Great Television Shows of the Western Tradition

Yesterday on Twitter I made one of those jokes that is bound to become a reality at some point: I proposed developing a “Great Television Shows of the Western Tradition” sequence similar to a “Great Books” curriculum. There are a lot of questions about how one would organize it, how many classes would be included, etc., but lately I’ve been watching a lot of old sitcoms, and so mentally I’m going through how one would structure a sitcom course. Let’s assume from the outset that you have one 13-week semester to give a decent overview of the sitcom, and let’s limit it to the American sitcom just to make it more manageable (we can do British shows as an elective or something). Some shows seem non-negotiable — I Love Lucy, Dick van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Golden Girls, The Cosby Show, Seinfeld — and there are difficult cases (e.g., do you put The Simpsons in among the sitcoms or somewhere else, perhaps in an animation course?).

Assuming one week per major show or else one week for a particular subgenre or theme, how could one structure this? What kind of readings might be assigned alongside the shows themselves? How many episodes would you assign, and on what basis?

25 thoughts on “Great Television Shows of the Western Tradition

  1. Cut Steinfeld to ONE episode to show its banality. Put in Archie Bunker….several key episodes…about race and war….show the riseof feminist and homosexual “cute themes” …how Leave it to Beaver became “Sex and theCity” just about covers it.

  2. I’m not too familiar with setting up a class structure, but this was too fun to pass up. If you try to work in reading, would you need to limit the episodes? If so, I was thinking you could do two episodes per series. One “quintessential” episode that kind of captures what the show basically was and then (as Adam joked on Twitter) one “special” episode that shows what we were worried about at the time. Another alternative might be one quintessential episode and another episode that’s considered an all-time “great”.

    Tying the show to the time when it took place would be in the same vein as Awkwardness where maybe the show was so popular because it spoke to its audience at the time. I remember watching an E special about Growing Pains and one of the writers pointed out that when they were on the back end of their run, Friends was starting. When he saw an episode of Friends and realized how popular it was, it was shocking to him how much what people wanted from TV had changed.

  3. If it’s going to be “Great Books”-style, the historical context is going to be less of an emphasis — but perhaps that would highlight the difficulty or impossibility of doing television in a “Great Books” style.

  4. Would you include shows that were extremely popular and ran a long time but which were not actually very good? Something like “Happy Days” or “Three and a Half Men?” I guess doing so would be more like teaching historical/cultural context, but the contrast between, say, “Happy Days” and “All in the Family,” which were on the air at the same time, would be illuminating.

    I’d also include a more recent single-camera sitcom, probably “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or “Arrested Development,” though I suppose the case could be made for “30 Rock” or an early season of “The Office,” too.

  5. If you don’t include 2010s, you could spend two weeks per decade. Does TV Guide have archives online? I assume it would be an invaluable resource for this undertaking, particularly their “100 Greatest Moments” type articles.

  6. The Phil Silvers Show seems to be rather neglected in the US these days, but it’s great, and could perhaps be shown alongside Seinfeld and Judith Butler’s discussion of the burlesque inevitability of the dialectic in Subjects of Desire.

  7. Cut Seinfeld to no more than one episode to show vapid banality. Add some of the great “Archie Bunker” ones that were in “All in the Family” and explored religion, work, racism etc. before the tsunami of feminist and sexual identity silliness swamped prime time.

    Show how we went from “Leave it to Beaver” and “My Three Sons” to “Sex and the City” and distraction from distraction by distraction in a deepening sea of forensic murder programs.

  8. Some possibilities: Bob Newhart Show, WKRP in Cincinnati, Welcome Back, Kotter, One Day at a Time. As bad as they were, Different Strokes and Facts of Life seem to capture their era….

  9. I would put The Simpsons in the class, as it has profoundly shaped the pop culture landscape, particularly for the family set up of sitcoms for years to come (for more on that watch this excellent video: The TL;DR is that so many sitcoms have the “fat dumb husband with a hot wife” set up (According to Jim, Still Standing, family Guy, etc.) without the moral component underpinning found in The Simpsons, so that so many of the shows miss the joke that a character’s ignorance and stupidity is a flaw instead of something to be proud of.

    In the course, I would emphasize the narrative evolution of television. When focusing on the sitcoms, I would stress the changes serialization has undergone over the decades to see how long arcing narrative storytelling has changed.

  10. Genuine question: why Golden Girls? How is that non-negotiable? I would not have thought so, but my memories of it are Blanche wanting to have sex and that’s about it. I see that it might be transgressive in some way, but it was also on Saturday nights IIRC–that is, it was not especially popular. Not that that matters. Just curious, and I would defer to your rerun-watching wisdom.

    Other ideas, although perhaps too Johnny-come-lately: Louis CK’s two sitcoms (or an episode of each). Lucky Louis was a send-up of/comment on the traditional “live studio audience” (which failed on HBO) sitcom and Louis is simply something other (which seems to succeeding on whatever channel it is on–I watch it in Netflix, and it has been called a show that truly defines a new watching experience). It retains the half hour format, but gets rid of consistent characters and plot lines. Even older shows had ongoing plotlines (before shows such as Friends made multi-season trajectories de rigueur). All shows in the past had consistent characters. Louis has none of that.

    I also thing that Cheers is non-negotiable. One of the first, if not the first, sitcoms not based on family or work. Cheers was work for Sam, but it was not a workplace for all of the characters. They were a sort of family, but of course they were not really one at all. Paves the way for Seinfeld (about individuals who are friends with one another) and, of course, Friends (among numerous other shows).

  11. Police Squad, Taxi, The Addams Family, Get Smart, Soap and/or Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Wilfred, Louis (C.K.)— if you choose to go out of the mainstream
    Otherwise, I Love Lucy, The Andy Griffith Show, Green Acres or Beverly Hillbillies (could be the same week), That Girl or MTM (ditto), M*A*S*H, All in the Family, Happy Days, Cheers, Seinfeld, Friends, American Family

    But even if I were doing the mainstream “greats”, I would still do a unit on the alternatives.

  12. I think that it would be interesting to spend the first day of class listening to and discussing the old sitcom radio shows. The radio sitcoms of the 1930’s and 1940’s established the basic outline of the American sitcom that continues on television today. Many of the shows like Father Knows Best, The Jack Benny Show and Burns & Allen started on radio and then moved to television when the medium arrived.

    There are a lot of old radio shows available over on Students could listen to a few and then campare and contrast them to today’s television shows.

  13. I would agree with K here. The basic structures of the TV sitcom were already well formed by the mid-1940s by the radio sitcoms.

  14. “Genuine question: why Golden Girls? How is that non-negotiable? I would not have thought so, but my memories of it are Blanche wanting to have sex and that’s about it. I see that it might be transgressive in some way, but it was also on Saturday nights IIRC–that is, it was not especially popular.”

    On the contrary, “The Golden Girls” was extremely popular, aired for many years, was highly acclaimed, and won many Emmys & Golden Globe awards – but perhaps it was not popular with your cohort? (It was not with mine, minus one friend who was devoted to it throughout.) This could perhaps be a theme of discussion – who watches what sitcoms and why.

  15. Thanks for the answer, Richard. I looked it up on Wikipedia after asking and discovered that my memories are not in accord with history. No, it was not popular in my cohort (teen-aged boys were just not into it for whatever reason). That said, I recall watching it with my family, along with Alf and every other sitcom that came along. In the same way that I would watch anything that was a cartoon in 1979, I would watch anything half an hour long with a laugh track in the mid-80s.

    Nonetheless, still not sure why it’s non-negotiable. I could see the argument that it’s important as a treatment of gender and age, especially for the time. And there was a gay character for an episode Wikipedia tells me. Still, I would think that Cheers would have to rank above it in terms of a show that changed the genre.

  16. A few class days could be called:

    The Heirs of Marx (I Love Lucy, Honeymooners)
    The 1950s Family (Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver)
    Norman Lear and Social Awareness (MTM, All in the Family, MASH)
    Syndicatin’ in the Seventies (Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, Happy Days)
    Must See TV (Cosby, Cheers, Golden Girls)
    The Simpsons and Their Progeny (30 Rock)
    Mockumentary (The Office, Parks and Rec, Modern Family)

    Honestly Lucille Ball is the only early TV star I know of who worked with the Marx Brothers and “Young Love” would probably a better nod to the role of couples in the first draft of the sitcom. But you understand I couldn’t resist.

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