Best TV Ever: Eric Deggans Edition
I'm cranking out some stuff for the newspaper to hit print in weeks to come -- the first few weeks of October are jam-packed with interesting television -- so I've decided to present a column that I originally wrote for a different web site, in the prehistoric days B.B. (Before Blogging).
The guy who ran the site asked a bunch of people -- including my fellow critics Diane Werts and Robert Bianco, to list their favorite TV shows of all time. I liked the idea of doing it, because this is, hands down, the question I hear the most from anyone who discovers I am a professional couch potato.
To that end, I offer an updated version here; please feel free to list your own in the comments section, along with a few clues to why you listed the shows you did.
I've only seen this one in archival footage and documentary tapes. Still, the sight of a suave, talented Cole trading vocal and piano licks with the likes of Mel Torme and Peggy Lee was an amazing source of pride -- especially in 1956, eight years before black people would gain the federally mandated right to vote in all states. And watching Cole prove he was more than just a slick balladeer with performances that revealed his true singing and piano playing prowess -- well, that was just icing on the cake.
Another series that didn't last long, this was ribald comic Richard Pryor's reward for acing several Saturday Night Live appearances and a special. Despite repeated inteference from the censors -- Pryor appeared in one sketch nude with his, um, "naughty bits" removed to symbolize what censors were doing to him -- it was incredibly funny, hinting at the comic feast to come when TV let comics such as Arsenio Hall and Chris Rock mine black culture to fuel their shows.
3. Saturday Night Live (first five seasons)
I remember stumbling on this show during its second or third episode, clicking channels late one Saturday night while my mother lay sleeping on the couch. It reminded of the days when I'd smuggle a Richard Pryor or Redd Foxx record into my room, turning down the volume so my mother couldn't hear the profanity-laced comedy routines. This was rock 'n' roll sketch comedy, weaving rock culture, stoner culture, college culture and New York culture into a potent stew that was irresistible for a fan of zietgist-tapping pop art. Even at a young age, I could tell this was something new, dangerous and fun.
4. The Sopranos (first season only)
Watch these 13 episodes and you see creator David Chase's complex vision fully realized -- a textured, darkly comic drama about a Mafia capo forced to realize the mother he adores is his worst enemy. No other storyline mined since has presented the same level of drama and artistic fulfillment, making you wish Chase had folowed his first instinct and let Tony kill his mother at the end of the first season's final episode (example of network TV-friendly version here).
5. Good Times (first season only)
Yeah, Jimmie Walker's J.J. character was a coon in teenager's clothing, but John Amos and Esther Rolle's depiction of hard working, project-living parents in Chicago's South Side reminded me of a dozen families I knew growing up in my own ghetto home in Northwest Indiana. Put simply, Good Times was the first time I saw a family on TV that looked like the ones I knew (my father wasn't in my home, so it wasn't like mine). They had money troubles, worried about getting and keeping jobs, fretted about racism and struggled with the knowledge that so many were doing so much better than they were. Then Amos left the show and it turned into "the J.J. Hour" - destroying a powerful program.
Kirshner was a record executive with severe stage fright -- Paul Shaffer's dead-on impression of his deer-in-the-headlights delivery of band intros during an SNL Blues Brothers skit remains a classic -- who somehow managed to offer the hippest late night music showcase of the late 70s and early '80s. I remember being glued to a live performance of "Message in a Bottle"-era Police, British ska experts The Specials, Earth Wind and Fire knockoffs Cameo, and many other bands years before MTV would make such appearances routine. For a young music fan, watching Kirshner's show -- before he began letting disco bands lip synch performances -- was like mainlining musical ecstasy.
For a young fan of science fiction and comic books, this was heaven -- a TV show that took all those storytelling techniques seriously and weaved compelling, classic tales out of them. I couldn't know at the time that literary heavyweights like Ray Bradbury were making the magic behind the scenes. All I knew was that the episode showing bookworm Burgess Meredith sitting down in a city depopulated by nuclear war, preparing to spend his days blissfully reading his beloved literature, only to break his glasses -- that was pure TV heaven.
It made me angry for weeks, mostly because it made real how my ancestors were stripped of everything that they had -- their homes, family, heritage and self-respect -- forced to a new land where they would be treated like animals for the rest of their days. It was a potent lesson in the facts of slavery, exposing exactly how it all unfolded in a way that viewers could never forget. Even discovering that Alex Haley may have plagiarized or manufactured material in the book didn't change the way it changed me.
9. Star Trek
Nine movies, five TV series and countless geek jokes later, it's easy to take this 40-year franchise for granted. But before Lost creator J.J. Abrams makes Trek cool again, it's worth tipping a hat to the classic series, which was the first non-anthology series to take science fiction seriously. Racism. Nationalism. Cold war politics. Global unity. Look beneath the bad makeup and dates special effects and its all there, disguised as a science fiction adventure show creator Gene Rodenberry once called "Wagon Train to the stars."
10. The Daily Show
At a time when America's war machine is at full throttle, our country's leaders and its enemies locked in a dance of aggression which oddly benefits both, Jon Stewart and his cohorts have offered a more incisive analysis of America's BS than any pundit around. I'm not sure if I'm ashamed or angry that Americans are so tuned out to journalists that it takes a snappy, inventive comedy show to inform them of the excesses politicians committ in their name. But I'm sure glad somebody's shakin' the cages.
(click on any image to enlarge, and feel free to add to/argue with my list in the comments section)