Television is an evolving medium, and has been since American households welcomed TVs into the living room almost a century ago. There's no better evidence, perhaps, of television's progressive growth over the years than the embarrassment of riches to be found and savored on the small screen today; there's programming for everyone, no matter what their tastes or where their proclivities lie.
Nailing down the shows that have influenced television's development over time is a daunting task; there's a lot of TV to choose from, so much that any individual's list would feel totally unique to another's. But we at Screen Rant are always up for a challenge, so we sorted through countless titles to make our picks for the series that have wielded the most influence over television, movies, and pop culture at large. Read on for our list of the ten most influential TV series:
Before Boyd Crowder toed the line between being a good guy and a total heel, before Game of Thrones shocked an audience unfamiliar with George R.R. Martin by taking Sean Bean’s head, and before Walter White made ruthless meth dealing cool, there was The Wire, a show where main characters weren’t safe and in which amorality ruled the day.
The Wire has gained a lot from the influence of other entries that appear further down this list, but this is the show that proved, even after The Sopranos, that must-see TV didn’t have to be relegated just to network stations. Though this police drama owes a debt to its predecessors, it’s no less groundbreaking on its own merits. Even casual fans probably can’t hear “The Farmer in the Dell” without looking over their shoulders anymore.
A show doesn’t stick around for twenty years without shaping its peers and its successors. Law & Order aired between 1990 and 2010, and during that time spawned four spin-offs - Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: Trial by Jury, and Law & Order: LA - as well as a TV movie, all while giving the New York television industry its lifeblood and immortalizing the likes of Jerry Orbach, Jesse L. Martin, Mariska Hargitay, and Sam Waterston.
So if you detect shades of Dick Wolf’s iconic series while watching, say, The Shield, or The Practice, or Homicide: Life on the Streets (which enjoyed several crossovers with Law & Order), or even CSI, which so closely follows Law & Order’s spin-off model, it’s probably not an accident. The original Law & Order is the best of the brand, but the show’s “ripped from the headlines” realism has had a big role in molding procedural fare for a long, long time.
Nearly five years after arriving at its conclusion, Lost, with its twists, turns, and contrivances, remains a locus of controversy. But if the story’s lingering questions and unresolved mysteries still drive debate about its subjective qualities, there’s no denying the impact J.J. Abrams’ and Damon Lindelof’s mind-bending baby had on television during and after its six season run.
Consider shows like Flashforward, Revolution, Person of Interest, Once Upon a Time, and Fringe, each of which has benefitted in some way (either in front of the camera or behind the scenes) from Lost’s massive popularity. The seriesalso took Abrams’ “mystery” box approach to storytelling to new oblique heights, something audiences would continue to see in films like Cloverfield and Star Trek Into Darkness - neither of which might exist without Lost’s success. (Come to that, the same is probably true of Prometheus.)
Speaking of Star Trek, how much do you love your tablet? Because Gene Roddenberry invented that sucker several decades before career slacker Steve Jobs got around to churning out the iPad and thereby effecting the course of technology for the next few years. Next time you load up a game of Farmville on your Android, just remember to give credit where due.
But there’s more to what makes Star Trek: The Generation important than the fact that it laid the groundwork for the post-2010 rise in neat mobile computing gizmos. Notably, the series carved out a new foothold for genre shows at a time when genre was in a slump on television; it helped geek interests break into the mainstream anew, and arguably paved the way for future properties like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, and even Lost (which in turn each paved the way for other properties). The nerds have inherited the Earth, and Star Trek: The Next Generation might be one of the earliest steps of their takeover of pop culture.
At first blush, The X-Files might seem more like a benefactor of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s influence than an influence unto itself. But like Star Trek: TNG, The X-Files managed to make niche ideas palatable for a much wider audience. The show made monsters - aliens, werewolves, and ghosts, oh my! - palatable for people who otherwise had little interest in the paranormal.
It’s also relevant for being one of the earliest shows to take advantage of the Internet to engage with its fans - remember, The X-Files aired around the time that online chat forums were becoming a thing - and for giving Vince Gilligan his career. No X-Files, no Breaking Bad, easy as that, though sans the adventures of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, we’d probably be missing out on shows like Lost, Californication, Supernatural, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and even Bones.
What’s the deal with Jerry Seinfeld and his conversational style of wry, observational humor? More importantly, what’s the deal with Seinfeld, the sitcom that strictly reinvented the definition of “sitcom” by blowing up what viewers expected from the format? This is a program that took what people knew about sitcoms and completely turned it inside out.
Seinfeld meddled with the traditional A-plot/B-plot structure that had been standard in sitcoms for so long, it introduced audiences to the unlikeable jerk as the protagonist, it led to the slow heat death of multi-camera set-ups, and it turned constant self-referentialism into an art. From Girls to Veep, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to The Big Bang Theory, Seinfeld has long been imitated, but never cloned. For a show about nothing, that’s not too shabby.
Adam Sandler, Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Eddie Murphy, Seth Meyers, Chris Rock...one person could list out their own selection of ten comics who made their bones on Saturday Night Live, and it’d look completely different from the next’s. Saturday Night Live isn’t a variety show as much as it’s a comic institution, and that institution has been building careers for four decades.
SNL’s influence expands beyond the stage it provided for its cast members, too. A world without SNL very likely means a world without The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, which both bear a family resemblance to the Weekend Update report. And the show’s format has been aped by Mad TV, All That, and Mr. Show, not to mention echoed in the humor of Fey’s 30 Rock.
You can’t talk about modern animation without talking about The Simpsons, and for good reason: The Simpsons is pretty much solely responsible for the existence of every cartoon show that has aired since it debut in 1989. Cartoons were around before The Simpsons, and in all likelihood people would still have made them without The Simpsons, but Springfield’s first family made everybody realize that cartoons didn’t just have to be for kids.
Hence Family Guy, American Dad, and, well, everything Seth MacFarlane has ever done, as well as South Park, King of the Hill, Bob’s Burgers, and The Critic (which did a neat little crossover with The Simpsons back in 1995). And that’s just touching on how The Simpsons changed animation; live-action joints like Malcolm in the Middle and even Arrested Development can trace influence to Matt Groening’s television landmark.
Seinfeld might have defined the sitcom afresh in the 1990’s, but I Love Lucy pretty much gave birth to the sitcom as we know it; without the latter, you don’t get the former, along with every single post-1950’s sitcom to come along in its wake. Small things we take for granted - like reruns, continuously running storylines, or the aforementioned multi camera set-up - didn’t exist until I Love Lucy conjured them into being with a knowing wink.
The show is also a major feminist milestone, which is all the more admirable given that it aired during a period when people only expected women to be wives and mothers. At a glance I Love Lucy may look like an endorsement of those social norms, but Lucy Ricardo is a real spitfire; she speaks up and lets her dreams be known to her husband, Ricky, defying him from one episode to the next. To a contemporary viewer, I Love Lucy might look dated, but it’s progressive considering the era it springs from.
There are a number of creative types who have contributed to the renaissance of sorts that we're seeing on TV today, but one name rises above the rest: David Chase, the man who architected The Sopranos back in the late 90’s and emerged as an auteur champion for bold, risky television. The Sopranos is, in the grand scheme of the medium’s history, a fairly young series, but it’s iconic and completely essential regardless.
Take away The Sopranos, and say goodbye to Six Feet Under, The Shield, The Wire, and Deadwood; HBO’s status among other premium cable channels might be much lower, though it’s possible that the show’s influence is so strong that competitors like Showtime may never have gotten around to producing Homeland and Shameless. (Plus, consider that before Tony Soprano murdered his way into our hearts, evil protagonists weren’t really a thing, either.)
There are other factors that have helped bring about the new dawn of high caliber TV in the last sixteen years or so, but it’s impossible to overlook the necessity of The Sopranos.
A top ten list doesn't give a lot of room for recognizing all of the influential series that have either been a part of television for the long haul (like All in the Family, Gunsmoke, Your Show of Shows), or more recent offerings that have managed to change the TV landscape despite their relative youth (The Shield, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Oz). But each of the previous shows bears great significance in television's increasing sophistication of narrative and craft. Erasing even one of them from history would leave a crater in the TV world.
Did your picks for the most influential TV shows make the cut? Let us know what you think in the comments section!