Archive for the ‘Top 80 Greatest Television Shows’ Category

by Dennis Polifroni

When one considers how frightening the prospects of 8 years of the Trump administation can be, with repeals of existing bills and advancements made during Obama’s time as Commander-in-Chief, it’s a wonder why more people watching television aren’t talking about the parallels of Hulu/MGM’s amazing mini-series adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s revered, dystopian novel, THE HANDMAIDS TALE, and Trump’s wannabe world-dominating regime?

Atwood’s novel has always rung slightly prophetic since it was first read by an audience in 1985. However, the authors imaginings of a world gone mad under the power of a totalitarian theocracy, and the resulting oppression of women, non-whites and homosexuals thereof, has always been kept at arms length under the guise of “speculative” fiction because, certainly, something like this would only happen in a distant future as populations swelled to hysterical proportions and government, as we know it, couldn’t handle the overflow.

Adapted into a pretty effective little film in 1990 (starring the late Natasha Richardson in the title role), Atwood’s themes, and the horrors she imagined, seemed to lose some of their potency in a time when prosperity loomed ahead of us in the guise of Bill Clinton and his smiling positivity. Simply put, audiences agreed something like Atwoods vision COULD come true, but NOT in America, and certainly not with a leader as likeable as Mr. Clinton.

Well, now, we in the States are no longer under the watchful eye of a likeable leader. Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama are gone from the White House and, now, this painstakingly faithful TV adaptation of Atwoods most celebrated and respected work is whalloping a wake-up call of a gut-punch on us with every brilliant and chilling episode.

What makes this mini-series so successful is the luxury of time. With ten one-hour episodes, Atwoods every description, character, situation and plot point gets the attention it deserves and a nightmare landscape is created before us. Like the novel, the enormity of the socio-political/religious extremism unfolds like a wilting rose. At first its a single, beautiful petal falling to the ground but, by the time the series truly hits its stride in the third, very stomach-knotting episode, the show takes on the guise of the entire flower gone ash black with decay. Frankly, and much of the shows success can be attributed to the watchful eye of head writer/series creator Bruce Miller, whose intent is to put EVERY word of Atwoods novel on the screen, I’ve rarely seen a novel-to-screen adaptation that is as concerned with creating its world as much as it is in espousing its message. In fact, its because of Miller’s meticulous eye for detail, particularly Atwood’s descriptive detail, that the world of this series is accepted by the viewer immediately and without question. There’s a sense of queasy realism in the suppositions and I can only guess that much of what is being splayed all over the papers since Trump and his thuggish cronies took the run for the big seat only inspired Miller to even greater heights of finite adaptation.

THE HANDMAIDS TALE is a chilling tale brought meticulously to life by all involved in the production. That, in and of itself, is rather chilling to comprehend.

Im sure Miller is proud of his accomplishment. I’m sure he’s thrilled with the high praise his sweat has brought him. I just wonder if his pleasure with the show is slightly tainted by the idea that what he’s portraying might be an inevitable result of stupidity and extremism that’s beginning to run rampant under the big orange orangutan sitting in the White House?


(2017 U.S.A. Hulu/DVD/Blu)

p. Bruce Miller, Warren Littlefield, Reed Morano, Daniel Wilson, Fran Sears, Ilene Chaiken, Margaret Atwood, Elisabeth Moss  developed. Bruce Miller  d. Reed Morano, Mike Barker, Floria Sigismondi, Kate Dennis, Kari Skogland.  w. Bruce Miller, Margaret Atwood, Leila Gerstein, Dorothy Fortenberry, Wendy Straker Hauser, Lynn Renee Maxcy, Kira Snyder, Eric Tuchman  based on the book by. Margaret Atwood  creative consult. Margaret Atwood  photo. Colin Watkinson   art. Julie Berghoff, Evan Webber, Sophie Neudorfer  m. Adam Taylor

Elisabeth Moss (June Osborne/Offred), Yvonne Strahovski (Serena Joy), Max Minghelka (Nick), Joseph Fiennes (Commander Fred Waterford), Anne Dowd (Aunt Lydia), Samira Wiley (Moira), Amanda Brugel (Rita), O. T. Fagbanele (Luke), Madeline Brewer (Janine/Offwarren) and Alexis Bledel (Emily/Offglen)



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by Benjamin Hufbauer

Note:  Professor Hufbauer’s essay was originally published in The Artifice in July of 2017.


The 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s were the golden age of Western movies and television shows in the United States. In 1960, for instance, there were more than half a dozen major Hollywood Westerns released in theaters, including The Magnificent Seven, starring Yul Brynner (who later did an ominous parody of this role in 1973’s Westworld, which today, remade, has become a major hit for HBO), The Alamo, directed by and starring John Wayne, Flaming Star, starring Elvis Presley, and The Unforgiven, starring Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn. There were also more than a dozen Westerns on television in 1960, including GunsmokeWagon TrainHave Gun-Will TravelMaverickRawhide, and Bonanza.

Why were there so many Westerns in this era? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself for decades, almost since I first started watching TV in the very late 1960s as a little California kid who was bewildered by the endless Westerns—and I almost always changed the channel when one came on. For many years I avoided Westerns, in part because they seemed politically right wing, and instead watched shows like Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. But over time I slowly realized that some Westerns are more complex than my youthful impressions led me to believe, and I’ve come to agree with George Lucas, who, influenced by Joseph Campbell, called Westerns an “American fairy tale, telling us about our values” 1.

TV Guide cover for May 4, 1963, featuring James Drury, Roberta Shore, and Lee J. Cobb of The Virginian.

The Virginian, broadcast on NBC from 1962 to 1971, was in many ways the peak of the classic television Western—and was the most politically sophisticated. CBS’s huge hit Gunsmoke, which premiered in 1955, inspired a deluge of TV Westerns in the following years. But Gunsmoke—like several other Westerns in the late 1950s and early 1960swas a low-budget, 30-minute, black-and-white show. In contrast, NBC promised in a press release at the launch of the The Virginian that it would be “the most ambitious and costly programming enterprise in network television history—one that will present television features with motion picture dimensions each week,” which would be “achieved not only by the ninety-minute length—which allows for full character development and expanded story-telling opportunities—but by color photography, location shooting, outstanding scripts and original musical scores” 2. And The Virginian came close to living up to this hype during its nine year-run of 249 episodes, each of which is like a little Western movie with continuing characters. (more…)

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By Suzanne Campbell

Every broadcasting program is a reflection of the times, the era, unto which it is born. From basic cable town hall meetings to the rich tapestry of period fantasy on premium pay, all capture an aspect, moment, or flavor of the day, interpreted by creative minds. Whether commenting upon the political climate, popular culture, new cinematic movement, or the newest geographical entry in destination art, television serves as a mirror. The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd (1987—1991; NBC/Lifetime) reflected all of these.

By the mid-1980s, women’s lib was celebrating its 20th anniversary. Shows such as Cagney and Lacey and Fame were setting the tone for drama. Tama Janowitz’s “Slaves of New York” was lighting up bookshelves (and movie screens a few years later). The films After HoursHannah and Her Sisters, and Desperately Seeking Susan were defining cinema—and careers—in twin cinemas nationwide. New York’s 1970s punk was dovetailing into 1980s new wave, disco had thankfully evolved into a new genre called Hip Hop and, for the first and only time in history, stand-up comedians became the new rock stars. While creating new genres and artistic avenues, New York never lost sight of its lineage. Danceteria housed the new dance movement but smoky blues and jazz were still found a few blocks away at the Blue Note. Manhattan wasn’t the concrete insane asylum it was in the previous decade. Tip to toe, art was pouring out in the five boroughs more voluminous than ever, setting the pace and tone for cultural touchstones across the country.

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by Adam Ferenz

This is going to be short. Most of the entries this time around will likely be shorter than the previous portion of the countdown. The sheer volume necessitates that, but also, if it worked for David Thomson and our own late, great Allan Fish, why not give brevity a whirl?

In Denmark, the government is seated in a single complex, known as Borgen. This series, conceived by writer Adam Price, ran for three seasons and thirty episodes, telling the story of the first female prime minister of Denmark. It tells a tale of backroom deals, compromises, infidelities-political and personal-as well as being entertaining, enlightening and never less than compelling. Several of the actors are recognizable from other roles, with Pilou having gone on to Vikings and now Game of Thrones, while Sigrid Babse Knudsen was last seen on Westworld.

The first season concerns the winning of an unexpected minor majority by a party that has never been in power, and the struggle to assume power by Knudsen’s Birgitte Nyborg Christensen, and her efforts to establish her party in a leadership role through a tense coalition government. The second season follows through on the character building and promises of this, with the third season following her, temporarily out of politics, re-entering the political arena and establishing a new party altogether, and the trials and tribulations involved in that, ending with her making a compromise that is true to her ethical standards, and which gains her the office of Minister of Foreign Affairs. (more…)

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TZ - Top Pic

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.



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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