My Top 10 TV Shows

Back before there were gazillions of television networks creating original series programming, May was one of the big ratings sweeps months. You’d see big episodes of shows leading up to big season finales, sometimes containing cliffhangers that you’d have to wait until the following fall to see resolved.

On that note, I’m counting down my TOP 10 ALL-TIME FAVORITE TELEVISION SHOWS. These are the shows where I’d let everything else in my life just stop so I could watch them. There are many other great shows out there that I simply haven’t seen an episode of due to time constraints or not subscribing to those cable channels, so feel free to share your own lists!

But here’s mine…

 

#10 – 24

The events of one day unfolding a 24-episode season? Each episode representing one hour of real time? Okay, well maybe not perfect real time, as we rarely saw Jack Bauer eat and never saw him go to the bathroom. I always claimed he went when any normal person would go—during the commercials. This concept was a big risk for FOX but it clearly paid off. Sure, some plotlines got a little far-fetched (CTU having a new mole every season or so, daughter Kim’s run-in with a cougar, Kim working at CTU), but it was almost always gripping television, and the production values were top-notch. They blew up a plane at the end of the first episode, guaranteeing I’d tune in to what happened next. Kiefer Sutherland kicked ass as Jack Bauer, Dennis Haysbert’s President Palmer was great, and Mary Lynn Rajskub’s Chloe started of annoying but became the best ally an agent could ever hope to have.

Favorite Episode: “Day 1: 11:00pm-12:00am” – Nina Meyers is captured as the CTU mole, but not before killing Jack’s wife Teri. The juxtaposition of Jack saving the day and the final image of him cradling his dead wife’s body in his arms was powerfully heartbreaking.

 

#9 – Farscape

Maybe you’ve never heard of this science fiction television show, or maybe you saw it and didn’t know what the frell was going on, but at one point, it was the key show in the Sci-Fi Channel’s (pre their rebranding to SyFy) Friday night lineup, and I never wanted to miss an episode. Ben Browder played astronaut John Crichton, who got shot across space through a wormhole. There, he crosses path with the bad guy Scorpius (Wayne Pygram) who wants to exploit wormhole technology. If Crichton gets back to Earth, he could be followed by evil, technologically advanced aliens, so there’s a big moral dilemma. But there’s snarky dialogue as he compares situations to contemporary Earth culture. He resides on a ship with a few other fugitives—former Peacekeeper Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black), Luxon warrior Kar D’Argo (Anthony Simcoe), and sultry Nebari thief Chianna (Gigi Edgley), to name a few. All the characters were flawed and often fought each other, and that made the storylines even more gripping. The makeup was top-notch, and the alien creatures were designed by the Jim Henson Creature Shop. What’s not to love about that?

Favorite Episode: “I Shrink Therefore I Am” – I could have picked so many, but I chose this one for a great exchange of dialogue between Sikozu and Rygel. Bad guys have shrunk them to about an inch or so tall and secured them with magnetic cuffs inside little canisters. Sikozu insists that it must all be a hallucination and rattles off biological and neurological reasons why shrinking a person isn’t possible. Rygel simply shuts her down and tells her to just accept it, reminding the audience that sometimes it’s okay to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the story.

 

#8 – Friends

Say whatever you want about some of the overdone plot beats, particularly the on-again, off-again, on-a-break relationship of Ross and Rachel. But NBC assembled one of the finest sitcom ensembles of all time. It belongs on this list for me because it debuted right after I graduated college when my job was a joke, I was broke, and my love life was D.O.A. There was a brief period of time then when myself and two friends hung at coffee shops with the sister of one of those friends and two of her friends! I demanded that I was Chandler because of my sense of humor. It’s on Nick At Nite daily at 11pm right now, so it’s playing as I go to sleep, which is somewhat comforting to feel like I’m not alone in the house. It’s like my friends are there. Before the show could get stale, the producers made the smart move to partner Monica and Chandler to great comedic returns, especially when they were hiding their relationship from the others, how Joey covered for them, and how Phoebe toyed with them when she learned.

Favorite Episode: “The One with the Embryos” – The title refers to Phoebe becoming a surrogate mother for her brother and his home economics teacher wife. But it’s my favorite for what the rest of the friends are doing. Ross hosts the quiz where Chandler and Joey win Monica and Rachel’s apartment. Lightning rounds of funny character revelations!

 

#7 – Cupid

I’m talking the original 1998-1999 incarnation of this show that only lasted half a season and starred Jeremy Piven, not the 2009 reboot with Bobby Cannavale that lasted half as many episodes and I didn’t watch at all. In fact, I didn’t expect to love this show as much as I do. It aired on ABC Saturday nights at 10pm, following the reboot of Fantasy Island. Having grown up with the Ricardo Montalban original, I was intrigued to see Malcolm McDowell’s take on Mr. Roarke. It was definitely darker, and the world was expanded a little, but it was off. After the premiere, I stayed on my sofa and watched Cupid. Well, an arrow of love pierced my heart. Jeremy Piven (pre-Entourage) played such a snarky but likeable Trevor Hale, claiming to be the real Cupid exiled to Earth and stripped of his immortal powers. The only way back is for him to match up one hundred couples. He is put in the care of psychologist Claire Allen (Paula Marshall), who questions his sanity. The series then became a wonderful rumination on love told through a man of faith in it vs. a woman skeptical of it. Episodes alternated between funny and sad, quirky and serious, but always worthy of loving.

Favorite Episode: “Heart of the Matter” – SPOILER ALERT!!! Trevor is convinced that a man and woman are a perfect match. They hit it off, despite her hesitations because she’s dying, but he is killed in a car accident. Turns out they were a perfect match all along because a transplant of his heart saves her life.

 

#6 – Soap

It’s a late-70s sitcom soap opera pardoy/satire, and it caused some controversy against ABC at the time for some of the risqué and/or taboo topics it covered. I saw some episodes when they originally aired—not sure how/why since I was 10 when the show was cancelled!—but I’m sure some of it sailed over my head. I was able to binge watch the series in its entirety when I recorded (on VHS) a marathon that Comedy Central showed in the mid-90s. Here’s the premise: This all-star cast tells the story of two sisters, Jessica Tate and Mary Campbell. Ditzy Jessica is married to philandering stockbroker Chester, who ends up in jail for murder. Their children include Eunice, who had an affair with a congressman and then fell for the convict who broke out of prison with Chester; Corinne, who fell in love with a priest and their baby was possessed by the devil; and Billy, who was trapped in a cult and started a relationship with his teacher who went crazy. And Jessica’s father thought he was still fighting in the war, while Besnon the butler (perhaps the only sane character) maintained order till he got a spinoff show. Meanwhile, Mary married construction worker Burt, who killed (in self-defense) her first husband, a mobster. Mary had two sons: Danny, a mobster not allowed to leave and forced to marry the godfather’s daughter; and Jody (Billy Crystal), one of the first openly gay characters on TV. Burt had two sons: Chuck, a ventriloquist who thinks his dummy Bob is alive; and Peter, a tennis instructor who was murdered by Chester for his affair with Jessica! And the plots get even more convoluted and outrageous! Confused? You won’t be if you binge watch Soap.

Favorite Episode: Season 2 Finale – A lot of the most well-known plots either get wrapped up or hung on a cliff in this episode. Corinne’s baby is exorcised, Billy is abducted by the cult, and Burt is abducted by aliens! In Season 3, he’s replaced by an alien double (some great physical comedy by actor Richard Mulligan) who gets Mary pregnant!

 

#5 – Melrose Place

This is definitely the big guilty pleasure on my list, but I can admit it. My name is Pete, and I was an avid Melrose Place fan—so avid that had I maintained a blog back then, there’d be weekly wrap-ups of the show on Tuesday mornings. I wrote them and emailed them to a few friends of mine—and some friends of those friends! It was cheesy and it was campy and it was over the top—and it and FOX knew it—and I absolutely loved it. I even had silly little theories about how whenever there was a wedding, someone had to be thrown in the pool. I had a who-slept-with-whom grid, and it was loads of fun watching it fill out and seeing how contrived it would be for super-bitch Amanda and super-sleaze Michael to finally hook up. Speaking of Amanda, the show would not have been the success it was without Heather Locklear joining the cast. I could rattle off so many character stories, but then I’d want to go any watch them and get hooked, and cheer when the building explodes, shudder when Kimberly steals and breastfeeds Jo’s baby, and cry when Sydney gets run over on her wedding day.

Favorite episode: Well, I can’t just pick one here, so I’m gonna go for a favorite moment instead. Everyone thought Dr. Kimberly Shaw (Marcia Cross) had died in the car crash when Michael was drinking. But she came back and then removed her wig to see that scar! Before the crash, she was a catty mistress. After that, she was totally crazy.

 

#4 – Survivor

Another guilty pleasure? Who knew back in the summer of 2000 what a cultural phenomenon CBS had on their hands? Who knew that the phrase “The tribe has spoken” would enter the lexicon? Who knew that alliances, immunity, hidden idols, blindsides, and all that stuff would take on new meaning? For those of you on a deserted island who don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s the premise of the game (and I call it a game, not a reality show): Sixteen (or sometimes 18 or 20) strangers are divided into two (sometimes three, occasionally four) “tribes” in a remote, exotic location. They have to build shelter, find food, and create fire. They periodically compete in two types of challenges: Reward, where the winning tribe gets something to help around camp; and Immunity, where the losing tribe has to go to Tribal Council and vote someone out of the game. The tribes may be shuffled around, and eventually they merge into one where the individual challenge winners are immune from the vote. In the end, the final two or three face off against a jury of the past seven to nine players eliminated who decide the million-dollar winner. They’re filmed 24/7, and it’s impressive how they edit all that footage to make compelling storylines with these characters. There are villains, heroes, alliances, secret alliances, blindsides, lots and lots of strategy—and lots and lots of skin. This show influenced my ex-wife and me to throw Survivor-themed parties where our friends competed in challenges and were voted out. And I did the same with my AP Physics classes for years with their test scores. Yeah, I was a superfan. I have a strategy if I were ever to go on the show, but that ain’t happening soon. Maybe that could be a later blog post?

Favorite season: Survivor: Cook Islands – It started controversially with four tribes divided by race. In the third episode, they abandoned that idea and shuffled into two tribes. There was nothing special about this until the ninth episode when Jeff Probst asked if anyone wanted to mutiny—switch tribes. Candice & Penner did, leaving Yul, Ozzy, Becky, and Sundra greatly outnumbered 8-4. The four of them proceeded to outplay the others and emerge as the final four, led by Yul’s great interpersonal skills and strategy and Ozzy’s strength and swimming speed. It was the first time when I couldn’t choose one finalist to win, both Yul and Ozzy deserved it. Yul won 5 votes to 4.

 

#3 – The Twilight Zone

Here’s the oldest show on the list, and it’s a classic. I’ve seen almost every episode of the original series, and I’ll still watch the holiday marathons on SyFy. I check the schedule to catch my favorite episodes and the ones I hadn’t seen—caught a few this past New Year’s. The opening music and narration are classic now, and I could list all the stars and before-they-were-stars that appeared on the show. This was science fiction at its best—scathing social commentary of the era hidden behind alien invasions, monsters, or other paranormal occurrences. Many episodes had mind-blowing twist endings, and everyone had favorites they were willing to discuss and dissect. I could start rattling off my favorite episodes, but I already did that in a previous Top 10 List! There were attempts to imitate and duplicate the show, but Rod Serling’s original will always be the benchmark that no one will ever cross over into.

Favorite episode: “The After Hours” – Check the above link for more detail, but here’s the quick version. Marcia gets locked in a department store and hears voices coming for her. She thinks it’s the mannequins! Great camera work and props establish tension until the twist ending. SPOILER! She’s a mannequin too!

 

#2 – Doctor Who

I was either in 7th or 8th grade when my father introduced me to Doctor Who—played by Tom Baker on the PBS station in Boston at the time—and I was hooked. A guy who could travel through space and time in a goofy British phone booth? Sign me up now! Pre-teen me didn’t care about the cheesy monster costumes and recycled sets; I probably didn’t even notice. I liked the idea of other planets and adventures like that. One of the first series of episodes I saw was the “Key to Time” season when the six stories had one long arc finding six pieces of the titular super-important key, and I loved the premise. I eventually watched Tom Baker regenerate into Peter Davison and I was confused and curious all at once. Then I learned there were people who had played the part before Tom Baker?! After that, I wanted to know everything! After I went off to college, I lost track of the show, and then it disappeared. The mid-90s movie wasn’t the greatest, but it was something. When the show rebooted in 2005, I was overjoyed. Now it’s must-see television, and it’s cool!

Favorite Episode: That’s a daunting task best saved for a later Top 10 list. Or maybe two Top 10 lists, one for Classic Who, and one for New Who. But you can view my Top 10 Doctors list where I mention my favorite episode for each actor to play The Doctor.

 

Before I get to MY ALL-TIME FAVORITE TELEVISION SHOW, here are five Honorable Mentions:

Sesame Street – The classic PBS show gets an Honorable Mention because I’m almost positive that I learned to read from this show. I prefer the classic episodes (pre-Elmo, even) than the newer ones. I’m considering a Top 10 Sesame Street Songs list for the future.

Family Ties – Michael J. Fox as a conservative child of two liberal parents? This was comedy gold, and the Keating clan was so much fun to watch. Love the episode where Alex turns the house into a hotel for the big college game and dad came home to find a kangaroo in the living room.

Arrested Development – One of the most dysfunctional, inappropriate families ever to exist on television. The Bluths were awesomely crass, the cast was perfect, and it deserved all the accolades it got. I knew so many people who watched this show, so I can’t understand why it struggled in the ratings.

You Can’t Do That on Television – Canadian teen sketch comedy show that aired on Nickelodeon and started their slime motif. If a cast member said, “I don’t know,” s/he got a bucket of green slime dumped on them. Each episode had a theme, and the one about “drugs” showed kids supposedly addicted to pushing pies in their faces to prove their point.

Seinfeld – “The Show About Nothing” is no doubt one of the greatest sitcoms ever made. The ensemble was tight, the plots irreverently intricate. I was a little late to the Seinfeld party, not watching it until after Friends premiered, and most of the episodes still hold up today. It’s just outside my Top 10 because I guess I’m more of a serialized sci-fi/fantasy fan. No soup for me, I guess.

 

And finally…

#1 – LOST

When ABC crashed the plane on the strange island in the pilot episode, television had seen nothing like it. These characters were multi-layered and flawed and…well, lost. The storytelling was exceptional. Episodes would focus on one character in the ensemble cast, showing how they affected the rescue attempt or other island issues, interspersed (originally) with flashbacks before the fateful plane trips. The characters were complex, along with their interconnected backstories. The story pulled images and ideas from religion, philosophy, mythology, and literature. It was a tale of faith vs. science, destiny vs. free will, and good vs. evil. The show piled mystery after mystery on the viewers: Why’d the plane crash? What’s that thing in the jungle? What’s the radio signal? What do the numbers (4 8 15 16 23 42) mean? What’s inside the hatch? What happened to the Dharma Initiative? Why press the button? Who are the Others? People can complain that the show answered fewer mysteries than it asked. I didn’t care, as I developed theories that I’m good with for the ones they didn’t answer. People complained the show got too outlandishly sci-fi with time travel. I didn’t care because it showed us “the Incident” first hand. People complained about the final season’s flashsideways and what they meant. I liked them because they were as jarring as the first flashforward. People complained about the ending. I loved it. I loved everything about the show, and I never missed an episode. There were great characters and great iconic moments: The realization that Locke was in the wheelchair, Charlie scribbling “Not Penny’s Boat” on his hand before dying, and many more. To this day, I still miss this show.

Favorite Episode: “The Constant” – Sayid and Desmond go to the freighter of the coast of the island, and Desmond experiences temporal shifts. He jumps back in time to when he met Daniel Faraday (then a new character, and one of my favorites) who was doing time travel experiments. Desmond learns he needs to find his constant and finally speaks with Penny at the end off the episode in a heartwarming moment. Then comes the twist of Daniel reading a note he left himself that Desmond is his constant! LOST was full of these jarring yet symbolic juxtapositions, and I loved it.

 

Agree? Disagree? Comments, compliments, complaints? Fire away!

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