This generation knows
Pretty well every sitcom from the past two decades that’s focused on a group of young friends working their way through life has been trying to emulate Friends Friends. Sure, Friends wasn’t the first show to follow the misadventures of a group of 20-somethings in a big city. But the long-running series became so iconic, with such relatable characters and memorable quotes, that the show with the generic name can easily be credited for inspiring every series from That ‘70s Show to Sex and the City. Many sitcom creators have tried to cast their own versions of Chandler, Monica, Rachel, Joey, Phoebe, and Ross in an effort to replicate the show’s success, but few of them have managed to capture the same magic. Regardless, they all have Friends to thank for blazing the trail.
Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, kids learned the intimate thoughts of Kevin Arnold (played by Fred Savage), a young boy growing up in the ‘60s, through the narration of his older self, voiced by Daniel Stern. That simple concept helped make later sitcoms like The Wonder Years The Goldbergs and How I Met Your Mother a hit. But beyond that, the narrative aspect has inspired shows in other genres as well. In hot dramas like Dexter, Mr. Robot, and House of Cards, we get a glimpse into the protagonist’s thoughts by hearing his ongoing narration, scene-by-scene. It’s funny to think that it was a cute little sitcom about a lovestruck kid who first made the style part of popular TV culture. Sure, MacGyver did it three years earlier, but not to the same effect, nor to the same success.
Today, shows that fall into the police procedural genre are vast, from Hill Street Blues NYPD Blue, to NCIS and Shades of Blue. But back in the ‘80s, a popular show called Hill Street Blues aired for 146 episodes on NBC, and helped open the floodgates for cop dramas galore. It certainly wasn’t the first cop drama ( Barney Miller, a comedy, came first, for example). But what really helped set Hill Street Blues apart was its documentary feel that made it seem real; you weren’t watching a TV show, you felt as if you were right there with a team of police officers fighting crime. Writer Steven Bochco went on to work on L.A. Law, a show that arguably helped pave the way for another new wave of dramas: those focused on the legal system. It, too, can be credited with paving the way for shows like Law & Order, Boston Legal, and How to Get Away With Murder.
Ironically, St. Elsewhere St. Elsewhere has been deemed “ Hill Street Blues in a hospital,” lauded for its same authentic feel and innovative direction. Of course, medical dramas have been a staple of primetime TV for decades now – from Grey’s Anatomy, to House, and ER. But St. Elsewhere, which ran from 1982 through to 1988, was the first show to highlight the story of veteran doctors teaching residents and interns the ropes of dealing with trauma – both among patients and the staff.
Trailblazing on so many levels, the early '00s series mesmerized viewers with its intricately weaved, often confusing storylines, compelling characters, and hints of science fiction that made it feel more like a movie than a TV show. But one trailblazing move Lost Lost made beyond its genre was introducing the concept of killing off main characters. Before Lost, key characters typically remained part of a series until its end. Sure, there was the odd character death when it fit a storyline, but with Lost, the surprise kill became commonplace, shocking viewers and creating a whole new strategy for TV. Today, shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones thrive on keeping viewers at the edge of their seats to find out who will die next. And they have Lost to thank for realizing the passionate effect such a strategy could have on fans.
From The Mary Tyler Moore Show NewsRadio to The Newsroom, shows centered on a radio or television station or newspaper have The Mary Tyler Moore Show to thank for giving the inside workings of the media industry the capacity to be both interesting and funny. Also starring Edward Asner, Valerie Harper, Betty White, and Cloris Leachman, the series has long been considered one of the best in U.S. history. In 2013, the Writer’s Guild of America ranked The Mary Tyler Moore Show number six on its list of the Best Written TV Series. So it’s no wonder the series inspired so many others that have come to air since.
It was by no means the first variety show on television. But The Carol Burnett Show The Carol Burnett Show remains one of the most praised, dishing out laugh after laugh, and tons of memorable sketches. Without the success of shows like this one, which ran through the ‘60s and ‘70s, sketch variety shows like Saturday Night Live, SCTV, In Living Color, and Madtv, might not have been conceived, let alone garnered such welcome audience reception.
Cartoons were, once upon a time, just for kids. That is until The Simpsons The Simpsons appeared on the scene, first as a short recurring sketch within The Tracey Ullman Show in the late ‘80s, then finally as a standalone series that has now become the longest-running primetime series in the history of U.S. television. Bringing some serious satire and adult comedy to the small screen, The Simpsons ushered in a whole new genre that has since spawned animated series like South Park, Family Guy, American Dad, Bojack Horseman, and a growing list of others that are making animation as much for adults as it is for the young ones.
Blazing a new trail
As we enter a new generation of television programming, new shows are already emerging as trailblazers of their own. Chelsea, on Netflix, has become the first of what is likely to be many talk shows on a streaming site. Multiple Emmy-winning sitcom Modern Family depicts a truly, well, modern family, told from the perspective of the characters themselves, and in documentary-style -- a trend we’re likely to see continue. And shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and Supergirl are reinventing the idea of superhero culture on the small screen. Grey’s Anatomy as the consummate medical primetime drama. But anyone over the age of 30 understands that before McDreamy, there was Dr. Donald Westphall from St. Elsewhere, a show that blazed the trail for television programming following a team of doctors. Cop dramas are common nowadays. But before top series like NYPD Blue came innovators like Hill Street Blues. And American Idol, The Voice, and other reality television competition shows have that little show called Star Search to thank for their concepts.
Inspiration is drawn in everything from music to movies, technology and yes, even television programming. So it’s no surprise that most of today’s top shows have innovative, game-changing programs of yesteryear to thank for paving the way for their success.
Here are 9 shows that arguably set the pace for some of the most popular series on television today.
What are your favorite trailblazing shows?