Sixty-four classic TV shows, organized into four “channels” of 16, competed to be Globe readers’ favorite series of the last 50 years. Here are the shows in Channel 1 of an NCAA-style “March Madness” bracket.
Eliminated in the semifinals
“The Sopranos” (1999-2007)
Perhaps you’ve heard of this HBO drama, which basically changed the direction of TV, drawing masses of viewers to pay cable with its brilliant, blackly comic scripts and superior acting. David Chase’s mob series took an unromanticized view of its well-drawn New Jersey thugs, and it presented them through the analytical lens of Tony Soprano’s therapist. It ushered in a golden age for scripted series.
Shows eliminated in Round 4
Six attractive New Yorkers provided fans with a kind of surrogate family of friends for 10 seasons and an eternity of reruns. The multi-camera sitcom was a sweet version of “Seinfeld,” with soap operatics involving the romantic tensions among the ensemble. It was also a pop cultural sensation, spawning hairstyles, catchphrases, and a cast of still-thriving actors.
Shows eliminated in Round 3
“Saturday Night Live” (1975- )
This long-running sketch-variety series may be TV’s most influential show, despite its unevenness. Yes, the sketches range from classic to awful, and they always have; but “SNL” has nonetheless consistently served as a training ground for some of the best American comics and comic actors, many of whom (from John Belushi and Will Ferrell to Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey) go on to dominate the world of entertainment. It also provides the kind of political satire that, when it hits the nail on the head, can affect public opinion.
In this medical drama, the realism was fresh and captivating, as the urgent pacing threw us into the chaos of an urban hospital. The doctors — played by an ever-changing and often extraordinary ensemble of actors — were heroic, not to mention romantic, neurotic, and sympathetic.
Shows that were eliminated in Round 2:
“The Waltons” (1972-81)
Created by Earl Hamner Jr. and set in rural Virginia during the Great Depression, it was a literary drama with a streak of old-fashioned sentiment. Writer-to-be John-Boy recalled the struggles and triumphs of his large family, including his six siblings, his parents, and his grandparents, all living together. Times were hard, but the family and their neighbors found strength and optimism in their love and respect for one another.
“Hill Street Blues” (1981-87)
This groundbreaker introduced narrative and stylistic ideas that are still used in TV police procedurals, including a documentary feel, a large ensemble cast, and a focus on moral questions. It was filled with strong performances — in 1982, all five nominees in the supporting actor category were from the show — and it featured diverse types not generally seen on TV.
“Six Feet Under” (2001-05)
Alan Ball’s compelling drama is still remembered for its finale, among TV’s best ever. But everything that came before that last episode was powerful, too, and the show was a key part of HBO’s groundbreaking period ushered in by “The Sopranos.” The themes were life and death, and love, too, as the Fisher family ran a funeral home in Los Angeles. The acting was all aces, not least of all Michael C. Hall and Peter Krause as brothers.
“NYPD Blue” (1993-2005)
From Seven Bochco and David Milch, this crime procedural distinguished itself by aiming for grittiness and realism, including nudity, off-color language, and difficult subject matter. It pushed the genre even further than Bochco’s “Hill Street Blues,” with handheld camerawork and a more introspective approach. Dennis Franz’s Detective Andy Sipowicz was a breakthrough character, a spectacularly flawed man with a spark of humanity lurking within.
Shows that were eliminated in Round 1:
“The Handmaid’s Tale” (2017- )
This dystopian vision of theocracy, patriarchy, and population decline is based on Margaret Atwood’s novel about women who are kidnapped, raped, and forced to bear children. Elisabeth Moss is a force as a rebellious handmaid, and she is surrounded by a strong cast including Ann Dowd as the nefarious Aunt Lydia. The terrifying overlap with current realities, most notably the door opened by the reversal of Roe v. Wade, has made the show especially resonant.
“This Is Us” (2016-22)
It was sentimental, but at the same time it was structurally groundbreaking. The series — arguably the networks’ last true prestige drama — jumped back and forth in time with remarkable continuity, ultimately delivering an epic portrait of a complicated extended family. Issues of body image, race, and adoption were always simmering behind the multiple story lines.
Normal Lear’s spin-off of “All in the Family” was an affectionate but substantive goof on liberalism. Bea Arthur was unforgettable as the titular powerhouse, an upper-middle-class Democrat whose opinions were always loud and clear. The writers took on all kinds of issues — abortion, alcoholism, marijuana laws — with bracing honesty, intelligence, and humor, and it remains relevant 50 years after its premiere.
This show reinvented the serial soap opera for weekly nighttime consumption, balancing melodrama with excessive wealth, absurd twists, and a highly watchable antihero — Larry Hagman’s J.R. Ewing — who became a template of sorts for later dramas including “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men.” The cliffhangers created a sensation, solidifying TV’s role as the medium most made for water-cooler conversation.
This underdog was far from a mainstream hit, but it cultivated a loyal and passionate audience during its run on Sundance TV. It was about a man, played hauntingly by Aden Young, who is released from death row thanks to DNA evidence. He has not been exonerated, though, and his return to his family and hometown is intensely fraught, leading to all kinds of intensely dramatic situations.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s dark comedy was a stunning portrait of a grieving woman acting out her worst impulses from unexpressed pain. The series ultimately comprised only two six-episode seasons, but it seemed to tell the story of an entire lifetime. Waller-Bridge’s performance was charismatic, and her writing was at times devastatingly honest.
“The Jeffersons” (1975-85)
Spun off of “All in the Family,” this show gave us a portrait of the diversity and complexity of the Black American experience. The family was “moving on up” and confronting institutionalized racism along the way. Oh, and it was brilliantly funny, too. As in most Norman Lear comedies, controversial social issues were treated with great comic dexterity.
“Law & Order” (1990-2010, 2022- )
Dick Wolf’s crime series created a formula that has become a kind of balm to viewers over the years, not least of all in reruns, and it has spawned a spate of NBC spin-offs. The drama has its roots deep in New York City, where we first watch cops investigate a case, then see the DA’s office prosecute it. The cast has changed regularly, but the set-up, and blackly comic flourishes, remain the same.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.