In the history of the world, the existence and influence of television has been extremely short – shorter even than the relatively new technology and artform of cinema – but in that time it has grown and affected popular culture and the medium itself in extraordinary ways. While today we have hundreds of trite and derivative knock-off programs for every one extraordinary show of unique quality, television – and specifically, some of our favorite shows – evolved from a handful of groundbreaking productions that not only changed the possibilities of the medium, but marked the era from which it came. For simplicity sake, this week’s six pack will be listed chronologically.
Most Influential TV Shows
1. I Love Lucy
We all know that Lucille Ball is perhaps the greatest comedienne ever. Buster Keaton singled her out as one of the greatest new talents of the time, but she was more than that and I Love Lucy was more than a domestic sitcom. Lucille Ball was a smart business woman and a subtle feminist in a time when women’s sole purpose in life was to become mothers and housewives. I Love Lucy challenged the social conventions that oppressed women during the 50s and stigmatized interracial marriage. Before Star Trek’s Kirk and Uhura, Ricky and Lucy were the first ever interracial kiss on television and Lucy’s pregnancy was the first ever to be portrayed on screen. And while the domestic sitcoms it spawned throughout the ages continually grow more derivative and contrived, I Love Lucy stands strong as a milestone of television.
2. Star Trek
Star Trek premiered in 1966 and ran for only three years before cancellation, which is difficult to believe considering the enormous cultural impact it has had on the world. Some will dismiss Star Trek as a kitschy low budget sci-fi nerd fantasy, but thanks to it’s creator Gene Roddenberry, its influence extends beyond just popular culture and has inspired groundbreaking work in science, philosophy, art, and the humanities. Roddenberry’s goal in creating Star Trek was to expose people to a hopeful vision of the future, where humanity has overcome it’s petty differences and sets out to better itself through exploration. It acted as a sort of platform to explore issues of morality, prejudice, war, technology, humanity, equality, and more. As previously mentioned, it is one of the first shows to feature an interracial kiss (never mind that they kiss against their will by telekinetic aliens), and it will perhaps come as no surprise that Desilu was one of the main producers of the show. That’s right, Lucille Ball helped make Star Trek. Not only has the original Star Trek inspired four spin-off series, twelve movies, and countless books, comics, and other materials, but it literally changed the world. Not many shows can boast as much.
3. The Prisoner
Patrick McGoohan was offered the role of James Bond in Dr. No, but he turned it down. He could have been the first James Bond, but instead he pursued a smart and stylish little spy show of his own called Danger Man – better known in the US as Secret Agent, and even better known for its theme song “Secret Agent Man”. This inevitably lead to what may or may not be a spin-off of that show, The Prisoner. Its a show about a man who is abducted and held prisoner in a place called The Village by men who want both information and his complete conformation. McGoohan was given complete control of production, which was set in a bizarrely picturesque little village in North Wales called Portmierion, and ran it like a crazy dictator. He wrote, directed, and starred in most episodes and was a notoriously difficult man to work with, but the show that emerged still continues to challenge audiences today. The Prisoner is trippy, abstract, compelling, infuriating, and ultimately baffling. It inspired shows like David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and J.J. Abrams’ Lost.
4. Twin Peaks
And Twin Peaks makes the list too! David Lynch has always had a quirky sense of humor paired with a flair for the dark and strange, so clearly a soap opera murder mystery thriller satire was the perfect vehicle to showcase those Lynchian tendencies. For a show inspired partly by The Prisoner, it had nearly as crazed a following and an audience that was just as confused. For a while it seemed like a straightforward murder mystery with a cast of kooky, over-the-top characters with complex, intertwining story lines. The goal was to find out who killed local girl Laura Palmer, but when that mystery was solved, things began to take some weird turns in a show that was already pretty twisted. Twin Peaks only ran for two seasons, but interest in the show is still high. Only a few days ago rumors were spreading that there was to be a Twin Peaks reunion show, and while those rumors were squashed by David Lynch himself, the frenzy surrounding it proves that its a show that sticks with you.
5. The X-files
The X-files premiered at a time when technology and culture was going through a period of rapid change. Cell phones were becoming common household devices and the internet was becoming a universal pastime. While The X-files is groundbreaking for its structure – without which we wouldn’t have shows like Fringe, which owe a palpable debt to The X-files – it is also significant for beckoning in the era of fan involvement and internet forums. It was one of the first shows to interact with its fans through an online interface, rewarding its viewers by making them the ones “in the know”. For the first time, fans could discuss episodes, characters, and plot theories with other fans and even keep up with production news. The show not only changed the way some crime and science fiction dramas are made, but it changed the way the audience interacts with their favorite television shows and how shows now often rely on those ever connected fans.
6. Arrested Development
This is another show that had a relatively short run and struggled to stay on air for the entire length of their existence. Like Star Trek, Arrested Development only had three seasons, but it changed how short form comedies were made forever. First of all, it was a single camera sitcom in a time when multi-camera comedies were the norm. It looked and felt different from most sitcoms on TV at the time. It also defied most of the accepted rules for successful television by featuring unrelatable characters, complicated running in-jokes, and obscure references. Its a show that blatantly rewards a loyal fanbase and alienates casual viewers. In the ten years between its cancellation and the release of season four on Netflix, Arrested Development became a lauded show with a dedicated cult following. Without it, shows like Parks & Recreation, 30 Rock, and Community would never have come into being.