Everybody's Wonderin' : Where The Leftovers Stands in The Greatest TV Shows Of All Time. Also, My Favorite TV Shows Of All Time

Nothing goes away anymore. Everything's adapted, readapted, sequelized, remade, rebooted, reheated. There are no more one-hit-wonders. Everything is kept alive with dance and song contests, Twitter, and Us Weekly. We're no longer given the chance to miss anything. So, when something we love is taken from us as quickly as it arrived, it's traumatizing.
It's probably safe to say that the old showbiz gospel of "leaving them wanting more" is exactly that: old.
On June 4th of 2017, The Leftovers ended its 3 season, 28 episode run. That's how web banners and newspaper blurbs eulogize what is now nothing more than a programming gap.
For those of us who experienced it, it leaves a lot more than a free Sunday night. I will miss it. I'll miss having new episodes to look forward to. But, because of what it was about, how it played out, and how it ended, the journey will continue. This is something a lot of contemporary fiction tries to achieve, and in my opinion, fails. But not with this one. Rarely do marks get hit this precisely. The show lasted 3 seasons, not because of cancellation due to lack of interest or funding, but because the story exists in an almost uninhabited world that floats between cinema and television. If it had run any longer, it would run the risk of any number of follies that befell even the best TV shows -- most notably, wearing out its welcome.
I won't get too much into what the show was about, nor try to dissect all its meanings; we've never done that kinda stuff here. What is worth pointing out are the show's qualities that I personally responded to. Sure, it dealt with universal themes that spoke to everyone on a subjective level, but I can really only talk about my own experience: what I look for, what I hope for, what surprises me.
Whenever I've had to describe the show, I said it's a darker and dirtier Lost. Or, Lost was A Hard Day's Night and Leftovers was The White Album; a disconnected group of intense and hilarious ideas -- organized chaos. It had a sense of humor that endlessly surprised me, and some of the most brutal violence that I may never want to look at again. I enjoy satire and dark humor, but what The Leftovers deals in is pace changes, which takes more ingenuity and backbone than the former. And it does it well.
Laughs and chills aside, the show was about about some heavy-duty shit: loss, metaphysics, the afterlife, faith, apocalypse, purpose, and the frailty and dangerous ignorance of the human condition. And yes, this has all been explored in one place before. And no, not on Twin Peaks and not on The X-Files.
It can no longer be ignored that, while Lost belongs to J. J. Abrams and The Leftovers belongs to Tom Perrotta, Damon Lindelof is The Man behind the curtain in these and other weird crevices (Star Trek, Prometheus, World War Z). It's funny, but, his movie & comic book stuff aside, the work he's done has filled me with more joy and wonder about life and the universe than Mark Twain, Einstein and David Lynch put together. This is notable, because this is television we're talking about. And I don't really like TV (more on that in a second).
I won't unravel the show's clues and symbols - one, because that's usually a bunch of pretentious hearsay, but mostly, I truly enjoy the mysteries. Over the course of the series, there were so many wrong turns and false leads that I honestly can't remember them all. That's when Twin Peaks worked best (and sucked when it didn't). And Lost too, obviously. And this angered and frustrated people. I don't know if it was intentional or not, but this show was actually about those very people: consumed by questions with no expectation of answers - just signposts that lead back to you. Perhaps that's why viewers were generally more receptive and engrossed than they were with past shows. Either that, or maybe just the concept, as sci-fi as it is, was a little more easy to grasp; anyone who's ever been through any kinda shit in their life and wondered "What did that all mean?" could relate. Lost presented the idea that we all may be important. The Leftovers let us know that we're not. But more notable than that, in the end, both shows were about love and family. It's notable, because something that sappy takes a lotta balls, and to do it convincingly, it takes a lotta skill.
If all of this seems vague, that's good. While I'm not incredibly anxious to give a lot away, at the same time, I'd like to keep it fresh for myself. I'd love some distance from it before I look at it again. Like I said, every episode of every season made big promises - like wrapped gifts. And in the end, most of them stayed wrapped. While it was largely based on a book, every development, every revelation, every foreshadow seemed intentional, and I knew most promises would go unfulfilled. The continual complaint that swirled around Lost viewers was, "They're just making it up as they go along." My response to that always was, and is, "That is, by definition, fiction."

This is a supposed "Golden Age" of television right now, although that seems relative. The Leftovers, True Detective, and Better Call Saul were all better than most movies to come out of the past five years. At the same time, sitcoms, gameshows, network dramas and even the news are all dead. Reality TV was never hip, and cartoons are generationally subjective. For as long as it's been around, television has been as important as pop music, Playboy & popcorn. Radio, part 2. We can't know its lasting impact this soon, but I can say that, thus far, even more than film, it's been nothing more than recorded theatre; a showcase of writing and performance. With some of these new shows, it's been drifting into more complex areas and actually tackling more abstract stuff & sometimes even managing to be visually stunning. I assume these advances are due to things like the size of TV screens, video on demand, and the internet.
I don't know if it's better, but it's certainly different. It's progress, which, believe it or not, I welcome and appreciate (and a label I would not assign to movies or music right now). And it certainly makes for some crazy list-making. It may be the least abstract art form, but it has many different avenues. How do you compare Mayberry R.F.D. to The Sopranos? They hardly seem like the same animal, never mind the same medium.
There may or may not be spoilers ahead. I'm not sure - I'm making it up as I go along.

- Paul

(Disclaimer: Looney Tunes and The Three Stooges were technically shorts, not TV shows.)

50. Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule (2010-present)
Spinoffs can be one-note. But when they work, it's because it's the best note plucked out of the original symphony.
The world (and it is its own demented - yet familiar - world) of Dr. Steve Brule goes so far beyond standard comedy, it ventures into a surrealism that borders on sweaty nightmare.

49. DuckTales (1987-1990)
Apart from some of the Pixar movies, this is the only cool thing Disney has ever done.
The original character of Scrooge (and a lot of Dickensian stuff) has interested me since I was little.
That and a lifelong lust for cartoon gold and treasure.

48. Friends (1994-2004)
You gotta give credit where credit is due. It actually started strong and never really jumped the shark.
Unlike shows of this ilk being made today, it never got dark, and through writing and performance, the characters were actually likable. I do miss that.

47. The Critic (1994-1995)
Despite its very accomplished producers, writers, and voice talents, it's not nearly as good as you-
know-what. But it is good. Top 50 good.
If for nothing else, marvel at the comic chops of genre actor Charles Napier as the voice of Ted Turner-esque Duke Phillips.

46. Eastbound and Down (2009-2013)
Inferno. The Odyssey. The road to redemption is polluted with temptation and hellfire. Smarts and bravery could help. But really, you just need some self-absorbing arrogance and blind optimism.
It's funny in American politics, but it's actually rad when it's Kenny Motherfuckin' Powers.

45. Perfect Strangers (1986-1993)
A dangerous mixture of slapstick and pathos.
Sure, anyone can enjoy some corn syrup in an ironic way, but if your soul is pure, it's an intense free fall into an abyss of innocence and joy.
And that ain't irony.

44. Degrassi Junior High (1987-1989)
An idealistic and sometimes honest time capsule of a very specific time (the 1980s) and place (school).
Sure, that's the basic setup of a lot of fiction, but there can be only one class president.
It was an after school special that kept on specialin'.

43. The Adventures of Pete & Pete (1991-1996)
Perhaps a more accurate and realistic depiction of the journey of youth is the most surrealistic one.
Though sharper and deeper than the programming before and after, it certainly helped to set the tone for the world of Nickelodeon.

42. Inside the Actors Studio (1994-present)
Say what you may - depending on the guest, it was great fun for any movie lover. And whether he was kissing ass or making fun of himself, I've always liked James Lipton.
Plus, it had the second best Angelo Badalamenti TV theme.

41. Cheers (1982-1993)
Sexual tension, big punchlines, catchphrases, steady regulars and one-off guest stars. It was the last of its kind, which means it inspired nothing, but incorporated everything.
Never again would TV be as sweet and simple as a place where everybody knows your name.

40. Absolutely Fabulous (1992-1996, 2001-2004, 2011-2012)
Women behaving badly long, long before the likes of Amy Schumer and Melissa McCarthy.
You might be inclined to look deeper, but it may be nothing more than a high fashion, dry British Cheech & Chong.
And that's just gorgeous, sweetie darling.

39. Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995)
The strangest cartoon adaptation I've seen.
Inspired just as much by the movies as the comics (it used the Danny Elfman theme), it's actually more complex, serious, and deliberately paced than the films.
It works, and that's why Batman rocks: straight up cops & robbers, gangsters & vigilantes, freak vs. freaks.

38. Twin Peaks (1990, 1991, present)
The greatest moments ever put on television. Unfortunately, that's all they were: moments. I think we said it once here before: the idea of Twin Peaks was smarter and spookier than the television show Twin Peaks.
At the time I'm writing this, I've not seen the newest season, but from what I'm hearing (mostly from you guys) is that it seems to fall into line with my original original expectations.

37. M*A*S*H (1972-1983)
Here's an instance where the TV show is better than the movie.
The lineup changed as often as a sports team, but that never hurt it. In fact, it made for fun debate: Blake or Potter, Trapper or BJ, Frank or Winchester.
And then, just as the show started to get waaaay smug, it unleashed the finale of finales.

36. Baywatch (1989-1990, 1991-2001)
If you've never seen it, it's everything you thought it was, but a lot more. Hour-long melodramas featuring murderers, thieves, terrorists and sharks, padded out with bizarre music videos, all in bikinis and short shorts.
Effective? Yes. Timeless? Goodness, no.
It's something to behold.

35. Jackass (2000-2002)
It's easy to see how much money & talent is wasted on TV programming when you realize all you wanna see are skaters breaking their shit.
The invention of television came to a head into its purest form with this singular show. Performance art (which is what this box is for).
Reality shows were supposed to go this way, not into dating contests.

34. Tales From the Crypt (1989-1996)
Back then, no one knew what the limitations of HBO were, or how depraved our favorite Hollywood stars were. The Crypt showed us, and even still, nothing's topped it as the dirtiest and goriest program ever shown on... the TV scream!

33. Coach (1989-1997)
Very, very few shows ever dared to borrow elements from All in the Family and air long enough to tell about it.
It had a funny supporting cast, but the show's only real strength was playing on the old (but still potent) formula of the conservative ogre as a laughable, misguided oaf; still making fun of Father Knows Best as "Father Don't Know Shit."

32. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987-1996)
Yeah, the original. Though I don't think there's a ton of support for any later versions from anyone over the age of 11.
So now, what then?
What can I say about the show that everyone pretty much agrees was the hottest pizza this side of Saturday morning? After all the comics and movies and toys, this is how they'll be remembered. It was funny enough and weird enough that as an adult I can still watch it and be completely immersed.

31. The Wonder Years (1988-1993)
It made me nostalgic for a time & place I've never been to. Of all the books I've read and movies I've seen, that's a trick that's damn-near impossible to pull off.
That's why it was so great - I was able to connect with it on as many levels as my father could.

30. Jeopardy! (1964-1975, 1978-1979, 1984-present)
Not just to have a gameshow on the list, but if it is the only one, it might as well be the best.
Perfectly paced with no frills - forever the antidote to dreck like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

29. Mad About You (1992-1999)
A slightly more mature version of Friends - mostly because it deals with the minutia of marriage instead of single life (and it does it accurately).
If you came to love this couple the way many of us did, do yourself a favor & skip the last two seasons.

28. Better Call Saul (2015-present)
Who woulda thought? The supporting comic relief in one of the most intense TV shows ever made would spin off into something that was actually deeper than, more subtle than, but just as engrossing as its predecessor (and most other shows).
Great performances.

27. Punky Brewster (1984-1988)
With its candy-colored title card over a shot of brown, 1980s Chicago mixed with its AM disco theme song, the entire tone of the show (and maybe an entire orthodoxy unto itself) was established: pop 'n lock rainbow optimism in the face of foster homes, social workers and a distrust of familial stability.
Heavy stuff for a kid's show, but there's that Dickens quality again. I joke that each episode feels like a Christmas special.

26. Miami Vice (1984-1989)
Style over substance doesn't always work - especially on TV (CSI, 24). So when it does, it'd better be one badass style. And none do badass style like Michael Mann.
Like Twin Peaks, it never really lived up to its fullest potential in my eyes. But also like Twin Peaks, the mood lives on and contemporizes itself into great things (like, in the case of both shows, feature films).

25. Get Smart (1965-1970)
Sight gags and one-liners poke fun at the once and future self-serious spy genre - courtesy of creators Mel Brooks and Buck Henry.
It's a brand of satire that's all but gone now, at a time when it could really thrive (I think we're getting laughably dark with all these superheroes).

24. Beakman's World (1992-1998)
Nothing against Bill Nye as a man or scientist, but his show was shit.
Beakman had a frenetic excitement that was engaging without being obnoxious, and funny in a lot of adult and profound ways. And the stuff they taught, I still remember.

23. Roseanne (1988-1997)
After years of Growing Pains and Family Ties, they finally made a show that made me think, "hey, this is more like my family." Of course, that was always shamelessly their intention, and sometimes tried too hard.
But still, for those first few years it was my favorite show as it aired. And if not for those last two seasons, it would be higher on the list.

22. Columbo (1968-1978, 1989-1998, 2002-2003)
Lotta cop shows around that time, full of car chases and shoot-outs... I guess that never really went out of fashion.
But there hasn't been much quite like this, and never another character like Lieutenant Columbo.
The endless parade of guest villains (Patrick McGoohan, John Cassavetes, Donald Pleasence, Patrick McGoohan, Patrick McGoohan) were always ready for confrontation, while Columbo remained laid back, affable, and intentionally aloof. I could always relate.

21. MXC (2003-2007)
I'm a simple man in many ways.
Regardless of that, any idea this transparent could've been dumb - or dumber: footage of Japanese gameshow Takeshi's Castle - already funny on its own - dubbed with English-language faux sports commentary full of stilted banter and bad puns, all boiling down to the fact that a lot can be said about sharp comedy writing.
That & people falling down.

20. Boy Meets World (1993-2000)
Speaking of great comedy writing.
I never saw an episode till I was about 30, but that didn't stop me from learning a thing or two from Mr. Feeny or falling in love with Topanga.
I suppose that's a testament to the show's ability to reach all ages and generations.

19. Frasier (1993-2004)
It may not've been the most innovative or poignant show ever put out, but I like it. I like it more than Cheers. And the idea of making fun of pretentious fops will always be appealing to me.
Like a lot of shows on this list, a few seasons too many.

18. Saved By The Bell (1989-1993)
Has anyone really ever been able to put their finger on the secret ingredient of this soda? It was meta. It was hyperrealism. Beautiful people with superficial, distant problems.
It was fantasy, & we all pretended it was reality. Any piece of art that can fool us like that is magic.

17. Are You Afraid Of The Dark? (1990-1996, 1999-2000)
Rod Serling-type chills aimed at little kids, with just the right amount of spooky and funny.
Such a good idea.
A few imitations around that time, but nothing really like it since then. In fact, after two decades, the only thing that followed that same recipe is Stranger Things.

16. Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! (2007-2010)
A psychedelic collage of color, sound and movement. An existential head trip into subconscious terrors. Barf and poop jokes. It's everything and nothing.
Fill in the blank: it's ________ on acid, on steroids, on Robitussin, on toast.
Thanks, Cinco!

15. Unwrapped (2001-2011)
Combining a food program with a how-it's-made program is my kinda program. That, combined with Marc Summers's sunny disposition made the whole show feel like a warm brownie.
Nothing deeper than that.

14. True Detective (2014-2015)
Season one is one of the greatest pieces of fiction ever produced. Season two couldn't live up to that & tried too hard to do so. But I like it enough.
I like the new age concept of anthology series, and varying quality just acts as an added differentiating factor from season to season. Except, it's more effective if there were more seasons to differentiate.
Rumors of a third still pop up. I'm rooting for it in a big way.

13. The Ren & Stimpy Show (1991-1995)
A huge step (and maybe the last) in what cartoons and children's programming in general is capable of.
Somehow, SpongeBob became the popular one, which couldn't have existed without this mad splat of sex and gore that also managed to be sweet and charming. And funny as all hell.

12. Mr. Show with Bob and David (1995-1998)
Most people had a book or album that got them through high school. My book or album was Mr. Show. It was my own private cult, because no one else was hip to it. The benefit of that was that I could peel off lines like they were my own & no one was the wiser.
It's a shame it never caught on, though I'm glad its stars and creators have consistently been around, in one capacity or another, ever since.

11. Married... With Children (1987-1997)
Kinda mean-spirited and one-dimensional, but definitely not lowbrow.
It was live action Looney Tunes, and the first half of the series featured comedy writing worthy of Norman Lear.
It's funny that some people - men mostly - mistook it as gospel rather than satire; it gave it a bad name, but that doesn't intrude on this list.
Jumped the shark with the introduction of "NO MA'AM."

10. The Leftovers (2014-2017)
What more can I say?
Who knows if it'll move up or down over time. I will say, unlike nearly all these other shows, it never had & never will have the chance at a bad season. That will forever be one of its strengths; I may change, but it won't.

9. Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-2011, present)
Speaking of darker and dirtier versions of older shows...
You never know - someday, it may top Seinfeld for me: it's somehow simultaneously broader & more specific, meaner & more forgiving, realistic & more absurd, funnier & more serious.
But even without another show to compare it to, it's still pretty, pretty, pretty good.

8. Breaking Bad (2008-2013)
The only show I truly "binge watched" from beginning to end. And how could you not? Put simply, once it starts, it doesn't stop, until it does.
With all its amazing characters and locations and plot twists, its most amazing feat to me was that it was the only piece of pulp fiction I've ever seen that didn't glamorize the crime life. As cool as Walter Heisenberg White was, it was stressful enough watching it. Couldn't imagine wanting to live it.

7. Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-1974)
Sketch comedy: originated, personified, still unmatched.
Each episode was like a compilation album of unrelated songs that still somehow managed to bleed into each other. Even when sketches ran too long, it was still absurd and unpredictable.
It was, itself, The Ministry of All Things Silly.

6. The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966)
Of all the idealistic nuclear family sitcoms that were born (& died) of the 20th century, this is number one on that list.
To be very specific, there are things that are funny for their time, and there are timelessly funny things. Dick Van Dyke is the latter.

5. All in the Family (1971-1979)
There's idealistic, then there's realistic - kinda.
They were stereotypes in a show about stereotypes. As frustrating as it was hilarious.
And speaking of timeless: every big issue they dealt with is, tragically and completely, 100% relevant today. That's why it's worth watching, and rewatching, right now: everything is best combatted by laughing about it, and at it.

4. Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988-1999, present)
The entire concept was a thing of beauty, and it was in the hands of talented experts. And for the most part, it still is.
It's tough to describe it to someone who's never seen or heard of it (I've tried, and it's hilariously exhausting). Even when I discovered it, when MTV inexplicably aired an episode back in '93, it took me some time to figure out what the hell I was looking at.
Once you get it, you're either into it or not. I'm still hooked - new episodes and all.

3. Seinfeld (1989-1998)
I recently rewatched the entire series, from beginning to end. Twice.
I always knew it was uneven in quality. Watching it chronologically magnifies that fact, and at the same time, unifies it as one complete comedic, nihilistic journey. Each season recruited (and fired) its writing staff, which created less of an evolution, and more of a counterclockwise swirl; it began nowhere and ended nowhere, and was, at its core, about nothing.

2. Lost (2004-2010)
The only thing better than a show about nothing is a show about everything.
Like Seinfeld, it never ran out of steam (though seasons 1, 3, and 5 were weakest) and disappointed viewers with its finale. And in the case of both shows, and what people didn't make an effort to try to understand, is that when you're dealing with issues that are bigger than us, or too small to notice, that there is no end.
Personally, I've never been so quick to renounce an entire journey because I wasn't satisfied with the end (in fiction or in life).
All monsters, time travel, faith and science aside, if nothing more, this show introduced me to some of the most impressive acting talents I've ever seen -- specifically Michael Emerson and Terry O'Quinn.

1. The Simpsons (1989-present)
There is no moment in my life that can't be reflected by a line or a scene or an entire episode.
And speaking of radically uneven quality: it's been around long enough that, statistically, it doesn't matter. When it was good (seasons 3-15) it was really, really good. Van Johnson-good! They can make new episodes till the end of time, but it can't hurt that legacy.
Satire only works when it's subtle (which is why I don't like a handful of those other animated shows) and when it was hot, it nailed it. But it was also sight gags, slapstick, one liners, political humor, religious humor, highbrow, lowbrow, and anything else you can think of.
But most importantly, during that period (and before it) it really stayed sweet and innocent. That's maybe its greatest accomplishment: satire without cynicism. I'm hard-pressed to think of any other fiction in any other medium that has dared to even try that. It's the best.
But you know the pattern: just stay away from those later seasons.

1 comment:

Peyton said...

I've been waiting for this list for so long! Surprised you don't have I Dream of Jeannie or Fringe on here though. You really need to watch the new Twin Peaks -- I've enjoyed it a lot.

Couldn't agree more with you on your points. Sadly, I feel like films are less relevant to the masses these days.

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