Monday, January 14, 2019

Are These the 25 Best Classic TV Shows of All Time?

Just before Christmas I received an email from the Classic TV Blog Association, requesting input from members about the greatest classic television shows ever made (“classic” in this case meaning pre-1990). Each of us submitted our lists, and then ranked our favorites from all the shows selected.  

Here are the results, based on enduring popularity, social impact, and influence on other TV shows.

1.   The Twilight Zone
2.   I Love Lucy 
3.   The Mary Tyler Moore Show
4.   Columbo
5.   All in the Family
6.   Dragnet
7.   Monty Python’s Flying Circus
8.   Star Trek
9.   The Prisoner
10.  M*A*S*H
11.  The Dick Van Dyke Show
12.  The Fugitive
13.  Dallas
14.  Doctor Who
15.  The Andy Griffith Show
16.  The Defenders
17.  The Golden Girls
18.  Perry Mason
19.  SCTV
20.  The Honeymooners
21.  Alfred Hitchcock Presents
22.  Hill Street Blues
23.  The Odd Couple
24.  The Outer Limits
25.  The Avengers

This was not my final list, but what emerged after all the votes were tabulated and ranked. If you disagree with which shows made it and where they placed, you’re not alone – but then that’s the fun of projects like this.

Let’s take a closer look at the results:

1.         The Twilight Zone
I believe it is harder to maintain the quality of a series with the same premise and the same characters. An anthology series like The Twilight Zone can create new worlds every week, so each episode seems fresher and offers more surprises. And for that reason, while I certainly expect to find this show in the top 25, I would not have put it at #1. I had it at #7. 

2.         I Love Lucy 
This was my top show, but six of our members left it completely off their lists. I find that astonishing. No other situation comedy had more impact on its genre, from the three-camera filming process it pioneered to the invention of the rerun and syndication package. Plus, I Love Lucy may be 60+ years old but it’s no museum piece – most episodes are still laugh-out-loud funny. 

3.         The Mary Tyler Moore Show
No argument here. I ranked it #4. 

4.         Columbo
I was delighted to see Columbo ranked this high. Detective shows are a dime a dozen, but this is the only one to add a novel twist to the genre. Instead of viewers trying to solve the mystery with the investigator, Columbo showed us the crime and the criminal, and the fun was in watching how the detective figured out what happened. Theoretically it’s a concept that shouldn’t work, especially with a lead character that spent 90 minutes annoying the hell out of his suspects. I had it #8 on my list.

5.         All in the Family
Popular, influential, award-winning many times over, though not a series I enjoy revisiting. For me, an all-time great show should have a timeless quality to it. Norman Lear’s shows were very much products of the era in which they were created. I get the support it received from so many of my fellow TV historians, but this one isn’t for me. 

6.         Dragnet
I’d be curious to know how many votes were based on the police procedural’s original 1950s run, and how many were inspired by the late 1960s revival, which played for years on Nick at Nite and remains the only Dragnet available in DVD season sets. Either way, it’s another deserving choice. 

7.         Monty Python’s Flying Circus
My understanding was that this would be a ranking of prime time shows, so I was surprised to see Python here. Brilliant show – as quotable among my junior high school peers as any series ever broadcast – but it wasn’t on my list. 

8.         Star Trek
Absolutely – even though I find myself reaching for my Next Generation DVDs more often these days. It was #5 on my list. 

9.         The Prisoner
I don’t know about this one. There were just 17 episodes – is that a series or a miniseries? Plus like Python it’s an import that wasn’t aired in prime time, so well off my radar when I made my selections. Those who revere The Prisoner get frustrated with people like me who would have preferred a less ambiguous ending. I know – it’s deep! It’s symbolic! It’s allegorical! It’s also more than a little self-indulgent. 

10.   M*A*S*H
This one just missed my top 10. I prefer the later seasons, with Hawkeye, B.J. and Winchester in the swamp, Col. Potter in charge and Margaret as a sympathetic character and not a caricature. However, this is also when the stories became more pompous and preachy. Still, I can’t think of another series that balanced comedy and tragedy with the same finesse. 

11.      The Dick Van Dyke Show
Another lock. After I Love Lucy it’s perhaps the best sitcom of all time. It was #2 on my list. 

12.      The Fugitive
Like Columbo, here was a show with a premise that probably shouldn’t have worked. It asked audiences to root against the police in an era when that wasn’t as popular as it is now. It had to tell stories where Dr. Kimble would be almost apprehended or exonerated, while the audience knew full well that the show would be over if that happened. But with brilliant writing, top-tier guest stars and an unforgettable performance by David Janssen, The Fugitive surpassed any perceived limitations to become one of TV’s crown jewels. It was #6 on my list. 

13.      Dallas
Was Dallas a truly classic show, or a flavor of the month that rode a memorable cliffhanger into the record books? I’ll have to think about that for a while. 

14.      Doctor Who
I’ve been watching since Tom Baker piloted the TARDIS, so I understand the support it received. Had I considered non prime-time series, it might have made my top 10 as well. And I still miss Elisabeth Sladen. 

15.      The Andy Griffith Show
It’s easy to explain the love for this one. If you offered classic television fans a chance to jump through the TV screen into the world of any show, I think many of us would select Mayberry. 

16.      The Defenders
It seemed inappropriate to select this show when I’ve only watched one of its four seasons. But I was glad to see it here.

17.      The Golden Girls
I don’t dislike it but I’ve never been a fan either. I’ll give it another shot when my social security checks start arriving – by then I won’t have any patience for shows about young whippersnappers.

18.      Perry Mason
Not sure if we need two legal dramas among the top 25, though a case could be made for both Perry Mason and The Defenders. I’d keep one and give the other slot to a western like Gunsmoke, given how that genre ruled television in the 1950s.

19.      SCTV
Over Saturday Night Live? That was a surprise. 

20.      The Honeymooners
The classic 39 are still comedy gold. No objections, your honor.

21.      Alfred Hitchcock Presents
Not on my list. The quality here was not as consistent as The Twilight Zone. When it was good, with episodes like “Lamb to the Slaughter” and “An Unlocked Window,” it was brilliant. But it didn’t get there often enough in 268 episodes.

22.      Hill Street Blues
I had this one at #10. It felt like a sea change in television, with the way the series was shot and the more mature content. It felt closer to reality than most cop shows up to that time. 

23.      The Odd Couple
The Odd Couple was one of many sitcoms that deserves “classic” status, but that is not quite up to the “best of all time” criteria. If I had another sitcom I could add to the list, I’d go with either Bewitched or The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet.

24.      The Outer Limits
This was television’s first important science fiction series, and thus another worthy selection.

25.      The Avengers
The more I watch The Avengers, the more I wonder whether it’s really the show people love, or spending time with two of the most wonderful, witty, charming, and eminently watchable characters ever created. My affection for John Steed and Emma Peel far surpasses my recollection of the cases they tackled. 

Only one show from my top 10 list did not make the top 25 (and no, it was not The Brady Bunch). I nominated The Ed Sullivan Show, for its longevity (24 seasons!), and for the role it played in introducing Elvis, The Beatles, The Supremes and countless other iconic entertainers to a national audience.

Well, how did our little group do? Compliments and complaints are always welcome.


  1. At least a show produced by Quinn Martin (namely "The Fugitive") made the list. Um, would "Barnaby Jones" have had any business on the list? How about "Cannon"?

    1. Both good shows but they were not among my choices.

  2. I was also surprised that some voters left I LOVE LUCY off their lists. I’m a PRISONER fan and voted for it. It was and is a very original, innovative show. It did air in prime time in the U.S. One could certainly make an argument for GUNSMOKE with its lengthy run. And like you, I had THE FUGITIVE much higher. I didn’t vote for TZ as #1, but didn’t have an issue with it. It was usually good and sometimes brilliant.