What if you could program a perfect week of TV, gathering shows from the entire history of the medium? Here’s one TV critic’s ideal TV playlist, seven nights of classics from “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” to “Mad Men.”
8: All in the Family (1)
8:30: Arrested Development
9: Six Feet Under (2)
10:30: The Andy Griffith Show (3)
News: PBS NewsHour (4)
Late Night: Second City Television (5)
(1) Gotta start with Archie Bunker and TV’s best, realest family sitcom. All the social, cultural, racial, political, and class conflicts born in the Seismic Sixties were in play on Norman Lear’s masterpiece, as America and Archie headed into the Reagan era; it’s still scarily relevant.
(2) When we talk about TV’s most recent post-Tony Soprano “Golden Age,” we often forget to mention Alan Ball’s gem. As a meditation on the certainty of death, and the demands of life, it was aces. Also: Best. Series. Finale. Ever.
(3) So many band names afoot: Li’l Opie, Hell and Crump, Goober Pyle, Roy Stoner. This tribute to small-town life in America and single parenting was a paean to simple living, and Griffith and Don Knotts are among TV’s best buddy teams. It follows “Transparent,” for a headful of compare and contrast.
(4) PBS delivers the best, least flashy nightly news, with thorough coverage that avoids hyped-up crime stories and lame lifestyle bits. It’s as fair and balanced as you’ll find.
(5) John Candy, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Rick Moranis, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara. Enough said.
ON THE COUCH
8: In Treatment
8:30: Bob Newhart
9: The Sopranos
10: Curb Your Enthusiasm (6)
10:30 Twilight Zone (7)
News: South Park (8)
Late Night: The Dick Cavett Show (9)
(6) No, Larry is not in therapy. But: He ought to be, even though he’s had some weird experiences with head doctors, including one who wears a thong at the beach.
(7) Rod Serling’s influential and haunting sci-fi anthology is a series of cautionary tales and philosophical questions that will wake you up — and without CGI. And that’s what therapy can do so well.
(8) This animated series is remarkably topical. No, it’s not necessarily the news, but it’s howlingly funny and timely.
(9) At this point, if you want good interviews, you’d best stick to podcasts. But Cavett’s ABC late-night series, from 1969-75, helped show the potential of TV interviewing, with guests who trusted him. He had the thoughtful, non-judgmental manner of a good therapist. Classic episodes include Janis Joplin, John Cassavetes, Jimi Hendrix, Salvador Dali, and Dali’s anteater.
8:30: Will & Grace
9: Mad Men
10:30 Sex and the City (10)
News: The Daily Show With Jon Stewart
Late Night: Late Night With David Letterman (11)
(10) Important: This does not include either “Sex and the City” movie. Only the series, which was charming, frank, funny, and a celebration of dating in Manhattan in the late 1990s. I was tempted by “Nurse Jackie,” a brilliant portrait of a pill-addicted nurse in New York, but after the urban melancholy of “Louie,” comedy is in order.
(11) Important: This does not include CBS’s “Late Show With David Letterman,” not because it was bad, at least before Dave got lazy, but because it wasn’t groundbreaking. With crazy stunts, ironic patter, and downtown guests, the NBC show made it seem as though anything could happen after midnight.
TV on TV
8: The Larry Sanders Show
8:30: The Dick Van Dyke Show (12)
9: Freaks and Geeks (13)
10: 30 Rock
10:30: The Mary Tyler Moore Show
News: Reliable Sources (14)
Late Night: See It Now (15)
(12) The more recent TV comedies about TV are bitingly satirical, not least of all “The Comeback,” which I couldn’t fit here. But “Dick Van Dyke” began the genre with warmth and an affectionate view of human nature. Rob, Buddy, and Sally were family.
(13) OK, the one-season classic set in 1981 Michigan is not about TV, really. But it’s about the absence of MTV, to some extent, as Judd Apatow and Paul Feig introduced us to kids who still had vestiges of innocence. Cynical corporate rock hadn’t yet ruined them.
(14) Brian Stelter’s version of the weekly CNN show is a great reminder of the role of the medium in the message.
(15) Edward R. Murrow and Fred W. Friendly created this provocative CBS news magazine, which ran from 1951-58 (parts are on YouTube). Best known for fierce criticism of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Communist witch hunt, the show helped usher journalism onto TV. It also revealed the tension between reporting stories honestly and the network’s wish to please sponsors.
8: Breaking Bad
9: Kids in the Hall (16)
9:30 Monty Python’s Flying Circus
10: Black Mirror (17)
News: The Colbert Report
Late Night: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (18)
(16) Canada, eh? Yay.
(17) This is the closest thing to a modernized “Twilight Zone” as you’ll ever find. Beautifully produced, smartly written, hauntingly possible, these near-future stories are riveting. And, like everything on Friday night, twisted.
(18) Withering satire with a withered heroine. Norman Lear’s sendup of soap operas, and America, and commercialism, and sexism, originally ran in late-night. It was alternative comedy before that genre had a name, as our pigtailed protagonist fought off reality with a container of toilet bowl cleanser. This Mary, a housewife kept a child by her culture, wasn’t going to make it after all.
8: Brideshead Revisited (19)
9: Masterpiece: Bleak House
10: Game of Thrones
Late Night: Saturday Night Live (20)
(19) No question, it’s one of the best miniseries ever made, both loyal to Evelyn Waugh’s novel and expansive in its spectacular setting. It was hard to choose one from the long list of ambitious TV miniseries — say David Simon’s devastating “The Corner,” or “Pride and Prejudice” from 1995 with Colin Firth. Likewise, I chose “Bleak House” at 9, but I could easily have substituted a number of “Masterpiece” period dramas from the series’ phenomenal catalog of classics.
(20) Yeah, we all hate “SNL.” Too long, weak writing, spotty cast, repetitive riffs. I never miss an episode.
7: Friday Night Lights (21)
8: Parks and Recreation
9: The West Wing (22)
10: Rome (23)
News: Last Week Tonight With John Oliver
Late Night: Austin City Limits (24)
(21) There’s so much I can say about why I love this show, which, in case you haven’t heard, was not really about football. It also wasn’t ironic or cynical, and that’s rare for a drama that spends a lot of time with teens. The marriage at the heart of the action was earthy and strained and beautifully negotiated. The local Texas community was close yet quarrelsome. Doing heartwarming but unsentimental: Not easy.
(22) “Veep” is the perfect lead-in, as it delivers all the paralysis and self-interest that afflict American politics. Just when you think our system is hopeless, along comes “The West Wing” with some of TV’s most optimistic views on government. Heroism lives in this Capra-esque world, and it talks really fast. By the way, after Aaron Sorkin left and John Wells took over, the drama remained strong.
(23) This forgotten HBO series is both a hard-R-rated soap and a historical period drama, as it chronicles — with a savvy mix of fact and fiction — Roman power struggles. See the wonderfully manipulative character Atia deliver one of TV’s more subtle insults to Cleopatra: “Die screaming, you pig-spawned trollop.”
(24) This is where I mention a few of the shows I couldn’t include, since there are only seven days in a week: “The Wire,” “Shameless,” “The Waltons,” “Fargo,” “The Americans,” “Deadwood,” “Maude,” “M*A*S*H,” “Scrubs,” “The Comeback,” “Playhouse 90,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Oz,” and “Homicide: Life on the Street.”