Frankly, the only way to do iconic TV programs justice in a space this size would be to run a list in very small type. So assuming ruthless choices are required, the challenge is to find not just the longest-running or necessarily even the best shows, but those that cast the longest shadows.
By that metric, tentpoles do stand out amid 50-something years of television, programs that not only made a splash but whose ripples fanned out through the years.
The ever-classy Grant Tinker once called Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show” tenure “the biggest and best television has ever been,” which is almost certainly true. The same description applies to the miniseries “Roots,” king of the historical epic and grand symbol of TV’s unifying potential. Of course, throw in “Holocaust,” “Shogun,” “Eleanor and Franklin,” “The Thorn Birds” and “Rich Man, Poor Man,” and there are about 50 hours worthy of any time capsule.
In terms of series, TV’s most distinctive form, none is more significant than “I Love Lucy,” the prototype for every multicamera-and-a-couch comedy that followed — and no doubt the first thing extraterrestrials will reference when they finally arrive. Other comic giants furthered that genre, and arguably none before or since were funnier than “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Honeymooners,” the latter setting a precedent for all of today’s donut-eating husbands hitched to rail-thin wives.
Alongside “Lucy” (though I won’t be held to order of importance) resides “The Twilight Zone,” an anthology series that raised the bar on TV drama and shaped the minds of countless producers. Twice remade, the show’s tentacles and the genius of its creator, Rod Serling, can be seen in any number of concepts, most recently ABC’s “Lost.”
Ditto for “Star Trek,” whose most enduring legacy includes reinforcing TV science fiction as a means of tackling present-day issues — with the helpful benefit of a few centuries of hindsight.
Given the ubiquity of Westerns during the industry’s formative years, it’s difficult to settle on one or two, but let’s try. “Bonanza,” clearly, was among the more durable as well as the best, a family drama whose talented cast could oscillate from meaty drama to silly comedy. If nothing else, Barry Levinson’s ruminations regarding the show in “Tin Men” should earn it a place in TV nirvana.
Where family ties distinguished the Cartwrights, “Gunsmoke” captured the image of the tough, stand-alone lawman of impeccable character, and the show’s staggering two-decade run testifies to star James Arness’ determination not to let a good thing die. In modern times, his agent would insist that he own CBS after season 13.
Variety shows have come and gone, but television has seldom shone more brightly than “Your Show of Shows.” The Sid Caesar-fronted comedy hour was not only home to an incomparable roster of great comic minds (Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, the list goes on) but also was the antecedent to modern showbiz equivalent “Saturday Night Live.”
No discussion of comedy would be complete without “All in the Family,” Norman Lear’s groundbreaking social satire, which spun off multiple hits. It anchored a pick-your-favorite night of iconic TV, including “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” all the more remarkable given the wasteland Saturday evenings have become.
Television drama has undergone a series of transformations, though today’s more complicated storytelling shouldn’t eclipse the simple pleasures of classic cop shows, with none better than “Hawaii Five-O,” which ran an impressive 13 seasons. While it’s difficult to muster more than a passing nod to Jack Webb starrer “Dragnet,” there’s no denying the impact of “Law & Order,” a format that has been able to change stars like hubcaps, though I miss the moral ambiguity of its early years.
The nighttime soaps of the 1970s and ’80s, highlighted by “Dallas” and “Dynasty,” captured TV’s addictive power before moving into younger zip codes like “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Melrose Place” — the endless serialized narrative (yes, I know this happens in daytime) being the medium’s most unique attribute.
Serialized drama took a quantum leap forward in the early 1980s, as “Hill Street Blues” and, subsequently, “St. Elsewhere” introduced massive casts, flawed characters, noirish twists and the expansion from an A and B plot to an alphabet soup of concurrent storylines. Indeed, the complexity of modern narratives prompted Steven Johnson, in his book “Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter,” to argue that modern media consumption improves cognitive skills. (Based on that theory, dating shows and daytime talkers should offset any appreciable rise in the national IQ.)
Kissing off broadcast journalism with a single program is foolhardy, but nothing exemplifies its highest ideals better than “60 Minutes,” which found a way to make news both entertaining and hugely profitable, for better and (lately, anyway) mostly worse.
Along similar lines, “The Sopranos” is not only a landmark program for its creative accomplishments but, even more than HBO sibling “Sex and the City,” for establishing cable’s ability to produce water-cooler hits with cultural resonance rivaling the major networks.
So what’s left? Hell, only “Seinfeld” and “Friends,” “Roseanne” and “The Cosby Show,” “NYPD Blue” and “ER,” “The Larry Sanders Show” and “The Simpsons,” “24’s” ticking clock and “The Fugitive’s” much-copied quest for the one-armed man — oh, and one more thing, “Columbo.” Additional oversights are inevitable, from “Texaco Star Theater” to “South Park,” which in its way could easily share space with “The Sopranos.”
As for those who insist they don’t make TV icons like they used to, the factory manages to keep churning them out — a little more slowly, granted, than those chocolate balls that Lucy and Ethel tried to wrap.