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10 TV Shows That Changed the World

Think the boob tube's not progressive? Think again.

Constantly derided as the "boob tube,” television is often seen as a brain cell killer—or, as this vintage Disposable Heroes of Hip-Hoprisy song quaintly put it, a “cathode ray nipple” and “the drug of the nation.”

Certainly, sometimes the wide selection of humanity-degrading reality shows can make TV seem like some kind of cynical government propaganda project, crafted to dumb us down until we attain a real-life Idiocracy. But as any media analyst will tell you, TV is still one of America’s most important mediums for mass communication.

Since it really took off in the 1950s, lots of directors, writers and producers have used the scripted format to push progressive ideas and help mold the country into a better, more accepting place—game-changing television. So while you might be concerned at the preponderance of programming that panders to our basest instincts for ratings and ad dollars, here are 10 really good reasons for progressives to flick on the set—or at least the DVD player.

1. Star Trek

In 1966, Gene Roddenberry’s popular sci-fi novels were developed into a television show that would translate its promise to “boldly go where no man had gone before” into a mission to make cultural inroads. “Star Trek” used its themes of alien life to reflect the civil rights movement, and at times, the burgeoning feminist movement, all through one of the first-ever multicultural casts on television (along with a Vulcan or two). Captain Kirk and his other-planetary sidekick Spock helmed the Starship Enterprise’s fealty coalition, including Sulu (played by Japanese-American activist George Takei) and Uhura (African American Nichelle Nichols), plus two strong white women (Janice Rand as Grace Whitney and Christine Chapel as Majel Barrett). There was also the Russian, Chekov (Walter Koenig), and the infamous Scottish Scotty (James Doohan), who were not of color but were allowed to kept their native accents (it was 1966, throw them a bone). Together, they were fearless, facing grave dangers and unknown worlds.

But they were not just space explorers. As Gene Roddenberry once said, “I have no belief that 'Star Trek' depicts the actual future. It depicts us, now, things we need to understand about that.” Its presumably far-fetched sci-fi tales were actually allegories for the struggles of the time, but it did envision a better future. Uhura was black and a woman but respected as an equal; Sulu was one of the bravest fighters on the ship, and the helmsman of the USS Enterprise. In one oft-cited, groundbreaking episode aired in 1969, "Star Trek" tried to examine the nature of racism by depicting an alien race with half-black, half-white faces (literally split down the middle) that discriminated against those whose color sides were reversed, and vice versa. Committed to their discrimination, engaged in endless race war, they led Kirk to muse that “all that mattered to them was their hate.”

"Star Trek" also boasts the first-ever interracial kiss on national television, between William Shatner’s Captain Kirk and Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura. That was in November 1967—five months after the United States Supreme Court struck down all 16 anti-miscegenation laws in the country.

2. Ellen

Ellen Degeneres is now known as a popular talk show host whose ratings approached Oprah’s by the end of Winfrey’s run. But in 1997, she was a former standup comedian turned sitcom star (in "Ellen") who still hadn’t emerged from the closet. That all changed, in a Februrary ‘97 episode of Oprah, in which Ellen the person revealed her sexual orientation and set the climate for Ellen’s eponymous character to come out, too.

Degeneres’ personal confession was instrumental in the cultural shift that the ‘90s wrought—her portrait was splashed across the cover of Time with the jovial headline, “Yep, I’m Gay”—but her character’s moment broke TV ground, too. In “The Puppy Episode,” Degeneres’ character came out to her therapist (played, of course, by Winfrey), after being sexually attracted (and in denial) to another lesbian (played by Laura Dern). The show was canceled in 1998—but two months after its last episode, “Will and Grace,” a show about a gay male lawyer and his straight woman best friend, debuted. It hasn’t been gay-straight utopia in TV-land since then, but inroads have been made in the form of "thirtysomething" (the first TV program to show two men in bed together), "My So-Called Life" (featuring a semi-out high schooler), and "Ugly Betty." Speaking of which....