Television has always kind of seemed like film’s little, slower brother. While the technology for both movies and TV were initially developed in the late 19th century, film was quick to grab hold of the public’s attention, while television lagged far behind, like a toddler on one of those plastic tricycles that his dad picked up at a garage sale because he didn’t want to spend all that extra money on a real bike. By the 1930s, movies were a booming industry, releasing classics like Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, which had massive critical success and brought in a crap-ton of money. But it wasn’t until after the conclusion of World War II, almost a decade later, that television really took off. And even then, while filmgoers were seeing fantastical, feature-length productions in bright and shining technicolor, all those nuclear families of the 1940s and ’50s were stuck with giant boxes in their living rooms that could only provide tiny, fuzzy, black and white facsimiles of Ed Sullivan.
However, in recent years TV has been making a major comeback in mainstream media. Much like the unanticipated and still kind of freaky McConaissance of 2013 and 2014, the small screen has burst back into popular culture with what many have dubbed the Second Golden Age of Television. In eras past, TV stars were generally seen as B-list celebrities compared to their big screen compatriots, but this renaissance of television has seen many big name box office actors take on juicy, award-winning roles on TV series and even made-for-TV movies. So, in honor of this magnificent turn-around from the television industry, here are 15 shows that changed television forever.
15. The Sopranos
Speaking of television’s renaissance, this is one of the shows that is generally credited with kicking that off. First airing in 1999, The Sopranos was only the second hour-long drama series produced by HBO, who had previously aired the prison drama Oz, and would go on to create TV juggernauts such as Game of Thrones, The Wire, True Blood, Sex and the City, Curb Your Enthusiasm, True Detective and plenty, plenty more. This long list of critically acclaimed, insanely popular, gratuitously mature TV programs can all be traced back to the success of The Sopranos.
The show, which detailed the life of New Jersey crime boss, Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini, was one of earliest pioneers of gritty, realistic character dramas that didn’t pull any punches in terms of violence, language, or sexual content. Instead of the CSI-style, mystery of the week kind of show that saturated the airwaves at the time, The Sopranos told a longer story. One that took six seasons to conclude. And in doing so, paved the way for shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland and others.
If you have never seen this classic sitcom about a bunch of doctors in a surgical unit during the Korean War, we can pretty well guarantee that your parents have. When the series finale aired in 1983, over 100 million people tuned in. Those are Super Bowl numbers. In fact, it’s the only event in the list of top 20 most watched broadcast in US television history that is NOT one of the Super Bowls. Take a moment to let that sink in: it is the only TV show to crack the 100 million viewers mark that didn’t involve grown men in spandex fighting over a giant lemon made of pig skin. You might have assumed that audience commitment like that must have something to do with a ‘Ross and Rachel’ type romance, or an incredibly written cliffhanger, or the promise of gratuitous sex and violence. But the fact is that M*A*S*H is one of the few sitcoms that was able to delve into subjects like war, mortality, patriotism, and personal trauma, while still delivering the laughs, and that is what drew people in. It set a high standard for subsequent shows eager to mix comedy with morality.
13. Star Trek
The inclusion of the original Star Trek show on this list has nothing to do with the gift to humanity that is William Shatner. Nothing at all. Although the fact that it launched the career of that lovably strange Canadian is worth noting. For the purpose of this list, however, we want to focus on Star Trek‘s consistently progressive attitude towards civil rights. While the two leads, the aforementioned crazy Canuck and the legendary Leonard Nimoy, were straight, white dudes, the supporting cast was remarkably diverse. While the casts of other shows of the time did include the occasional ethnic minority, they were often relegated to stereotypes and comic relief. Star Trek, on the other hand, featured actors such as George Takei and Nichelle Nichols in prominent roles that had little to nothing to do with their racial heritage. To top it off, the show is credited with showing one of the first interracial kisses in television history.
12. I Love Lucy
Speaking of Star Trek, did you know that I Love Lucy star, Lucille Ball, was instrumental in getting Star Trek produced? As head of the Desilu Productions, which developed Gene Rodenberry‘s science fiction show, Ball’s influence on Star Trek‘s early days is profound. More profound, however, is I Love Lucy itself. Watching the black and white reruns of Lucille clowning around and generally infuriating her Cuban-American husband, Ricky Ricardo (played by Ball’s real life husband Desi Arnaz) might not lead one to believe that this show is anything special. Sure, Lucille is a fantastic comedian, with great timing, and an impressive knack for physical comedy. But it seems like pretty standard stuff as far as sitcoms go. And that’s the point, because it wasn’t standard at the time. I Love Lucy essentially invented how sitcoms were filmed and created, pioneering the three-camera shooting style in front of a live studio audience. It also helps that the show is pretty damn funny.
11. Mr. Robot
It might feel premature to toss Sam Esmail’s hacker drama into this list seeing as it just finished off its second season, but Mr. Robot is already changing television for the better in two very important ways. First, it is almost without a doubt the only popular piece of film or TV that has ever accurately depicted hacking and computer science. Instead of going for flashy, but stupidly fake, tactics that look like a mixture of Tron and Tetris, Mr. Robot opts for the blunt-force and often mundane reality of computer hacking, and yet somehow still manages to make it fascinating.
Secondly, the show is unafraid to work with artistic and risky aesthetics, boasting one of the strangest cinematography styles ever put on either film or television, and frequently experiments with utterly bizarre concepts, such as playing out nearly half an episode as though it were a 1980s sitcom. Now, all of this would probably be considered as over-the-top pretentious and boring as hell if the rest of the show wasn’t so damn good. Seriously, it is amazing. Go watch it. Right now.
10. American Idol
Love it or hate it, Simon Cowell‘s song-based talent show changed the face of television forever. If you were to flip through your TV channel listings prior to 2002, when American Idol first aired, you would probably notice the distinct lack of singing competitions and other talent shows on there. While there might be a few smaller versions kicking around, including Pop Idol, its British predecessor, it wouldn’t come close to the current TV landscape, which is populated with shows like The Voice, America’s Got Talent (and all its various spin-offs around the world), So You Think You Can Dance (and all of its various spin-offs around the world), The X Factor, and so on and so on. The fact of the matter is that American Idol was an unprecedented success, becoming one of TV’s most influential juggernauts, and forever forcing us to watch a panel of B-list celebrities from everywhere in the world but America, judge no-name talent on a show with the word “America” right in the title.
9. The Simpsons
Besides single-handedly keeping the markets for jaundice medication, donuts with pink icing, and crappy beer alive, Matt Groening’s animated brainchild also made room for a whole new genre on prime time television: the adult oriented cartoon. Prior to The Simpsons, animated shows were almost exclusively limited to children’s entertainment. The Simpsons changed that notion entirely, vividly displaying the fact that there was an adult demographic eager to watch a more mature, funny, satirical animated television show. The long-running success of everyone’s favorite yellow, four-fingered family is practically unparalleled, having been on the air and remaining a relevant pop culture cornerstone since 1989. Since The Simpsons opened the door for cartoons to make sex jokes and harshly parody political leaders, several other shows have emerged, all of which owe their success to Groening and his dysfunctional family of five: Family Guy, South Park, King of the Hill, Futurama, and The Cleveland Show are all examples of this.
8. The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
Okay, how many frigging talk shows are around right now? We have Conan O’Brien, Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Ellen DeGeneres, and of course, everyone’s three favorite Jimmys: Kimmel, Fallon, and Corden (okay it’s James Corden, not Jimmy Corden, but whatever). And only recently, the airwaves lost David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Craig Ferguson, who, for some inexplicable reason, decided to move on to some extraordinarily crappy game show that has been done, with varying levels of success, a thousand times before. But none of these would have been around if it had not been for the very original late night talk show host: Johnny Carson. The Tonight Show cemented how these shows work: a funny monologue about current events, some interviews with celebrities, some musical guests, the odd bit of sketch comedy, and so on. Basically, every late night talk show ever. And all thanks to Mr. Carson.
7. The Office
We’re mostly talking about the American version here, but since it was based on a British original created by Ricky Gervais, we have to give the UK forerunner some credit as well. The Office is notable for launching the careers of numerous stars, such as John Krasinski, Mindy Kaling, and Rainn Wilson, not to mention Steve Carell, who was already reasonably popular thanks to Anchorman and The 40 Year Old Virgin, but whose status as a comedy heavyweight was cemented by the show. However, it’s The Office‘s mockumentary style that changed the face of television comedy, opening a whole new realm of possibility when it came to jokes and storytelling. While handheld camerawork had been done a handful of times previously, the vast majority of comedies were trapped in the theatrical style pioneered decades earlier by I Love Lucy. By removing the studio audience and giving the cinematography more freedom, The Office found itself able to use flashbacks, one-offs, and a host of other tools to make people laugh. Since then, the style has been copied by numerous shows, including Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn 99, and Modern Family.
6. House of Cards
House of Cards is the reason you Netflix and chill. It’s the reason you can spend your weekend binge-watching Stranger Things or Daredevil or Grace and Frankie. Prior to the commercial and critical success of the Kevin Spacey-led political thriller, the very notion of a web-based show being taken as seriously as something on HBO or AMC would have sounded like pure fantasy. But after House of Cards blew everyone’s mind and then became the first web series to be nominated for an Emmy (actually, like, a whole bunch of Emmys), the market for shows available only through streaming services skyrocketed. And it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. It is not an exaggeration to say that Netflix and House of Cards together are responsible for completely changing how people watch TV. While other shows on this list might have influenced subsequent generations of TV, House of Cards changed the entire industry.
5. Saturday Night Live
As one of the longest running shows on TV, it should be obvious that Lorne Michaels‘ baby is also one of the most influential. Not only has it catapulted dozens of its cast members into superstardom, including Steve Martin, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Eddie Murphy, Mike Meyers, Kristen Wiig, Adam Sandler, and many, many, many more, but it has also been a source of hilarious sketches and memorable characters that have permeated pop culture, and a perpetual provider of political satire. After a major political event, you can always be sure that SNL will have someone from their cast of impersonators finding a way to poke fun at it. Being one of the staples of television since it first hit the small screen in 1975, it has spawned innumerable imitators. Without the success of Saturday Night Live, we wouldn’t have shows such as Mad TV, Kids in the Hall, Key and Peele, In Living Color, Portlandia, or Chappelle’s Show.
“So no one told you life was gonna be this way…”
Did you do it? The claps? You at least heard them in your head, didn’t you? Of course you did. You can’t hear the Friends theme song without participating, at least mentally, in the claps. Of course, the insanely popular 1990s sitcom about six friends in their twenties hanging out in New York has a more prominent place in television history than just a catchy theme song. Not only did it cement the sextuplet leads as staples of pop culture, but the show also marked a noticeable shift in the sitcom landscape, moving away from family oriented comedies like All in the Family, Growing Pains, The Cosby Show, and even The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and towards shows dealing with young, charismatic singles like How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, Community, Happy Endings, and Scrubs.
Somewhere out there is a TV executive who decided that throwing a bunch of people on a deserted island with a camera crew until they killed each other off and only one remained like a frigging Highlander would be great for ratings. And then right next to that sadistic whacko is a much more sane executive who turned that blood-fest into Survivor, AKA the genesis of outlandish competition reality TV shows. Essentially, Survivor is the American Idol of competition reality TV. All others owe it a debt of gratitude for basically creating a new genre of television. The Amazing Race, The Biggest Loser, The Bachelor/Bachelorette, Top Chef, and even The Apprentice only existed because of the pioneering success of Survivor. Yeah, that’s right. Donald Trump owes more of his reality TV success to Richard Hatch than he does to whatever freakish, geriatric, miniature orangutan lives on his head posing as his hair.
Speaking of Survivor, did you know that the original concept of Lost was a combination Survivor and the love story between Tom Hanks and a volleyball that they called Cast Away? It’s true. The island-based drama, first airing in 2004, focused on a large ensemble of characters and their intertwining lives. And while that sounds like the premise of a Hawaiian soap opera, the science fiction and fantasy elements, non-linear plot devices, and extended mythology made it something much more. Instead of keeping audiences hooked with a simple piece of “What is going to happen next?” bait, Lost maintained intrigue by continually creating new mysteries and unexplained phenomenon. In fact, arguably the most frustrating thing about the series was that many questions were left unanswered once it had concluded. This complex, if somewhat confusing, style of storytelling and world-building drew in die-hard fans from all over the world, and set a precedent for other TV shows that wanted to challenge their audiences in similar ways. Additionally, the mythology went beyond the hour-long show that aired on TV, being expanded upon in a web series, other online content, and even a series of novels.
1. Law & Order
The fact that this show ran for twenty years and is like the TV version of Starbucks (franchised like hell and seemingly inescapable), might be enough to warrant a place on this list. After all, it did give birth to four spin-offs: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: LA, and Law & Order: Trial By Jury. But replicating itself all over your channel listings is not what makes Dick Wolf’s iconic show so damn influential. Rather, the template it created, with a simple whodunit-of-the-week story arc and only very minor long-term character development, can be seen throughout TV, even to this day. Obviously the CSI franchise, as well as the two NCIS shows, are clear benefactors of this template, but most modern police procedural dramas also tear a page or two out of the Law & Order handbook, including Criminal Minds, Castle, Bones, Cold Case, The Mentalist, and more.