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Classic TV or Passing Fad?

Life is full of classics--those things that never go out of style and always delight: Levis. Coffee and donuts. Thank-you notes. Cats. Agatha Christie.

But there are also passing fads. Boxy shoulder pads, anyone? Molecular gastronomy? Tiny dogs? Yeah.

So we have a challenge for you, billiedoux readers...

The Challenge: Imagine you're introducing a sweet, friendly alien to the delightful medium of genre television, broadly defined. Which shows must she watch first? Which are classics? Which are classics in the making? Which shows (or episodes) will we still be talking about in 10 years? Which shows aren't always great, but have some spectacular episodes that make it all worth it?

Here's the catch--you can only pick 5.


  1. 1. Star Trek - The original, a foundational work of genre television.

    2. The Outer Limits - Again, another foundational work and one which is referenced all over the place.

    3. Babylon 5 - Quality-wise, this might not hold up as well as some of the others. But it marked the transition from episodic television to serial television, and thus is a vital step in genre evolution, and maybe even television as a whole.

    4. Buffy - Amazing show, the go-to reference for the paranormal television genre.

    5. Firefly - If I'm honest, this probably shouldn't be on this list. It really isn't as important as the four shows I listed above. But I love this show. A choice from the heart, rather than the head.

  2. For series, I'd go with Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Babylon 5, Buffy, and Lost. (Damn, it was hard to choose only five. I really wanted to include Farscape, Star Trek: TNG, and the reimagined Battlestar Galactica as well.) I think these represent high-quality entries that managed to tell solid stories (on both an episodic and arc basis --- for the later entries), and capture the heart and/or the imagination.

  3. 5. Babylon 5 - As Rohan said, it marked the transition in Genre TV from Episodic to Serial. But more than that; it was the gutsy, tell your own story approach, that truly makes this a classic.

    4. Farscape - Wholly original, weird, bold, and occasionally disgusting this show was a one-stop-shop of zany wrapped up in fun. It also had one of the best romances that I can think of in Genre TV(although it was not necessarily the best).

    3. Battlestar Galactica (Remake) - This is a great example of what to do right, and what to do wrong. Ultimately it was a wonderful series, but at the same time it is marred by it's many flaws. But in character, acting, atmosphere, and simple storytelling this show was amazing.

    2. Supernatural - How to build a story in five easy seasons. Sure season six and seven have fallen a little in terms of what we love about this show. But I can't think of many other series that have such a rich and cohesive continuity. The first five year arc was absolutely one of the best I've ever seen. Oh yeah, it also has wonderful acting, and incredibly memorable characters.

    1. Buffy & Angel - Sure that's a bit a a cheat, but as a whole this was really one series. It is set in the same world, uses the same rules, and has many of the same characters. But these were the best examples of mixing Genre's and should be watched by anyone who wants to make a truly great TV show.

  4. Battlestar Galactica, Lost, Alias, Dexter and Babylon 5. Babylon 5 because it's the granddaddy of them all and was the first show I ever watched where the peril felt real; Battlestar Galactica because it felt like proper adult scifi and you never knew where you were with it; Alias and Lost probably for the same reason -- the twists were unrelenting, but I never once felt gypped; and Dexter because it's the most consistently brilliant show I've ever seen.

  5. Here are my 5 choices, in no particular order. A couple of my choices haven't been on anyone's lists yet, so I tried to explain my reasoning. You are welcome to disagree, but this is MY list, not yours :)

    Firefly - Very few shows have made such a lasting impression and inspired such love and loyalty from their fans with so few episodes. Firefly was one of those shows where everything seemed to go right creatively, and so very wrong commercially. Perfectly cast, brilliantly written, and gorgeously shot, its short life is one of the great tragedies of television. I think you'd have to cheat a little and include the Serenity feature film along with it. It was a brilliant conclusion to the story, and the message it had about humanity's conflicting desires for freedom and order make it far too powerful to leave out.

    The Twilight Zone - I must confess I've seen very little of the original run of this show, but it's still the benchmark for genre anthology shows. It didn't have recurring characters we could get to know & fall in love with, it started from scratch week after week, and still captivated viewers with thought-provoking stories.

    Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - I'm sure many will disagree with this choice. Of all the Trek shows, why THIS one instead of the original? For several reasons, but two most of all. To me it was the most "complete" of the Trek shows. At the end of 7 seasons I felt the same as when I finish a long novel. Most of the time, shows like that lose their way(Lost) or hang on longer than they should have(X-Files). DS9 managed to tell a single coherent story, while still giving us some of the outstanding one-off episodes that Star Trek is famous for. The other reason is how DS9 incorporated aspects of religion and faith into the story. Most of the time science fiction is pretty atheist. But DS9 had a spiritual side to it that I found refreshing, showing both the personal and societal struggles associated with religion.

    Farscape - This show was so wildly creative, and managed to cover such a wide range of emotions. Some episodes would have you crying with grief, others would have you crying with laughter. The episode where characters were jumping into each other's bodies had me falling on the floor laughing. And I dare you to watch in Season 4 when Crichton finally rescues Aeryn and she reaches out to touch his face to be sure he's real, and not shed a tear. And the grand climax of the Peacekeeper Wars was television at it's most epic. And of course, the sheer artistry of the puppet characters. Pilot especially, the amount of emotion he evoked was incredible.

    Dead Like Me - Another one that many folks might pass over, but I feel like it deserves some attention. To me, science fiction is at its best when it says something about humanity(not to take anything away from sci-fi fantasy like Star Wars, which I love). And one of the great questions that we as humans struggle with is death and what comes after it. This show took an entertaining, sometimes hilarious, and often poignant look at death, grief, acceptance, all those big issues that most folks are afraid to think about. If for no other reason, everyone should watch this show for the Season 1 episode "Nighthawks", which was one of the most sublime hours of television I've ever seen.

  6. OMG, talk about hard questions!

    If we're talking classic older must-sees for our theoretical alien, I'd seriously lean toward The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, The Prisoner and the original Star Trek. (Which is only four. But what I *want* to list, and probably would list is:

    1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
    2. Star Trek: The Next Generation
    3. Babylon 5
    4. Supernatural
    5. Lost

    These are the five shows I was most seriously obsessed with, and the ones that have stayed with me.

  7. Buffy, Firefly, Battlestar, Supernatural, Deep Space Nine.

    Just under the wire - Angel and ST: TNG.

  8. Oooh, very tough question! These aren't necessarily my favorite TV shows but these are the ones I think someone would have to see.

    1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Angel - these two series are incredibly different beasts, IMO, but if we are talking about exposing someone to television, this is a brilliant, 12 season-long, way to do it.

    2. Battlestar Galactica (2003) - I feel like this is the most important science fiction show in recent years because it really showed people what scifi can do. The ultimate science fiction show, really.

    3. Friday Night Lights - I just discovered this recently, but a perfect example of an emotionally compelling, well-acted realistic drama. There's no huge plot or mythology, but it shows that straight up drama is just as capable of a medium as action or fantasy.

    4. Lost - while it's not the best JJ Abrams show, IMO, it is probably the most important one and the biggie in terms of long, complicated mythology. It redefined serialized television and was one long novel, really, even if people didn't really like the end of it. It's necessary to know for general pop culture.

    5. Breaking Bad or Weeds or The Sopranos - I know I cheated. Honestly, if I had to, I would probably just put The Sopranos but seeing as I haven't seen the whole show, I wasn't sure. I basically wanted one show to show what cable dramas looked like and these were the first breakout hit, or one of the first, for their respective networks (AMC, Showtime, HBO). Breaking Bad and Weeds are more of future classics, I'd imagine, and I think The Sopranos has already cemented itself as a classic.

    I didn't mention any comedies, but I can only assume that the NBC comedies (The Office, 30 Rock, Parks & Rec, Community) will be pretty eternal, just as Arrested Development is becoming. Also Seinfeld and Friends for comedies. And, in my mind, Veronica Mars will always be a classic, even if it isn't in reality.....

  9. 1. Sherlock Holmes - The Jeremy Brett/Granada adaptations. One of the most faithful and best versions of Doyle's detective. Sherlock Holmes himself is one of the most classic detectives of all time, and if you had to pick just one to watch I'd say this one.

    2. Stargate SG-1. One of the longest running and (IMO) best sci-fi shows of all time. Fantastic premise, great acting and brilliant stories and arcs. Not every episode was a winner, and it did trail off a bit after Season 8, but I think the Ori storyline could have been wrapped up better if the show hadn't been cancelled. I watched it from the very first episode and kept watching it faithfully right until the last episode aired. Probably my favourite TV show of all time.

    3. The Mentalist. Yeah, I'm certain I'm the only one who would name this, but I think it's hugely underrated. I think it elevates itself above the dozens of procedural crime shows by having one of the cleverest and most enjoyable protagonists for this type of show. We're talking about someone who made an entire research facility think it had been infected with a deadly virus just to catch a killer, and because he thought it was a 'life-affirming' experience. The show is full of so many sneaky, clever and downright brilliant moments that I often find myself laughing out loud or applauding. Add to that one of the most scarily competent recurring villains I've ever seen and I'd say this show is a real winner.

    4. Mission: Impossible. Best. Spy show. Ever.

    5. Star Trek TOS. Do I even need to say why?

    I didn't list any comedies because I wasn't sure if they applied to this, but for old school I'd say Morecambe & Wise, modern I'd say either Friends or The Big Bang Theory. If we were including children’s TV shows and cartoons, I'd have no choice but to say My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, which I think is a classic in the making and a definite must watch. People will still be writing fanfic for that ten years from now.

    Oh, and if I could pick six choices, I'd definitely choose Quantum Leap as number six.

  10. For sheer cultural impact, I think I'd say:
    Star Trek
    Doctor Who
    The X Files
    Life on Mars (UK)

    The first four are, I think, genre-defining shows. They're also shows that are popular with genre fans and known, to an extent, by mainstream viewers too. The last one is a bit different - it would be a way of showing the alien an example of how other, different things can be done with genre.

  11. Star Trek TOS - without it all the space opera including TNG, Babylon 5, and all versions of Battlestar Galactica are either not there or radically different.

    Twilight Zone - The bizarre stories with a fable-like moral chaser are critical to our expectations on how genre TV must resolve its plotlines.

    Buffy the Vampire Slayer- The pinnacle of the fantasy genre television, it is fundamentally "not-serious" while simultaneously dealing in brilliant metaphorical treatment of gender, violence and all sorts of other important things.

    X-files - Yes, the last couple of seasons were awful but this series perfectly captured the post-modern collapse in confidence in any institution and made paranoia the operative emotion for much of America.

    The Prisoner - Without this series you get no Lost or X-files or any of the other quirky winding tales. This show took the world of genre TV in a fundamentally new direction and despite its relative obscurity is much more important than the infinitely more popular Dr. Who to current TV. (somebody really ought to review this one)

  12. I was noticing that some folks selected shows that aren't actually "genre" programming as we've come to define that term recently, and it got me thinking about why we've started referring to sci-fi/fantasy/horror programming with the term "genre." Because technically, a genre is generic term that refers to any style or category of art/music/literature. "Cop procedural" is a genre. "Legal drama" is a genre. "Family drama" is a genre. And so on. But the term has somehow become synonymous with three specific genres in more recent years. I wonder if that is an attempt by fans of this type of programming to make it less marginalized. To get around the "taint" or resistance to that type of programming by the general masses. Food for thought.

  13. @Jess, or it could just be easier than saying or typing "sci-fi/fantasy/paranormal" all the time.

    Occam's Razor, etc.

  14. Little of Column A, little of Column B?

    Or maybe we started getting too many shows that aren't traditional SF/F/H shows, but have a slight SF/F/H flavor in their conceit. Things like Chuck, for instance. Or more recently, Person of Interest and Alcatraz. Even Lost took a really long time to let its full freak-flag fly. It was just hints and snippets of weirdness for the first several seasons. Perhaps uncertainty about how to label a wider range of shows led to the more "all-encompassing" term.

    Whatever the case, I wish we'd collectively settled on a different term, because I think "genre" is far too broad.

  15. Hrrm, I'd throw Buffy/Angel, Alias, BSG, Six Feet Under (c'mon, dead folk all over the place!) and Dead Like Me (ditto!).

  16. I'd go with Buffy, Supernatural, Community, Psych, and LOST, myself.

  17. Argh! Now that's a tough question!

    5 shows off the top of my head (which have really stayed with me since watching them): Buffy, BSG (recent one), SG1, X-Files (both of those I'd perhaps tell them to skip the final two seasons) and Game of Thrones to throw something really recent into the mix. And since five isn't enough I'd add Deep Space Nine (as much as I loved the characters on TNG, I thought DS9 told a better story over the 7 years) ;o)

  18. Jess, many years ago I was in a Borders when I overheard a store employee giving a tour to a group of school children.

    (Why were they touring a Borders and not the library? No idea.)

    "Over here," he said, "are the genre books. Westerns, mysteries, fantasy...I don't really know why they call them that. I guess it just means they're not literature-literature."

    As far as books are concerned, I've started to think of genre literature as books with plots. Books without plots *Ulysses is a good example) are "literature-literature." But, according to that definition, War and Peace is genre. So is Homer's Odyssey.

    For TV? I don't know. Is genre TV anything that likely wouldn't happen in the lives of the viewers? That would include the zaniness of something like Breaking Bad as well as the time-traveling craziness of something like Lost.

  19. @Josie, when my kids asked me what "genre" meant when I discussed this post with them this morning, my response was almost exactly as you just put it. I said that it was used to indicate that the shows were not shows that based situations on "real-world" situations but instead were rooted in science fiction, fantasy, horror, or mythology. The word genre really is meant in a much broader context than how it is used here, but for whatever reason, it seems to be the case that many people recognize the term genre as scifi/fantasy/horror.

    I had a tough time with a list of only five, but here I go:

    Buffy, Babylon 5, Star Trek:TNG, Firefly, Lost.

    It was very easy for me to include Buffy, Babylon 5, and Lost without any reasoning for all of the same reasons people have listed above; Babylon 5 took genre shows in an entirely new direction by serializing them, Buffy used fantasy and humor in a groundbreaking way in terms of gender and is just such an amazing well created show, and Lost proved that viewers did want a challenging show that would make them think and would even make them involve themselves with the show outside of the hour in front of the television (something that Babylon 5 actually started in a lot of ways).

    However, settling on TNG over DS9 or TOS was difficult for me. Even though TOS and The Twighlight Zone are really the ancestor shows to all of these others, I justify not including them since I think we are in a new era of television where it has been brought to a whole new level. It seems to me that TNG really deserves a lot of credit from beginning this era. I liked DS9 a little better, but TNG deserves the credit for starting everything.

    As for Firefly, I credit if for really inspiring an active fandom for SciFi and for drawing in many Whedon viewers who might not have otherwise given SciFi a chance.

  20. Hmmm, let's see, we're trying to expose an alien to human culture, not my only criterium but I'll factor it in.
    1: ST: DS9: Something from the Trek oeuvre is a must and IMHGO this is the best of the lot. Well, until about the last half of the last season anyway. But then you could say the same of the last season of OST or the first season of ST: NG
    2: Babylon 5: A quality show that, without hind our warts also shows some of the best of humanity
    3: Twilight Zone: Again a superb show that has a lot to teach about human nature
    4: Buffy: If you want to expose an alien to the breadth of human fiction I can't think of a better show than this. Comedy, drama,action and horror all of it in perfect balance most of the time
    %: Lost: Just cause.

  21. 1. Has to be Buffy: it's impact can be felt all over genre TV. Shows have Big Bads and aspire to have Buffy/Whedon-esque dialogue (though I still insist Sorkin-esque is the gold-standard).

    2. Dr Who: nothing can beat it for longevity or the ability to reinvent itself. One of the first programmes to have true season-arcs.

    3. Star Trek DS:9: not only is it the apogee of the Star Trek series, incorporating the best of the original series, it begat the new BSG and other 'hard' arc sci-fi shows.

    4. X Files for pioneering boxsets and popularizing the conspiracy genre.

    5. Game of Thrones: hopefully one for the future because if they can translate a series like that successfully, anything is possible.

    I'd love to say Firefly but, as perfect as it was, it didn't have a lasting impact like a true classic does.

  22. Blackadder Goes Forth – Once upon a time, Britain produced fantastic sitcoms. This was our finest. No matter what planet you're from, you'll laugh and you will most definitely cry.

    Doctor Who – I'm sure aliens would love Tom Baker. After all, he is one of them.

    The Prisoner – The definitive cult classic. I doubt there is a show being made today that hasn't been influenced by this is some way.

    The Avengers – Without Cathy, Emma and Tara, it is unlikely that we would have any Buffys or Xenas.

    Community – If we can't get more people on this planet to watch it then we should try to convert the rest of the universe.

  23. *disclaimer - I haven't watched some of the other choices people have listed like Babylon 5 or Battlestar Galatica and I've only watched a few seasons of others like X-Files, Lost, Alias* Just saying, I'm biased and will only used genre shows that I love and am caught up with. Sorry!

    1. The obvious. Buffy. Angel if it counts. All of Joss Whedon if that counts. :)

    2. Supernatural. Had a few absolutely perfect episodes. Some fantastic character development. Fun and clever humor. Kings of inside jokes and poking fun of themselves and their fans.

    3. Dexter. At least one absolutely perfect season (Season 1, maybe season 4). A show where I have very few problems with any of the characters (surprising, considering the content). Great actors. A wonderful show to showcase some really human issues.

    4. Would list Veronica Mars here, but now sure if it counts as genre. Probably closest hit is mystery, which it does beautifully. If Veronica Mars doesn't count, maybe one of #5 can go here.

    5. I'd really like to list all three Bryan Fuller shows here. Pushing Daisies, Wonderfalls, and Dead Like Me, really capture the type of show I'd like to watch. The type of shows who have it all: actors, characters, stories. The only thing I'd change about any of them is how long they ran (except maybe Wonderfalls).

    Honorable Mentions (nongenre): Arrested Development, Community, Seinfeld, Friends, Cougar Town

  24. Wow, Josie. I thought you wanted us to discuss sci fi/fantasy/horror/paranormal type shows, but if you would consider Breaking Bad to be "genre" programming, then when you said "the medium of genre television, broadly defined," you really meant it. :)

    This is exactly why I don't care for the term applied to the more narrow band of SF/F/H/P type shows. If everything extreme or remotely "fictional" can be considered genre (like Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, or Justified), or shows that merely attract a cult-sized audience or following (like Community, Friday Night Lights, or The Wire) can be lumped in with the SF/F/H/P shows, then why bother with the "genre" label at all? Not to imply that these are bad shows or that we wouldn't want aliens to watch them, I just wouldn't consider them "genre."

    (I think this may be tapping into a pet peeve of mine. I'm getting far too worked up over some of the "genre" selections. I guess it is nice to have silly issues to get worked up about.)

  25. "Genre" applies to pretty much any genre: mystery, science fiction, romance, and so on, and I'm speaking as someone who works with books. But we do seem to be using it to specifically describe science fiction, fantasy and horror. I've always liked adding the term "cult shows", too, for stuff that is probably broadly considered standard comedy or drama but appeals to people who tend to also like science fiction, fantasy and horror. Stuff in the "cult show" category is usually a bit different in some way. Like Veronica Mars, Dexter, Six Feet Under. Whether they are actually cult or not is arbitrary, isn't it? But I like it as a catch-all sort of term.

  26. I've mostly been into modern, outside the box type shows (I'm currently on the last season of Buffy) and anime. And these are just my opinions, of course.

    And these aren't my favorite in order necessarily, but for the alien :)

    5. Supernatural - a show that demonstrates the struggles of family (albeit sensationally) and gives a lot of insight into urban legends and mythology. Also because it is probably the best one of these shows that deal with monster hunting, for me at least.

    4. Breaking Bad - a show that displays the darkness, insanity, and contradictory nature of the people. And for its utter badass appeal that anyone can appreciate.

    3. Lost - basically sums up the general human situation and civilization. While also being a brilliantly intricate puzzle for the viewer, with mystery that never seems to fade.

    2. The Wire - another show that very eloquently shows how society works and what patterns frequently occur in it. It is also a poetic, honest, and amazing work of fiction that was very underrated when it was on.


    1. The Simpsons - because, to me, it is the perfect look at life through a fully aware spectator's eyes. Plus it is hilarious and legendary. And the first show I really got into outside of Saturday morning cartoons.

  27. Jess--yeah, I wanted a broad category, but one that wasn't too broad. I worried that if I'd just said "classic TV," we'd get a bunch of answers about I Love Lucy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Dynasty.

    I'm the exact opposite of you about the "genre" label. I'm so ambivalent about it that I have reached a state of total apathy. Perhaps that's why I define it as "anything with a plot." :-)

    Having said that, I do have two other litmus tests for what makes up the category of "genre": One, would the readers of this site like it? And two, if I meet someone who likes the show, do I feel that thrill of kinship?

    So maybe, for me, "genre" means "not mainstream, not middle-brow, and my parents probably wouldn't get it." Not because they're old, but because they're boring.

  28. My must-see tv list:

    Breaking Bad - not only incredible storytelling and acting but the cinematography consistently amazes me. It's a beauty to watch.

    The Wire - The grittiest, most realistic show I've ever seen.

    Six Feet Under - A prime example of how powerful television can be. The final season made me cry like no movie or show has done before.

    Battlestar Galactica - Proof that sci-fi can make brilliantly compelling drama.

    Lost - The most complex storytelling structure of any show I've seen. And they made it work.

    Honorable mention: Friday Night Lights...proof that heartfelt family dramas can actually make for compelling television when done correctly.

  29. Josie! How dare you call me and your father boring? Get to your room young lady! No supper for you. Now... where did I put that Dallas DVD?

  30. I mean, I am telling her you handsome devil.

  31. Those are officially the strangest comments I've ever woken up to, Mom. I mean Paul. I mean Mom.

    My braaaaaaiiiiinnnn!

  32. Buffy-such a great and important show.
    Star Trek-TOS-without it genre tv would not exist as it does today. Plus it's fun.
    Babylon 5-risky and daring storylines and wonderful scenery.
    X-Files-was ground-breaking and entertaining. Oh how I shipped Mulder-Scully.
    Doctor Who-so many great doctors and adventures over the years.

  33. As most people have said Buffy and Angel have to be on the list.. My others are Smallville (it had bad eps but when it was gud it was unreal).. Dexter (just an amazin show, 6 seasons an not 1 bad ep).. The Walking Dead (can't really believe that no one put this on their list..)

  34. 1-Buffy the Vampire Slayer
    3-Six Feet Under
    4-Breaking Bad
    5-Toss up between 2 entirely different genres-Mad Men/Game of Thrones


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