by Burt Prelutsky
Television is often treated like the unloved step-child of the arts. It’s been called a vast wasteland and worse. And vast it certainly is. It’s on all the time and on hundreds of channels, so it’s no surprise that most of it is just awful. The surprise is how much of it is worthwhile, and I’m not just referring to the artsy-fartsy stuff that shows up on Masterpiece Theatre.
Of course everyone’s list is going to seem eccentric to other people. My own is no exception. For one thing, there have been very popular shows that I never even tuned in. I’m thinking of “Beverly Hillbillies,” “Bonanza,” “Green Acres,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “Dallas,” “Dynasty,” “Knott’s Landing,” “Peyton Place,” “L.A. Law,” “Six Feet Under,” “ER,” “Chicago Hope,” “CSI,” “Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” “Ally McBeal” and “Sex and the City.” There were a few I watched once or twice to see what all the fuss was about, but I didn’t care for “Star Trek,” “Picket Fences,” “The X Files,” “Boston Legal,” “Touched By An Angel,” “Monty Python” or “N.Y.P.D. Blue.”
There were also some shows that I watched on a more or less regular basis until the day came when I found them to be heavy-handed and preachy. “The Defenders,” “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons,” “Maude,” “Lou Grant” and “MASH,” all spent way too much time on a soap box.
There have been a few shows that I liked a lot, but they came and went so quickly that I don’t think it’s fair to include them because they had the advantage of not sticking around long enough to get stale. A few that come to mind are “The Andros Targets” (James Sutorius, January-May, 1977), “Shannon’s Deal” (Jamey Sheridan, April, 1990-May, 1991), “The David Steinberg Show,” July, 1972-August, 1972) and the original “Bob Newhart Show.” And, no, I don’t mean the one on which he was a psychologist married to Suzanne Pleshette. I’m referring to the very funny variety show he starred in from October, ‘61-June, ‘62.
In the early days of TV, there were several wonderful anthology series, including Studio One, the Philco Playhouse, Playhouse 90, the Kraft Television Theatre and the Dick Powell Theatre. But, I’m limiting my choices to those shows with running characters.
Before getting started, I should explain that my toughest call was “Taxi.” That’s because of all the shows I considered, it was the one I feel was the least consistent. Episodes that revolved around Alex (Judd Hirsch), Louie (Danny DeVito), Latka (Andy Kaufman) and Reverend Jim (Christopher Lloyd) were usually very funny, but those that featured Bobby (Jeff Conaway), Elaine (Marilu Henner) and Tony (Tony Danza) made my teeth ache.
Even I’m surprised that “Seinfeld” didn’t make my list. I guess I saw too much sweat in the plotting, and, for me, it never seemed to be worth all that effort. When they’d finally tie up all those various strings, my response tended to be a sigh of relief rather than a laugh. Also, just between us, I never thought the Soup Nazi was funny.
These, then, are my 20 favorite TV shows (in alphabetical order), beginning with the comedies:
“Amos ‘n’ Andy,” “Black Adder” (the original series set in Elizabethan England, not the one in the trenches of WWI), “Barney Miller,” “Dream On,” “Everyone Loves Raymond,” “Fawlty Towers,” “Frasier,” “He and She,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” “The Phil Silvers Show” (aka “Sgt. Bilko,” aka “You’ll Never Get Rich”) and “Your Show of Shows” (aka “The Sid Caesar Show”).
The dramas: “Columbo,” “Law & Order,” “Monk,” “Naked City,” “The Adventures of Hercule Poirot,” “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” “The Rockford Files,” “Route 66″ and “The Untouchables.”
If a gun were held to my head, I would have to admit that “Naked City,” the hour-long version with Paul Burke, not the 30-minute show with James Franciscus, was my favorite drama, and “Frasier” was my favorite comedy, even if half the time I couldn’t catch the punch line when it was delivered by Jane Leeves, utilizing the thickest English accent this side of Neville Chamberlain.