Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Lattanzi Ten - 2/24/15

Today's Ten looks at the TV shows I still watch regularly. None of them are currently on the air in first run. Whether it says more about my tastes or that most shows now are complete and total crap, I will leave to the reader to discern. These are done in the order of which they first left the air. -- J.L.

1. Fawlty Towers (1975-79)

British television programs (or programmes, to be proper) are very different than their American counterpart. There are fewer episodes; most seasons (or "series" as they are called in the U.K.) run anywhere from six to ten episodes, with the timing being sporadic. Americans are finally getting this sort of thing with various cable shows that run only for thirteen episodes and have half the season in winter and half in the summer.

Anyway, Fawlty Towers only had twelve total episodes, and each one is a gold standard in and of itself. Written by John Cleese (of Monty Python fame and also the titular character of the show, Basil Fawlty) and his then-wife, Connie Booth (who also played the maid, Polly), it truly is a high point in the use of farce in television. Unfortunately, there are only twelve episodes; I am not sure how many Cleese and Booth could have written at such a high level before having to recycle plots and character foils. The sign gag at the start of each episode alone is worth the watch.

2. M*A*S*H (1972-83)

I have a whole section of this blog dedicated to M*A*S*H. Are there any questions? And by the way, I cannot have a family dinner without a M*A*S*H reference being made by someone. It could be my mother, father, brother, or wife who makes it.

3. Taxi (1978-83)

This was the original "workplace" sitcom. Full of very witty dialogue, great characters, and some fantastic gags. It tends to be overlooked, because it was a short-lived series, but groundbreaking in many ways. Hell, Louie DePalma, the wicked dispatcher (played by Danny DeVito) was ranked by TV Guide as the greatest sitcom character of all time.  And let's not forget a cast that included Judd Hirsch, Tony Danza, Christopher Lloyd, and the late, great Andy Kaufman.

4. Are You Being Served? (1972-85)

The second of the British shows on this list takes place in the men's and ladies' wear departments of the fictitious Grace Brothers department store in London. It's a show that won't make a whole lot of sense unless you a) understand the British class system and b) enjoy a hell of a lot of sexual innuendo and double entendres.

Johnny Carson was once (apocryphally) asked on The Tonight Show by Zsa Zsa Gabor if he wanted to "pet [her] pussy", clearly meaning a cat, but Are You Being Served? will make that kind of comment at least once per episode, as Mrs. Slocombe (Mollie Sugden), the head of the Ladies' Wear and who rarely has the same hair color two episodes in a row will make reference to her cat as her "pussy"; hilarity ensues.

Obviously, that's not all there is, as there are plenty of sight gags with mannequins and plenty of interaction between the oh-so-proper members and the "working" and "lower" classes who are employed by the store. It was on a while, but only 69 episodes made (I'm sure there's a joke to be had there too). All the same, wit and precise acting are on display, and there isn't a bad one in the lot.

The greatest politically based fictional television show ever. Full stop. The West Wing and Commander-In-Chief and Spin City can all go blow. There has never and will never be a politician like Jim Hacker ever again. There will never be a manipulative and eloquent civil servant as Sir Humphrey Appleby ever again. This is entirely a dialogue-based show, and had to be incredibly sharp in order to make it through five series. What makes it so funny is how close to reality it is, and when you watch the manipulation take place, one may sense how close it is to current reality.

6. Cheers (1982-93)

Always a good laugh, no matter who is the center of the plot. It's one of the few shows that did a really good job seamlessly changing cast members, and also has the best theme song out there. I prefer Rebecca (Kirstie Alley) to Diane (Shelley Long), but my favorite character of the series is Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), although with the caveat that the love of Frasier did not extend to the spinoff series that bore the name of the titular character. Have a drink at the place where everybody knows your name.

7. Full House (1987-95)

Yes, it's sappy, it even has its own Piano Music of Sap™. Everything was eventually about Michelle and Uncle Jesse, and the finale was one of the stupidest I have ever seen. And yet, I can't... seem... to... turn... away. I'm watching it now as I pound the keys of my laptop. Ah, the 80's and 90's!

The most annoying question I got as a kid was being asked if I liked this show because the name "Philadelphia" was in the theme song, all because I am a masochist Philly fan. I liked (and I like) the show because it was and is a fun show to watch, although it is waaaaaay dated and way too topical. The beauty of a show like Cheers is that it ages very well. The Fresh Prince, not so much. Nevertheless, the first three seasons especially (when Will and Carlton were still at Bel Air Academy) were very good and have a high rewatchability to them. Seasons Four through Six, on the other hand...well, that's another story for another Ten.

9. Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-2005)

Most people don't realize it, but Raymond broke the trend in family/domestic sitcoms being centered around the kids. It's been off the air for ten years, but it is another show that I believe will age well. It had the benefit of creators who knew when to stop and didn't have that final limp-along season (as a few of these shows on this list had). There are a couple of things I hate in the show, but it doesn't stop me from watching it, although there are some episodes I will just avoid if I see them in the guide. But still one of my favorites...HOLY CRAP!

10. Law & Order (1990-2010)

This runs on WGN, TNT, Sundance, and WE. It is still everywhere.  For me, I watch re-runs that aired up through 2004, when Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) retired from the NYPD. It just wasn't the same without him. The characters from this series (and its sister series) are a Ten unto themselves. Best DA? Best ADA? Best partner to Briscoe? Cragen or Van Buren? Greevey or Cerrota? The opportunities are endless. I think I am going to need my brother's help on that one.

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