50 Years and Counting

The Boston Phoenix


REVIEWED: 12-01-97

Like Play Doh, television is easy to reshape but impossible to return to its original form. Thanks to quick production turnover and the ability to beam a program instantaneously to nearly every household in America, television changes, bit by bit, on a daily basis. Half as old as film, TV has created many more artistic genres.

The television series began roughly 50 years ago, with the first regular drama program (Kraft Television Theatre), the first sit-com (Mary Kay and Johnny), and the first national news program (Meet the Press, still running today). A successful TV series walks a tightrope: it must have enough familiar elements to build viewer loyalty, but it must be different enough each week to hold their interest. The reward for managing this feat is a dozen copy-cat shows aiming for the same audience.

Below, in chronological order, are some of the most influential television series during the medium's first half-century -- along with a few that should have been influential. Most are worthwhile viewing; a few are regrettable. The most frequent genre on the list is the sit-com, which is the most popular form of TV programming. In fact, the literate sit-coms of the early '70s won the television series new-found respect as an art form. More recently, the once-reliable sit-com format has become stale (the few exceptions include Frasier), whereas adult dramas like Homicide: Life on the Street are considered superior to Hollywood films.

As for the future, television fans should rejoice that the medium's hold on viewers has weakened in recent years, thanks to competition from videos, the Internet, and maybe the lower crime rate (though TV does its best to frighten people from going out). More so than at any time since the 1950s, television must work at attracting audiences, and that could mean more innovative programs.

TV has always been a synthesis of other media, though the influence of each art form has waxed and waned over the years. In the early '50s, TV was a lot like theater, with an emphasis on live drama and variety shows. Later in that decade, Hollywood took over, producing Westerns and adventure series that resembled old movie serials. The rise of cable TV in the 1980s mirrored the evolution of radio, with niche channels providing sports, talk, or weather around the clock. And now videos are being packaged like books, with episodes of The X-Files sold a few feet away from Stephen King novels.

None of these influences has ever vanished completely, and "television" as an art form is as ill-defined as it was 50 years ago -- thank goodness. Stay tuned for future developments.


1947 When TV's first hit kids' show premiered, adult programs consisted mostly of theater productions, sports, and other "events." The repetitive jokes and unbending format of Howdy Doody (beginning with the shout "Hey kids, what time is it?") were considered fit only for undeveloped minds. But this predictable puppet show outlasted just about all of the live-drama programs remembered from TV's "Golden Age." When it was finally canceled, in 1960, viewers were treated to one of the most shocking finales in TV history: Clarabell the Clown broke his 13-year silence to blurt out, "Goodbye, kids."


1948 The Ed Sullivan Show is fondly remembered today, but that's because there's been nothing like it since. Find the best talents from all over the world and pack them into an hour of nonstop excitement? It's not worth the bother, not when viewers are content to watch unknown but sincere performers like the white-bread vocalists featured on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts (Pat Boone was the biggest star introduced here.) Talent Scouts proved that there's always an audience for a parade of 30-second wonders -- from The Gong Show to Star Search.


1949 The first hit sit-com, The Goldbergs had been on radio for 20 years before the Jewish family and their crowded New York apartment appeared on TV. Ethnic shtick was big on radio, where funny accents and malapropisms could replace the pratfalls and sight gags of the movies. Most early TV sit-coms followed this pattern, which made sense because picture quality still wasn't hot. But ratings for The Goldbergs steadily declined after its first season -- probably because TV-set ownership spread outward from New York -- and urban sit-coms wouldn't really come back until All in the Family.


1950 Your Show of Shows was a classy variety show with all the excitement of live TV. Some of the stuff here, like opera scenes and pantomimes, could also be found on Ed Sullivan's program. More innovative were the parodies of current movies, which demonstrated one advantage of television over film: quick production times. Another reason for these sketches' appeal was that political satire was verboten on TV, but Sid Caesar and company were allowed to make other show-business people look silly (a rule that largely holds true today). Twenty-five years later, NBC introduced another end-of-the-week live 90-minute variety show aired from New York -- titled Saturday Night Live. But instead of lavish musical numbers and epic parodies of great films, SNL featured rock singers in T-shirts and quick spoofs of cheesy commercials.


1951 I Love Lucy's influence matched its great popularity. It was the first major series to be filmed rather than broadcast live, so that it could be rerun forever. I Love Lucy also perfected what would become the most durable theme of the sit-com genre: frustration. Anti-television critics have always ridiculed sit-coms for introducing and then neatly resolving problems within 30 minutes. That claim may apply to Father Knows Best, but it does not describe the life of Lucy Ricardo. In most episodes, she tried to transcend the role of housewife, and she always failed. Fortunately, she never stopped trying, and that kept this series free from poignancy (but not pregnancy). I Love Lucy proved that someone could suffer complete humiliation dozens of times and still be a triumphant character.

The Honeymooners was the strongest challenger to I Love Lucy as a prototype for TV sit-coms, but the Kramdens never really had a chance against the more polished Ricardos. No one who has seen more than 10 seconds of The Honeymooners can forget the bleak set that served as Ralph and Alice Kramden's Brooklyn apartment. Their clothes weren't any better; Lucy could always get a bullfighter's outfit or whatever else was needed to further the plot, but when Ralph went to a costume ball, he had to use pots, pans, and some string to pass himself off as a "man from space." The Honeymooners was also closer to live theater, complete with ad-libs and improvisation. An I Love Lucy episode might be written to lead up to an elaborate sight gag; the laughs on The Honeymooners came from Ralph's volatile temper, Alice's devastating putdowns, and best friend Norton's ability to stretch out the simplest action into a three-minute pantomime routine. The Kramdens were popular on Gleason's variety shows (where they were introduced in 1951), but ratings were disappointing for The Honeymooners as a separate series (in 1955). Its working-class setting would reappear on All in the Family and Roseanne, but its raw energy would never really be attempted in another prime-time sit-com.


1952 Although several comedy shows with continuing characters won over critics in the early days of TV, crime dramas like Martin Kane, Private Eye were dismissed as cheesy ripoffs of dime-store novels. If you wanted drama, you watched Studio One or another anthology. Dragnet overcame the anti-series bias in several ways. First, its regular characters were in a plausibly dramatic profession (part of TV's holy trinity of cops, lawyers, and doctors). The cases on the show were real, immunizing Dragnet from charges that it was contrived. Further, the lead characters did not undergo emotional crises week after week. Rather, they were so deadpan ("Just the facts, ma'am") that Dragnet became a gift for comic impressionists seeking easy laughs. Finally, each episode was completely independent from all the others; a Dragnet episode was just a good story with some familiar faces to help it along. It would take Hill Street Blues, nearly 30 years later, to crack the prohibition against continuing storylines on "serious" dramas.


1953 If Lucille Ball is TV's most influential performer, Ernie Kovacs may be its most underappreciated. Kovacs's jokes were uniquely suited to television (out-of-control cameras and other "technical difficulties" might disrupt a skit), and many relied on repetitive elements. Kovacs's Nairobi Trio was a metaphor for the TV series itself. Three guys in the same ape costumes pretended to play the same instruments in synchronization to the same piece of recorded music, but the finale was slightly different each time. Kovacs also pioneered music videos, making familiar objects like file cabinets and roasted turkeys move to some twisted melody. Since his death, nothing on commercial TV has approached his anarchy, and it seems impossible to recapture that now. It would be like trying to bring back kids' toys with sharp metal edges.


1954 Another master of free-association television, Steve Allen was a perfect choice to host the first version of The Tonight Show. His guests were usually familiar to TV viewers, but the informal setting was a refreshing change from the staginess of The Ed Sullivan Show or the interrogation-room feel of news programs. In keeping with the casual air of the show, Allen was an innovator of "found" comedy. He might switch on a camera pointed at the sidewalk outside and ad-lib comments about the passersby. Or, he'd pick up a newspaper and read actual letters to the editor -- in a rising tone of indignation that was wildly out of proportion to the trivial topic at hand. In short, Allen specialized in doing the same shtick in a slightly different way every night.

Disney was the first major film studio to produce a weekly TV series, and it was an innovation on several levels. First, it refined the anthology format by making familiar elements as important as novelty. Despite the wide mix of subject matter on Disneyland, you could always count on Walt Disney himself to introduce the show, and you could depend on wholesome family entertainment. The most popular feature of the show's first season was the story of Davy Crockett, the real-life Western hero with a coonskin cap. The success of what was arguably TV's first mini-series inspired Disney to produce several more multi-episode tales about actual figures in the Old West (as opposed to simplistic heroes like the Lone Ranger) and also led to a tidal wave of prime-time Westerns. Most important, Disneyland represented the triumph of film over theater as a model for television programming.


1955 Gunsmoke was the most popular of the dozens of Westerns that flooded prime-time in the late '50s, and it still holds the record for the most number of episodes (635) among prime-time series with continuing characters. Many Gunsmoke knockoffs tried to distinguish themselves with gimmicks (such as a special type of gun), but these wore thin after a few episodes. Gunsmoke took a different approach that ensured its 20-year run: it explored "contemporary" themes, such as the rights of minorities, within a noncontroversial setting. Moving beyond black-and-white (hat) clichés also made Marshal Matt Dillon a deeper character, as he sometimes had to agonize over his decisions.


1956 Quiz shows were a cheap and easy way to generate drama on radio and early TV. Contestants on the number-one-rated show The $64,000 Question were put in "isolation booths" and given increasingly difficult questions on their way to the top prize. Twenty-One raised the dramatic stakes by pitting players against each other and lifting any limit on how many weeks a contestant could last. But the show's producers hedged their bets by providing answers to the more appealing contestants. When the fraud was finally revealed (as depicted in the film Quiz Show), all of the big-money game shows quickly collapsed. The question-and-answer format eventually came back with the more low-key Jeopardy!


1957 Through the late '50s, sit-com regulars could be scatterbrained or have somewhat of a temper, but they were all basically likable. Leave It to Beaver introduced a truly loathsome character: Eddie Haskell, the hypocrite who would bully little kids and then suck up to their parents. Writers for earlier sit-coms might have found it implausible for nice characters to have rotten friends. Kids, on the other hand, don't have as many options in finding people to hang out with, and most of us can recall childhood "pals" who were real assholes. After Beaver, jerks like Eddie Haskell crept into the casts of adult sit-coms. Viewers agreed that they belonged there -- and credibility be damned.


1958 Film noir came to television with Peter Gunn, which was about a cynical private detective in LA. This was also the first dramatic series to develop a strong musical identity. Henry Mancini's jazzy theme became a big hit, and it was echoed in the moody background music that ran throughout each episode.


1959 The Twilight Zone was, as creator Rod Serling explained to viewers, "the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition." This abstract concept became as familiar as any continuing character on TV. In most episodes, there came a point at which the central character realized he was in a situation that defied explanation. Other times, it was the TV viewer who got trapped in the Twilight Zone, unable to grasp what was happening on screen until the end. A sense of uneasy unreality suffused the entire series and kept viewers riveted even to subpar episodes. The Twilight Zone inspired many other sci-fi and horror collections, but rarely has an anthology series been so keyed to one man's vision.


1960 The Andy Griffith Show introduced a sense of place to sit-coms. Like the Dodge City of Gunsmoke, Mayberry had an assortment of oddballs who could be used occasionally to complicate plots or provide comic relief. Also, Andy Taylor was an early example of what would become a sit-com standby, the widowed parent. Contrary to Dan Quayle's assertion, the proliferation of single parents on TV was not part of a liberal attack on the nuclear family. A spouse means another major character who must be given something to do in every episode, and another actor who could hold up production with salary demands. No one seemed to mind the missing wife on The Andy Griffith Show, so quite a few others have been killed off since.


1961 The Dick Van Dyke Show depicted both the New Rochelle home life and the Manhattan workplace of its central character, a comedy writer for a TV variety show. No surprise that it was created by Carl Reiner, a writer from Your Show of Shows. Reiner wrote most of the episodes in the first two seasons -- which was highly unusual for an American sit-com. As a result, DVD was consistently good, and Reiner made sure his characters (including Mary Tyler Moore) remained believable. Unfortunately, the series didn't become a hit until it followed The Beverly Hillbillies on Wednesday nights -- and it was the other show that influenced sit-coms for the rest of the decade.


1962 An argument can be made for the premise of The Beverly Hillbillies as satire. There are definite comic possibilities in the collision between the homespun Clampetts and the greedheads who infest Beverly Hills. But it's hard to justify the production of 274 episodes to bang away at the same joke. The Beverly Hillbillies held to the tradition of a sit-com as a collection of interchangeable episodes with no character development. So, during the series's nine-year run, the Clampetts got dumber and dumber -- never figuring out how to work the appliances in their mansion, for example. But TV viewers apparently didn't care about such limitations in the '60s. The Beverly Hillbillies inspired a wave of "high-concept" sit-coms with premises so convoluted that they had to be explained in themesongs every week (Gilligan's Island, Green Acres, etc. -- see "Those Were the Days").


1963 Have Gun, Will Travel and Route 66 put characters on the road to encounter different people every week. The Fugitive refined this quasi-anthology genre by adding a storyline that would make each episode feel like a cliffhanger. Richard Kimble was being hunted for the murder of his wife; as soon as he found a new home, he felt the law closing in on him -- and had to move on to search out the next week's guest stars. If sit-com protagonists occupy a dream world of supportive friends and family, the central characters of most drama series are trapped in hell, where any escape from danger is temporary. The Fugitive is perhaps the best example of this difference.


1964 The French Chef was the first national success on public TV. But most viewers had no intention of duplicating the host's feats in the kitchen. Instead, they marveled at the unflappable Julia Child, who was as confident with the TV camera as Johnny Carson -- and arguably as funny. The French Chef hooked audiences with its simple blend of enthusiasm and expertise. Among the many "how-to" hosts since, Martha Stewart presents the biggest contrast. Where viewers saw the good-natured Child as someone they'd really like to dine with, the chilly Stewart is enjoyed as a parody version of the perfect housekeeper.


1965 Hogan's Heroes was truly a creature of its time. This tasteless sit-com about a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp could not have been made in the sanitized '50s or the more politically correct '70s, but it fit right in with the high-concept shows of the '60s. It was established in the first episode that the American prisoners had built an underground hideout, which was mildly implausible. In order to sustain this joke, the hideout became more and more elaborate, and the series became completely divorced from reality. One saving grace about Hogan's Heroes is that it may have been necessary to savage the German military before TV could get away with doing the same thing to American generals on M*A*S*H.


1966 Creator Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek to NBC as "Wagon Train to the stars," referring to the popular Western about settlers making their way to California. In some ways, this sci-fi series did resemble a Western, notably in the way it could address topical issues like racism in a "safe" context. But the two genres are quite different in terms of popular appeal. Westerns are ideal for reaching mass audiences. They're mostly interchangeable in terms of setting, conflicts, and even vocabulary, so viewers can drop into a series at any time and grasp what's going on. The fans of a science-fiction series are more like an exclusive club, in which status is determined by knowledge. Star Trek, with its background stories about Vulcans, Klingons, and the Federation, left most first-time viewers baffled and ready to switch back to My Three Sons. Twenty years later, Roddenberry produced a sequel series whose audience wasn't much larger than that for the original. Because TV audiences had become so splintered, however, it was considered an unqualified success.


1967 At first, The Carol Burnett Show favored Broadway tunes and parodies of old movies, but the series later featured a regular sketch called "The Family," about a white-trash clan in Texas. "The Family" is notable because every one of its regular characters, including Burnett's loudmouthed Eunice, was mean, selfish, and completely irredeemable as a human being. Married . . . with Children seemed like The Waltons compared to these screamfests.


1968 60 Minutes hit the Top 10 in 1977 and has been there ever since, which makes it the most successful weekly series ever. One reason was its stable of "correspondents," who became as familiar (and distinct) as the three brothers on Bonanza. Mike Wallace's aggressive interviewing technique was reminiscent of TV lawyer Perry Mason, and scenes of him barging into the offices of inept doctors or corrupt politicians, often getting doors slammed in his face, were parodied on countless entertainment shows.


1969 The Brady Bunch, dubbed by one critic as "the family that wouldn't go away," is notable as an extreme case of recycling in pop culture. There were three attempts to revive this cloying series in different forms, and all were failures. Just when Bradyism seemed safely behind us, someone came up with a stage show using actual dialogue from the series delivered in camp style. Its success led to two theatrical films, and no one would bet that we've seen the last of the leisure-suited family.


1970 The Mary Tyler Moore Show, about a single woman in a big city, was the first hit in a campaign to win back younger, urban audiences after a decade of cornpone programs. Together with All in the Family, it destroyed the high-concept sit-com almost overnight. The most striking change about MTM is that its characters listen to one another and respond as normal people. In almost every '60s sit-com, the characters talk at each other, reacting in the same way to every situation (e.g., Mrs. Kravitz on Bewitched, or Schultz on Hogan's Heroes sputtering, "I see nothing!"). The Mary Tyler Moore show could offer surprises all the way into its seventh season, such as when Mary and her father-like boss, Lou Grant, share a romantic dinner to see whether there's any sexual chemistry between them. The series ended with Mary calling her colleagues at WJM-TV a "family," reflecting the fact that most adult sit-coms had moved to the workplace.


1971 Archie Bunker was both admirable and despicable, a combination rare among television characters. All in the Family permanently widened the range of topics that could be discussed on a sit-com (including impotence and menopause), but it's unlikely that anyone as complex as Archie would be allowed in a sit-com today. Creator Norman Lear pointed out that narrow-minded Archie was proven wrong by the end of every episode. That's technically true, but an interesting thing happens if you watch several episodes over a short length of time. Archie seems more like an ordinary guy breaking his back to feed his family, and son-in-law Mike comes off as an ungrateful prick who likes to hear himself talk. Archie's prejudices are still inexcusable, but he probably wouldn't have them if he had been lucky enough to attend college. Further into the show's run, other critics complained that the character of Archie was losing its edge, citing episodes where he befriended a drag queen and stood up to the Ku Klux Klan. But it was more realistic for Archie to change his views gradually over 13 years than for him to see the light during a single "special episode." Edith Bunker also evolved over the long run of this series, and the couple may be the most fully realized characters in the history of TV.

Whodunits generally don't hold up to repeated viewings. Too often, the way to keep an audience from guessing the murderer is to make all the suspects equally dull. Columbo solved this problem by revealing its villains at the outset, turning the show into a cat-and-mouse tale with deliciously multi-layered dialogue. Clever writing, a lack of gratuitous violence, and Peter Falk's puckish delivery helped Columbo stand out among the crime dramas of the early '70s, most of them with wooden leads like Hawaii Five-O's Jack Lord. The rumpled detective consistently underestimated by his opponents grew more popular with each mystery, and several imitators followed. The best post-Columbo mystery was The Rockford Files, with James Garner as a persistent private eye who preferred to leave his gun at home in a cookie jar.


1972 M*A*S*H was the last of the three series that redefined the sit-com as an art form. Compared with All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, it had a much broader range in tone, including both Hogan's Heroes-type slapstick and somber musings on the nature of war. M*A*S*H also crossed the line between sit-com and drama by making its repetitive elements seem tragic rather than reassuring. "They just keep coming," more than one character said of the wounded soldiers -- and the TV series lasted almost three times as long as the Korean War itself.


1973: Long before The Real World, public-TV producer Craig Gilbert plopped his cameras down in a California home and allowed viewers of An American Family to watch the Loud household fall apart. This sort of thing was still called cinéma-vérité rather than "reality TV," but the titillation factor was the same. As the 12 episodes rolled on, son Lance came out as gay and his parents decided to divorce. It seemed too perfect, and critics wondered whether the filmmakers somehow influenced events to get a compelling story. Meanwhile, light bulbs must have been going off in the heads of future tabloid-TV producers.


1974 Rhoda violated the rule that a sit-com's premise must be cemented in its first episode. A couple months into the series, Rhoda got married, in an episode that one critic called "the electronic equivalent of a hashish brownie." Then the writers got tired of her husband and made Rhoda get a divorce. Throwing a lead character in and out of serious relationships eventually became common on sit-coms, but Rhoda is a rare example from the swinging '70s.


1975 Aside from The Honeymooners, Barney Miller was the sit-com that most approximated a one-act play. Almost every episode took place in one room of a rundown, filthy police station in Greenwich Village. Barney Miller managed to develop its main characters without showing their home lives (or their bare butts), thanks to perceptive writing and scenes that were long enough for actors to breathe. The show is also rare among workplace comedies in that a steady stream of character actors drop in to spice up each episode.


1976 By the mid '70s, an entire generation had grown up with TV, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman made sense only to people who knew the conventions of the medium. It was a dead-on parody of soap operas that never winked at the audience (dispensing with a laugh track), leaving many viewers simply confused. Telephobes attacked the show as tasteless, partly because of a storyline about a mass murder -- as if killing off people one at a time on Baretta made for more refined entertainment. The series spun off a similarly uncanny spoof of talk shows, Fernwood 2-Night, whose bizarre guests would have looked right at home on Montel Williams 20 years later. In 1977, the syndicated series Second City TV took self-reflexive comedy even farther, showing fragments of all kinds of TV shows on a fictitious network -- all of which were just a degree or two off from the real thing.


1977 Roots, an eight-part drama about an African-American family, was such a success that the networks produced dozens of similar mini-series. Like Roots, most were aired over successive nights, requiring TV viewers to spend as much as 10 hours a week on a single program. By the '90s, most adult dramas had continuing storylines, and full-week spectaculars found it more difficult to wrest viewers away from them. Mini-series rarely exceed two nights now, and the most successful involve science fiction or fantasy -- mirroring the rise of such elements in blockbuster theatrical films.


1978 The popularity of potboiler mini-series like Rich Man, Poor Man inspired CBS to try a nighttime soap opera. Dallas soon became the most popular show on TV, in large part because of Larry Hagman's performance as the villainous J.R. Ewing. Besides inspiring several other soaps, Dallas began the practice of ending each season with a cliffhanger -- notably the "Who Shot J.R.?" storyline. Eventually, Dallas was done in by a paradox of nighttime soaps. Such programs promise twists in their storylines, but they really depend on stable casts, just as on sit-coms. So when Dallas writers killed off Patrick Duffy's character and the ratings slipped, they simply brought him back -- by asserting that an entire year's worth of episodes was a dream. As more realistic dramas adopted continuing storylines, prime-time soaps (despite Melrose and 90210) became less common.


1979 Cable channels began to prosper in the late '70s, in part because of the drek on the major networks. C-SPAN, which covers Congress, shares many characteristics with series television. There is a regular cast of hundreds, some with a quick wit but most astoundingly stupid. The action is divided into two-year sessions (i.e., seasons), with a minor cast turnover after every production hiatus. Fans are exceptionally loyal, and even non-viewers would hate to see a cancellation.


1980 Television has become more polished over the years, an unfortunate development resisted by David Letterman in his early shows. His Late Night series recalled Ernie Kovacs and Steve Allen in its casual chaos. In one program, the screen slowly rotated 360 degrees -- so that by the middle of the hour Letterman and his guests appeared upside down. Over the years, Letterman has inched over to the lite side, dropping such bits as the dentist who doubled as a film critic and the monkey who ran around the studio with a camcorder strapped to its back. Instead, his current CBS series emphasizes big-name guests with obviously pre-scripted remarks.


1981 Hill Street Blues permanently transformed the prime-time drama. Before it premiered, most crime dramas were slow-moving and underwritten, and they suffered from comparisons to theatrical films with similar themes. Hill Street Blues took elements from several other TV genres to create a police drama unlike anything that could be done in film. Like a soap opera, it featured a large cast and multiple continuing storylines. Reversing the formula on M*A*S*H, it mixed darkly comic scenes into a generally dramatic tone, and it echoed that sit-com's theme of heroes focusing on one crisis at a time even as they felt powerless to stop the larger war (on crime, not Korea). And imitating news documentaries, it often utilized hand-held cameras, which added to the realistic feel of the series but also helped speed up production. The Hill Street formula produced few clunkers; if one storyline or guest star was weak, there were separate plots in the same episode to compensate. As a result, viewer loyalty was exceptionally high. Eventually, Hill Street became a model for almost all crime dramas, and continuing storylines became the norm on prime-time shows.


1982 At its best, the drama promoted as "Hill Street Blues in a hospital" surpassed anything else that's been done on television. The smart writing was full of puns and in-jokes about other TV series, but St. Elsewhere was never hip or ironic at the expense of its characters. Those characters went through a lot on this series, including the losses of parents, lovers, and children to a wide assortment of diseases and freak accidents. But the cumulative effect of these tragedies was a sense of wonderment at the resiliency of the human spirit. This is a show on which a character who had just recovered from a gunshot wound could say with sincerity, "The world is filled with people whose problems are greater than ours." St. Elsewhere was often quite funny, but it was as far away from camp as you can get. The final episode was astonishing, tugging at viewers' hearts by showing us all its characters for the last time but then gently reminding us that it's only a TV show.


1983 Nothing succeeded like excess during the Reagan era, and the excessively simple game show Wheel of Fortune became the most popular syndicated series in history. Soon after, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous hit the airwaves, and The Barbara Walters Specials won an Emmy for "Best Informational Series." The most innovative aspects of all these programs were the dress designs.


1984 Eighties glitz was put to dramatic use in Miami Vice, which could be concisely described as "MTV cops." As in Peter Gunn, music was an essential element in establishing mood -- though synthesizer pop was used in place of jazz. The look was "film blanc," full of azure skies and candy-colored cars and houses.

Meanwhile, as Dallas and Dynasty began to fade, The Cosby Show restored the sit-com as the dominant genre on prime-time TV and helped NBC become the dominant network for the first time since the early '50s. This became the first number-one show with a mostly black cast. Bill Cosby also set a precedent by using a sit-com persona that was essentially the same as his stand-up comedy act -- an irresistibly simple formula that would later put Jerry Seinfeld, Drew Carey, and dozens of other nightclub veterans on network TV.


1985 Moonlighting wasn't the first series to tease viewers with an up-and-down romance (Cheers was the master of the form). More notable were its frequent attempts to transcend the detective genre -- seemingly into an old-fashioned variety hour. The most famous episode was "Atomic Shakespeare," in which the regular characters were dropped into a customized version of The Taming of the Shrew (still set in Elizabethan times). In other episodes, cast members spoke directly to the camera, or their characters appeared in animated form. Its experimental spirit may yet be adopted by other drama series, given the ratings success of recent "stunt" episodes such as the live ER and the musical installment of Chicago Hope.


1986 Thanks to the VCR, television programs can now be stuffed with visual details that warrant repeated viewing. Pee-wee's Playhouse was one of the most cluttered shows of its time, set in a candylike house full of talking chairs, clocks, and other objects. The series also attracted adults who couldn't miss the sexual innuendoes in Pee-wee's chats with Cowboy Curtis (Laurence, then "Larry," Fishburne).


1987 The Simpsons (which began on The Tracey Ullman Show) also had plenty of treats for the viewer who paid attention. The writing was more subversive than on any other network comedy, with regular swipes at organized religion, the gun lobby, and the cultural behemoth known as the Disney Company. Creator Matt Groening decreed that the characters on The Simpsons would be forever frozen in time, meaning that Bart would never leave the fourth grade. Surprisingly, the series has remained fresh even without any character development, and the writers haven't yet run out of new situations for Homer, the patriarch of a literally nuclear family, to display his idiocy. Maybe The Beverly Hillbillies should have been a cartoon.


1988 Cable TV has never really lived up to its promise of innovative programming. Tanner '88, directed by Robert Altman and written by Garry Trudeau, was an exception. Aired on HBO during the 1988 presidential primaries, the series followed a fictional Democratic candidate as he campaigned across the country and interacted with real contenders like Bob Dole. Developments in the real campaign were also incorporated into its storyline. Tanner '88 was a great way to take advantage of television's immediacy, but the concept has rarely been attempted since.


1989 Seinfeld. Few landmark series have inspired so many wrongheaded imitations. Seinfeld is not about "friends," and it is certainly not about "nothing." Although not topical in the sense of All in the Family, this sit-com is a pretty thorough catalogue of current obsessions and neuroses. It's not hard to imagine the series's becoming a valuable reference tool for future novelists and filmmakers setting a story in the 1990s. In its later seasons, Seinfeld has also turned into a weekly brain teaser: how are the four separate storylines (one for each main character) going to intersect at the end?


1990 The more noticeable debut this year was Twin Peaks, which brilliantly captured the shock of a small town after a bizarre murder. As the body count mounted, however, Twin Peaks degenerated into a campy soap opera. Law & Order chose a premise with more staying power, and it became one of the few quality dramas in the '90s without continuing storylines. Each episode follows first the police and then the prosecutors through a single murder investigation. The cases often come from real life, but they're all fictionalized to make for more-compelling drama -- a welcome contrast to the awful TV-movies that are "based on a true incident."


1991 Typical of cut-and-paste cable-TV fare in the early '90s, Talk Soup is a daily round-up of clips from talk shows, especially "tabloid" offerings. It succeeds as a time saver, allowing viewers to catch the highlights without sitting though hours of daytime TV. The circus atmosphere of most of the clips makes Talk Soup an ironic successor to The Ed Sullivan Show and its best-of-Broadway concept.


1992 HBO's Larry Sanders Show is a more ambitious cable series. Its satire of the television industry isn't really new, but its fluid movement and pungent language make network sit-coms seem stagy and cliché'd.


1993 Echoing an earlier horror series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Scully and Mulder of The X-Files are Sisyphus-like figures caught in a tragic cycle: no sooner do they solve one supernatural mystery than another monster comes rolling down the hill at them. The innovation here is creator Chris Carter's elaborate background story, involving Mulder's search for his abducted sister and his attempt to unravel conspiracies at all levels of government. It's never totally clear how (or whether) each episode fits into the overall story -- which gives fans plenty to discuss before next Sunday night.


1994 Of the 23 number-one shows in television history, ER demands the most of its viewers. Dallas and Dynasty had continuing storylines, but they could be enjoyed as camp even if you had no idea what was going on. ER's characters have bad moods that last for months and make no sense if you don't know the story (the most prominent example being Mark Greene's funk this year after being attacked in a men's room). Together with the Top 10 hit NYPD Blue, this medical drama proved that network series didn't have to be dumbed down to reach mass audiences.


1995 Murder One tested the loyalty of television viewers by asking them to follow one murder case over its entire first season. Along the way, the show was fascinating in its microscopic look at the criminal-justice system. The jury selection alone took up several episodes, as each side tried to tilt the panel in its favor. The series failed to find a wide audience, but Murder One is a good model for the video equivalent of a mammoth novel that can be enjoyed at one's leisure.


1996 Profiler is a rather perverse attempt to duplicate the popularity of The X-Files and such gruesome films as The Silence of the Lambs. The main character is supernaturally gifted at tracking serial killers (one per week) and is being stalked herself by a psycho (in a continuing storyline). She reacts the same way every time she finds a dead body: a furrowed brow (as if she couldn't remember where she put her keys), followed by her "vision" of how the murder took place. All this high-concept drama needs is a police sergeant who cries "I see nothing!" at every crime scene. A year later, Buffy the Vampire Slayer showed that the tortured-heroine premise worked better in the realm of outright fantasy.


1997 MTV's Austin Stories is one small sign that television could return to its roots, in locally produced programs. This low-budget sit-com about underachieving twentysomethings is shot entirely in Austin -- a refreshing change from New York and LA. Viewers can only hope that it paves the way for other such cable series: a series of filmed plays from Chicago, a courtroom drama in Charleston, and a sketch-comedy show from Boston, etc. It's best not to dwell on the fact that the biggest hit of the year on network television is Dharma and Greg.

--Robert David Sullivan