Thursday, October 1, 2009

The HoG25: The 25 Best Television Shows of the Past 25 Years (Part II)

We're back, and not a moment too late, with part two of our take on the idiot box. If you dropped by yesterday, you'll see we offered up picks 25-11, which, admittedly was a fantastic read. We can all but guarantee that you'll agree with us on at least nine one of our top 10 picks, which you're welcome to peruse, on two conditions: The first is that you must click the little "Read More" tab, and condition two is that you must comment, in the provided space (Editor's Note: This means you, and no, "I was going to comment, but..." will not suffice). So hop to it, Skippy, before you miss your favorite show.

10: The Sopranos

Old No. 7:
Just as baseball is an individual game masked as a team sport, The Sopranos was a comedy masquerading as a Mafia drama. The show had moments of intense action and serious themes of life & death, crime & punishment, loyalty & betrayal. But what made it great were the laughs.

No other show has ever made better use of the malapropism. Christopher Moltisanti longed to "create a little dysentery in the ranks," while Tony wisely pronounced that "revenge is like serving cold cuts." We loved these guys, guys who had no education and little sophistication yet controlled a criminal empire that brought in millions. As with any well-made Mob film, we rooted for the bad guys and hoped they stayed one step ahead of the law. The cops in The Sopranos were given a human face and decent story lines, but were still cast as bumbling straight men to the comedic wiseguys.

There's a reason James Gandolfini doesn't get any more work, even though he's a very good actor. The character he created in Tony Soprano had such depth, such power, and such hidden emotional frailty that is is impossible for anyone to see Gandolfini as anyone other than Tony. He's this generation's Archie Bunker or Ralph Kramden, a larger-than-life family man who repulses us with his temper and draws us closer with his charm.

9: The Cosby Show

Where, when discussing The Cosby Show, does one begin? It was one of the best television programs of the 1980s, and also of the past 25 years. Why it was so significant is a multi-layered cake. For starters, it was based, to some degree, on the personal and professional life of one Bill Cosby, who just might be one of the most interesting figures of the 21st century. Prior to the television program, Cosby had successfully starred in stand-up comedy, as well as children’s television programming, i.e. Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids and the Picture Pages skits on Captain Kangaroo. The street- and book-smarts of Cosby exuded from all three of these endeavors, but it was his work on The Cosby Show that we acknowledge here.

The beauty of Cosby was that it gave the viewing audience a somewhat suburban view of life in New York City, a metropolis almost always depicted as urban. It showed a functioning family of seven and did an impressive job of evenly distributing the focus of each family member and their issues for most of its eight seasons on the air. At a time when the American divorce rate was reaching unforeseen highs, this family exuded a sense of unity with both natural sibling rivalries and, although seemingly occasionally tilted, a pretty even distribution of power between the mother and father.

The family managed to balance the demanding careers of both parents, while still suggesting a realistic portrayal of ample time for healthy, successful child rearing. And the issues each child dealt with were very real to life: attempts at parental manipulation, household responsibilities, puberty handcuffed by teen intimacy and the occasional “early” pregnancy, reading disorders, violence, drugs, friends, and education. This was all done on a season-by-season basis, in a fashion that included culture, extended family, and of course, humor. While it certainly had its corny moments, The Cosby Show was a sitcom that cemented itself into a position of all-time great

8: Sesame Street

I’ve not yet delved into parenthood, but I feel somewhat safe in saying that the kind of child you were probably has a heavy hand in determining what kind of parent you will be. I also feel like what kind of child you were was largely congruent to how much Sesame Street you watched. Let me back up: Sesame Street is one of those that, for the purposes of this series, we could/should leave alone because here, in just two short months, the program will celebrate its 40th anniversary. That, of course, projects it beyond 25 years old, but it also, in my opinion, singles itself out in the fact that it has been good enough and popular enough to be on television for 40 freaking years.

To be fair, Sesame Street probably deserves its own post, but in that same vein of fairness, we’re not doing that for any other show. Now, we, in this installment, are discussing shows that have to do with crime, comedy, sports, and, among others, animation. Sesame Street, to me, is above and beyond all of them combined, in that it captures the minds of children, and in the pure essence of doing that, educates them. Sounds corny, I know. But really -– the kids need something like Sesame Street, especially these days when they’re developing faster, getting pregnant sooner, and in some sad cases, dying younger, be it via disease or crime.

But back to my original point: Sesame Street was one of the major cornerstones of my childhood. I remember riding my bike, swinging at the park, and doing chores singing “Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street?”. I think of Cookie Monster’s “’C’ is for Cookie” every time I eat a chocolate chip. I hear the words to “Rubber Duckie” every time I see a duck on a pond or a kid in a tub. I think of the ol’ 1-2-3-4-5 pinball-machine tune every time I hear a kid counting. The interaction of people and puppets, them learning together -– hell, the interaction of different ethnicities living harmoniously, the everyday things we do in life like going to the dentist or milking a cow are just a few of many, many things kids learn every time they tune in to Sesame Street.

There are about four billion reasons why Sesame Street rules. Jim Henson and Frank Oz are two of them, but the rest are too many, the list too long to explain exactly why. Sesame Street kicked and still kicks all the ass.

7: David Letterman

Old No. 7:
For this I'm folding Dave's old NBC Late Night show and his current CBS gig into one. I know, I know, he was more edgy in the later time slot and his monologues have turned painfully predictable. But Dave is the king of late night TV, every other host including Conan O'Brien and yes, Johnny Carson is jockeying for second place.

For years, though, Letterman lost in the ratings to Jay Leno. I could never, ever understand this, because Jay Leno is awful. He's an awful person and I'm sure he smells like a dumpster. Yet year after year Leno posted better numbers, which to some validated NBC's decision to pick the big-chinned knuckle-dragger over Dave's gap-toothed excellence. Who, on God's green Earth, actually watched Jay Leno?

Then I found out -- it was my dad. My dad loves Leno, and he even loves his new prime-time show that has received shittier reviews than Jake Delhomme. Apparently Jay Leno is a big car collector and aficionado of fine vintage automobiles, a hobby that appeals to my father. When I pointed out to Dad that Letterman also likes cars and is from Indianapolis and never misses the 500 and once owned an open-wheeled racing team -- in addition to being 600 times funnier and less annoying than Jay Leno -- Dad didn't care. Leno fills a void for many older Americans, because he is safe and predictable and provides a platter of "humor" and entertainment that reminds them of a simpler time.

Letterman is, of course, the choice for folks my age, or at least those that don't prefer Conan or Jon Stewart after hours. And don't get me wrong, Conan and Stewart are undeniably awesome. But the awkwardness and earnestness that make Conan's stand-up so brilliant also hinders him with interview guests. And Stewart is confined by his fake-news shtick and delightfully acidic condescension. Dave's biggest strength is his honesty.

There are some nights that Dave doesn't like his guests, or doesn't like his jokes, or really doesn't like doing his TV show. He still plows through because he's a pro. But he doesn't hide his displeasure, you can see it on his face and hear it in his voice. And that truth is what makes Dave great.

Bankmeister: For the record, my dad was a fan of Leno, too. Drove me B...a-n-a-n-a-S!

6: Saturday Night Live

It is nearly impossible for me to imagine a universe without Saturday Night Live. It's like pepperoni pizza and the starry night sky, like Puff the Magic Dragon and existential despair. It's just there, hardwired into my cultural memory. I'll be on my deathbed and the last flickering image tracing the inside of my mind will be of Chris Kattan and Will Ferrell leg-humping some some guest celebrity. Maybe Drew Barrymore or one of the Tilly sisters.

There have been good years and years that, well, sucked flaming barbed demon cock. It's totally inconsistent season to season -- you think you have the makings of a good cast at the start, then a few episodes in they lapse back into the overlong and ill-conceived sketches that inevitably mark their down periods. You can break the show's history down in eras like geology: the late '70s were regarded as being some of the best American comedy of the 20th Century, even though the humor hasn't really worn all that well, and the early '80s were terrible, except for Eddie Murphy, and then he left and they were terrible again until Adam Sandler and Dana Carvey and Chris Farley, then they really really blew for almost an entire decade. Tina Fey oversaw a brief burst of quality and then fled. The results since have been mediocre at best.

Yet still, there it is goes. It'll just keep on a-soldiering, pumping out episode after celebrity-hosted, bloated sketch-packed and occasional belly laugh-riffic episode. And I'm sure we'll keep on getting terrible movies featuring ex-cast members, garbage like Corky Romano or Fat Albert. My advice, ala Bob Knight, is to lie back and enjoy it. These days I fall asleep 15 minutes in anyway.

5: Sportscenter

Old No. 7:
There's really no point to explaining this show, because if you read this blog you have watched more hours of Sportscenter than any other television program. Probably ten times as many hours. Is there another show that you would leave on and allow to replay over and over and over again? Of course not. But you've done this with Sportscenter.

The anchors, of course, come and go, and some are annoying and some are great. I loved the years of The Big Show with Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann, but looking back I don't really know why. Those guys weren't actually that funny, and when they try to recreate their glory years on NBC's football show they're downright agitating.

What Sportscenter did is condense the most visceral parts of being a sports fan -- the awesome plays. Sure, you cared about who won and who lost, and you cared about the stats in the box score, but you could get all that in the paper the next day. Bob Ryan could describe in vivid detail a Michael Jordan dunk, but you could read that story a hundred times and not get the impact one replay on Sportscenter gave you.

Plus, in recent years it's become the go-to repository of loony-tunes postgame press conferences. Repeat after me: Playoffs? Practice? I'm a man! I'm 40! They are who we thought they were! There's a bunch of assholes out there watching football games like a piece of shit with no pride! All brought to you by Sportscenter. Duh-duh-duh! Duh-duh-duh!

4: Seinfeld

Old No. 7:
I love this show, despite the fact that I dislike every main character and the finale of the series was the worst TV show I've ever seen.

Curb Your Enthusiasm had a chance to surpass it as the greatest comedy in television history, but then Larry David's neuroses overtook everything, including his own life (on which both Curb and Seinfeld were partly based).

3: The Simpsons

Simpsons creator Matt Groening was a respected and successful cartoonist for years before his sketches on the Tracey Ullman Show turned into the most popular television program of the last two decades, but as great as Life in Hell was -- and it really, truly was -- no one will remember the guy for Binky, Sheba, Akbar or Jeff. What's truly amazing is how long the show's peak lasted; for about 10 full seasons, up until the late '90s crash in quality, there wasn't a funnier show on television. Not even Bob Dornan on CSPAN could compete.

The Simpsons is such an important cultural touchstone for our generation that I spent several years of my life speaking little but quotes from the show. There are so many good ones that you can apply to daily circumstances, especially if you wear an onion on your belt (it was the style at the time.) In its heyday, the laughs would come so fast and furious that you'd have to wait for a re-run to collect all the chuckles you missed the first time.

Most impressively, it was never, ever, cruel or mean-spirited. (At least during the glory years it wasn't; by the time they started writing whole episodes around celebrities, it dropped back to Earth.) The characters weren't just cutouts with catchphrases, they were textured, complex and human. The shadow of its greatness looms large over every animated show that's come after -- one of my former co-workers at the Rocky once asked me if I liked Family Guy, and my response was, "Yeah, back when it was called The Simpsons."

2: Cheers

Remember when Boston didn't seem like it was quite so full of doucheknockers? More like a blue-collar city where you could walk into a local bar and hobnob over beers with a group of quick-witted characters? Sure you do -- that time was the '80s, and you thought that because of Sam Malone and company.

Cheers was more than just the best televisions show of its era. To my mind, it stands alone in the history of the medium as being the one program that was as good the day it ended as it was in the first episode -- not M.A.S.H, not All In The Family, not The Simpsons, nada. There was no creative dip, the writing was always excellent and, amazingly, the cast remained virtually unchanged over the course of what, 12 years? New characters came aboard -- Woody, Frasier Crane, Lilith, annoying Kirstie Alley -- Coach left because he died and Dianne Long left because she wanted to make Troop Beverly Hills, but the core group never split apart, which happens to nearly every successful show. Think about it: McLean Stevenson left M.A.S.H, Sherman Helmsley left All In The Family, funny left The Simpsons. But Cheers just kept on bringing the clever, year after year, fake beer after fake beer -- that kind of consistency is rare in any form of entertainment, and almost nonexistent in television.

It's also one of the very few shows that I will unfailingly tune in for re-runs. It's amazing how well it aged -- maybe because "a guy walks into a bar" is just one of the great dictates of comedy.

Bankmeister: Coach: (with telephone receiver clutched to chest) "Some guy on the phone wants to speak to an Ernie Pantusso."

Woody: "Coach, that's you."

Coach: "Oh, right. (places receiver to ear) "Speaking."

1: The Wire

Old No. 7:
The setting of any TV show is important, and that venue becomes a character in and of itself. We've all seen countless shows set in New York or Los Angeles, as well as Milwaukee (Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley), Las Vegas (CSI), Miami (Dexter), North Jersey (The Sopranos), Boston (Cheers), Cleveland (Drew Carey), Springfield (The Simpsons) and Cincinnati (WKRP). I've never felt a connection to any of those places like I did to the city of Baltimore through The Wire.

I've never been to Baltimore, but I feel as though I've lived there for years. I feel like I know what the streets smell like, or that I can sense the nip in the air as winter approaches. The word "genius" gets tossed around too easily these days, but I can proclaim with 100 per cent certainty that David Simon is one. He has created a masterwork of drama that will hold up forever.

Just watch this show. I implore you and I beg you, and I do that with full understanding of how annoying that is. I was hounded for years by friends and writers who told me I had to watch The Wire or I'd miss out on some grand cultural experience. I hate it when I'm told that I'm missing out on something, I hate it so much that I will usually intentionally continue to ignore what I'm missing out on, just out of spite.

Luckily I relented on The Wire, and I watched Season One in the least appealing way possible -- during a rebroadcast on BET, with commercials, and with the cursing and nudity edited out. My world was rocked, and I purchased that season and others on DVD before watching the last season on HBO. My current budget allows me neither DVD-buying nor HBO (damned reproduction), but a simple Netflix subscription or membership at your local Blockbuster is all that's needed to gain passage to David Simon's Baltimore and this tragically magnificent slice of America.

And there you have it folks. The top 25 television programs of the last 25 years, as The Iron Triangle sees it. Hope you enjoyed. In the event that you did, peep our similar lists on NFL QBs, cinematic endeavors, baseball stick-swingers, chaptered compilations, and of course, starting pitchers.