This show has outlasted its detractors, outlasted the word ”yuppie,” even outlasted the annoyed media fad of attaching ”—something” to every other number and adjective in the English language. Thirtysomething remains the best-written, best-acted series on television. Twin Peaks takes big, mind-blowing chances (nothing wrong with that), but thirtysomething takes small, discreet ones that are just as fascinating to behold: Sex is a regular topic of conversation, not of sniggering jokes; marriages bend, twist, and snap before your eyes; literary references range from Elmore Leonard to Gerard Manley Hopkins. All the stars have one season left on their contracts, and all have made noises that they don’t want to renew; this means that, as the season proceeds, creators Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick will feel even more freedom to mess with lives in ways that lives don’t get messed with in prime-time.
2. Twin Peaks
It withstood its unprecedented hype on the strength of strong writing and directing, and now Twin Peaks has been liberated from its constrictive ”Who killed Laura Palmer?” plot line without (how typical) ever directly answering the question. By now it’s obvious that television suits producer-director-writer David Lynch. He responds to its conventions by making his fondness for non sequiturs and sexual perversity even more subtle: implied in the story lines and the actors’ performances. The result is a major motion picture, every week.
3. Murphy Brown
If Twin Peaks offers you a movie every Saturday night, Murphy Brown is like the best Broadway comedy imaginable — Neil Simon jokes imbedded in plots of Tom Stoppard shrewdness. This show has always been extremely well written and directed, and now it possesses the added pleasure of having been around for a while. The advantage of this is that Candice Bergen and her costars have a smooth comic rhythm goin — when you’re not laughing at the punch lines, you’re chuckling from the pleasure of watching impeccable pros at work.
4. Late Night With David Letterman
No longer the star of a hip show, freed from inhibitions raised by close media scrutiny (short of assassination, there’s no way Rolling Stone will ever put him on its cover again), good old Dave has spent the past season relaxing into his best role: the crankiest man in show business Letterman uses his public forum to denounce all show-biz pretense, and does so hilariously. Then, too, like a lot of cranky groups, he’s baas cally a softie. Calling his mom in Indiana for her opinion of Cop Rock (”We went out to the movies that night, David”) or talking soothingly to nervous guests intimidated by his petulant rep, Dave has been charming and sharp. He remains the best anti-celebrity celebrity we have. And the silliest as well — that bit where he hits the camera with a couple of quick boxer’s jabs (”Why, you…I oughta~SLAP!”) cracks me up every time.
5. The Simpsons
By now, creator Matt Groening has proven that you can get away with an awful lof if you put your social criticism into the mouths of dopey-looking cartoon characters. We’re all laughing at stuff Americans aren’t supposed to fid amusing: a cynical view of family life; a critique of capitalism; satire about politics and sexuality. The Fox network made its reputation by putting on shows that were crasser than the three other networks’; this, its most popular series, assumes a level of sophistication that is unheard of at 8 p.m. There’s a message in there somewhere…
One big reason this exemplary ensemble sitcom has lasted so long is that it contains a unique balance. There are characters whose personalities never change, whose funniness can always be depended on, like Norrn (George Wendt), Cliff (John Ratzenberger), Woody (Woody Harrelson), and Carla (Rhea Penman). But surrounding them are characters whose personalities are all over the place: One week bartender Sam (Ted Danson) is goofy; the next he’s shrewd; sometimes psychologist Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) is a peppery intellectual, and sometimes he’s a cynical barfly. Sometimes Rebecca (Kirstie Alley) is the object of everyone’s affection; sometimes she is the enemy. In this way Cheers remains fresh, thriving on the contrast between its dependable nuts and its unstable ones.
It’s almost impossible to separate Roseanne-the-person from Roseanne-the-sitcom, but even if you find Barr’s off-screen antics annoying, you have to credit her with television’s most aggressive, in-your-face series. Barr and her invaluable costar John Goodman, flinch at nothing; this season’s shows about their sex life and her PMS problems, and that jaw-dropper in which she dressed as a very convincing lumberjack for Halloween were funny, crass and touching.
A curse on NBC for not having faith in this beautifully acted, closely observed, low-rated show about a large extended family. William Windom carried a couple of episodes on his broad, aging back — he’s the sort of grandparent we all know but rarely see on television: wise but grumpy, affectionate but prickly. And Ed Begley Jr. did a terrific job of embodying a sensitive, hesitant young dad without turning his character into a whining wimp.
9. Evening Shade
Burt Reynolds as a sensitive, hesitant middle-aged dad: Who’d have thought he’d be terrifc at that? But he is. In its debut season Evening Shade has been uneven but when good — which is to say, whenever Reynolds and Hal Holbrook are chatting — it’s exhilaratingly, wittily good. The big talented cast (including Charles Durning, Elizabeth Ashley, Ossie Davis, and Marilu Henner) hasn’t quite jelled yet — these actors seem distracted, as if they’re still working on the interpretations of their colorful characters. But for now, it’s fun to watch them work it out: Even as a sitcom-in-rehearsal, Shade is better — odder, edgier, more surprising — than most half hours.
10. Get a Life
From week to week, this is usually the Fox network’s fourth most highly rated show, after The Simpson, Married…With Chilren, and In Living Color, it’s almost scary that Chris Elliott’s virulently aggressive sarcasm could become this popular. Elliott, who plays an adult who lives at home and makes his living as a paperboy, would be appalling if he weren’t also very funny. Most of the time, he can’t sustain his off-the-wall cynicism for the whole half hour, but for 10 minutes or so each episode, Elliott hits peaks of mean-spirited eccentricity that no other perforrner on television approaches. Those 10 minutes make Get a Life essential.
…And in a category of its own
The Civil War
The shows cited above deserve respect as week-in, week-out entertainment; Ken Burns’ 11 hours on the War Between the Sates was something else: a cultural event that, like Bart Simpson T-shirts, was inescapable. Without a huge publicity campaign, without Bill Moyers, without Kermit the Frog, the TV audience found its way to PBS and stayed glued to the set. The country became transfixed by its own history — Burns gave us our past, in all its messy, complex glory.