The greatest TV ever?

Our panel picks: Carol Burnett, "Twin Peaks," "Battle of the Network Stars" and more!


Salon Staff
September 14, 2004 1:40AM (UTC)

Editor's note: Each day this week, we pose a different question to our rotating round table of experts and enthusiasts, who include Miss Alli, of Television Without Pity; Ron Cowen, co-executive producer of "Queer as Folk"; Al Franken, comedian and star of "The Al Franken Show"; Jon Kroll, creator of "Amish in the City"; Phil Rosenthal, creator of "Everybody Loves Raymond"; Spencer Rice, co-creator and star of "Kenny vs. Spenny" on the Game Show Network; Kris Slava, vice president of acquisitions at Trio Network; and Wil Wheaton, "Star Trek" alum and proprietor of Wil Wheaton dot Net.

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What was the best show in the history of television, or which show had the biggest influence on you? And what old show or formula do you wish would return to the small screen?

Miss Alli: The show that influenced me the most was "Moonlighting." There are still large regions of my brain primarily dedicated to "Moonlighting" dialogue storage. That's what I miss, too -- adult romantic comedies. I miss banter. Right now, it's all brooding and alcoholism and death and cute little cupcakes trying to credibly pretend that they're hot for Dennis Franz.

Kroll: I've gotta go with "Twin Peaks." It was so incredibly twisted, and yet so watchable as well. And it shares an odd kinship with reality shows (dramatic pause for horrific scream from D. Lynch) in that you never knew what would happen next. One of the lead characters might die. Or go psycho. Or tie a cherry stem into a knot with her tongue. I'm a firm believer that the growth of reality has been a direct result of the predictability of standard-issue one-hour dramas. While older demographics continued to tune in to those shows because they were comfortable and predictable, younger viewers flocked to "Survivor" and the like because one of the lead characters could "die" (be eliminated) at any moment. And now that reality elimination shows are constructed in such a way that they have become predictable, the onus is on the producers to come up with new ways to challenge and surprise viewers who will not settle for the predictable.

Franken: In all seriousness, "The Simpsons" is the best show in the history of television. The biggest influence on me was "The Dick Van Dyke Show" because Rob Petrie was a comedy writer and the show made comedy writing look like fun. The formula that I wish would return to the small screen is the ban on interracial kissing.

Rosenthal: Oh, there are so many wonderful shows. I couldn't pick one show. For me, "The Honeymooners" was the be all and end all. But that's very subjective and personal. I was in love, and still am in love with that show. I love "The Jackie Gleason Show." I love "The Tonight Show." I can't believe that Jay Leno has that show now. Letterman has been absolutely great. "The Daily Show," "The Sopranos" are great. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was genius. I remember sitting with my family when I was 11 and watching "All in the Family," and just being riveted and learning from it.

Cowen: I loved "The Carol Burnett Show." Those hilarious sketches, the musical numbers. I wish they'd bring back that whole variety format. But somehow I can't picture "The Britney Spears Show."

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Rice: Tough one. I love television. Hmmm. My head will explode over this. I love "The Honeymooners," "The Larry Sanders Show," "Hardball," "The West Wing," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Kenny vs. Spenny," "The Sopranos," "60 Minutes," "Real Time With Bill Maher," "The Andy Griffith Show," "All in the Family," "South Park," "The Simpsons" ... My head just exploded!

Wheaton: I would bring back "Battle of the Network Stars." I would pay $500 to watch the cast of "Will and Grace" play against the cast of "Seventh Heaven" on the Tug of War ... and can you imagine the ratings if you put the Gilmore Girls in the dunk tank? That's a good enough reason for me to get TiVo. And as much as I hate reality TV, I'm convinced that reality TV stars would kick the ever-loving shit out of real actors.

What or who is holding TV back from becoming a medium that embraces originality, quality and/or subtlety?

Franken: I'm not sure, but I think his name is "Ryan Seacrest." Or "Brian." Brian Seacrest, that's the guy.

Miss Alli: Compartmentalization. I think television and its viewers need to move past the great divide between a "quality show," which is often a pedantic bore, and an "entertaining show," which is usually a predictable, brainless drag. Middle ground, people. Oh, and the more extreme elements of fandom, too. If everyone who is in the 99th percentile of being overinvested in "American Idol" and everyone who is in the 99th percentile of being overinvested in "The West Wing" could be sent to live together on one big commune (which I guess would have an elaborate parliamentary system where you would vote by text message), that would be a good start.

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Cowen: McDonald's. The one basic truth about TV is that it is not an entertainment medium. It is an advertising medium. As long as that is the case, the broadcast networks' motto will always be "Billions & Billions Served."

Wheaton: I'd say "the audience," but that's just blaming the victim. I think it's economics. Network television needs to make its advertisers happy by reaching the widest possible audience (see: denominator, lowest common) and that prevents them from taking a lot of risks. The upside of this is that if you like dramas where the audience tries to solve the crime before the characters do, you've currently got an endless supply of material.

Kroll: Viewers. For shows to succeed, viewers have to adopt them quickly and in force. That's just the economics of the business. By drawing big numbers at the outset, "Amish in the City" has been a real game changer for us at New Line. It's made us really fearless about taking on challenging topics and unconventional material. And it's made networks stand up and take note when we pitch that kind of material. We're also doing some extremely unconventional things, both technically and in terms of storytelling, with "Nightmare on Elm Street: Real Nightmares." If the show succeeds, we can continue to try to push the envelope. If not, we'll have missed an opportunity.

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Rice: The same thing that has always held creative work back; safe-minded executives who are afraid of losing their jobs.

Rosenthal: The networks are looking to make money, so they're conservative. Even though the shows they choose may be outrageous, they're conservative in that they're not taking a chance on anything that hasn't worked before. They're making Xeroxes of Xeroxes -- looking for stuff that's been done, or actors who've done it. Shows test well because the test audiences, when they recognize the person, they hit the button that means "I like it!" because they like the person. But nobody watches TV this way. I always say, "Hey, why don't you test the testing?" 99.9 percent of new shows crap out after the second episode on television. Every one of them tested well. What does that tell you? Don't we learn anything? We learn nothing.

What could TV be that it isn't?

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Wheaton: TV can be entertaining, so we can relax and unwind if we'd like, but it can also be thought-provoking and suspenseful, if we're looking for something to stimulate our brains (which -- let's admit it -- are going soft from watching too much TV). But for every purely entertaining show like "Seinfeld" or thought-provoking show like "The West Wing," we get 20 reality shows, which are really just schadenfreude for people who like to watch supermodels eat bugs.

To put entertainment back into television, I would flood the airwaves with '70s variety shows, like "The Brady Bunch," "Variety Hour," or "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour." I'm talking about guys who can balance plates on their heads while they conduct their orchestra full of dogs, and really corny comedy sketches featuring actors dressed as Red Skelton-esque hobo clowns.

Miss Alli: I would produce a show about women whose idea of charm is something other than acting stupid and incompetent. In comedies, smart women are eventually shown to be secretly insecure dimwits, and in dramas, they wind up being beaten up, raped or stalked so that they can be rescued and fall in love with someone in law enforcement or a member of one of the helping professions. I hate that. They need to stop sending the badass women to the emergency room.

Franken: I don't watch much TV other than news anymore, but one thing I would like to see is a show where real people have to do really disgusting things in order to advance in some sort of contest. I'd like that because it would give us an opportunity to learn something important about human nature.

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Kroll: I have a reality elimination show set on Antarctica that I'm dying to do. There is a fascinating culture down on the ice and I haven't given up on making it happen. If I can do it, it will truly be mind-blowing. I can't wait to televise "The Expired Food Challenge," a real event they do down there for fun.

Rosenthal: What could TV be that it isn't now? Good.

I have an animated show that I developed with some friends of mine, called "The Vinyl Café." It's based on the work of Stuart McLean. He's a bestselling author from Canada who writes about a family -- very funny, warm, sweet stories. His is the top radio show in Canada. So this is found material -- someone came to me with the idea of making an animated show, they convinced me to try it, and then CBS let us make half an episode, then they didn't want it.

All the networks pay lip service to family entertainment, and then when you give it to them, you find that what they mean is that the family should be made up of teenage boys. This is closer in tone to "Peanuts" or "The Wonder Years" than "The Simpsons." I wouldn't begin to try to imitate "The Simpsons," because it's a fantastic, classic show. CBS told me, "It's lovely and charming." These are now bad words. They still want hip and edgy. They think anything that's popular or positive is an anomaly, it can't possibly work. You know, "When do they eat the bugs?"

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Cowen: I would write and produce a first-of-its-kind, never-before-seen-anywhere drama that is sexy, politically incorrect and highly offensive to uptight assholes and hypocrites. Which is exactly what my partner, Daniel Lipman, and I are doing.

Who was unfairly passed over by Emmy this year?

Slava: I was amazed that Ian McShane was passed up for an Emmy. His character, Al Swearengen, is absolutely mesmerizing. Is he the devil? Is he God? It's one of those roles like Tony Soprano, where you think, "Who else could've played this guy?"

Cowen: Besides "Queer as Folk"? "South Park." Original. Outrageous. Truthful. Filthy. Wonderful.

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Kroll: "Pimp My Ride" was robbed. It's consistently fantastic week after week. I don't even care about cars, and I find it's the first show I burn off TiVo when it shows up. I particularly like the big guy who does the accessories and the dude with the railroad spikes coming out of his chin. In a TV universe where compelling characters are everything (see: "American Chopper") "Pimp" has cornered the market.

Rosenthal: Borat (one of Sascha Baron Cohen's alter egos on "Da Ali G Show") is the new star of television. Everyone I talk to who sees that show is in love with Borat. I could cry laughing, and I could watch those scenes over and over again. Anyone who comes to my house, I say, "Watch this."

Miss Alli: "Joan of Arcadia" took some nominations, but none for any of the actors other than Amber Tamblyn. You could easily nominate any other person in the cast of that show, starting with Joe Mantegna and Mary Steenburgen. It wasn't nominated for writing, either, which is not right, considering that there was room for the "Deadwood" pilot, which was six words long not counting the potty-mouth parts. The swooning about HBO has gotten a little silly in general. They make great stuff, but four of the five best-written hours of dramatic television all year were episodes of the same show? No.

Rice: "Kenny vs. Spenny." This show deserves to be nominated so I don't have to go back to telemarketing.

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Who deserves an Emmy, and why?

Rosenthal: I hope "Arrested Development" wins because I like that show. And that's the future, hopefully. People say that the sitcom is dead. Well, not while "Arrested Development" is on. That's a good show. It's always funny. I always laugh at that show. What a terrific cast.

Kroll: I think "24" is one of the best shows of the last 10 years and can't win too many awards. Sure, you can pick it apart if you have nothing better to do, but on a purely visceral level it "feels" like real time, and I think the ways the writers construct the stories to weave in and out of one another is just spectacular.

"Penn & Teller: Bullshit" is terrific because it makes people reexamine dogma and think for themselves. I love the notion that the show is perceived as being liberal and yet most of the issues they attack are politically to the left. Let's face it, both sides of the political spectrum could do well to make their stands on issues more fact-based. Also, the "Punk'd" element of the show can be mean but is really funny and makes people realize they should not believe everything they read or hear.

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Finally, of course, I'm partial to "The Amazing Race," simply because it's the most difficult show, from a production standpoint, ever conceived of, and yet manages to be consistently compelling ... and I say that as a viewer of Season 5, which I did not participate in.

Miss Alli: The most underappreciated people working in television are in postproduction for good reality shows. They're the biggest difference between terrific, engaging shows and crummy ones, and they're generally anonymous even when their shows are gigantic hits ("The Apprentice," for instance). Furthermore, they tolerate insufferable snobbery about reality television in general, often from people who don't watch it and haven't a clue what they're talking about. I'd love to see "The Amazing Race" editors take an Emmy, because those people do sharp, witty, excellent work.

Cowen: Even though it's self-serving, I truly believe Sharon Gless [Debbie Novotny on "Queer as Folk"] deserves to be recognized. Not only because she's a great actress, but because she's brave. There's not much of that around.

Rice: Larry David ["Curb Your Enthusiasm"]. He's hilarious, unique and speaks honestly to the ugly realities of human interrelationships.


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