Television is often accused of being a vast wasteland where we give in to the basest of our instincts just so we can be entertained, diverted and detached from our lives in tidy 30 minute increments. But we think this is kind of an unfair generalization. We believe that but for the babbling towers of reality TV and cable news, true genius peeks out from the shadows.
In its best moments, TV has the capacity to excite, inspire, surprise, and most importantly, create a shared cultural experience. Sure, things have changed. With 10 million channels and almost as many media outlets through which to receive them, we might not all tune in at the same time for a must-see-tv event, like the moon landing or the M.A.S.H. finale. But today’s viral sensations have the same draw, the feeling that you need to be in on tomorrow’s water cooler topic. Admit it. You watched Stranger Things just so you’d know what the heck everybody was talking about.
Even if audiences are divided, and splintered, and defiant of Neilsen’s old-fashioned box monitoring, brilliant television still brings us together around the bar, the dinner table, or the social media thread. Here are a few brilliant moments in television history that capture this power.
1. The Sopranos (1999-2007)
James Gandolfini reminisces about filming the pilot and being pretty certain that this show about “a bunch of fat Italian guys” would get the axe pretty quickly. There’s an eerie moment when the now-deceased Gandolfini is asked how he’d feel if Tony Soprano got whacked.
2. The Simpsons (1989-∞)
Dan Castellaneta may not be a household name, but you should know his voice (or I should probably say, voices) quite well. He’s been a fixture on primetime TV for almost 30 years. Castellaneta is the man behind Homer Simpson, and another 100 or so Springfieldians on The Simpsons. The Simpsons made its debut is 1987 as a series of animated shorts on The Tracy Ullman Show. Today, it is the longest running series in primetime history. Castellenata tells us how he first developed the voices for immortal characters like Grandpa Simpson, Groundskeeper Willie, Mayor Quimby, Barney Gumbel, and, of course, Homer.
3. The Office (U.S.) (2005-2013)
I have a buddy who refused to watch The Office because it brought back painful memories of the ten years he served as a cubicle-bound accountant. That’s how viscerally real this show about inter-office awkwardness truly was. Casting was a big part of this experience. But you might be amazed at some of the big-name talents that dropped in for auditions before the production ultimately cast the perfect actors to embody Jim, Pam, Dwight and the rest of the Dunder-Mifflin family.
4. Seinfeld (1989-1998)
Jerry Seinfeld explains how jazz drummer Buddy Rich influenced his writing on Seinfeld. He tells the unlikely inspiration behind three completely random one-liners over the course of the show’s history. This is an amazing demonstration of the power of the one-liner on Seinfeld, how even the absurd dialogic throwaways were hilarious and unexpected, how Seinfeld found genius in the insanity of ordinary conversation.
5. Stranger Things (2016-)
The bearded millennial siblings behind this year’s Netflix Original Series viral phenomenon discuss their fetish for 80s cinema and how icons of the era like Steven Speilberg, John Carpenter, and Wes Craven inspired this summer’s most bingeworthy retro-thriller.
6. Saturday Night Live (1976-)
Watch a stylishly-mustached Dan Aykroyd give a screen test for the soon-to-be legendary Saturday Night Live. Aykroyd runs through an array of characters over a few sessions. Based on the laughs in the room, it seems like the audition is going pretty well. Something tells me this kid is gonna make it.
7. Sesame Street (1969-) The Muppet Show (1976-1981)
When you listen to Muppeteer Jim Henson, voice actor Frank Oz, and producer Michael Frith discuss the history and evolution of the Muppets, the one thing that really hits you is how much Jim Henson just basically sounds like Kermit the Frog. Anyway, if you don’t love the Muppets, something on you is broken. Go see a doctor.
8. MTV Launch (1981-1998ish)
OK. So there are no interviews or commentary in this one. It’s literally just the first two minutes ever broadcast on MTV. This was right before they premiered “Video Killed the Radio Star,” making The Buggles a household name… for 20 minutes. As it happens, the cable station’s first few moments are quite expository, basically giving you the entire premise of the new medium right then and there. Dorky and dated though these VJs may be, they promised that MTV would forever change the way we look at music, and it truly did. And now it’s dead, but it was awesome while it lasted.
9. Star Trek (1966-1969)
Believe it or not, the original Star Trek television series lasted only three seasons. From 1966-1969, Shatner caroused for female interplanetary companionship as Captain James Tiberius Kirk, bringing a suave sleaze to creator Gene Rodenberry’s sci-fi future-topia. In those three seasons, Star Trek gave birth to a culture whose largely virginal subscribers are legion. Check these amazing early ad-spots plugging “the first adult space adventure” and raising Star Trek awareness among uninitiated viewers.
10. The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978)/Newhart (1982-1990)
Ok. This one requires a little explanation but it’s totally worth it. Between 1972 and 1978, comedian Bob Newhart played Bob Hartley, a Chicago-area psychologist married to a wisecracking wife played by Suzanne Pleshette. The Bob Newhart Show was popular with viewers, won a few Emmy’s, then called it a day. Four years later, Bob Newhart was back in primetime TV with a show aptly called Newhart, in which he played Dick Loudon, mild-mannered caretaker of the Stratford Inn. The show took place in a rural Vermont town filled with a cast of wacky side characters.
Ok. With me so far? So, Newhart was also successful with viewers, in spite of the fact that it was generally ridiculous. It ran for a solid eight seasons and was a regular ratings winner. So people got into the characters and the plot. In fact, it aired even longer than Bob’s first series, eventually running its course after eight seasons. So, on May 21, 1990, in front of a live studio audience, the Newhart finale aired.
Toward the conclusion of the episode—which was as generally ridiculous as the series had been for its entire run—an errant golf ball flew in through an open door of the Stratford Inn and bonked Dick Loudon on the head. He fell to the ground and everything went black. When the light returned to the stage, Bob Newhart was just waking up on the set of his original series, in the Chicago bedroom that he shared with Suzanne Pleshette. The live studio audience recognized the set from his hit 70s series immediately and roared its approval. It is, to this day, a pretty thrilling moment in live television history.
Suzanne Pleshette popped up in the bed next to Newhart (to even louder audience recognition and applause). Newhart, as psychologist Bob Hartley, told his wife of this crazy dream where he lived in Vermont and ran the Stratford Inn, the dream that primetime audiences had been watching without suspicion for eight years. Watch that moment, then listen to Newhart describe the planning for one of the great meta-moments in television history.
Any moments we missed? Feel free to share your own!