(10 shows that would run on my network)
10) M*A*S*H- The first few seasons were downright silly and the final few seasons were downright dreadful. But in between was some of the best writing TV will ever see. The show walked the line between comedy and tragedy better than any show before it. As funny as the Captain Tuttle episode or the unexploded bomb in the compound episode were ("...but first..."), the episode Hawkeye lost his writer friend (I never heard the bullet coming...) or the episode Radar stopped seeing Hawkeye in a heroic light were heartbreaking. When the show focused on the follies of the army rather than the obvious horrors of war, it was brilliant.
9) Rocky and Bullwinkle- It was a cartoon but it wasn't a kid's show. The animation was crude and the writing wickedly subversive. The side shows, Mr. Peobody, Fractured Fairytales, Dudley Dooright, gave way to the cliff hanging episodes of the moose and his flying squirrel friend. The jokes came fast and furious and it was a show you had to watch carefully to get all that was going on. And if you did, it was amazingly rewarding.
8) Sports Night- Recently canceled, this show was unlike anything we ever saw before. The dialogue was crisp and flowed like poetry. The show struggled to find its audience and this season was devoted to being a show within a show as the fictional sports program struggled for its life too.
7) Buffy the Vampire Slayer- Coming off its finest season ever despite the loss of several major characters (Angel, Cordelia, and for the most part Oz) this show is far and away the best written show on the air today. The obvious metaphor (the demons we are all facing in trying to find our place, our happiness) can be forgiven by the incredible witty humor. That the least interesting character of the show is Buffy herself says how much attention is paid to developing all the characters. The show is never predictable and it quite often deals with serious subjects (teenage depression, the consequences of sexual promiscuity, the efficiency and dangers of a lack of individual thought in a military complex, lesbianism...) so adeptly that one wonders how long it can keep up its unparalleled creativity.
6) The Slap Maxwell Story- Dabney Coleman's (one of our best good bad guys) show after his always interesting Buffalo Bill. Slap was a cranky and cynical sportswriter who nonetheless had a flicker of a kind soul underneath his lack of heart. This was one of the first half hour shows that wasn't a sitcom- it was as heart tugging and moody as it was funny.
5) Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin- A mid 1970's British comedy about a man who is so fed up with the sheer predictability of his life that he fakes his suicide (more than once) and comes back in several guises. Again the wonderful side characters (especially CJ and Jimmy) made this show an effective ensemble show. Leonard Rossiter as Reggie was perfectly neurotic.
4) The Simpsons- This is another show that over the years has undergone a drastic change in focus. Current episodes seldom follow a linear plot but are all over the map. Yet the rapid pop culture skewering references/refrential treatment makes this a show that can be watched over and over with admiration. Favorite episode: Lisa gets help learning how to play the blues on her saxophone from Bleeding Gums Murphy. "I'm the saddest girl in grade two..."
3) Late Night with David Letterman- Fun with velcro, Larry Bud, the Conspiracy Guy, Mr. T., Andy K.. Television hasn't been the same since.
2) Hill Street Blues- The original pitch of the show's creators, Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll was this- a cop show that took place entirely in the station house, filmed on grainy black and white film with hand held cameras. There were to be few if any regular characters. "Make it messy," was the goal. What ultimately got on the air was a bit more conventional but the first season of this series has never been matched for its innovation. Storylines interweaved, most for several episodes, some never quite resolved. Dialogue overlapped, movement in front of the camera was common. It was gripping, it was chaotic. The show eventually drifted into more of a soap opera, but the writing remained sharp throughout. Cap'n Furillo remains my favorite TV character.
1) St. Elsewhere- It suffered because it never quite escaped the shadow of being called "Hill Street Blues in a hospital." It never got as popular as its predecessor (while Hill Street became a top ten show St. Elsewhere rarely finished in the top 40). Still, watching repeats of the two shows back to back, one begins to appreciate St. Elsewhere more and more. It was a gloomy show- neurotic characters that never quite could find happiness, and patients that seldom made it out of the hospital intact (or alive). The series finale was brilliant- suggesting that the entire show had been a fantasy of Tommy, an autistic child. A soulful show that somehow celebrated how frail life can be.