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The Most Underrated & Overrated Influential TV Shows

Andrew Payne Andrew Payne
August 22nd, 2008 9:28am EDT
Miami ViceImitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and on television it often appears to be the only form of creativity. Yes, ever since Milton Berle first stole a joke for "Texaco Star Theatre", TV has been a wild west of borrowing material and copying good ideas until they've become completely stale. Many of these ideas were so good, in fact, that their resonance is still felt today, and that's when a show crosses over from being copied to being influential.

Over the years, many shows have been considered influential. From "The Dick Van Dyke Show" first showing both the home and office life of its star to "Seinfeld" turning to topical humor about the minutiae of everyday life, many shows have cast a shadow so large that imitating them has become essential to success.

Still, some shows are given too much credit for being influential. Oftentimes this is due to a confusion between a series' being groundbreaking rather than influential. Other shows have seen ideas they originated permeate the world of the small screen with little credit thrown their way.

The following are the most overrated and underrated influential television shows:

OVERRATED

5. "The Cosby Show"

Bill CosbyBill Cosby's 80s classic saved the sitcom genre and was one of the first shows to present African-Americans in a completely non-stereotypical light, but to call it influential is a bit ludicrous. "The Cosby Show" was much more a throwback than it was a step forward for the genre. Its family-centric plotlines were very reminiscent of something like "Father Knows Best", one of the first sitcoms ever made. Plus, the sad fact remains that its portrayal of African-Americans never really continued. In fact, simply putting black actors on network TV seemingly has been completely abandoned by execs. It would be nice if "The Cosby Show" had been influential enough to add some color to the faces of network TV, but, as it stands, it's simply a classic comedy throwback whose ideas never really moved forward.

4. "I Love Lucy"

I Love LucyThis show broke more ground than an undertaker. It featured a smart and funny female lead, an interracial couple, used the word "pregnant" when it was an unspeakable taboo, and it became the first show to brazenly jump the shark when the whole gang moved to Connecticut. Yes, "Lucy" was a trailblazing and hilarious comedy, but it certainly wasn't influential. Why? Because it was years and decades and half-centuries before we began to see interracial couples again, until "The Brady Bunch" couples never shared beds, let along got pregnant, and it's still incredibly rare to find smart and funny female leads on TV (blame that on the abhorrent lack of women behind the camera). "Lucy" didn't seem to influence a single show that came after it. Instead, networks ignored its brilliantly innovative conventions and went right back to making vanilla mundane comedies.

3. "The Daily Show"

The Daily ShowIt's unreal how many people think this "Weekend Update" rip-off is an influential voice in television. It's not the first completely fake news show, (HBO's "Not Necessarily the News") nor is it the first non-fiction show devoted entirely to social satire, David Frost's brilliant "That Was the Week That Was" and Michael Moore's "TV Nation" beat them to that. So what exactly is so influential about this program? Is it Jon Stewart's everyman comedy? Well David Letterman (see below) pioneered that. Is it their interviews with politicians? They wrote a play about David Frost's interview with Richard Nixon! "The Daily Show" didn't really break any ground and anybody who's influenced by it is actually taking the ideas that "The Daily Show" cobbled together from previous sources. Despite that, critics will continue to praise it as one of the most influential shows on television. Seems like they need a history lesson.

2. "The Sopranos"

The SopranosThe vulgarity, nudity and violence weren't new ("Oz" beat them to all of that), but that's not really why people see "The Sopranos" as being so influential. Critics claim that this was the first series to produce a 55-minute movie every week instead of mere television episodes. If this were true, then "The Sopranos" would highly influential, but both "Twin Peaks" and "The X-Files" started to do this in the early 90s. They shot almost entirely on-location like "The Sopranos" with production values seldom seen on TV. Heck, "Twin Peaks" was directed by top-20 all-time director David Lynch!

The one truly groundbreaking feature of "The Sopranos" was that it established a theme in its first episode (Tony's fear of losing his family symbolized by the ducks leaving his pool) complicated it, tested it, and ultimately brought it to a climax (Tony's family simply joining him for dinner in the restaurant before the screen went black) much in the same way a novel would. Problem is, nobody's followed suit in the years since its premiere, nor does anybody seem to want to due to the extreme thought and care necessary for such a task (though "Mad Men" looks like it might want to take a crack at it). Until thematic storytelling becomes the norm on television, "The Sopranos" will get more credit as an influential force than it deserves.

1. "Saturday Night Live"

Saturday Night LiveWhat exactly did this series influence? "MadTV"? Not exactly a coup for how influential "SNL" is supposed to be. Its concept was hardly new at the time of its debut. Variety shows had existed for decades beforehand and the only real difference was its edgier format. It never really did anything to innovate the genre, taking most of its cues from "The Carol Burnett Show" and other sketch shows at the time. Looking at the sketch series that followed it ("SCTV", "The Ben Stiller Show", "The Kids in the Hall", "The State") show a lot more influence from "Monty Python's Flying Circus" than they do any resemblance to "SNL." Its humor also has never permeated. Its technique evolved over the years mainly based on other styles at the times. It never seemed like "SNL" was a trendsetter and more of a loudspeaker for the day's prevalent humor. The show is certainly one of the funniest shows ever, but to call it one of the most influential is giving it entirely undeserved credit.

UNDERRATED

5. "Miami Vice"

Miami Vice"MTV Cops" was Michael Mann's simple pitch and afterwards television wouldn't be the same. The way Mann used music and his stylized cinematography has been aped in countless films and TV shows. It's now completely standard to use pop songs of the day and yesterday in order to build tension in a scene. In fact, some of the most memorable moments of shows like "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under" have been set to pop tunes. Nobody thought to do that before Mann rolled in and unleashed his MTV Cops on the masses. Thankfully, the fashion didn't become influential, but the way Mann filmed the show is required for shows looking to make an impact today. Still, a lot of people see "Vice" as nothing more than an 80s relic and a bit of camp.

4. "The Ben Stiller Show"

Ben StillerDebuting on MTV and then moving to Fox, "The Ben Stiller Show" influenced the way all the comedy on its original network looked and sounded for years to come. Look at every sketch from the VMA's and Movie Awards for the years after its debut, each has the look and feel of a sketch from Stiller's show. Also, before Quentin Tarantino and the rapid-fire insertions from the "Gilmore Girls", "The Ben Stiller Show" was the first to embrace pop culture as a form of humor. This has permeated both comedy and drama since Stiller's debut setting us up for the blog culture where referencing films and TV is required. Despite its massive influence, most people don't even know that Ben Stiller ever had a TV show, let alone the fact that it paved the way for pop culture comedy that would soon dominate TV in its wake. Could be because it was cancelled after 12 episodes.

3. "Late Show with David Letterman"

Late Show with David LettermanThere was a time when you had to be, well, better than everybody else in order to get a job on television. Sophistication and worldliness was a must for television hosts. Even the comic legend Johnny Carson was asked to go into detail about his favorite opera when he interviewed for "The Tonight Show." Letterman changed all that. He was a goofy-looking schlub without much in the way telegenicity. Letterman was just funny, a pretty obvious notion that nobody had ever thought of before. He paved the way for any regular guy host to have a shot at the big time. There was also the comedy. The way he did goofy irony was unlike anything on television at the time. Now it's everywhere, all over Conan O'Brien and "The Simpsons" and just about any comedy show on cable or even on the radio. The problem with Letterman is that he's so influential that it doesn't seem like he even influenced anybody. His comedy has become such a part of our culture that nobody can remember a time before it was the standard way to get laughs. This makes Letterman seem more like the king of comedy in people's eyes rather than the guy who go the irony ball rolling in the first place.

2. "The Civil War"

The Civil WarNot technically a TV series, Ken Burns sprawling 11-hour miniseries has seen more imitations than Richard Little's wife. The innovations he brought to television are countless. From having actors read historical documents in character, from clips and photos followed by expert commentary to the fabled "Ken Burns Effect" of zooming in on one part of a larger photo, nearly every documentary series owes a huge debt to the miniseries that brought Burns into the mainstream. "Biography" reinvented itself based on his innovations, "Behind The Music" and "The E! True Hollywood Story" copied his style almost directly and nearly everything on The History Channel looks as though it were filmed by Burns. Despite its massive influence, "The Civil War" is almost an afterthought now. Maybe because it was so brilliant in its innovation that every new idea it introduced has become commonplace, kind of like "The French Connection." That's the surest sign of something truly influential and also a certain path to being underrated.

1. MLB and NFL on Fox

Once upon a time baseball games showed one steady camera shot with the occasional cutaway to the dugout when a manager got on the phone to the bullpen. Football games showed the one shot from the sidelines and that was about hit. Also, viewers had to wait for the commercial breaks to get the scores or hope the announcer would blurt them out in between calling the action. When Fox brought their "attitude" to sports coverage all that began to change. Their introduction of the "Fox Box" left the score onscreen for the entire game. Their baseball coverage included lots of cuts to fans, players warming up, outfielders and various other places in order to create movement during the gap between pitches. Suddenly everything seemed fast and a lot more fun and every other station covering sports followed suit, developing their own boxes and having cameras fly around the field and stands.

This reach extended beyond sports coverage, however, graphics are everywhere on TV these days. From the rundown on the side of "Pardon the Interruption" to the requisite scrolls on the bottom of every news channel, graphics are a standard on television and it all started with the "Fox Box". Despite its massive influence, Fox gets essentially no credit for the way it revolutionized television and how its changes are present on nearly every single show at this point. This is most likely due to a general disrespect towards sports programming and Fox in general. Whatever the case, the influence of Fox's MLB and NFL coverage is more underrated than the rest.

Check back next week for the most overrated and underrated Woody Allen films.

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Andrew Payne
Story by Andrew Payne
Starpulse contributing writer