Top 20+ American TV Shows
The “Best” American TV Shows
The cathode ray tube has not been good to America, nor for her.
In 1961, an astute man named Newton Minow made a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters that has become the definitive put down of the tube. He made a challenge to broadcasters, “ … I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you — and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.”
Minow summed up American TV in the early ‘60s. And the “boob tube” is far worse today. Rather than just being a wasteland, it’s the world’s worst cultural Superfund site. I think virtually everything on U.S. TV that has been produced in the past decade is unwatchable. The “best” of it is in the wink-wink/nudge-nudge category of post-modern, in-the-know HBO and IFC type junk: full of scripts, set designers, directors and actors who try way too hard: overplaying, or purposely underplaying their hands. The dramas are illogical and surface pap; the so-called comedies simply aren’t funny, or they are merely stereotypical and crass. I believe people watch this drek to fit in, including a hipster elite who brazenly admit that they aren’t too snobbish to admit to loving certain current TV programs (bonus points!). I will comment on watching televised sports by saying, “no comment.”
The British, for a very long time, made much better television than the Yanks. That’s why I am more passionate about my list of favorite British programs. Though the Brits have pretty much lost their grip on quality in the past decade as well. Just my opinion, you understand.
Since the vast majority of American shows are stupid, my “best” U.S.-centric lists include shows that do “stupid” smartly, or so stupidly as to defy critical assassination. I stopped at the late 1990’s, because the whole, crummy affair just became too-too moronic. But — if you simply have to fit in — with DVDs, Blue Rays, and streaming video from the web, you could just spend the rest of your evenings watching these. Like Ben Franklin said, “Read much, but few books.” I say, “Watch some, but very few television programs.”
As you read the mini-reviews below, understand that an American series generally conforms to what I call “The Law of Thirds” (a phrase I coined in this context): one third of the programs in the series will be delightful/intriguing enough to warrant watching multiple times, one-third will be better than cleaning the fish tank, the final third will be painful to watch (either vomitously sentimental, ham-handedly manipulative, or gratuitously violent) and inspire you to switch channels as quickly as possible.
20 Best American TV Shows
Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955 to 1963) — The ellipsoid British director appeared on American TV to take the piss out of homespun values (such as “love,” “the home,” “religion,” “the purity of children,” et al) and play (as do his movies) on our fears of violence, death, and the long arm of the law. Hitch’s opening and closing remarks for each program are often by themselves worth the price of admission (which is, “free,” of course). These vignettes are little masterpieces in themselves: whereby the storied director slashes and burns the viewers (for watching) and the advertisers (for making the programs possible). I prefer these half-hour …Presents shows to the longer Alfred Hitchcock Hour (which ran from 1963 to 1967).
Andy’s Gang (1955-60) — Perhaps the oddest kids show ever was the nutty Andy’s Gang, starring the rotund, squealing-voiced, gap-toothed old-movie second banana Andy Devine (the butt of a thousand jokes in a hundred bad Westerns). Surviving from the old radio days, this early moppet madness was sponsored by the quotidian kicks Buster Brown Shoes (a brand long forgotten). Andy Devine spent each episode sitting in a chair, waddling around the set bitching that he hadn’t gotten enough sleep, or hadn’t had a thing to eat all day, or rapping moronically in his loose-fan-belt voice to a cast of psychotic “talking” live-action animals. These creatures performed various mischievous stunts. There was the spooky black cat, appropriately named Midnight. She was a “witch” and could cast spells on the unsuspecting Andy and others. There was a dog, and some others. But the true star of the show was a little, shaking rubber frog — Froggy the Gremlin — who would appear in a blast of smoke only after Andy had commanded, “Plunk your magic twanger, Froggy!” Froggy would appear and let loose with a demonic, deep-throated laugh that really was unnerving. He would perform charming acts such as giving Andy Devine a “hot foot” by sticking a book of matches in his size 13 Buster Browns, and lighting the actor’s foot aflame. Froggy really was a sadist; and every kids show worth its salt should have one! Invariably, right before Froggy lowered the boom, he would croak, “I’ll be good, I will, I will.” Then, as Froggy laughed his Satanic laugh, rocking from foot to foot to contain his menace, and Andy winced, moments before something fell on his head, or he was forced to eat a gooey cream puff, the audience of children would be shown in close-ups, going into paroxysms of cackling. They looked like sawed off maniacs on an ether binge. Andy’s Gang, just to prove it wasn’t all about torturing the feeble minded, also had weird aside episodes. One was about some kids in India, who spoke in fake Indian accents. The star of this ditty was named Gunga, this being the hanging-by-their-nails days of the White Man’s Burden. Nobody in the States got the news that Rudyard Kipling was dead. In fact, I’m sure few in the States in the 1950′s were even aware that Rudyard Kipling had ever spent his time a servin’ of Her Majesty the Queen in Inja’s sunny clime. But I digress. If you really want to wonder at how any group of script writers and a director could patch together something this zany without copious amounts of LSD, check out Andy’s Gang on YouTube. When I was a film critic in the 1980′s, my Mother got some weird cable channel that showed Andy’s Gang in the afternoons. Some days I’d go over to her house with one of the other writers from the paper and watch an episode — just to prove that such greatness existed. People, no matter how hard-bitten the journalist, were never less than impressed.
Beavis and Butt-head (1993 to 1997) — Mike Judge’s cartoon is the crème da la crème of stupidity, centered as it is around a pair of young, thoroughly idiotic, ill-mannered, marginally dangerous Tweens. In other words, the cartoon stars two average American kids. The program is screamingly funny satire, with a razor sharp sense of timing and the absurd. I love an episode, for instance, in which Beavis goes into a convenience store and photocopies coins, which he cuts out and tries to pass off as legal tender. Much like Alex, in the book and film of A Clockwork Orange, the protagonist(s) may be thoroughly reprehensible, but as they fend for themselves and survive by virtue of being at least putatively “smarter” than the clods who surround them, they are worthy of our sympathy (if not empathy). We want Beavis and Butt-head to cook a dead rat at the fast-food drive-thru window and serve it to a racist, war-mongering old fart neighbor. We want them to beat the crap out of their gutless, whining schoolmate, etc. If stupid is a national badge of courage, which apparently it is (in a country that could vote George W. Bush into office — twice), then Judge out-dummied everyone in broadcasting to the degree that the “B and B” shows actually appear wise. In literary criticism, this would be termed a hermeneutical loop. But Beavis and Butt-head isn’t Joyce, or Eliot. And, besides, the fart-joke-spouting boys of the series would just call me a dillweed for having suggested such an analysis, so: never mind.
The Bullwinkle Show —(1961-64) — This insane cartoon show, far more for adults with a screw loose than children, began as Rocky and His Friends in 1959, and morphed several years later into the storied Bullwinkle Show. One always imagined, as one did about the nuts who made the Loony Tunes cartoon shorts for Warner Brothers, whether the writers just spent their time smoking pot and cracking each other up (probably). Anyway, Bullwinkle had a series of featurettes that made up each episode. There were the segments with Rocky (Rocket J. Squirrel), who is a flying squirrel, going on misadventures with his pal, Bullwinkle (a Canadian moose!). Of course, Rocky had a cute, rusty little voice, and Bullwinkle (Bullwinkle J. Moose) was a slow talking, slight-impediment-sounding blockhead. These two world travelers lived in a hole-in-the-wall called Frostbite Falls, Montana. But they were forever traipsing the globe in hot pursuit, or being pursued by a couple of Russian spies, the midget-sized Boris Badenov and the raven-haired-hottie Natasha. This is the stuff of a benign LSD trip, of course. If this wasn’t enough to keep you in stitches, the Bullwinkle Show also featured the inept Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties (an on-going cliff-hanger adventure), Mister Peabody (a genius dog with horn-rimmed glasses and a little kid sidekick), and a kind of Grimm’s Fairytales meets Mad Magazine series of stories called, rightly enough, Fractured Fairy Tales (which was narrated by the great, ’30s and ’40s actor Edward Everett Horton). Like most great cartoons, Bullwinkle Show is completely surrealist, and filled with the most cringe-worthy puns in TV history, but it’s also as clever as hell. For all I know (I haven’t watched TV for years), the program is still being aired on cable. And, of course, you can get it on DVD, and no doubt stream it from one place or another. Highly recommended you do so.
Camp Runamuck (1965-66) — Just as Beavis and Butt-head made stars of Tween bafoons, this earlier half-hour show (of which 26 golden episodes were mined) give the live-action adults the opportunity to be as sub-moronic, and even exceed in stupidity, their young charges at adjacent summer camps for boys and girls. In the program, Camp Runamuck is a boys camp, overseen by the megalomanic, child-hating Commander Wivenhoe and a cast of central-casting clown counselors. Across the lake, at the girls’ Camp Devine, a cadre of butch overseers, along with one blonde bombshell (played by danger-high-voltage Nina Wayne) protects (at least from the boys) the chastity of the young ladies. Nothing protects the viewer’a sanity, however. Episodes bore titles such as “Say, You’re a Bleeder, Aren’t You?,” “Parent’s Day,” and “Food Poisoning.” In one of my favorite episodes, a violent storm keeps everyone inside, prompting the male counselors to have lucid-dream fantasies (the rival of anything Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali could conjure). Another favorite episode ends with the dyke-like counselors of Camp Devine holding shotguns on the Camp R. men counselors, while the former force the latter to their knees to gobble poison mushrooms off the ground. Class stuff.
The Defenders (1961-64) — One of the most “intelligent” American TV dramas, this program, set in New York City, starred the venerable American stage actor E.G. Marshall as the tight-assed and moralist criminal defense attorney, Lawrence Preston, assisted by his troubled, underling son Kenneth Preston (Robert Reed). The show was distinguished by its willingness to have the attorneys defend many clients whom society would damn outright: accused atheists (you could be fired for that in some bureaucratic jobs in the 1960s), neo-Nazis, mercy killers, pornographers, murders, etc. The show took a decidedly liberal philosophy. The style of cinematography was super direct, realistic. It was hard-hitting, well written, acted and directed. In one episode, I remember William Shatner (of Star Trek, and about 300 other TV shows fame) being the defendant in a murder case in which he was a tortured war vet who lost his cool and killed someone on the sidewalk with his bare hands (a la Stacey Keach in the later nutty-movie-classic The Ninth Configuration). What’s not to like?
The Ernie Kovacs Show (1952-55) — There’s little dispute among television historians that cigar smoking, mustachioed Ernie Kovacs was the most innovative, one-man show in the early days of the Boob Tube. His Ernie Kovacs Show, 60-minutes of mayhem that starred, well, mostly Kovacs, is still funny and fresh today. It looks fresh probably because most skit-based television programs owe a great debt to Kovacs’ genius. Saturday Night Live, for instance, has been filled with characterizations by many modern comics who have gone on to successful movie careers thanks to playing “characters” that are virtual carbon-copies of personas Kovacs created. For instance, Chevy Chase, who credits Kovacs as a major influence, took his wisecracking TV-news anchor man straight from hilarious versions of the same from Ernie’s program. The same with John Belushi’s ethnic food worker, and on and on. A six-disc DVD set of Kovacs’ finest moments is bursting with some of the scores of memorable characters he conjured, often working extemporaneously while the cameras rolled. Video techniques that Kovacs innovated on his show also became long-standing staples of TV making on sets worldwide as well. And it’s no exaggeration to say that the surreal and outrageous bent of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (while it ows a debt to England’s earlier Goon Show) and “zany” comics such as Robin Williams (in his early TV/pre-hamfest-movies) would be hard to imagine coming into being had not Ernie established laid down the ground rules. Sadly, Kovacs died in a car crash on a rainy L.A. night in 1962, 10 days before his 43rd birthday. (Oscar-winning actor Jack Lemon had to go to the morgue to identify his friend’s body, because Kovac’s wife was too distraught to do so.) But before he shuffled off stage, Ernie crafted more potent comedy in his short years than hundreds of other celebrities have in much longer careers. If you like television humor and haven’t watched Kovacs, you really must.
Jean Shepherd’s America (1971) — This is not only the greatest travelogue ever on American TV, it’s one of the greatest shows ever broadcast. Shepherd, an underrated, cult-hero-status comic writer/performer/radio-show host is best remembered today, if at all, for having written and narrated the now-classic A Christmas Story film (directed by the ham-fisted Bob Clark). That’s too bad. Jean Shepherd’s America is far funnier (if far darker), and keen-eyed by magnitudes. In each episode of this Public Broadcasting-funded program, Shepherd traverses a part of These United States in a recreational vehicle, small airplane, and limousine, making trenchant “small” observations and remembering colorful, cracked incidents (many no doubt apocryphal) from his imaginative youth. The show lives right where it should — half soul kiss, half rabbit punch to the groin — summing up in just under 30-minutes each week, the terrible beauty of America. And, it’s the ultimate road-show. In one segment, as we see the trashy, tasteless clutter of a four lane blacktop running through a low-rent, strip-mall district of used car lots, hardware stores, hash houses, and tacky billboards, Shepherd says, “Everybody in his soul, at least in his American soul, has a Route 22 that extends out of New York City right into New Jersey. It’s the true bastion of the slob road of America, in full flower. And it’s got it all going on.” Also impressive was the understated camera work (Fred Barzyk directed, and shot on 16mm film), with its spare tracking and slow zoom ins and outs on classic American tableau: the neon diner sign, rows of semis on the highway, the sanitized motel bathroom, empty farmland, and urban blight, as Shepherd’s dog-hangin-tongue monologs drone on. As the camera pans, as if in a narcotic dream, around a plasticized motel room (the envy of Antonioni) in Wyoming, including running slowly over a casually discarded newspaper with a headline that reads “Air crash probe points to faulty maintenance,” Shepherd mumbles: “The scalding hot shower that never adjusts, and I’ve got the blisters to prove it … the TV that keeps flopping over … one time the Magic Fingers bed threw me through a transom window … I have a collection of motel keys. They all say, ‘Return Postage Guaranteed. Drop In Any Mailbox.’ Some day, I’m going to take my whole bushel basket full of ‘em and drop them into a mailbox. I can just see that postman’s face, when he realizes The Pilgrim has given up the fight.” Don’t you give up the fight. This is a program you MUST see: whether on spare snippets on YouTube, or by tracking them down on DVD. If domestic TV content providers had any class or intelligence whatsoever, this program would be available on demand to every American. That it’s not is reason enough not to watch television. (Trivia note: I believe that it was during a song that was played in an episode of Jean Shepherd’s America — all I remember is that it was a sardonic ditty about chickens — that perhaps the first incidence of the word “fuck” being uttered on American broadcast TV occurred.)
The Joe Pyne Show (1965-6) — Joe Pyne, with close-cropped hair and wooden leg, said he was an ex-marine (in combat in the South Pacific). He was the original pain-in-the-ass radio and TV talk show host who frequently argued with and insulted his guests and the audience. (Actually, Pyne was not an unattractive man, and he had a classic “radio announcer’s” voice.) It’s difficult to imagine a broadcast provocateur such as Morton Downey, Jr. or Bill O’Reilly without Pyne having blazed the trail. Having first worked in radio, on both coasts, Pyne eventually ended up with a syndicated TV show out of Los Angeles. I used to watch him for laughs when I was in Junior High in Florida, for instance. It was hilarious. And the show even opened with the words “Joe Pyne” in a kind of Marine stencil font that could have been taken from his barracks footlocker. Although Pyne would have on notoriously bigoted guests — such as Governor Lester Maddox, and George Lincoln Rockwell — the right-leading host would often defend the rights of minorities. Pyne went out of his way to attract guests such as “The Messiah,” a shaven-headed snob who claimed to be an atheist (which really Pyne) but also a pacifist who cared equally for all people’s of the world (which also riled Pyne). The audience, generally filled with rednecks who supported Pyne booed loudly when he would put down a “hippie,” such as the vegetarian who protested the killing of animals for food. (Pyne called the man a “tomato killer,” because he was a vegetarian.). But then even Pyne’s supporters got theirs when members of the audience were invited to go up to the microphone in what Pyne called “The Beef Box.” Regardless of the fact that most audience members were as conservative as Pyne, if they said anything he didn’t agree with he would loudly put them down. Professed liberals and war resisters he egged on ipso facto. A favorite repost to an audience member he disagreed with was to, “Go garble razor blades.” One of the great stories of the Pyne show that’s circulated is that when he had Frank Zappa on the show Pyne said, “I guess you’re long hair makes you a woman.” Zappa supposedly countered, “I guess your wooden leg makes you a table.” And so forth. Part of Pyne’s mystique, I believe was that you couldn’t tell if he actually believed anything he vociferously defended or attacked. The show seemed like a verbal version of Championship Wrestling: what is “real,” and what is blatant theater? It wasn’t that easy to tell; but the program was a ball to watch. And for all its bile, Pyle was more intelligent and well-spoken than the bad boys of TV talk today.
Johnny Staccato (1959-60) — If there is anything cooler than a black-and-white TV show that features a private detective who plays jazz piano in a basement nightclub called Waldo’s in Greenwich Village, during the heydey of cool jazz, where the coat check girl (who’s always reading fat novels) hands the P.I. his revolver when he impatiently holds out his had to roam the mean streets, well… name it. Johnny Staccato is, literally, the coolest TV show in American history. Partly because of these conceits, but also because the dialogue was Raymond Chandler on glue. In one episode, in which Johnny is tricked into carrying a bomb on a commercial airplane, and is intended to unwittingly open the case that will detonate the device and kill himself and everyone on board, of course he doesn’t. But when the cops on the ground say they are going to lay an attempted murder rap on the man who gave Staccato the case, J.S. calmly chirps, “Make it attempted genocide. There were 60 people on that plane.” Then Johnny plays “out” avant garde piano grace notes to some old duffer fellow passenger’s recitation of a song called “Teenage Mother,” while the freaked out passengers are grabbing a coffee in the air terminal diner. Oh, did we mention that John Cassavettes played the title character? Now that’s 10-megaton cool. So was the music, provided live by the program’s house band — featuring jazz legends Red Norvo, Red Mitchell, Barney Kessel, Shelly Manne and Johnny Williams. The show’s theme song, all frantic drums and blaring horns — noir on steroids — was penned by Elmer Bernstein. Besides Cassavettes’ wife, Gena Rowlands, other guest actors who would go on to bigger things included Michael Landon (Bonanza and Little House on the Prarie), Dean Stockwell, Mary Tyler Moore (The Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore shows), Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched), Jack Weston, Martin Landau and Cloris Leachman. The show’s titles were pips, too: riffs such as “Viva Paco,” “Murder in Hi-Fi,” “Swinging Longhair,” “Fly, Baby, Fly,” and “The Wild Reed.” I first hipped to this beauty while I was living in Paris in the 1980′s. The French TV network would chase each episode of a show called Cinema, Cinema with an episode of Johnny Staccato. But it’s out in a DVD box set now in the States. So, dig it.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68) — After the success of the first few James Bond films (Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger), spies were the bomb in popular culture. Bond spawned dozens of imitators on the small and large screen. In the Fall of 1964, NBC’s new series, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had even a stronger Bond connection. Supposedly, James Bond novelist Ian Flemming had had the idea for a TV spy show that would star a dude named Napoleon Solo, and a woman named April Dancer. While Napoleon Solo (as played with hammy seriousness by Robert Vaughan) was meant to be the main male attraction, early appearances of the super cool Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) soon made him Solo’s always-present sidekick. April Dancer was later the name of the female spy in, of course, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. The story of the series is a familiar one in spydom: Solo and Kuryakin travel the globe stopping one megalomaniac after another from destroying the planet. Where Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s 007 had SMERSH to contend with, U.N.C.L.E. had as an adversary T.H.R.U.S.H. U.N.C.L.E. was an acronym for the ponderous United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. T.H.R.U.S.H. was even sillier, and a bigger mouthful: the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity. Of course, this was the 1960′s, when people still knew how to have fun. And the screenwriters for the show did include a dream team of far-out science fiction and screenwriting power: Harlan Ellison (A Boy And His Dog), Robert Towne (Chinatown, Shampoo, and The Last Detail). One of the conceits of the show was that every adventure was called an “Affair.” Over the five year run, there were such provocative programs as The Concrete Overcoat Affair, The My Friend the Gorilla Affair, and, naturally, The Indian Affairs Affair. As you can probably guess, after trying to get off to a “serious” start, the show had tongue planted firmly in cheek for most of its run. That was one of its charms: the program’s creators never took the whole “affair” too seriously. Another reason to watch is simply the interplay of the dark-haired, dispeptic and wisecracking Solo, and the philosophical Kuryakin.
The Moon Walk (1969; starring the United States Government and a cast of millions) — One of the greatest pieces of fiction of American television history was the faked moon landing of Apollo 11 in 1969. The fact of the matter is, the United States did not possess the technology at that time to successfully send a spacecraft to the moon and back. A middle school science student could figure that out. Those in the know compare the computer sophistication on the tin can that supposedly carried the astronauts into space and back as being about equivalent to that of a hand held calculator circa 2000. We’re supposed to believe that this non-computer directed these guys 238,857 miles to a barren rock in space, let them land, grab-ass for a while, then fire up the engine and direct them back to splash down on precisely the right point on the earth at the right time, safe and sound? Come on! The U.S. government has never been able to balance its own checkbook in the past couple hundred years. Send that crummy hand held calculator to the President with your best wishes. I’m not saying that Stanely Kubrick directed the fake moon landing, or that it happened like the melodrama in Capricorn One (a bad movie). But playing on the lack of discernment of The People is one way governments are able to keep people in line. Nor am I complaining. I’m a veteran. (Go team!) I’d rather live in the United States that just about anywhere else. So, why not laugh about it for heaven’s sake? It is hilarious to see all the faked-moon-landing websites, movies, books and TV shows. It’s even more hilarious is to watch how desperately NASA defends itself with meticulously doctored “science” to dis-prove the 100 holes in their moon landing story, every time anyone raises their hand. As Shakespeare said, you’re protesting too much, gentlemen. My advice to NASA: have the simple dignity to ignore the naysayers. We the People know the landing was faked. So, you got caught with your hand in the cookie jar. Move on. Who cares?! Make some more microwave popcorn, switch on the tube, switch off your brain, and enjoy life. Now, what time is that re-run of The Sopranos?
Saturday Night Live (1970 – ksjdkljsdklfjl
The Spike Jones Show (1954 to 1961) — On various times on NBC and CBS in the U.S., the madman of big-band music had his own program with his group of musical lunatics.
Star Trek — lasjlkfjsalkf
The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson — klasfklsjklfs
The Twilight Zone — lksjflksjflas
The Westerner — Great Western movie director Sam Peckinpah created this unusual television oater, which ran for only one season (13 episodes) in 1960. TV actor Brian Keith (Family Affair) was excellent as the tight-lipped cowboy Dave Blasingame, schlepping around the Old West with the Winchester rifle he inherited from his uncle, his pooch, Brown, and his sometime sidekick, Burgundy Smith (John Dehner). Not only did Peckinpah produce the show, but he wrote and directed some of the episodes. Other well known directors who worked on the show included Andre De Toth, Elliot Silverstein, and Bruce Geller. Directors of Photography included the great Lucian Ballard, who did some monumental Peckinpah films as The Wild Bunch. This is one of the greatest Westerns ever on American television, and one of the least known. Figures.
The X-Files — kasjlkslkjsd
Everything Else Worth Watching (alphabetically)
77 Sunset Strip
The Addams Family
All in the Family
Amos ‘n’ Andy
The Andy Griffith Show
The Betty Hutton Show