By Cory Barker, Greg Boyd, Les Chappell, Emma Fraser, Noel Kirkpatrick, Andrew Rabin, Anthony Strand, and Cameron White
Welcome to the third installment of This Was Television’s Hall of Fame!
As you remember, we tried out a new format last month, tweaking the way the voting system worked and broadening the pool of nominees to get some thoughts from the full TWTV pool of writers. We’re beyond pleased with how the revamped structure worked out, and are very pleased to induct Fawlty Towers, Freaks and Geeks, and The Office (UK) to stand alongside Twin Peaks, I Love Lucy, and Sesame Street. Thanks again to all the contributors who joined the discussion last month, thanks to Andrew for adding an additional level of statistical analysis, and thanks to everyone who voted to help us choose the inductees.
Now to this month’s theme. While last month we looked at the series that only had 30 episodes or less to make their case, this month we’re taking the opposite approach, looking at the shows that managed to rack up 200 episodes or more. One hundred episodes might be the commonly accepted benchmark for syndication and the immortality that goes along with it, but for a show to exceed twice that number indicates a level of popular success and cultural importance that can’t be understated. But is longevity enough to guarantee a spot in the Hall of Fame? That’s what we’re hoping to find out.
As with last month, each of our members will nominate one show and make their case for its induction, and then open it up to the voters. You can vote for as many shows as you want, and at the end of the voting period those shows with more than 60 percent of the vote will be entered. The same rules for inclusion apply: shows are only eligible for consideration if they’ve been off the air for five years or more unless a case can be made for its obvious worthiness, and any show that has failed a previous ballot cannot be included until three months later. (In this particular case, All In The Family and Saturday Night Live are both ineligible this month despite having 208 and 729 episodes respectively.)
So on that note, here are the November 2012 nominees for This Was TV’s Hall of Fame.
Frasier (264 episodes on NBC from 1993–2004)
NBC was ready to say goodbye to one of its most successful sitcoms ever. After more than a decade, the cast, some of whom were primed to become movie stars—or at least to try—decided it was time to call it quits. The show had fallen a bit in the ratings; it was still a top ten hit, but not number one as it had been just two seasons prior. Still, with the wild buzz around the conclusion—it would wind up one of the top five highest rated finales of all time—the network was not ready to say goodbye to this beloved hit.
Luckily, one of the stars, along with a group of the writers, decided they were willing to continue. In an eponymous spinoff, the star’s character would move cross-country after having lived on the East Coast for some time. He would move in with his family, and the audience would get to see him in a whole new light.
NBC had good reason to believe the spinoff would be a success. After all, only one week after the parent series, Friends, called it quits, a similar spinoff would end its 11-year run.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Frasier was how much it managed to differentiate itself from Cheers. In many ways, Frasier differentiated itself from most any other sitcom: the clean, titled act breaks, the montage of guest callers’ headshots at the end of season finales, the silent tag scenes which played as Kelsey Grammer sang the nonsensical “Tossed Salad and Scrambled Eggs.”
Grammer was brilliant as Dr. Frasier Crane, earning four Emmy wins and ten nominations during the run of the series (along with two nominations for Cheers and one for a guest appearance on Wings, making him the only actor to receive Emmy nominations for playing the same character on three different shows, with nominations for leading, supporting, and guest starring). The role gained him the reputation as an award favorite that he maintains today. David Hyde Pierce received Emmy nominations in all 11 of Frasier’s seasons, and matched Grammer’s four wins. Jane Leeves and John Mahoney each received nominations as well, as did a slew of guest stars.
Frasier was never a monster hit, but it spent four years in the top ten, weirdly peaking during its sixth and seventh seasons. It was simultaneously a workplace show and a family show; a “smart,” witty comedy; and a multi-cam show filled with puns and slapstick. It featured relationships rarely seen on television, like two grown sons and their polar opposite father, along with will-they/won’t-they relationships common to every sitcom.
In sum, Frasier was unique. After all, Joey was canceled midway through its second season.
That ’70s Show (200 episodes on FOX from 1998–2006)
That ’70s Show is the perfect example of the concept of “Changing Eras”—that is, no matter when works of fiction are set, they inevitably reflect the values of the time in which they were written. It’s not the first sitcom to do this—Happy Days came first, coincidentally with the ’70s reflecting on the ’50s—but That ’70s Show, more so than Happy Days, is concerned with how the past and the present blend with regards to the sociopolitical issues that face them.
Initially set in 1976 and covering only three years of in-show time over its eight seasons, That ’70s Show nonetheless bottled some of the biggest cultural shifts of the era, from the 1973 oil crisis to the mega-release that was Star Wars in 1977, and showed how they affected the lives of contemporary teenagers. While these issues weren’t always brought up Very Special Episode-style, they nonetheless had an impact on the characters’ lives. Channeled into the usual high school tropes of cars, mating rituals, and extracurricular activities was the end of the hippie era and the beginning of punk, disco, and the reign of George Lucas, not to mention a healthy distrust of government fueled by the still-recent Watergate scandal. The theme song isn’t just a statement of youthful exuberance; it’s the ideal to strive for, the Baby Boomer child’s wildest fantasy among the very real troubles of the lower-middle class to which they aspire (to quote Keith Mars).
Formally, the show was also wildly inventive. Ostensibly a multi-camera sitcom, That ’70s Show was always willing to break form in favor of better story- or joke-telling. Matching the psychedelic colored glasses of reflection, transitions between scenes often featured ’70s-related imagery and one or more cast members playing out absurd satirical or parodic situations from the era. Often, the show would take up a character’s POV, employing handheld camera techniques. The most famous formal technique the show developed was “The Circle,” in which a camera would be placed within the center of a group of characters and pan around to each of their close-ups in turn, following the flow of conversation. The Circle was mostly employed in the basement, where the teens were heavily implied to be smoking pot; using The Circle helped sell the idea despite the apparent lack of drug paraphernalia anywhere in the scene. But it was generally usable any time characters were seated in a circular formation, such as at a dinner table.
Two hundred episodes used to be a fairly achievable number, but That ’70s Show matured during the rise of serialized dramas and the era of predetermined end dates. The show is a credit to its genre (and to the era in which it’s set) to hit that number, and to have done so without significant shifts in its execution. Its success also helped launch the careers of basically all of its main cast members. But that’s all secondary to a show that, on its best days, seamlessly married the personal to the political.
The X-Files(202 episodes on Fox from 1993–2002)
The X-Files took the “shows we can obsess about” baton from Twin Peaks and boasted one of the first fandoms of the Internet era. When it launched in 1993 it occupied Fox’s Friday 9 p.m. time slot, a place that it held for three seasons and one that would spell doom today. The X-Files began as a modest cult hit, but as the online community grew so did its popularity and its audience. In fact, it was the perfect show for this early Internet era: it had mystery, conspiracy, and two leads who are often credited with bringing the word “shipping” into the TV viewing lexicon.
The show began with a believer and a skeptic. Mulder and Scully’s partnership heavily exploited the argument between science and faith. What makes these two characters work is the conflict caused by their opposing belief systems and methods of getting results; this is all set up in the pilot, as Agent Dana Scully is sent to debunk Agent Fox Mulder’s theories of the paranormal—yet despite their differences they make a great team. Mulder is also committed to “the truth,” a truth that we are reminded each episode “is out there.” This is one of many X-Files references that are instantly recognizable; so many aspects of this show, from the theme song to Mulder’s “I Want to Believe” poster, are now part of the pop culture landscape.
Over its nine seasons the show went from a ratings success to a steady decline, and it is not a big mystery as to why the ratings fell even further after David Duchovny departed as a full-time cast member. The central partnership is an integral part of the show’s success, and the fact that Mulder and Scully never really had strong outside love interests shows how much their relationship mattered. Thanks to crackling chemistry between the leads, it is not surprising that “shipping” became a topic of audience discussion online—and the writers knew how to play up these moments (damn bees!). The way my Twitter feed blew up a few months ago when rumors began circulating that Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were together in real life shows how much people—myself included—still care about this couple.
In terms of awards The X-Files fared better than most genre shows, with both Anderson and Duchovny receiving several major nominations and wins (Anderson did better than Duchovny, winning one Emmy, two Screen Actors Guild awards, and one Golden Globe, to his one Globe). The show itself was nominated for 21 Emmys, including Best Drama Series four times.
In 1998, during the height of The X-Files‘s popularity, the franchise was extended with a theatrical movie which made $30 million domestically in its opening weekend (we can forget about its 2008 follow-up, though). It placed number 23 in the box office chart that year and was a success that acted as a continuation of the story. The X-Files is very good at balancing the serialized story with excellent stand-alone episodes that could be a variety of scary, funny, or poignant. “The Post-Modern Prometheus” is a great example of the best kind of X-Files episode, one that tells the story in a bold and exciting fashion, while staying true to the science fiction and horror material that has influenced it.
Cheers (275 episodes on NBC from 1982–1993)
The status of Cheers as one of the finest sitcoms to ever air is pretty much taken for granted nowadays, and rightly so. Anyone who wishes to consider historical importance and influence as a factor in determining Hall of Fame worthiness should find much to like about this series. Sam and Diane’s relationship is one of the most iconic in TV history, and the show’s informal atmosphere—in which the focus is primarily on the characters simply hanging out rather than on a huge amount of world-building—has influenced any number of sitcoms in recent years, including Happy Endings, Cougar Town, and New Girl.
Then there are the characters themselves, who are as memorable as any in the history of television. Running gags like Norm’s obsession with beer, Cliff’s latest “little-known fact,” and Carla’s hatred of Diane helped establish each character as a unique and funny person, and the ensemble cast was one of the best of all time. Equally remarkable is the fact that the show’s greatness managed to continue uninterrupted despite two major changes to that cast as a result of Nicholas Colasanto’s death and Shelley Long’s departure. (Although I’d argue that the latter event was actually probably a good thing for Cheers, as Diane and Sam’s interactions became increasingly tedious after the first few seasons.)
Finally, there’s the show’s overall batting average, which must surely be higher than any other network sitcom in television history. Though I’m only about two-thirds of the way through season eight at the time I’m writing this, Cheers has almost certainly already surpassed my beloved The Dick Van Dyke Show in terms of the number of classic episodes it’s delivered. Even the show’s weakest and most inconsistent stretch of episodes thus far—the end of season three through the end of season five—contains plenty of hilarious installments (including the utterly brilliant “Thanksgiving Orphans”). Cheers is far from a flawless television program, but it’s about as close as a show on network television can get. To me, this is without a doubt a Hall of Fame quality series.
Dallas (357 episodes on CBS from 1978–1991)
The news that TNT would be bringing back a nighttime soap opera from more than 20 years ago—and not just as a remake but a continuation of the original story—sounded like an idea doomed to failure from the get-go. But no one disputed that if any show could survive the transition, it would be Dallas. Starting from a five-part miniseries, Dallas grew into a show of truly epic proportions, the fourth-longest running drama in network TV history and a show that boasts the second-highest rated episode of television ever (more on that later). The Ewing and Barnes families became the Capulets and Montagues of CBS Friday nights, with the world of Texas oil and cattle serving as the setting for every unscrupulous activity: adultery, blackmail, kidnapping, murder.
In the world of primetime soap operas, Dallas was king, taking some classic themes —good vs. evil, brother vs. brother, the quest for money—and building a wide story around it deep in the heart of Texas. Larry Hagman’s J.R. Ewing was the character everyone loved to hate, a ruthless and amoral businessman willing to do virtually anything in pursuit of his own gains, and who clashed with his family members—alcoholic wife Sue Ellen, altrusitic brother Bobby—as much as he did with his professional rivals. Like any good soap opera, it drew off an expansive cast that it was able to add and subtract to with ease, and confidently burned through plots without ever losing sight of the familial tensions that held it together. And it was a true part of the zeitgeist: in the number one or number two slot for five of its 14 years, Dallas was able to dominate the conversation because it was literally the show that everyone was watching.
Beyond its successes in the ratings, Dallas also holds two of television’s most memorable moments. When in the season three finale J.R. was struck down by an unseen assailant’s bullet, “Who shot J.R.?” became the question on everyone’s mind for months , and it’s a safe bet that no cliffhanger ever seized the public’s attention the same way before or since. The reveal episode, “Who Done It?”, garnered a 53.3 rating and a 76 percent share, numbers surpassed only by the M*A*S*H series finale, and simply staggering to consider in today’s market.
Dallas also had the nerve to pull the most remarkable retcon in all of television history, a move that, were any show today to try this, it’d be crucified in the Internet echo chamber. Showrunner Leonard Katzman and star Patrick Duffy had left the show at the end of the eighth season, and were persuaded to come back for the tenth—leaving a season in between spearheaded by an entirely different creative team. So what did Katzman do? He revealed in the tenth season premiere that the entire ninth season had just been a dream of Bobby’s wife Pamela, invalidating 31 hours of television. Soap operas love a good twist, and this one trumps them all:
Ridiculous? Yes. But Dallas trusted it had enough goodwill to get away with that, and was able to continue for years after. The new version might not have the same success in execution—and certainly doesn’t command the same attention—but it’s a true testament to the show that 20 years later, J.R. and Bobby could pick up their feud without missing a beat.
Dragon Ball Z (291 episodes on Japan’s Fuji TV from 1989–1996)
This will be a weird thing for someone nominating a show for a hall of fame to say but… I don’t really like Dragon Ball Z. It’s not a very good show. The writing is pretty terrible, the course of each of the seasons is incredibly predictable, and after a little while, you come to realize that the show is a lot of standing around and talking about how powerful the characters are, charging for big attacks, and then brief flurries of fighting. It can get a tad tedious after a while, certainly after 50 episodes, let alone 291.
The series centers on Goku, his friends, his family (particularly his son Gohan), and enemies-turned-allies as they all train and fight to protect the Earth and maintain control of the legendary Dragon Balls, seven spheres that summon a wish-granting dragon. They do battle with Sayians (the alien race that Goku belongs to), genocidal alien tyrants, and androids, all of increasing strength, cunning, and ability. There’s also space travel, time travel, and, of course, dying and coming back to life to fight another day.
But damn if Dragon Ball Z isn’t one of the most significant shōnen anime series in recent memory. The fighting and training that Goku and his friends go through created a media franchise that continues to thrive to this day thanks to home video products, streaming options on the web, live action films, video games, card games, action figures, and, of course, the manga the series is based on. DBZ is acknowledged as one of the prime influence on three of the most popular action anime series currently running: Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece.
Despite the series’s repetitive nature and its emphasis on violence, Toei Animation breathes wonderful life into Akira Toriyama (tons and tons of) characters. A its core, Dragon Ball Z is an inherently optimistic series about the power of one’s will, always challenging one’s self, and learning to see the differences in others not as weaknesses, but as strengths. So vote for Dragon Ball Z. I expect it receive OVER 9000 votes!!!
M*A*S*H (251 episodes on CBS from 1972–1983)
Of all the TV comedies that lasted longer than 200 episodes, M*A*S*H might have made the best use of that space. That might be a controversial statement, because the show catches a lot of flak from TV fans, mostly for two reasons: 1) Its 11 seasons total more than three times the actual length of the Korean War, and 2) What started as an absurd satire got increasingly dramatic as it aged.
But I think both of those things are key to its lasting appeal. The long run allowed the show to really delve into the minds of its characters, something that seemed impossible in the early years. For the first three seasons, the show aimed to satirize army life, and the characters were all caricatures. The constantly-grinning Hawkeye was 60 percent Groucho Marx and 40 percent Bugs Bunny. Major Frank Burns was a weasel who was terrible at his job and concerned only with status. Colonel Henry Blake was a good-natured, oblivious oaf. The show was laugh-out-loud funny, but that tone could only take it so far.
Starting with the fourth season, the supporting cast went through a number of changes—wise Colonel Sherman Potter in for Henry, laidback wiseacre BJ in for Hawkeye clone Trapper John, and eventually pompous-but-talented Charles in for Frank. At the same time, Hawkeye himself became more grounded and human, while retaining his sense of humor. The show became less about knocking the army and more about how these characters lived their lives in this strange situation. During those middle years, the show achieved the balance of comedy and drama that would be its most lasting legacy.
There is also a third series contained within M*A*S*H, which ran for the show’s last three or four seasons, beginning around the time company clerk Radar O’Reilly left in fall 1979. That show was even more dramatic than its immediate predecessor, but the show was still capable of delivering incredible character work. Additionally, the series-long arc from “wacky shenanigans satirizing war” to “light-hearted drama honestly looking at life during wartime” feels very natural when taken as a whole. Hawkeye—our point-of-view character—evolved over time the way real people do, and all 251 episodes show steps of that journey.
Gunsmoke (635 episodes on CBS from 1955–1975)
If you’re going to pick a show that lasted over 200 episodes, why not pick the show that lasted the longest? Over a 20 year period, Gunsmoke churned out 635 episodes, a record that I can’t see being broken by a scripted primetime series. Gunsmoke managed to be one of the top-30 rated shows for 19 of its 20 seasons (dropping to 34 in 1966-67 when it was almost cancelled but reportedly wasn’t because the wife of CBS’s president urged against it) and actually only spent six of its 20 seasons outside of the top ten ratings-wise.
While the show never won any major awards, it is widely perceived as the best television western ever (sorry, Deadwood, longevity matters a little), and it also served as platforms for the careers of both people in front of (Burt Reynolds) and behind (Sam Peckinpah, Arnold Laven, Jerry Goldsmith) the camera. Gunsmoke made multiple successful transitions in its lifespan: from radio to television, to black and white to color, and from half-hour to hour-long show—none of which were very easy to pull off.
We simply cannot award shows in this category without thinking of the one that, at least numerically, trounces them all. Gunsmoke lasted forever, and sustained its popularity throughout that forever-long run. SIX HUNDRED AND THIRTY-FIVE EPISODES. *drops mic*
You’ve heard our pitches. Now it’s your turn. Vote for as many or as few shows as you would like. Remember: You can vote more than once. Shows must receive 60 percent of the vote to be inducted.