While critics over the years have cited laziness, obesity, and a deterioration in intelligence as pitfalls of tuning in to television, recently the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported that binge-watching a TV series is as restorative as a walk in the woods. Who needs Vitamin D? Not us! Another win in TV’s battle against its reputed redundancy includes policy change. No kidding; after an episode of ER was shown to U.S. Congress members, the Patient Navigator Act was passed. Other benefits cited include providing company for lonely people and, depending on what you watch, it can make you smarter. (Thanks Stephen Colbert!) TV can also break down barriers of stereotype and race; one example was the groundbreaking “Black on Black” documentary about what it meant to be black in L.A, following the 1965 Watts Riots. And finally, believe it or not, TV has been credited with saving lives. Studies indicate a huge potential for TV to serve as a health educator and the Sentinel for Health Awards recognizes achievements of TV storylines that “inform, educate and motivate viewers to make choices for healthier and safer lives” (think: Elizabeth Banks‘ heart attack ad).
Today, with an evolving television industry more competitive and reactive than ever before, television shows are darker, smarter, funnier, more controversial, artistic, candid and pivotal. But while there is much to celebrate among the creators of this new TV revolution, it didn’t begin here. The road has long been paved for shows like Matthew Weiner’s “Mad Men,” Jenji Kohan’s “Orange is the New Black,” Shonda Rhimes’ “Grey’s Anatomy,” and Lena Dunham’s “Girls”, to name a few. The list below highlights some of the most influential TV show creators and writers who started it all and brought the show creators and the TV lovers to where they are today.
10. Ed Sullivan
MTV, late night television, and Saturday Night Live all owe their roots to the Ed Sullivan Show, which is widely considered as the birth of TV itself. If nothing else, it was certainly the beginning of the variety TV show. It ran for a staggering 23 years, hosted by the popular New York entertainment columnist Ed Sullivan. His aim with the program was to provide family-friendly entertainment on Sunday nights and his show included musical acts like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Elvis to name just a few who graced its stage. It has since been ranked by Time magazine as one of the “Greatest TV Shows of All Time.”
9. Norman Lear
This old-timer from TV long ago helped to pioneer the sitcom when he began his television writing career in the 1950s. He created and worked on some of the older generations’ most beloved shows including, “All in the Family and “The Jeffersons.” The first ran for 11 years, and featured the memorable Homer Simpson-esque Archie Bunker and his wife Edith. With its progressive subject matter including race and women’s lib, it was the first television show credited with heralding a new era of socially relevant programming.
8. Chris Carter
The truth is out there. Still… Chris Carter hit the ground running with his twisted, extraterrestrial inspired show, “The X-Files,” winner of two Golden Globes for Best Drama. It can be viewed as an influence for today’s renowned TV show creators like JJ Abrams‘ (“Lost”) and Vince Gilligan (“Breaking Bad”), the latter having been a regular writer for the show during its nine year run. When it premiered in 1993, with the fresh-faced FBI team of Mulder and Scully, the show was not an immediate hit. At the time, sitcoms ruled the tube and this one was considered a big gamble. At the time, “Walker, Texas Ranger” was about as creative as programming was getting but “The X-Files” eventually proved to be speaking to the 18-49 demographic. After a while, “cult” went mainstream. The influence of “The X-Files” was not just darker in its aesthetic than the mainstream TV at the time; it also became seminal in TV history as the point at which over-arching, complex storylines began to infiltrate self-contained episodes. Questions like “What would ever happen between Mulder and Scully?” and “What happened to Mulder’s sister?” created often obsessive devotion from fans who tuned in every week to watch, and piece together the unfolding mysteries.
7. Darren Star
Darren Star‘s staying power in television has been cemented by his enormously popular shows that include “Melrose Place”, “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Sex and the City.” Despite the first two shows spawning every fluff drama ever proceeding it – including the new “90210,” and “Desperate Housewives” – it was “Sex and the City” that represented a new generation of TV. Carrie Bradshaw and friends heralded the arrival of the strong, sexy, sometimes man-hungry woman. They were independent, ballsy and proud. The show, which was a spin-off from real life columnist Candace Bushnell’s book, appealed to nearly all women, everywhere. With four chic, funny, warm-hearted and street-savvy stars, SatC broke barriers by talking about sex free and openly, without shame or prejudice. It was not overlooked during awards seasons either; during its seven seasons it won seven of its 54 Emmy Award nominations, eight of 24 Golden Globe noms, and three Screen Actor Guild Awards.
6. Joss Whedon
Teen angst with a twist. Joss, who called his show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” a cross between “My So Called Life” and “The X-Files”, was a beloved leader of 90s TV with his massively popular series that set the pace for today’s shows like “Vampire Diaries.” Whedon began his TV career as a writer for “Roseanne,” before developing the movie script for Buffy, which was the same storyline but with different characters than those who would eventually feature strongly in the TV cult classic. Whedon has admitted he was unhappy with the original movie, which had been greatly re-written and made lighter in tone than he intended. In 1997, when the opportunity arose to create Buffy for TV, he took full artistic control.
The seven season show has had a huge influence on pop culture, leading to endless tie-in products from comics to video games. Sarah Michelle Gellar even played her Buffy character on an episode of “Saturday Night Live,” in which the vampire slayer is transported to the world of “Seinfeld.” One of the most significant influences that Buffy brought to TV was the extended story arc, taking notes from “The X-Files.” What had, for the most part, been shows that began and ended within an episode, Buffy brought complicated, multi-layered and character-rich storylines that provided a similar experience to reading a book series. The show was voted by TV Guide as one of the “Top Cult Shows Ever.”
5. Aaron Sorkin
While he is a derisive figure in the TV writing world, known as controlling and difficult to work with while having struggled with substance abuse issues, Sorkin blew the doors open for political TV dramas with his show, “The West Wing.” The show had a popular eight season run from 1999-2006, and detailed the inner workings of the White House. It garnered two Golden Globe awards, amongst countless more television accolades. Sorkin brought to TV some new techniques including his rapid-fire dialogue and extended monologues. With his frequent working partner Thomas Schlamme directing, the two developed the “walk and talk,” which was essentially a single tracking shot involving characters engaging in conversation as they moved across a set. Most recently Sorkin made a comeback in the highly critically acclaimed though not overly popular and short-lived series “The Newsroom”, which will wrap its final season this year.
4. Dave Chappelle
Chappelle deserves a spot on this list as the creator of “Chappelle’s Show,” which has proven a social phenomenon and is considered by many as the greatest sketch comedy show of all time. Despite its brevity, running only for a couple of years, Chappelle was dubbed a genius of comedy by Esquire magazine and in 2013 Chappelle was bestowed the title of simply, “the best” by Billboard. His show was known for its brazen handling of topics such as sexuality, race, drugs, prostitution, gun violence and the entertainment industry. In 2009, the show was a featured subject in a book of critical essays titled “The Comedy of Dave Chappelle,” which was edited by a University of Maryland doctoral student. A monograph published by the University of Gothenburg called “Representations of ethnicity in stand-up comedy: A study of the comedy of Dave Chappelle,” examines the racial significance of language used in Dave Chappelle’s routine. Being taken so seriously must be rather ironic for the comedian, and maybe that had something to do with his minor breakdown on stage during a comedy tour last year, when he started complaining about how his show was ruining his life. Despite what may be some kind of persecution complex, “Chappelle’s Show” has left a permanent mark in pop culture, with phrases like “I’m Rick James, bitch!”
3. Michael Crichton
ER ran for a gobsmacking 15 seasons and set the stage for all hospital dramas to follow, including “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “House.” John Michael Crichton, who passed away in 2008, was best known as an author who has sold over 200 million copies of his books. In 1994 the writer was the only creative artist ever to have his work charting at No. 1 in TV, movies and book sales all at the same time with “ER,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Disclosure.”
ER follows the inner workings of a hospital emergency room in Chicago, Illinois. It is the longest-running primetime medical drama in American TV history and won 23 Emmys, with a total of 116 awards garnered in its time including the Peabody Award and four Screen Actor Guild Awards. 16.4 million viewers tuned in for the series finale, although the highest rating for the show came in season two with 48 million watching Dr. Ross (George Clooney AKA the original Dr. Mcdreamy) trying to save a boy trapped in a storm drain. In comparison, the most-watched episode of the massively popular hospital drama of today, “Grey’s Anatomy” falls short, at 37.88 million viewers tuning in to their most popular episode to date.
2. Matt Groening
Matt Groening set the bar for what is now a multitude of adult-only bobble-heads including “Family Guy,” “American Dad,” “Bob’s Burgers,” etc…. The Simpsons has become an indelible part of television, making a 25 year impact on the industry. That’s a quarter of a century with one good-hearted, sometimes a little bit immoral, yellow family. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, Matt Groening eventually used his hometown’s street names for his show’s characters. Starting in the mid-80s he made a name for himself with his comic strip “Life in Hell,” that became a favourite of Tracey Ullman who eventually called him up to do a series of animated shorts for her show. The shorts became “The Simpsons.”
Over its iconic lifetime, the show has accumulated a huge number of accolades and set records including the longest-running cartoon series, longest-running sitcom and longest-running scripted prime-time series in American television history. It’s received 27 Emmys and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1998, Time magazine named Bart Simpson one of the most influential people of the century. Last year, Fox issued a final two seasons of what is considered by many as one of the greatest television series of all time. What does Homer say about it all? “When will I learn? The answer to life’s problems aren’t at the bottom of a bottle, they’re on TV!”
1. Larry David
Larry David, the man behind “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, created a new kind of comedy from both, utilizing an autobiographical element that led to shows like “Arrested Development,” a cult classic that referenced “Seinfeld” several times over the course of its short lived three seasons. It, in turn, led to a comedy that saw a more intricate plot line with fast-paced flashbacks and cutaways used heavily in newer shows like “30 Rock.” With “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” this real-time mostly improvised comedy show probably lent a helping hand to what we know today as realty TV. Originally airing as a special, its enormous popularity resulted in a weekly HBO series that went on to win a Golden Globe in 2003 for Best Comedy Series. The series lasted until 2011. But let’s start from the beginning. David was initially hired in 1982 as a writer for Saturday Night Live until 1989 when Jerry Seinfeld asked for his help to develop a sitcom. The resulting “Seinfeld,” an epic “show about nothing” brought together four unknown actors who all played a part in one of the most successful and influential shows in television history. One of its main points of genius was its ability to uncover the comedy in real life. The show didn’t shy away from social commentary but it brought a new perspective to topics like, for example, a lesbian wedding. The subject matter was way ahead of its time, but it was able to break down social barriers by helping the audience see the universal humour that is present in life’s odd, every day adventures. “Seinfeld” received an Emmy for “Outstanding Comedy Series” in 1993, a Golden Globe for “Best TV Series (Comedy)” and a Screen Actors Guild Award for “Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series” in ’95, ’97 and ’98. In 2013, TV Guide ranked in one of the greatest shows of all time. And while it wears little in terms of bells and whistles, its simplicity is perhaps its greatest gift, as it remains as timelessly funny today as it was 20 years ago.