“Mad Men” (2007-15)
This elegant literary drama, set across the 1960s, looked at changing times through the professional and personal lives of a mysterious ad man, Don Draper, played to perfection by Jon Hamm. Creator Matthew Weiner’s scripts were rich with themes of identity, self-awareness, social mobility, alcoholism, and, most of all, sexism; the production design was impeccable; the choice of cultural icons of the 1960s was clever; and the acting was superb down the line.
“Will & Grace” (1998-2006)
In his endorsement of gay marriage in 2012, Joe Biden said this sitcom about a gay man and his straight best friend “probably did more to educate the American public” on LGBT issues “than almost anything anybody has ever done so far.” A Top 10 show in its first iteration, it was a joyous half-hour, crammed with sharp jokes and four top-notch comic performances.
“Grey’s Anatomy” (2005- )
It’s a medical procedural, it’s a nighttime soap opera, it’s two, two, genres in one. Shonda Rhimes broke through with this long-running drama about the private lives of a hospital staff, which wasn’t especially groundbreaking. But the series provided enough heroism and melodrama to keep its many loyal fans happy over the years.
“30 Rock” (2006-13)
As backstage comedies go, Tina Fey came up with one of the best. The joke-a-minute style rewarded multiple viewings, the cast was stacked with originals, and the satirical takes on corporate hypocrisy and the egos of actors were brutal. With Fey as a single New Yorker looking for love, it was at times like a hyperactive, ironic take on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
David Milch’s muddy, unsanitized Western was about the challenges of bringing civilization to the wild frontier in the 1870s. The actors and their characters, from Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen to Robin Weigert’s Calamity Jane, were indelible, and Milch’s scripts were profane, laden with subtext, and, ultimately, poetic.
“The Larry Sanders Show” (1992-98)
Without this phenomenal, ahead-of-its-time comedy, we probably wouldn’t have gotten the likes of “30 Rock” and “Veep.” The satire was razor sharp, with Garry Shandling as an insecure, neurotic, and competitive late-night host desperate to stay famous. To give the humor a real-life spin, a very long list of real celebrities played exaggerated versions of themselves.
“Succession” (2018- )
This brutal satire about the twisted family behind a global media empire is both rip-roaringly funny and dramatically potent. None of the characters is likeable, but they are fascinating in their intensely flawed ways. The show is a little bit “King Lear,” and a little bit “Veep,” with scripts that are dense with wit, and the acting is some of the most entertaining TV has seen.
This potent and highly original drama was a deep dive into the early years of AIDS and the 1980s Harlem ballroom scene, where LGBTQ people formed a ritualistic sense of belonging. As it chronicled the daily struggles of people living on the financial and cultural edge, it also showed the beauty and support of families of choice. The acting, largely by trans actresses, was stunning, and Billy Porter’s ballroom scenes were spectacular.
Like many sitcoms, “M*A*S*H” stayed on the air too long. But at its peak, it was a classic and a groundbreaker, finding humor and humanity in the darkest of situations: war. It was about Korea, but it was also about Vietnam and the tragedy of lives lost or forever changed there. Alan Alda was more multifaceted than most sitcom leads of the time, as he ranged from cynicism to sincerity and back around again.
“The Cosby Show” (1984-91)
The legacy of this important sitcom has been tainted and threatened by the sexual assault conviction of co-creator and star Bill Cosby. But it nonetheless expanded TV’s representation of Black families in the 1980s, setting up other shows with predominantly Black casts, including spin-off “A Different World.”
This comedy of manners was unlike anything on network TV. It gave us four self-absorbed, neurotic New Yorkers looking for love — or a good loaf of rye bread. Each episode was a small marvel of plotting, as the gang of four got in and out of social predicaments, many of them involving sexual innuendo and issues of hygiene. The cast was all aces, most of all Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the mean-spirited Elaine.
“St. Elsewhere” (1982-88)
This one, set in Boston, brought much-needed realism to the medical drama genre in the early 1980s, and some thought of it as the hospital version of “Hill Street Blues.” The cast was huge, and there were many serialized stories along the way involving both the staff and the patients. In between some big themes, including AIDS, addiction, and breast cancer, the writers gave us moments of warmth and humor. Many viewers were shaken by its bold finale.
“The Bob Newhart Show” (1972-78)
Major kudos to the person who thought it might be a good idea to make Bob Newhart, the king of comic reaction, into a sitcom therapist. His Bob Hartley was a great straight man to an ensemble of eccentric characters, and the show’s congenial humor was grounded in daily life and the loveable oddities of human behavior. Newhart and Suzanne Pleshette made an appealing and, for that time, unconventional couple, one honored many years later in the finale of “Newhart.”
A spin-off of “Cheers,” this was a portrait of two snobby psychiatrist brothers who try to find love and happiness in spite of themselves and their hyper-civilized ways. The scripts were clever, and written for adults, but then the writers could also pull off ebullient farce. The ensemble, including Kelsey Grammer, David Hyde Pierce, John Mahoney, and Jane Leeves, was consistent, sharp, and, ultimately, endearing. A revival is currently in the works.
One of the most popular ensemble sitcoms, and set in Boston, it basically featured a group of people sitting around a bar and talking. But the series pioneered serial storytelling in sitcoms, as the characters’ lives became long-running arcs, and as the will-they-or-won’t-they romance between Sam and Diane played out. It was just before irony took over TV comedy, and viewers fell in love with the characters.
“In Treatment” (2008-10)
The idea of a show whose every half-hour is basically a therapy session? Not exciting. The reality of “In Treatment,” written almost as a series of one-act plays, directed with maximum intimacy, and acted with consistent intensity? Brilliant. Featuring Gabriel Byrne as a therapist with a number of complicated clients, the series was a revelation.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.
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