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Archive for the ‘Top 80 Greatest Television Shows’ Category

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by Robert Hornak

“I bow with great deference to the real masters… I can adapt science fiction I think quite adequately, but I can’t create it on an original level.” – interview with James Gunn, 1970

Serling on the influence of the show: “I think what it did do was to supply by virtue of its own moderate success a kind of an entre to the darkness that surrounds us.”

With these two quotes, Rod Serling, one of the greatest television writers to ever ply a thought to paper, diminishes himself in his usual style. But don’t let him fool you. The man created and curated the single best, concentrated menagerie of stories under a single banner that television has ever seen.

What follows is long, but easily navigable. Basically, it’s:

I.  Some background on Serling/brief discussion of the show’s development.

II.  45 “review-histories” – some more review than history.

III.  Some final, brief, too-scattered thoughts.

 

I.  BACKGROUND

There’s absolutely no separating The Twilight Zone from its darkly self-effacing creator. The show’s very existence owes itself to the animus stirred in him by the death throes of the television class he helped establish in the early-to-mid ’50s. By decade’s end, Serling had decorated his mantle with Emmys for his original teleplays Patterns (the world of big-business as lions and gazelles on the open plains), Requiem for a Heavyweight (Jack Palance as a broken-down boxer scrambling for his dignity), and The Comedian (Mickey Rooney as a TV comedian who’s really an abusive egomaniac) and was the de facto writer laureate at the granddaddy of all ’50s anthology shows, Playhouse 90. But as the stranglehold of corporate sponsorship tightened around the throat of creatives from those early years of broadcasting, many jumped ship for the oft-considered “more expressive” medium of motion picture filmmaking, and with that realm expanding beyond its own Hays Office stranglehold, and the walls of studio dominance crumbling slowly but ever so surely, it was a smart move. Yet while the luminous likes of Paddy Chayefsky, Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, and others, made the leap to the Big White Screen, Serling was still inspired by and beholden to the milieu he helped birth with his superlative, gut-wrenching, and undeniably heady writing. Serling, nothing if not competitive and proud, and circumspect and morbid, and trenchantly funny and nimbly incisive, saw in his new anthology show a way to best the sponsors at their own game. If they didn’t want him to “go there” with stories ripped from the headlines, stories that lambasted the constricted, intolerant, abusive, and fascistic bent of the world at that time by writing about real people in real situations, he’d bypass sponsors’ fears by going all out the other way: put a guy in a space suit, or have him talking to a ghost, or dress it up in bizzaro comedy, or put the military in a post-apocalyptic context, then the product pushers had far less plausible argument to say no. It was Serling’s gambit to speak his mind his way, with as little interference as possible, and to denounce hate and fear and self-immolation with the popular art of the times – the television tube.

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Twin Peaks s1

by Joel Bocko

This essay is spoiler-free until noted within the text itself. Readers unfamiliar with Twin Peaks are encouraged to continue up to that point, marked by “***”, to build interest.

Fair warning: this is also a very long discussion of a complex series, so you may want to read in installments.

Twin Peaks is not a TV show.” You’ve probably heard this refrain before, perhaps moderated to “Twin Peaks is not normal television,” or, more generously to the medium, “Twin Peaks changed TV forever.” However phrased, the essence remains the same: Twin Peaks still stands out boldly from the rest of the televisual landscape, twenty-seven years after its debut on the ABC network immediately following America’s Funniest Home Videos. As if to cement this iconic status, when the series returned for an eighteen-hour limited run this summer (dubbed by Showtime’s marketing department as Twin Peaks: The Return although filmmaker David Lynch, co-creator with author/TV writer Mark Frost, simply calls it the third season) this transgressive reputation persisted. Even against the tighter competition of “Prestige TV,” critics were dazzled by its revolutionary nature, especially the (literal and figurative) atomic blast of Part 8, which could almost have been a program of standalone avant-garde Lynch shorts. Yet the story of Twin Peaks is – like everything else in Twin Peaks – a dual narrative, embedded at once in the world of surrealist cinema (and Lynch’s own private universe) as well as TV conventions it embraced, wrestled with, and frequently overthrew.

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by John Greco

My parents and I moved to Bensonhurst when I was three days shy of my eleventh birthday. Like the Kramden’s we were a blue collar family and lived in an old apartment house. However, it was in better shape than Ralph and Alice’s two room apartment. For one thing, we had three and a half rooms! We also had a refrigerator instead of an icebox, a better sink and stove, and my Mom eventually got her first clothes washer! Alice, on the other hand, in the first of the classic 39 episodes, complains to Ralph that they have been living in their dingy place for 14 years, and their electric bill was still an embarrassing thirty-nine cents! Cheap even for the mid-1950’s.

Ralph Kramden and company made their first appearance on the now long defunct Dumont Network. The show was called The Cavalcade of Stars, and premiered in 1949. Jackie Gleason made his first appearance as host of the variety show in 1950. A four week stint turned into a steady gig. Among the shows guests were Paul Winchell, Joey Bishop, Morey Amsterdam, Connie Boswell (of The Boswell Sisters), Liberace, Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Daniels. The show also included sketch comedy, one of which was The Honeymooners with Gleason as the blue collar bus driver. Art Carney was picked up to play Ed Norton, Ralph’s best friend and neighbor. Jane Randolph was hired as Norton’s wife, Trixie, and Pert Kelton was Ralph’s wife, Alice. The sketches ranged from ten to twenty minutes long, sandwiched in with the show’s other entertainment.

In 1952, Gleason left the ailing Dumont Network and skipped off to CBS with the premiere of The Jackie Gleason Show. Regulars included the June Taylor Dancers, Sammy Spear and his Orchestra, and Frank Fontaine as Crazy Guggenheim. The show consisted of sketch comedies with Gleason portraying a variety of characters including Reginald Van Gleason, The Poor Soul, Joe the Bartender and, of course, Ralph Krandem in The Honeymooners. At CBS, Audrey Meadows replaced Pert Kelton as Alice. The backstory has it that Meadows auditioned for the Alice role during the original Dumont days, but Gleason felt she was too attractive for the role of a frumpy housewife, and went with the more stout hardcore Kelton. By the time Gleason moved to CBS, Kelton became mixed up in the McCarthy witch hunts. Meadows meanwhile dressed herself down wearing no makeup, dowdy clothes, convincing Gleason she would make a good Alice. Though Meadows’ Alice was a softer version, she gave back to Ralph with some of the show’s best zingers. The earlier Pert Kelton/Alice episodes are only available as kinescopes if at all. The sketches from Gleason’s CBS variety show have been complied on DVD and are available as The Honeymooners Lost Episodes. (more…)

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ilovelucy5

by Brian E. Wilson

Here in Chicago a film critic named Mark Caro has been running an ongoing monthly film series called “Is It Still Funny?.” He screens a comedy movie from the past at the good ole Music Box Theatre and asks people via ballot if the humor still holds up. He has shown such movies as Harold and Maude, Airplane!, Being There, among others. Caro posts the results on the series’ Facebook page. So far audiences have agreed that most of the comic gems can still be still considered comic gems even if the humor seems a bit, oh, of its time. Proof that in the best of cases, humor is timeless after all.

I thought of Caro’s experiment as I approached writing this essay on I Love Lucy, a monumental task that I am sure to mess up, but hopefully in the endearing way Lucy messes up. This show will be turning 66 years old on October 15 (it premiered on CBS on a Monday night at 9pm EST in 1951). This comedy classic immediately became a huge success, drawing amazingly high Nielsen ratings for its entire six season run. The show has lived on in reruns ever since. People still cherish this delightful slapstick-packed series about Lucy Ricardo (played with sheer brilliance by Lucille Ball) who craves fame and the spotlight, to break out of her role as housewife and make it in show business. The “I” in the title belongs to her husband Ricky Ricardo (the invaluable Desi Arnaz), a Cuban-American bandleader perpetually rattled by his wife’s schemes, plans, quest for stardom, and habit of spending too much cash. Joining in the fun is another married couple from upstairs, grumpy Fred (a properly crusty William Frawley) and busybody Ethel Mertz (the flawless Vivian Vance), former vaudevillians now landlords who get caught up in and/or cause the Ricardos’ comical meltdowns.

I loved loved loved this show as a kid addicted to reruns in the 1970s. An unabashed comedy geek at an early age, I could not wait until I Love Lucy would pop up on the New York City-based TV station specializing in showing reruns of old favorites. Of all the classics on repeat for our enjoyment, I Love Lucy emerged as the show that made me laugh hardest. Watching Lucy getting drunk on Vitametavegamen, squashing grapes in Italy, hanging out with Superman on a ledge, or doing a mirror routine with Harpo Marx had me doubled over with laughter every time. Thanks to Lucille, Desi, Vivian, and William, the sharp writers (Bob Carroll, Jr., Madelyn Pugh Davis, Jess Oppenheimer, Bob Schiller, Bob Weiskopf), and witty directors (mostly William Asher, but also James V. Kern and Marc Daniels), the show has provided so many wonderful memories. (more…)

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seinfeld-628x353.jpg

by Jon Warner

It’s hard to know where to start on an essay about Seinfeld. Doesn’t everyone already know everything there needs to be known on the show? Google greatest Seinfeld episodes and you’ll unearth a blog post or article from every corner of the globe with everyone offering up their personal take on the show about nothing. It clearly holds a place in our popular culture and remains to this day, unequivocally, the most iconic show of the 1990’s, turning “Yada Yada Yada”, “Shrinkage”, “Double Dipping”, and “No soup for you!” into everyday reference points. It was a legend in its own time, building a sizable following with 30-40 million people tuning into its broadcasts in the final few seasons. By then, it had began to lampoon (maybe not so successfully) its own tendencies and idiosyncrasies turning its simple, everyday observations into gargantuan, cartoon-like (“The Blood”, “The Bookstore”) absurdities. I had a conversation with someone the other day about Seinfeld and they feel like the show hasn’t held up very well. True, not every episode in great, and the 1st, 8th, and 9th seasons are not up to the same par as the best period between seasons 2-7. Yet the simple fact remains that when it was at its best, the exploits of Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer were as funny as any show ever made. (more…)

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by Adam Ferenz

Note: Due to unforeseen circumstances, Sammy’s duty as writer for this piece was unable to be filled, and I was called in at the last minute to provide the essay. I hope the following will suffice for such a landmark series.

A series that lasted nearly four times as long as the conflict it was set during, this is one of the great works of television because of the way it constantly evolved. When the show began, it was heavy on the humor, and by the time it ended, it was filled with dramatic tension you needed a knife to cut through. A mountain of cast changes could not stop the series from consistently striving for greatness, and indeed, usually resulted in even better material, or at least, very different material, than what came before. Like the later Cheers and Law & Order, the cast changes not only aided the material, but did so by improving overall chemistry.

Series star Alan Alda is rightly credited-and criticized-for his role as Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, and as a producer, writer and director on the series. Based on the film of the same name, the series began as a version of the movie but quickly dispensed with characters like Spearchucker, who made executives nervous about backlash due to his name, since he was black. The series toned down the cruder humor that was not going to be allowed on television, yet retained a lot of the cynicism and dark humor of the film. As time went on, Alda would be credited with turning the series into a pulpit for his political beliefs, and making the show far more emotionally manipulative than it had once been. The biggest change, however, may have been switching from Lt. Colonel Henry Blake to Colonel Sherman T. Potter, which was accompanied by the exit of Trapper John-Hawkeye’s friend and fellow trouble maker-and his replacement by the much smoother, and married, B.J. Hunnicutt. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

It was the brainchild of a moderately successful screenwriter who was hoping to achieve a moderate success with a genre program that was essentially aimed at young people, and fans of outer space shows.  The idea was to do well enough in the ratings to allow for an encore season and perhaps serve as a springboard for approval on other tentative projects.  Of course back in the 60’s adventure and fantasy shows were plentiful and very few succeeded beyond a niche market.  Expectations for a long run were virtually non-existent, and there was no persuasive reason to believe that providing viewers with a playground for the imagination, even with strange new worlds, expansive starships and compelling characters in the mix.  Some program executives may have perceived the project as a hybrid between the popular guilty pleasures Lost in Space and the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.  The early returns were modest enough, but few could have foreseen the phenomenon brewing, nor the influence it would exert over the medium.  More series spinoffs and theatrical films have appeared as a result of the original series, and a multibillion dollar industry, a franchise, has spawned endless lines of merchandise, fan clubs and annual conventions around the world.  After five highly successful television shows enjoyed impressive runs -three of those last seven years before syndication proved they were as desirable as ever- this incomparably unique franchise continues to earned millions on movie screens with a current slew of re-boots following nine movies.  The cinematic incarnations began in 1979, and there is no sign of closure anytime in the foreseeable future.  Only one property, Star Wars has matched it in a cultural sense, but it is hard to make the case that any television show has changed people’s’ perceptions, establishing a template for futuristic conjecture, while at the same time offering the strongest case for

Often referred to as “Wagon Train to the Stars”, “Horatio Hornblower in Space” or a more categorically as a science fiction space opera, Star Trek as per its famous tagline To boldly go where no man has gone before has achieved what no television show has managed.  While timing and luck have played a major role in the show’s spectacular prominence in the entertainment industry, there have been some more tangible factors that paved the way for this singular kind of accomplishment.  The idea of a spaceship traveling to the outer reaches of the galaxy and beyond has built-in intrigue and unlimited fascination not only for the adventures and fantasy it creates but for many a look at a future that may well conceivably occur.  Most envision a day when spaceships will travel long distances and that life aboard will be comparable to that of a passenger train or an airplane flight.  While Star Trek presented a scenario with many original ideas, it followed a long line of space stories, serials, novels, early films and television shows.  George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (1902), an eighteen minute silent film acknowledged as one of the form’s earliest entries, was based on one of the books from one of literature’s most celebrated science fiction figures, the Frenchman Jules Verne (From the Earth to the Moon).   Space exploration books aimed at a teenage market were all the rage in the 50’s when Tom Corbett, Space Explorer and Digby Allen’s space adventures achieved considerable popularity.  The decade also saw a bevy of science-fiction films set in space: low-budget pot boilers like First Men in the Moon based on H.G. Wells and classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet, the film that most influenced Star Trek.  The 60’s brought the master Czech work Ikarie XB-1, and Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey, which released late in Star Trek’s three-year run.  The grandest fantasy of all is deeply rooted in the “final frontier” that Star Trek frames in the opening narration. (more…)

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