In the past two decades, television went from being seen as a detriment to intellectualism to the new book reading in terms of time and money required to be a studied consumer. Just as literary classics like Pride & Prejudice or The Grapes of Wrath can spend years on your list without you ever actually intending to watch it, classic TV. has become simultaneously treasured and laborious for the average viewer who used to just unwind after work with a sitcom.
Regardless, works that have sifted through the ever-expanding collection as standouts artistically, culturally, or innovatively have earned their positions as murals on the Santa Maria delle Grazie or games in the Coliseum: they’re what we as a society revolved around at this point in time. Do you need to watch these shows? No. Watch New Girl again because you love it and T.V. is meant to be entertainment. All you owe is to appreciate that these shows altered the landscape of contemporary society.
18What We Do in The Shadows
Based on a cult horror mockumentary, What We Do in the Shadows has proven itself to be the best modern comedy currently airing on any network or streaming service. Now in the midst of its 4th season, the Jemaine Clement created show is produced by original movie director Taika Waititi and stars one of TV history’s best comedy ensembles. The show features a look into the daily (or rather, nightly) lives of four vampires, who’ve lived together for over 100 years, on Staten Island.
The legacy sequel is a tough nut to crack, as Star Wars and the Halloween franchises have discovered. Many old favorites from the ’80s have tried to resurrect themselves, but Cobra Kai continues to prove to be the bench mark, and should be taught in colleges on how to successfully exhume ancient text for new audiences. Continuing the story behind The Karate Kid, Cobra Kai is the best legacy sequel to revive favorite characters and familiar customs, appeasing old fans and newcomers alike. Decades after their 1984 All Valley Karate Tournament bout, a middle-aged Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence find themselves martial-arts rivals again. The fourth season will debut on New Years Eve. We’ve seen it. It doesn’t disappoint.
16Married With Children
The Bundys. They certainly could stand on the Mount Rushmore of sitcom families. There has never been another brood quite like them, before or after their hugely successful 11 season run. Arriving before the long-running series The Simpsons, Married with Children built Fox into the 4th network, which in the ’80s only consisted of ABC, NBC, and CBS. The antithesis of the loving Cosby Show family, Married … With Children focused on the Bundys, a suburban Chicago family who would rather eat nails than say a kind word to one another. Al, the patriarch, is a misogynistic shoe salesman, whose wife, Peggy, is a housewife who does no work around the house. Saying their children, Kelly and Bud, do not have a lot going for them is an understatement. This biting comedy focuses on the couple’s constant verbal sparring over their slacker kids, their lack of money, success and intimacy.
Before The Voice and The Masked Singer, American Idol owned Tuesday and Wednesday nights without contest. Phonelines would flood with votes for favorite contestants, viewers redialing again and again to ensure Kelly Clarkston won or that Katharine McPhee lost. Where claims to music stardom once came from throwing your life savings at studio time, Idol preceded the YouTube generation’s egalitarian pillars: if you were talented enough, you were given a platform to prove it.
14The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Accusations that women aren’t funny were obsolete from the beginning of comedy history. I Love Lucy was America’s sitcom, yes, but The Mary Tyler Moore Show was so poignantly funny and daring that it can be recognized as one the most important turning points in pop culture’s acknowledgment of second-wave feminism. She didn’t have a husband, a dependent, or a care; it could be said that if MTM wasn’t making America laugh so hard, they would’ve been shooting at her.
13The Muppet Show
Everyone was trying to win the youth market on Saturday mornings and after school, but only one program was talented enough to earn viewership from adults as well. Where Sesame Street instilled unconditional empathy, The Muppet Showdemanded mockery. Where Mr. Rogers taught kindness, Beaker taught loss. And loss again. And again. The Muppets weren’t saints, and in so many ways, it made Gonzo’s regular journeys to self-acceptance all the more vital for kids (who found themselves more daredevil than good neighbor) to love themselves as well.
Gameshows played on societal salivation for money and proving oneself to millions. On Match Game, you needed to be witty and charismatic as celebrities to earn the dough. On Press Your Luck, you just needed to be destined for wealth. But on Jeopardy, you as a viewer were just as much of a talented winner if you knew the right trivia. There were no lifelines, gimmicks, or reliance on communicating a password to a blindfolded partner; just a celebration of what we as people are willing to learn. The best part about Jeopardy! isn’t just that it encourages knowledge, but that when it’s on, nobody looks away from the screen.
11Late Night with Conan O’Brien
If you like comedy today, thank Conan. The world’s oddest choice for Letterman’s successor was roasted to embers in his debut. Given his replacement was a certainty, O’Brien just decided to do what he thought was funny, not what was television. As a result, that millennial celebration of randomness and Python-esque poise was birthed. He was early internet before early internet. If you only know Conan for the saga of Leno and The Tonight Show, head over to YouTube to understand just how ahead of its time Late Night with Conan O’Brien was.
Actual meth dealers dyed their product blue to keep up with the popularity of Vince Gilligan’s brilliant portrayal of American servitude. It’s not just an analysis of how classist systems breed crime, but how the most innocent, even pathetic man in the world, once put under the exact right pressures, can become the most notorious monster in North America. Breaking Bad finished after only five seasons, breaking studio rules of running the car till you’re out of gas; it instead demanded shows be masterful until the last drop.
9The Daily Show
Watching the news took more than patience, but fear. If you plastered violence and crime in between every ad break, you could keep a viewer too scared to leave the T.V. The Daily Show had the opportunity to just be a funny show satirizing the ridiculousness of the modern news desk, but instead gave itself credit as an actual news source that had responsibilities to its viewers. Jon Stewart would tell jokes, but more importantly, he didn’t let the viewer escape the circling globe behind him. Where Weekend Update sought the unavoidable goliath stories alongside the funniest headlines in the corners of newspapers, Daily talked about the Bush administration with fire and confetti, and got America to not just get more informed, but hold our system accountable for its gaffes.
It’s odd that one of the greatest sitcoms of all time was meant to be an antithesis to sitcoms. The guy doesn’t get the girl, the girl doesn’t have a baby, the baby doesn’t have dimples. No hugs, no lessons. This is life in its most Chekhovian abyss: New York. No show has been able to do nothing so effortlessly as Seinfeld, and its ability to circle a story and punish its ignorant heroes remains a triumph not just of how anybody was willing to air this rant, but that it became such a staple in pop culture.
7The Twilight Zone
How do you talk about racism with nobody letting you talk about racism? How do you investigate the horrors of war while your country parades any and all advocation for global supremacy? The Twilight Zone wasn’t just smart, creative, and often beautifully designed, it was guerilla. It was weird. It was hated by plenty. And it kept upping itself. Where the goal of a good show is to tell a good story with a good impact, The Twilight Zone told over a hundred.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge created Fleabag} for a stage, and that reverence in dialogue and character explosions within the confines of space decorate the BBC series. With only two seasons, Fleabag‘s power as a storytelling titan kept it sharp and let the blade reach deep. There is no Season 3 to fill the hole that the devastating and brilliant Season 2 left in you; you have to just get by now. It’s a love story, and love happens whether you love it or not.
5Saturday Night Live
SNL stopped being a show a long time ago: it’s a medium. Just as you can bring a painter to a canvas and see how they do, Saturday Night Live presents the unique opportunity for cast members to craft live sketches in one week, perform them just once for the real audience, then do it all over again immediately. It’s comedy in its most expert concentration. The result shouldn’t be analyzed by how many sketches are hits or misses, but rather how the show vetted every major comedian for nearly a half century.
The HBO series was notoriously undervalued in its run, never earning proper viewership, critical acclaim, or awards. While much of this is often attributed to the diversity of its cast making it written off as not a show for the average American viewer, The Wire} founds its triumph a decade later. A moving America realized they’d been flipping past one of the most genius and articulate analyses of what people are willing to do in order to climb a hierarchy.
The Simpsons is often considered a token candidate due to its length and impact via merchandise. The fact is, if only Seasons 3-9 existed, not only would the show remain on this list, it would be at the top. Season 4 is like watching an old Renoir movie: no matter how much you didn’t think you’d be blown away by it, you are, and you almost get angry that we haven’t been building on this craftsmanship. How was the show this lightning speed funny? While part of the answer is Conan O’Brien, the other part is that sometimes lightning strikes the same spot a couple hundred times and then never again.
100 million people tuned in to Roots, shattering records for a show destined to fail. Slavery was a taboo topic in every possible regard. To so much as mention its existence in front of a viewing audience was to invoke a plague. Not only did Roots display slavery, it gave every horrific truth a chance to be told. Roots has become a show of legend for its mastery in storytelling and character, as well as its triumph of getting a country to atone for its past properly, if for just a moment.
Today, good television is the expectation in the same way that you’d demand a movie be good; it feels ridiculous that it ever wasn’t that way. And that’s only because of HBO and The Sopranos. Never in a million years would you put a quality drama into an entire T.V. series. T.V. was for laughs and gameshows: it was, again, blasted for turning children’s brains into sludge and making the world less competent. Plain and simple, if it weren’t for The Sopranos, that would remain the case. There are heartbreaks, action, philosophy, twists, real art. Think of every incredible show of the past two decades: it has a grave grandparent to which it owes its entire life. His name’s Tony.