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Archive for the ‘Top 80 Greatest Television Shows’ Category

by Dennis Polifroni

Let me just get this first statement out of the way and we can move on from here…

ALL IN THE FAMILY is, without question, the single most important TV series to come out of the United States, post 1966.

This one is not up for debate.  It’s not something we can mull over coffee, argue over drinks and cigarettes, or apologise for after really good sex.  The whole crux of Conservative American television programming was smashed, reshaped, re-invented and over-hauled when Norman Lear bravely presented his “little” situation comedy/drama that introduced us to the residents of 704 Hauser Street in Astoria, Queens (the exterior footage used on the show was actually taken in an area close to Jackson Heights, my current place of residence).  The people that occupied that address were people like you and me and they lived, laughed, hurt, bled and died the way we all do and, eventually, will.

Meeting the people that live at that address is like a mirror reflecting images of ourselves back at us.  They are us.  We ARE them.

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CHAPTER 1: NORMAN

“When I was a boy, I thought if I could turn a screw in my father’s head just 1/16th of an inch, one way or another, it might help him tell the difference between right and wrong.”

-Norman Lear, from his memoir: EVEN THIS I GET TO EXPERIENCE

In order to truly understand the impetus of ALL IN THE FAMILY you need to know quite a bit about the life of its creator and head writer, the most important and influential producer in television history: Norman Lear. (more…)

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by Adam Ferenz

The premise sounds like it should not work. Yet work it does, like a Walter White master plan. A man, dying of cancer, decides to take his skills as a Nobel-winning chemist, and apply them to cooking meth, to leave money for his family after he dies. Oh, and he is also a high school chemistry teacher, with a disabled son, pushy in-laws and a very pregnant wife that is never satisfied with anything or anyone. At least, that is how it appears, on the surface. It seems to be full of clichés. Yet, as the series progresses, those clichés reveal themselves as anything but, and therein lies a fraction, though crucial fraction, of the genius of this series.

Walter White kills his first person at the end of the pilot, gassing a fellow dealer, and then, two episodes later, strangles another, who had survived the same gassing. By the end of the series, he has notched an impressive kill list, including but not limited to, deaths by explosion, vehicle and Ricin. He is directly or indirectly responsible for dozens of deaths, including his brother-in-law and that brother-in-law’s partner, agents of the DEA. He has also alienated everyone he claimed to love, and taken on the literally black-hat persona of Heisenberg, his alias in the drug world. The first time we see Heisenberg, coincidentally, is not the first time Walter puts on his hat, but when he goes home to his wife at the end of the pilot and, energized by the brush with danger he has had, has a forceful bit of sex with his wife, causing her to exclaim “Walt, is that you?” The truth is yes, and he is more himself than he ever has been.

The journey of Walter White is an awakening. This is not an awakening for him, only, but those around him, as Jesse learns to become a better person, his wife learns to accept that she is not so innocent and her brother-in-law that he is not the biggest dog in the yard. It is about chemistry, in the way that things work together or pull apart. It is a story not of redemption but of self awareness. Here is a man that when we meet him, is the butt of many jokes. His wife ignores him and his son, who loves him, is not especially close to him. Neither is Walter, who seems distant from everyone, even a family he claims desperately to love more than anything. Walter’s brother in law, Hank, a macho member of the DEA, who is also a bit of a cowboy, and rather a bully. Hank gains pleasures from those moments in which he emasculates Walter, his partner and others. He does this, supposedly, out of a ritual of male bonding, but it amounts to bullying and is his own way of marking out territory.

That Hank does not realize Walter is unappreciative of the teasing shows his own disconnection from the world. The two men will become adversaries, joined by marriage, separated by outward views and joined again by a drive to prove themselves, as some sort of primal male. This is a dark and difficult journey, anchored by Emmy winning performances throughout. Indeed, just about the entire main cast did or should have, won awards. Not that awards mean much of anything but this was one series which earned the trophies it was given. For a few years, it was the best show on television, and nothing else was really close. Not Game of Thrones, not the final years of Mad Men and not the popular yet overrated House of Cards. (more…)

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by Dennis Polifroni

It was never truly about gangsters.  

There, I’ve said it.

THE SOPRANOS really isn’t, and never was, about the Italian Mafia inasmuch as the Mafia is simply a springboard device used to help coax the viewer into getting involved in the TRUE issues of life that plague every American household today.

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THE GREATEST CONCEPT IN AMERICAN TV HISTORY???

A guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office.  He sits down and starts complaining about his kids grades at school, that his wife suspects him of infidelity and how his mother, a woman without any love in her heart, has poorly treated him and his siblings for decades.

I can see a crowd of TV producers snoring at those lines of description.  Wouldn’t you?  There are DOZENS of shows on TV that deal with EXACTLY the same issues and plot points.  Why, on earth, would any TV executive worth his weight in salt want to back a show about these same topics?

Now…  Let’s try again…

A guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office.  He sits down and starts complaining about his kids grades at school, that his wife suspects him of infidelity and how his mother, a woman without any love in her heart, has poorly treated him and his siblings for decades.  But, THIS man greased his kid’s teachers with a few thousand dollars to put his son on the honor role, his wife was given a stolen Mercedes as a diversion to keep her off the trail of his illicit fucking and he’s plotting to smother his mother with a pillow as payback for all the years of crass and cruel behavior.

Oh, and the man, without actually admitting it, has been recognized by the psychiatrist as the head of New Jersey’s Organized Crime faction.

Whoa!!!!!  You got MY ATTENTION!

THE SOPRANOS head-writer and creator, David Chase, was never really interested in the nitty-gritty of a mobster’s dirty deeds. He couldn’t care less about who got throttled or shot, stabbed or thrown into a wood-chipper.  What he WAS interested in was how the actions of a despicable killer informed and influenced his behavior at home and the lives and behavior of his immediate family.  THE SOPRANOS is about many things but, what it’s most about are the things we all deal with in our own lives and how the eccentric nature of a larger-than-life personality infects the family unit.  Chase used his love for a classic American cinematic genre, gangster movies, combined with his own personal knowledge of “guys like that”, that were part of his Italian/American up-bringing, and plopped the “Don” of New Jersey into the living room of Norman Rockwell’s U. S. A. and waited to see what would happen.

(more…)

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by Adam Ferenz

One of the funniest works of art in history. There are twelve episodes. This is in part because program stars, creators and writers John Cleese and Connie Booth decided to get a divorce between series one and two, but also because both were superb professionals who demanded the absolute best, as close to perfection as was possible. That they achieved it more than not is extraordinary.  The focus was laser tight, and the situations improbable, but the funny was consistent. It was also very racy, both for its time and today. Yet, here we have twelve episodes-approximately six hours-of some of the greatest comedy ever made for broadcast.

Basil Fawlty is the blustery, fussy, imperfect perfectionist of England’s not-so-premiere hotel, and he is joined by a motley crew, including his wife, an old military officer, a cook and a maid. None of these people should work together. In fact, none of these people should know each other, and not because of any class bias-though perhaps the Major or Basil himself might argue otherwise-but because the world would be a safer place if they did not. Each day is not so much an adventure as it is a disaster, whether it is Basil running out of petrol on the road, or a group of Germans visiting the hotel and everyone saying precisely the wrong thing to them, culturally.

That episode, “The Germans”, closed out the first series of Fawlty Towers. It was once ranked # 12, by TV Guide-take that for what you will-on their list of greatest episodes in history.  Throughout the episode, Basil, who is always worried about offending guests and losing money and reputation, keeps telling his staff “Don’t mention the war” but, invariably, something comes up that alludes to the war, to German stereotypes, to warrior culture, to antisemitism, or , well, anything and everything that could go wrong, does go wrong. And it is hilarious. It is one of the most perfect half hours of comedy ever devised for big or small screen. Students of writing and direction should study it, because it is so brilliantly constructed and staged. (more…)

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

“Who can turn the world on with her smile? Who can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?”

The well-remembered opening lines to the theme song of The Mary Tyler Moore Show are aimed directly at its viewers, even as the song segues into a pep talk for Mary herself as her character, Mary Richards, starts a new life in Minneapolis. Whose smile does cheer us up? Why did we want to spend a half-hour of our lives every week watching this sitcom? The late Mary Tyler Moore, a beloved person among her fans and those who knew and worked with her, is a welcome guest in everyone’s home.

Ever since Mary Tyler Moore lit up American households as the attractive, talented, adorable wife of TV comedy writer Rob Petrie in the seminal sitcom of the early 1960s, The Dick Van Dyke Show, audiences have been in love with her. It was inevitable that she would have her own TV show in short order. Nonetheless, while hewing to many of the stock characterizations found on many sitcoms, Mary Tyler Moore broke one very significant mold—Mary was a single, childless, professional woman and happy to be so.

Mary Richards was not the first single girl to make it big on TV—Ann Marie (Marlo Thomas) on That Girl (1966-1971) reached American homes first. But she was an aspiring model and actress, a career path quite common for fictional women of the 1950s and ’60s, and ABC insisted that she have a regular boyfriend. Mary was an associate producer at TV station WJM right from the get-go, leaving a broken romance behind her and ready to play the field in her new city. The image from the opening credits of her spinning in wonder at her new surroundings and tossing her hat in the air—one might even say, into the ring—showed her delight in her new freedom, a freedom women were fighting for with great vigor during the time the show was on the air. (more…)

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By Stephen Mullen

This is very near and dear to my heart. For my money, Monty Python’s Flying Circus is the best show ever on television.

What was it? A sketch comedy show, made by a group of writers and performers (and a doctor) from Cambridge and Oxford, plus an American animator, aired at the end of the 1960s and the early 70s on BBC; some of it was recorded in front of a studio audience, but this was augmented with material shot outside the studio, as well as animation. It ran 3 1/2 years, 45 episodes in total. After it ended, the troop continued to work, together and separately; they made a compilation film from reshot versions of some of their best sketches, a way to distribute the material in those pre-video tape days (and before the show went into syndication, in the US at least); a couple years later, they made an original film, a spoof of King Arthur tales (and Eisenstein), that became much more of a success. Somewhere in here, the show was picked up by PBS in the United States, and soon became a hit, which encouraged PBS to start picking up other British comedy shows. They also made records, right from the start, and went on to make more films, to perform live and so on, generating a fair amount of product. However these things were received when they were made, by the mid-70s they were part of the culture, and easy to find – on radio, syndication, by word of mouth. By the end of the decade, and into the 80s, Monty Python had sunk very deep roots in youth culture, here in the USA at least. For me and most of my pals, anyway: you walked around high school and college quoting them and stealing their jokes, you watched the reruns on PBS and you scrounged up the VHS of the Holy Grail and watched that, over and over and over, you wore it out, you bought the records and listened to them, you sang the songs (sit on my face and let my lips embrace you!), you learned the names of philosophers and cheeses and many, many synonyms for death, you heard of things like Watney’s Red Barrel and Biggles and Algy that might not otherwise have jumped the pond, you made jokes about your idiom, you learned what litotes was, you picked up many excellent insults (sniveling little rat faced git), and years later, you saw Godard’s Weekend and recognized half a dozen Monty Python bits. Well, I did. (more…)

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opening

By Stephen Mullen

Dekalog is a 10 part television series, made in Poland in 1988, directed by Krzystof Kieslowski, written by Kieslowski and Krzystof Piesiewicz, his frequent writing collaborator. Each episode in the series is dedicated to one of the Ten Commandments, though the links are often quite free. The series is, in practice, more like a film cycle than television series – each episode is self-contained, linked only in their relationships to the commandments, and the setting, a large apartment complex in Warsaw. (And the filmmakers and crew.) Kieslowski conceived of the films as 10 separate films. He did not conform to TV conventions: recurring characters in an ongoing story; the need to pace the stories to match the way TV is watched, in the home, with the phone ringing and tea boiling and so on. Indeed, since 1989, Dekalog has been treated more like a film, or group of films, than as television. This is understandable: the films were distributed theatrically outside Poland, and Kieslowski himself was an established filmmaker when they were made, and his subsequent works made him a major art house figure internationally in the 1990s. He is a filmmaker first, and so Dekalog is treated as part of his film career. This is probably even more the case for Dekalog than for other TV shows made by people established in the film industry. David Lynch and Twin Peaks comes to mind – a series made by an established film figure a year or so after Dekalog, that, however congruent with Lynch’s career, is still seen primarily as a television show. Of course, Twin Peaks did play by the rules of television – a continuing series with characters and a through-plot and so on – which certainly helps explain the difference. But the fact remains, Dekalog’s origins in television is seen as somewhat incidental to what it is.

I don’t really mean to dispute that – Kieslowski’s own remarks and ideas about the show push criticism in that direction; I have certainly always thought of these films that way myself. But it is interesting to consider how they do relate to television, as an art form, as a social force, as technology. The strongest link to television, I think, is the way Dekalog is structured around the home, the family, the domestic space. Television is a domestic form of entertainment and art – it exists in the home, to be watched in the home; Dekalog is centered around the idea of home. Far more than other Kieslowski films, which are often about individuals making their way in the world, or at least about how people live in public, outside the home, Dekalog is almost entirely rooted in domestic spaces. When it leaves the domestic sphere, it either brings it in through other means (as the ways the domestic ethical problems of Episodes 2 and 8 are discussed in a class in Episode 8), or makes the loss of the home a felt absence in the story (Episode 5 can be seen this way.) The apartment complex where the series is set may seem to be just the device linking these stories – but in fact, those homes become central to the stories being told. The importance of children in the series, and the importance of relationships between parents and children, is an obvious theme – but these themes are themselves part of the series’ emphasis on the home. Home as family, as social space; home as physical space, actual buildings and rooms; home as symbolic space – a place of safety, rest, protection. Almost everything in the series hits one of those themes. (more…)

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