Top Five Television Shows of All Time - Brian Overland

Top Five Television Shows of All Time

4 October 2013, Comments: 0

This is my personal list and does not include everyone's favorites, obviously. But I provide my reasons for each inclusion and invite you to comment. Here they are, in reverse order….

5. Seinfeld (1989-1998)

seinfeld"I'm Kramer!"

This is by far the best situation comedy (sit-com) ever. Although it started out as only a slightly-better-than-average show, by the second or third season the writers began to pen scripts that contained three or four different plots, all of which ingeniously interacted and dovetailed by the end.

It helped that the writers of this show refused to do what nearly every other sitcom does: recycle tired, overused sit-com plots that had been around for decades…  although Seinfeld wasn't above putting in sly allusions to the play Cyrano de Bergerac, for example. Instead, this show's writers continually turned out fresh stories by using whatever was in the zeitgeist of the day. One plot strand — to point to one out of hundreds — made fun of "yadda, yadda, yadda" as a way of omitting tiresome or embarrassing details… while another plot strand dealt with jokes about dentists supposedly being sadists. No topic was too high or too low to escape the scrutiny of Seinfeld's writers. Seinfeld was always at the crest of the pop-cultural wave, tackling topics before everyone else did. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

It also helped that there were four regular characters — based loosely on Jerry Seinfeld's actual life — who were flawed yet lovable, and constantly scheming to get whatever they wanted. The only person who seemed "normal" was Jerry himself, who found his niche as the ultimate straight man. In the others… George, Kramer, Elaine… we can recognize our own scrambling, rationalization, and self-deception. (It wasn't really a show about nothing, although in its humility it pretended to be.) In the final analysis, the supporting characters were as normal as Jerry, who had flaws of his own. By making us laugh at ourselves and others, Seinfeld redefined what it meant to be normal.

4. Northern Exposure (1990-1995)

northern exposure"Give that old Dark Night of the Soul a hug, and howl the eternal Yes!"

— Chris the DJ

This is a personal favorite, in part because it was filmed in my backyard (the State of Washington) and in part because my brother Colin was an extra in the very first scene in the pilot episode. Although never at the very top of the ratings chart, Northern Exposure nonetheless did well enough to finish out five or six strong seasons, petering out only after the star, Rob Morrow, left the show.

It's a fish-out-of-water story set in Alaska, in which a young, New-York trained doctor has been tricked into doing five years of residency in an obscure little town populated by Native Americans and eccentrics. The young doctor (Morrow), whose name is Joel, is highly intelligent but has all the strengths of Western Culture and scientific method as well as its drawbacks… too materialistic, too pragmatic, too impatient with ambiguity, and too literal. The series as a whole gives Joel a strong character arc in which he gradually learns from the Native Americans and eccentrics that there's a broader, more holistic approach to life. Western Culture and science have much to offer, but maybe they have something to learn as well.

Improbably, interesting people from around the world would frequently show up in this little town on the way to somewhere else. There was even a flashback episode, telling of the town's past history in which Lenin and the lost Russian princess Anastasia show up to sign an agreement that would have changed history. Other episodes bordered on science fiction, as Indian spirits walked around — visible only to Ed, the young Native American — and a group of circus performers (from Cirque De Soliel) showed up, including a "flying man" who apparently defied the laws of physics.

As off-beat as this was, it worked. Northern Exposure was the only network show in history that fully did justice to Native-American and non-Western cultures, letting them clash with modern values on a weekly basis but always finding a kind, warm-hearted reconciliation. Shakespeare got his due, but so did Zen Buddhism and nature worship. Presiding over it all was Chris the DJ (John Corbett) who participated fully in the series while also serving as its one-man Greek chorus in his daily radio broadcasts. The last time I drove out to the town used for exterior shots — Rosalyn, Washington — I saw that Chris's broadcasting booth, the fictional KBEAR, had been lovingly maintained. Perhaps it's still there.

3. Breaking Bad (2008-2013)

BB -- remember"I am not in danger… I AM the danger!"

— Walter White ("Heisenberg")

In my recent piece on Breaking Bad, I lay out the reasons why this show broke into my top five. It took me several seasons to fully warm up to it. But the astonishing quality of writing, above all, won me over.

The premise sounds off-putting, almost as negative as Hamlet (if you try to summarize the plot it sounds awful) or Sweeney Todd. The latter is a story about a barber who cuts the throats of his patrons (talk about a close shave!) so that the neighbor lady can bake them into meat pies. That doesn't sound enticing either. 

Breaking Bad is as gruesome as these other two dark masterpieces, and it shares much in common with MacBeth: it's about a good man turned bad, in this case, a brilliant chemistry teacher who goes into the business of making crystal methamphetamine after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. What made it great was that in one episode after another, the main character faces impossible situations but always manages to think his way out — outsmarting each rival in turn — through twists and turns that are ingenious and always believable.

It helped that the main character was played by Bryan Cranston, who has the distinction of appearing on another top-five show, Seinfeld, in a recurring role as Whatley, the dentist.

2. The Prisoner (1967-1968)

prisoner 1"I am not a number. I am a free man!"

— Number Six

In the late 1960s, this show — part science fiction, part political-social allegory — had what was then the highest budget in television. That budget would be considered small today.

Yet the show's producers were able to do miracles with that budget. Consider, for example, the use of "Rover," a large bouncing ball (actually a weather balloon) that chased down would-be escapees and dragged them back. It was relatively cheap but proved to be far more sinister and ominous than any expensive robotic device could have been.

Set in the Welsh resort of Portmeirion (famous in it own right), the show was about "the Village," a place where secret agents and others were sent  because (1) they attempted to retire, and (2) they knew too much to be allowed to go free. Once you were there, the sinister people who ran the Village would take away your name and assign you a number. It felt eerily like George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four with its oppressive Big Brother theme. But unlike Orwell's classic, the fight between the hero and the rulers was not nearly so one-sided. It was never entirely clear whether "Number Six" escaped (that can be argued about endlessly), but there were certainly episodes where he shook things up.

The Prisoner had a strong Cold War orientation; everyone was always asking "Whom are you really working for? Us or Them?" And yet so much of the show is relevant today. People in the Village could never have a conversation without the strong suspicion that someone was listening in and recording everything. Sound familiar? The Cold War themes were strongest in the early episodes. But by the end of its 17-show run, The Prisoner had to be accepted as allegory to make sense. The fundamental question was: how can an individual conform enough to live in society — which, the series conceded, a person had to do — yet maintain his or her integrity and his soul?

The show benefitted from the stamp of one man, Patrick McGoohan, who was star, producer, creator, and who sometimes wrote and directed. McGoohan created a frightening, cold dysutopia, but he found ways to enliven it. As an actor, he displayed charm, charisma, and intelligence. Although, as "Number Six," his charcacter rarely trusted anyone, he employed his cynicism with dry wit, wicked sharp humor, and… (on occasion)… a trace of honest human warmth. McGoohan worked himself to death and never made a dime apart from his salary. Yet this one-of-a-kind show lives on as his legacy.

1. Star Trek, the Original Series (1966-1968)

kirk"Highly illogical!"

— Mr. Spock

Okay, this entry is bound to be controversial. Either you love the show — all about the future exploration of the galaxy — or think that it was overwrought, overwritten, and overacted. The criticisms of are valid, but let's give Star Trek its due. 

To begin with: Although some of the episodes had science premises that were terrible, many of the others used science facts so intelligently that this series is possibly the best "hard science" show ever (among dramatic series, that is). Recall the competition of the time: talking vegetable people in Lost in Space and giant octopi in Voyage to the Bottom of the SeaStar Trek was light-years ahead of its time. For example, one episode featured a silicon-based life form, which makes a sense when you consult the periodic table. Another episode had Captain Kirk assembling carbon and sulfur to make primitive gun powder, which again is good science.

But the show was far more than that. Although set in the 23rd century, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) was the ultimate spokesman for all that was best in 1960s idealism. His values were constantly tested, for in some episodes he represented the arrogance of the West. Kirk would force people to be free even when they didn't want or didn't need his interference. At least sometimes, he was proven wrong. It wasn't hard to see parallels to things like the Vietnam War. In the brilliant episode "Errand of Mercy," the supposedly primitive inhabits of a planet turn out to be vastly superior aliens in disguise (which explains why these beings, at least, speak perfect English). These beings value peace and non-violence above all things and in any case don't need Kirk's help.

spockFortunately, Kirk was aided by Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy). Spock's Vulcan philosophy was a marriage of scientific method, raised almost to a religion, with an almost Buddhist approach to life. Vulcans do not eat meat; nor, if there is a logical alternative, do they resort to violence. Mixed with this was a Stoic philosophy. All these elements combined beautifully. People GOT Spock in the late 1960s, as they do today. In a world of war, riots, and strife arising out of high emotions and irrationality, Spock was the antidote. If people were more logical, Spock might say, who would ever fly planes into buildings? And what problem in the world today could not be solved? Greed, anger, vengeance, superstition… all these would disappear if only humans were more like Mr. Spock.

I'm not including the spinoffs on this list because although each had good episodes, the average quality does not hold up. But with the original series, even the most rock-bottom of the worst episodes had some moments of greatness. Take, for example, the episode "Requiem for Methuselah," a good premise gone bad. Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy beam down to a planet inhabited by Flint, a human who (through pure genetic fluke) could never age and die. Thanks to his centuries of experience, he acquired great knowledge and became many great men: Brahms, da Vinci, Alexander. Yet he needed an eternally-young mate, so he tried to create the perfect female android to be his companion.

All this is good, but it becomes stupid when… yes, you guessed it… Kirk falls in love with the android. The "Kirk in love" device was overdone — and it was done here with embarrassing results. At one point Spock tries to be helpful, but Kirk, as he's wrestling with Flint, yells out: "Mind your own business, Mr. Spock! Can't you see we're fighting over a woman?" Ugh. Gag me.

And yet, the ending of this episode was so surpassingly good it redeemed the entire thing, giving one us one of the most memorable scenes ever on television. Kirk is in his cabin, mourning the death of the android, Rayna. Spock shows up, not entirely understanding Kirk's pain. (Of course not, Spock is too logical.) Dr. McCoy gives him a brilliant lecture, beautifully written and delivered, on the joys and agonies of romantic love. Then McCoy leaves, and Spock walks over to Kirk, gently puts his hand on his captain's forehead, and says ever so softly, "Forget." You can see that remarkable scene right here:

This scene says so much. Kirk and Spock were more than just captain and first officer, more than just spacemen, more even than spokesmen for the best of liberal 1960s ideology. The usually cold-and-mechanical Mr. Spock realized that Captain Kirk was, above all, his friend. Star Trek taught us what friendship was… and that the deepest friendship could exist even between human and alien.

And so I say: Beam us up, Scotty!!

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