Criticwire Survey: What Was Your First ‘Serious’ TV Show?

Criticwire Survey: 'Serious' TV

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

This week’s question: Most of us grew up in a time when television was still the “idiot box.” What was the first TV show you took seriously?

James Poniewozik, Time

I grew up in the 1970s, which — for the kids today — was a bizarro era in which dramas were escapist TV and the serious shows were sitcoms. Probably the first TV show I took as a serious work was M*A*S*H, which at one point was airing in reruns four times a day in the Detroit/Toledo area. It was hilarious to me even on an elementary-school level, but it was also a show where characters you liked got killed and funny people would suddenly turn very somber about the war. But it was at least tied with the various Norman Lear shows. I’m not sure if even the Red Wedding on Game of Thrones disturbed me as much as it did when Florida Evans smashed the dishes after she learned James had died on Good Times.

Dan Kois, Slate

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for sure. It was such a transformative moment for me to realize that something that is so on-the-face cheesy and derivative (like TV itself!) could in fact be a complex and moving work of art — while also still being poppy and addictive and fun.

Eric Kohn, Indiewire

The Simpsons. It was the ideal gateway drug: Bright, colorful and filled with gags that a child could understand, it also tapped into much bigger ideas about the American dream, the mixed bag of family life and the pratfalls of growing up — all while paying tribute to a vast library of pop culture. It also generated a tremendous range of emotions. There was more heart in the first couple seasons of The Simpsons than many of the ultra-serious dramas made today. The Simpsons wasn’t just great television; it wrestled the medium into a form of self-aware storytelling that opened up its boundaries. Plus, it turned a bald, fat, know-nothing alcoholic into a legitimate antihero, which on paper is an even more daunting task than applying pathos to Tony Soprano. 

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

Didn’t even have to think hard about this one: It was the pilot episode of Twin Peaks. As clearly grounded as it was in basic serial drama structure, there was a genuine “voice,” both in the visual style and the funky bits of character business. I realized pretty early on that I wasn’t watching to find out who killed Laura Palmer; I was watching because it was going to surprise me, or make me laugh, or scare the crap out of me, and sometimes all three in the space of a few minutes. And this was on broadcast television, for those of us who remember when it was effectively the only game in town. I don’t think at the time, in my early 20s, I was thinking about it in terms of whether it was “art,” but I knew I didn’t want to miss a second of it.

Mary Pols, Time

The idiot box in my household was black and white and crappy until what felt like 1980, but we still spent plenty of time in front of it. As a kid, I’d say I took Family pretty seriously (it ran from 1976 to 1980 and was a precursor in illustrating realistic family dynamics to shows like the short-lived Once and Again and today’s Parenthood). In 1990 I was all about Twin Peaks; that first season was like nothing I’d ever seen on television before. (You haven’t lived until you’ve had a Bob-coming-over-the-couch nightmare.) And of course I loved turn-of-the-century HBO. But the show that opened my eyes to what television could be on a long-term basis (as opposed to being canceled after one remarkable season) was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It turned me into the kind of freak that trolled the Internet for news of early feeds, read bulletin boards and bought boxed sets. 

Christopher Campbell, Film School Rejects, Movies.com

Roseanne. As someone who grew up watching television nonstop during every hour I wasn’t in school, it’s hard to pinpoint when I might have started taking the pastime seriously, specially since I tended to stick to sitcoms as a kid. But I do recall finding something refreshing about Roseanne, that the family struggled just like mine and that the dramatic bits weren’t just some moral lesson at the end of an episode. I’ll admit that Growing Pains had its moments, and I’ll always recall particularly when they very seriously killed off Carol’s boyfriend (played by Matthew Perry) in a drunk driving accident as a time I saw the potential for family shows like this to not just be joke machines. But it wasn’t as consistent with its infusion of drama. Roseanne seemed to tell an ongoing realistic story in episodic form with humor that seemed natural. 

Kate Aurthur, Buzzfeed 


This question is such a good one, and I truly have no idea what my answer is. I’ve loved TV always, and looking back, there are so many moments when I realized it was important to me — an experience I’m sure I universalized at the time, and maybe was right to (“Who Shot J.R.?” for instance, which happened during my childhood). I know what you’re asking is when the perception of TV shift in quality to me, but it never did. Why would I watch something I wasn’t taking seriously?

I definitely noticed when TV began to enter its current age, though, which I would date back to Hill Street Blues. I don’t remember enough of Hill Street to look back and wonder why my mother let me watch it. But we did watch it together, and I do remember talking about it a lot as we did. It’s also forever associated — aesthetically and thematically — in my mind with my favorite show of the ’80s: St. Elsewhere. I adored that show, and I feel like it revealed to me (and anyone who watched it) what a serious television drama could be, and and how superlative TV acting could be as well. 

David Fear, Time Out New York

I’m tempted to go with some formative way-after-the-fact viewings of my youth — seeing The Prisoner or The Twilight Zone as a kid and having them blow my mind — or name The Simpsons, because it is, well, The Simpsons. But it was probably Buffy the Vampire Slayer that gave me the road-to-Damascus moment. Though I started watching it late, after The Sopranos had debuted and established a beachhead as “serious TV,” it was Joss Whedon’s show that changed my opinion about the possibilities of the medium and season-long serial storytelling. It was also the first show I ever binge-watched and went online to peruse facts/read episode summaries/got into chat-room fights over, thus establishing my current TV 2.0 viewing habits.

Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer

I was such a child of TV that when my parents limited screen time, I dragged a kiddie chair in front of washing machine to watch clothes spinning through the porthole. Good prep for Stan Brakhage and Andy Warhol films. The seminal dramas for me were I Spy and The Man from Uncle, which in their day pretty much defined cool and worldliness. Yet the most influential TV I watched was The Ed Sullivan Show, which introduced me to all kinds of music — from Yitzhak Perlman and Marian Anderson to Ike & Tina Turner and The Rolling Stones — and, especially, to comedy, from Mort Sahl to Bill Cosby to Joan Rivers. At a time the population of the U.S. was about 190 million, 73 million — more than 33 per cent of the nation — watched The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. It was profoundly powerful to have that kind of shared cultural experience. As I grew up, I came to depend on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to introduce me to new comedy. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when I got hooked on the soap opera Santa Barbara and on thirtysomething, that I understood one advantage that television had over film: Watching the same characters in different contexts offers broader and deeper character development. 

Steve Dollar, Wall Street Journal

What, Green Acres wasn’t quality TV? I’m being a tad facetious, but not really. I was one of those kids who watched hours of boob tube, and I took it very seriously — although I was in college before it became a fun topic to write about. As someone said to me once, it’s popular popular culture. You could count on me to be one of the stoned guys holding forth on the magic-com merits of Bewitched rather than bear down on deconstructing The Wasteland hours before an English exam. By the time TV become “quality,” I wasn’t much interested anymore, but I have come around, even if the sad fact of it is that even the greatest series turn into soap operas. But to answer the question, the first show that made an impact was The Twilight Zone (in constant revival throughout my youth). That’s the one I got hooked on, only much later coming to appreciate it as the lingering shadow of the Golden Age. That emphasis on episodes with the writer as auteur surely established a precedent. 

Glenn Kenny, MSN Movies, Some Came Running

Interesting question. I started taking television seriously a long time
ago… around the time Charlotte Moorman made a cello out of a
cathode-ray tube, sort of. As far as my critical practice is concerned,
I’ve always kept series television at arm’s length. I generally insist
this is not a function of snobbery but of time management. I can’t
consume every culture commodity out there, pop or not, and because my
professional profile is grounded in movies and music, that’s how it
works. That said, I do tend to get irritated by a lot of reverse
engineering at work in TV criticism: pieces that are not much in the
service of actually articulating why a given show is viable, good, or
great art, but rather an “I like this, I’m sick of being told this is
inferior, and I’ve got sufficient education and rhetorical chops to
construct an argument that says this thing I like is in fact Great.” A
few years ago pieces of this ilk would make me froth at the mouth, but
these days I try to remind myself that life is too short.

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute
When All in the Family premiered, I was far too snooty to pay it any attention. A sitcom about a middle class Queens family? I was too busy reading Proust or something. As the years went by, and I guess I gave up on good old Marcel, I began to turn to television for company. One episode of Norman Lear’s classic and I was hooked. Based on what I later discovered was a far more acidic British program, this hit show still not only addressed American social issues of the day, but did so in a digestible, audience friendly structure. When Archie Bunker would spew his limited views on the world, it was easy to laugh. Carroll O’Connor was funny. But the impact of what he was saying was potent. The more liberal-minded might get the real joke immediately, but even the less sophisticated would learn, through the Bunkers and their extended friends and family, exactly what it was Lear and his producing partner Bud Yorkin wanted them to. Over the years, tough stuff such as racism, homosexuality, rape, women’s rights, Vietnam and even, God help us, menopause were tackled. And, artistically, the performances of O’Connor and Jean Stapleton grew deeper and more remarkable. The program ran, in various reincarnations until 1983; it is a staple now of syndication. We may have evolved (hopefully) since Family hit the air, but there’s no question that comedy helped in the process.

Sean Axmaker, Videodrone , Parallax View

The transition from cult TV to art TV for me was The Prisoner, which I saw for the first time from VHS tapes rented from the video store I worked the year after I graduated. The sophisticated writing was one draw, of course, but it was also a brilliantly designed series, creating an insular, surreal culture as a parody of modern life, with all individuality sanded out in a quaint, generic village style.

But though I had never seen an episode before that, it was a known entity that arrived with a reputation and critical acclaim. Whereas I saw Homicide: Life on the Streets when it premiered and was captivated by its sensibility, ensemble rhythms, sharp, unexpected writing, and loose-limbed storytelling from the beginning. That was when I saw TV not just as produced but actually directed and I saw the American TV could create genuinely cinematic and sophisticated storytelling.

Richard Brody, New Yorker

TV has always been serious, whether it looked that way or not. For instance, The Honeymooners is a primal explosion of id and ingenuity that lacks only direction to match Jerry Lewis. The more supposedly serious television becomes, the sillier it seems by comparison with the radicalism of even many commercial movies. Or, to put it differently, as a child of the sixties, I took TV (The Flintstones, Gilligan’s Island, I Love Lucy, Leave It to Beaver, Laugh-In; Ed Sullivan, Merv Griffin, John Bandy) as seriously as I took anything (it isn’t because All in the Family treated “issues” that it was better than any of the above — sociology isn’t art) and then discovered movies, which put the virtually undirected shows to shame — and they still do. Of course, then there was An American Family, which is really serious. By contrast, the seriousness with which recent television (by which I mean some series, not the appliance) is now taken will one day be recognized as utterly unintended metacomedy.

Eric Hynes, SundanceNow, New York Times

I watched TV incessantly from a very young age. I was around 8 or 9 when my mother gave me a small color set for my bedroom to help with insomnia (a malady that she shared). My parents’ room was about 10 feet away, and I remember synchronizing my TV to hers for the nightly 10 p.m. slot, which is when the “serious” shows would come on. The show that made the greatest impression on me was St. Elsewhere. I was still very new to the form of the TV drama, but already here was something that pushed against that form, that widened the permissible terrain in terms of tone, style and content. Was it a soap opera? Was it an absurdist comedy? Was it a ripped-from-the-headlines serial? Was it a ’60s radical lost and acid-tripping the Reagan-era? Did it star both Denzel Washington and Howie Mandel? Yes, yes, yes, yes and oh yes. It was smart and serious TV that didn’t take itself seriously, and therefore would still be a welcome addition to this era of show-runners-as-auteurs and recap-conspiracy-theorizing. It took the piss out of itself for its punt of a finale, yet somehow, Obi Wan Kenobi-like, became more powerful for it. Judging from the radically unsatisfying finales of some recent shows, it’s a strategy that hasn’t been forgotten. 

John Oursler, In Review Online, Sound on Sight

A number of things come to mind, first of which is my mother watching reruns of I Love Lucy when I was a kid and me recognizing even then that something special was happening, or my terribly blue-collar family sitting down to watch Roseanne together. But I think I’ll have to go with My So-Called Life. When it aired during the 1994/95 television season I was 14 years old, the same age as the kids on the show. Smart, misunderstood, isolated from my parents, and gay, I felt like there was a piece of me in every one of the characters onscreen. It was the first time I’d seen a gay character shown in such a realistic way (and the depiction still holds up). It perfectly captured all of that hope and ennui that come with being that age during that time period. 

Michael Sicinski, Cinema Scope, Nashville Scene


I grew up in the late ’70s and early ’80s, so TV time was still family time to a large extent. My parents (my mother, especially) had very definite ideas about what constituted “quality TV” and what was “junk.” Three’s Company was forbidden in my house; I caught it now and then and thought it was funny but to Mom it was “jiggle TV.” Stuff like Battle of the Network Stars that I enjoyed as a 7-year-old was thoroughly disdained. Luckily, I was also precocious enough to really respond to the “good” shows we watched during family time: All in the Family, Maude, Soap, Quincy, and later, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere (a favorite of mine), and a now-forgotten Tony Randall show called Love, Sidney, which my mom appreciated mostly because it was one of the first shows to deal obliquely but respectfully with an older gay man. But the granddaddy of them all — and the first show I recognized as Something Serious — was M*A*S*H. And not just any episodes, mind you. I was clearly and firmly instructed in taste. The earlier episodes (“the Frank Burns years”) were good but “silly;” Larry Gelbart and company (so said my mom) had not established enough clout with CBS to make the kind of show they really wanted to, and the real M*A*S*H only kicked in around Season 6 or 7. Episodes more clearly began to gravitate around Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and to a lesser extent B.J. (Mike Farrell) as the moral center of the the show’s universe, and I intuitively knew I was watching a “dramedy” avant la lettre. So in a way, I not only learned how to take TV seriously with M*A*S*H, but perhaps more importantly, how to make critical distinctions about a pop culture artifact. By the way, I’ve never gone back and watched those old episodes. I think it would be like repeating the first grade.

Todd VanDerWerff, A.V. Club

The first TV series I took seriously was Picket Fences. Now, much of this was because I was 12 years old and wanted to watch a show that would make me feel “smart,” but David E. Kelley’s first “Created by” credit went to this weird little show, and I couldn’t get enough of it or of his writing. Watched now, it’s kind of silly to think I was as into the show as I was, but the way it wrapped up everything in a court case that tackled a political issue of the day was thought-provoking for lil’ me.

Robert Greene, Hammer to Nail

There’s a moment in season two of Northern Exposure when Joel stops a sure-to-be-fatal gun duel by stepping out of character and breaking the fourth wall to plead for sanity. He derides the ridiculousness of the whole drama by citing the “sophisticated” viewers out there in the real world who knew no one was going to die in a popular prime time network comedy. Many of the main characters weigh in on the sudden conundrum (with each response brilliantly strengthening our understandings of them) and they finally decide to move on to the next scene. It was a sudden, showy, hilarious and ludicrous moment that told me at 15 that television could blow my mind. But I can’t say the feeling has lasted. Except for The Wire, which I adore absurdly, I’ve found the current TV renaissance to be as unrewarding as every other revival, no matter how frantically the critics wave their remotes. Admittedly, I need to give more of it a chance, and I certainly feel like something is happening, but I’d really rather be in a movie theater most of the time. Unless it’s pro wrestling.

Mike D’Angelo, Las Vegas Weekly, A.V. Club

Embarrassing to admit, but the show that finally turned me around on TV (which I hadn’t watched with any regularity for a decade or more at the time) was 24. Not because it was so mightily complex, obviously — I watched the first season, at my Dad’s house over Christmas vacation, more or less the way one reads an airport novel: quickly and guiltily. But my primary beef with dramatic series TV was its episodic nature, in which every week featured its own self-contained mini-story that wrapped up neatly in 43 minutes. 24 was the first show I happened to watch that was explicitly a serial work, with episodes that function more like a novel’s chapters. (Even post-conversion, I have real trouble with case-of-the-week shows like Justified and Veronica Mars.) And that’s what I wanted all along, it turns out.

Eric D. Snider, Twitch Film, MovieBS

My first appreciation for the potential genius of episodic television was Soap, the half-hour sitcom spoof of soap operas that ran from 1977-81. I saw it when it came to syndication in about 1986, when I was 12, and was instantly struck by its brilliance. Here was a show that was funny, farcical, and satirical, and that followed multiple interlocking story lines, and that featured characters I cared about. It could be hilarious in one scene, sweet or sad in the next. I noticed that only one writer, Susan Harris, was credited for almost every episode, and I pondered the possibilities of a show that had one consistent driving vision behind it. I studied the way she’d construct scenes in such a way that they’d progress the plot while also giving the characters something funny to do. When I discovered that the series ended with multiple cliffhangers that could never be resolved, I was devastated. Still one of the best sitcoms that ever aired. 

Alyssa Rosenberg, Women and Hollywood, ThinkProgress

As someone who grew up largely without access to television, I marathoned Sex and the City on DVD the summer after I graduated from college and went through a bad breakup, when I moved to a city where I knew very few people. Initially, the show basically functioned as a promise that I would make new friends. But ultimately Sex and the City was the show that taught me about the diamond-precise way a comedy could capture emotional pain, that showed me how you could use rough, fast language and still keep your characters entirely distinct (Aaron Sorkin, take note), and that good relationships could not only survive fights, they sometimes needed those altercations to move forward. Is my love for the show sentimental? Sure, but it’s also one of the things that made me a critic.

Peter Labuza, The Cinephiliacs

I think for me the show — Mad Men — was less important than how I watched it. I had wisdom teeth taken out early one day during a summer and had nothing to do the rest of the day. I flipped on Video On Demand and not feeling like I had the mental energy to watch any feature film, I decided to try out a couple episodes. I think I finished the entire first season that day, and had I not been able to take it in as a whole, I doubt I would have had the same reaction. I think that ability that’s come with the DVD and now On Demand Market is probably one of the reason more television has been taken “seriously.” I didn’t have to spend useless amounts of energy about thinking what happens next and could spend it on reflecting what I had just seen. Of course, HBO still needs to give people like Nuri Bilge Ceylan or Apichatpong Weerasethakul their own miniseries if they want to produce something better than any of my favorite contemporary films.

David Ehrlich, Film.com

If I can let my nerd flag fly for a moment… to the best of my knowledge, the first television show that demanded me to take it seriously was Yoshitoshi ABe’s (he insists upon that capitalization) Serial Experiments: Lain, a 13-episode anime series I bought on DVD in 1998 (despite producing several of the longest-running film series ever produced — Tora-san and Zatoichi being the foremost examples — the Japanese were way ahead of the curve in recognizing how brief seasons and finite runs would result in superior television). A warped and somnambulant drama about a 14-year-old girl named Lain who becomes obsessed with “The Wired” (to be super reductive about it, it’s kind of like the internet but without any boundaries), the show begins when a grinning schoolgirl throws herself off the roof of a building… only to somehow text all of her classmates from beyond the grave the next day. Like an animated Kobo Abe novel that was deeply tapped in to the technophoria of its time, Lain completely denies casual viewing – you’re still kind of chasing the rabbit even if you give it every ounce of your attention, but its imposing ideas about networks and the future of human consciousness are impenetrable unless you’re willing to take them seriously and consider every color and composition. It was the first “TV show” (it aired on Japanese television) I’d ever seen that seemed to exist beyond the casual functionality inherent to the production schedule of most TV shows, and it definitely opened the door for me to reach back for things like Twin Peaks and The Prisoner

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second, Periodical

I’m a bit of a latecomer to the joys of television. I’ve often enjoyed the episodes of French television show on film Cineastes du notre temps that have appeared on Criterion DVDs, and I consider some cinema/television hybrid mutations such as Berlin Alexanderplatz to be amongst my favorite films, but the “Golden Age of Television” passed me by for the most part. So dismayed was one close friend upon discovering that I hadn’t seen The Sopranos that he bought me the complete series on DVD for Christmas last year, but I’m ashamed to say that it’s thus far sat unwatched under my television ever since. One day I’ll get around to it, but truth be told the level of commitment required to a TV show of that ilk terrifies me. Alas, the one show that has turned me on to television very recently is Girls. It’s become an unexpected success in my household, and has even inspired me to rethink my approach towards the medium. 

Katey Rich, Cinema Blend

I promise I’m not just jumping on Emily Nussbaum’s coattails when I say Sex and the City. I was squarely in the demographic that adopted the show and modeled their lives after it, but instead of buying Manolos and Cosmos, I admired the way the show layered stories across seasons, changed up its style in several episodes to reflect its themes (the episode “One,” with the music linking each story, is especially striking) and willingly let its characters stumble in a way I’d never seen on TV before. I watched the show with my friends for the same reasons everybody else did, but I think it sneakily made me a better TV viewer even when I didn’t notice. 

Stephen Saito, The Moveable Fest

It’s odd how my mind went directly to the business side of television in considering the art of it, but my first memory of taking a show seriously was when I was an avid viewer of Gary David Goldberg’s Brooklyn Bridge, a warm, deeply personal look back at his adolescence as a Jewish teen during the 1950s that aired two seasons on CBS from 1991-1993. Looking back, it has many of the hallmarks of the type of television that’s celebrated today — single camera, not easily classified as either comedy or drama (complicated further by being a half-hour) and of course, being on the ratings bubble for nearly the entirety of its run. Although there were other shows that I loved before, Brooklyn Bridge was the moment when I became more than a passive viewer, feeling genuinely invested in the continuation of the show and the rich world Goldberg had created.

Kevin Lee, Fandor, Sight & Sound


I didn’t take it seriously in the “art form a la Sopranos” sense implied by the question, but he first TV show I regarded with analytical fervor was G.I. Joe, the after-school animated series. I watched the show dutifully from 5th to 6th grade, around the same time that I became obsessed with pop culture statistics of all kinds, from sports records to Billboard charts to Nielsen ratings to movie box office returns. How did this datahead mindset play out with G.I. Joe?  I took the show’s 50-plus ensemble of characters and counted how many episodes each one appeared over two seasons. This was a key insight for me given that the show was basically a marketing tool for Hasbro’s toy line, and so in theory they would want to promote and sell all the characters equally. But the Randian laws of television required central characters to emerge and dominate the social order of the show. (Quick, how many truly egalitarian TV ensembles can you name?) Screentime didn’t even necessarily correlate with military rank, as one might expect: the most frequent character was the most anti-authoritarian, Shipwreck (could his absence from the recent live action films be one reason why they suck so bad?) In real life terms: some personality types are more sellable than others. Of course I couldn’t articulate any of this at age eleven, but it was still something I could know on a gut level. And knowing is half the battle.

Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot

I don’t think I ever disrespected TV quite as much as the question implies — growing up overseas, I found it my source for many great and classic movies — but I think the show that taught me it could be every bit as mind-blowingly brilliant as any arthouse thing you could see in a cinema was MTV’s The Maxx, one of those things you cannot believe you’re seeing at all, let alone on a network dedicated to music fandom (which it still was at the time). It did the comic-book panels thing better than Ang Lee’s Hulk would try to do years later, it never “held your hand” narratively, and at the end implied that the whole thing had been imagined by an insane homeless man in a dumpster. Even though it was based on a popular-but-weird comic book, it was by no means a safe bet on any level. To use a musical analogy, it was like Elektra records signing Ween because somebody heard that “alternative” was popular.

Nick Pinkerton, Sight & Sound, ArtForum

John Kerr has a great line in Vincente Minnelli’s The Cobweb: “They said Van Gogh was crazy because he killed himself. He couldn’t sell a painting while he was alive and now they’re worth thirty million dollars. They weren’t that bad then and they’re not that good now, so who’s crazy?” I feel the same way about the rarely well-done medium (har har) of television; Newton Minow’s “vast wasteland” wasn’t a reality in 1961, nor is the much-touted Golden Age a reality today. (Both convictions are buttressed with a combination of willful ignorance and just plain lack of time.)

I’m not sure how to approach the question of TV as a “serious” art form, for I tend to favor it as a comic medium — though I take comedy very seriously. Of the HBO/Showtime/AMC/Netflix/whatever crop, Eastbound & Down is my favorite by a nautical mile, but my personal Golden Age was the pioneer years of the Fox Broadcasting Company. I’m including In Living Color, Married… with Children (working title: Not the Cosby Show, a definite spur to the superlative Roseanne the following year), the Brechtian It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The Tracey Ullman Show, from whence sprang The Simpsons. Above all of these, the two seasons of Chris Elliott’s Get a Life left a permanent indentation in my 10-year-old brainpan. With its total disregard for the tenets of realism, essentially absurdist worldview, and unrelenting fixation on grating aberrant behavior, Get a Life‘s influence on my future tastes and sense of humor are inestimable. And if that isn’t serious, brother, I don’t know what is. 

That being said, I’ve lately been finding something akin to the all-consuming madness that Get a Life supplies in watching The Abbott & Costello Show on Hulu, so maybe I’m the wrong person to ask about anything serious.

Mike Ryan, Huffington Post Entertainment

I was that idiot who always took television way too seriously. I remember going to school depressed when Bo and Luke Duke were replaced on The Dukes of Hazzard by their lookalike cousins Coy and Vance. I honestly felt betrayed.  I’m certain the reasons that NYPD Blue is rarely mentioned in the first round of “great TV” is that a) it lasted four or five seasons too long and b) it went through too many cast changes. But its first season was the first time I thought, OK, yes, this is something different. David Caruso’s only full season on NYPD Blue was that first season (he left after the fourth episode of the second season) — it’s kind of weird to say now, but he was electric as Det. John Kelly. Caruso made the dumb choice of leaving the show to be a movie star — and, yes, he became a punchline for many years after starring in dreck like Jade and Kiss of Death. But it was because of that first season of NYPD Blue that Hollywood called him to be a leading man in the first place. 

NYPD Blue would last 12 seasons, but after the first, it was never the same for me. I looked at poor Jimmy Smits’ Bobby Simone with the same scorn that I gave Coy and Vance Duke. (Obviously Jimmy Smits is a much better actor than Byron Cherry and Christopher Mayer, but, irrationally, I still felt the same betrayal.) I do believe that If Caruso had stayed for five or six seasons, NYPD Blue would at least be mentioned in the same breath as The Sopranos. I was too young to watch and appreciate something like Hill Street Blues, but that terrific first season of NYPD Blue was the first time I realized that television could be more important than something like The Dukes of Hazzard.

Josh Spiegel, Mousterpiece Cinema, Sound on Sight

I’m going to cheat slightly and name two shows, both from the 1999-2000 network TV season: The West Wing and Now and Again. For a long time, my parents steadfastly refused to let me watch anything that wasn’t child-oriented, and I had to fight tooth and nail to convince them to let me watch the former show despite having just turned 15. (Yes, these were the fights I had as a teenager. Exciting, I know.) Despite my mother being wary at how The West Wing‘s early ads emphasized Rob Lowe’s dalliances with a hooker in the pilot, she relented and I was delighted by Aaron Sorkin’s rat-a-tat dialogue as well as the shocking — to a kid who’d never watched serialized TV before — revelation that storylines didn’t automatically conclude at the end of each episode. Now and Again was equally serialized, though a far different flight of fancy, about a schlub played by John Goodman who dies in a freak subway accident, and then has his brain implanted into the body of a surgically enhanced young man as part of a government experiment. The show’s sci-fi flourishes were just creepy enough, such as an elderly Asian terrorist who unleashes nerve gas on a subway, and the banter just light enough to keep me hooked all season, and heartbroken when CBS subsequently canceled it. It was both of these shows that made me realize what TV could offer, though the medium continues to progress exponentially from where it was at the end of the 20th century.

R. Emmet Sweeney, Movie Morlocks


The first show I chose to proselytize for was Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999). Tom Fontana adapted David Simon’s book about the Baltimore P.D., and it plays as a non-serialized version of The Wire. It uses the case-a-week network cop show paradigm, but is more focused on eccentric character detail than the purely procedural Law & Order. The cast is populated by gruff sad-sacks, sweating alcohol through their pores: Daniel Baldwin, Melissa Leo, Jon Polito, Ned Beatty and Richard Belzer. The show revolves around the prim and proper Frank Pembleton, played with controlled volatility by Andre Braugher (his talents have been  wasted since). My come-to-Homicide moment was the S1 episode “Three Men and Adena”, directed by Martin Campbell. Boldly theatrical, it takes place entirely in the interrogation room, as Pembleton and his partner interrogate the suspected killer (Moses Gunn, in his final performance) of a young girl. In its claustrophobic intensity and refusal of closure, it was unlike anything I had seen on TV before.

Adam Nayman, Reverse Shot, Cinema Scope

When I was in high school, my friend and I used to spend our lunch hours watching VHS-recorded episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street. The series was still in its original run on NBC, but the Canadian arts channel was showing it from beginning to end so we were able to tape older seasons and binge-watch it in big chunks; by the time I started doing the same thing with other shows on DVD or On Demand, the practice felt nostalgically old-hat. I’ve always stuck up for Homicide as being, if not “better” than  The Wire, then in some ways a more impressive feat of prime-time engineering by David Simon et al, since it managed to address many of the same issues and themes despite the restrictions that come with a network time-slot. Homicide‘s cast wasn’t Entertainment Weekly beautiful (even if my 16-year old self kept citing the “A” grades it got from Ken Tucker to friends as evidence of its greatness) and its stories didn’t wrap themselves up neatly: the open-ended quality of an episode like “Three Men and Adena,” which spent an entire hour on the intense interrogation of a murder suspect only to conclude on a note of poetic ambiguity. The fact that the series let certain plot threads unravel over the course of multiple episodes and even multiple seasons placed it well ahead of its time: ironically, the only thing that’s really dated is the jump-cut/handheld visual aesthetic, which got a lot of attention at the time for being cutting-edge. What grabbed me then — and what holds up now — was the mixture of seen-it-all familiarity and horrified agape that defined the detectives and their superiors. That’s also the tone of Simon’s source text, which remains the best true-crime book I’ve ever read, and it’s amazing how many of its anecdotes and asides found their way onscreen over the years.

Jordan Hoffman, Film.com, ScreenCrush

All roads lead to Rome. Certainly the current age of quality television can thank The Sopranos for the boost and the Paley Center(s) love to remind us about Playhouse 90 but for me the show that that really turned me on to multi-episode storytelling was I, Claudius. Everything that drives today’s celebrated shows can be found in the BBC adaptation of Robert Graves’ historical novels: extremely sharp writing, high stakes situations, rich characters and, not unimportantly, sex and violence. It’s a big juicy soap opera, but, you know, classy. I was too young for its initial PBS broadcast, but my parents had a “Best of Masterpiece Theater” coffee book that had images that captured my young mind. (And, no, it wasn’t just seeing Calpurnia in a mini-toga.) When I started turning into a history nerd thanks a great 9th grade teacher and the Iron Man vs Doctor Doom time travel arc, I rented the 12 episode series on VHS and have revisited it three times since. It is smart, funny and engaging and every single British actor ever pops up at least once. (If you want origins for your Star Trek/Lord of the Rings fan fiction, know that Captain Picard and Gimli are both in it.) It’s also no coincidence that Tony Soprano’s mother was named Livia.

A.A. Dowd, A.V. Club

Even as an adolescent, I knew that The Simpsons was more than just good TV — that there was something rare and sophisticated about its brand of comedy. Long before HBO made it cool to think of television as an art form, the team of auteurs working under Matt Groening were making the case week in and week out. My tenure as a Simpsons aficionado predated my embrace of cinephilia; thanks to clever references to Citizen Kane and The Godfather, one obsession fed organically into the other. And it’s only because I took The Simpsons so seriously — as satire, as artist-driven entertainment, as a gateway to other interests–that I also took its steep plummet into mediocrity so hard. (By the time The Sopranos came along to legitimize TV in many critics’ eyes, I had already experienced — and bemoaned the decline of — a great series.) When a sitcom stops making you laugh, you stop watching. When geniuses lose their touch, you mourn.

Kenji Fujishima, In Review Online

The X-Files. At the very least, it was the first show I watched obsessively on television. I do consider it a legitimate work of “serious TV” now — not just because of the way it pushed the boundaries of the possibilities of long-form TV narrative at the time, but because of its handling of such deeper themes as belief and spirituality — but I think that deeper appreciation came after the show had ended in 2002, and as I revisited the whole thing on reruns/DVD. I still think The Wire is possibly the best television series I have yet seen (though I’m generally not much of a TV person, so I haven’t seen much of The Sopranos or any of Deadwood, two other highly celebrated works of the television medium), but for me, that came long after The X-Files. So I’ll consider Chris Carter’s series my first.

Brian Tallerico, Hollywood Chicago, Film Threat

I was 14 years old in 1990, a TV year in which a kid my age still enjoyed shows like Alf, Who’s the Boss?, and, of course, must-see TV on Thursday nights with legendary comedies like The Cosby Show and Cheers. Even the dramas of the day like L.A. Law and MacGyver weren’t exactly “serious TV.” And then April 8, 1990 happened and a program premiered that was deadly serious and truly unique — Twin Peaks. There had never been anything like it on TV and there really hasn’t been anything like it since. Shows like The Sopranos are copied on a monthly basis but David Lynch’s creation kind of stands alone in its sheer oddity. While 2013 is undeniably a better year for TV than 1990, I wish we had a show like Twin Peaks that was truly shattering expectations of the form again.

Gary Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

Growing up with television, I always took it seriously. How else would I have learned sarcasm, except from watching sitcoms and game shows in my formative years? I think the first show I never missed an episode of was The Brady Bunch, in part because it played in endless reruns after school when I was a kid. But the show that really got me thinking about TV seriously was The Simpsons. I didn’t watch it when it first came on, but one night I caught the episode of Bart being caught in the well. It wowed me, and I was hooked for years. I honestly don’t watch much TV now, and  can claim I have only have been a rabid fan of the short lived Jay Mohr series Action! and Arrested Development since then. I’m still stuck on Season 3, ep. 6 of Mad Men; and have been in the middle of Season 3 of White Collar for a while. I’m a completist, so hard for me to maintain the rigors of many shows. We’ll see how I do when Elementary returns in the fall.

Scott Weinberg, FEARnet

Like many movie geeks, I’m a tongue-in-cheek “snob” when it comes to television programming, but of course that’s just for fun. If we’re including basic and pay cable channels, it’s staggering how much (potential) quality is out there. Most of the network programming is, let’s be honest, crap, but television also produced Firefly, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Breaking Bad and Arrested Development. I won’t compare TV to film, but those are some phenomenal TV programs.

Edwin Arnaudin, AshVegas

As a middle schooler hooked on John Grisham novels, The Practice was mandatory viewing.  The “trial and verdict per week” formula may seem simplistic in the age of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but at the time it was riveting.

Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder, Press Play

The death of actor Dennis Farina earlier this week brings this most underrated TV show to mind. In 1986 Michael Mann used the capital he had earned from producing the hit Miami Vice to make a tougher sell, a serialized period cops-and-robbers saga called Crime Story. Revolving around Farina’s Chicago police detective, Mike Torello, and his pursuit of a quickly rising crime boss, Ray Luca (Anthony Denison), Crime Story lasted only two seasons, mostly because of NBC’s haphazard scheduling. But go back and look at it. Everything cable shows like The Sopranos would become known for can be found in Crime Story: morally complex characters, a strong sense of place (it was shot on location in Chicago and Las Vegas), a period-appropriate soundtrack, cinematic framing and lighting by film directors like Bill Duke, Abel Ferrara, Leon Ichaso and Mann himself. Crime Story had a noir-ish sensibility and grittiness that has never been duplicated. It really made the case for the virtues of the kind of long-form storytelling that was yet to come.

Daniel Carlson, Pajiba

Freaks and Geeks. When the series premiered in the fall of 1999, I was entering my senior year of high school. I watched the show with a mixture of love and horror and fascination: Here were sad stories, well told, that looked so much like the teenage world I couldn’t wait to escape. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s meant seeing a lot of really creatively stale TV, especially when your parents don’t have movie channels. But Freaks and Geeks looked and sounded different from anything I’d seen before. It was funnier and sweeter and more heartbreaking than any series I’d ever seen, and the fact that I was the same as these kids gave it even more weight. For me, this was the show that kicked off what a billion other critics have called the modern golden age of TV, and it’s still one of the best examples of how to tell a great television story with honesty and heart.

Mike McGranahan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

The first TV show I took seriously was Saturday Night Live. When I was in middle school, NBC started re-running episodes featuring the original cast in prime time. The show’s edgy, topical humor was revelatory to me. Even if I didn’t always get all the jokes, I could sense that they were frequently pushing boundaries. That made me sit up and take notice. Those early SNL seasons changed the way I viewed comedy. My taste for kiddie humor and “easy” jokes in movies/TV disappeared, and a fondness for more risky comedy emerged. Of course, SNL has lost most, if not all, of its danger since then, but those original seasons (with Chase, Belushi, Aykroyd, Radner, Murray, et al.) remain captivating television.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit

For me, the show that did it for me was Band of Brothers.  At that point I was new to HBO and still thought of television mainly as where I watch the Mets play, but that miniseries showed me that the small screen could be just as awe inspiring and attention grabbing as the big screen.  I still don’t watch a whole lot of TV (though whenever Aaron Sorkin creates a new show, I’m sure to watch), but I always look to get that same feeling that I had that first time.

Mark Young, Sound on Sight, The New York Movie Klub

The first show I can remember taking seriously was ER, which debuted during my teenage years. Looking back, the show turned into a primetime soap opera with astonishing speed, but during that first season or two it seemed more intense than anything else I had ever watched (whereas the competing Chicago Hope seemed like every other doctor show I’d ever seen). Also, of all the TV I was watching at the time, ER went “widescreen” first, making it seem bigger and more movie-like than any other show.

Danny Bowes, RobertEbert.com, Tor.com


I’m going to go back a little farther than some and stretch the definition of “serious” a bit and go with Wiseguy. I was just slightly too young to catch it when it first aired, but when it re-ran in syndication a couple years after (somewhere around 1993, if memory serves), I devoured it, and the show’s always had a place in the dearest part of my heart. But the point at which it stopped just being a fun gangster show was in the culmination of the show’s first major story arc (another of Wiseguy‘s innovations: multi-episode storylines the likes of which are de rigueur now, 25 years ago). Undercover federal agent Ken Wahl reveals his true identity to gangster Ray Sharkey, whose ultimate trust he’s spent the last dozen or so episodes winning, prior to having to arrest him. They beat the shit out of each other because Ray Sharkey doesn’t want to go to jail (and he eventually electrocutes himself rather than be taken alive), and afterward, when they’re both in too much pain to move, they sit across the room they’ve just destroyed in the fight and stare into each other’s heartbroken eyes, as “Nights in White Satin” plays. I was a young teenager at the time, so my reaction was “Wow, that was as good as a movie!” Now, I’d just say “Wow, that was great cinema!”

John Keefer, 51 Deep

I can’t recall a particular moment when TV seemed like it could be more than “TV”.  The Wonder Years touched me in a way that I found most TV didn’t.  Roseanne seemed much more like real life than anything else I’d seen on TV.  And I always and will continue to hold I Love Lucy and Batman ’66 in the highest regard.  I fear that taking TV seriously nowadays is the result of nudity, blood, cursing, and the look afforded by upgrades in digital technology. But to answer the question Mad Men quickly followed by Breaking Bad.  The Wire and The Sopranos were on when American film still felt like film to me so they don’t count.

Anne-Katrin Titze, Eye for Film

I first took TV seriously with the Swedish series Pippi Longstocking and appreciated the adaptation to learn important life lessons. Astrid Lindgren’s books were read to me and seeing them come to life contributed a deeper meaning. From Béla Tarr’s Turin Horse (Friedrich Nietzsche and Pippi have something in common) to my exchange last week with Nicolas Winding Refn bout Only God Forgives and Nordic storytelling, Pippi Longstocking has to be reckoned with. She cleans the house by skating with brushes tied to her feet and fights for justice. The freckled nine-year old, albeit the strongest girl in the world, who lives alone with her horse “Little Uncle” and Mr. Nilsson, her Capuchin monkey, parentless in an old villa impresses in many ways. 

Jeff Berg, Local IQ, Las Cruces Bulletin

This will really show my age, but when I was a kid, the WWII show with Vic Morrow, Combat!, was the show that really changed my thoughts on TV, even back then. I’ve watched some of the shows again over the least couple of years and they are still powerful and timely. I also love the brief run of The Monroes, but that was because a) I wanted to move to Wyoming so badly and b) Barbara Hershey was the first woman I wanted to sleep with when I was in high school.

Piers Marchant, Sweet Smell of Success

My answer is split off into two prongs, I’m afraid, because there really were two totally different shows that grabbed me by the lapels and slapped me in the face. Back in 1989, living in a college apartment with a half-dozen other muckety-mucks, I was introduced one Sunday evening to a very early episode of The Simpsons — specifically Call of the Simpsons from season 1, I believe — and I took notice because it actually made me laugh out loud, which hadn’t happened to me with a TV show since I was 7 and faking being sick so I could stay at home from school and watch syndicated re-runs of Gilligan’s Island and Bewitched all day. Honestly, it sounds peculiar, but even as I was laughing, I couldn’t actually believe something on TV (the same device that had been inundating us with drivel such as Family Matters and Major Dad for eons) could be that smart and subversive.

The second such moment was with a drama, one I viewed shortly after first moving to Philadelphia in the late ’90s. I got free HBO for three months and got hooked on a gripping prison drama that went by the name of Oz. The first season was well-written and edgy as hell, and routinely killed off what had seemed like major characters at the drop of a hat. In subsequent seasons, of course, the show lost its edge, and much of its good writing, and became like every other show trapped by the success of its most popular characters. But, back then, I had never seen a TV program lay it on the line like that. Early that next year, The Sopranos debuted. Needless to say, HBO’s been getting my monthly subscription fees ever since. 

Jason Shawhan, Nashville Scene, Interface 2037

Friday the 13th: The Series upped the ante for what television could do, at least as I was seeing it.  Viewing it now, I recognize its glorious Canadian-ness. There’s something to its pervasive, generic North American-ness that made it perfect for stories of the fantastic and tales of horror and woe. Being from the South, regionalism was simply inescapable, so this elusive and slippery sense of place on Ft13tS (and later, Season One of War of the Worlds) seemed entirely appealing. That producer-mandated nonspecificity let countless grotesqueries slip through into the subconscious (as well as being my first exposure to the work of Cronenberg and Egoyan) and angered lots and lots of parents and fundamentalists. But it began my lifelong fascination with the inherent critique of Canada-as-America, as well as confronting the knee-jerk assumptions I was making about what speech and architecture meant in the representation of a place. Plus gore and big hair. The horror anthology series remains dear to my heart, but somehow, Tales from the Crypt never did it for me. And that was one of my first lessons in just how far genre loyalty would take me. 

Much respect is also due the Chuckles Bites the Dust episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and that sequence in Millennium where a character’s descent into madness and suicide plays out to Patti Smith’s “Land.” Of course, there’s also Twin Peaks. And the episode of The X-Files (“The Pine Bluff Variant”) that deals with a domestic terrorist group who uses poisoned money in a movie theatre still messes with me every time I go to the movies.

Andrew Welch, In Review Online

The first show that spoke to me in a complex way was Freaks and Geeks. I was in high school when it premiered on NBC, so I was good in a place to identify with both the characters and their world, despite its 1980s setting. Sam, Lindsay and all the rest were able to say and do things I didn’t feel I could, giving me a chance for catharsis or vicarious experience. I was sad at the time that it didn’t get renewed, but now I think it was a blessing in disguise; it’s a perfect, one season show. And with it now streaming on Netflix, it’s finally getting the appreciation it’s always deserved.

Miriam Bale, New York Times, Fandor

Late
Night with David Letterman
, Twin Peaks and Curb Your Enthusiasm, though I am
not convinced that TV is a more a “serious art form” now than it’s been
in the past. (I also think it used to be more diverse & progressive,
which was nice.) But
what interests me in film isn’t primarily narrative, and so much of the
critical interest in current TV seems based on story. If an episode
ends on a cliffhanger, isn’t that essentially a form of soap opera? And I
like soap operas, but I prefer them trashy & Mannerist. Or I
prefer something to subvert and  illuminate these narrative
expectations, like Out 1 (my first experience with binge watching a serial) or Twin Peaks, a mystery that lost track of its solution. I don’t know if any show has been as daring as Curb Your Enthusiasm was
in being willing to have an entire season of mostly duds, but which all
built up to a comic payoff in a finale about Larry David living with the
Blacks. (I once had a dream that combined this Curb white guilt post-Katrina plotline with Beasts of the Southern Wild.)

What is the best movie playing in theaters right now?

Computer Chess

Other films receiving multiple votes: Before MidnightThe Act of KillingFrances HaOnly God ForgivesPacific RimBlue JasmineViola

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Comments

Edward Copeland

There were plenty of quality shows that I obsessed about growing up, but the first TV show that actually fit what your question is asking would have to be Hill Street Blues. Even know, I'd keep it on the list of the best TV series of all times.

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