist
who doubled as a film critic and the monkey who ran around the studio with a
camcorder strapped to its back. Instead, his current CBS series emphasizes
big-name guests with obviously pre-scripted remarks.
1981 Hill Street Blues permanently transformed the
prime-time drama. Before it premiered, most crime dramas were slow-moving and
underwritten, and they suffered from comparisons to theatrical films with
similar themes. Hill Street Blues took elements from several other TV
genres to create a police drama unlike anything that could be done in film.
Like a soap opera, it featured a large cast and multiple continuing
storylines. Reversing the formula on M*A*S*H, it mixed darkly comic
scenes into a generally dramatic tone, and it echoed that sit-com's theme of
heroes focusing on one crisis at a time even as they felt powerless to stop the
larger war (on crime, not Korea). And imitating news documentaries, it often
utilized hand-held cameras, which added to the realistic feel of the series but
also helped speed up production. The Hill Street formula produced few
clunkers; if one storyline or guest star was weak, there were separate plots in
the same episode to compensate. As a result, viewer loyalty was exceptionally
high. Eventually, Hill Street became a model for almost all crime
dramas, and continuing storylines became the norm on prime-time shows.
1982 At its best, the drama promoted as "Hill Street Blues
in a hospital" surpassed anything else that's been done on television. The
smart writing was full of puns and in-jokes about other TV series, but
St. Elsewhere was never hip or ironic at the expense of its
characters. Those characters went through a lot on this series, including the
losses of parents, lovers, and children to a wide assortment of diseases and
freak accidents. But the cumulative effect of these tragedies was a sense of
wonderment at the resiliency of the human spirit. This is a show on which a
character who had just recovered from a gunshot wound could say with sincerity,
"The world is filled with people whose problems are greater than ours." St.
Elsewhere was often quite funny, but it was as far away from camp as you
can get. The final episode was astonishing, tugging at viewers' hearts by
showing us all its characters for the last time but then gently reminding us
that it's only a TV show.
1983 Nothing succeeded like excess during the Reagan era, and the
excessively simple game show Wheel of Fortune became the most
popular syndicated series in history. Soon after, Lifestyles of the Rich and
Famous hit the airwaves, and The Barbara Walters Specials won an
Emmy for "Best Informational Series." The most innovative aspects of all these
programs were the dress designs.
1984 Eighties glitz was put to dramatic use in Miami Vice,
which could be concisely described as "MTV cops." As in Peter Gunn,
music was an essential element in establishing mood -- though synthesizer pop
was used in place of jazz. The look was "film blanc," full of azure skies and
candy-colored cars and houses.
Meanwhile, as Dallas and Dynasty began to fade, The Cosby
Show restored the sit-com as the dominant genre on prime-time TV and
helped NBC become the dominant network for the first time since the early '50s.
This became the first number-one show with a mostly black cast. Bill Cosby also
set a precedent by using a sit-com persona that was essentially the same as his
stand-up comedy act -- an irresistibly simple formula that would later put
Jerry Seinfeld, Drew Carey, and dozens of other nightclub veterans on network
1985 Moonlighting wasn't the first series to tease viewers with
an up-and-down romance (Cheers was the master of the form). More notable
were its frequent attempts to transcend the detective genre -- seemingly into
an old-fashioned variety hour. The most famous episode was "Atomic
Shakespeare," in which the regular characters were dropped into a customized
version of The Taming of the Shrew (still set in Elizabethan times). In
other episodes, cast members spoke directly to the camera, or their characters
appeared in animated form. Its experimental spirit may yet be adopted by other
drama series, given the ratings success of recent "stunt" episodes such as the
live ER and the musical installment of Chicago Hope.
1986 Thanks to the VCR, television programs can now be stuffed with
visual details that warrant repeated viewing. Pee-wee's
Playhouse was one of the most cluttered shows of its time, set
in a candylike house full of talking chairs, clocks, and other objects.
The series also attracted adults who couldn't miss the sexual innuendoes in
Pee-wee's chats with Cowboy Curtis (Laurence, then "Larry," Fishburne).
1987 The Simpsons (which began on The Tracey Ullman
Show) also had plenty of treats for the viewer who paid attention. The
writing was more subversive than on any other network comedy, with regular
swipes at organized religion, the gun lobby, and the cultural behemoth known as
the Disney Company. Creator Matt Groening decreed that the characters on The
Simpsons would be forever frozen in time, meaning that Bart would never
leave the fourth grade. Surprisingly, the series has remained fresh even
without any character development, and the writers haven't yet run out of new
situations for Homer, the patriarch of a literally nuclear family, to display
his idiocy. Maybe The Beverly Hillbillies should have been a cartoon.
1988 Cable TV has never really lived up to its promise of innovative
programming. Tanner '88, directed by Robert Altman and written by
Garry Trudeau, was an exception. Aired on HBO during the 1988 presidential
primaries, the series followed a fictional Democratic candidate as he
campaigned across the country and interacted with real contenders like Bob
Dole. Developments in the real campaign were also incorporated into its
storyline. Tanner '88 was a great way to take advantage of television's
immediacy, but the concept has rarely been attempted since.
1989 Seinfeld. Few landmark series have inspired so many
wrongheaded imitations. Seinfeld is not about "friends," and it is
certainly not about "nothing." Although not topical in the sense of All in
the Family, this sit-com is a pretty thorough catalogue of current
obsessions and neuroses. It's not hard to imagine the series's becoming a
valuable reference tool for future novelists and filmmakers setting a story in
the 1990s. In its later seasons, Seinfeld has also turned into a weekly
brain teaser: how are the four separate storylines (one for each main
character) going to intersect at the end?
1990 The more noticeable debut this year was Twin Peaks, which
brilliantly captured the shock of a small town after a bizarre murder. As the
body count mounted, however, Twin Peaks degenerated into a campy soap
opera. Law & Order chose a premise with more staying power,
and it became one of the few quality dramas in the '90s without continuing
storylines. Each episode follows first the police and then the prosecutors
through a single murder investigation. The cases often come from real life, but
they're all fictionalized to make for more-compelling drama -- a welcome
contrast to the awful TV-movies that are "based on a true incident."
1991 Typical of cut-and-paste cable-TV fare in the early '90s,
Talk Soup is a daily round-up of clips from talk shows,
especially "tabloid" offerings. It succeeds as a time saver, allowing viewers
to catch the highlights without sitting though hours of daytime TV. The circus
atmosphere of most of the clips makes Talk Soup an ironic successor to
The Ed Sullivan Show and its best-of-Broadway concept.
1992 HBO's Larry Sanders Show is a more ambitious cable
series. Its satire of the television industry isn't really new, but its fluid
movement and pungent language make network sit-coms seem stagy and
1993 Echoing an earlier horror series, Kolchak: The Night
Stalker, Scully and Mulder of The X-Files are Sisyphus-like
figures caught in a tragic cycle: no sooner do they solve one supernatural
mystery than another monster comes rolling down the hill at them. The
innovation here is creator Chris Carter's elaborate background story, involving
Mulder's search for his abducted sister and his attempt to unravel conspiracies
at all levels of government. It's never totally clear how (or whether) each
episode fits into the overall story -- which gives fans plenty to discuss
before next Sunday night.
1994 Of the 23 number-one shows in television history, ER
demands the most of its viewers. Dallas and Dynasty had
continuing storylines, but they could be enjoyed as camp even if you had no
idea what was going on. ER's characters have bad moods that last for
months and make no sense if you don't know the story (the most prominent
example being Mark Greene's funk this year after being attacked in a men's
room). Together with the Top 10 hit NYPD Blue, this medical drama proved
that network series didn't have to be dumbed down to reach mass audiences.
1995 Murder One tested the loyalty of television viewers by
asking them to follow one murder case over its entire first season. Along the
way, the show was fascinating in its microscopic look at the criminal-justice
system. The jury selection alone took up several episodes, as each side tried
to tilt the panel in its favor. The series failed to find a wide audience, but
Murder One is a good model for the video equivalent of a mammoth novel
that can be enjoyed at one's leisure.
1996 Profiler is a rather perverse attempt to duplicate the
popularity of The X-Files and such gruesome films as The Silence of
the Lambs. The main character is supernaturally gifted at tracking serial
killers (one per week) and is being stalked herself by a psycho (in a
continuing storyline). She reacts the same way every time she finds a dead
body: a furrowed brow (as if she couldn't remember where she put her keys),
followed by her "vision" of how the murder took place. All this high-concept
drama needs is a police sergeant who cries "I see nothing!" at every crime
scene. A year later, Buffy the Vampire Slayer showed that the
tortured-heroine premise worked better in the realm of outright fantasy.
1997 MTV's Austin Stories is one small sign that
television could return to its roots, in locally produced programs. This
low-budget sit-com about underachieving twentysomethings is shot entirely in
Austin -- a refreshing change from New York and LA. Viewers can only hope that
it paves the way for other such cable series: a series of filmed plays from
Chicago, a courtroom drama in Charleston, and a sketch-comedy show from Boston,
etc. It's best not to dwell on the fact that the biggest hit of the year on
network television is Dharma and Greg.