At its best, a show doesn’t just entertain; it opens eyes, sparks conversation, stirs the pot, makes us reflect. Inspired by the 50th anniversary this year of the groundbreaking All in the Family, AARP’s media critic Tim Appelo makes his picks of the TV series that have had the greatest influence on our collective culture and, by extension, each of us.
All in the Family (1971–79) Liberals and conservatives alike loved Archie Bunker’s un-P.C. malapropisms. The show, which was unlike any other up to its time, openly tackled issues such as Vietnam, infidelity, race relations, homosexuality, women’s liberation and menopause.
The Golden Girls (1985–92) What? Four single women over 50 and they’re having the time of their lives? Every belly laugh struck a blow for the dignity of aging.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990–96) Featuring Will Smith, it was one of the first shows where Black kids could see a Malcolm X poster like the one on their own bedroom wall.
Will & Grace (1998–2006, 2017–20) An indelible portrait of true friendship, this show offered prime-time TV’s first gay lead character.
Ugly Betty (2006–10) Telenovelas long ruled Latin American TV, and this adaptation of Colombian soap Yo soy Betty, la fea, starring America Ferrera, was the first to conquer American hearts and funny bones.
James Gandolfini (left) as Tony Soprano and Michael Imperioli as Christopher Moltisanti on “The Sopranos.”
Why we absolutely had to buy cable …
The Sopranos (1999–2007) The first mob drama on a par with The Godfather and Goodfellas (with which it shared 27 cast members).
The Wire (2002–08) Created by a former reporter and an ex-cop; a nervy, realistic portrait of Baltimore in the grip of a cocaine and heroin epidemic.
Mad Men (2007–15) The stylish period piece made Madison Avenue cool again and launched Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss to fame and fortune.
Breaking Bad (2008–13) A Mr. Chips–like schoolteacher dying of cancer becomes a Scarface-like meth lord in a crime thriller with a deep moral inquiry.
Elisabeth Moss stars as June Osborne in “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
… and why streaming is challenging cable
The Crown (2016–Present) A deep, revealing peek inside the castles and quarrels of Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Diana and company. It’s fact-based, though no soap opera was ever soapier.
The Handmaid’s Tale (2017–Present) This adaptation of the 1985 novel, about a future totalitarian America that sexually enslaves women, caught a rising wave of real-world feminist activism.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017–Present) In the best time capsule show since Mad Men, a posh Manhattan housewife discovers her gift for stand-up.
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Families we loved, decade by decade
Father Knows Best (1954–60) The title said it all: Dad rules.
Leave It to Beaver (1957–63) The first kid’s-eye-view family sitcom, inspired by its writers’ kids.
The Jeffersons (1975–85) The first long-running hit sitcom about African Americans featured a strong female lead and TV’s first Black woman married to a white man.
Modern Family (2009–20) It was shot as a fake documentary, and its clans mirrored reality — traditional, blended and same-sex.
This Is Us (2016–Present) A healing show in a divisive time, with six times as many Black writers as most shows and such big-name directors as Regina King.
JOE DEL VALLE/CASTLE ROCK ENTERTAINMENT/COURTESY EVERETT COLLECTION
(Left to right) Wayne Knight, Michael Richards and Jerry Seinfeld on “Seinfeld.”
Just laugh-out-loud funny
The Carol Burnett Show (1967–78) It’s now a streaming hit. “I dare anybody over 45 not to laugh their pants off at Tim Conway and Harvey Korman’s dentist sketch,” Burnett told AARP.
Laugh-In (1967–73) The kitschy sketch-comedy show spawned such catchphrases as “Sock it to me!”
Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969–74) The Pythons’ startled BBC boss complained that the anarchic clowns were “continually going over the edge of what is acceptable.” Viewers followed.
Saturday Night Live (1975–Present) The cast has tapped squarely into the zeitgeist for 45 years now, offering a live-comedy high-wire act with no net that has featured a who’s who of the funniest actors in America, among them Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell …
Cheers (1982–93) Who knew that bar life in Boston — where everybody knows your name — could be so funny?
Seinfeld (1989–98) A sitcom about nothing more than human foibles and the infuriating minutiae of everyday life on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
WALT DISNEY TELEVISION VIA GETTY IMAGES
The broadcast booth for “Monday Night Football” in 1971 consisted of Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell and Don Meredith.
Programs that stoked our thirst for competition
Wide World of Sports (1961–98) We all relished the thrill of victory — and the agony of defeat.
Monday Night Football (1970–Present) At 50, it’s a mainstay of prime-time sports television.
Survivor (2000–Present) About unknowns in exotic locales betraying one another for money, it hit a nerve, spurred more reality TV and spoke volumes about our competitive society.
The Bachelor (2002–Present) Really, who would watch a show where a guy rejects many sobbing women and proposes to one? Answer: Everyone.
Security guards separate and restrain fighting guests on “The Jerry Springer Show.”
Revealing a ‘reality’ very few of us were familiar with
Cops (1989–2020) After 31 years, Black Lives Matter protests ended the ultra-popular, much-copied show, which featured real police often violently busting real — often Black — people.
The Jerry Springer Show (1991–2018) Cincinnati’s ex-mayor beat Oprah Winfrey as the number 1 talk show host and made TV — and the U.S. — wilder and weirder than ever.
The Real World (1992–Present) MTV’s breakthrough documentary series featured seven strangers chosen for incompatibility to be roommates, so viewers could find out what happens when people stop being polite.
Keeping Up With the Kardashians (2007–21) The Barrymore acting clan may have shown more talent, but the Kardashians’ real-life antics are far more popular, spinning off star after star “like a puppy mill,” said one comic.
Mary Tyler Moore and Ted Knight on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
Shows that changed our views of women, at home and at work
I Love Lucy (1951–57) America liked Ike — but it was Lucy we loved. The day after 29 million watched Eisenhower’s inauguration, 44 million watched Lucille Ball’s character rush to the hospital to give birth. The show, with TV’s first interethnic couple (Desi Arnaz, Ball’s costar and real-life husband, was Cuban American), influenced all later sitcoms.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970–77) She could turn the world on with her smile, yet she was TV’s first woman defined by work, not a man. So Lucy’s infantile “Waah!” gave way to Mary Richards’ verging-on-tears, authority-challenging “Mr. GRANT!”
Maude (1972–78) Maude (Bea Arthur) was the liberal answer to Archie Bunker, debating issues from abortion to mental illness to face-lifts.
Murphy Brown (1988–98, 2018) Candice Bergen’s TV news anchor was a boss — irritable, smart, unreasonable, uncompromising. The show commented on political events; when Vice President Dan Quayle criticized Murphy for being a single mom, it became a real-life controversy.
Veep (2012–19) Julia Louis-Dreyfus helped make unsympathetic heroines cool on Seinfeld, though TV women reached a new peak of cynicism and meanness in her hilariously self-serving Vice President Selina Meyer.
Leslie Uggams as Kizzy Reynolds and Richard Roundtree as Sam Bennett on “Roots.”
Roots (1977) With TV’s biggest Black cast ever, execs feared it would fail, yet it was a smash. It also inspired a genealogy craze, boosted the miniseries genre and salved national wounds by honoring African American roots.
The Winds of War (1983) The saga of one family swept up by World War II was so ambitious, it took six years to get to the end of it (in its better, 1988–89 sequel, War and Remembrance).
Band of Brothers (2001) Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the best-selling book about the soldiers who landed on D-Day and captured Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest was, at the time, the costliest miniseries ever.
Angela Lansbury stars as mystery writer and crime solver Jessica Fletcher in “Murder, She Wrote.”
Who doesn’t love a good mystery?
Columbo (1971–2003) Nobody could say “Just one more thing” better than the rumpled Los Angeles gumshoe played by Peter Falk.
Murder, She Wrote (1984–96) Angela Lansbury’s crime writer turned amateur detective Jessica Fletcher is arguably the most beloved sleuth in TV history.
America’s Most Wanted (1988–2012) The program helped nab more than 1,200 fugitives.
48 Hours (1988–Present) This crime news show continues to crack cases far and wide.
Law & Order (1990–2010) The smart pioneer of the zillion ripped-from-the-headlines, fictionalized crime investigation shows.
Dateline (1992–Present) NBC’s longest-running prime-time show made news into real-life drama and hit pay dirt by focusing on true crime stories.
David Schwimmer as Ross Geller and Jennifer Aniston as Rachel Green on “Friends.”
Made for and loved by Gen X
Friends (1994–2004) The show about the families people form in their 20s, captured when young adults lived in coffee shops, not on phones. A romantic roundelay that stayed fast, funny, heartfelt and true to viewers’ lives.
South Park (1997–Present) Who’s better qualified than these profane cartoon kids to comment on American issues even as they unfurl across the nation? The animation is clever; the wit, icily incisive.
The Office (2005–13) Its brilliant ensemble cast played workers trapped in a Scranton, Pennsylvania, paper company, humoring a sensitive, inadvertently unbearably offensive boss clutching a World’s Best Boss mug. The breakthrough comedy for a generation.
Walter Cronkite anchors the news desk for “CBS Evening News.”
News shows that created (or broke) the mold
Meet the Press (1947–Present) TV’s longest-running show, it set the standard for weekend opinion programs; its panel format is now mimicked by nearly every news show.
CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite (1962–81) America’s most trusted man never hid his emotions: He wept at JFK’s death and blurted “Hot diggety dog!” at the launch of Apollo 11.
60 Minutes (1968–Present) Inspired by print magazines, its then-new format became a staple.
“Property Brothers” hosts Drew and Jonathan Scott.
They enticed us to change the way we live
The French Chef (1963–73) Julia Child’s unflappable charisma paved the way for an entire industry of cooking shows, from Emeril Live to The Great British Baking Show.
QVC Channel (1986–Present) The innovative shopping channel became so popular, but nobody remembers what the letters stand for (Quality, Value, Convenience).
Property Brothers (2011–Present) Thanks to those charming Canadian twins, renovation has become sexy, and their spin-offs have become an entire industry.
We all have our fave TV shows from then and now. Did we miss one of yours? Tell us what you think at Facebook.com/AARP.