News & Politics

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....

3. Ugly Betty

The American remake of a wildly popular Colombian telenovela, "Ugly Betty" was the first television show to tackle modern immigration issues in prime-time. Centered around a modest Mexican-American family in Queens, the show followed first-generation American Betty Suarez as she worked her way up through a snooty fashion magazine, hoping to attain her dream of becoming a real journalist. As a low-level employee at Mode, she’s treated poorly because she has “no fashion sense” (she wears ponchos and bright colors) and is not thin (she eats regularly). But her integrity and spirit win out over her saboteurs every time—even when her father, portrayed by beloved actor Tony Plana, is deported back to Mexico after having lived in New York for 30 years. Though the style of "Ugly Betty" is modeled after novelas—soapy, campy and blown-up—it had a great heart, and the immigration storyline was excellent in showing the pain families go through when their loved ones who’ve made this country their home are suddenly taken away. (Enact DREAM, people!)

"Ugly Betty" was progressive in other ways, too. Not only was it the first show to (hyper-)realistically portray a normal Mexican-American family, it had several gay characters (including Betty’s 14-year-old nephew Justin, portrayed fearlessly by Mark Indelicato), and dealt extensively with coming out. The series even featured a transgender lead played by Rebecca Romijn, whose character was said to have undergone a sex reassignment. Sadly, "Ugly Betty" was canceled in April 2010.

4. East Side West Side

Cicely Tyson was not only the first black character to star in a primetime show (in 1963), she also broke hair boundaries: she wore her hair in cornrows to portray the secretary of a New York City social worker. "East Side West Side" portrayed urban blight before it hit rock bottom in the Big Apple, airing stories about poverty, statutory rape and prostitution. It was considered a well-written, hard-hitting show, which is ultimately what got it canceled—advertisers were wary of being associated with it, while stations in some Southern states wouldn’t air it. Still, though it only lasted a year, it garnered eight Emmy nominations.

5. Roseanne

Before poor and working-class whites were retooled in the media as Nascar-loving rednecks, there was "Roseanne," a brilliant show about a lovable family in Illinois who made up for their lack of wealth with a preponderance of wit. Not only did it air primetime’s first-ever lesbian kiss (which Roseanne talks about here), it tackled political disenfranchisement and the importance of unions. Plus, Roseanne was the best feminist role model, a strong, take-no-shit beflanneled mom who ran her household with love and, of course, acerbic wit.

6. Murphy Brown

Speaking of feminism, what was in the air in the 1990s? Candace Bergen’s Murphy Brown was the epitome of that decade’s feminist acheivements, when women were making strides as the third wave was roiling. A savvy, hyper-intelligent news anchor, Brown was also a recovering alcoholic whose only male life partner was the housepainter who never seemed to finish his renovations. That didn’t stop her from becoming a mother, though, and the episode in which she gave birth not only included a choice line that referenced the political goings-on of the day (”Several people do not want me to have the baby. Pat Robertson, Phyllis Schlafly, half of Utah!”), it actually sparked real-life national debate, when then Vice-President Dan Quayle criticized the show for making it seem okay for single women to be mothers. Luckily, it is, and Dan Quayle is presently keeping himself out of the limelight somewhere in Arizona.

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.