Most television shows are derivative. There’s nothing shocking about that statement. We all know it. Most shows just latch onto whatever the fad is and ride that puppy all the way to the ground like Slim Pickens riding the A-Bomb in Dr. Strangelove. But the reason these shows are able to copycat their way to syndicated oblivion is because occasionally a new show comes along that completely blows apart the old model. These new shows then become the standard by which everything else in television is judged. And so it is with the following shows, each of which marked a turning point in television history. They both changed the way people watched television and inspired them to try to emulate their success. And that’s what makes them the nine most influential TV shows ever.
9. ‘The Tonight Show’
No, I’m not talking about the Jay Leno abomination. I’m talking about the Johnny Carson version. Sure, he might not have been the first host, but he’s the one who’s pretty universally recognized as the OG of the late night talk show genre. Think about it, every single talk show basically copies the Carson format – corny yet endearing monologue, whacky skits/segments, interplay with sidekick/bandleader, guest interviews, all of it. Without Carson and The Tonight Show, you wouldn’t have Letterman, Conan, Jimmy Kimmel or Jimmy Fallon. Okay fine, maybe we’d be better off without that last one, but still, there’s no denying The Tonight Show’s massive influence.
It was really, really close between Survivor and American Idol, both of which transformed the reality show genre, but in the end I had to go with Survivor. The reason? While American Idol transformed the reality show genre and ushered in the age of talent contest shows, Survivor was really the show that made the reality show genre a genre in the first place. At least on American TV. Calm down, Brits, I can already see you getting your knickers all in a twist or your bloomers in a boot or whatever the hell you weirdoes say. You can draw a clear line when it comes to network programming that could be labeled “Before Survivor/After Survivor.” It’s incredibly stark. One day, it was all sitcoms and soaps, the next, it was all Big Brother, Bachelor and Whore Island. American Idol wouldn’t even have been allowed to exist on American TV if it wasn’t for Survivor. Hey, I didn’t say these were all influential for positive reasons.
7. ‘Your Show of Shows’
Your Show of Shows is probably the least well known show on this list, but that’s because it aired 60 years ago. It’s basically the Ground Zero of variety shows, and was massively influential in the comedy world for decades. It helped spawn the careers of Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, who wrote for star Sid Caesar’s variety shows shortly after he brought Your Show of Shows to an end. Your Show of Shows wasn’t just influential in the television world, it helped shape pop culture as a whole, and was one of the first instances where those two things intersected and gave an early glimpse at how important television was to become to the overall cultural landscape. I mean, giving Mel Brooks his shot is pretty much enough all by itself to earn a spot here, no matter how many stepchildren Woody Allen diddled.
6. ‘The Simpsons’
Every single animated show on television in the last twenty years owes its existence to The Simpsons. It’s that simple. It was really the first cartoon to break out of the kid ghetto and appeal to adults. And the reason that people took it seriously enough for that to happen is because it was ridiculously good and smart. For as much as it basically created the genre of the animated sitcom, it also took the TV comedy genre as a whole to a new level. It pretty much had to, otherwise it would have been all too easy to dismiss it as just a weird cartoon. The Simpsons is a pop-culture icon, and no matter how pointless the last decade or so of the show has seemed, those first several seasons completely changed the game, and inspired a legion of dumb, drunken fat guys and slacker kids. Oh, and let’s not forget Lisa, who inspired a whole generation of kids to grow up to care way too much about everything AKA 98% of the Internet.
5. ‘All in the Family’
Prior to All in the Family, TV sitcoms were light, easily digestible family fare, heavy on the schtick, light on anything that might cause offense. But then Archie Bunker came along like a proto-Al Bundy and kicked things up a notch. It was the first show that really reflected America’s rapidly evolving culture. It was sometimes mean and it was sometimes nasty, and there was a darkness to it that was just more… real. You can say that all sounds negative, but it really wasn’t. It was a refreshing change from the norm. It was the picture of the modern American living room instead of the sanitized hyper-idealized version offered by other TV shows of the time. And most importantly, its popularity convinced execs that this sort of realism would work, and every sitcom that came after carried some of All in the Family’s DNA in its genetic code.
4. ‘Saturday Night Live’
Much like Your Show of Shows before it, Saturday Night Live set the standard for sketch comedy shows to follow. But more than that, it completely transformed the state of American comedy. Saturday Night Live is what allowed Animal House to really exist, which allowed Caddyshack to exist and so on and so on. It is the godfather of American comedy, and it still serves as grad school for the dudes and lady dudes who make the comedy game go. Everyone from Bill Murray to Eddie Murphy to Will Ferrell was flat out made by SNL, and while you can argue that shows like SCTV or Monty Python’s Flying Circus deserve just as much credit – and they do – SNL served as sort of a synthesis of all those ideas and all those other shows and brought them to the American mainstream. It took the underground and made it the norm, and in doing so it changed both pop culture and television forever by changing the definition of a single word: funny.
3. ‘Hill Street Blues’
75% of shows on TV today owe their existence to Hill Street Blues. And that’s because it was really the first character driven ensemble police procedural aka every goddamn show on CBS now. But aside from the NCIS’s and CSI’s and ER’s and SVU’s and NCERISTUVWXYZ’s that have filled up much of the last few decades of TV, you can also see the DNA of Hill Street Blues in more cerebral shows like The Wire or Homicide. It infused a little bit of grit in an otherwise formulaic and fluffy genre, and while that itself became a new kind of formula, it helped give TV a new kind of complexity at the time, an intelligence that convinced networks to take chances on shows that might challenge viewers and operate a bit more in moral gray areas. Sound familiar? It should, because in that you can see the roots that eventually grew into shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Hill Street Blues helped TV discover both its brain and its balls.
2. ‘I Love Lucy’
I Love Lucy set the standard for the sitcom, and as tired and worn-out as that genre has become, you can’t deny that it’s maybe the single most unique thing associated with television. Every single show on TV that features a laugh track owes its existence to I Love Lucy. Every single insipid one of them. And while that might seem like damning with faint praise, you have to remember that I Love Lucy also forced execs to accept that women could play a central role in a television show’s success. Instead of being just mothers or wives, they could be the star, and you can see I Love Lucy’s massive influence along those lines in everything from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to New Girl. Weirdly, Lucille Ball is both a feminist icon and the godmother of the most reviled format in television. And yet, no matter how much you might hate the laugh-track comedy genre, you can’t deny that it’s also the most successful one in the history of TV.
1. ‘The Sopranos’
The Sopranos completely changed everything. It’s been said that we’re living in a new golden age of television, led by Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and the like, but every single one of those shows owes their existence to The Sopranos. Not only did Tony Soprano and the boys give TV a complexity light years beyond anything that had come before, elevating it to Shakespearean levels of pathos and obliterating the moral certainty which had been a given in 99.9% of TV shows that came before, it also radically altered the way that TV shows were made. Prior to then, every show had a bloated 22 week (or more) schedule, and ran from fall to spring every year without fail. The Sopranos was really the show that made everyone realize you could do it differently, that you could have a tighter 12 episode season and that each season could come and go when it was damn well ready. No reruns, no breaks, just three straight months of intense, compelling Sunday night television. Everything you love on TV today exists because of The Sopranos. It’s as simple as that.
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