On April 7, Mike Wallace, the lion of the TV news magazine died. Wallace was more than a news man. He was a former actor and game show host who found a way to seamlessly blend news and entertainment into a combination that was far more than a sum of its parts. Wallace -- first on Night Beat, then on 60 Minutes -- didn't just investigate or report. He turned interviewing into a blood sport -- becoming both one of the most liked and feared men on television as a result. He brought the same intensity and enthusiasm to every interview -- be it entertainers, world leaders or criminals -- even once calling Ayatollah Khomeini a lunatic, to his face.
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This got him into trouble at times -- settling a lawsuit with General Westmoreland; losing a battle with CBS over a tobacco industry whistleblower -- but it also made him something rare in the news business: a star. At 60 Minutes, Wallace (and producer Don Hewitt) accomplished a rare feat -- they made television that was equal parts entertaining and important. Few shows ever achieve this balance. Most TV series veer towards pure entertainment (or ratings), while others strive solely to inform or (worse) preach.
I believe that the best television does both, well. One doesn't have to choose between entertaining an audience and educating them. There's no reason an important message can't come wrapped in a good story or even (gasp) a joke. Believe me; I have nothing against pure escapism on television. But more people are watching more TV than at any point in history, and I believe it's incumbent upon those in the business to do something productive with those eyeballs once in a while.
TV is a medium of great power, influence... and profit. We owe it to the world to use that power for social good. Shows like 60 Minutes, and stars like Mike Wallace, prove that one can simultaneously entertain and inspire (enspire?) -- and garner big ratings while doing it. What's more, given the mood of the world and the socially relevant predilections of the next generation of adults, it's likely that "ISSUE-TAINMENT" will become an increasingly important sub genre.
So, in tribute to Mike Wallace, here is my list of TV's 17 Best Issue-tainment Shows of All Time -- beyond the all-time king, 60 Minutes. (Please feel free to add to the list -- or, in the spirit of the interwebs, deride my choices anonymously):
16. DEGRASSI: Originally started as The Kids of Degrassi Street, this teen soap morphed into Degrassi Junior High, Degrassi High and eventually into Degrassi: The Next Generation -- both in Canada and on TeenNick in the US. Unlike 90210 or Gossip Girl, Degrassi uses actors who ARE the ages they portray, giving the show realism not found in American teen soaps. This is especially true when the show takes on issues like teen sex (unlike Gossip Girl, sex is actually a bit of a big deal); coming out; teen alcoholism; teen pregnancy; racism; military service in Afghanistan; school shootings; suicide; drug abuse; bullying and much, much more. The acting and writing aren't that much better on Degrassi than its American counterparts, but they approach these important subjects through the eyes of the audience they reach -- and offer actual consequences (hey, consequences!) for the decisions the characters make. It uses the tropes of the soap format to talk about important issues in ways that have a lasting effect. As a parent of two teenage daughters, I am grateful for Degrassi and the conversations it has sparked. Plus the halls of Degrassi are where Drake got his street cred, before he rapped.
15. I LOVE LUCY: In real life, Lucille Ball had to fight with CBS to cast her actual husband, Desi Arnaz, Jr., an actual Cuban, as her sitcom husband. The network was reticent to cast an interracial couple on TV and feared Arnaz' accent would alienate viewers. Once on the air, Ball played the part of a stay-at-home wife, but one in constant rebellion against the confines of domesticity. Each week, she fought viciously and hysterically against the constraints of societal norms, refusing to quietly sublimate her desire to succeed on her right. While each episode ends with everything returning to 'normal,' we all know it's just a matter of time until Lucy attempts another escape. True, these small rebellions were wrapped in manic physical humor and conservative familial trappings, but in context of the times, they were downright subversive. Combined with the real lives of Lucille and Desi -- where Lucy actually wore the pants -- the Ricardos were a hilarious and prophetic sign of things to come.
14. M*A*S*H: A not-so-veiled allegory about the Vietnam War, the series became an enormous hit for CBS and continued the critique of the war, even after it ended. After Vietnam, M*A*S*H, led by Larry Gelbart and Alan Alda, morphed into a dark, comedic, anti-war satire critiquing Cold War dogma and man's inhumanity to man. True, the show was much funnier early on, after which it tended to veer towards sanctimony. But it is impossible to argue with the quality of writing, directing or performances over its amazing 11-year run, ending with what is still the most watched series episode in TV history (even more amazing, considering there were 22 million fewer homes than today). M*A*S*H had enormous effect on a generation of viewers, and was really very funny.
13. An American Family: I've written about this show before, so I apologize for the repetition. However, this series was such a jolt to the culture it deserves its own field of study. Craig Gilbert's amazing 12-part documentary about the Loud Family was, quite simply, the first and most important reality TV series in history. It was also one the most watchable, jaw-dropping pieces of television anyone has ever seen. This was 1973. Reality TV did not exist and most of TV was still pretending that Norman Rockwell was an accurate portrayal of American home-life. Lance, the oldest son, came out to his parents on camera, and the matriarch, Pat Loud, quite simply showed her husband the door while we all watched. Gilbert chronicled the unraveling of the 'average' family with such raw intensity, it's still amazing to think it ever even got on air. This show is one of the three reasons I wanted to work in TV.
12. Intervention: TV doesn't get much more watchable than this A&E series -- it's the television equivalent of a car wreck you can't NOT look at. On one hand, the show can seem exploitative, as we watch the life another person slowly self-destruct. However, one can only imagine the number of hard and uncomfortable conversations the show has sparked, as it has almost singlehandedly raised awareness not only of the destruction of addictive behavior but also -- and perhaps more importantly -- the resources available to families to treat the addicts in their lives. Perhaps the hardest part of living through a trauma is thinking you are alone. Interventionists and recovering addicts like Ken Seeley and Candy Finnigan offer a light at the end of the tunnel -- not just for the addict, but for those the addiction most harms. They show that addiction need not be a life sentence.
11. Brick City: In 2008, Barack Obama was elected on a wave of hope and a promise of change. But something happened on the way to that change -- it's called governing. Turns out, change ain't so easy. Newark Mayor Cory Booker knows how true this is. Elected a year before Obama, Booker took over one of the most corrupt and crime-riddled cities in America, with the promise to make change. Brick City, a two-season documentary series, followed the mayor as he fought for change and challenged the status quo, and up-ended conventional wisdom in the heart of urban New Jersey. The series chronicled the lives of average Newarkers as well -- getting inside the world of current and former gang members, city council members and an embattled police chief. Against all odds, Booker lowered crime, brought in corporate investment and instilled real hope in a city that almost everyone had left for dead. Using classic cinema verite, the filmmakers wove a story with as much drama as The Wire and as much power as In The Heat of The Night -- and then suddenly, you remembered... "oh shit, this is for real." In the process, Booker enhanced his mythology as the REAL DEAL in American politics. When he's president, don't forget to go back and watch Brick City, and remember, you heard it here.
10. I'll Fly Away: Twenty years before The Help, this series tackled civil rights in the south with such grace and artistry, it's hard to imagine it was on broadcast TV -- until you remember that NBC cancelled it despite a Peabody, two Emmys, 23 Emmy nominations and two Golden Globes, in just two seasons. Technically, this show does not fit into my definition of successful Issue-tainment, since it was not considered a commercial success. But I like to think that if the show aired today, it would be on cable and would be a hit. And, more than anything on Law & Order, it shows just how friggin' talented Sam Waterston is.
9. The Mary Tyler Moore Show: Mary Richards is second only to my mother as the most influential woman of my childhood. For me, and millions of others, Mary was the ideal of the modern American woman. This will sound awful, I know, but until Mary and her pals at WJM hit the air in 1970, I had no idea that women could have a job that wasn't teaching or retail (I was four, so my world view was limited). Smart, funny, tenacious, principled and caring, Mary embodied everything that Women's lib fought for, but could not articulate in a slogan or placard. James Brooks, Allan Burns and Mary Tyler Moore brought the classic sitcom into the modern era, and forever changed the way TV dealt with comedy. The show conceived of things we now simply take for granted -- Mary was a single thirty-something woman, who supported her last boyfriend and was now out on her own, NOT looking for a man. Yeah, this sounds familiar -- because HUNDREDS of shows have ripped it off since. At the time, however, MTM reinvented the very idea of workplace and ensemble comedy; while reimagining feminism in way that was both hysterical and real. There are few working women in this country that don't owe at least some debt of gratitude to Mary, Lou and the gang.
8. Lou Grant: Perhaps not the most successful spin off in TV history (that would be Frasier), it is arguably it's most relevant. Lou Grant put a comedic character into an incredibly serious drama, showing off Ed Asner's great range, and putting Lou at a newspaper, pursuing plotlines that addressed difficult and contemporary issues, such as nuclear proliferation, mental illness and gay rights (remember, this was the 1970s). Coming off the heels of Watergate and Vietnam, the show also seriously examined ethics in journalism, plagiarism, checkbook journalism and the conflict of interests of the media. CBS cancelled the show long before its time, perhaps more because of its controversy than its ratings.
7. St. Elsewhere: In St. Elsewhere, Bruce Paltrow and Grant Tinker created a show far before its time. Funny, irreverent, heartbreaking and enthralling - the series also addressed for the first time on television subjects, such as autism and AIDS, that had been heretofore verboten in the mainstream prime time TV. There are episodes of this show that still reverberate in my brain thirty years later. The last show of this series -- this will be controversial in itself -- is one of the bravest and most ingenious things that's ever appeared on TV. While you may disagree with me, just see how much debate that one idea creates among those old enough to remember... and you'll see my point.
6. Queer Eye For The Straight Guy: Equal rights for gay Americans is slowly becoming a reality. Someday, we will look back on the gay marriage "debate" and shake our heads -- the way we look back the "debate" over mixed race marriage a generation ago. If you want to pinpoint the moment when gay became mainstream -- Queer Eye is it. Yes, Will & Grace helped make gay OK, but it wasn't until The Fab Five that straight men and women across America realized that the thing missing from their lives might very well be a dose of homosexuality. It's not a coincidence that since this show first aired, that fashion, food and design have all become more important to everyone -- not just 'the Queers.' More important than a national sense of style, these guys became America's Gay Best Friends and opened the door to far more positive portrayals of gay people on TV. Without Carson, Ted, Thom, Kyan and Jai, there would likely be no Tim Gunn, no Kurt Hummel -- and it is unlikely that we would have come as far as we have on gay rights, despite having far more to go.
5. 16 And Pregnant: If you don't understand why this show is on this list, it's likely that you've never seen it. While I do not always love all the people in it, this show is one of the most effective forms of teen birth control on earth. Watch it with a teenager and you will understand. Teen pregnancy is at the lowest point in our lifetimes, and many -- including the US government -- give this show and MTV credit. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy recently issued a report that 82% of teenagers polled credit this show with teaching them about the difficulties and challenges of an unexpected pregnancy. You may not like what you see on this show, but you cannot argue its impact.
4. The West Wing: I seriously debated putting this show on the list. It's kind of 'on the nose' -- almost too easy. Then again, it was a really damn good show. The show had some of the best dialogue in TV history, and for those of us that wished Clinton was actually a good guy, the series was a really great piece of wish fulfillment. Most importantly, over seven seasons, Aaron Sorkin and John Wells gave us what we most needed -- the idealized version of the people we wished we could vote for. Yes, it won four consecutive Emmys -- not equaled until Mad Men. But more importantly, in the aftermath of Watergate and Lewinskygate, President Bartlet and his staff demonstrated what American politics should be, even if it never could. Regardless of your party affiliation, The West Wing transported us to a place where the ideal concept of American democracy still mattered. It's hard to know just how many young men and women watched this show and decided to damn the torpedoes and dedicate their lives to public service, but I like to think the number isn't insignificant.
3. The Daily Show: If not for Jon Stewart, there would be a swath of young Americans who would not know what the hell is going on. To millennials (and many more of us) Jon Stewart is the modern day Walter Cronkite. There are books, people and entire news stories that would not be on the radar of many Americans if not for the brilliant and subversive way The Daily Show injects them into our collective consciousness. Every generation has a satirist that helps awaken its social conscience. For the current times, I think Stewart may be actually more than we deserve.
2. The Colbert Report: I list Colbert higher (or lower, I guess) on the list than The Daily Show, because, frankly I'm tired of Stewart winning everything all the time. Plus, Colbert's most recent long-running satire of the Citizens United campaign finance ruling is possibly the single best piece of political satire in American media history. How many comedians form a super PAC and testify before Congress? Um, that would be one. The Colbert super PAC -- like everything Colbert does -- was a simultaneously brave and ridiculous piece of comedy. Clearly he has no fear. And in this day and age, that cannot be undervalued.
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1. The Wire: By the standards of this list, this is the best show TV has ever made. Incredibly well-written, acted and directed, David Simon's masterpiece also used each season, in its entirety, to address one major issue affecting America's cities -- the drug trade; port security and corruption; municipal bureaucracy; the school system; and city newspapers. Simon built whole season arcs around each thesis, changing the focus every season, shifting the emphasis of his incredible ensemble in the process and forcing the creative team to start almost from scratch each year. He didn't just make an amazing series, he made it REALLY hard on himself to boot. There has never been and may never be anything else like it in any medium. I would suggest you may not participate in the comments section below until you have watched it. The ONLY reason it is not alone at number one on this list, is that it was cancelled after five seasons, and that makes me mad.
1. South Park: Every time I think -- "they will run out of gas; what can they possibly go after next?" -- they just... don't. There's a lot of comedy on TV to like these days, but let's be honest, nothing comes even close to the incredibly biting, punk rock comedy of South Park. This season alone -- the SIXTEENTH -- Matt and Trey have addressed bullying ("Butterballs"), Jews and Easter ("Jewpacabra"), QVC ("Cash4Gold") and gender issues ("Reverse Cowgirl"). That 16 years into their run, those foul-mouthed sh*ts are still way funnier than anything else on TV, is amazing. That they get away with attacking every sacred cow imaginable -- from Scientology to Facebook to Faith Hill -- restores my faith in the motherf**king Constitution every single week.
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