News & Politics

10 TV Shows You Have to Watch to Understand the World

The master lineup of iconic shows that shaped our pop-culture landscape.

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'.

The prime time soap opera known for its outrageous end-of-season cliffhangers (people get shot, return from the dead, fall out of buildings) was one of the most-watched shows on TV (especially the cliffhanger episodes), which makes it useful if you want to talk about capitalism-gone-wild.

I was rarely allowed to watch TV as a kid, but somehow, my family turned "the box" (as it was called) on for a weekly Dallas guilty-pleasure hour. And because of the tiny TV ration and the fact that my parents moved to North America from the UK, Dallas was one of my only windows into the extremes of US pop culture, and arguably, the one that gave me a consuming fascination for it. (Maybe you shouldn't watch.) 

4. M*A*S*H* (1972-1983)

M*A*S*H* is really about how to live through a (pointless) war: Their weapons of choice were humor, gin, sex and critical thought. And M*A*S*H* was as much about the Korean War it ostensibly portrayed as it was about the Vietnam War (still in progress at the beginning of the show's run), and others, um, that are going on right now.

The series, based on real stories, covered a three-year military conflict, but lasted 11 seasons. So captivating was the show to American audiences that the finale was the most-watched television episode  in U.S. TV history, and the reruns still air here and around the world.

There are so many current pop-culture references to this show, including Sesame Street character Big Bird's teddy bear, whose name is Radar. But maybe its more lasting cultural effect is making a war critic, Hawkeye Pierce (played by Alan Alda), into a national and sex hero.

5. Melrose Place (the original; 1992-1999)

Melrose Place was an over-the-top adult, evening soap opera that followed the lives and loves of a group of eight 20-somethings who lived in an apartment complex in Los Angeles.

If you think today's period of extended adolescence is long, you have Melrose Place to thank/ blame for at least some of it. It also took the catfight to a new level, along with bitching and backstabbing. But it was also one of the first shows to include a well-liked, socially accepted gay character.

It's arguably the '90s equivalent of The Hills. But it's not just the nostalgia making me think "Mel" has more substance to its early 20-something sex and angst. 

6. Miami Vice (1984-1989)

Miami Vice was on the airwaves at the same time as Murder, She Wrote. So it's no wonder it seduced audiences with its then-revolutionary MTV feel. It was, in fact, heralded as "MTV Cops" due to its constantly pulsing rock music (the first show to broadcast in stereophonic sound), quick cuts, dialogue-free scenes set to music, and focus on fashion and style. People magazine credited it with being "the first show to look really new and different since color TV was invented," and while that's tabloid-style exaggeration, there is something compelling about the pastel hues and stylized crime. The show, in fact, turned Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas into style icons here and abroad, and strongly influenced '80s fashion.

But it was also based on the new heights (depths?) of drug culture in the U.S., Miami in particular, examined non-fictionally in Cocaine Cowboys.

7. Sex and the City (1999-2004)

Other than popularizing overpriced high heels, Sex and the City popularized the discussion about women's experience of sex and their changing social and career expectations and choices. That's probably why, although the show wrapped half a decade ago, I hear it referenced more frequently than most shows still in production. In a nail salon down the street from me, it plays on a loop.

Set in New York City's Manhattan, it followed the lives of four women in their 30s and early 40s at the beginning of the series.

Some dismiss the show for being too crude. Others see it as an example of feminist triumphs. Still others see it as a feminist failure -- that women's empowerment is tied to their ability to buy shoes, clothes and beauty treatments and to attract a powerful and suitable mate. 

8. Star Trek (1966-1969)

Oh, sci-fi. Although fans are often taken for a bunch of geeky kooks (and if you go to a convention, it's pretty hard to draw any other conclusion), when it first aired, Star Trek was pretty radical. With its collection of ethnically diverse characters (wearing very tight clothes -- short skirts and high-heeled boots for the women) it had a highly progressive political agenda in almost every episode.

And as for its lasting effects? The Star Trek franchise's "technologies" have influenced the design of many real products. It seemed like magic when they talked into a phone without wires, and yet, that now looks remarkably similar to the one in my bag. (And apparently the MRI is based on Dr. McCoy's diagnostic table). There's the expression, "Beam me up, Scotty," which I have to admit, friends of mine still say. And then there's the fact that NASA named its prototype space shuttle, Enterprise, after the fictional starship. 

9. Twin Peaks (1990-1991)

What could be steamier than the unsolved murder of a teen homecoming queen, a hot special agent investigator and supernatural forces? The real tragedy is that the psychological thriller got ruined halfway through the second season when, in response to a ratings decline, the show revealed the killer and thereby wrecked several of the other good, long-running plot lines. Viewership fell off almost completely, and the show was canceled. Peaks mania peaked early, unlike in many of today's five-season dramas.

But the show had a cult following and is still often considered one of the best shows of all times.

In addition to its dark sexiness, the show is notable for portraying teens not just as clichéd stereotypes (like Beverly Hills 90210, which aired at around the same time) but as compelling, dark characters that held real fascination for adult viewers. 

10. X-Files (1993-2002)

Bringing us such slogans as "the truth is out there," "trust no one," and "I want to believe," the X-Files gave viewers sexy FBI agents who tapped into viewers' public mistrust of government and large institutions and seduced them into thinking their dreams could be true. A history profressor repeatedly proclaimed that there is no such thing as a conspiracy, but the X-Files almost had me convinced otherwise.

I know someone who, suffering from a bout of depression, watched all nine seasons. He said it helped cure him. But its more wide-reaching effect is that it brought questions of extraterrestrial life (along with conspiracy and distrust of government) to the pop-culture forefront.

Hey, lots of those Wall Street types seem like aliens to me.

Tyee Contributing Editor Vanessa Richmond writes the Schlock and Awe column about popular culture and the media. She is also the former managing editor of the Tyee.
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