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Vacation Robo-Post: What TV Shows Shaped America?

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Recently, the Library of Congress came out with a list of Books That Shaped America–88 tomes that are not necessarily the “best” American books (though some probably are), but that “have influenced our lives” as Americans, one way or another. (Public radio’s The Takeaway aired a discussion of the list last week.)

The list–which runs from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to The Words of Cesar Chavez–got me thinking that you can do the same thing with TV, which arguably has outdone books as an influencer for the last several decades. So as we head into the Fourth of July holiday, I want your nominations for the TV Shows That Shaped America: not a “best” list, necessarily, but shows that have influenced modern culture or helped to capture or define what America is. These could be anything from shows that got Americans talking (Roots?), told us parables (The Twilight Zone?), informed us (60 Minutes?) or satirized us (The Simpsons?).

I’ll give you a few nominations, just to start:

The Andy Griffith Show. One of the first and best depictions of regional Americana, from a time, at the dawn of mass-culture, when American regions were still, well, regional. This gentle small-town comedy gave us Mayberry’s quirks without ridiculing or patronizing them. And Griffith’s Sheriff Taylor, who’d rather wield a wry comment than a gun, was a weekly example of Americans talking through their problems.

Friday Night Lights. About half a century after Andy Griffith, the story of Coach and Mrs. Taylor shared a surname with Griffith’s show and a similar faith in people’s basic decency. A show about football, family and faith in a small town, it was one of TV’s best demonstrations of the meaning of community in action.

All in the Family. A TV show doesn’t have to be small-town to be about Americana, and one of TV’s most distinct post-’60s urban voices belonged to Queens dockworker Archie Bunker, who gave good argument.

Roseanne. This show transformed Archie’s chair into Roseanne Conner’s beat-up, quilt-covered couch, in a sitcom that was always conscious of the work it took to keep bills paid and a family afloat.

The Wire. Because, come on. It’s The Wire.

This is barely a start; you take it from here. I’m having Robo-James auto-post this while I’m on vacation, so I probably won’t be playing along in the comments, but there’s no need to limit our list to 88 shows. Suggest as many or as few as you want, and tell us why. And have a happy Fourth.

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KB_Corkless
KB_Corkless

Arc of the televised femine ideal:

Ozzie and Harriet, Mary Tyler Moore, Murphy Brown, Sex in the City, Jersey Shore.

Shoot the Critic
Shoot the Critic

The obvious one that's missing is "The Sopranos," which was the first of its kind, a subject of much debate, and perhaps the best television drama to date. I second "Roots" as it changed the way we thought about the possibilities of television and its usefulness as a tool for education. I would also add "The Colbert Report," which has reached out beyond its 30-minute airtime to become an important presence in pop culture. - Shoot the Critic

Shoot the Critic
Shoot the Critic

The obvious one that's missing is "The Sopranos," which was the first of its kind, a subject of much debate, and perhaps the best television drama to date. I second "Roots" as it changed the way we thought about the possibilities of television and its usefulness as a tool for education. I would also add "The Colbert Report," which has reached out beyond its 30-minute airtime to become an important presence in pop culture. - Shoot the Critic, http://shootthecritic.com

lucelucy
lucelucy

And while I'm at it, here's to Andy Griffith, and my own memories of a childhood in a very small town for a very small while.  I have a feeling that, when they show reruns in the old ladies lala land home, I shall cry big salty tears of remembrance.

lucelucy
lucelucy

As an elder statesperson here, I can't begin to imagine my life without TV.  I agree with many of the choices of the folks below.  If you want to read more about my TVidiot favorites, you can Google Don't Kill My TV Bookhouse.  Just checked and it goes there.  I'd post the URL, but I'm not sure that's good netiquette here. 

And I just discovered that Foxfire has been protecting me from Disqus or vice versa.  I couldn't even post on my own website.  Have to go to IE.  Which is what I say.  Aieeeee!  I think there's a fix I can do, but no time today.

The Hoobie
The Hoobie

Two seminal shows in my Gen-X life are Sesame Street and The Daily Show. You really only need to know those two shows to know everything about me. :) 

anon76returns
anon76returns

The DS's classic interview of Michael Steele (represented by the "waiter there's a fly in my soup" puppet) must own a special spot in your television pantheon (as it should).

The Hoobie
The Hoobie

Are you kidding?! Puppet Michael Steele is the reason I call our younger children "Terror Bibbles." (All parents who've had 2.5-year-olds will understand how the "terror" part applies.)*

I hope your post is a good sign that the anon family is back up and running with electricity and AC?

*Relatedly---and I'm not proud of this---one of my nicknames for our younger son is "Muppet Butt." I don't even know how that popped into my head, I just know that it somehow suits him and that it's fun to say. Muppet butt!

anon76returns
anon76returns

The more I think  of it, the more I can't believe that Sesame Street didn't make James' list.  There's about a 45-year (and growing) swath of Americans that literally grew up on that show, including now 2 generations of anons.  In fact, while out at a diner on Tuesday night (still didn't have power) fellow customers selected the Sesame Street theme song from the jukebox no less than 3 times in the ~hour we were there.

(Side note- I work in Bethesda and find myself thinking "That's how we kick it in the 20814" almost every day.  Now, back to 4th of July at the cribble!)

lucelucy
lucelucy

One of my children is almost 37 and "terror" still applies.  But don't tell her I said that.

beaker30
beaker30

I'm not a fan of the show, but I have to say CSI and its various offshoots (and influence on other programs). The show has forever changed (and not in a good way) how average citizens view the work of law enforcement, confused countless jurors about what is or isn't possible forensically and made fetish-ized violence mainstream.

Rhonda DeMart Crutcher
Rhonda DeMart Crutcher

As for others I'd add:

I agree that MASH must be on the list.  The first real "dramedy" (although it was not called that at the time) it seamlessly blended comedy and drama in a way not seen previously.  But more importantly it crystalized many people's views on Viet Nam and war in general through the lens of the Korean War.  It also gave us one of TV's most indelible characters in Hawkeye Pierce, who has never been completed replicated since.

I'd also nominate Friends, for inventing the concept of a "friends as family" sitcom.  Turns out the main characters didn't necessarily need to be related to each other in order to explore family relationships and conflicts.  It also ushered in the age of cynical, snarky comedy that would come to dominate TV and the internet (and life in general) for the next couple of decades.  And Chandler Bing literally changed the way that people speak.  (Could this show BE any more important?)

Rhonda DeMart Crutcher
Rhonda DeMart Crutcher

I always appreciated Roseanne for the fact that it at least attempted to show what real family life is like for a lower-middle class blue-collar family.  The house looked like houses I and my friends grew up in. The problems they had were problems our families faced when we were kids.  And, wonder of all wonders, the house was not always pristinely clean!!  What a concept!

The episode where the electricity was turned off because they hadn't paid the bill is still one of my favorites, not only for the comedy that the writers rung from the situation, but also because I've never seen a show with the guts to do something like that: portray a real situation that thousands of people (or more) have actually experienced but no one likes to talk about.

doddeb
doddeb

Completely agree, plus (I think it was the same episode) best Roseanne comment that I can recall.  Something along the lines of:  "Dan, we are so far beyond screwed, that it will take the light from screwed 1,000 years to reach our galaxy".  What a classic.

Shelley Elwood
Shelley Elwood

Star Trek for both its technology and social views.

MaxwellJames
MaxwellJames

Guiding Light - the most successful soap ever. Set the standards for the form, and influenced many, many primetime shows as well.

MASH - more than any other show, established the template for the modern sitcom, including its occasional seriousness. 

The Twilight Zone - Progenitor of American's taste for the weird, dark underbelly of normal.

The Simpsons - Not only the most successful animated show ever, but the most successful family comedy, and one of the most cross-culturally successful shows. Plus it did more than any other show to kill the laugh track.

The Real World - Set the standard for the reality show craze that more or less defines TV nowadays.

Monday Night Football - Because when you get down to it, football is what truly unites America, for better or for worse. And the sport's winning approach to TV is a big part of that.

paulmdoro
paulmdoro

Twin Peaks. I am currently re-watching it on Netflix. Finished season 1 last night. Still holds up. What an amazing show.

Chad
Chad

So many to offer here....

X-Files and Lost for bringing sci-fi mainstream, embracing geek culture, and (particularly the last one) advancing the cottage industry of talking about television on the internet and making television a communal experience.

Cheers because....well, it's Cheers. Look at how many careers were launched by that show.

The Office (U.K. edition) -- for bringing the mockumentary, single-camera sitcom to an artform, thereby leading to shows like The Office (U.S. edition), Parks and Rec, Community, Better Off Ted, Arrested Development, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Survivor and The Real World, because I cannot imagine television or our celebrity crazed, US Weekly tabloid culture without reality television stars....and because the Real World began the death of MTV as a "music video" station as we knew it.

AndrewMilner
AndrewMilner

Leave It to Beaver for presenting a positive view of 1950s middle-class America. And The Twilight Zone for subverting it.

And any of the Ken Burns PBS documentaries, which proved that a still photograph can be as kinetic as any Pixar creation.

Shakespeare_in_GA
Shakespeare_in_GA

"24" for its view of post-9/11 America's response to the threat of terrorism.  

Chad
Chad

On the same topic, I'd say Battlestar Gallactica as well -- definitely a parable on the war on terror.