TV has been an essential part of my life from the day my mom plunked me down as a toddler to watch Sesame Street. I've never left. It has always been an informative world of creativity, escape, news and just plain fun. It inspired me then… it inspires me now. Most say TV watching is a passive activity, but for me the opposite couldn't be more true.
Growing up, I transcribed the TV Guide at home every week. I analyzed weekly scheduling and summer programming. I tuned in as network and syndication paved the way for cable, satellite, and streaming. I studied communications at school, but always made time for TV. I even coined a phrase and created a web site that turned this lifelong passion into a career.
I've watched well over 10,000 hours in my lifetime, so I've paid my dues when it comes to expertise. I've seen it all, and still can't get enough. Occasionally, a program comes along that is truly different than the rest. Any TV fan lives for these moments because they are magical when they occur.
This will be my final Hein's Picks column for Primetimer, and my plan was to take a bow with the 10 greatest shows of all time. No real surprises — The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Seinfeld, The Office (UK), The Larry Sanders Show, The Twilight Zone, Mad Men, The Simpsons, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
But this column has always been a bit more personal, so I'd like to leave you with a list of shows that have made the greatest impact on my life. There are well more than 10, but I'll do my best to narrow down the list.
In chronological order…
Sesame Street "Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away..." Every morning of my young life started with telling me how to get to that New York City street. As a child of the '70s, I was born at the right time during the launch of this legendary show. Sesame Street taught a lot of life lessons and exposed different cultures and learning, but for me, it was all about the Muppets. Pre-Elmo episodes actually had an edge and some great music, speaking to little kids like me in an unpatronizing manner. And it made me laugh. I'd stack Grover and early Kermit the Frog up against any of today's comedians. Clever, funny, and innovative — a great recipe for any TV program, and more special for a children's show. The Muppet Show gets an honorable mention for carrying on this tradition a few years later.
The Twilight Zone Rod Serling terrified me, and I couldn't get enough. Entering that dimension of sight, sound, and mind late at night and discovering the clever tales of this black and white anthology series was inspiring. It taught me that a good story with a little bit of suspense will always mesmerize and entertain. The different premises and actors each week added to the mystique. I never miss a Twilight Zone marathon to this day. “To Serve Man,” “Time Enough At Last” and “Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up?” are forever ingrained in my mind. There's always room for one more, honey.
The Lawrence Welk Show I know what you're thinking. How can this ballroom music dance fest possibly be on your list? As an elementary school kid in Mt. Lebanon Pennsylvania, Bowling for Dollars and this bubbly show were the highlight of Sunday night (there was no night-time football). Even back then, I recognized this was the cheesiest of the cheesy. The accent, the music, the dancing — it was a guilty pleasure that paved the way for Bob Ross and so many other shows of its kind. So bad, it's so good.
The Odd Couple When I moved to New York, a staple of syndicated comedies greeted me upon my arrival. The Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island, The Munsters, and other classics aired every afternoon, but this Garry Marshall gem starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman stood out. I was too young to appreciate all the layers of this smart comedy, but I had a front row seat to TV comedy writing excellence. November 13th is a day I'll never forget (and neither will Felix or Oscar).
Happy Days An obvious choice, but not for the reason you may be thinking. Yes, Fonzie's jump in that leather jacket on water skis over a fin changed my life. But this was must-see TV well before that fateful leap. Garry Marshall knew how to make great television, and the Cunninghams were the right sitcom family at the right time. Happy Days was wholesome to watch with the family, but The Fonz made it cool. It was nostalgic, but often winked at modern family issues. Every kid wanted to be The Fonz, but most of us were Richie. My entire family enjoyed this one (and Laverne & Shirley, which followed right after).
Saturday Night Live/SCTV/Monty Python's Flying Circus If you went out on Saturday night, you made sure to be around a TV at 11:30 to see what The Not Ready For Prime Time Players were up to. I was babysitting my brother and couldn't believe what they were doing on television. Lorne Michaels' creation was groundbreaking in so many ways, and everyone wanted to be on or write for SNL. SCTV, which was even wackier with an equally talented ensemble, took things to a zanier level. Then flipping on PBS to discover Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the birthplace of both shows, was a game changer. "Argument Clinic" is the finest sketch ever written, and I always look on the bright side of life thanks to these sketch comedies.
This Week In Baseball This syndicated gem aired well before ESPN or any of the sports network juggernauts rose up and dominated the cable airwaves. Mel Allen hosted this weekly Major League Baseball highlights show, and the strings of "Gathering Crowds" inspired athletes everywhere to make that magical catch or hit that towering home run. This opened my eyes to the power of music in television. It also made me realize that I'd never be a professional baseball player.
The Joker's Wild/The Price Is Right/Wheel of Fortune/Jeopardy! The first job I actually wanted was to be a TV game show host. Who had it better than Wink Martindale, Bill Cullen, Jack Barry and of course, Bob Barker? I knew what categories to pick, how much to bid, where the Daily Doubles were and how to solve puzzles like REMOTE _ONTROL. The Joker's Wild traumatized me with that devil (if you watched, you know), but Gambit, High Rollers, Match Game, Name That Tune, and others provided a challenge. I wanted to be in the TPIR audience screaming higher and lower and hoping I’d be asked to come on down. Wheel and Jeopardy! graduated to nighttime fun and provided me with useless trivia knowledge that I still use to this day.
The Cosby Show/Family Ties/Cheers/Night Court Following ABC’s Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Three’s Company, Taxi lineup, this was my prime era of must-see TV. Seinfeld and Friends would later move into this comedy block as ER took over for Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law. Thursday nights were all about these comedies that had a sweetness and some outrageousness to them.
thirtysomething I knew I was in love because I watched this hourlong drama weekly with the gal who I've now been married to for over 31 years. Debbie opened my eyes to many shows including The Good Wife and Virgin River. There's nothing wrong with a cheesy romance if you're watching it with someone you love.
Arthur/Blue's Clues/The Powerpuff Girls/The Wonder Pets/Yo Gabba Gabba When I had kids, the TV was always on. I grew up being babysat by TV, so I had no problem with my kids tuning in. Most children's TV is annoying to adults, but when you find a show that you can tolerate, that's when the magic happens. These animated classics provided plenty of joy for me and my daughters as they grew up over the years. Barney and The Wiggles do not make the cut.
Oz/The Sopranos/The Wire Television drama hit a new high every Sunday night on HBO. Oz set the stage, The Sopranos elevated the game, and The Wire is the best of the bunch. This felt like watching a movie every Sunday starting at 9 and set a precedent that Succession tries to live up to today. Sunday nights on HBO were truly special.
Lost Previously… on Lost. Three magic words. This Damon Lindelof/Carlton Cuse creation is one of those shows that comes around every decade or so and changes television. This isn't about whether you were satisfied with the ending or what it all meant. Lost was all about the adventure. I fully appreciated this drama when I rewatched it with my daughter as she experienced it for the first time. Penny's boat is well worth saving.
Mad Men/Breaking Bad AMC went from American Movie Classics to the home of the next groundbreaking television. It restored my faith that excellent programs could still be made. Mad Men had the style and drama of a previous generation. Breaking Bad had the ultimate anti-hero and led to a prequel that was almost as good as the original.
Game Of Thrones I still get chills hearing the opening theme (and now it's wisely back on House of the Dragon). This saga symbolizes the shift of epic feature films to the big screen in your living room. Translating George R.R. Martin's universe was no small feat, but I was happily immersed in the world of Westeros as the drama unfurled. There's nothing better than a great theme song followed by an hour of gripping content (with or without dragons).
There are many more programs I could have included, and one day I'll write another book detailing all the pivotal TV milestones in my life. Primetimer has been kind enough to publish my weekly picks over the past few years, and I thank them for that.
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