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Criticwire Survey: What Was Your First 'Serious' TV Show?

Television
by Sam Adams
July 29, 2013 9:10 AM
1 Comment
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Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, "What is the best film in theaters right now?" can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

This week's question: Most of us grew up in a time when television was still the "idiot box." What was the first TV show you took seriously?

James Poniewozik, Time

I grew up in the 1970s, which -- for the kids today -- was a bizarro era in which dramas were escapist TV and the serious shows were sitcoms. Probably the first TV show I took as a serious work was M*A*S*H, which at one point was airing in reruns four times a day in the Detroit/Toledo area. It was hilarious to me even on an elementary-school level, but it was also a show where characters you liked got killed and funny people would suddenly turn very somber about the war. But it was at least tied with the various Norman Lear shows. I'm not sure if even the Red Wedding on Game of Thrones disturbed me as much as it did when Florida Evans smashed the dishes after she learned James had died on Good Times.

Dan Kois, Slate

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for sure. It was such a transformative moment for me to realize that something that is so on-the-face cheesy and derivative (like TV itself!) could in fact be a complex and moving work of art -- while also still being poppy and addictive and fun.

Eric Kohn, Indiewire

The Simpsons. It was the ideal gateway drug: Bright, colorful and filled with gags that a child could understand, it also tapped into much bigger ideas about the American dream, the mixed bag of family life and the pratfalls of growing up -- all while paying tribute to a vast library of pop culture. It also generated a tremendous range of emotions. There was more heart in the first couple seasons of The Simpsons than many of the ultra-serious dramas made today. The Simpsons wasn't just great television; it wrestled the medium into a form of self-aware storytelling that opened up its boundaries. Plus, it turned a bald, fat, know-nothing alcoholic into a legitimate antihero, which on paper is an even more daunting task than applying pathos to Tony Soprano. 

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

Didn't even have to think hard about this one: It was the pilot episode of Twin Peaks. As clearly grounded as it was in basic serial drama structure, there was a genuine "voice," both in the visual style and the funky bits of character business. I realized pretty early on that I wasn't watching to find out who killed Laura Palmer; I was watching because it was going to surprise me, or make me laugh, or scare the crap out of me, and sometimes all three in the space of a few minutes. And this was on broadcast television, for those of us who remember when it was effectively the only game in town. I don't think at the time, in my early 20s, I was thinking about it in terms of whether it was "art," but I knew I didn't want to miss a second of it.

Mary Pols, Time

The idiot box in my household was black and white and crappy until what felt like 1980, but we still spent plenty of time in front of it. As a kid, I'd say I took Family pretty seriously (it ran from 1976 to 1980 and was a precursor in illustrating realistic family dynamics to shows like the short-lived Once and Again and today's Parenthood). In 1990 I was all about Twin Peaks; that first season was like nothing I'd ever seen on television before. (You haven't lived until you've had a Bob-coming-over-the-couch nightmare.) And of course I loved turn-of-the-century HBO. But the show that opened my eyes to what television could be on a long-term basis (as opposed to being canceled after one remarkable season) was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It turned me into the kind of freak that trolled the Internet for news of early feeds, read bulletin boards and bought boxed sets. 

Christopher Campbell, Film School Rejects, Movies.com

Roseanne. As someone who grew up watching television nonstop during every hour I wasn't in school, it's hard to pinpoint when I might have started taking the pastime seriously, specially since I tended to stick to sitcoms as a kid. But I do recall finding something refreshing about Roseanne, that the family struggled just like mine and that the dramatic bits weren't just some moral lesson at the end of an episode. I'll admit that Growing Pains had its moments, and I'll always recall particularly when they very seriously killed off Carol's boyfriend (played by Matthew Perry) in a drunk driving accident as a time I saw the potential for family shows like this to not just be joke machines. But it wasn't as consistent with its infusion of drama. Roseanne seemed to tell an ongoing realistic story in episodic form with humor that seemed natural. 

Kate Aurthur, Buzzfeed 

This question is such a good one, and I truly have no idea what my answer is. I've loved TV always, and looking back, there are so many moments when I realized it was important to me -- an experience I'm sure I universalized at the time, and maybe was right to ("Who Shot J.R.?" for instance, which happened during my childhood). I know what you're asking is when the perception of TV shift in quality to me, but it never did. Why would I watch something I wasn't taking seriously?

I definitely noticed when TV began to enter its current age, though, which I would date back to Hill Street Blues. I don't remember enough of Hill Street to look back and wonder why my mother let me watch it. But we did watch it together, and I do remember talking about it a lot as we did. It's also forever associated -- aesthetically and thematically -- in my mind with my favorite show of the '80s: St. Elsewhere. I adored that show, and I feel like it revealed to me (and anyone who watched it) what a serious television drama could be, and and how superlative TV acting could be as well. 

David Fear, Time Out New York

I'm tempted to go with some formative way-after-the-fact viewings of my youth -- seeing The Prisoner or The Twilight Zone as a kid and having them blow my mind -- or name The Simpsons, because it is, well, The Simpsons. But it was probably Buffy the Vampire Slayer that gave me the road-to-Damascus moment. Though I started watching it late, after The Sopranos had debuted and established a beachhead as "serious TV," it was Joss Whedon's show that changed my opinion about the possibilities of the medium and season-long serial storytelling. It was also the first show I ever binge-watched and went online to peruse facts/read episode summaries/got into chat-room fights over, thus establishing my current TV 2.0 viewing habits.

Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer

I was such a child of TV that when my parents limited screen time, I dragged a kiddie chair in front of washing machine to watch clothes spinning through the porthole. Good prep for Stan Brakhage and Andy Warhol films. The seminal dramas for me were I Spy and The Man from Uncle, which in their day pretty much defined cool and worldliness. Yet the most influential TV I watched was The Ed Sullivan Show, which introduced me to all kinds of music -- from Yitzhak Perlman and Marian Anderson to Ike & Tina Turner and The Rolling Stones -- and, especially, to comedy, from Mort Sahl to Bill Cosby to Joan Rivers. At a time the population of the U.S. was about 190 million, 73 million -- more than 33 per cent of the nation -- watched The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. It was profoundly powerful to have that kind of shared cultural experience. As I grew up, I came to depend on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to introduce me to new comedy. It wasn't until the 1980s, when I got hooked on the soap opera Santa Barbara and on thirtysomething, that I understood one advantage that television had over film: Watching the same characters in different contexts offers broader and deeper character development. 

Steve Dollar, Wall Street Journal

What, Green Acres wasn't quality TV? I'm being a tad facetious, but not really. I was one of those kids who watched hours of boob tube, and I took it very seriously -- although I was in college before it became a fun topic to write about. As someone said to me once, it's popular popular culture. You could count on me to be one of the stoned guys holding forth on the magic-com merits of Bewitched rather than bear down on deconstructing The Wasteland hours before an English exam. By the time TV become "quality," I wasn't much interested anymore, but I have come around, even if the sad fact of it is that even the greatest series turn into soap operas. But to answer the question, the first show that made an impact was The Twilight Zone (in constant revival throughout my youth). That's the one I got hooked on, only much later coming to appreciate it as the lingering shadow of the Golden Age. That emphasis on episodes with the writer as auteur surely established a precedent. 

Glenn Kenny, MSN Movies, Some Came Running

Interesting question. I started taking television seriously a long time ago... around the time Charlotte Moorman made a cello out of a cathode-ray tube, sort of. As far as my critical practice is concerned, I've always kept series television at arm's length. I generally insist this is not a function of snobbery but of time management. I can't consume every culture commodity out there, pop or not, and because my professional profile is grounded in movies and music, that's how it works. That said, I do tend to get irritated by a lot of reverse engineering at work in TV criticism: pieces that are not much in the service of actually articulating why a given show is viable, good, or great art, but rather an "I like this, I'm sick of being told this is inferior, and I've got sufficient education and rhetorical chops to construct an argument that says this thing I like is in fact Great." A few years ago pieces of this ilk would make me froth at the mouth, but these days I try to remind myself that life is too short.

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute

When All in the Family premiered, I was far too snooty to pay it any attention. A sitcom about a middle class Queens family? I was too busy reading Proust or something. As the years went by, and I guess I gave up on good old Marcel, I began to turn to television for company. One episode of Norman Lear's classic and I was hooked. Based on what I later discovered was a far more acidic British program, this hit show still not only addressed American social issues of the day, but did so in a digestible, audience friendly structure. When Archie Bunker would spew his limited views on the world, it was easy to laugh. Carroll O'Connor was funny. But the impact of what he was saying was potent. The more liberal-minded might get the real joke immediately, but even the less sophisticated would learn, through the Bunkers and their extended friends and family, exactly what it was Lear and his producing partner Bud Yorkin wanted them to. Over the years, tough stuff such as racism, homosexuality, rape, women's rights, Vietnam and even, God help us, menopause were tackled. And, artistically, the performances of O'Connor and Jean Stapleton grew deeper and more remarkable. The program ran, in various reincarnations until 1983; it is a staple now of syndication. We may have evolved (hopefully) since Family hit the air, but there's no question that comedy helped in the process.

Sean Axmaker, Videodrone , Parallax View

The transition from cult TV to art TV for me was The Prisoner, which I saw for the first time from VHS tapes rented from the video store I worked the year after I graduated. The sophisticated writing was one draw, of course, but it was also a brilliantly designed series, creating an insular, surreal culture as a parody of modern life, with all individuality sanded out in a quaint, generic village style.

But though I had never seen an episode before that, it was a known entity that arrived with a reputation and critical acclaim. Whereas I saw Homicide: Life on the Streets when it premiered and was captivated by its sensibility, ensemble rhythms, sharp, unexpected writing, and loose-limbed storytelling from the beginning. That was when I saw TV not just as produced but actually directed and I saw the American TV could create genuinely cinematic and sophisticated storytelling.

Richard Brody, New Yorker

TV has always been serious, whether it looked that way or not. For instance, The Honeymooners is a primal explosion of id and ingenuity that lacks only direction to match Jerry Lewis. The more supposedly serious television becomes, the sillier it seems by comparison with the radicalism of even many commercial movies. Or, to put it differently, as a child of the sixties, I took TV (The Flintstones, Gilligan's Island, I Love Lucy, Leave It to Beaver, Laugh-In; Ed Sullivan, Merv Griffin, John Bandy) as seriously as I took anything (it isn't because All in the Family treated "issues" that it was better than any of the above -- sociology isn't art) and then discovered movies, which put the virtually undirected shows to shame -- and they still do. Of course, then there was An American Family, which is really serious. By contrast, the seriousness with which recent television (by which I mean some series, not the appliance) is now taken will one day be recognized as utterly unintended metacomedy.

Eric Hynes, SundanceNow, New York Times

I watched TV incessantly from a very young age. I was around 8 or 9 when my mother gave me a small color set for my bedroom to help with insomnia (a malady that she shared). My parents' room was about 10 feet away, and I remember synchronizing my TV to hers for the nightly 10 p.m. slot, which is when the "serious" shows would come on. The show that made the greatest impression on me was St. Elsewhere. I was still very new to the form of the TV drama, but already here was something that pushed against that form, that widened the permissible terrain in terms of tone, style and content. Was it a soap opera? Was it an absurdist comedy? Was it a ripped-from-the-headlines serial? Was it a '60s radical lost and acid-tripping the Reagan-era? Did it star both Denzel Washington and Howie Mandel? Yes, yes, yes, yes and oh yes. It was smart and serious TV that didn't take itself seriously, and therefore would still be a welcome addition to this era of show-runners-as-auteurs and recap-conspiracy-theorizing. It took the piss out of itself for its punt of a finale, yet somehow, Obi Wan Kenobi-like, became more powerful for it. Judging from the radically unsatisfying finales of some recent shows, it's a strategy that hasn't been forgotten. 

John Oursler, In Review Online, Sound on Sight

A number of things come to mind, first of which is my mother watching reruns of I Love Lucy when I was a kid and me recognizing even then that something special was happening, or my terribly blue-collar family sitting down to watch Roseanne together. But I think I'll have to go with My So-Called Life. When it aired during the 1994/95 television season I was 14 years old, the same age as the kids on the show. Smart, misunderstood, isolated from my parents, and gay, I felt like there was a piece of me in every one of the characters onscreen. It was the first time I'd seen a gay character shown in such a realistic way (and the depiction still holds up). It perfectly captured all of that hope and ennui that come with being that age during that time period. 

Michael Sicinski, Cinema Scope, Nashville Scene

I grew up in the late '70s and early '80s, so TV time was still family time to a large extent. My parents (my mother, especially) had very definite ideas about what constituted "quality TV" and what was "junk." Three's Company was forbidden in my house; I caught it now and then and thought it was funny but to Mom it was "jiggle TV." Stuff like Battle of the Network Stars that I enjoyed as a 7-year-old was thoroughly disdained. Luckily, I was also precocious enough to really respond to the "good" shows we watched during family time: All in the Family, Maude, Soap, Quincy, and later, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere (a favorite of mine), and a now-forgotten Tony Randall show called Love, Sidney, which my mom appreciated mostly because it was one of the first shows to deal obliquely but respectfully with an older gay man. But the granddaddy of them all -- and the first show I recognized as Something Serious -- was M*A*S*H. And not just any episodes, mind you. I was clearly and firmly instructed in taste. The earlier episodes ("the Frank Burns years") were good but "silly;" Larry Gelbart and company (so said my mom) had not established enough clout with CBS to make the kind of show they really wanted to, and the real M*A*S*H only kicked in around Season 6 or 7. Episodes more clearly began to gravitate around Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and to a lesser extent B.J. (Mike Farrell) as the moral center of the the show's universe, and I intuitively knew I was watching a "dramedy" avant la lettre. So in a way, I not only learned how to take TV seriously with M*A*S*H, but perhaps more importantly, how to make critical distinctions about a pop culture artifact. By the way, I've never gone back and watched those old episodes. I think it would be like repeating the first grade.

Todd VanDerWerff, A.V. Club

The first TV series I took seriously was Picket Fences. Now, much of this was because I was 12 years old and wanted to watch a show that would make me feel "smart," but David E. Kelley's first "Created by" credit went to this weird little show, and I couldn't get enough of it or of his writing. Watched now, it's kind of silly to think I was as into the show as I was, but the way it wrapped up everything in a court case that tackled a political issue of the day was thought-provoking for lil' me.

Robert Greene, Hammer to Nail

There's a moment in season two of Northern Exposure when Joel stops a sure-to-be-fatal gun duel by stepping out of character and breaking the fourth wall to plead for sanity. He derides the ridiculousness of the whole drama by citing the "sophisticated" viewers out there in the real world who knew no one was going to die in a popular prime time network comedy. Many of the main characters weigh in on the sudden conundrum (with each response brilliantly strengthening our understandings of them) and they finally decide to move on to the next scene. It was a sudden, showy, hilarious and ludicrous moment that told me at 15 that television could blow my mind. But I can't say the feeling has lasted. Except for The Wire, which I adore absurdly, I've found the current TV renaissance to be as unrewarding as every other revival, no matter how frantically the critics wave their remotes. Admittedly, I need to give more of it a chance, and I certainly feel like something is happening, but I'd really rather be in a movie theater most of the time. Unless it's pro wrestling.

Mike D'Angelo, Las Vegas Weekly, A.V. Club

Embarrassing to admit, but the show that finally turned me around on TV (which I hadn't watched with any regularity for a decade or more at the time) was 24. Not because it was so mightily complex, obviously -- I watched the first season, at my Dad's house over Christmas vacation, more or less the way one reads an airport novel: quickly and guiltily. But my primary beef with dramatic series TV was its episodic nature, in which every week featured its own self-contained mini-story that wrapped up neatly in 43 minutes. 24 was the first show I happened to watch that was explicitly a serial work, with episodes that function more like a novel's chapters. (Even post-conversion, I have real trouble with case-of-the-week shows like Justified and Veronica Mars.) And that's what I wanted all along, it turns out.

Eric D. Snider, Twitch Film, MovieBS

My first appreciation for the potential genius of episodic television was Soap, the half-hour sitcom spoof of soap operas that ran from 1977-81. I saw it when it came to syndication in about 1986, when I was 12, and was instantly struck by its brilliance. Here was a show that was funny, farcical, and satirical, and that followed multiple interlocking story lines, and that featured characters I cared about. It could be hilarious in one scene, sweet or sad in the next. I noticed that only one writer, Susan Harris, was credited for almost every episode, and I pondered the possibilities of a show that had one consistent driving vision behind it. I studied the way she'd construct scenes in such a way that they'd progress the plot while also giving the characters something funny to do. When I discovered that the series ended with multiple cliffhangers that could never be resolved, I was devastated. Still one of the best sitcoms that ever aired. 

Television
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1 Comment

  • Edward Copeland | July 30, 2013 3:15 PMReply

    There were plenty of quality shows that I obsessed about growing up, but the first TV show that actually fit what your question is asking would have to be Hill Street Blues. Even know, I'd keep it on the list of the best TV series of all times.

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