Tune In: Ten Groundbreaking Television Shows
by Kathryn Williams
The boob tube; the idiot box. There have been some pretty disparaging monikers for television over the years. They used to say it would rot your brain. It killed the radio star. Even Groucho Marx was quoted as saying, “I find television very educational; every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”
But over the years, television has also been a platform for and a reflection of social and technological change. For every dozen throwaway sitcoms or reality-TV bombs, there’s been a groundbreaking television program that challenged viewers to examine the way they think, feel, laugh, and consume media. Many of them inspired later shows that continue to push the boundaries. Here are ten of the most groundbreaking series to grace the small screen, and the influential shows they inspired.
I Love Lucy
Running from 1951 to 1957 and starring Lucille Ball and her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz, the perennially popular black-and-white sitcom finally proved a woman could nail physical comedy just as well as a man could. It also broke technical ground, raising the production bar by shooting with three cameras and a live audience on 35 mm film.
It begat … The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which featured the first unmarried, working female lead in a sitcom,
which begat … Sex and the City, one of the first series to focus frankly on female sexuality.
This slapstick comedy, which ran for only thirty-nine episodes between 1955 and 1956, centered on two couples living in the same working-class Brooklyn tenement building. While other shows of the era, like Leave It to Beaver and The Donna Reed Show, glorified middle-class suburban life, The Honeymooners was one of the first to focus on an urban, blue-collar Everyman.
It begat … All in the Family, one of the first sitcoms to not shy away from controversial social issues, like racism and sex,
which begat … The Simpsons, a satirical cartoon aimed at adults as well as kids,
which begat … South Park and Family Guy.
All in the Family also begat … The Jeffersons, the longest-running television series with a predominantly black cast,
which begat … The Cosby Show,
which begat … anything ever done by Tyler Perry.
Though the original sci-fi series ran for only three seasons in the late ’60s, the world-beyond-this-world that it created took on a life of its own, inspiring extreme fan loyalty that hasn’t waned even decades later.
It begat … Battlestar Galactica, one of the first television shows to wholeheartedly embrace the Internet, with original webisodes, commentary podcasts, and iTunes downloads.
Based on the Robert Altman movie of the same name, M*A*S*H*, which aired on CBS from 1972 to 1983, culminated in a cinematic, two-and-a-half-hour finale that remains the most watched television episode of all time. The forebear of the “dramedy,” the show interwove comedic and dramatic plotlines and was one of the first television series to lean heavily on character development.
It begat … ensemble series like the medical drama St. Elsewhere,
which begat … ER,
and also begat … the police drama Hill Street Blues,
which begat … NYPD Blue,
which begat … the Law & Order franchise.
Saturday Night Live
With its return to TV’s live roots, this legendary late-night variety show has gotten its laughs since 1975 with a mix of cynicism, satire, and slapstick. Its longest recurring sketch, Weekend Update, has helped launch a number of careers and imitators.
It begat … The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, satirical current-events programs that have become a primary source of news and commentary for a new generation of disaffected American youth.
The first prime-time soap opera chronicling the escapades of the rich and powerful ran from 1978 to 1991. Its serial cliffhangers, like “Who Shot J.R.?,” kept viewers coming back for more.
It begat … the first teen drama, Beverly Hills, 90210,
which begat … Laguna Beach, the first (ostensibly) scripted “reality” show.
Running from 1983 to 1995, the original televised talent show launched numerous singing, dancing, and comedy careers, including those of Britney Spears, Adam Sandler, Alanis Morissette, Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Ray Romano, LeAnn Rimes, and Dave Chappelle.
It begat … American Idol, which first utilized text voting,
which begat … Project Runway,
which begat … Top Chef.
The Oprah Winfrey Show
Since 1986, Oprah has dominated the airwaves with her nationally syndicated daytime talk show, drawing an estimated forty-four million viewers each week. There’s only one O. She’s become so enmeshed with our social consciousness that marketing gurus have coined the term “the Oprah effect,” linking the Big O’s stamp of approval to skyrocketing sales.
It begat … The Ellen DeGeneres Show, also possible because Ellen revealed her homosexuality to Oprah while filming Ellen, the first show to have an openly gay character,
which begat … Will & Grace.
This “show about nothing,” starring stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld, introduced American viewers to a new breed of comedy, finding humor and absurdity in the minutiae of everyday life. Ranked by TV Guide as the best television show of all time, it ran from 1989 to 1998.
It begat … Curb Your Enthusiasm, the largely improvised mockumentary show starring Seinfeld creator Larry David as himself,
which begat … The Office, an American adaptation of a British comedy.
The Real World
MTV is credited with launching the modern reality-TV craze with this show, which follows a group of young-adult strangers picked to live in a house together. While the series has devolved into voyeurism, the original seasons, the first of which aired in 1992, were lauded for their exploration of difficult issues, such as racism, homophobia, AIDS, and substance abuse.
It begat … a slew of reality television shows, most of them forgettable, but some of them, like Survivor, The Bachelor, and Extreme Makeover, innovative for their novel format.