10 TV Shows You Have to Watch to Understand the World
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When we need a break from the tyranny of reality -- from the forces of injustice and political extremism, Wall Street baddies and corrupt politicians -- there's the sweet escapism only 22 or 42 minutes of scripted life can provide.
It offers a fictional breeze that leaves viewers refreshed, stronger, more savvy. (And it doesn't hurt that on TV, evil has a name and can often be satisfyingly zapped with a little abracadabra or some good old-fashioned wrestling).
Escapism has other benefits as well. Pop-culture literacy is as helpful as historical literacy when it comes to understanding today's world (then leaving the couch to wrestle with real-life villains). And although you might want to peruse the current offerings of the thousand-channel universe, DVD store and download sites, a look to the past, in the form of TV gems from the last few decades, can be just what the doctor ordered.
Look, old TV can be like old jokes -- there's sometimes a best-by date. But old TV can also shine its square, glowing light on today's society. Knowing about Buffy the Vampire Slayer makes you culturally literate in a similar way to Catcher in the Rye. J.R. Ewing from Dallas can be just as instructive as Macbeth or Hamlet.
There are plenty of attempts to list the best TV shows of all time -- some magazines publish one yearly. But this isn't that. This is an admittedly incomplete and subjective list of the 10 sexiest, most stylish shows (that also happen to have cultural significance), because I've noticed they're the ones I hear people talking about the most (go figure).
I'm not suggesting you watch all episodes of every series below -- unless you enjoy pop-culture masochism -- just a few minutes or one episode. Just so that next time someone tells you "the truth is out there," you see the light.
1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
Unless you're a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan (you're rolling your eyes, I know), you probably don't know that Buffy was an ordinary girl with extraordinary powers who completely changed the horror genre and the definition of an action hero. She was the kind of pretty, tiny girl who used to walk down a dark alley … cue scary music and screams. But in Buffy, which still gets exhaustively studied in universities and books, Buffy is the tiny, pretty girl who kills the vampires, ghouls and other evil, then goes home to help her sister (they're orphans) study for a science quiz.
She kicked vampire and sexist butt, and in so doing, became a kind of postfeminist hero(ine) and icon. As the creator, Joss Whedon explained, "The very first mission statement of the show was the joy of female power: having it, using it, sharing it." That's worth 42 minutes.
2. Charlie's Angels (1976-1981)
Three female detectives (Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith and Farrah Fawcett) solved cases, an amazing number of which required them to wear little clothing, dress up or get wet. In fact, USA Today wrote, "The gift the Angels gave to TV was sex, in its purest and simplest form."
Although even at the time the "feminist" aspects of the show were considered shaky (this is no Buffy), and the show was even seen as a setback to the women's movement, it certainly kicked its stiletto heels toward a debate about third-wave feminism -- the idea that women with impeccably blow-dried hair could still be powerful.
3. Dallas (1978-1991)
Dallas is about scheming, unapologetic, unrestrained capitalism and sex. The show revolved around the Ewings, a wealthy, ambitious Texas family in the oil and cattle-ranching industries, who had no qualms about dubious ethics in their pursuit of even more power and riches (sound familiar?). There was lotsa barbequin' and boozin' and dealin' and cheatin' and lyin'.