The Ten Greatest Television Series of All-Time

Okay, “The Twelve Greatest” because it’s early and I can’t make up my mind, but I am never, ever wrong about these things.

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It is 3:56 AM as I set to write this. My usual web surfing and coffee time, before work begins in proper. I figured, though, that I’d play a bit in the new year. I’ll try to shuffle, and change my morning routine.

Hence another of my dreaded lists, because at this hour I have nothing better to do (well, I do, actually, but I’d rather not yet).

And so here we go, in descending numerical order:

10. Breaking Bad

A desperate, cancer-ridden chemistry teacher (Bryan Cranston) turns his RV into a meth lab to ensure his family’s financial solvency upon his passing. The sympathetic drug manufacturer enlists a former student for his sales, causing everyone around them to become embroiled in their turmoil. A simple plot…but what a plot! Cranston’s Walter White is a sympathetic character who pushes himself to the limit for his family, while challenging our perceptions of how far we should go for the ones we love. Outstanding performances and impeccable writing have made Breaking Bad one of the most binge-worthy programs ever.

9. I Love Lucy

What more needs to be said, really? Lucy and Desi were television pioneers with the golden touch. One can only wonder what would have been if the real-life couple had stayed together.

8. The Honeymooners

See my comment for #9? The same applies here. Jackie Gleason and Art Carney were lovable schlubs who would do anything for their wives, and each other, despite some of the classic television outbursts ever. Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton were a legendary duo, while their women, Alice (Audrey Meadows) and Trixie (Joyce Randolph), week after week showed them both who really was the head of their respective households. These wives took no gruff, and their men loved them all the more for it. The series listed here represents what is known as the “Classic 39,” being the number of episodes that aired as a 30-minute sitcom on CBS for less than a year beginning in 1955. The series spawned from short sketches on the DuMont Television Network’s Cavalcade of Stars, and from there on The Jackie Gleason Show. The 1970s reunion shows followed the ’55–56 CBS series. The various television iterations of The Honeymooners (we’re not counting the 2005 feature film debacle) all featured Gleason and Carney, with various surrounding cast changes. (And yes, the creators of The Flintstones have credited that classic cartoon series to the above inspiration.)

7. The Six Million Dollar Man

If you were a boy in the 1970s, and you did not want to be Colonel Steve Austin growing up…there was something wrong with you. He was an astronaut. He wore the best leisure suits. Jaime Sommers (The Bionic Woman) loved him. He had super strength. He was The Man. This was one of the most addictive shows in television history, soon to be remade (ugh) as The Six Billion Dollar Man with Mark Wahlberg.

6. Mr. Robot/Game of Thrones (Tie)

With the passage of time and cementing of legacy, the former may well be tied as my all-time favorite television weekly. Creator Sam Esmail’s series continues to smash all the rules of basic cable (neither the “F-bomb” nor boundary-pushing televised sex is off-limits on today’s USA Network), while remaining a haven for intellectual water-cooler conversation. A depressed hacker (Rami Malik) is recruited by an anarchist (Christian Slater) to join “Fsociety,” a hacktivist group who aims to destroy all of the world’s debt records. If you haven’t seen it, trust me. You’ll be addicted. Regarding Game of Thrones, remaining true to author George R.R. Martin’s source material has paid off with both the fanbase, and the critics. HBO revolutionized both television viewing and the world of feature films with this one. Simply, the show continues to prove that content creators within the film business need to work that much harder, as there is nothing that television cannot do any longer.

5. All in the Family/Seasons 1–4 of Saturday Night Live

Another tie. All in the Family, along with Taxi, remains (to me, OK?) the most well-written and well-acted sitcom in history. Archie Bunker was a lovable bigot. His wife, Edith, had the world’s biggest heart and she loved him like no other. Upon her death, Archie’s humanity shone. Sally Struthers and Rob Reiner rounded the cast as Gloria (Archie and Edith’s daughter) and Michael Stivic (Gloria’s husband). Every social issue of the day was tackled, from the Vietnam war to racism. The show was not politically correct, and up until the last five or so years may have been impossible to produce in recent times due to its risky nature. Regarding the first four seasons of SNL, the original “Not Ready for Prime Time Players,” including Chevy Chase (and, following Chase’s departure, Bill Murray), Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Garrett Morris, and Lorraine Newman revolutionized television. Period. Look it up. Go and watch YouTube or something.

4. The Twilight Zone

The equivalent of a weekly fever dream. Rod Serling hosted what was simply the most consistent weekly science fiction and fantasy anthology yet produced. The quality of the writing, by some of the greatest genre writers extant, remains unsurpassed.

3. Star Trek (The Original Series)

Produced by Desilu (thank you, Lucy and Desi), Gene Roddenberry’s Wagon Train to the Stars has spawned…everything. Multiple series, merchandise, conventions. Star Trek is about optimism. In any iteration, this brand will continue to confront modern-day issues within some magnificent entertainment.

2. Taxi

My favorite sitcom until my dying day (not to be optimistic or anything). The cast of cabbies, from Judd Hirsch’s Alex Reiger, to Danny DeVito’s Louie De Palma, Marilu Henner’s Elaine Nardo, and Christopher Lloyd’s Reverend Jim Ignatowski…Tony Danza’s Tony Banta, Jeff Conaway’s Bobby Wheeler, and Andy Kaufman’s Latka Gravis…again, if you don’t know, YouTube beckons. Utter brilliance, all around.

Which leads us to…

1. Wiseguy

From its first airing in 1987, I was riveted. What magnificent writing! I once told the late Stephen J. Cannell, the show’s creator, that Wiseguy inspired me as a writer. Suddenly, the moral struggles of Vince Terranova (Ken Wahl), an undercover agent of the OCB (Organized Crime Bureau) who went far too deep into east coast mob wars was, to me, the greatest thing ever. In the earliest episodes, Atlantic City mob leader Sonny Steelgrave (Ray Sharkey) veritably became Vinnie’s brother. They loved one another; when Sonny killed himself, Vinnie felt the pain. He had lost family, and also lost sight that he had done his job. The moral complexities in this one were intense. The acting was more than convincing. The famed “arc” structure of the show, whereby a single story ran over several episodes, allowed for character explorations that were rare in television up to that time. This was a truly historic effort, and a more historic result. Continued kudos, all around.

So there you go. Argue away —

Oh wait, one more thing:

Honorable Mentions: Fame (so sue me), The Larry Sanders Show, Welcome Back, Kotter.

We can argue about those as well. Enjoy your day…

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