January 23, 2019

My turn: my little list of classic TV programs

Groucho Marx as Ko-Ko in "The Mikado," Bell Telephone Hour, 1960
The task of filling up the blanks I'd rather leave to you. 
But it really doesn't matter whom you put upon the list, 
For they'd none of 'em be missed — they'd none of 'em be missed! 
(CHORUS)
You may put 'em on the list — you may put 'em on the list; 
And they'll none of 'em be missed — they'll none of 'em be missed!

- Groucho Marx (and others), The Mikado

You may recall that last Friday, I shared with you the results of the Classic TV Blog Association's list of the Top 25 Classic TV Programs of all time. (Classic being defined as anything which appeared in prime time and started before 1990.) It's generated comments, not only at our respective blogs, but in Twitter discussions as well. In passing along the list, I refrained from sharing my own thoughts, other than to say that some of my shows had made the final count, some had not. However, a number of you were quick to jump on this; you weren't going to let me get away so easy without putting my own choices on the line.

Fair enough, I thought; and then, like any writer, I figured I might as well get my money's worth, or at least get another post out of it. I really didn't plan this though, and I don't mean to make anything sound like second-guessing or criticizing. As I generally say, the fault in cases such as this is probably mine.

As many of you probably know, a list of my own Top 10 programs appears on the menu; but I could use this as a consideration only to a point. For one thing, some of the shows are post-1990 (so there! to any of you who think I only live in the past); for another, it's highly personal on my part—to the point, some of you might say, of eccentricity. I mean, no matter how much I might love The Alvin Show, I'm not going to put it on anyone else's list. Because of that, I threw out the rankings of the remaining shows altogether and decided to start from scratch.

A word on the methodology: each of us was first asked to submit a list of ten nominations, from which a list would be compiled. That would then be winnowed down in a final, ranked vote, to produce the final list of the top 25. As I mentioned, one proviso was that we could take the historical or artistic significance of programs into consideration; in other words, this wasn't necessarily a list of our favorite programs, but the programs we thought were the best. To this I'll add that I permitted a small conceit of my own, which was that I would not list a program that I didn't like. I was OK with voting for a show that wasn't a particular favorite, but I wouldn't compromise myself more than that. Well, I'm a TV historian, but I've never pretended to be completely objective.

Enough blabbering, I hear you saying—let's get on with this! And so we shall. I'll give you my lists first, followed by explanations where necessary. We'll start with my ten nominations; keep in mind that this is in no particular order:
  1. Naked City
  2. The Twilight Zone
  3. Perry Mason
  4. The Prisoner
  5. What’s My Line?
  6. The Fugitive
  7. SCTV
  8. Rocky & Bullwinkle
  9. Police Squad
  10. The Ed Sullivan Show
When the nominations had been whittled down, I submitted this as my final list, in order of preference:
  1. Perry Mason
  2. The Prisoner
  3. Doctor Who
  4. SCTV
  5. The Fugitive
  6. Dragnet
  7. The Twilight Zone
  8. The Ed Sullivan Show
  9. Alfred Hitchcock Presents
  10. The Defenders
For comparison, here are the top 10 of the list of 25 that the CTVA produced:
  1. The Twilight Zone
  2. I Love Lucy 
  3. The Mary Tyler Moore Show
  4. Columbo
  5. All in the Family
  6. Dragnet
  7. Monty Python’s Flying Circus
  8. Star Trek
  9. The Prisoner
  10. M*A*S*H
Having seen all these lists, I'm sure you have some questions:

I sure do. First of all, where's Lucy?

Fair enough. You remember how I said at the outset that I couldn't vote for a show that I didn't like? Well, at the risk of sacrificing any credibility as a TV historian, not only don't I love Lucy, I don't really like her. Not her, not the show. Something about her just grates on me, and it always has. But I don't begrudge people who do; this isn't a case of someone voting for, say, My Mother the Car as the greatest show ever. That one you'd have to defend, but not Lucy. Besides, I knew she'd be on the list anyway whether I voted for her or not.

Well, that's not a good reason, but at least it's a reason. But why don't you like The Twilight Zone? Have you got something against science fiction?

No! I've got it right there, at #7. As a matter of fact, I've also got Doctor Who on my list, as well as The Prisioner (but we'll talk about that later). At it's best, TZ is unquestionably one of the greatest. If we were to limit it to the show's first three seasons, I might have put it at #1 myself. But see, that's the thing. Rod Serling could be poetic, incisive, literate—even at his worst, he's most of those things. But he can also be didactic, strident, and lazy. Some of his scripts beat you over the head, again and again, to make a point. As I mentioned in my Top 10 review of TZ, "Those stories are painful enough when first viewed; they become almost impossible to watch again, and when you run into enough episodes like that, it can make it very difficult to enjoy and appreciate a series." The first couple of times through the series, I wasn't familiar enough with each episode to recognize the ones I liked as opposed to the ones I didn't like, so it was a voyage of discovery. Now, though, when I can pick and choose which ones to watch, I find that I'm skipping too many of them to make it #1 on a list of mine. Put another way: this is a series I liked a lot more when I was younger than I do today.

How do you justify Perry Mason as #1 on your list?

Well, that's a case where I've indulged my prerogative to combine "excellence" with "entertainment." Was Perry Mason great art? I don't know that I'd go that far, although I think it does say quite a bit about the American jurisprudence system, not to mention the integrity required from an officer of the law (I go into this more in The Electronic Mirror). As I've mentioned in the past, it's a series that takes quite seriously the concept of the single-combat warrior. But besides that, it's fun—even though I own the DVD set, I still watch the MeTV runs of the show whenever I don't have to get up early the next day. Unlike Twilight Zone, I don't get tired of them after repeated viewings.

Any shows you think were overlooked?

I think The Fugitive ought to have been in the top 10. It's perhaps the best-written drama series that's ever been on television, and David Janssen delivers one of the most compelling performances TV has ever seen. Not to mention the idea of the nation's most-famous convicted murderer becoming the nation's #1 most-wanted criminal. The Fugitive invented a whole genre of television.

I can't believe that Naked City didn't even make the final list, let alone the top 10. It's also one of the best-written programs ever, and it gives us a noble presentation of what a policeman's job really is, a reminder that they truly are public servants. (I suspect that were they real, they'd be appalled by how today's detectives look at the public with contempt.) At its best, which is often, it touches on existential questions that TV has rarely done, then or now.

And Rocky & Bullwinkle (or whichever title you prefer)—well, it's perhaps the most brilliant satire we've ever seen on TV (and that includes SCTV). The way cartoon characters are used to say things that humans could never get away with is pure genius.

Speaking of SCTV, that should have been in the top 10 as well. I can't tell you how many times I look at shows from the 1980s on, on those YouTube channels that show you the opening credits from programs of the past, and find myself wondering if this is real, or SCTV.

I nominated The Ed Sullivan Show not because Ed was a great talent, because he wasn't. He did have an eye for talent, though, or at least was willing to take a chance on something that he believed his audience might like. If you want a cross-section of America at any given time, just look at the guest lists on Sullivan.

What programs made the list that you really want to rip?

Steady, now. As I said, I'm not questioning anything here. None of the shows were, I thought, indefensible, but under the category of programs that I don't like, in addition to Lucy I'd have to add M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, and All in the Family. If I'm being honest, they ought to be on a list, although maybe not as high as they are here. But M*A*S*H is too dated and way too sanctimonious for me, and as far as All in the Family is concerned, if I want to see people screaming at each other, I'll watch Fox News. I should add that I have nothing against MTM; after all, she did bring Minneapolis into the big time. I'm just not that high on sitcoms per se, and of those that do work for me, I'm a much bigger fan of Hogan's Heroes or Police Squad!

Any do-overs that you'd like?

Well, I do like Columbo; I just didn't have the room. Same thing with Python, which is almost as absurd as SCTV. And as several people mentioned on Twitter, there should have been at least one Western on the list somewhere. Maverick came up several times, as did Gunsmoke, and I think either one of them would have been at home on the list—probably Gunsmoke, if I were to choose again. There probably ought to be a private detective series on there as well, at least if we're talking about television history. The Rockford Files, for example, can look dated because of the clothes and hair, but Jim Garner's performance is never dated.

I think lists like this are fun, and as I mentioned last week, I'd still take this list over those that are produced by "experts" that think any show that was on more than 10 minutes ago is passĂ©. So now it's your turn to go after me—but please be gentle. TV  

5 comments:

  1. I found this very interesting reading, and obviously all of our lists would not be pleasing to everyone. I can see the appeal of "What's My Line?"and "Rocky and Bullwinkle"; the only head-scratcher for me is "Police Squad!" because there were so few episodes, and because the entire concept was an adaptation of something that had already been created for the big screen. But I'm definitely with you on "All in the Family!"

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  2. I had to leave some favorites off my list, since I was really trying to stick with the "most enduring classics" criteria.

    I will say that William Frawley's brilliant performance as Fred Mertz is reason enough to list LUCY. That said, while LUCY itself is probably more enduring on our TV's than any other show of its era (though I think, say, BILKO is a better show), it's never been rebooted. Look at how often other classics like PERRY MASON, MAVERICK, DALLAS have had reunions or out and out reboots---one of my criteria for 'enduring'.

    POLICE SQUAD! has certainly endured, spawning three box office hits afterward.

    Even though critics hated both, GILLIGAN'S ISLAND and THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES were glaring omissions IMO. Talk about enduring. And I would have nominated THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW, F TROOP, THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES and HIGH CHAPARRAL for the original list had I gotten my nominations in on time.

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  3. more:

    I'm with you on M*A*S*H, though I think the first three seasons with Rogers and Stevenson are really funny. After that too much preaching for my taste. ALL IN THE FAMILY hasn't aged well for me either, though Carroll O'Connor's acting remains remarkable. (I actually find his later series IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT far more watchable these days.)

    I had THE PRISONER on my top 10. A very talented man both behind and in front of the camera delivering his best work. SCTV was still producing excellent sketches up to the end on Cinemax.

    Couldn't go wrong with your list either Mitchell!

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  4. About this list:
    I'm not making one.
    The whole thing is actually kind of silly, really …

    That said, I'd like to take this opportunity to mention a couple of things that you might have missed:

    - I see by The Obit Patrol that James Frawley passed on a few days ago.
    James Frawley was possibly the greatest TV director that you never heard of.
    His career goes back to the mid-'60s, when he started transitioning from character acting.
    Right out of the gate, he gained notice for directing many early episodes of The Monkees - one of which won him an Emmy award.
    At the same time, Frawley also did some episodes of That Girl, showing that he didn't play favorites.
    For a few years, Frawley went back and forth between TV and low-budget movies; His biggest pictures were The Big Bus (the best disaster movie parody until the Zuckers came along), and ultimately The Muppet Movie (the first, and arguably the best, of the Jim Henson pictures).
    Jim Frawley spent most of his career in TV, as director and producer; way too many credits to list here - see IMDb for details.
    Probably Jim Frawley's major TV accomplishment was directing six episodes of Columbo - he was the second most frequent director on that show (only Vince McEveety did more).
    Peter Falk was notorious as a director-killer, so Frawley must have done something right.
    Jim Frawley kept working as a director right through about 2009, when he retired (Grey's Anatomy was his last credit).
    He was 83 at his passing.
    Just thought you ought to know …

    - On a lighter note:
    Today's mail brought my copy of The Case Of The Saggy Stalker by Peter S. Fischer - the latest volume of his Hollywood Murder Mystery series
    This is Number 20 of the series - and he'll have another one out before too much longer (Warner's Last Stand will be # 21).
    The book business being what it is, Fischer has to self-publish.
    That's not as bad as it once was, but it's still problematic:
    My copy doesn't have a title page or a copyright page; things like that can happen when you're a total indie.
    I hope that Pete Fischer's POD people get it straightened out by #21.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say howdy-do - you know, in the absence of one of those dumb lists …

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  5. SCTV definitely...most of America probably never got to see it except in reruns, but it had a great enough impact to make US top ten lists.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!