80. Little Britain (BBC, 2003-2006)
“Britain, Britain, Britain!” Every episode of Little Britain opens with that regal intro, voiced by legendary actor (and fourth Doctor Who) Tom Baker, but that’s as serious as the show ever gets. From there, Little Britain is a series of skits focused on the common, the outrageous, the eccentric and the truly hideous within the Motherland’s borders, all played masterfully by David Walliams and Matt Lucas. The brilliance of Little Britain lays not just in the ability to exaggerate a personality trait that would otherwise blend into a crowd into something drop dead funny, but also keep just enough humanity within the portrayal that viewers are even more horrified (and amused) by the caricature on display in front of them. Whether it’s a facilitator of a Weight Watchers-type support group who demeans the group’s members, a mentally disturbed woman urinating into a duck pond (with ducks still present), or an overweight wheelchair-bound (by choice?) friend who takes advantage of his caretaker in shameless ways, Little Britain walks the line between blasphemy and hilarity in such a genius way that its model may never be fully duplicated (as the US attempt at a remake proved). (John Hill)
79. Sports Night (ABC, 1998-2000)
Before there was The Newsroom, before Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and before The West Wing, there was Sports Night, Aaron Sorkin’s close to perfect, gone-too-soon comedy about life behind the scenes at a nightly sports-highlights show very much like ESPN’s SportsCenter. (Think 30 Rock, but even more sophisticated.) Sports Night didn’t have broad humor or one-liners; execs at ABC were so baffled that they (foolishly) added a laugh track to early episodes. What it did have was an all-star cast that included Felicity Huffman, Joshua Malina, Peter Krause, Josh Charles, and Benson himself, Robert Guillaume doing what Sorkin characters do best: delivering lightning-quick, literate, culturally aware, emotionally charged dialogue that often involved epic bouts of one-upmanship and/or climaxed in a sanctimonious monologue. When it was great — as in the classic poker game episode when Huffman’s Dana kept exclaiming “shoe money tonight!” and Malina’s Jeremy and Sabrina Lloyd’s Natalie settled a personal dispute — there were few shows better than it on TV. Few shows today even try to touch it.
78. Saved by the Bell (NBC, 1989-1993)
A staple of Saturday mornings for the duration of my high school career (which paralleled the high school careers of the main characters,) “Saved by the Bell” didn’t feature top-notch acting, or great storylines, or…well, it was a pretty shitty show, actually. But it was our pretty shitty show, and what the hell did we know from storylines or acting back then? All we knew was that Zack Morris and his crew delivered the laughs for four years (five, if you count “The College Years”) with storylines that didn’t talk down to their teenage audience. The six principal members of the cast covered every high school archetype: aside from cool kid Zack, there was dumb jock A.C. Slater, independent woman Jessie Spano, fashion plate Lisa Turtle, hot chick Kelly Kapowski, and uber-geek Samuel “Screech” Powers. Although Screech wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the cool kids in a real high school, the six kids on the show had a certain chemistry that made the plots somewhat plausible.
Zack got into trouble — a lot. Zack and Kelly broke up and got back together — a lot. The kids formed a band called The Zack Attack and had a song called “Friends Forever.” Screech went from a somewhat scrawny nerd to the white Urkel, and Mr. Belding served as the most easily duped principal in the history of television. Their high school graduation should have marked the end of the show, but the cast gamely tried to continue into college (and got cancelled after less than one season) and then Screech went back to the mothership with a brand new class and eventually worked his way up to assistant principal of Bayside High. The fact that I know all of this stuff means that “Saved By the Bell” was a pretty sizable cultural touchstone for those of us who were born at the tail end of Generation X. It might also mean that something is very wrong with me, but we’ll leave that alone for now. (Big Money)
77. The Facts of Life (NBC, 1979-1988)
It didn’t take long for Charlotte Rae’s Mrs. Garrett character (from “Diff’rent Strokes”) to get her own spinoff. Barely one season after being introduced as the Drummonds’ housekeeper, Mrs. G jumped ship to Eastland Prep School in Peekskill, NY. There, she presided over a motley crew of young girls as the dietitian. The first season featured a gaggle of ladies-in-training (including Molly Ringwald) and the show didn’t hit its groove until many of the girls were jettisoned; leaving Mrs. Garrett with spoiled rich girl Blair Warner, chubby and jolly Natalie Green, and impish Dorothy (Tootie) Ramsey, played in all her braces-wearing, roller-skating glory by Kim Fields.
Also at the top of Season 2, Nancy McKeon joined as Jo (I’m not gonna spell her last name here,) a tomboyish tough-talking gal from The Bronx. For the next eight seasons, the four got into adventures big and small, with the occasional “very special” episodes like the one where Natalie became the first of the girls to lose her virginity. As the show progressed and the girls matured, they graduated from Eastland and went into business with Mrs. G. First, there was the bake shop “Edna’s Edibles,” and then when that place was lost to a fire (in another very special episode) there was Over Our Heads, a precursor to…Urban Outfitters? They also ran into their fair share of superstars (in Peekskill??) like Jermaine Jackson and El DeBarge.
By the end of the show’s run, Mrs. Garrett had been replaced by Cloris Leachman, George Clooney joined the cast as a handyman, and there were not one, but two younger characters; Andy (played by Mackenzie Astin) and Australian Pippa (portrayed by Sherrie Krenn.) The girls have gotten back together for reunions periodically, proving that the warmth you saw on screen was reflected in real life, as well. (Big Money)
76. Diff’rent Strokes (NBC, 1978-1985, ABC, 1985-1986)
75. Murphy Brown (CBS, 1988-1998)
Murphy Brown brought “Girl Power” to primetime television. She was strong, a hard-hitting journalist, a recovering alcoholic, a breast cancer survivor, a single mom (anyone else remember Dan Quayle’s 1991 presidential election speech when he mentioned an issue he had with the fictional Brown being a single mom?), controversial and hilarious. She was the modern-day woman before it was cool.
The series won two Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series and Candice Bergen won five Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for her role as Brown. She and Mary Tyler Moore hold the record for most Lead Actress Emmys with five. (KJ)
74. The Flintstones (ABC, 1960-1966)
73. Family Guy (Fox, 1999-present)
“Family Guy” has become so reviled over the years that it is, at times, difficult to remember what a revolutionary show it was at one time. Sure, the animated sitcom has devolved into yawning shock humor that seems to get more dunderheaded with each passing season. Sure, “Family Guy” has been overshadowed in every way by creator Seth MacFarlane’s follow-up project “American Dad!”, a show that’s arguably sustained a higher level of quality than “Family Guy” for longer. And yet, if the show’s latter-day sins have soured you on the idea of including it on a list like this, think back for a second to the show that existed before it was cancelled (and subsequently resurrected by rabid fan demand and record-breaking DVD sales). This show was untouchable. It had a snappy, intelligent wit, heavy on pop-culture both mainstream and obscure; it cut away from the action for a series of wildly funny tangents; it was often taboo-shattering in a time where “South Park” cornered the market on cartoons behaving badly. (Hard to believe, considering that the earlier episodes almost seem tame in the parade of AIDS, abortion, murder, and ethnic jokes we’ve become accustomed to in the last few years, but it’s true.)
And even after its resurrection, “Family Guy” remained funny for a spell, churning out the sporadic classic episode for several seasons after rebirth. Even now, it’s hard to resist the allure of one of “Family Guy”‘s fabled “Road To…” episodes, which rely on the show’s best possible character pairing — homicidal-turned-homoerotic British baby Stewie and talking dog-slash-MacFarlane mouthpiece Brian — to escape the show’s home town of Qhahog for a spell. In its best moments, there’s even a quaint, innocent charm lurking beneath the show’s acidic exterior — MacFarlane’s love for show tunes and insistence on authenticity is infectious, and those musical moments are often droll, charismatic, and terrifically funny. So before you pause to remind us that Peter’s too stupid, the family’s hatred for outcast daughter Meg too dogged, and the cutaways too drawn-out, remember how much “Family Guy” used to succeed when it deployed these things in moderation. (Drew)
72. Bewitched (ABC, 1964-1972)
Sure, rope-a-dope husband Darren Stevens did his best to get Samantha to give up witchcraft. But like clockwork, Samantha sooner or later wiggled her nose in every episode–often at the egging of mother Endora (a role cast perfectly with Agnes Moorehead). Merging a suburban housewife with witchcraft was a smart, novel twist to the family sitcom genre. Sure, this novelty soon wore out its welcome and was as formulaic and predictable as other sitcom cliches, but for a few good seasons, Bewitched was delightfully entertaining. In hindsight, the show was also arguably rather progressive in its portrayal of female characters (as an excellent analysis over at the A.V. Club suggests). But the most lasting contribution that Bewitched made to the genre was the old swap-in-a-new-actor/actress-
71. Sanford & Son (NBC, 1972-1977)
“Elizabeth, I’m coming to join you!”
Standup comedian Redd Foxx became an icon with this Norman Lear adaptation of British comedy “Steptoe & Son.” In it, he played Fred G. Sanford. Fred was the owner of a junkyard in South Central Los Angeles. He maintained the junkyard with his more sensible (but still girl crazy) son LaMont (played by Demond Wilson.) The father & son hijinks would’ve been enough to make for a great show, but when you add in supplementary characters like Grady (portrayed in all his goofy glory by Whitman Mayo) and the immortal Aunt Esther (Lawanda Page,) you’ve got a classic on your hands. Holy roller Aunt Esther and irascible Fred lived to go at each others’ throats, and their jibes back and forth are the stuff of legend (“you fish-eyed fool!.) The supporting cast was so strong that they even survived a good chunk of the season when Foxx walked off the set following a contract dispute. I’ve also got to give props to one of the best sitcom themes of all time-courtesy of Quincy Jones. To riff off of one of Fred G. Sanford’s more memorable recurring lines, the “G” stands for “Great!” (Big Money)
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