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125 YEARS / HOLLYWOOD -- COMMEMORATIVE EDITION

Stars of the living room

TV Milestones

May 21, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Possibly because less money is spent to produce it, television is still considered film's poor relation. And yet even a badly rated TV show might be seen by an audience bigger than that for a moderately successful independent film. And where hit films may certainly influence what other sorts of movies get made, hit shows, which go on week after week, work into the social fabric and change the way people live, or at least how they schedule their day. TV being the fantastically various medium it is, there is no way to number even a fraction of the shows that have altered its course, but here are 10 of inarguable influence. (I'm not sure what it means that many of them originated from or are set in New York, but the fact that they're almost all comedies is certainly a matter of my own taste.)

*

I Love Lucy

1951-57

The mother of them all. Ground zero for three-camera comedy, and the fact that it was shot on film (in a time when television was all either live or poor-quality kinescopes) means that show looks as good today as it ever did -- better, since TVs have improved. (Film allowed Lucille Ball, above, and husband Desi Arnaz to make the show in Hollywood, which began TV's westward shift of operation.) It is perpetually in reruns, another form it pioneered. And because the humor is elemental, which is not to say elementary, the show will still be funny in 3006, if anyone still has a sense of humor.

The Ed Sullivan Show

1948-71

Based in the Times Square theater that David Letterman now occupies, erstwhile showbiz columnist Sullivan -- the face, voice and hunch that launched a thousand impersonations -- hosted what amounted to a really high-class vaudeville show, drawing from the safely certified high arts to the breakout low: ballet, opera, theater, stand-up comedy, puppets, Muppets, pop singers, rock bands (including the Beatles, above), soul groups. The television equivalent of playing the Palace, it was an institution, a weekly date, a family-friendly gathering spot whose Something for Everyone spirit also meant that whatever mattered arrived there, and arriving there meant that it mattered.

Candid Camera

1949, and on and off until

the present

Everybody is a star. The idea that the behavior of ordinary people, especially under stress, is not only entertaining but even deeply revealing is at the root of all reality TV. A line can be drawn from Allen Funt's hidden-camera show not only to such obvious inheritors as "Taxicab Confessions" and "Punk'd," but to "America's Funniest Home Videos" and "Cops," and to "The Real World" and all its various progeny, from "Survivor" and "Big Brother" to "Black.White" and "Project Runway."

The Tonight Show

1954-present

Colonized and settled the time beyond prime time. Especially under its third host, Johnny Carson (succeeding Steve Allen and Jack Paar), above, it was practically synonymous with late-night TV and most everything that appeared on competing networks after 11:30 p.m. was defined in relation to it, in imitation or, less often, opposition. Celebrity interview shows were nothing new, but its particular mix of smart talk -- especially in the days before it became merely an annex of studio publicity departments -- and vicarious party-going was especially friendly, while its nightly succession of events (monologue, shtick with Ed and Doc, hierarchical procession of guests) gave it the heft of ritual.

Sesame Street

1969-present

The founding of the PBS entertainment- educational complex and also the show that moved children's TV from the soft and magical reaches of vague play lands to somewhere that, wherever it was exactly, was definitely New York. Multicultural, loud and funky, splashy, smart and a little psychedelic. (Grace Slick originally sang the numbers.) And its stars -- Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, the ubiquitous Elmo -- are the rival of any the medium has created.

Saturday Night Live

1975-present

SNL's step forward was a step back to the wild halcyon days of live television when anything might happen: It was to be a "Your Show of Shows" for the stoned and ironical post-Woodstock generation and became a kind of Noah's ark for sketch comedy when the prime-time network variety shows died, carrying the form to such later practitioners as Ben Stiller and Dave Chappelle. The show has long since become a tradition, which status has carried it over many a dry patch, and its effect on film comedy has been, for better and sometimes for worse, thorough and ongoing.

The Simpsons

1989-present

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