Archive for the ‘Top 80 Greatest Television Shows’ Category

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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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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by Adam Ferenz

One of the great achievements in German television-others include Heimat and Our Hitler-this work is arguably the best of writer/director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s rich career.  This long series-are German series ever anything but long?-is nevertheless one of the most engaging works in filmed history.  Concerning the release and failure to assimilate back into society, of a convicted killer-the man, a pimp who killed his wife-finds himself struggling to keep himself straight in the era of late-Weimar Germany, the series covers many themes: regret, disappointment, rage, hatred, love and deception are but a few aspects contained within its fourteen chapters.

This is also a brutal series, containing murder, rape, physical and emotional degradation as well as social, economic and psychological brutality, all in intimate detail. Gunter Lamprecht delivers one of television’s best performances in the lead role of the released convict. Gottfried John is chilling as the man he considers his best friend, who, aside from himself, turns out to be his worst enemy. The women are many and each extraordinary, but they are almost secondary, because this is a very masculine story.

This is about the ties that men think bind them, and how the life we live is illusory. When the pimp Franz Biberkopf is released from prison, after four years for killing his lover cum worker, he enters a world that has changed considerably. The year is 1928. Franz finds himself unable to keep a job. He drifts through his life, becoming associated with and then drifting from, a Nazi newspaper, before falling in with a circle of robbers, one of whom, Reinhold, will prove to be a major undoing in his life. (more…)

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by Dennis Polifroni

If one were to think of television’s classic sitcoms as a series of bricks being laid to build a house, then the history of the sitcom can be broken down into three stages of construction.



The sitcoms of late 40’s and the whole of the 1950’s would be seen as the FOUNDATION.  These shows, coming to the new medium without rules for creation and production, walking blindly into the abyss, learning from mistakes and embracing what worked, created what many in the profession call “Standards”. Shows like I LOVE LUCY, SGT BILKO and THE HONEYMOONERS experimented, and made standard, the concepts of things like the three-camera set-up (so as not to miss any of the action should a camera konk out, and to offer the editor different angles to choose from for any scene), dramatic editing (often resorting to close-ups to gauge the reaction of a punch-line on the faces of the cast), and three-act stories that quickly set up the joke in the first, executed it in the second, and reflected on the punch-line  in the third and final.



The sitcoms of this period added gloss, and also realism, to the set-standards.  Here, in this period of only ten years, American and British television, learning from the lessons of the FOUNDATION period, tightened the material so it wasn’t as free-wheeling, sloppy and, as often the case in the 50’s, ad-libbed.  Gone was the shaky ground that the likes of Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball and Phil Silvers often had to navigate to keep the audience from realizing that there was a problem with a line of writing or that a technical screw-up was occurring as filming took place.  Emphasis on an episode’s continuity, keeping a smooth flow to the ideas that were being splayed across the screen, was also of key importance in this period and informed all television that followed in its wake.


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by Allan Fish

(UK 1981 640m) DVD1/2

Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas

p  Derek Granger  d  Charles Sturridge, Michael Lindsay-Hogg  w  John Mortimer  novel  Evelyn Waugh  ph  various  ed  Anthony Ham  m  Geoffrey Burgon  art  Peter Phillips

Jeremy Irons (Charles Ryder), Anthony Andrews (Sebastian Flyte), Diana Quick (Julia Flyte-Mottram), Laurence Olivier (Lord Alex Marchmain), Claire Bloom (Lady Teresa Marchmain), Stéphane Audran (Cara), John Gielgud (Edward Ryder), Phoebe Nicholls (Cordelia Flyte), Simon Jones (Bridey Flyte), Nickolas Grace (Anthony Blanche), Jane Asher (Celia Mulcaster-Ryder), John Grillo (Mr Samgrass), Mona Washbourne (Nanny Hawkins), Bill Owen (Lunt), Charles Keating (Rex Mottram), Jenny Runacre (Brenda Champion), John le Mesurier (Father Mowbray), Stephen Moore (Jasper Ryder), Michael Gough (Dr Grant), Kenneth Cranham (Sgt.Block), Jeremy Sinden (Boy Mulcaster),

It’s difficult now, over 25 years on, to judge the impact of Brideshead on not just British television, but prestige drama in general.  It had long been, as Leslie Halliwell observed, an albatross round the neck of Granada, described as an incredible folly in the long months leading up to its transmission.  The strain of classic TV drama serials had reached both its zenith and its end in the mid seventies with Jennie, Edward the Seventh and I, Claudius.  Yet however superb in terms of their acting and writing those productions may be, there’s nothing cinematic about them.  They look like BBC Shakespeare productions or series shot on left over sets from Upstairs, Downstairs.  Brideshead changed everyone’s conceptions; virtually entirely shot on location, punctiliously adapted from the original source to the extent that any faults it may have had were those of the original.  As with Jesus of Nazareth, two lead actors had changed roles (then Robert Powell and Ian McShane, here Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons), and thank God they did.  For it is no more imaginable that anyone other than Andrews could play the faintly homosexual, hard-drinking and doomed Sebastian than it is for any other tones than Jeremy Irons could provide the soulful commentary provided by Charles Ryder.  Here were actors to their parts born, perfect in every way.  It is a great credit to the other cast members that they don’t get lost, but there are gems everywhere, from Grace’s definitive old queen Anthony Blanche to Bloom’s suffocating Lady Marchmain, Queen Henrietta Maria reincarnated in the 20th century.  Not to forget one time Arthur Dent Simon Jones as the blissfully boring Bridey, John Gielgud as a deliciously supercilious and witty Mr Ryder and Diana Quick as the tortured Julia.  And we haven’t even mentioned Geoffrey Burgon’s truly hauntingly fitting score, at once a theme tune for stately houses nationwide.  (more…)

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by Stephen Mullen

(I’m sorry this is going to look like a homework assignment – but this is a show that feels a bit like a homework assignment, a textbook at least. That isn’t a bad thing, of course – it’s meant to be informative as well as moving and entertaining, and it is, all of those things.)

What is it?

A historical documentary about the American Civil War, broadcast on PBS in 1990, and a huge success. (Largest ever audience for PBS, apparently.) It made Ken Burns a household name, and elevated Shelby Foote, in particular, to new levels of fame. There are 9 episodes, about 10 hours altogether, with around two hours devoted to each year of the war, with an hour for the build up and an hour of aftermath. It is straightforward history, using primary sources (period photographs and texts by contemporaries) to provide the base for narration and commentary. It digs into the primary sources – Burns’ method of showing photographs, panning and zooming around the photo, to pick out details, became iconic, and has entered the language (thanks to photo and video editing software). Texts are read, with similar attention and care, by actors, many well known (Jason Robards Jr., Sam Waterston, Morgan Freeman, etc). The show was very effective as well as popular, and for a while, seemed to be the definitive historical documentary. That, I am sorry to say, isn’t quite the case anymore – I will return to that a little later.

How is it as History?

It is quite good. It is essentially an introductory overview of the Civil War; it would make a good textbook in a basic history class. It is, to start, actual history – primary sources and commentary; everything is rooted in those sources, and in analysis by people who root their work in primary sources. It’s clear about what is sourced and what is not, and what the sources are, as clear as a television show is going to be. It is a good introduction to the war – it tells what happened, it explains it well, it covers a wide range of experiences of the war. That is important. It is not strictly military or political history: it works in the home front, the day to day lives of solders, technology (of war, medicine, communication, and so on), it covers the role and place of women in the war, it attends to the experiences, attitudes and actions of blacks – slaves, ex-slaves, and free blacks. It is quite good at conveying the lived experience of all these people, on both sides of the war. It is an introduction – if you want details on the technology of killing, or the state of medicine, or the political machinations north and south and overseas, or details about campaigns and battles and strategy and tactics, you will have to go elsewhere – though often, you can go directly to the writers and books being discussed. You can do worse than go to the sources the show presents – read Frederick Douglass or Abraham Lincoln or Mary Chestnut or Grant’s Memoirs. And there is certainly an abundant literature dealing with the Civil War. (more…)

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