Just as important to me as the films that I love, are the TV shows. They are the ones that survive the test of time, and they are the ones I will watch over and over again. What are your favorites?
The Honeymooners (1955 – 1956) This is the first TV show that I can remember watching. I’ve seen it mostly in reruns, yet it only improves with age. How many actors are willing to undergo such abject humiliation, as Jackie Gleason did on a regular basis, to give his audience a laugh? He was always the butt of the jokes – and a big one, at that. My favorite line was Ralph talking about his latest get-rich-quick scheme “Alice, this is the biggest thing I ever got into.” To which Alice replies in deadpan “The biggest thing you ever got into, Ralph, is your pants.”
The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964) Rod Serling conceived this show because his scripts were so frequently rewritten and censored by the network and its sponsors when he wrote for Playhouse 90. He figured that with The Twilight Zone, he could get away with pointed social commentary because it was disguised within a sci-fi or fantasy context. It worked – Serling got to write exactly what he wanted, and we were all the beneficiaries. When I was in grade school, I devoured a paperback book with novelized versions of the TV episodes of the show. On the back cover was a picture of Serling, a smug look on his face (as usual), casually leaning on his typewriter with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other. “That” I thought, “is what I want to do for a living!”
Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1962 – 1965) This was the show my parents wouldn’t let me stay up to watch. Sunday nights at 8:30, right after Ed Sullivan. I always snuck into the living room to watch as much as I could before I was thrown out. The creepy Funeral March of the Marionettes theme song followed by Hitch’s ironic intros and outros to stories that literally got under your skin. One episode I distinctly remember is about a suicidal guy who didn’t have the courage to kill himself, who goes to a suicide camp, and signs a contract for others to do him in when he least expects it. But then, he falls in love, and finds a reason to live… I don’t have to tell you the ending. Hitch never gave us “happily ever after.” But we loved being unnerved by someone who was such a master at it.
The Outer Limits (1963 – 1965) Another show that I wasn’t allowed to watch – “It’s too scary. It will give you bad dreams.” Well, my mother was right. And it’s been giving many of us bad dreams ever since. The Control Voice who took over your TV set along with the vertical and horizontal still has the power to spellbind. My favorite episode was one where scientist Robert Culp draws the short straw and undergoes a physical transformation into a creepy alien in order to bring the world powers together against a common enemy invader. He took a bullet for saving his planet, but not before he communicated the story of his sacrifice to his loving wife. BTW, the 1990s version of this show, produced, in part, by my Stargate boss Brad Wright, was a worthy successor.
Star Trek (1966 – 1969) What can I say about Gene Roddenberry’s landmark series that hasn’t already been said, except the personal? When I was a teenager I would babysit my brother’s infant son, while simultaneously answering the telephone and radio dispatching cabs for his taxi business for 75 cents an hour so I could watch Star Trek in color. What made Star Trek so enduring, beyond the phasers and photon torpedoes, was that Gene Roddenberry insisted that each episode "be about something," even while the networks demanded each episode have a fist-fight. Star Trek tackled issues of race, ethics, friendship, duty, aging, values, war, peace and even flower children (OK, not one of the strongest moments). Biggest personal connection – I directed Jimmy “Scotty” Doohan in a corporate industrial I wrote for a client in the music industry in the late ‘90s. What a great guy he was! So glad I got to know him.
The Invaders (1967 – 1968) “The Invaders: alien beings from a dying planet. Their destination: the Earth. Their purpose: to make it their world. Architect David Vincent has seen them and knows their purpose. Somehow, he must convince a disbelieving world that the nightmare has already begun.” A great series, and a concept that, even though it was a metaphor for the fear of Communist infiltration in the USA, holds up very well today. A smart network exec could make another series out of this today and it would be a hit.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969 – 1974) John Cleese, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam formed the brain trust of this comedy troupe who gave us incredibly imaginative as well as downright silly laughs that continue to entertain us years after they were produced. The Ministry of Silly Walks, Mr. Nudge Nudge, The Spanish Inquisition, The Piranha Brothers with Spiny Norman the invisible hedgehog, The Election Night Special and so many other sketches were England’s post-Beatles gift to America that got us through the Watergate Era with the ability to smile.
Upstairs, Downstairs (1971 – 1975) The show that put the PBS Masterpiece Theater on the map, the Bellamy family, and their faithful servants paved the way, years later, for the likewise excellent Downton Abbey. The interplay between the privileged "upstairs" family and the "downstairs" servants who waited on them, never failed to reveal the humanity on both edds of the staircase. Even with the Spartan production values accorded to a BBC series in the early seventies, this show holds up very well today, with enduring characters, fine writing as well as the performances of its excellent cast.
Saturday Night Live (1975 – 1980) Only sporadically amusing for the past 30 years, there was a brief five-year period when the show was simply the best comedy show on television. With the (funnier than anybody on prime time) not-ready-for prime time players: Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Bill Murray, Laraine Newman, Gilda Radner, with occasional guests Michael O’Donoghue and Harry Shearer, it was truly the first "appointment" TV show. If you missed it, you were left out of the water cooler conversation on Monday. It hasn’t been very funny since 1980, and now, it’s a kind of zombie that refuses to die.
I, Claudius (1976) During the 70s, the best dramatic television came out of the UK. Shot on video on interior studio sets that look exactly like interior studio sets, the show is, however, rarely less than brilliantly entertaining, and offers us a great insight into Roman society, even when characters like Roman emperor Augustus use the word “cheeky.” Only since I Claudius do we expect ancient Romans to speak exclusively with British accents (a la HBO’s Rome, another essential fave). By today’s standards, the production values are barely acceptable, with makeup caked on to age characters from their twenties into old age, and video lighting that didn't do the makeup artists any favors. But… the writing, by Jack Pullman, based on the novels by Robert Graves is outstanding, and stands up to repeated viewing. The characters are indelible and the actors, which include Derek Jacobi (Claudius), Brian Blessed, Patrick Stewart, Sian Phillips (as Livia, more evil than Maleficent and Cruella combined), John Hurt (as an over-the-top Caligula), John Rhys-Davies, and many other British actors and actresses we’ve seen and loved over the years overcome any weaknesses of the production budget. HBO is apparently doing a remake. We'll see...
Danger UXB (1979) This little-seen mini-series, which was also broadcast by PBS Masterpiece Theater, told the story of the Unexploded Bomb (UXB) units of the British Army during World War II. While the war raged on the continent in Europe, and British soldiers, sailors and airmen died in battlefields far from home, another squad of men toiled in equally dangerous territory on home soil, defusing and detonating the ever-more clever bombs that Hitler's Luftwaffe rained down on the island during the Battle of Britain. Anthony Andrews is sensational as Brian Ash, interesting name for a man who defused bombs on a daily basis and could become ashes on any given day, if he cut the wrong wire. Unbelievably tense, these soldiers who we grew to love, slept in warm beds, took showers and had tea in the morning before descending into the potential hell-fire of defusing a bomb that was dropped into Aunt Sally’s Victory Garden.
More to come...
Just titles for now. Write ups will follow in time... But... I really have to get on this. There is so much good TV on these days.
Brideshead Revisited (1981)
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994)
The X Files (1993 – 2002)
Stargate: SG1 (1997 – 2007)
The Sopranos (1999 – 2007)
Battlestar Galactica (2004 – 2009)
Band of Brothers (2001)
Rome (2005 – 2007)
Mad Men (2007 - 2015 ))
Breaking Bad (2008 - 2014)
Caprica (2010 - 2011)
Downton Abbey (2010 - 2016)
Game of Thrones (2011 - )
The Walking Dead (2010 - )
Fargo (2014 - )
Gotham (2014 - )
Better Call Saul (2015 - )