To read the first part of this story, click here. When you finish reading this list, think about the characters and story lines that changed you, inspired you, or reflected on your life.
#10 - Sex andthe City - I didn't have HBO when this show came out, and even if I had, my mother wouldn't have let me watch it. That didn't stop Carrie and her friends from impacting my life. I listened as criticism rolled in stating that the show glamorized sex inappropriately, and wondered at how terribly naughty it must be for years before I finally saw it. After watching every episode, and all the movies, I've come to recognize this show as anything but raunchy or naughty. Instead, it humanized the fact that women have can have sexual libido, drive for power, success and love, and integrity too. This show taught me that I deserve happiness, and told me to go out and find it with the same devotion to self that a man would. I appreciate this lesson every day as I approach my thirties, and do so with confidence.
#9 - Murphy Brown - When I was a little girl, my daddy used to set me up on his knee and tell me that I could grow up and be anybody I wanted to be, then he'd send me off to bed and tell me to sleep. In bare feet, and a pink nightgown I would crawl like a GI Joe on my belly down the hall, through the dining room and kitchen so I could peek around the corner to the living room. From there I would watch Murphy Brown demand respect and cuss Dan Quayle for chastising her ability to be a single working mom. There, on my mother's kitchen floor, I watched Candace Bergan and her puffy shoulder pads elbow their way into a man's world. In those moments, on white linoleum, the glass ceiling in my mind was shattered. Thanks to Murphy Brown, I believed the message my dad instilled in me while I sat on his knee. For that, Murphy gets a top ten spot at number nine.
#8 - The Cosby Show - When I was little, I lived in a predominantly white neighborhood, with white peers at school, white role models on TV and a white baby doll that I named after myself. The only time I was exposed to black people was when they were portrayed as gangsters, bad guys, and thugs on the news, or when they were portrayed as educated, smart and loving on the Cosby Show. Thanks to Bill Cosby and his TV family, I was presented with an alternative view to prejudice and racism. I grew up thinking that little black girls were just like me- full of love, life and a little orneriness. When I think of the most reasonable parents on television when I was growing up, I would certainly have named the Huxtables first. In fact, it wasn't till nearly a decade after I saw my first episode of the Cosby Show that I even considered race as a reason that someone might feel prejudice, and I am thankful to the Huxtables for teaching me just how absurd that idea is.
#7 - ER- Though it is clear that the majority of this show focuses around the medical drama, and the coming of age issues of John Carter, for me the most influential story line revolved around Kerry Weaver. From the beginning of the series, Kerry impressed me with her ability to persevere after being born with congenital hip dysplasia. Her battle with understanding and coping with the fact that she was adopted, and dealing with a difficult relationship with her birth mother moved me. However, in the final seasons of ER, Kerry revealed her inner struggle with the fact that she is a lesbian. Her love story, with firefighter Sandy Lopez, their journey to parenthood, and the legal battle that ensues over the custody of their son, Henry, when Sandy dies literally shook me, and all ER viewers, to our core.
While Kerry’s journey dominates my memories of ER, I also remember other story lines addressing AIDS, homosexuality, cancer, mental illness, healthcare, poverty, race, class, bureaucracy, and more. Every character, while flawed, showed heroism and humanity at one point or another. This reflection of America was profound, spot on, and moving. As one of my personal favorites, I place it in the # 7 slot.
#6 - The Mary Tyler Moore Show - That iconic image in the opening credits, of Mary throwing her hat, is burned into my mind as a metaphor for the independence and strength of woman represented in this show. May earns the number six spot for showing America that a woman can live and work independently and successfully. Before I ever saw any The Golden Girls, or Murphy Brown, or Ellen, or Roseanne… I saw Mary Tyler Moore. I remember a particular episode where Ted and Mary take a writing class. Ted, fraught with writers block, steals Mary’s work and presents it as his own, and Mary nearly implodes as she watches him read it aloud to the class. This moment stuck in my head, as a symbol of all the times my mother, a young woman in the 70’s, took second place to a boy that did lesser work than she. When I learned last month, that all the boys on the ski team in my mom’s high school received college scholarships, and none of the girls did, even though the girls’ team advanced farther that year, I thought of Mary and that look of frustration as Ted was praised for her efforts.
#5 - Ellen- This series comes in at number five for the fact that she came out on her show. Before it aired, there was so much social commentary on the issue and that the episode's air date is listed as a significant day in history, April 30th, 1997, on the History Channel website. I was fourteen when Ellen announced she was gay, and so was her character. I remember arguing with people close to me, about whether we should watch her show, about whether we supported her or not. For the first time in my life, a television show created a social dialogue in which I participated.
I was proud to stand by Ellen in 1997, just as I was proud to stand by her in 2012 when JC Penney was condemned for casting her in their television commercials. In both cases she put herself on the line, she faced an angry and bigoted public, and she opened doors for others like herself. I admire her tenacity, nearly a decade and half after she came out, she still fights for her right to simply be herself. Even today she is constantly accused of having little or no values, and yet her values as she describes them in 2012, seem to be just as noble now as they were in 1997. Last spring, after JC Penney announced its advertising campaign, and Ellen suffered the backlash from it from so called "family values" groups, Ellen stood up for herself, when she said," I want to be clear and here are the values that I stand for. I stand for honesty, equality, kindness, compassion, treating people the way you want to be treated, and helping those in need. To me those are traditional values. That's what I stand for." All I can say is, “Me too Ellen, Me Too.”
#4 - The Simpsons - I ranked The Simpsons in the top five for several reasons. First, and foremost, because it can be arguably classified as TV's most successful show, having been on the air since 1989 and holding the world record for most guest stars (600+) including Steven Hawking and Paul McCartney. With progressive guest stars, thoughtful social commentary, and satire that rivals their newscasts, The Simpsons is quite possibly the best thing that FOX ever did.
Lisa Simpson is the progressive heart of the show, though only eight years old, she is a vegetarian, feminist, environmentalist, supports gay rights and the Free Tibet Movement, and converted to Buddhism after studying the Noble 8 fold Path. Although all the characters either directly espouse liberal ideology or use comedy to poke fun at conservatives, Lisa's straightforward determination to use logic, morals and empathy prove her to be the voice of wisdom if not the spirit of Springfield. Matt Groening, and his fine commentary on American culture and society which have forever changed our collective understanding of Americana in a way that cannot be denied.
#3 - All in the Family - The first rerun of All in the Family, I happened to catch was a Christmas themed episode where a draft dodger, David, and the father of a man who died in Vietnam, Steve, join the Bunkers for Christmas dinner. Within seconds of being exposed to Edith, Archie, Mike and Gloria, I was captivated.
Having never before heard of or seen Archie Bunker, I was appalled when he reacted to learning of David dodging the draft by saying, "He owes an explanation to the Army, Navy, Marine Core, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. of A.--the President!" As that scene played out, and Archie deferred to Pinko's opinion by saying, "Certainly, your opinion is important--a Gold Star father! Your opinion is more important than anybody else in this room and I want to hear that opinion. I want the young people here to hear that opinion. You tell 'em, Pinky, you tell 'em!" Then, Pinko opened his mouth and I was amazed and what I heard that Gold Star father say, "I understand how you feel, Arch. My kid hated the war, too. But he did what he thought he had to do and David here, he did what he thought he had to do. But David's alive to share Christmas dinner with us. And if Steve were here, he'd want to sit down with him. And that's what I want to do."
In a little under thirty minutes, I experienced an amazing roller coaster ride of emotion that I soon found to be a delightful pattern of the series. I felt empathy, anger, and I laughed all the while, as I looked over my shoulder to ensure that no one saw me watching a man spew hateful words like fag, fairy, negro, Pollack, or worse. Edith's 50th Birthday and Gloria the Victim were among the many episodes that taught me about women's rights, the strength of women, and how very different things were for my mother, aunts, grandmothers and cousins who lived in a time when society blamed women for their own rape.
I also enjoyed episodes that challenged Archie's bigotry, such as Archie the Hero, in which Archie inadvertently gives a transvestite CPR. In 1971, All in the Family became the first show to have an openly gay character. Archie's role as America's favorite bigot, and the constant rebuttal he receives from his son-in-law and daughter, has made a fine mirror for Americans to stare into, and laugh, while considering their reflection.
#2 - Roseanne - Before this show came on the air, sitcoms and other forms of prime-time TV never really showed anything that resembled the actual American families I knew growing up. Prior to Roseanne, issues of class, money, and real parents struggling to provide for real kids seemed to be like toilets, everybody knew they were around, but nobody put them on TV.
My mother hated Roseanne. She thought that the woman, and the show, were brash, uncouth and foul. Still, I remember watching Becky spin herself up in the telephone cord trying to get some privacy in that family kitchen, and knowing immediately that I, or any one of my friends, could easily be a Conner. Throughout the series, Roseanne provided a strong voice for women, confronted issues of race, and had some of the first gay characters I ever saw on TV. I remember when Becky got birth control, when Roseanne and Dan struggled with whether or not to keep a pregnancy that might produce a sick child, when Jackie was beaten by a lover, when Roseanne's mom came out, when Darlene proposed to David and when Roseanne led a group of women out of Wellman's plastics after her boss sexually harassed her. These were moments that I watched as an adolescent girl, and used as a reference point later in life, when I asked myself, "What would a strong woman do right now?"
Perhaps the most moving moments of the series were in the final episode when Roseanne gives a monologue from the little desk that her family built for her to write from in the basement of the Connor home. "Dan and I always felt that it was our responsibility as parents to improve the lives of our children by 50% over our own. And we did. We didn't hit our children as we were hit, we didn't demand their unquestioning silence, and we didn't teach our daughters to sacrifice more than our sons. As a modern wife I walked a tightrope between tradition and progress and usually I failed by outsiders standards or another's. But I figured out that neither winning nor losing count for women like they do for men. We women are the ones who transform everything we touch, and nothing on earth is higher than that."
Maybe Roseanne was brash, uncouth and foul. I never saw her that way though. I saw her as being a strong woman who fought for her family through tough economic times, against overpowering men and crushing social norms. In the final quote of the show as she describes her journey; I found her to be heartwarming and inspiring, “I learned that dreams don't work without action; I learned that no one could stop me but me. I learned that love is stronger than hate. And most important, I learned that god does exist. He and or she is right inside you. Underneath the pain, the sorrow, and the shame."
#1 - MASH - This series simply must sit in the number one slot. To this day, nearly thirty years after the show went off the air, it still holds its place as the most popular TV show of all time. As of November 2011, the series finale, "Goodbye Farewell, Amen," is still the most watched television broadcast in US History. It was watched by approximately 125 million viewers. The finale aired from 8pm - 11pm on February 28, 1983. At 11:03 pm, EST, New York City public works noted the highest water usage at one given time in the City's history. This was due to the fact that in the three minutes after the finale ended, approximately 77% of New York City flushed their toilets.
MASH used the Korean War as a platform to discuss the social issues of the late 1970's and early 1980's including the Vietnam War, the draft, women's rights, racism, sexuality, religion and even gay rights. Episodes such as "The Ringbanger" in which Hawkeye, Trapper and Radar work together to get a Colonel with reckless casualty rates home, and "For the Good of the Outfit" in which Hawkeye and Trapper attempt to force the army into taking responsibility for the accidental bombing of a local village, both show the injustice and lack of ethics in war. "Dear Dad Three" tells the story of how Hawk and Trapper color the skin of a racist patient with iodine to teach him a lesson after he makes racist remarks and demands the "right color of blood." A particular favorite of mine is titled simply, "George" and has a storyline that revolves around a gay soldier. Burns tries to slap a dishonorable discharge on the kid, shouting “He's not normal!" To which Hawkeye asks, "What's normal Frank?" Good old conservative Frank says, "Normal is everybody doing the same thing." Trapper cannot let this answer stand, "What about individuality?" In classic MASH tongue in cheek enthusiasm an irate Frank declares, “Well, individuality is fine - as long as we all do it together."
The constant commentary on war and civil rights, and specifically the ability of this show to force people to use their two most valuable skills, humor and empathy, to look at their society make it an American classic to be proud of.
I'm certain that I’ve left some shows that are incredibly important out, but this list is based on my own meandering experience, and I can’t help that. I think that perhaps Hawkeye said it best when he said, ""I can't say that I've loved you all…But I've loved as many of you as I could!" That's how I feel about this subject. I can't say that I've seen, let alone loved, all the progressive television there is, but I’ve shared with you as much of it as I could!
Don't get me wrong, I'm a mom who limits the TV time and specific shows my kids watch. I'm a person who sees quite a bit of mess, embarrassment, and melancholy in television. I'm somebody who fully understands how shallow it sounds to assume that a television show alone can or should change a person's life.
In the other hand, I’m also the mom who recognizes the value of a son who idolizes superheroes, Jedi and little cartoon people named Phineas and Ferb. I am a person who looks for hope, inspiration, and good messages in crappy TV. I am happy to see positive changes in our social expectations inspired by and reflected in our entertainment.