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TV Guide’s 50 Best Aren’t

by Jalexson  c. 2003

originally published at

TV Guide decided to celebrate its 50th Anniversary by publishing various lists including what it considered the best, and worst, television shows Unfortunately, TV Guide is better at publishing schedules than rating television programs.

The turn of the millennium produced a lot of such lists of what were supposedly the best, most important, etc. of things in various categories. A common characteristic of those lists was a tendency to overrate more recent events. For example, MTV’s list of the century’s top music videos ignored the early movie music videos.

TV Guide’s list of the “Best” programs followed this pattern with an overabundance of recent programs, particularly recent sitcoms that follow the overused format of a show about a bunch of urban white folks with the same basic storylines as all the other shows about urban white folks.

The shows “Seinfeld”, “Cheers”, “Frazier”, “The Larry Sanders Show”and “Friends” don’t belong on a list of television’s greatest shows. They’re not bad shows, but they lack any distinguishing characteristic that makes them great. They would be well down a list of greatest comedies.

Another yuppie program “Thirtysomething” is also unqualified for a list of greatest programs.. The people responsible for the list seem to have confused the idea of favorite programs with great programs. One of my all time favorite programs is “The Dukes of Hazard”, but I would not suggest that it is a great program.

If “Seinfeld” is the greatest show as TV Guide claims then a hamburger and french fries from McDonald’s is a great meal. The greatest show should have more substance than comedy programs, including a truly great comedy like “I Love Lucy”.

A drama like “Lou Grant” would be a much better choice for the greatest program. The program used various controversial issues to show how an urban newspaper operated. Ed Asner successfully converted his comedy character Lou Grant from the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” into a dramatic character.

The list should have been billed as the “greatest American programs” because it ignored the great British dramas like “Masterpiece Theater” and “Upstair, Downstairs”. “The Avengers” with Patrick McNee and Diana Rigg is far more deserving of being on the list of greatest shows than the contemporary “X-Files”. The “X-Files” principle characters Fox Mulder and Dana Scully aren’t close to being in the same league as John Steed and Emma Peel. Darren McGavin was more convincing as someone chasing strange beings in “Kolchak: The Night Stalker”.

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” like the “X-Files” has its cult following, but if Buffy is one of the greatest television shows, the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” is one of the greatest movies. The principle character isn’t particularly distinguishable from”like, you know” all the other anorexic blonde valley girl types on televison including the examples on “Friends”. Buffy is funny at times, particularly during the obviously phony fight scenes with obviously phony ghouls and goblins. It would be funnier if the fight scenes included large printed words on the screen like “POW”, “BAM”, “BIFF”, “SOCKO”, etc.

In fairness to both programs, they are different from most other programs, unlike the afore mentioned contemporary comedies which are merely better than many of the other substantially similar programs. The writing isn’t necessarily any better, but someone did a very good job of casting the programs with people who appear to belong together, or have good “chemistry”.

A great program should some unique qualities that cause it to stand apart from other programs or be innovative. “I Love Lucy” featured comic genius Lucille Ball and established a pattern for the way sitcoms were done.

 A great sitcom about urban white folks should have some distinguishing characteristics. For example, “The Beverly Hillbillies” is one of the greatest programs of the last 50 years and should rank above most of the comedies on the list. The program didn’t originate the idea of a rural family moving to the big city. “The Real McCoys” did that. “The Beverly Hillbillies” did a great job of using the cultural differences to see the humor in everyday matters. Many critics have never understood how the show made fun of the more dominant culture by looking at it through the eyes of people with a different background.

“Barney Miller” is more deserving of being on the list than other comedies like “Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Taxi”. I like the “Mary Tyler Moore Show”. I still occasionally watch it, but it really isn’t sufficiently distinguished from other programs.

“Taxi” which has a better mix of characters than “Mary” including comic genius Andy Kaufman might qualify to be among the greatest programs. “Barney Miller” accomplishes the difficult task of producing a humorous cop show while relying almost exclusively on a single set. Early shows featured Barney’s home, but that set was eventually abandoned. The writing, performances and costumes allowed the actors to effectively communicate what happened outside the office. The show also featured a diverse mix of well differentiated characters.

“Hogan’s Heroes” which TV Guide erroneously included on its list of worst programs belongs on the list of greatest programs. TV Guide refers to it simply as a zany program, but it was more than that. Hogan was a dramady, that is a combination drama and comedy, like “M*A*S*H”, although not nearly as good. As on “M*A*S*H” people sometimes died on Hogan. There was always a threat that Hogan’s men could die. Some of the people they worked with did die. Sometimes Hogan’s men killed people such as when they blew up trains. On one episode Hogan killed a Gestapo officer by putting an exploding pen in his staff car.

“Hogan’s Heroes” played a major role in integrating television casts. It debuted in 1965 the same week as “I Spy”. Prior to these two shows regular tv casts were usually lily white except for an occasional Asian, hispanic or American Indian.

Some of the variety shows chosen are also questionable. “The Ed Sullivan Show”, “The Carol Burnett Show”, and Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” belong on the list as does “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. However, David Letterman’s show doesn’t belong there. Neither he nor rival Jay Leno are close to meeting the standard set by Johnny Carson. I also question the choice of “Saturday Night Live” and “Laugh-In”, particularly considering the failure to include the “Red Skelton Show” which was second only to “The Ed Sullivan Show” as the longest running prime time variety show.

  I cannot say for sure if some of the other variety programs belong on the list of greatest programs because its been too long since I saw the ones I watched when they were originally broadcast. Some certainly would be worthy of consideration, particularly the great stone face’s (Ed Sullivan) rival. Steve Allen’s Sunday night program was opposite Sullivan’s show. Comedian Allen was joined by several future tv comics, including Bill “Jose Jimenez” Dana, Don Knotts, Tim Conway and Tom Poston. All of them eventually had successful roles on other programs. Bill Dana got his own sitcom in the sixties. Great comedians Milton Berle and Ernie Kovaks also had successful variety programs.

“The Bell Telephone Hour” presented a wide range of fine music during the 60's.

The quality of “Saturday Night Live” is too uneven to qualify as a great show. Besides it has often been a parody of itself. “Laugh-In” started out well, but ran out of ideas. “That Was the Week That Was” aka “TW3" was a better satire even though it didn’t stay on the air very long.

The list is short on documentaries and news related programs. “60 Minutes” made the list at #6, but the far better “See It Now” hosted by Edward R. Morrow is missing. Murrow occasionally interviewed celebrities, but the important contribution of the show was his willingness to deal with controversial issues including a verbal essay criticizing the activities of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. The program’s successor “CBS Reports” also deserves to be on the list. Both should seriously be considered for the 10 greatest programs. “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” also belongs on the list. “The National Geographic Specials” was not a regular series, but is more worthy of inclusion in the list of greatest shows than the 90's comedies the TV Guide people think so highly of.

Documentaries and dramas are the gourmet meals of television. Comedies and action adventure shows are more like fast food. TV Guide’s list is too long on comedies and short on the great dramas, particularly the family type shows.

“Life Goes On” should rank high on the list. The show about a Chicago family was willing to tackle tough issues. The son, Corky, who had Down Syndrome was played by actor Chris Burke who had Down Syndrome. Corky eventually married Amada(Andrea Friedman) who also had Down Syndrome. The youngest daughter, Becca played by Kellie Martin, eventually fell for Jessie, played by Chad Lowe, who was HIV positive as the result of a previous heterosexual relationship.

I’ve run out of room for discussion of dramatic programs that deserve consideration so I’ll turn that into part II.

Of the two programs “Hogan’s Heroes is the more important. “I Spy” featured Bill Cosby in part to take advantage of his celebrity status. Ivan Dixon who played Ivan Kinchloe on Hogan wasn’t a celebrity.

A previous effort to include a black character in 1963 on “East Side/West Side” had ended when the unpopular, but great, show was cancelled because of poor ratings. The show dealt a little too realistically with the problems of the inner city. One of the members of Sgt. Bilko’s platoon was black, but he generally didn’t have any lines. Black actors like Greg Morris and Ivan Dixon had occasionally appeared in episodes of other shows, particularly the “Dick Van Dyke Show” and “Have Gun Will Travel”.The former potentially belongs on the list although farther down than TV Guide rates it. The later should have been on the list, possibly in the top ten.


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