Television has an incredible impact on pretty much everything in your daily life. It can influence what you buy, what you wear, the way you talk, and even who you choose to be friends with. For example, if someone says they watch Dance Moms, you can safely assume that’s someone you’ll never invite over for dinner.
Many of the most influential shows ever are no longer on the air, though thankfully through the magic of the Internet and DVD sales you can still check them out. Here are the top ten most influential TV shows that are no longer on the air.
10. Star Trek
It’s kind of amazing to think about the fact that, for all of its tremendous influence on modern science fiction movies and television shows, and even some science fiction writing, the original run of Star Trek only lasted three seasons, and even then the final part of the third season only ran after a letter-writing campaign convinced NBC to air it. When it was finally canceled for good, it was hard to believe it could ever become a cultural phenomenon that has shaped geeks for decades. It’s spawned numerous spin-off shows and movies, with the recent JJ Abrams incarnations on the big screen proving to be genuine blockbusters.
Star Trek was really one of the first true franchises in TV and movie history, with toys, clothing, and other merchandise being sold to a rabid fanbase that would help inspire the growth of science fiction, fantasy, and comic book conventions up till the present day. The show itself is remembered largely for William Shatner’s stilted line readings and proclivity for having sex with green women, but what it should be remembered for is creating the model on which just about every other science fiction project would be based since.
9. The Twilight Zone
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and in the creative world it’s also a pretty gigantic sign that what you’re doing is incredibly influential. Unless the person doing the imitation is Shia LeBeouf, in which case it’s just plagiarism. Anyway, there have been very few television shows that have been imitated to the extent that The Twilight Zone has been over the years. No, not in terms of anthology shows popping up left and right, because for the most part anthology shows simply don’t exist in modern TV anymore, but in terms of story and plot.
You’d be hard pressed to find many science fiction or horror stories, movies, or shows over the past few decades that haven’t had at least some influence from the numerous storylines and plot twists that Twilight Zone provided. If someone is trying to pull off some unusual twist, it’s probably because they watched a lot of Twilight Zone and were forever impacted by the brilliant storytelling of Rod Serling. Stephen King, M. Night Shyamalan, and even Star Trek have all been influenced by the show. It’s got an everlasting legacy, and created some of the most common tropes you see on TV every day. You just never realized all of those tropes came from a fifth dimension beyond what is known to man.
8. Mystery Science Theater 3000
For a whole generation, the ability to make funny, snarky comments is owed entirely to the creators of a low-budget show originally aired on public access, about a guy and his robots who sit around watching bad movies and making fun of them. That show, of course, was Mystery Science Theater 3000, and it helped shape the sense of humor for many an individual who grew up in the ’90s, and continues these days with smaller incarnations like RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic.
Created by comedian Joel Hodgson, the show first aired in 1988 at a small TV station in Minnesota, and later ran on both the Comedy Channel, which became Comedy Central, and the Sci-Fi Channel, which became an absurdly spelled version of that same name. People are still devoted MYSTies, and this past Thanksgiving a tradition was revived online when Hodgson hosted a marathon of some of the best episodes in the show’s history, with thousands of people logging in to enjoy the snark all over again.
Who could have ever guessed that a show about nothing could have such an everlasting impact on our day-to-day lives? When Seinfeld debuted, no one could have ever guessed that a small show set mostly in one apartment, with virtual unknowns in the starring roles, including a standup comic in his first real acting gig, would become one of the biggest shows in history. The ratings reflected that, too, as it struggled to find an audience at first.
You would be hard pressed to come up with a show that gave us more familiar catchphrases that have become ingrained in our culture, and become part of the everyday lexicon in America, than Seinfeld. Heck, can you possibly think of a Junior Mint without immediately flashing back to that particular episode of Seinfeld? And that’s not even one of the most famous bits, either. In terms of pop culture influence, it truly is astonishing just how much sway a show that professed itself to be quite literally about nothing could have.
Okay, so the last couple seasons were a bit of a mess. The writers had a bizarre obsession with making Jack cry and giving Kate storylines despite the fact that no one really cared about Kate, and despite saying at the outset of the series that everything was planned out, no one was dead, and it could all be explained by science, all of that went out the window. The show continued to be entertaining, for the most part, but it was clear that the writers were flying blind.
That said, there have been few shows in history that have been cultural phenomena on the level of LOST. It was a big, audacious show that didn’t mind screwing with the audience’s perception, and it was utterly fantastic from a technical standpoint. It looked and felt like a movie and, ever since it debuted, networks have been trying like crazy to recapture the magic formula that made people love it, and time and time again they have failed. When networks are openly copying your ideas and admitting to trying to create a show on the same level, you know you’ve had one hell of an influence on television, even though we still have no clue why there was a shark with a DHARMA stamp on its tail for no apparent reason.
It’s a little tough to say that a show based on a movie which was based on a book could ever be overly influential, but that’s certainly the case with M*A*S*H, which ran from 1972 through 1983, when it absolutely obliterated all TV ratings records with its finale. One of the most impressive things about the entire course of events with M*A*S*H is that, for most people, the product got progressively better from one incarnation to the next. The movie was better than the book, and then the series was better than the movie.
One of the lasting legacies of M*A*S*H is the way it was able to almost always seamlessly blend slapstick comedy, sharp wit, and heartbreaking drama into the same 22 minutes of television. Before the show, the way TV worked is that there were dramas, and there were sitcoms. M*A*S*H changed that. Yes, there were other shows airing around the same time that managed to blend the two genres, like the equally great Mary Tyler Moore Show, but they didn’t do it as frequently or as flawlessly. M*A*S*H proved that you could incorporate both laughter and tears into the same show, a concept that would become a staple of most sitcoms.
4. The Wire
One of the most criminal things to transpire in the past couple decades of television is the overall lack of recognition The Wire got while it was still on the air. Along with Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and Mad Men, it has come to be known as one of the cornerstones of a recent Golden Age of television dramas. It was always critically acclaimed, yet still somehow ignored when it came time for awards season. Still, it remains one of the best shows ever produced.
It’s also one of the most realistic, and has become the cops and criminals show against which all future cops and criminals shows will be measured. The depth of the characters and quality of writing upped the ante for every other show of its ilk, and it also proved that just because you’ve got a show about cops, it doesn’t need to be a straight-up procedural. The Wire has often been compared more to a novel than a television show, and that’s about the most apt description possible. If Charles Dickens wrote about drugs in Baltimore, The Wire would be the result.
3. Miami Vice
While it’s remembered more for its absurd ’80s clothing styles, and the fact that one of the main characters had a pet alligator that he kept on his boat, Miami Vice absolutely broke the mold of what a television show could be when it debuted in 1984. The direction of the show and its use of music was absolutely groundbreaking, leaving people absolutely floored by the show when they first saw the pilot episode. Of particular note is a long, tense scene late in the pilot set entirely to Phil Collins’s In the Air Tonight. Take a look at the scene, and it becomes clear this was a different kind of TV, more akin to a movie than a televised series.
Of course, that has a lot to do with the fact that the guy who created Vice is none other than Michael Mann, one of the most respected directors working in film with movies like Heat, The Insider, and Last of the Mohicans to his credit. Mann’s style felt so new and impressive in large part due to the fact that he was a big-time director just starting to break out, and what he created with Miami Vice resonated throughout TV forever after. It legitimately changed how people believed a TV show could be like.
2. The Sopranos
To many people, The Sopranos is not just the best television show in history, but also the most influential. Television critics lauded the show with praise during its run on HBO, and the accolades have hardly stopped in the years since that final cut to black that simultaneously proved to be one of the most classic and hated endings to any show ever. It helped create a new kind of protagonist, who should never, ever be called a protagonist if you’re getting right down to it.
Tony Soprano was the blueprint for a guy like Walter White, and it’s safe to say that without him and The Sopranos, there’d be no Breaking Bad, let alone any other show centered around a villainous anti-hero who you somehow find yourself rooting for. But it wasn’t just the central performance of James Gandolfini that helped make The Sopranos one of the most acclaimed and influential shows ever — it was also the way in which it was written, filmed, and presented on HBO. Like The Wire, it could get away with things no other show could do, and it felt more like a cinematic experience because of the larger budgets and fewer constraints that HBO provided. And hey, you have to love a show that plays a little Journey during the final scene it will ever air.
1. All in the Family
What Tony Soprano did for television drama, Archie Bunker did for the world of sitcoms. In fact, it’s not a stretch to suggest that without Archie Bunker there would be no Tony Soprano. Okay, well maybe it’s a little bit of a stretch, but there’d certainly be no Al Bundy or, hell, the cynical main character of any sitcom thereafter. You could even say that the antics of Archie Bunker had a tremendous influence on female characters, because really, could you imagine a Sophia Petrillo without there first having been an Archie?
In the simplest terms, All in the Family is viewed to be, by and large, the single most influential show in television history by many a television scholar. Apparently that’s a thing, by the way. There have literally been books written extolling the virtues of the show and the way it changed all of the rules for television. Yes, you could argue that I Love Lucy had as much of an impact on the way television was presented but it never had the same sort of cultural influence, taking on political correctness and saying things that no one ever thought anyone, ever, could get away with saying and somehow maintaining the grumpy protagonist as a likable guy. When you change the way people actually think and interact in the real world, you know you’ve had one hell of an impact.