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

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire July 29, 2013 at 9:10AM

Critics talk about the first television show they were moved to take seriously.
1
Freaks

Brian Tallerico, Hollywood Chicago, Film Threat

I was 14 years old in 1990, a TV year in which a kid my age still enjoyed shows like Alf, Who's the Boss?, and, of course, must-see TV on Thursday nights with legendary comedies like The Cosby Show and Cheers. Even the dramas of the day like L.A. Law and MacGyver weren't exactly "serious TV." And then April 8, 1990 happened and a program premiered that was deadly serious and truly unique -- Twin Peaks. There had never been anything like it on TV and there really hasn't been anything like it since. Shows like The Sopranos are copied on a monthly basis but David Lynch's creation kind of stands alone in its sheer oddity. While 2013 is undeniably a better year for TV than 1990, I wish we had a show like Twin Peaks that was truly shattering expectations of the form again.

Gary Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

Growing up with television, I always took it seriously. How else would I have learned sarcasm, except from watching sitcoms and game shows in my formative years? I think the first show I never missed an episode of was The Brady Bunch, in part because it played in endless reruns after school when I was a kid. But the show that really got me thinking about TV seriously was The Simpsons. I didn't watch it when it first came on, but one night I caught the episode of Bart being caught in the well. It wowed me, and I was hooked for years. I honestly don't watch much TV now, and  can claim I have only have been a rabid fan of the short lived Jay Mohr series Action! and Arrested Development since then. I'm still stuck on Season 3, ep. 6 of Mad Men; and have been in the middle of Season 3 of White Collar for a while. I'm a completist, so hard for me to maintain the rigors of many shows. We'll see how I do when Elementary returns in the fall.

Scott Weinberg, FEARnet

Like many movie geeks, I'm a tongue-in-cheek "snob" when it comes to television programming, but of course that's just for fun. If we're including basic and pay cable channels, it's staggering how much (potential) quality is out there. Most of the network programming is, let's be honest, crap, but television also produced Firefly, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Breaking Bad and Arrested Development. I won't compare TV to film, but those are some phenomenal TV programs.

Edwin Arnaudin, AshVegas

As a middle schooler hooked on John Grisham novels, The Practice was mandatory viewing.  The "trial and verdict per week" formula may seem simplistic in the age of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but at the time it was riveting.

Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder, Press Play

The death of actor Dennis Farina earlier this week brings this most underrated TV show to mind. In 1986 Michael Mann used the capital he had earned from producing the hit Miami Vice to make a tougher sell, a serialized period cops-and-robbers saga called Crime Story. Revolving around Farina's Chicago police detective, Mike Torello, and his pursuit of a quickly rising crime boss, Ray Luca (Anthony Denison), Crime Story lasted only two seasons, mostly because of NBC's haphazard scheduling. But go back and look at it. Everything cable shows like The Sopranos would become known for can be found in Crime Story: morally complex characters, a strong sense of place (it was shot on location in Chicago and Las Vegas), a period-appropriate soundtrack, cinematic framing and lighting by film directors like Bill Duke, Abel Ferrara, Leon Ichaso and Mann himself. Crime Story had a noir-ish sensibility and grittiness that has never been duplicated. It really made the case for the virtues of the kind of long-form storytelling that was yet to come.

Daniel Carlson, Pajiba

Freaks and Geeks. When the series premiered in the fall of 1999, I was entering my senior year of high school. I watched the show with a mixture of love and horror and fascination: Here were sad stories, well told, that looked so much like the teenage world I couldn't wait to escape. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s meant seeing a lot of really creatively stale TV, especially when your parents don't have movie channels. But Freaks and Geeks looked and sounded different from anything I'd seen before. It was funnier and sweeter and more heartbreaking than any series I'd ever seen, and the fact that I was the same as these kids gave it even more weight. For me, this was the show that kicked off what a billion other critics have called the modern golden age of TV, and it's still one of the best examples of how to tell a great television story with honesty and heart.

Mike McGranahan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

The first TV show I took seriously was Saturday Night Live. When I was in middle school, NBC started re-running episodes featuring the original cast in prime time. The show's edgy, topical humor was revelatory to me. Even if I didn't always get all the jokes, I could sense that they were frequently pushing boundaries. That made me sit up and take notice. Those early SNL seasons changed the way I viewed comedy. My taste for kiddie humor and "easy" jokes in movies/TV disappeared, and a fondness for more risky comedy emerged. Of course, SNL has lost most, if not all, of its danger since then, but those original seasons (with Chase, Belushi, Aykroyd, Radner, Murray, et al.) remain captivating television.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit

For me, the show that did it for me was Band of Brothers.  At that point I was new to HBO and still thought of television mainly as where I watch the Mets play, but that miniseries showed me that the small screen could be just as awe inspiring and attention grabbing as the big screen.  I still don't watch a whole lot of TV (though whenever Aaron Sorkin creates a new show, I'm sure to watch), but I always look to get that same feeling that I had that first time.

Mark Young, Sound on Sight, The New York Movie Klub

The first show I can remember taking seriously was ER, which debuted during my teenage years. Looking back, the show turned into a primetime soap opera with astonishing speed, but during that first season or two it seemed more intense than anything else I had ever watched (whereas the competing Chicago Hope seemed like every other doctor show I'd ever seen). Also, of all the TV I was watching at the time, ER went "widescreen" first, making it seem bigger and more movie-like than any other show.

Danny Bowes, RobertEbert.com, Tor.com

Wiseguy

I'm going to go back a little farther than some and stretch the definition of "serious" a bit and go with Wiseguy. I was just slightly too young to catch it when it first aired, but when it re-ran in syndication a couple years after (somewhere around 1993, if memory serves), I devoured it, and the show's always had a place in the dearest part of my heart. But the point at which it stopped just being a fun gangster show was in the culmination of the show's first major story arc (another of Wiseguy's innovations: multi-episode storylines the likes of which are de rigueur now, 25 years ago). Undercover federal agent Ken Wahl reveals his true identity to gangster Ray Sharkey, whose ultimate trust he's spent the last dozen or so episodes winning, prior to having to arrest him. They beat the shit out of each other because Ray Sharkey doesn't want to go to jail (and he eventually electrocutes himself rather than be taken alive), and afterward, when they're both in too much pain to move, they sit across the room they've just destroyed in the fight and stare into each other's heartbroken eyes, as "Nights in White Satin" plays. I was a young teenager at the time, so my reaction was "Wow, that was as good as a movie!" Now, I'd just say "Wow, that was great cinema!"

John Keefer, 51 Deep

I can't recall a particular moment when TV seemed like it could be more than "TV".  The Wonder Years touched me in a way that I found most TV didn't.  Roseanne seemed much more like real life than anything else I'd seen on TV.  And I always and will continue to hold I Love Lucy and Batman '66 in the highest regard.  I fear that taking TV seriously nowadays is the result of nudity, blood, cursing, and the look afforded by upgrades in digital technology. But to answer the question Mad Men quickly followed by Breaking Bad.  The Wire and The Sopranos were on when American film still felt like film to me so they don't count.

Anne-Katrin Titze, Eye for Film

I first took TV seriously with the Swedish series Pippi Longstocking and appreciated the adaptation to learn important life lessons. Astrid Lindgren's books were read to me and seeing them come to life contributed a deeper meaning. From Béla Tarr's Turin Horse (Friedrich Nietzsche and Pippi have something in common) to my exchange last week with Nicolas Winding Refn bout Only God Forgives and Nordic storytelling, Pippi Longstocking has to be reckoned with. She cleans the house by skating with brushes tied to her feet and fights for justice. The freckled nine-year old, albeit the strongest girl in the world, who lives alone with her horse "Little Uncle" and Mr. Nilsson, her Capuchin monkey, parentless in an old villa impresses in many ways. 

Jeff Berg, Local IQ, Las Cruces Bulletin

This will really show my age, but when I was a kid, the WWII show with Vic Morrow, Combat!, was the show that really changed my thoughts on TV, even back then. I've watched some of the shows again over the least couple of years and they are still powerful and timely. I also love the brief run of The Monroes, but that was because a) I wanted to move to Wyoming so badly and b) Barbara Hershey was the first woman I wanted to sleep with when I was in high school.

Piers Marchant, Sweet Smell of Success

My answer is split off into two prongs, I'm afraid, because there really were two totally different shows that grabbed me by the lapels and slapped me in the face. Back in 1989, living in a college apartment with a half-dozen other muckety-mucks, I was introduced one Sunday evening to a very early episode of The Simpsons -- specifically Call of the Simpsons from season 1, I believe -- and I took notice because it actually made me laugh out loud, which hadn't happened to me with a TV show since I was 7 and faking being sick so I could stay at home from school and watch syndicated re-runs of Gilligan's Island and Bewitched all day. Honestly, it sounds peculiar, but even as I was laughing, I couldn't actually believe something on TV (the same device that had been inundating us with drivel such as Family Matters and Major Dad for eons) could be that smart and subversive.

The second such moment was with a drama, one I viewed shortly after first moving to Philadelphia in the late '90s. I got free HBO for three months and got hooked on a gripping prison drama that went by the name of Oz. The first season was well-written and edgy as hell, and routinely killed off what had seemed like major characters at the drop of a hat. In subsequent seasons, of course, the show lost its edge, and much of its good writing, and became like every other show trapped by the success of its most popular characters. But, back then, I had never seen a TV program lay it on the line like that. Early that next year, The Sopranos debuted. Needless to say, HBO's been getting my monthly subscription fees ever since. 

Jason Shawhan, Nashville Scene, Interface 2037

Friday the 13th: The Series upped the ante for what television could do, at least as I was seeing it.  Viewing it now, I recognize its glorious Canadian-ness. There's something to its pervasive, generic North American-ness that made it perfect for stories of the fantastic and tales of horror and woe. Being from the South, regionalism was simply inescapable, so this elusive and slippery sense of place on Ft13tS (and later, Season One of War of the Worlds) seemed entirely appealing. That producer-mandated nonspecificity let countless grotesqueries slip through into the subconscious (as well as being my first exposure to the work of Cronenberg and Egoyan) and angered lots and lots of parents and fundamentalists. But it began my lifelong fascination with the inherent critique of Canada-as-America, as well as confronting the knee-jerk assumptions I was making about what speech and architecture meant in the representation of a place. Plus gore and big hair. The horror anthology series remains dear to my heart, but somehow, Tales from the Crypt never did it for me. And that was one of my first lessons in just how far genre loyalty would take me. 

Much respect is also due the Chuckles Bites the Dust episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and that sequence in Millennium where a character's descent into madness and suicide plays out to Patti Smith's "Land." Of course, there's also Twin Peaks. And the episode of The X-Files ("The Pine Bluff Variant") that deals with a domestic terrorist group who uses poisoned money in a movie theatre still messes with me every time I go to the movies.

Andrew Welch, In Review Online

The first show that spoke to me in a complex way was Freaks and Geeks. I was in high school when it premiered on NBC, so I was good in a place to identify with both the characters and their world, despite its 1980s setting. Sam, Lindsay and all the rest were able to say and do things I didn't feel I could, giving me a chance for catharsis or vicarious experience. I was sad at the time that it didn't get renewed, but now I think it was a blessing in disguise; it's a perfect, one season show. And with it now streaming on Netflix, it's finally getting the appreciation it's always deserved.

Miriam Bale, New York Times, Fandor

Late Night with David Letterman, Twin Peaks and Curb Your Enthusiasm, though I am not convinced that TV is a more a "serious art form" now than it's been in the past. (I also think it used to be more diverse & progressive, which was nice.) But what interests me in film isn't primarily narrative, and so much of the critical interest in current TV seems based on story. If an episode ends on a cliffhanger, isn't that essentially a form of soap opera? And I like soap operas, but I prefer them trashy & Mannerist. Or I prefer something to subvert and  illuminate these narrative expectations, like Out 1 (my first experience with binge watching a serial) or Twin Peaks, a mystery that lost track of its solution. I don't know if any show has been as daring as Curb Your Enthusiasm was in being willing to have an entire season of mostly duds, but which all built up to a comic payoff in a finale about Larry David living with the Blacks. (I once had a dream that combined this Curb white guilt post-Katrina plotline with Beasts of the Southern Wild.)

Computer Chess

What is the best movie playing in theaters right now?

Computer Chess

Other films receiving multiple votes: Before MidnightThe Act of KillingFrances HaOnly God ForgivesPacific RimBlue JasmineViola

This article is related to: Criticwire Survey, Criticwire TV


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