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by Miles Mathis

Yes, I am on a list kick this month. I find I fail to be amused or informed by modern media lists, so I must amuse myself with my own lists. Just as I fail to be aesthetically pleased by the modern art offered me, so I create my own; just as I fail to be entertained by modern commentary and criticism, so I create my own; just as I fail to be convinced by modern science and theory, so I create my own; just as I fail to be enchanted by modern poetry, so I write my own; I suppose I will have to begin to build my own cars, pave my own highways, elect myself as my own representative, vote in a new government that I have invented, and found a new country on a new continent that only I can sail to, on a sensible planet hidden in the shadow of this one.

Which is all a highly eccentric way of saying that a couple of years ago TV Guide came out with a list of the 50 greatest TV shows of all time, and like many of you I was not too happy with that list. For one thing, you can just tell it was made by a committee. It shows, you know, statistical balance, but no sign of human interference of any kind—sort of like a Charmed script. I mean I like Jerry, too. But I don't think number one, my friend. Do you know why Seinfeld cannot be number one? I will tell you. Not a memorable theme song. A show without a good theme song will not have the staying power. The jokes are still fresh now, so it looks pretty good. But leave it in syndication for twenty years, it will age like Joan Rivers without botox.

The great shows all have great songs—songs that give you that warm fuzzy, that make you think of where you were when. TVLand calls it "rewatchability." All the rewatchable shows start you off with that sweet song, like a bite of soft chocolate or a cup of strong sugar-coffee. Addictive melody. Go down my list, they all have it. I hear that whistling, and there I am, five years old, watching Andy Griffith throw that rock and smile at Ope, and I am Ope, too, with an Aunt Bee at home waiting for us with hot cookies. I hear The Brady Bunch song, and I am nine years old again, with a crush on Jan. I hear Mary Tyler Moore's song and I am twelve, back at home with my family, warm and safe, in a sort of pre-knowledge cocoon, with my mom who looked just like Mary (or vice versa, sorry Mom). Later that same Saturday night, we all hear Carol Burnett sing to us that she is so glad we had this time together, and she pulls her ear at us, making us feel happy. I hear the Cheers song and I am with my ex-wife, us blissful newlyweds, as we watch Sam and Diane fall in love. I hear the Friends song, and I know that no matter how alienating the world gets—no matter how many crappy jobs or bad dates—those six cute silly people will be there for me.

But with Seinfeld, I will tune in in the year 2020, and all I will hear is that little bowb-bowb-bowp. What is that, a Jew's harp? There is no possible nostalgia in a bowb. I am being very very generous, I tell you true, putting Jerry at number 13.

What I think distinguishes my list is that not one doctor or lawyer show made the list. No ER. No LA Law. No Marcus Welby. No Perry Mason. Yes, I really would rather watch Mister Rodgers than watch ER. That is just how I am. In fact, I have sat through many fine episodes of Mister Rodgers. I have never been able to tolerate a whole ER or Grey's Anatomy. It is too much like General Hospital, with marginally better writing and acting. It is still fake drama. Drama that fails to be dramatic. I can suspend disbelief in order to laugh at canned situations, if they are funny. I can even suspend disbelief in order to follow the trolley to go see King Friday and Owl. But I cannot suspend it far enough to believe that doctors and lawyers are fascinating people. I can believe that Jeannie lives in that little bottle or that Samantha can fix things by wiggling her pretty nose, but I cannot believe that people are having sex in broom closets, or daily saving the lives of morally conflicted models. On the sitcoms, the situations are equally absurd, but no one takes them seriously. I find "serious" shows to be like sitcoms without the jokes and the laugh tracks—that is, just situations. I already have situations at home, and they are about equally boring. In fact, I have to suspend disbelief just to believe how boring they are.

That's why you almost never sees dramas in syndication. They aren't rewatchable. Rewatchability has so much to do with nostalgia. Nostalgia is created by 1) a theme song, 2) lovable characters, 3) a universal situation. Sherwood Schwartz may have been a kitschmonger, but he knew what he was doing. Jokes make characters lovable, not cheating or breastbeating. A desert island or a family home is a universal situation. A hospital or a courtroom is like an alien planet (without Spock or Kirk)—a place no one would think of visiting in real life, except maybe in a fly-by. A place for a bit of one-time voyeurism (voyeurism of the most fantastic and unlikely kind) but not a place one would return to again and again, like a candy store.

What about the drama Star Trek, you ask? Ah, but Star Trek was not a drama. It was fantasy. Suspension of disbelief is easy when you are on the edge of the unknown.

In order to come up with my list, I asked myself one simple question. If I were captured behind enemy lines, and my captors informed me they planned to torture me by making me watch the same series over and over until I cracked, which one would I last the longest with? Only the first five or ten shows came easily. I could make it for several days, maybe even a week, with my eyes forced open, like in A Clockwork Orange, watching Jennifer Aniston's breasts and all my other Friends being clever and funny. I could probably last even longer if I hadn't already taped most of the shows and watched them nearly non-stop for the last two years. But the last twenty shows on the list were hard to come up with. Most were basically filler. I could not really come up with 50. I resorted to some that were merely popular, rather than ones I liked personally. Even so, I didn't include any I wouldn't ever watch.

TV Guide included Sesame Street on their list, which gave me ideas in two directions. One, that I could include kid's programs. Two, that I could include PBS. That is where Nature and Nova came in. Yes, my tastes are very diverse. Highbrow and lowbrow in the same bag. A show on particle physics followed by Gilligan. Such is life. The kid's programming link allowed me to pull in Captain Kangaroo. Why should I limit it to Sesame Street, after all? The Captain was on TV for many years, was groundbreaking, and what's more, I watched it. If you take this list as a list for my whole life, the Captain has to be there.

That got me to thinking, why stop there. If a kid's program, why not a game show. Was there a game show that I thought should make the top 50? More to the point, was there a gameshow that could keep me from madness longer, behind enemy lines, than say The Beverly Hillbillies? I could only come up with one, in all honesty. One that I still watch: Match Game.

The hardest choice was for number 1. Friends has more laughs per episode, Cheers is more nostalgic. Friends had eight good years, Cheers had five. Cheers had a bit more depth and a bit more genius in writing, Friends had more stars. Cheers had more edgy characters, Friends had more babes. Both took a lot of risks and weren't afraid to innovate, while at the same time being very traditional. Meaning that they were classic sitcoms in the classic mold: the creators invented lovable characters in warm and toasty situations and put a lot of jokes in their mouths. That some or all of the characters were pretty never hurt. Friends perfected this formula to a point that will probably never be surpassed. Cheers get extra points for reaching the pinnacle with slightly more realistic characters. Only two of the cast members are pretty (three after Woody arrived and four when Lilith let her hair down) instead of all of them. Friends sidestepped this landmine of potential snobbery by convincingly making all of their pretty people partial losers. Every one of them had a Cliff Claven side, and this saved the show from the PC incorrectness it is so often (wrongly) accused of. But in the end, I chose Cheers, because at its very best it was as good as TV has ever gotten. The episode from season 5 called “Everyone Imitates Art” is, in my opinion, the most perfect 24 minutes ever filmed for the little screen. Several other episodes of Cheers approach it, but nothing else does. The writers for Friends were great at packing jokes in, but they never could come up with stories this clever.

So here is my list of the greatest TV shows (US television only):

1. Cheers
2. Friends
3. Bewitched
4. Star Trek (the original)
5. Mary Tyler Moore
6. The Bob Newhart Show
7. Taxi
8. M*A*S*H
9. The Dick van Dyke Show
10. The Andy Griffith Show
11. All in the Family
12. Seinfeld
13. The Carol Burnett Show
14. The Simpsons
15. Frasier
16. Larry Sanders
17. Felicity
18. Red Skelton
19. The Ed Sullivan Show
20. Match Game
21. Happy Days
22. Partridge Family
23. Family Ties
24. The Waltons
25. The Bugs Bunny Show
26. The Muppet Show
27. I Dream of Jeannie
28. Perfect Strangers
29. Paper Chase
30. Simon & Simon
31. Nature
32. Bonanza
33. Late Show with David Letterman
34. Dick Cavett
35. The Flintstones
36. Gilligan's Island
37. Everybody Loves Raymond
38. Rocky and Bullwinkle
39. I Love Lucy
40. The Brady Bunch
41. Barney Miller
42. Laugh-in
43. Captain Kangaroo
44. Sesame Street
45. Wings
46. Two Guys and a Girl
47. Saturday Night Live
48. The Cosby Show
49. Batman
50. Mr. Rodgers Neighborhood

Some will be surprised to see Bewitched so high on the list, but I encourage doubters to rewatch the DVD's, especially from seasons 1, 3, and 4. I have recently, and I couldn't quit smiling. I sat there smiling like an idiot for hour after hour, my smile broken only by laughter. God, that was a more innocent time, and a funnier time, too. Elizabeth Montgomery, with her imperfect teeth and undoctored body and little pedal pushers and kneelength dresses, makes these modern Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City wannabes look like a gaggle of saloon whores and botox victims. It is like comparing Grace Kelly to Paris Hilton. If you wonder why no recent shows made my list, that is why. TV since the 90's has devolved into a plastic Futureworld of reconstituted people, and I can't watch current TV anymore, for fear that someone's breast is going to fall off or that someone's wiring is going to show through her skin.

The fact that struck me most about my list is the lasting shame of the cancellation of The Paper Chase. Over thirty years later, the shame is undiminished, and we can only hope that the executives at CBS who cancelled it are tied to some flaming wheel somewhere, on a spoke next to their comrades who cancelled Red Skelton. What we lost is what we would have lost if Cheers had been cancelled after season one (as it almost was). The Paper Chase had everything: cast, story, writers, theme song, director, the works. And no, it wasn't a lawyer show. It was a college show, like Felicity without the mood lighting.

After the list of top shows, I decided to append a list of top songs. If the songs are so important to rewatchability, then they need a list of their own. In judging theme songs I gave credit for traditional tune quality, memorability, creation of the proper mood, and also gave some weight to how much the tune helped the success of the show. These categories brought in many tunes from shows I almost never watched, like Love Boat and Petticoat Junction. I tried to ignore that part of the equation in judging tunes, since the actual quality of the show should not affect the quality of the tune. Love Boat nearly made the top 20 simply due to the fact that it was so perfect for the show. On the other hand, the theme from Lou Grant made it in because it is a great piece of workmanship in the field of tune-writing (although most people probably don't remember it). The themes from The Waltons and The Bob Newhart Show are better pieces of music than the others, strictly speaking, but the words added a lot to Cheers and MTM, making these themes the finest of their kind. What a theme songwriter wants to do ultimately is create a 30-60 second bit of pure nostalgia, and that is what these are. This is one arena you get extra points for sentimentality and straight kitsch appeal. I had to downgrade themes like The Magnificent Seven and the Doris Day Show due to the fact that they were stolen from slightly higher fields. They weren't written for TV and didn't premier there. They therefore had an unfair advantage, an advantage I tried to factor out.

1. Cheers
2. Mary Tyler Moore
3. The Waltons
4. The Bob Newhart Show
5. The Paper Chase
6. The Partridge Family
7. Friends
8. Felicity (first year)
9. M*A*S*H
10. Star Trek
11. The Magnificent Seven
12. Lou Grant
13. Taxi
14. The Greatest American Hero
15. Mission Impossible
tie Six Million Dollar Man
16. The Monkees
17. The Odd Couple
18. Bewitched
19. Green Acres
20. The Doris Day Show
21. Welcome Back, Kotter
22. The Love Boat
23. Moonlighting
24. Hawaii 5-0
25. Happy Days
26. The Brady Bunch
27. Davy Crockett
28. The Andy Griffith Show
29. Batman
30. Hill Street Blues
31. Gilligan's Island
32. The Beverly Hillbillies
33. The Twilight Zone
34. The Dick van Dyke Show
35. The Carol Burnett Show
36. I Dream of Jeanie
37. Rawhide
38. The Avengers
39. The Jeffersons
40. My Three Sons
41. The Dukes of Hazzard
42. The Flintstones
43. Sanford and Son
44. Sesame Street
45. Laverne and Shirley
46. WKRP
47. Fame
48. Petticoat Junction
49. Love American Style
50. Bonanza

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