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Greetings and salutations and welcome to season two episode 19 of the Pop Culture Academy where we do our very best every week to treat pop culture with the seriousness that it deserves. What's been going on in the last week or so since last we spoke - so, um, I don't know how this happened exactly but I wound up circling the year 1978 this week. It wasn't intentional but somehow it happened. First, I caught up with the movie, the 1978 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers which I'd never seen. You gotta remember, no matter how good you are of a pop culture enthusiast there are holes in what you know. There are always holes and, you know, I hadn't seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Now, you know, I hear that the original is the superior film but it's pretty good, this 1978 version. Donald Sutherland. Leonard Nimoy and Jeff Goldblum. And you know it's got all the chills and thrills that you expect with a horror film, a little sci-fi mixed in. Interesting commentary on identity I guess. I found it really interesting that this triumvirate of men, Sutherland, Goldblum and Nimoy, and they work really well together I think they make an interesting little triumvirate but in most ways they are sort of out shown by Brooke Adams who plays the female lead here and who is kind of the first person to stumble on what's happening, what's really going on. Now, the other thing I gotta say is of course Jeff Goldblum who I am more and more convinced is one of those people that you gotta designate as national treasures. He just steals every scene he's in and that's not just true of this film. He just steals every movie he's in. I don't know what sort of phenomenon it is - it's unlike - I can't think of anybody else quite like him and maybe that's what the appeal is. He's so unlike anybody else but, yeah, it's just fun. This was an early one from his career and it's really fun to watch him work.
Now, the other thing that happened is and I, again, I don't know - this wasn't intentional but I've been thinking a long time about this series that I watched when I was seven. Seven years old, 1978, that's also of course the year that Star Wars comes out. I mean I guess '77, '78 - Star Wars comes out of course Invasion of the Body Snatchers, lots of great things coming out in that year, 1978. I just happened - like I said, I was 7 years old and I happened to have my tonsils out at 7 years old. So I'm in the hospital, and you know, I'm 7, and I don't really know what's happening to me. I'm uncomfortable. I don't like it. When I come out of surgery I don't like the way I feel, all the things you would expect a 7 year old to feel about tonsillectomies, particularly in 1978 which is what 40 something years ago? I'm in the hospital and my mother comes and stays with me which I like and the other thing that I really like was that for the first time in my life I had access to the remote control, right? In the hospital I had the little remote that decided what channel. Now of course you gotta think about what control means here - it's 1978, there are only 3 channels so I don't have a lot of control but I don't think my family had a remote control set to be honest with you. I don't remember us having a remote control set and I know it's 1978 but we had a black and white when I was a kid, when I was younger. So, I've got control and my mother and I found this show, the premiere episode of this show and that was kind of cool in itself that we found, that we were watching - I mean obviously it must have been September/October when this happened and we were just watching ABC and a brand new show came on and we were intrigued and so we watched. The show was called Lucan and this may sound ridiculous to you but we bought it in 1978 and it worked. It doesn't sound good on paper, but it works. So, it's about a kid who's discovered in 1967 and when he's discovered he's 10 years old and it's in Montana or somewhere like that - Wyoming - and he's been raised by wolves, he's literally been raised by wolves. And the foresters capture him and they take him to a facility and the facility slowly tries to reeducate him as a human which is apparently not that easy when you've got a feral kid. It's just not that easy. The series, of course, takes place ten years later when Lucan, who is played by Kevin Brophy, is 20. And it stars John Randolph as - I mean he is really the central figure; he's the psychiatrist, the behavioral psychologist who's been working with Lucan for these ten years and now sort of his research is being threatened and people want to put Lucan in a kind of, I don't know, not a zoo but they want to put him on display, study him, those kinds of things and John Randolph's character is trying to prevent that. As I say, it sounds kind of ridiculous on paper, it actually play really well. Now the other thing besides not sounding as, you know, sounds a little outrageous, is the fact that it only made it 12 episodes so clearly it did not catch on. And all these years I've wondered about it; several years ago I looked it up and finally tracked it down, it's on ABC. And then a few more years later I discovered that you can watch whole episodes, that the whole series really, is on YouTube. And so I've just had that in the back of my mind and for whatever reason this weekend I just decided I wanted to sit down and watch a couple of those episodes. I did. It's quality television in an era when you just wouldn't expect it. It's got a really good plot, it's great acting, and it has a story arc and develops over time. And at that point in time what you've got is the best shows on TV were Love Boat and Fantasy Island and shows that were, you know, one off. Each episode was it's own little world and then you moved onto the next episode and things kind of reset and started all over again. So, I gotta say, I'm very impressed with this show and I'm going to have to investigate further and I'll keep you posted on that.
But, let's get into this week's subject which as it happens, you know, it has everything to do with television. I've confessed before just how much I love lists and the other thing that I confess probably as often is that the medium that I am the most passionate about in pop culture is television. Right? I love music, I love literature (I was trained to study literature), I love film, obviously. I love video games and I love graphic novels and I love podcasts but the thing that I love more than anything else is television. And so I know there've been a lot of lists out there already, probably one I would guess in TV Guide, certainly one awhile back from Entertainment Weekly I remember reading. And those were actually more extensive, they were like the 100 greatest shows of all time. And look, you know, I mean I'll confess this too - one more confession this week - sometimes when I'm putting lists like this together I really have to do my homework a little, right? Like I know the subject pretty well but I don't know everything and I've always gotta look things up and find out what other people think and all those things. But this is one topic I know inside and out and I thought, I'm just going to do one myself. I know these others are out there, there's probably a lot of them out there but I'm going to offer up my own thoughts on this subject.
I mean look, tv has been a part of my life from the very beginning. Sesame Street premiered a year or two before I was born I think and it's just been straight on from there. I love, always loved as long as I can remember, television. And I've dabbled in a little bit of everything. I haven't lived through the entire history of television, obviously, but Sesame Street and I was a kid during the whole like Luke and Laura thing on General Hospital. I got deeply deeply involved in that soap. I was absolutely addicted like everybody was. And I didn't grow up with it but I've gone back into the history of tv that the shows like Green Acres and Route 66 and Hogan's Heroes and The Bob Newhart Show and The Rockford Files. I was a Sports Center junkie for awhile so I got that kind of ESPN thing for awhile. I was glued to the first season of Survivor so I understand reality TV. For a few years I never missed 60 Minutes. I spent years watching Adult Swim. And you know I was a teenager just as MTV got going. I just don't think there's a genre or a corner of television that I don't have some expertise in. And so you might or might not like this list but this is one that really matters to me and I make no apologies for my choices.
I tried to make a list that is fair, that represents all sorts of shows though I do have to say upfront my choices, as it turned out, were all (for the top 10 anyway) fictional content. I couldn't think of anything that could bump one of these off the list just because - you know, I didn't want to add a news show just to add a news show or a reality show or a sports program. I wanted to do the ten best. It just so happened that those were all fiction. I tried to choose examples that were both entertaining but also significant, you know, game changers if you will for television. There's not one show on this list that wasn't incredibly satisfying to watch but while in most every case there were other examples that I could have chosen, you know, just as entertaining, none of them felt quite as significant as the choices that I made. And I don't know why I do this but I always have this compulsion to go through the ones I didn't include because I think it says something important about the ones I did. So let me just give you a sampling, I'll just anger you now right up front in this show about the ones I didn't pick. I'm sure they'll all be your favorites and right away you'll say this list has to be worthless because, you know, he left this off. But here's the ones that you know I love and that I wanted to include but there were better examples. Mary Tyler Moore Show. Right? Groundbreaking. The really enormous television franchise Law & Order. The first big extensive television franchise I think. 24 which was ground-breaking in terms of how it told stories. Cheers which I know for a fact was number one on some of the lists that are out there. The Twilight Zone. Walking Dead. Star Trek didn't make the list. It's Gary Shandling's Show. The Andy Griffith Show. Breaking Bad. Game of Thrones. The X-Files. The Tonight Show. Saturday Night Live. The Big Bang Theory. Mr. Rogers didn't make the list and American Horror Story. Those were all shows that just were right there but you know we had to put a cap on it somewhere. So I mean if you are playing along at home which I like to do with these kinds of things and you've got your card with all the top ten that you think belong there you can start marking some of them off.
10 So I started the countdown, number ten, with Buffy. And, look, some of you may disagree. I know, though, if you're a Buffy fan you'll insist it should be higher. In fact, you'll probably insist it should be at the top of the list and to be honest that's one of the reasons that I chose it. I mean it is a great show - entertaining characters and humor that is incredibly clever. It's self-referential and meta and post-modern which you know I love. It's one of the first shows that got really self-referential like, you know, that musical episode in the last season is just amazing. And all of that puts it on the list. But really Buffy, more than any show I can think of other than maybe Star Trek, Buffy is a phenomenon. It's a cult classic that was mainstream. I know it's kind of a contradiction in terms, not kind of, it IS a contradiction in terms. But I guess what I'm getting at is that it has all these hallmarks of a cult classic, like the fan base that just is so devoted. And when I was an academic I can say this as well, no show got the kind of academic attention that Buffy gets. I mean it is treated with reverence and with great seriousness.
9 All right so this one I've gone back and forth on but ultimately I gave the slot to Sesame Street and yeah, I know, it's sentimental for me but beyond that in kids TV - you can definitely make an argument for Mr. Rogers and I get that. I think Rogers, if I'm not mistaken, Rogers was a year or two ahead of Sesame Street. And I actually played with some other contenders as well that had nothing to do with kids TV but I went with Sesame Street because as much as Mr. Rogers came first, Sesame Street perfected the educational TV formula like no show has. Fifty years, still going and still just as iconic as it was fifty years ago. We know all those characters. We know Oscar and Big Bird and Elmo and Grover and Bert and Ernie. But Sesame Street also, here's what's amazing about Sesame Street - it understood the TV format as well as any show ever has and it turned that format into a lesson for kids in how to navigate media. The idea that we should put a kids show that has commercials in it, not real commercials but educational commercials sort of stuck in there and it has different segments like different shows or, it just allowed kids to enter the TV world in a safe, educational way. And so many shows since then have been copying what Sesame Street did in one way or another. [Listen to our podcast "Sesame Street and Virtual Reality", Aug. 14]
8 All right, so number eight. The Office. Again, we could talk about how screamingly funny that show was. It was incredibly entertaining to watch. Or we could talk about how we all fell in love with Jim and Pam and we got so involved in a soap opera kind of way with that romance. We could talk about how entertaining Dwight was. But let's talk about why the show is important, significant. Now, to be fair, The Office was incredibly ground-breaking but only because the original version, Ricky Gervais's version came first and it shed the way. So I mean you know you can't give all the credit to this show. You have to think about its British predecessor. But The Office gave us this new kind of television, the mockumentary, fiction masked as reality kind of show. It influenced Curb Your Enthusiasm and Modern Family and Parks and Rec and I'm sure I'm missing some other influences, important shows that The Office kind of showed the way for. And we really needed that new form at just that moment for reasons we'll get into later. But the sitcom was a dead form. Maybe that doesn't seem right if you didn't live through it but I'm telling you the sitcom was dead. The Office managed to resurrect it single handedly really, managed to resurrect the sitcom just when it needed it. And, you know, I think you also have to say Michael Scott was something new as well, as a character; really not a character like him on television. And early on I remember people kind of didn't know what to do with The Office. Is this going to be a hit? Is this just wonky...I mean he wasn't quite what Ricky Gervais's character had been in the British original. He was a buffoon but he had these redeeming qualities. He was so kind and he was so generous to others. As big of a fool as he was, he also was the firm's biggest and best salesman. He'd been, as they say, promoted beyond his abilities. He was no good as an office manager, he was terrible as an office manager but boy could he sell. I mean he wasn't just, you know, I guess he was kind of in the mold of those negative characters that we got at that time like House or like Dexter, characters who had some serious character flaw but who were also in some ways incredibly incredibly brilliant. And Michael Scott was that for comedy and it was fascinating to watch.
7 Number seven is The Wire and I think The Wire might be the most recent entry on this list. There's incredible acting, again I want to talk about - it is an incredibly entertaining show, right? It has fascinating cat and mouse plots, it keeps you watching and it has that kind of that whole HBO sort of aura going for it. It was one of the first shows of that wave of serious television, serious dramatic television well-acted, well-constructed, filming quality really high. It had all of those things going for it but The Wire more than any show ever offered us a full and complete picture of a real space, of Baltimore as a city. And we see that space from at least five different perspectives in the five seasons and each of those perspectives is brilliantly developed so that you really delve into one aspect of the city. And the other ones kind of are all there too so that by the end of the series you feel like you know Baltimore. You've entered that space and I really feel like television more than any - what it's really got going for it is its ability to take us into a fictional space and let us live there and The Wire did that as well as any show ever.
6 Number six is Battlestar Galactica. Now, you know, I know if you're going to talk about sci-fi shows it seems like Star Trek should be at the top of the list and I do accept that argument. I mean, Star Trek's an amazing ground-breaking series, it has the cult following of Buffy. It continued on in film and other television franchises. It really had an impact. But I gotta say Battlestar is simply the better constructed show. Now again, Star Trek paved the way and if there wasn't Star Trek no Battlestar Galactica. But Battlestar is just the superior sort of outgrowth of what Star Trek started. Most science fiction (and Star Trek certainly was an example of this) deals with politics and Star Trek's very insightful in that way. It's dealing with some very cutting edge political things but for all that I love Star Trek, for all its cult status and its weight significance, even historically it's kind of disadvantaged by having been made in TV's early days when TV was still a poor step-child of film. And, you know, I love those shows. There's another show on this list that comes from that era but the money and the attention is not going into television so that it's cheaply made and sometimes the seams show. Battlestar is better acted, better filmed, more complex plots and narrative experimentation but more than that no show has ever been a commentary on its time more than Battlestar. That show is absolutely essential watching for anyone trying to think through the early post 9/11 years, the Bush years, the Iraqi war years. And it's just so compelling on that level and maybe it's lost some of its luster over time because you have to have lived through that and understood that period to really get Battlestar but boy was it essential to watch that show at that time.
5 Number five. The Sopranos. Amazing show. Like Battlestar or The Wire or some that didn't make the list like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black. It plays with the narrative form of television in such intricate ways. But more than that it was the first of what people now call the golden age of television. You know, for a long time it was popular to say that the golden age was the very earliest days of television. There was some kind of aura, magical aura about those days and then you got into - there's a great Twitter account on the silver age of television, the age that came after that had everything from Green Acres and Hogan's Heroes to Mary Tyler Moore and The Bob Newhart Show to Love Boat and Fantasy Island. And that was fine too. I have a lot of nostalgia for that era but these days when people talk about the golden age of television they're really referring to what happened around the year 2000 when the quality of television just exploded in so many ways and suddenly there were these really serious shows that money was being poured into to really make a film-like experience, that kind of quality. And this show, The Sopranos, was the first of that era. I think that era these days - it's still going on but maybe it's begun to flag just a little bit. Part of the issue as we've talked about before is that our attention is now scattered because there are so many shows competing for our attention and we can't keep up with them all. And so we've kind of lost a little bit of that really golden age that we had for, I don't know, fifteen or twenty years. Without Sopranos though there's no Breaking Bad. Without Sopranos there's no Walking Dead. There's no Homeland. I mean name pretty much any serious well-made show of the last twenty years and it doesn't exist without The Sopranos. Sopranos just broke the mold. It showed us that TV, and I know it was HBO so it wasn't the same thing as network television but it showed us that TV could be every bit the equal of film, that when television was really really on it could be better than film. That show discovered what TV is best at and it made the most of it.
4 Number four. You know a lot of early television has sort of disappeared over time, that golden age I was just talking about. No one remembers - few people remember for instance the Milton Berle show which was so incredibly influential but people don't remember that. People don't remember Happy Days. If you go back to that early golden age no one remembers Route 66 or Father Knows Best or even The Honeymooners, it's such a ground-breaking show. But I Love Lucy has and I suspect it always will linger in our consciousness. It's just always going to be there. It was the first landmark comedy on television and maybe the first landmark show of any kind on television. And all of that of course really was all down to the genius of Lucille Ball herself. I mean there's no show on this list that owes so much to its character, to its leading actress as I Love Lucy. It was all her. I mean I love Ricky, that's great but you know that show is Lucy. And in that sense she opened the door for TV women to be funny in a way that they - I mean - you know I can't really say in a way that they never have before because there was no before but she allowed that to happen at TV's earliest moment. She nailed all the aspects of the physical comedy that everyone since has just been imitating in one way or another, particularly influential on the women that we think of, the women that today we think of as television icons. Carol Burnett all the way to Julia Louis-Dreyfus. They all have a little bit of Lucy in their physical comedy. She also showed how dramatic irony could be turned to true profit, you hadn't been able to do quite the same way in film for instance. It really opened the door to some fascinating possibilities with television in terms of structure and the notion of dramatic irony as, you know, one character not realizing what the other characters are doing or what's happening with them and as a result creating outlandish, outrageous comedy.
3 Number three. MASH. Again, I have a lot of nostalgia and sentimental feeling for this show. Top to bottom, though, that's simply an incredible show. I'd probably say of all the ones on this list that is the most watchable show in terms of pure entertainment. It's insanely, insanely funny and I think that translates to any generation. You know there are shows on this list that I know some people don't get anymore but that show, we're always going to be able to get that show. It's insanely funny but it manages to evolve over time into a show that's also incredibly powerful, has a really serious pathos to it partly because we came to really love those characters. It was of its time, kind of the way that Galactica was but it grew out of that time, right? I mean it starts in the 70s and it's about the Korean War and it's commenting on the Vietnam war but then it goes into the 80s and Vietnam is past and its direction kind of changes and what it has to say kind of changes and it grows into an 80s show. I mean it's able to evolve that way. I don't know that there's ever been that good a cast ever assembled. If you go back and watch that last episode and, you know, that's another thing it's got going for it is that it's one of the few shows that really pulled off an amazing final episode. I hold a very special place in my heart for what happened in that last episode and the way that that series was able to say goodbye to those characters. It brings goosebumps up to me now, all these years later. The most watched television finale, television show, in history because it was so well crafted and really because we came to love those characters. You invest in those characters and it's funny they're a lot of stereotypes in the tradition of early television in those first few seasons. But all of those characters were able to transcend those stereotypes as well. In some ways MASH manages to succeed in spite of its television-ness if you will. In some ways it manages to create a bridge from early television to later television. I was talking about that previous golden age and the silver age and MASH does both of those but then it pushes us to the next generation as well, particularly for comedy.
2 All right. Number two. There are people who may quibble with this one because technically it only lasted a season and a half and by the half, let's face it, it had lost some of its steam. But in terms of drama, Twin Peaks absolutely completely changed the game. Okay, so I said earlier The Sopranos was the first show of the golden age but ten years before anyone had heard of James Gandolfini Twin Peaks was already nailing what television really is. In simplest terms, Twin Peaks was the first show to meld soap opera and that kind of story arc that you want to watch, you want to watch characters grow and develop, you want to watch situations grow and develop, you're interested in how it develops. It melded soap opera with genuine TV drama and professional film quality. It may not seem like it now in the wake of all we've seen since then but, for instance, it was the first show with a soundtrack. It was the first non-soap series that had a story arc that continued across the series. It was iconic in a way that few shows ever have been. The images in that series just stick with you forever. You never forget what Twin Peaks is like. You never forget what that forest and that mill and all of those places, you never forget the feel of that show. And every show since then has, I think, copied it, sometimes in ways that you can see pretty directly. For instance, every show that involves a small town, from Northern Exposure which I love to Gilmore Girls which I love to Wayward Pines which I love. They're all full of these quirky characters and often this very dark foreboding feel that's mixed with comedy in a very strange way that other shows have also copied. I just don't think it is possible to overstate Twin Peaks' value to television and the history of television even though you only get a season and a half and then it's canceled. But I mean how many shows did we talk about that got canceled before their time? You know, we could - that's a completely different episode.
1 All right. So number one. And then there was one. I won't beat around the bush after all I did a whole episode on this show just a couple of weeks ago [Listen to our podcast, "The Wonders of Seinfeld", Aug. 21]. In the same way that Twin Peaks set a particular standard for drama, one that we're still trying to live up to, Seinfeld did that for comedy only more so. Seinfeld broke, we were talking about The Office, Seinfeld broke the sitcom for awhile. The Office had to resurrect it because Seinfeld broke it. It did something, it nailed television and television sitcoms so well that no one else could compete and so they just didn't. But Seinfeld also understood in a way that no other show has ever done - okay, let's be clear. It's Gary Shandling's Show did that too and it did it a couple years earlier than Seinfeld. And there were other precursors to Seinfeld - Cheers and Night Court and Wings, those NBC must-see TV shows - set Seinfeld up, particularly Cheers. But they were all only sort of moving to the edge. Seinfeld got to that edge and went over it and every show in some way involves its DNA. And I mean drama, comedy, every show has some Seinfeld in its DNA somewhere, even the ones that came before it it turns out have some Seinfeld in their DNA. It's like the show reordered the comedy universe forever. Talk about Buffy's meta qualities, its postmodern - Seinfeld is full of meta long before Buffy came around. Friends, right? Fun interesting characters; not as important as Seinfeld though. Big Bang Theory. I mean how much do they steal from Seinfeld. It starts with four characters sitting on couches chatting. That is Seinfeld. The Office - you go back to the British version of The Office - it was really only a reaction to what Seinfeld had done. Really I could list all of my favorite shows since then - Community, The Mindy Project, New Girl, Mom, Modern Family, How I Met Your Mother, they've all got pieces of Seinfeld sort of floating around in there. It just understood what TV was. It understood, and Twin Peaks did this to an extent though I think the newer Twin Peaks season that aired on HBO or, was it Showtime, HBO, a few years ago, I think it understood even better than the original what TV was about, that TV was this fictional world, that these aren't real people doing real things; it's all fictional. And Seinfeld did it, they understood it and they used that as the basis for their humor. And it was so meta and so postmodern and like I said, it's not just the comedies, I don't think the dramas completely realized the possibilities of that idea, that this is a fictional universe and that allows us to shape things and do it differently. What we had before were shows that were sort of pretending to be real life. You watch The Brady Bunch and they are doing this mediocre job - there's a lot of suspension of disbelief in early television. You pretend that it is real life but because the production quality is so not real life and it's so obvious that it's not. And Seinfeld said, look people, this is not real. Let's just put away the sham and just say it up front, this is fake, this is not reality. And that's again, that's where all its humor comes but the dramas come along and they realize they're right. There is no - it's not real. Some shows play with that in a direct way. Other shows like The Sopranos say, oh yeah, this is fictional, let's really invest in that. Let's - if this is going to be fictional, let's really make the quality of the production as high as it possibly can be and not just pretend that we're reality but let's actually become reality. And even though Seinfeld comes out, roughly around the same time as Twin Peaks I don't think Twin Peaks has the impact it does if there's no Seinfeld. And all of that about its significance is not even to mention its iconic characters. Few actors are as good as Louis-Dreyfus, Alexander, Richards. It's got a one, two, three punch that hits you constantly. Things happen that are so unexpected and none of it matters. It is the purest form of comedy. There are no romantic sub-plots, no Sam and Diane, no Ross and Rachel. There are no very special episodes. There are no messages whatsoever. It's just funny and that is so brilliant.
Okay, so it could be that I went a little longer than I should have this week but come on, it's television. There is no more important medium I think, at least for now. I'm waiting for virtual reality to make its move but I feel like I've been waiting for awhile now and it just doesn't seem to be making it. Television is spectacular.
So that's it for another week. If you like what you hear, please follow us on Twitter, check out our YouTube page, and visit us at popcultureacademy.com. Most importantly, tell your friends. We are looking for listeners to validate our existence. I'll be back next Friday with an all new episode, see you then.
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