Television is a medium that’s been around since the end of World War II. Since that time, we have seen an astronomical change in what makes its way onto our screens and even more change when it comes to who is putting the content there. Fifty years ago, if someone would’ve said that the current peak TV era would be delivering us 500-plus scripted shows per year, they would have been looked at very crazily. But here we are. With so much quality, past and present, it’s natural to want to compare shows across genres and eras. Last year, Rolling Stone decided to take on the daunting task for us and make a list ranking the Top 100 Greatest Shows of All Time. Actually, they updated the list that they originally compiled in 2016. Nonetheless, considering that the WGA (Writer’s Guild of America) strike is all but over and the SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) strike inching towards the same outcome, we thought it would be the perfect time to highlight the shows that have had the most impact on our culture. Look through the list and let us know what you think about it. Which shows are too high? Too low? Did they leave any legendary shows off? We’ll start off by noting that we believe it’s egregious that neither ‘Martin‘ or ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air‘ are on the list.
Before The Wire, before The Sopranos, there was Oz, the canary in the coal mine for the idea of scripted dramas existing outside the broadcast network ecosystem. Created by St. Elsewhere and Homicide: Life on the Street vet Tom Fontana, Oz took place in a maximum security prison that housed some of the nastiest humans depicted on television, before or since. There was sadistic white supremacist Vern Schillinger (J.K. Simmons), menacing gang leader Simon Adebisi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), the predatory Chris Keller (Chris Meloni), and many more. The world of Oz was so vicious that even the relatively benign prisoners — audience surrogate Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen), Black nationalist Kareem Saïd (Eamonn Walker), or third generation inmate Miguel Alvarez (Kirk Acevedo) — would be tempted into heinous deeds over time. Yet in the midst of all the murder, torture, and psychological warfare, Oz was also a thoughtful, deeply experimental drama with a lot to say about the tension between punishing criminals and rehabilitating them, and what confinement does to good men and bad ones.
#85: ‘Orange Is The New Black’
The first show to suggest the streaming era could make room for the kinds of characters and stories that TV had no place for, even in those heady post-Sopranos years on cable. Orange started with Taylor Schilling’s annoying, entitled Piper being sent to federal prison, where she was initially terrified by all the Black, brown, and/or lower-class women she met there. Quickly, though, the Jenji Kohan-created series opened the eyes of both Piper and the audience to the fact that her fellow inmates — mentally ill Suzanne (Uzo Aduba), trans hairdresser Sophia (Laverne Cox), wisecracking addict Nikki (Natasha Lyonne), maternal Gloria (Selenis Levya), justice-seeking Taystee (Danielle Brooks), and many more — were complicated human beings with interesting stories of their own. (Most of them, frankly, much more interesting than Piper’s, but even the writers seemed to understand that.) Orange took big creative swings that didn’t always connect, but had plenty of incredible moments, and opened up vast new possibilities for TV as a whole.
#77: ‘The Jeffersons’
On All in the Family, the arrogant George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) and his patient wife Louise (Isabel Sanford) lived in a blue-collar Queens neighborhood right next door to Archie and Edith Bunker. Hemsley was so instantly electric opposite both Sanford and Family star Carroll O’Connor that George and “Weezy” quickly graduated to their own sitcom. Even better for George, he got to move far away from Archie, to a dee-luxe apartment in the sky of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The spinoff broke new TV ground by making George and Weezy’s best friends the interracial couple of Tom (Franklin Cover) and Helen (Roxie Roker). And, like its parent series, it could get serious about race relations and other current events, such as in an episode where George accidentally attends a KKK recruitment meeting, or a flashback to George’s struggle to get a loan from a prejudiced banker, to open his first dry cleaning store. Mostly, though, the series was a relentless laugh machine, trusting that any combination of Hemsley, Sanford, and Marla Gibbs (as the Jeffersons’ brassy maid Florence) would make comedy magic together.
#72: ‘Good Times’
Is this the best spinoff of a spinoff? That may depend on whether you classify, say, the Nineties Star Trek shows or the CW’s various Arrow-verse superhero dramas as spinoffs or as entries in a larger franchise. Either way, Good Times — which spun off from Maude, which had already spun off from All in the Family — has a good argument for the title. Esther Rolle and John Amos played Florida and James Evans, spouses trying their best to raise their kids right and keep them safe while living in a Chicago housing project. Amos and then Rolle would eventually leave the show, frustrated that their characters had been marginalized in favor of co-star Jimmie Walker’s broad antics as eldest son J.J. But Good Times managed to provide plenty of thoughtful, issue-oriented comedy around all the excuses for Walker to shout his “Dyn-o-mite!” catchphrase, including a classic episode where youngest son Michael (Ralph Carter) figures out that his school’s IQ test is racially biased, or another where the Evans family realizes their neighbor Penny (a very young Janet Jackson) is being physically abused by her mother.
#69: ‘Chappelle’s Show’
COMEDY CENTRAL, 2003-06
Another art-versus-artist mess. Dave Chappelle’s legacy has unquestionably been tainted by his commitment in recent years to hardcore transphobia. Can we still enjoy the sketch-comedy series that he and Neal Brennan created, and the ways that the show bearing his name mixed hysterical parodies of Black celebrities like Rick James, Prince, and Lil Jon with more nuanced but still funny ideas like the fake game show “I Know Black People”? As with several series on this list (and ones that didn’t quite pass muster with our voters, like Louie and The Cosby Show), perhaps it’s best to fondly remember the experience of watching it back in the day, rather than attempting to revisit and having to think more directly about the now controversial guy at the center of it.
#61: ‘The Underground Railroad’
AMAZON PRIME VIDEO, 2021
Barry Jenkins’ miniseries about slavery is the greatest technical achievement in television history. And with all due respect to Game of Thrones, the new Lord of the Rings series, or any of the medium’s other recent big-budget spectacles, it is not an especially close contest. Jenkins and collaborators like cinematographer James Laxton ensure that every frame is stunning and painterly in detail, no matter how horrifying (a slave being whipped, a house being burned with people inside) or beautiful (the titular railroad is an actual train line, borrowing from the magical realism premise of Colson Whitehead’s novel) the individual images are. No show has ever put as much effort and skill into its sound design, so that viewers feel as if they are standing in the hot sun with escaped slave Cora (Thuso Mbedu), surrounded by chirping insects. And, for that matter, few directors have elicited performances as naked and lived-in as what Mbedu, Joel Edgerton (as a ruthless slave-catcher), William Jackson Harper (as a free Black man trying to get Cora to accept the possibility of good in this world), and others deliver here. A knockout for all the senses, and for the heart.
#59: ‘Key & Peele’
COMEDY CENTRAL, 2012-15
At first, Key & Peele drew notice for how well-timed it seemed, as a sketch comedy in which biracial comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele explored the sometimes confusing borders between Black and white America, late into the first term of our nation’s first biracial president. And an early signature bit involved Peele playing an unflappable Barack Obama while Key lurked behind him as POTUS’ “anger translator,” Luther. Soon, though, what Key & Peele became known for was its fierce commitment to every bit. Their action movie parodies bore a stunning resemblance to the real thing, and seemingly lightweight ideas like Family Matters actor Reginald VelJohnson complaining about the show being taken over by Steve Urkel took incredibly dark turns. In hindsight, it’s not hard to see how Peele made the jump from this show to becoming America’s most famous horror-movie director. But he and Key were a wonderful pair for a while.
The 2010s were a good decade for creators of web comedies to level up to TV. Some have been straightforward translations, like the stoner buddy comedy of Broad City or the extremely Canadian content of Letterkenny. Insecure co-creator and star Issa Rae, meanwhile, took some elements of her popular web show The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl with her when she made the leap to premium cable, even though she was playing a (somewhat) new character. Over the course of five seasons of incisive comedy and character study, Rae’s Issa Dee struggled to figure out relationships of various kinds as she exited her late twenties and had to accept the burdens of unequivocal adulthood. Would she end up with on-again, off-again boyfriend Lawrence (Jay Ellis), or one of the many charismatic men who wander into her life? Would she ever feel comfortable as a Black woman in a well-meaning but patronizing white-run nonprofit that helps children of color? Would she and best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji) be able to prioritize each other with so much drama in their lives? And most important, would Issa ever make peace with the face in the mirror that questioned every choice she made? By the end, both Insecure and Issa had all the answers we wanted from them.
This landmark adaptation of Alex Haley’s novel about slavery was an event, unfurled over eight consecutive nights in front of an audience that at its peak comprised more than half of all Americans. As viewers sat mesmerized by the story of enslaved Mandinka warrior Kunta Kinte (played first by LeVar Burton, then by John Amos), Roots put our nation’s original sin back into the public conversation. It wasn’t just the terrible story itself, but the confident way it was told, including the tactic of casting endearing TV actors like Ed Asner, The Waltons patriarch Ralph Waite, and Robert Reed from The Brady Bunch as slave owners and slave traders. Roots almost single-handedly created the “prestige TV” notion that the small screen could debut projects as compelling as what audience members previously had to pay to see in a movie theater.
We live in the age of IP, where familiar titles are adapted again and again, simply because of that familiarity, and not because anyone has an original thought about them. Then there is Watchmen. The original mid-Eighties comics masterpiece by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons proved impossible to adapt for decades. The 2009 Zack Snyder film managed to re-create most of the plot while utterly missing the point of the endeavor. Lost and Leftovers alum Damon Lindelof went a different way when the property fell into his hands, using the world Moore and Gibbons built to tell a fanciful yet raw story about the ugly history of American racism, as seen through the eyes of Sister Night (Regina King), a police officer who, like her colleagues, dons a mask and special uniform so she can do her violent work with impunity. (When some cops in our world began wearing masks while dealing with the post-George Floyd protests, the show proved unfortunately prophetic.) Sister Night finds herself at the center of a swirling narrative that incorporates the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, multiple trips to one of Jupiter’s moons, time travel, a space dildo, and a costumed hero whom cops dub “Lube Man.” Yet all those wildly disparate elements — including an all-time musical score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, plus terrific performances by King, Jean Smart, Jeremy Irons, Hong Chau, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II — feel of a transfixing piece with one another, and also with the elusive source material.
#20: ’30 Rock’
The old adage to “write what you know” has few examples better than 30 Rock. Tina Fey, fresh off a beloved run as SNL head writer and Weekend Update co-anchor, created and starred in a show on which she plays Liz Lemon, the head writer of an NBC sketch-comedy show that sounds a lot like SNL. Show-within-the-show TGS became part of a much broader satire of both television (including Tracy Morgan and Jane Krakowski as TGS’ pathologically needy stars) and corporate America (exemplified by Alec Baldwin, as supremely arrogant exec Jack Donaghy), mixed in with some of the silliest names ever put onscreen, like Chris Parnell’s Dr. Spaceman (pronounced “spuh-CHEH-men”) or Krakowski’s Jenna starring in The Rural Juror. (Try saying it aloud.) Yet, as eager as 30 Rock was to bite the hand that fed it, in the most ludicrous ways possible, there was also a palpable affection for the business that made these shenanigans possible. As Kenneth (Jack McBrayer), the ageless, unnaturally chipper NBC page, put it in the very first episode, “I just love television.” So did 30 Rock.
#19: ‘I May Destroy You’
A genre-bending tour de force that was written, co-directed by, and starred Michaela Coel as a rising young author whose life and career are rent asunder as she realizes she was drugged and raped. I May Destroy You is at times harrowing, at others unnervingly funny and odd, and as much about the writing process — and the stories we invent about ourselves to help work through problems — as it is about the trauma that Coel’s Arabella has to learn to live with. A singular, mesmerizing limited series.
After years on Community as white America’s favorite Black guy, Donald Glover code-switched to create and star in Atlanta, a show that freely sheds its own identity. One week, it can be a broad comedy about Al (Brian Tyree Henry) suffering the dumbest day of his life in an attempt to get a good haircut; the next, it’s a chilling haunted-house story about racial self-loathing. It can have Al, Earn (Glover), and Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) have surreal adventures in the titular city, and it can send Earn’s ex Van (Zazie Beetz) to Paris to savagely beat up a Frenchman with a stale loaf of bread while supplying a banquet for wealthy cannibals. No show should be able to do so many radically different things as well as Atlanta does routinely.
#4: ‘The Wire’
Whenever you hear a contemporary showrunner refer to their work as “a novel for television” or “a 10-hour movie,” odds are they spent a lot of time watching David Simon and Ed Burns’ drama and mistakenly assumed that it would be easy to copy. It was an urban epic that gradually touched every corner of its fictionalized Baltimore, from cops and drug dealers to middle school students and politicians. The Wire preached that “all the pieces matter,” then put the concept into action, so that the slow pacing and narrative sprawl made all the show’s tragedies — visited upon one of the most amazing casts of characters ever assembled, from ambitious drug dealer Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) down to sweet junkie Bubbles (Andre Royo) and stickup artist Omar Little (Michael Kenneth Williams) — and all of its criticisms of the state of modern America, hit harder each time. Often imitated, never duplicated — not even by Simon on impressive follow-ups like Tremé or The Deuce. As D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.) puts it while using chess as a metaphor for the drug game, “The king stay the king.”
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