Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Best TV Of The 1980's

We've gone through the 2000's and the 1990's, so now it's time to hey, remember the 80's? Top tens in each category, best years of the series had to take place in the 80's, blah blah blah. Go!

Blackadder.....Technically, each Blackadder series was its own stand-alone entity, but I'll just list the overall franchise as a series unto itself. It's a shame that everyone involved in Blackadder went onto larger fame and fortune, since the concept would've continued on for years. Imagine Blackadder in the 50's, or dealing with Margaret Thatcher in the 80's --- Miranda Richardson could've played 'Margie.' If you know Hugh Laurie only from House, you owe it to yourself to check out Blackadder. You will not believe it's the same guy.

Cheers.....No-brainer. If you had to pick one series to define the 1980's, Cheers would get a ton of votes. It managed to overcome two major cast changes (Coach to Woody and Diane to Rebecca), and still remain funny and relevant up until its last episode. Fun fact: the actual 'Cheers' bar in Boston is actually called the Bull & Finch pub, and its owners opened another location in Boston with an interior that actually matches the TV set. They did this to appease tourists who came into the Bull & Finch and were disappointed that it wasn't a dead ringer for the interior of the show.

The Golden Girls.....Can you imagine someone trying to pitch a show like Golden Girls today? "Ok, it's a sitcom about four old ladies down in Miami, and they spend about half of each episode just kibbitzing about their sex lives." Man, network TV today sucks.

Married With Children.....The last, oh, six years of the show were all just cartoonish nonsense, but those were all in the 90's anyway. The first few years of MWC were genuinely hilarious. Still cartoonish (i.e. the legendary episode where Al keeps falling off the roof) but cartoonish in a realistic way, if that makes any sense. The original casting idea for Al and Peg Bundy was Sam Kinison and Roseanne, which would've been.....AWFUL.

The Price Is Right.....I don't remember much about our old house on Millbank Drive (we moved when I was four), but I specifically recall sitting in the basement watching TPIR and eating Arrowroot cookies. 'The Price Is Right' might have very well been my first "favourite show." I even remember back when Bob Barker had black hair. Surely, no two-year-old in the world had as much knowledge about the costs of household items as I did. You could've let me loose in a Woolco and I would've come back with a week's worth of groceries.

The Real Ghostbusters.....In my 90's article, I believe I cited Batman: The Animated Series as the best cartoon of all time. I heartily withdraw that endorsement. I am only slightly exaggerating when I say that my life revolved around this cartoon from roughly age six to age nine. If you ask a number of people from my grade school, I'm sure I'm still remembered as 'the Ghostbusters kid.' It all thanks to this literate, funny, and incredibly well-made series. I've said it before and I'll say it again, a live-action weekly hour-long Ghostbusters dramedy would be a monster, monster hit if done in the right hands (i.e. mine).

SCTV.....Best sketch comedy cast of all time? Yep. Even in the best SNL casts, there are always a few pieces of dead weight carrying things down. Who was the weak link in the SCTV crew? Andrea Martin? Hell, she was awesome. If Andrea Martin is on SNL, she goes down as one of the five best female cast members ever. This show had too many amazing sketches and characters to recount, but my god...the McKenzie brothers, Earl Camembert and SCTV News, theoretically-paralyzed station owner Guy Caballero, Molly Earle, Count Floyd, Tex and Edna's Organ Emporium, Mel's Rock Pile, Johnny LaRue, the Sammy Maudlin Show....the list goes on and on.

Soap.....An old series that is perhaps best remembered today only as Billy Crystal's breakout role, 'Soap' was basically a spoof of soap operas in sitcom form. An enormous cast (like, 20 actors) filled out the two central families and over four seasons they handled everything from kidnappings to murders to evil twins to love affairs and even to alien abduction. I couldn't find a space for him in my list of actors, but Richard "King of Reaction Shots" Mulligan just about stole this whole show.

WKRP In Cincinnati.....My buddies and I are going to Cincy this year for our annual baseball road trip, and '14' is the current over-under on the number of times I sing the WKRP theme song during our three days away. I may top that just on the drive down. Besides the great theme song, WKRP was a classic workplace comedy featuring the wacky Herb Tarlek, Les Nessman, Johnny Fever and Arthur Carlson bouncing nicely off of the straight men rest of the cast. Also notable for being one of the all-time "who's hotter?" debates in TV sitcom history between Jennifer (Loni Anderson) and Bailey (Jan Smithers). Interestingly enough, literally everyone would pick Bailey in this debate and then get all smug about it since Bailey was supposed to be the mousier of the two. I mean come on fellas, I'd pick Bailey too, but Loni Anderson back in her prime wasn't exactly chopped liver. (NB Some might argue that WKRP's best years were in the 70's, and you might be right, except I'm not planning on doing a 70's list and I wanted to talk about the series here. So there.)

You Can't Do That On Television....Oh man, I'm getting flashbacks to switching the channel to YTV every weeknight at 7 PM. A great, great kids' show. Christine, Lisa, Alastair, that one kid whose name is escaping me but he went on to star in Future Shop ads, Alanis Morissette....truly a legendary cast. You know who the real unsung heroes of this show were? The two adults who played about 30 different roles each over the course of the series. And all they ever got for their hard work was the occasional green slime shower. (Well, and money. Presumably YTV wasn't into indentured servitude.)

Bea Arthur/Estelle Getty/Rue McClanahan/Betty White, The Golden Girls.....The Golden Girls were so awesome that I'm just going to throw out the alphabetical ordering and praise them all in one paragraph. If you want to talk about the best-cast TV shows in history, Golden Girls has to be in the discussion.

Julia Duffy, Newhart.....I wish I had seen more episodes of Newhart, since I think it would've taken up a more prominent place on the list if I had. Duffy played another one of those great asshole characters that I enjoy so much, a self-absorbed yuppie who was for some reason working at Bob Newhart's inn. Her equally yuppie husband Peter Scolari was at least well-meaning, but she was just a straight-up bitch all the way. Though, in fairness, if you believe some tabloid scuttlebutt, Duffy might not have been acting all that much.

Angela Lansbury, Murder She Wrote.....If you're going to have a formulaic mystery series, you need to have a very strong lead to carry it. Mission accomplished. "Hey, why do people hang around with Jessica Fletcher? Her friends always end up dead or accused of murder! Where's the upside in that?" --- taken from every 1980's stand-up comedian's act. The 'Jessica Fletcher = death" bit usually fell somewhere between the jokes about airplane food and how the whole plane should be made of whatever they use to make the black box.

Shelley Long, Cheers.....I'm firmly in the "Cheers was better when Diane was on the show" camp. Bill Simmons once made a good observation that Cheers was a good sitcom after Nicolas Colasanto died, but it was a good show beforehand. I think the real demarcation date was when Shelley Long left the cast, since the Sam/Diane relationship was such a driving force of the entire series that her departure really shifted the focus to being on the overall cast of characters in the bar, rather than just the happy couple. Nothing against Kirstie Alley, but man, seriously? Kirstie Alley? Rebecca pining over marrying a rich guy got old after about 10 episodes.

Andrea Martin/Catherine O'Hara, SCTV.....Another dual entry, though this one is alphabetically-fitting. Yeah, these two were awesome. Whereas SNL could never help itself from casting at least one total dead-weight female castmember at a time, that's not how Second City rolled. Like Short, I get the feeling that Andrea Martin's ideal role is as a member of a sketch ensemble, and she hasn't been able to really find another niche since. O'Hara is an actual good actress, as shown by her dozens of roles in the last 20 years, and if anyone ever gets an Oscar nomination from a Christopher Guest movie, my money is on her.

Katey Sagal, Married With Children.....Seriously, Roseanne?! Good lord. That would've been a train wreck. Needless to say, Katey Sagal was an infinitely better choice. She had a difficult line to tread; if Peg had been too shrewish or domineering, Al would've come off as too sympathetic. Sagal found the right tone to make Peg bitchy, but likable enough that the audience still saw Al in his more fitting role as a lovable buffoon. Fun fact: a guy on trial for killing his buddy in the early 90's said that the murder took place when an argument between the two about who was better-looking between Katey Sagal and Christina Applegate got out of hand.

Rowan Atkinson, Blackadder.....Biggest no-brainer pick on a strong men's side. As mentioned in the Julia Duffy section and throughout these lists, I'm a sucker for a great venal character, and few approach the rotter levels of the Blackadder family tree. In a way it's a shame that Atkinson is known primarily today as Mr. Bean (not that there's anything wrong with Mr. Bean), when Edmund Blackadder was a far more ingenious creation.

Ted Danson, Cheers.....If you're one of the eight or nine people that has never seen Cheers before, here's a quick retrospective of Sam "Mayday" Malone's baseball career, courtesy of Sports Illustrated. It's hard to find a cooler guy than ol' Sammy. Former ballplayer, owned a bar, huge ladies' man, mopped up Norm Peterson's vomit (this last point is conjecture, but c'mon, it had to have happened at least once)....Sam was a cool cat all-around. Ted Danson's natural charm helped smooth over some of Sam's perhaps more dickish tendencies, and helped convince America that Sam Malone was actually a major playa in spite of the fact that Danson himself had a bit of the John Kerry craggy face going.

Larry Hagman, Dallas.....JR was such an asshole. Nuff said.

Eugene Levy, SCTV.....Tough pick amongst all of the great SCTV men (though there's one more to come), but Levy had the bonus of playing probably my favourite SCTV character of all, Earl Camembert. Earl's finest moment; he introduced a clip on SCTV news, but the clip never started up. So Earl sits there with a pleasant smile on his face that gradually grows more strained, as he nervously looks off-screen a few times, and then just becomes flat-out upset while still trying to keep his smile for the camera. This goes on for about two minutes before Joe Flaherty finally jumps in with a perfectly-timed angry cry of 'EARL!' just before Levy finally breaks. Just a masterpiece of face acting. Fun fact: my buddy Trev's dad, he of the infamous Buffy book story from my 90's TV post, bears a striking resemblance to both Eugene Levy and Max Weinberg. So if it helps make that story funnier, just imagine Eugene Levy angrily stalking out of a Chapters for not having a Buffy episode guide in stock.

Eddie Murphy, Saturday Night Live.....Not only is Murphy undisputedly one of the three or four best cast members in SNL history, he's also probably the most important. If it wasn't for Murphy's popularity, talent and charisma keeping the show afloat in the early 80's after the original cast left, SNL probably gets canceled. It's as simple as that. It's too bad that Murphy's grudge against the show hasn't cooled over time, since a Murphy-hosted SNL would even today be unbelievably good. Honorable mention goes to Murphy's castmate Joe Piscopo, who has become kind of a living joke over the years but was also outstanding on SNL, certainly an all-time top-20 cast member.

Ed O'Neill, Married With Children.....Ernie Nevers, Dub Jones and Gale Sayers hold the NFL record for single-game touchdowns with six, but any player who ever scores four in a game will be said to have scored 'the Bundy.' Again, what made the early seasons of MWC work so well was that the whole cast were actually good-to-very good actors, which grounded the at times goofy material. With, say, Sam Kinison in the role, Al Bundy is just a screaming dunderhead. With Ed O'Neill at the wheel, Al Bundy becomes a classic TV icon and the poster boy for losers everywhere.

Paul Reubens, Pee Wee's Playhouse.....Pee Wee's Playhouse was less a show than it was a fevered crack-dream, but I can safely say that we'll never see another show like it in our lifetime. You've got to give credit to Reubens for staying in character as Pee-Wee for a Kaufman-esque seven years during all public appearances. And, really, if you're going to get busted for public masturbation, the only somewhat non-objectionable place to do it would be at a porno theatre. In summation, mecka lecka hi, mecka hiney ho.

Richard Sanders, WKRP In Cincinnati....."It's a helicopter, and it's coming this way. It's flying something behind it, I can't quite make it out, it's a large banner and it says, "! ... From ... W ... K ... R... P!" No parachutes yet. Can't be skydivers.... I can't tell just yet what they are, but...Oh my God, they're turkeys!! Johnny, can you get this? Oh, they're plunging to the earth right in front of our eyes! One just went through the windshield of a parked car! Oh, the humanity! The turkeys are hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement! Not since the Hindenburg tragedy has there been anything like this!"

Martin Short, SCTV/Saturday Night Live.....It's too bad about Martin Short, a genuinely talented guy who never quite found his niche. Well, wait, I should qualify that by saying that he did find his niche (sketch comedy), but this was back in the day when you couldn't be on SNL for eight or nine years like half their current cast. Short was arguably the most notable member of the legendary 84-85 SNL cast that was populated solely of experienced comedians like Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, Billy Crystal, etc. in a reversal of the show's usual policy of casting unknowns. The result was one of the best SNL seasons ever (arguably the best ever). My favourite Short bit was his hysterically funny/accurate impression of Katherine Hepburn, which was literally 100 times better than the piss-poor job that Cate Blanchett did in 'Aviator' that somehow won her an Oscar.

Patrick Stewart, Star Trek: The Next Generation.....One of my idols of baldness! You've got to hand it to Gene Roddenberry, it took some balls to follow up alpha male Jim Kirk with an intellectual Frenchman as the new Enterprise captain, but Roddenberry obviously knew what he had in Stewart. It also helps that Stewart seems like one of the coolest, most self-deprecating guys in world. Is this an excuse to once again link to his immortal guest appearance on 'Extras'? Hell yes! Stewart is also behind the funniest line in American Dad's history: "Do you have any Gatorade, Smith? I seem to have left my electrolytes in your daughter."

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