As a medium, television has shaped our culture for six decades. Most shows, even successful ones, come and go with little fanfare. Yet every now and then, an innovative producer, and a network executive willing to take a chance, ignore conventional wisdom and create a groundbreaking new show unlike anything else on the air. Here are 10 innovative sitcoms and dramas that resonated with viewers, charted up the Nielsen ratings and, yes, ushered in a wave of similar programs.
10. Touched by an Angel (CBS, 1994-2003)
Initially derailed by critics, Touched by an Angel was considered a failure at the onset. In its fall 1994 preview guide, the editors of TV Guide had this to say: “It’s the iffiest show on TV. … By the time you read this, it will be gone.” While the CBS anthology did stumble out of the gate and was almost canceled after its first season, network executives had faith and allowed the show to grow. Over time, viewers connected with Tess, Monica, Andrew and, in later seasons, Gloria. Although compared often to Highway to Heaven, this drama broke ground by mentioning God prominently and often and attempted to incorporate people of all religions.
9. Three’s Company (ABC, 1977-1984)
Based on the British series, Man About the House, this slapstick comedy initially sparked boycotts and sharp reviews from TV critics, religious leaders and other moral advocacy groups. While Three’s Company never shied away from poking fun at sex, the series was more about friendship and the depiction of a single man sharing an apartment in Santa Monica, Calif., with two single women — a scenario that had not previously been depicted on TV.
8. Married … With Children (Fox, 1987-1997)
Creators Michael G. Moye and Ron Leavitt set out to mock wholesome family comedies — where dad wore a suit at the dinner table and dispensed abundant advice — with this family sitcom. Married … With Children debuted on the then-fledging Fox network, and executives eagerly approved the series as a maneuver to put the broadcaster on the map. Audiences hooted and hollered each week as cynical Al Bundy interacted with lazy, dim-witted housewife Peg and their two kids, Kelly and Bud.
7. The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970-1977)
Hitting the airwaves at a time when CBS was shifting away from rural comedies to more urban, socially conscious ones, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was trailblazing as it depicted the title character, Mary Richards, as a smart, independent and, most interestingly, single woman in her 30s. Despite the unique scenario — not seen previously on TV — Mary was depicted as sweet and likable and audiences warmed to her, and the rest of the ensemble cast, for seven seasons.
6. The Simpsons (Fox, 1989-Present)
Though it is not the first cartoon to debut in prime time — that distinction belongs to The Flintstones — The Simpsons will go down in history as one of the longest-running series. The show initially raised eyebrows with its depiction of mischievous Bart Simpson and his disrespect for authority. But over the years, audiences have laughed at the various antics the Simpson clan have embarked on, and a plethora of animated imitators have followed their path.
5. The Golden Girls (NBC, 1985-1992)
Proving age is just a number, audiences of all ages reserved their Saturday nights to hang out with Dorothy, Rose, Blanche and Sophia for seven seasons. The quartet — all women in their 50s and up — were depicted as hip socialites with disparate personalities. With grown children and spouses that departed (through death or divorce), the “girls” proved each week that life is all about attitude and a zest for life, and the series – anything but geriatric – will live on for generations for that reason.
4. ER (NBC, 1994-2009)
A hit right out of the gate, ER is currently the longest running medical drama in TV history, lasting an astounding 15 seasons and boosting the careers of countless actors, most notably George Clooney. Throughout its decade-and-a-half on the air, the show garnered a record-setting 124 Emmy nominations. The series’ longevity can be traced to its cast. ER had a strong ensemble throughout its run. While various characters came and went through the fictitious County General Hospital, the strong writing and story lines engaged viewers throughout the show’s 331 episodes.
3. All in the Family (CBS, 1971-1979)
Debuting midway through the 1970-1971 season, nervous CBS executives warned viewers they were about to watch a show unlike any other before the premiere episode of All in the Family on Jan. 12, 1971. The disclaimer told viewers the groundbreaking sitcom sought to “throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show, in a mature fashion, just how absurd they are.” Nothing was off limits on All in the Family through the eyes of bigoted Archie Bunker. Episodes touched on such taboo subjects as racism, abortion and homosexuality.
2. The Cosby Show (NBC, 1984-1992)
Although it wasn’t the first series to depict a successful black family, The Cosby Show was the first to resonate with mainstream audiences. Julia, a 1968-1971 comedy, featured a successful, widowed black woman and holds the distinction as the first to go down this path. That sitcom, much like The Cosby Show, was criticized within the black community for not accurately depicting some of the hardships its members faced. But the heads of the Huxtable clan, Cliff (a doctor) and Claire (a lawyer), did provide role models to audiences of all races by holding successful careers and taking active interests in their children’s lives — all with a comic bent, of course.
1. I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951-1960)
For nine seasons, wacky Lucy Ricardo and her Cuban bandleader husband Ricky gave audiences a reason to laugh. The show was a top-rated hit throughout its entire run, but I Love Lucy goes down in history as a trailblazing series beyond the content of the show itself. Throughout discussions in the development phase, stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz convinced the show’s sponsor, Philip Morris, to film the show — a technique rarely practiced at the time because of high production costs — rather than air it live. As head producer, Arnaz developed a technique that later became a sitcom staple — the multi-camera setting and a laugh track.