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10 TV Shows That Changed the World

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

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7. The Simpsons

Bugs Bunny had a lot of war references during the ‘40s (some of which were verging on propaganda and presently hard to find), but the idea of a political cartoon didn’t really hit its stride until Matt Groening’s brilliant "Simpsons," which combined Homer’s id with Lisa’s politically aware screeds and the everpresent commentary on politics and culture. One of its most notable acheivements: early in its run, in 1992, it made an appearance in a presidential re-election speech made by George Bush I, who said America needed to be “more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons.” (Sidebar: barf.) The Simpsons’ retort? An opening sequence featuring a chalkboard with the phrase, “Hey, we’re just like the Waltons. We want the depression to end, too.” Touche!

8. The Mary Tyler Moore Show

You’re gonna make it after all! Even if you’re a single career woman in her 30s in 1970, or so Mary Tyler Moore showed us. Airing at the height of second-wave feminism, the show portrayed the first-ever character of that type, and allowed her a high position at her job, too—she was an associate producer for a television station in Minneapolis. The show dealt with premarital sex, homosexuality, divorce, and other issues in an era that was just starting to open up to such things, and most wonderfully, Betty White played a wild swinger! (As swinging as she could be on TV in 1970, anyway.)

9. The Cosby Show

No, its greatest progressive achievement wasn’t Bill Cosby’s sweaters (although we remain impressed by them). "The Cosby Show" showed a black family in a way that had never before been seen: they were normal, upper-middle-class, stable, occasionally bumbling, and full of love. In the same way "Roseanne" exposed the working class with heart, "The Cosbys" showed America that its stereotypes about African Americans were ridiculous, while at the same time giving all families a structure they could aspire to. And while sometimes Bill’s jokes were corny, that was the point: he was everydad.

10. The Wire

A lot of TV lovers consider this HBO series the greatest show ever made. Not only did it push the artistic format of the series by blurring the line between serialized novel, 13-hour movie and Greek tragedy, it changed the way people conceive of progressive television. It’s completely life-changing, but don’t feel bad if you haven’t seen it; promotion for the show remains woefully word-of-mouth even now, while the Emmys proved their screwed-up priorities by never giving the show a nod during its acclaimed run from 2002-2008.

Based on the real-life experiences of former Baltimore Sun police reporter David Simon and ex-homicide detective Ed Burns, "The Wire" chronicled the disastrous effects of the war on drugs on the streets of Baltimore, mostly through the eyes of cops, drug dealers, politicians, addicts, kingpins, and kids. Through five seasons and interlocking storylines, "The Wire" tackled the corruption of institutions, the decay of journalism and the failure of the school system in unimaginably complex ways. Through it all, it offered a critique and the occasional solution (nearly all of season four deals with harm reduction) that depicts the death of the American dream at the hands of greed and corruption. It sounds depressing, and it is, but it remains as close as we’ll ever get to social truths through the medium.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.