HOLLYWOOD | TV MILESTONES
Stars of the living room
Ten TV programs that had "inarguable influence."
By Robert Lloyd, Times Staff Writer
Possibly because less money is spent to produce it, television is still considered film's poor relation. And yet even a badly rated TV show might be seen by an audience bigger than that for a moderately successful independent film. And where hit films may certainly influence what other sorts of movies get made, hit shows, which go on week after week, work into the social fabric and change the way people live, or at least how they schedule their day. TV being the fantastically various medium it is, there is no way to number even a fraction of the shows that have altered its course, but here are 10 of inarguable influence. (I'm not sure what it means that many of them originated from or are set in New York, but the fact that they're almost all comedies is certainly a matter of my own taste.)
'I Love Lucy'
The mother of them all. Ground zero for three-camera comedy, and the fact that it was shot on film (in a time when television was all either live or poor-quality kinescopes) means that show looks as good today as it ever did — better, since TVs have improved. (Film allowed Lucille Ball, right, and husband Desi Arnaz to make the show in Hollywood, which began TV's westward shift of operation.) It is perpetually in reruns, another form it pioneered. And because the humor is elemental, which is not to say elementary, the show will still be funny in 3006, if anyone still has a sense of humor.
'The Ed Sullivan Show'
Based in the Times Square theater that David Letterman now occupies, erstwhile showbiz columnist Sullivan — the face, voice and hunch that launched a thousand impersonations — hosted what amounted to a really high-class vaudeville show, drawing from the safely certified high arts to the breakout low: ballet, opera, theater, stand-up comedy, puppets, Muppets, pop singers, rock bands (including the Beatles, above), soul groups. The television equivalent of playing the Palace, it was an institution, a weekly date, a family-friendly gathering spot whose Something for Everyone spirit also meant that whatever mattered arrived there, and arriving there meant that it mattered.
1949, and on and off until the present
Everybody is a star. The idea that the behavior of ordinary people, especially under stress, is not only entertaining but even deeply revealing is at the root of all reality TV. A line can be drawn from Allen Funt's hidden-camera show not only to such obvious inheritors as "Taxicab Confessions" and "Punk'd," but to "America's Funniest Home Videos" and "Cops," and to "The Real World" and all its various progeny, from "Survivor" and "Big Brother" to "Black.White" and "Project Runway."
'The Tonight Show'
Colonized and settled the time beyond prime time. Especially under its third host, Johnny Carson (succeeding Steve Allen and Jack Paar), right, it was practically synonymous with late-night TV and most everything that appeared on competing networks after 11:30 p.m. was defined in relation to it, in imitation or, less often, opposition. Celebrity interview shows were nothing new, but its particular mix of smart talk — especially in the days before it became merely an annex of studio publicity departments — and vicarious party-going was especially friendly, while its nightly succession of events (monologue, shtick with Ed and Doc, hierarchical procession of guests) gave it the heft of ritual.
The founding of the PBS entertainment- educational complex and also the show that moved children's TV from the soft and magical reaches of vague play lands to somewhere that, wherever it was exactly, was definitely New York. Multicultural, loud and funky, splashy, smart and a little psychedelic. (Grace Slick originally sang the numbers.) And its stars — Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, the ubiquitous Elmo — are the rival of any the medium has created.
'Saturday Night Live'
SNL's step forward was a step back to the wild halcyon days of live television when anything might happen: It was to be a "Your Show of Shows" for the stoned and ironical post-Woodstock generation and became a kind of Noah's ark for sketch comedy when the prime-time network variety shows died, carrying the form to such later practitioners as Ben Stiller and Dave Chappelle. The show has long since become a tradition, which status has carried it over many a dry patch, and its effect on film comedy has been, for better and sometimes for worse, thorough and ongoing.
Not the first prime-time cartoon, but the first that mattered in a big way. "The Flintstones" inspired only "The Jetsons," but "The Simpsons" made nighttime safe for cartoons, and cartoons safe for grown-ups in a new and far-reaching manner. (No Cartman without Bart.) Though it began as merely transgressive — it started off as a real Fox show, with as much in common with "Married With Children" as with, say, Jonathan Swift — it grew quickly smarter, and has been truly satirical to a degree that no American series before it ever quite managed.
The comedy of the obsessive-compulsive, "Seinfeld" was never about "nothing" — it's just that its concerns were so fantastically trivial as to be below the idea of premise. A kind of sitcomical Greek tragedy about flawed character and the inescapability of fate. ("Oedipus Rex" being the model of the delayed punch line.) Like most great TV, it seems sui generis — though it has links with "I Love Lucy," of all things, in its New York setting, basic team of four indispensable players (including Michael Richards, left, Jerry Seinfeld and Jason Alexander)and dogged harebrainedness. Its gift to posterity is its deep distrust of normalcy and aberration, and a willingness to mock anything at all.
'The Larry Sanders Show'
The Velvet Underground of TV series — seen by a relative few yet loved by critics and with an influence still playing out among practitioners of smart comedy. ("The Office" owes it everything.) Its documentary feel, mix of the real and fictional, the unpleasant qualities of its nevertheless sympathetically human lead characters (featuring Garry Shandling, right with Sharon Stone) and necessarily adult language were the first glimmerings of what cable could offer the artist and the audience, and have been borne out as prescient.
Commonly agreed to be the best drama, if not the best single show on television, "The Sopranos" is the series that for ambitious television auteurs switched the locus of the game from the big commercial networks to the more creatively free reaches of cable. It wasn't just sex, violence and dirty words that made this story of a New Jersey mob boss, er, waste management executive, family man and Family man (played by James Gandolfini, above), seem new, but its willingness to dig deep and its disinclination to flinch. All subsequent cable dramas share its DNA.
Robert Lloyd is a Times television critic.