After writing a recent post about Deadwood, I started thinking about my favorite TV shows of all time. I know this is hard to believe, but there was once a world with no Netflix, no Hulu, and no Amazon Prime. And HBO and Showtime were only in their infancy. That’s the world I grew up in. It was a hard scrabble life. As a result, my list may be skewed toward older, network shows. Even so, these were great shows and deserve some recognition.
The flip side of that is that there are a lot of shows I’ve never seen. I never watched The Wire or The Sopranos or Game of Thrones (all on HBO), The Man in the High Castle (Amazon), Shameless (Showtime), Justified (FX) or The West Wing (NBC), all of which I’ve heard are really good. Also, I never really got into Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, or Mad Men (AMC), The Blacklist (NBC), or The Commish (ABC), which, although highly rated, never really appealed to me.
Having said all of this, here is the list of my favorite twenty TV shows of all time (with a couple of ties):
- Bob Newhart Show #2 (CBS) – People under the age of 40 or so probably don’t even know who Bob Newhart is. But for those of us who do, we remember him as one of the funniest men in the world. So funny, in fact, that he has two shows in my all-time favorite top twenty. The second Bob Newhart Show wasn’t quite as funny as the first, but it was still hilariously funny. And if you ever want to see a finale show done right, check out the final episode of the second Bob Newhart Show.
- Bewitched (ABC) – Bewitched ran from 1964 to 1972, and was so good that the show switched out Samantha’s (Elizabeth Montgomery) husband, Darrin Stephens (Dick York, then Dick Sargent) in 1969 and everyone just accepted the change. To be honest, I was most acquainted with Bewitched through reruns. I was pretty young when the show first aired, and I have to admit, I may feel a little nostalgia when it comes to Bewitched. It might not really be as good as I remember. Regardless, Bewitched is in my top twenty. And I still have the same question today I had when I used to watch the show: Why would anyone with the type of powers Samantha had want to be a normal human being? I still don’t have a good answer.
- Frazier (NBC) – Frazier was smart and funny, and at times, completely over the top. It was a spin-off of Cheers, starring Kelsey Grammar as Doctor Frazier Crane, a psychiatrist who gives up his practice in Boston (where Cheers took place) to move back to Seattle where he hosts a radio self-help show. All of the actors on Frazier did a terrific job, including my fellow WIU-alum John Mahoney, who played Frazier’s father.
- Taxi (NBC) – In a way, Taxi was Friends before Friends was created. Taxi was a true assemble show featuring Judd Hirsch, Tony Danza, Christopher Lloyd, Marilu Henner, Danny DeVito, Carol Kane, Jeff Conaway, and the great Andy Kauffman. The shows were well written, well executed, and at a time before so many cable channels (1978-1982), Taxi was a tiny bit risqué. Even when it was airing, I always felt Taxi was a little ahead of its time. The scripts were smarter and more complicated than many of the other shows running at the time.
- Get Smart (NBC 1965-69, CBS 1969-70) – Get Smart is another show that I experienced mostly through reruns. It starred a very funny Don Adams as secret agent Max Smart, and a beautiful Barbara Feldon as Agent 99. Like many shows on this list, the writing was smart and funny. Of course, considering that Get Smart was created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, that shouldn’t be surprising.
- Arrested Development (Fox 2003-2006, Netflix 2013-Present) – Hands down, Arrested Development is one of the funniest TV shows I’ve ever seen. The first few seasons on Fox were absolutely hilarious, and they contained some of Jason Bateman’s best work, which is really saying something. Arrested Development would be much higher on this list if the show hadn’t fallen off a cliff once Netflix took it over in 2013. I wanted to like the Netflix episodes. I still do. But they pale in comparison to the Fox years.
- Green Acres (CBS) – As with a few other shows on the list, I know Green Acres best through reruns. It originally ran from 1965-1971, and was a spin-off of Petticoat Junction. I enjoyed Petticoat Junction, but Green Acres was much funnier. Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor were the stars of the show, but for my money, the funniest actor was Tom Lester, who played Eb Dawson. He was an innocent, wide-eyed farm hand who delivered some of the shows funniest and most striking lines.
- Cheers (NBC) – I think I was just the right age when Cheers premiered in 1982. I was a junior in college and my friends and I used to get together on Thursday nights to watch NBC’s “Must See” lineup. Cheers was one of our favorites. I’m not sure any other sitcom has ever had so many beloved characters. Sam Malone (Ted Danson), the former baseball player and alcoholic led the way, with Diane Chambers (Shelly Long) and Rebecca Howe (Kirstie Alley) right behind. But there were so many more, like Norm Peterson (George Wendt), Cliff Clavin (John Ratzenberger), Coach (Nicholas Colasanto), Woody Boyd (Woody Harrelson), Frazier Crane (Kelsey Grammar), Carla Tortelli (Rhea Perlman), and so many others.
- ER (NBC) – ER was created by Michael Crichton and was set in a hospital in Chicago, two reasons I was bound to love this show. The show also introduced such stars as George Clooney, Anthony Edwards, Noah Wylie, Julianna Margulies, Maura Tierney, and many others to the world. ER was another very strong ensemble show that made stars out of several of the actors. It ran an incredible 15 seasons (1994-2009) and garnered 124 Emmy nominations, including 116 wins. Although ER was very popular, I always felt that it was underrated. It garnered a lot of attention, but it probably deserved even more.
- Carol Burnett Show (CBS) – The Carol Burnett Show ran from 1967-1978. If you’re not familiar with Carol Burnett, do yourself a favor and surf through Youtube videos of the show. They are hilarious. Carol Burnett is a comedic genius, and she was backed up by two other geniuses, Harvey Korman and Tim Conway. One of my joys was watching the show to see each of the main characters try (and often succeed) to crack the other ones up. But the biggest joy I got out of the Carol Burnett Show was watching my dad laugh at it. My dad was not always the happiest guy in the world, but when Carol Burnett came on, his worries disappeared and he allowed himself to laugh. What a joy that was.
- Westworld (HBO) – Here’s the idea behind Westworld: A giant corporation develops a Western-themed resort where guests can go to live out their grandest fantasies. Westworld is populated by robots who are programmed to cater to the guests’ needs, but there’s a problem. When the robots get tired of being killed and screwed, they realize that they can act out in any way they choose. Soon, robots are killing humans and angling to leave the resort to take over the outside world. What a great and interesting premise. I binge-watched Westworld long after it originally aired and just loved it.
- Bob Newhart Show #1 (CBS) – This is the original Bob Newhart Show that ran from 1972-1978, and starred Bob Newhart, Suzanne Pleshette, Bill Daley, Marcia Wallace, and Peter Bonerz. The show was hilarious, and the characters were quirky and complicated. Even now as I write this, I think I may be ranking the Bob Newhart Show #1 too low. It was innovative, and like many great shows, ahead of its time.
- M*A*S*H (CBS) – For a lot of people, M*A*S*H was the greatest television show of all time. It’s hard not to agree that it was a really great show. There were a lot of great actors that were part of the show at one time or another. Alan Alda was the one constant, gracing the show from start to finish. There was also Wayne Rogers, McLean Stevenson, Loretta Swit, Mike Farrell, Jamie Farr, Henry Morgan, and a bunch of others. Although my vote for the best finale in history goes to the Bob Newhart Show #2 (Mary Tyler Moore Show is right there too), a lot of people feel the M*A*S*H finale was the best ever. The show ran from 1972 until 1983, and can still be found in heavy rotation in reruns.
- (tie) The Simpsons (FOX) – There was a time, not that long ago, that I wanted to write for The Simpsons. Actually, to put a little finer point on it, I wanted to be witty and smart enough to write for The Simpsons. Alas, I am not witty and smart enough, and The Simpsons never came calling. Even without me, The Simpsons (somehow) became one of the smartest, funniest shows on TV. The biting humor on the show is spoken through characters who are often lovable despite themselves. I would also argue that The Simpsons did a better job than any other show of addressing the political issues of the day. They did so subtly, often with self-deprecating humor, attacking their opponent as hard as they attacked their own position.
- (tie) Moonlighting (ABC) – It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when Bruce Willis wasn’t a big movie star. In fact, before Moonlighting, he was bartending in LA. And paired with the luscious (there, I said it) Cybil Shepard, Moonlighting was the hottest show going. I haven’t seen it in years (it ran from 1985-1989), but during it’s time, Moonlighting was great TV. It was smart and funny and romantic, with surprisingly deep characters, interesting storylines, and great music, including the show’s theme by Al Jarreau. It was also one of the pioneers in the dramedy (comedy + drama) genre, which is a staple of TV today.
- (tie) Ally McBeal (Fox) – In my memory, I think of shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place as shows aimed at women. As a result, I never watched either show much. Ally McBeal kind of falls in that same genre (at least in my mind), but I watched it and thought it was great. The show ran from 1997 to 2002 and starred Calista Flockhart, an actress I had never heard of previously, and haven’t heard much about since. Ally McBeal was a great ensemble show that paired several little-known actors to create something really special. The plots and the characters were quirky and well-developed, and the music was outstanding, earning the show two Emmys for music.
- (tie) LA Law (NBC) – LA Law was created by Steven Bochco (remember that name) and Terry Louise Fisher, and ran from 1986 to 1994. It was another ensemble show about a fictitious law firm in Los Angeles. The thing that always struck me about LA Law was the way the show, a drama, was infused with just enough comedy. The show also was unflinching in tackling controversial issues such as racism, gay rights, AIDS, and domestic violence. Stars like Harry Hamlin, Corbin Bernsen, and Jimmy Smits got their start on the show, but as it turned out, the show kind of became the farewell project for Susan Dey, formerly of The Partridge Family. She was great on the show, but wasn’t heard from much after it.
- Sherlock (BBC/Netflix) – In recent years, I’ve watched a lot of great TV from the BBC. Two of my favorites are The Bodyguard and Luther. But my number one favorite BBC show is Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. The show ran on the BBC from 2010 to 2017 and puts a modern spin on the traditional Sherlock Holmes stories. I watched the show more recently on Netflix, and I have to admit, I liked the earlier episodes more than the later ones, mostly because it seemed to me that the producers were relying on slick technical wizardry in the later episodes rather than concentrating on the excellent writing that was the hallmark of the early years. Even so, the show remains one of my all-time favorites.
- Seinfeld (NBC) – The great show about nothing, but, of course, it wasn’t about nothing. In the very least, it was about the wacky lives of four friends living in New York. The characters—including the ancillary characters—were offbeat, but lovable, and the story lines were always unusual, if not absurd. NBC’s Thursday night “Must Watch” lineup just wouldn’t have been the same without Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer. In the years since Seinfeld ran (1989-1998), I’ve been surprised by the number of people who didn’t like the show. I guess it just didn’t speak to their since of humor (assuming they had a sense of humor). And, although I can’t say it was one of the best, the Seinfeld finale was memorable.
- Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS) – For me, the Mary Tyler Moore Show was the funniest sitcom of all time. My guess is that I’m in the minority on this question, but you can’t deny that Mary Tyler Moore, along with Lou Grant (Ed Asner), Valerie Harper (Rhoda Morganstern), Gavin MacLeod (Murray Slaughter), Betty White (Sue Ann Givens), Georgie Engel (Georgette Franklin Baxter), and Ted Knight (Ted Baxter) were absolutely hilarious together. One of the things I always appreciated about the show was the way the writers pointed out gender inequalities in the workplace and in society. They did it in very smart, subtle ways, which to me, was much more effective that hitting the audience over the head with the issue (ala Murphy Brown). Mary was an unmarried, independent, career-oriented woman living in Minneapolis. The show likely would have been different, and the gender equality issues likely would have been handled differently, if the show had taken place in New York. But in Minneapolis, the heartland, where such issues are handled with more tact and humor, they could be served up to an audience looking for laughs first and lessons on social justice second. For my money, the Mary Tyler Moore Show provided both the humor and the civics lesson more effectively than any show before or since.
- Deadwood (HBO) – I’ve written previously about my love for Deadwood (you can read my thoughts here). The show was gritty and filthy and violent and hopeful and inspiring. The writing was some of the best I have ever experienced on TV. The show was created by David Milch, an innovative writer and thinker who also co-created NYPD Blue (a groundbreaking network cop drama) and wrote on another cutting-edge cop drama, Hill Street Blues. Sadly, Deadwood only ran for three years (2004-2006). Despite its popularity, HBO and the production company had a falling out over money, and the show was taken off the air following the third season. Earlier this year, Milch got the band back together and made a Deadwood movie. It doesn’t wrap up the show so much as it continues the story ten years after the series ended. I really liked and appreciate the movie (I almost loved it), but it left me wanting even more Deadwood.
- Hill Street Blues (NBC) – When Hill Street Blues premiered in 1981, it was the most realistic cop show ever. It was gritty, and focused not only on case work, but also on the interpersonal relationships inside the squad room and after hours. As a result, unlike other cop shows, viewers were every bit as interested in the characters as they were in the cases that came about each week. I haven’t watched the show in thirty or more years, but I still remember the characters vividly, and I remember feeling at the time that the writing and the acting I was witnessing on Hill Street Blues was better than anything I had seen up until then. That’s thanks in part to the show’s creator, Steven Bochco (along with Michael Kozoll), the same man who came up with LA Law and NYPD Blue. For whatever reason, when the show ended in 1987, it kind of disappeared. I assume it was available in reruns at some point, but it was not as available as shows like Barney Miller, Law & Order, CSI, or other popular cop shows. That’s too bad. If it came back on reruns now, I’d be watching it.
To learn more about Hill Street Blues, check out this admittedly low-budget retrospective, Life on the Hill.