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Nine memorable TV shows about TV - VIDEO

by Allison Waldman, posted Mar 18th 2009 10:06AM
The Mary Tyler Moore Show

The success of Slumdog Millionaire and Frost/Nixon recently inspired me to assess the ten best movies about television. TV has been a fertile source of entertainment for filmmakers. The TV turf is also a popular setting for TV shows, and there have been some all-time great shows about the tube. Here are nine that I think warrant special recognition -- in no special order.

1. The Mary Tyler Moore Show
It all started at WJM-TV in Minneapolis. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the perfect sitcom blend of home and work, and work happened to be the local TV news team. As Mary Richards, the associate producer, Mary Tyler Moore was the single girl America loved because she was real, funny, gorgeous and lovable. At work, the news was mangled nightly by Ted Baxter, the quintessential news reader anchorman who loved every dulcet tone of his voice and had no idea what he was reporting. In perfect irony, when the show came to an end, most everyone at WJM -- Lou Grant, Murray Slaughter, Sue Anne Nivens, Mary -- were fired. Only Ted was spared!

2. The Dick Van Dyke Show
Rob Petrie might have just been a suburban husband and father who worked in the city, and The Dick Van Dyke Show would still have been funny. But having Rob be the head writer of The Alan Brady Show, a weekly comedy variety show set in New York, based on creator Carl Reiner's real experience as a writer-performer on Your Show of Shows, makes Van Dyke a TV classic. We not only got to see how Rob and his co-writers, Buddy and Sally, made comedy happen, the three were often included in the show. As was Laura, Rob's wife, the lovely Mary Tyler Moore. Here, for instance, is a scene from an Alan Brady Christmas special:

3. Sports Night

Brilliantly written by Aaron Sorkin with sharply drawn characters, Sports Night was Sorkin's take on the world of an ESPN-type of highlight show and the people who created it nightly. The show was 30 minutes, but it wasn't a standard sitcom. It was a dramedy before the airwaves were packed with them. It was character driven, focusing on the on and off air friendship between Dan and Casey, Peter Krause and Josh Charles, the two sports anchors at the fictional Continental Sports Channel (loosely based on Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick, although there were bits of Craig Kilborn in there, too). ABC tried to keep Sports Night viable, but it was a ratings casualty. However, it's depiction of TV and the people who do a daily broadcast on a beat they love was spot on.

4. The Larry Sanders Show
No show has ever lifted the curtain and shown the gritty side of the TV business the way The Larry Sanders Show did. HBO allowed the Sanders show to thrive, unencumbered by censors or beholden to Nielsens. Garry Shandling had been a long-time sub for Johnny Carson, and his version of The Tonight Show was Larry Sanders. Garry was mercurial and neurotic as Larry, but also vulnerable and twisted and always funny. His clueless on-air sidekick, Hey Now Hank Kingsley, was Jeffrey Tambor's first great TV role. Rip Torn was his executive producer Artie, the man who could handle everything and still get the show on the air each night at 11:30. Take a look at some of Larry Sanders, emphasis on Artie:

5. Murphy Brown
Television star and news legend Murphy Brown was the star of FYI, a weekly news program a la 60 Minutes. She was great at her job, not so great at life. As a reporter and TV interviewer, Murphy Brown as played by Candice Bergen was Barbara Walters with attitude. She could handle anything working a story, but she went through secretaries at a rate of one a week. Surrounding Murphy was the executive producer that she rode relentlessly, Miles Silverberg, old school anchorman Jim Dial, good guy investigative reporter Frank Fontana, and forever perky feature/lifestyle reporter Corky Sherwood. The real TV angle of Murphy Brown was watching them creating the show and living their lives at the same time. Murphy became a larger than life phenomenon when she decided to have a baby without benefit of a husband, becoming the object of scorn by then Vice President Dan Quayle. He didn't seem to get that Murphy was a TV character.

While the original Saturday Night Live was capturing America in the early 1970's, a Canadian import was doing comedy just as wild and inventive via syndication. The cast was filled with comics who could do a plethora of characters -- John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Harold Ramis, Andrea Martin and Catherine O'Hara -- and unlike SNL, SCTV was set in a fictional TV station in Melonville. Within that construct, the characters emerged, like Johnny Larue, Edith Prickly, Bobby Bittman, Guy Caballero, Lola Heatherton ("I love you all! I want to bear your children!")...all doing wacky programs that spoofed talk shows, commercials, everything and anything on TV. This is a clip from later in the show's run, when Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis made cultural heroes of Doug and Bob McKenzie:

7. Buffalo Bill
Dabney Coleman starred in this NBC comedy about a local TV talk show host, Bill Bittinger, the most popular guy in Buffalo, New York on screen. Off screen, however, Bill is a curmudgeon who's as irascible and hard to deal with as Ebenezer Scrooge. The comic delight was watching Bill's dual personality, on screen and off, and how he interacted with the great cast of characters around him, including Geena Davis (pre-Oscar), Meshach Taylor (pre-Designing Women) and Joanna Cassidy. Mostly, it was Dabney Coleman at his best, spoofing local TV talk with aplomb. This show was truly ahead of its time.

8. 30 Rock
Two shows about the making of a weekly live late night comedy show came out the same year. Both were excellent in their own ways, but only one made it -- 30 Rock. (See Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip below). What was the difference? Tina Fey's insight into the making of a comedy show like Saturday Night Live came from her own experience. The show was funny, as was the show within the show, and the characters behind the scenes. Tina wisely made Liz Lemon a latter day Mary Richards, allowing her to reflect the bizarre characters spinning around her. The coup was casting Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy, the larger than life GE executive who oversees TGS.

9. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
Despite Aaron Sorkin's best efforts to take Sports Night to another level with this look at the making of a legendary late night comedy show -- like Saturday Night Live -- Studio 60 never lived up to the hype and expectations it engendered. The bromantic duo of Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford had great chemistry, but there wasn't very much funny about what they were creating. And it wasn't as important as The West Wing, so the back and forth occasionally seemed preachy. The creation of the show within the show never really took off, in part because Sarah Paulson as Harriet Hayes was never convincing as the comic gold of the live comedy show.

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Sports Night was great, and it was often very funny. Family Guy, on the other hand, is like past-its-prime Simpsons, if they only had one type of joke.

March 18 2009 at 4:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Yes, Sports Night, really. That show was fantastic.

And the best part, Felicity Huffman. She absolutely rocked it.

March 18 2009 at 4:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Sports Night? Really? I think Family Guy said it best: "it's a comedy that's too good to be funny."

March 18 2009 at 2:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Michael's comment

Heh. Too good to be funny.

What's Family Guy's excuse?

March 18 2009 at 4:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I was getting nervous, thinking you weren't going to list Studio 60. So glad you did!

March 18 2009 at 11:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

All great choices--even "Studio 60" was "memorable", if a semi-disaster. And "Murphy Brown" was only good for about half of its run.
But what's with the old-timey black-and-white photo from "Mary Tyler Moore"? That series was in color from the first episode through to the last. Was it just an artistic attempt to underline that the show is over 30 years old? I know there are some young TV Squad readers, and writers, out there, but TV was consistently in color, all-color, by the early 1970s. I grew up in that decade, and all the TV I watched was in color. Please don't make those days seem even longer ago than they really were.

March 18 2009 at 11:02 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Scott's comment

The black and white photo is from the Dick Van Dyke show which aired from 1961-1966. Mary Tyler Moore played Dick's wife in that black and white series.

March 18 2009 at 11:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Thanks, Dana, but no, it's not. That's the MTM cast. They never appeared on "The Dick Van Dyke Show"--only Mary did. And that's a specific scene, from the last episode of MTM, which aired in 1977. In color.

March 19 2009 at 11:23 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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