The last time we decided to shine a spotlight on some of the classic TV shows we’ve fallen in love with over the last few years, we were motivated in part to push back on the idea that TV only “got good” relatively recently, with The Sopranos, and then shows that lived up to its sophistication followed, mostly from HBO, other cable networks and then streaming services. But that’s a myth, one that HBO has been capitalising on for decades, and which the streaming giants are essentially trying to claim for themselves. Let’s hope they fail, because if not the recency bias people already have toward TV is gonna get dragged up to, like, Breaking Bad becoming a global hit on Netflix at the latest.
That would be tragic, because TV has literally always been good, from the very earliest days of the medium to the present moment. It can be hard to feel that at the present moment when there’s more television being made than ever, but less and less television that stands out enough to make you think it might not be focus-tested and algorithmed into a bland tasteless mush. We’ve almost a year left before we help you sift through the slurry of contemporary TV for the handful of precious shows worth watching in the next Sundae TV Awards. But we’ve both watched a lot of different TV shows, from a lot of different decades, in a lot of different genres since the last time we defended the honour of classic TV.
Here’s some you should check out, to remind you of what makes television great:
The Abbott and Costello Show (1952-1954)
Dean: “I decided to watch The Abbott and Costello Show because I’d heard somewhere that getting its foot in the door of television as early as it did meant it was this bare-bones, anarchic, gag-dense proto-sitcom that sounded like a ton of fun. It’s all that, and so much more. It’s not just gag-dense, the gags are good, and I think Lou Costello – who is absolutely 100% the lead of the show – might be the best comedy actor of all time despite essentially playing one role his entire career. The plots are executed with the kind of clockwork precision you often see in late multicams like Frasier, but those shows are built on decades of sitcom history, and here you have Abbott and Costello nailing it on the first try!
I also didn’t expect to be able to draw a straight line through sitcom history from The Abbott and Costello Show to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but that’s far beyond the scope of this list. I’ll just say if Charlie Day hasn’t spent his life watching Abbott and Costello, he may well be Lou Costello reincarnated.”
The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)
Ciara: “The original Twilight Zone would be worth watching purely for how iconic it is: if you’ve never seen a single second of The Twilight Zone, you still know The Twilight Zone. The theme music, Rod Serling’s opening narration, the plot of half a dozen episodes parodied on Treehouse of Horror episodes of The Simpsons. You know what someone means when they say a thing is ‘like something out of The Twilight Zone‘; you might even say it yourself. It seems almost overkill for it to have such a good shot at being the actual, objective best TV show ever made.
Rod Serling – Twilight Zone’s creator – had a career forged in the fire of the original Golden Age of Television, when the medium was dominated by live broadcasts of television plays. Frustrated with the censorship he faced when he tried to write political scripts – about civil rights, the Red Scare, or any number of pertinent issues – he hit upon an idea: that if he wrote political science fiction stories, the censors wouldn’t notice. It worked: The Twilight Zone is probably the ultimate showcase of talky sci-fi, frequently dealing with subjects you wouldn’t think could get on television in the 1950s. The takedown of McCarthyism that is ‘The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street’, in which the residents of the street suspect that there is a space alien among them, is devastating.
But you can’t reduce Twilight Zone to its politics, either. It’s a fantastically entertaining show. Each episode – written almost exclusively by Serling, Richard Matheson or Charles Beaumont – is a self-contained story, and in the main, they feel as full and complex as two-hour movies. The Twilight Zone tells stories that feel at once much older than they are – ancient, elemental things that saturate culture, the stuff of folklore and fairy tales – and incredibly fresh and modern. Watch it.”
The Prisoner (1967-1968)
Ciara: “After eight years of playing a secret agent on Danger Man and having turned down the role of James Bond the first of several times, Patrick McGoohan created and starred in The Prisoner, a thrilling mix of allegory, sci-fi, psychological drama and surrealism. McGoohan is Number Six, a man who resigns from a high-ranked job – seemingly as a spy – and as he packs his bag to leave Britain, is knocked out. He wakes up in a mysterious village, where everyone is denoted by a number. There is no way to tell prisoners from guards, and there is no way to escape.
We know hardly anything about Number Six’s life before – the details of his job, the reasons for his resignation, even his name – but we quickly know what kind of man he is. While the village – particularly Number Two, acting on behalf of the mysterious Number One – tries a whole range of coercion and torture tactics to pump information out of him, he steadfastly refuses. ‘I am not a number!’ he says in the opening of each episode, ‘I am a free man!’ The village schemes against Number Six, and he schemes against them, plotting escape attempts. In the face of a terrifying authoritarian system, he never gives up. And it all culminates in a mad double finale worthy of Twin Peaks.
I watched the show in original broadcast order, but I highly recommend instead watching it in the order endorsed by The Prisoner Appreciation Society. They shuffled them around in broadcast, the bastards.”
Scenes from a Marriage (1973)
Ciara: “Outside of Sweden, at least, Scenes from a Marriage is better known as a film. In an era when there wasn’t much of a market for foreign language telly, Ingmar Bergman’s TV shows – most notably this and Fanny and Alexander – were cut down to feature length and released as movies in the English-speaking world. But if you’ve seen them in their intact miniseries format, it becomes hard to imagine them as anything else: to not feel the loss of not getting the fullness of time to watch these characters grow.
Scenes from a Marriage is a portrait of a marriage falling apart. When Marianne and Johan are together, it’s bland and dully pleasant. After ten years, their divorce is full of passionate intensity, using the sharpness of each’s own hurt to cut the other. Unlike most art about divorce, both their perspectives are given equal weight. But the show follows them through the ten years that follow – drawn inevitably back together, because no matter how much they have hated each other, they never quite stop loving each other. It’s a very intimate show, capturing the complexity of how two people can feel about each other in all its vividity. It’s grounded in Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson’s incredible lead performances, certainly among the best screen acting ever filmed.”
Dean: “It’s a long, boring story, but I got really into pirates and pirate movies and so on this year, and though I’m still very early in my journey through the genre, I’m certain that Sergio Sollima’s gorgeous miniseries based on Emilio Salgari’s romantic hero Sandokan, deposed prince of an island kingdom turned rebel pirate, will stand the test of time as one of its pinnacles.
It’s beautifully put together as a totally sincere, unironic romantic adventure story of a kind rarely seen anymore, while still taking the risk of letting it culminate in a tragic, bloody storm of colonial violence driven by no other motive than domination for its own sake. It’s not a lecture, and blessedly so, it just embraces the story’s colonial setting as a dramatic resource, giving weight to the fury and heartache at the core of Kabir Bedi’s tremendous lead performance. The story is split between Sandokan’s fight against real historical villains James Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak, and the East India Company, represented in Malaysia by Lord Guillonk, and his love-at-first-sight romance with Guillonk’s niece, Marianna. Both stories thrilling in their own way, and especially thrilling together. I can’t pretend it’s an easy show to get your hands on with English subtitles, but if you’re an enthusiast, it’s well worth the effort.
Ciara: “One of the distinguishing features of television as a medium is the ability for something to get good. If a film sucks for half of it but then picks up, it hasn’t ‘gotten good’, it’s a mixed bag. But if a TV show sucks and then stops sucking, it’s thrilling. It’s watching a good show be born out of a bad one. It doesn’t matter if it started well, because TV shows are not ten-hour movies, they’re a succession of episodes.
Blackadder started out shite. And it’s one of the best TV shows ever made. Each season follows the same characters in different times in history: The Black Adder in the Middle Ages circa Shakespeare’s Henry plays, Blackadder II in Elizabethan times, Blackadder the Third during the Regency, and Blackadder Goes Forth in the trenches of World War II. The first season is tedious, a disjointed Monty Python impression that never goes anywhere or lands anything, but after that, the show decides to embrace being a sitcom, and it’s a great one. Where the first season saw Rowan Atkinson play Blackadder as a fool, subsequent seasons shift characterisation so Blackadder is instead annoyed by the idiocy around him, a clear influence on Father Ted.
With each season, Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) falls further in his social status even as he becomes more intelligent, going all the way from royal to canon fodder. Blackadder Goes Forth, in its willingness to lean all the way into the darkness of the trenches without ever leaning away from being a sitcom, might be the best season of television ever made.”
Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (1983-1986, 2002-2004)
Ciara: “What comes after is a lot more mixed, but the first season of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet is perfect. Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais – creators of The Likely Lads, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? and Porridge – had spent decades making shows about class and masculinity, especially in the north of England, and the first season of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet feels like the culmination of all that. Seven working-class men travel from England to West Germany to do construction work: the show initially focuses on three bricklayers from Newcastle, but on top of one another in the miserable hut they have to stay in, all seven form a unique bond. The characters are so rich, and I love each of them terribly.
Whereas Likely Lads and Porridge were half-hour shows, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’s episodes have a whole hour to work with. That bigger canvas allows the show to delve into serious dramatic territory and tell longer-term stories. It takes a realist approach to a sitcom situation: at times deeply sad, delightfully smutty, and touchingly romantic, it’s a very funny show, but the humour emerges naturalistically from the characters, not from gags. And while season two goes completely off the rails, the belated third season returned to these characters grown old – or tragically not gotten the chance to – with a depth of feeling worthy of them.”
The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. (1993-1994)
Dean: “I watched a couple of Bruce Campbell / Sam Raimi joints for the most recent episode of our podcast, and quickly became enthralled with Campbell, one of the most undersung actors of his generation. When I heard he was in a cancelled-after-one-season ‘weird west’ show about a bounty hunter tracking the gang leader (the late, great Billy Drago, as sinister as ever) who killed his father, with anachronistic technology and sci-fi elements a la Wild, Wild West, I was already half-sold on watching it just for Campbell. But then I did, and holy crap, Brisco County is the show I’ve been waiting for my whole life.
The feature-length pilot alone features not one, but TWO train heists running on Looney Tunes logic, the discovery of an ‘Unearthed Foreign Object’ with otherwordly powers and a scene where Brisco calmly orders a steak with a lit bundle of dynamite on his table. Campbell is instantly perfect for the role, a sort of jaded hippie cowboy on the lookout for ‘the Coming Thing’, expressing the ‘fin-de-siècle’ spirit of the 1890s through the language of a more recent counterculture. It’s smart, funny and fun, with lots of great action and dumb-but-smart gags. Tragic it was cancelled, obviously, but at least it had a 27-episode season.”
Dean: “I know what you’re thinking and, yes, of course I’ve seen Friends before. We debuted the same year, I’ve literally been seeing it all my life, and, to be honest, I never really got it. That feels like millennial heresy, but, to me, it just wasn’t as funny as Frasier on the one hand or Scrubs on the other. I left it on if there was nothing better, but I never went out of my way to put it on.
I’d seen it, but I’d never watched it, until this year. I sat down and watched most of Friends in order for the first time, and I get it now. I’m actually mad at how underrated it’s become due to overexposure and (some) backlash. Watching the cast develop the characters over time rather than just dropping in on them at random points, I was in genuine awe of both their lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry and just how great each of them are as individual performers in a way I’d never felt before. It especially blows my mind that Matthew Perry didn’t become co-biggest-comedy-star-in-the-world with Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey.”
Karaoke / Cold Lazarus (1996)
Dean: “His final works were probably a strange place to enter the incredible mind of Dennis Potter – he was simultaneously one of the most influential and iconoclastic writers in the grand tradition of British television – but I regret nothing. Karaoke and Cold Lazarus are a pair of miniseries that Potter wrote while dying of cancer, co-produced (at his insistence) in a rare collaboration between the BBC and Channel 4. Albert Finney is never better as Daniel Feeld, an aging, alcoholic writer with a painful bowel obstruction who begins to experience scenes from the script he’s currently filming in real life (Karaoke) and then gets resurrected as a cryogenically frozen head in a dystopian 2368 with barely breathable air (Cold Lazarus).
Each of them is precious and magnificent and bizarre all on its own, but together, they’re some of the most mad, original television I’ve ever seen. Reality and fiction don’t so much blur together as cascade on top of each other over and over, and there are so many ideas and issues threaded together you think it can’t possibly work, but it does, because it always grounds even its most abstract and philosophical turns in the characters and their relationships. Apart from Finney, cast highlights including Richard E. Grant as the egotistic director of Karaoke in Karaoke and Ciarán Hinds as an ornery Russian (?) scientist (?) in Cold Lazarus.
It’s existential and unsettling and very funny and I can’t stress enough that Albert Finney is incredible in the lead, one of those legendary late-career, force-of-nature, rage-against-the-light performances you get from great veteran actors, and rarely so appropriate for a script. Both four-episodes series are available to watch for free on Channel 4’s website if you live in the UK or Ireland, so I really encourage you to give them a shot if you like weird TV shows about dying.”