After work, Americans watch TV. It's part of a routine, and -- like it or not -- it's both a mirror and a driver of American culture. Do you still chuckle about the Soup Nazi? Can you still sing "Conjunction Junction"? How do you feel about Carrie Bradshaw's choice of Mr. Big?
But the airwaves are just that -- space, the final frontier -- and could bring anything into your home. They carry sports, sitcoms, dramas, news and reality shows. And they do it in half-hour or hour-long chunks, with predictable commercial interruptions and -- for the most part -- characters and storylines we're comfortable with.
Darwin would be proud of the way we got here. Rather than springing fully formed from the ether, today's TV shows built on earlier models and provide new models for tomorrow's entertainment. Good TV pushes and stretches the genre in which it sits. But the best shows punch through these genres to create -- well, something new. These influential shows redefine television, and (not to overstate it or anything) redefine culture and the very ways we see ourselves.
Which shows are to blame? Certainly more than fit on this list. It's a vicious game of musical chairs for these top 10 spots, and even some heavy hitters found themselves without seats.
So what did make the list? Keep reading to find out.
Making the list is the annual event that holds a full half of the 50 highest-rated TV broadcasts of all time. It's cliché to write that the Super Bowl is more than sports, but what are you gonna do? It's a cultural phenomenon -- a holiday like Easter, only instead of eggs and chocolate, it substitutes Bud, Miller and Coors. Sure, you can watch the Super Bowl for the competition, but many just tune in for the event -- the commercials, the halftime show, the players' off-field stories and the drama.
And you can bet it's no accident.
Starting in 1967 with the simulcast across CBS and NBC (each using the same video but offering different commentary), the Super Bowl has driven the way TV presents sports. It's not a blimp shot of ant-sized players throwing and catching; it's inside the masks and even inside the brains of players, with whom TV encourages us to identify.
Every year the Super Bowl writes another chapter in the story of sports television. And you can bet that every year, a lot of us will be watching.
Obviously, news had been done before 1962, when Walter Cronkite took over for Douglas Edwards, and it's certainly been done since, but it's hard to argue that it's ever been done better. Cronkite became the face of American information, and by doing so, personified the genre of TV news. What does a nightly news broadcast look like? It looks like the face that Cronkite gave it between 1962 and 1981.
During Cronkite's tenure, he was not only a conduit of information for events like Watergate and the Apollo 11 moon landing, but he also turned the nightly news into a vehicle that drove national policy -- and played a part in ending two presidencies. After Cronkite editorialized that Vietnam could at best end in stalemate, Lyndon Johnson bowed out of the 1968 presidential race. And after Cronkite's coverage of Watergate, combined with the famous Washington Post coverage, Nixon was finished.
By editorializing as well as reporting, did Cronkite blur the line between news and opinion? Is this misuse of his status as "the most trusted man in America"? Who knows. But it's certainly a model that's seen heavy use ever since.
Do you want your MTV? Even if you don't, you're going to get it. That's because with MTV's 1981 broadcast of the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star," MTV set in motion a filming style and flavor that jumped the confines of the channel, and even leapt off the screen and into the cultural fabric of the nation and the world. OK, so it may not be a specific show, but MTV definitely earned a spot on the list of game-changing TV.
It birthed reality ("Real World"), it lowered our attention span, and it pioneered the use of talking-head spokespeople who have no idea what they're talking about. Arguably, for better or worse, we're hipper, quicker, sexier and less thoughtful due to MTV.
Thank you, MTV!
Placing "Sesame Street" ahead of MTV lets us think that today's youth and tomorrow's leaders have at least a fighting chance of considering Maya Angelou and Al Gore as important as Snookie and whoever replaces Lady Gaga as the pop flavor of the month. Generations of us learned to read with "Sesame Street," and it single-handedly took a left turn from the pure entertainment of previous kids' programming to today's "preschool on television" style kids' shows.
The Street was also the first show to consider children as complex, thoughtful little beasties instead of the one-dimensional, happy-all-the-time automatons of previous, mouse-ear-wearing shows. Life is tough on the Street -- look no further than the decision to take on the death of beloved character Mr. Hooper (Why did he die? Just because …). In addition to its overt cheering up of education, it mirrored young viewers' own complex, deeply felt lives.
Placing "The Simpsons" ahead of "Sesame Street" bodes poorly for the future of life as we know it. But at least it's not "Beavis and Butt-Head," "South Park," "Family Guy" or "Spongebob Squarepants," none of which would've been possible without America's favorite, surprisingly functional dysfunctional family, on air since 1989.
That said, it's not the first cartoon to mix adult humor and cutting political and social commentary with animation -- that distinction goes most rightfully to "Rocky and His Friends" (or perhaps to "The Yogi Bear Show"). Nor was it the first to hang its hat on the dysfunctional, middle-American family -- "Married … With Children" beat it to the punch (and "All in the Family" before that).
But the sheer scale of Bart's irreverence and Homer's oblivious, bumbling, but eventually good-hearted stupidity broke new ground in what was possible on network television. Not to mention taboo-treading characters like Ned Flanders and Waylon Smithers.
Let's put aside for a second the show's obvious small step for Lucy that was a huge leap for women's lib to point out that "I Love Lucy" was one of the first true sitcoms. Period. Sure, there were a bunch of classic '50s sitcoms -- like "Leave it to Beaver," "The Honeymooners" and "Father Knows Best" -- but Lucy was THE sitcom, and as such defined the model for all that followed. Would there have been "Seinfeld" without Lucy? We think not.
OK, back to women's lib: Do you think Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett, Laverne and Shirley, and the recent, meteoric rise of Amy Poehler and Tina Fey would've been possible without Lucille Ball, who proved with grace and finality that a woman could anchor a comedy show?
If you've never seen Lucy -- even in good old black-and-white reruns -- you're missing out.
Only time will tell if "The Office" holds up in longevity and syndication enough to be included in the pantheon of great comedies. But no matter its audience share or remembrance among the funniest of the funny, it smashed preconceptions of how a sitcom is made. Sure, "This Is Spinal Tap" packaged improvised comedy as behind-the-scenes mockumentary, but not until "The Office" did anyone imagine you could hang a sitcom on it -- week in, week out, with only a rough sketch of where you were going at any given point.
Maybe it surfed the tide of reality TV, making the show's uncut feel acceptable. Maybe audiences just got a bit sick of the super-sculpted, laugh-tracked, prepackaged sitcom. Or maybe Steve Carell is just that funny. But whatever the case, it opened the door of sitcom improv that had previously been closed and locked.
This list just wouldn't be complete without a reality show, and "Survivor" is the granddaddy of the genre. Sure, you could go with "Candid Camera," "Big Brother" or "COPS," but since blowing away its bigger-budget competition in its first U.S. broadcast in 2000, "Survivor" has been the reality show that every other reality show wishes it could be. (OK, maybe not "American Idol," but that's a whole different game.)
The formula for "Survivor" -- double-plus hardship, double-plus scheming, double-plus competition and double-negative clothing -- has in some form and to some degree become the formula for every reality show thereafter. And all without needing to pay a scriptwriter (or so they want us to think, anyway)!
"ER" is "Hill Street Blues" set in a hospital. "The West Wing" is "Hill Street Blues" set in the White House. "The Sopranos" is "Hill Street Blues" from the flip perspective. And "Twin Peaks" is a waterlogged "Hill Street Blues," set in the forests of Washington state.
In short, "Hill Street Blues" is the parent of plots that don't expire in 60 minutes. You want to know how it ends? Tune in next week. But then in the next episode, new plotlines spin off, to be resolved later. In addition to the multi-episode story and character arcs, "Hill Street Blues" pioneered complex, sometimes ugly, sometimes conflicted characters. You could count on the veritable Boy Scouts Poncharello and Baker to tie a bow on the bad guy at the end of every episode of "CHiPS." And on "24," you can't tell if Jack Bauer is a hero or villain, and every episode is like a chapter in an ever-tangling book.
The break between the two was "Hill Street Blues."
And now for something completely different: Without this great geek staple of straight-faced buffoonery, there would be no "Saturday Night Live," no "The Daily Show" and even -- gasp! -- no "The Simpsons." Whether you follow the model or eschew it, every comedy following "Monty Python's Flying Circus" has to deal with its distinctive take on humor.
When Dan Aykroyd chucked fish in a blender for his famous Bass-o-Matic sketch on SNL, it was straight out of Python's spoof commercials. When John Oliver sets up an oblivious interviewee on "The Daily Show," it's the same straight-faced political absurdism that makes up so many famous "Flying Circus" scenes.
Thank you, Python, for redefining funny and thereby forcing a little more thoughtful, thoughtless mirth on an unsuspecting, TV-viewing populace.
Want to learn more about TV? Check out the links on the next page.
Modern media embraces drones, but is that good for society? Find out how drones are changing media coverage at HowStuffWorks.
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- How did the advent of television impact politics?
- How has the evolution of TV changed America?
- Mathis-Lilley, Ben et al. "I Want My A.D.D." New York Magazine. July 24, 2006. (April 24, 2011)http://nymag.com/arts/tv/features/18480/
- Poniewozik, James. "17 Shows That Changed TV." TIME. Sept. 6, 2007. (April 22, 2011)http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1659718-1,00.html
- Poniewozik, James. "The 100 Best TV Shows of All-TIME." TIME. 2007. (April 22, 2011)http://www.time.com/time/specials/2007/completelist/0,,1651341,00.html
- Rorke, Robert and Stephen Lynch. "The 35 Best Shows on TV -- Ever." New York Post. May 1, 2008. (April 23, 2011)http://www.nypost.com/p/entertainment/tv/item_m6hroaqhhjwVUS6iC32eZL