Since we're in a "desert island" frame of mind—at least I am, anyway—why not look at the ten television series you'd want to have in that hypothetical zone of isolation designed to force you to evaluate and prioritize your tastes and preferences?

I know, I know: First, these are my picks, and they will not align with yours. Second, once we start looking at television, we're halfway home to civilization, right? How deprived can you be on that desert island if you've got hours and hours of programming to watch for just one series?

Leaving aside the picky ramifications of the whole "desert island" metaphor, I chose my ten television shows the same way I chose my movies—the channel-surf stop test—as I outlined in my list of desert-island movies.

However, I have to admit that while I've certainly spent my share of hours in front of the boob tube, and have certainly stopped to watch episodes of any number of shows from Mister Ed to Law and Order: Criminal Intent to Doc Martin, I've found that over the years there are actually very few television series that I find truly memorable enough to want to examine them again. That combines with the "phases" or "infatuations" I will go through with shows (recent ones have included Arrested Development and Malcolm in the Middle), but like a summer crush their appeal leaves me soon enough, and I let them go without missing them too much.

Furthermore, I simply haven't kept up with current programming in the last several years. People rave to me about shows they love such as Breaking Bad, Dexter, or Mad Men, and they all look very engaging, but I have become very selective in the amount and kinds of television I watch.

Make no mistake: I'm from the school that believes that the top-line television programs have gotten better in the last couple of decades compared to decades past, dating back to when former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow famously declared in 1961 that television was "a vast wasteland." In an age with an explosion of cable and satellite channels to choose from, the proportion of quality shows to crappy shows has probably mushroomed in favor of the latter—how else to explain Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo?—but the best shows display tremendous talent and creativity, indicating that there is indeed continuous improvement.

Finally, though, I simply don't have time anymore to spend hours at a single sitting watching television. So, in choosing the ten television series for a desert island, I have kept with the series that have stuck with me over the years. Presented in reverse order of preference.

10. Nova


(1974 – present. PBS. United States)

To call Nova simply a "science show" is to call the Smithsonian simply a "museum": Yes, Nova covers typical science topics ranging from the structure of DNA to the structure of the universe, but just as the Smithsonian reflects just about every aspect of American life, Nova has reflected just about every aspect of life, the universe, and everything over its long television tenure. Along with branches of science from astronomy to zoology, Nova encompasses history, sociology, and anthropology in its quest to explore the natural (and sometimes supernatural) universe, emphasizing human interest and thus broadening its appeal to viewers who might find "science" too brainy or too boring.

Using a mix of talking heads, documentary footage, and animation, each episode tells a smooth story, using broad strokes to paint the framework in order to acquaint viewers with the overall premise before narrowing the focus to key details of the explanation. This usually produces an insight that helps the uninitiated understand the subject or that reveals new information or interpretations to expand existing knowledge. (Nova now points viewers to its website to learn more about the subject.) And even though not every topic will be of interest to everyone, you might find yourself surprised at how easily Nova pulls you into something you thought you'd never care to know.

9. BBC World News / BBC World News America

BBC World News America logo

(1991 – present. BBC; PBS [in United States]. Britain.)

It's an indication of how trivial and provincial American news broadcasting has become that you need to rely on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to learn not only what's going on in the rest of the world, but sometimes even what's going on in the United States if it doesn't involve a tawdry celebrity scandal. BBC World News (and the targeted BBC World News America) simply reports on the major news stories around the world, which might be a surprise to viewers who don't realize that events happen in Asia, Africa, and South America that don't always have to involve Americans.

BBC News properly insists on calling its on-air personalities "news presenters," but those "presenters" have journalistic instincts and general knowledge superior to American "anchors" and "reporters," which results in informed, intelligent discussion that assumes that the audience is informed and intelligent as well. The concept of "objective journalism" is a myth, and BBC World News is not free from bias (it is regularly accused by Israel's supporters of being "pro-Palestinian," which I take to mean that the BBC thinks the Palestinians are people who have a side of the story too), but minute-for-minute, you won't find a more substantial news program anywhere else. And every day you come away with a little better understanding of our complex world.

I'd also tack onto the schedule the BBC Newsnight program, a weekly, half-hour, in-depth examination of selected news stories.

8. Corner Gas

CornerGasLogo 250

(2004 – 2009. CTV. Canada. 107 episodes.)

This ensemble comedy, the Seinfeld of the Great White North, injected freshness and originality along with a deadpan prairie spin into its fish-out-of-water premise. Set in fictional Dog River, Saskatchewan, Corner Gas was based around Corner Gas station owner Brent Leroy (Brent Butt) and Toronto transplant Lacey Burrows (Gabrielle Miller), who inherited The Ruby, the diner that adjoins Corner Gas. Supporting them were an array of wryly colorful locals, from Brent's sarcastic, college-educated cashier Wanda (Nancy Robertson), his ornery parents Oscar (Eric Peterson) and Emma (Janet Wright), and bumbling slacker buddy Hank (Fred Ewanuick) to the town's Laurel and Hardy-like police duo Davis (Lorne Cardinal) and Karen (Tara Spencer-Nairn).

Similar to Seinfeld, each episode featured intersecting story threads, often with a droll finish; everyone was conversant in cultural references; and every character had occasionally annoying personality traits. Where Corner Gas parted company was with its gentler approach, offhand fantasy sequences, and stunt casting of Canadian cultural and political figures. Foregoing a live audience or a laugh track, the show's relaxed, offbeat approach didn't belabor punchlines and it didn't linger for the laugh. And Corner Gas struck an admirable balance between everyone's mutual antagonism and their grudging affection. Kind of like your family and friends, eh?

7. Barney Miller

Barney Miller

(1975 – 1982. ABC. United States. 168 episodes.)

More so than any other 1970s studio-bound series filmed before a live audience, Barney Miller had a very stagy manner: This was particularly so in the first couple of seasons, in which the actors' set-pieces, notably ones by Abe Vigoda's aging Detective Philip K. Fish, were executed with that crowd-pleasing, theatrical affect, and it continued through the series' run as the last few seasons featured one set, the detectives' squad room, almost exclusively. Not that it detracted from the show's droll dialog and thoughtful approach that deftly combined bright humor with gritty realism to emerge as one of the finest police shows in television history.

New York City Police Captain Barney Miller (Hal Linden) headed the 12th Precinct, a grimy, run-down Greenwich Village police station through which passed daily an array of arrestees from shoplifters and prostitutes to mad bombers and werewolves (or at least a man who thought he was one). Under his command were detectives Fish, kvetching his way toward retirement; Stan Wojciehowicz (Max Gail), gung-ho and a low-key womanizer; Ron Harris (Ron Glass), an urbane aspiring writer; Nick Yemana (Jack Soo), inveterate gambler and bad-coffee maker; and Arthur Dietrich (Steve Landesberg), the deadpanning intellectual. With consistently sharp writing and closely rendered performances that neatly underscored the mundane daily routine of police work along with the officers' fallibility—these were no glamorous supercops but neither were they Keystone Kops—Barney Miller remains a superlative ensemble comedy-drama.

6. Kolchak: The Night Stalker

Kolchak The Night Stalker

(1974 – 1975. ABC. United States. 22 episodes [includes 2 pilot movies].)

The music over the opening credits to Kolchak: The Night Stalker begins with a bright, cheerful melody and ends with a dark, ominous tone, signaling that beneath our benign natural world lurk malevolent, supernatural forces. Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) is an itinerant but intrepid reporter who keeps stumbling upon unearthly phenomena but can't convince the police or his editor, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), of their existence. The brief series offered essentially a monster-of-the-week format ranging from standard ghouls (zombies, a werewolf, vampires) to exotic entities from the East Indian Rakshasa (a deadly beast that took the form of the victim's most trusted intimate) to murderous mannequins, a beheaded biker, and an out-of-this-world, marrow-eating unseen force.

A meager budget meant minimal costumes and special effects, so the show's ghastly encounters look positively ludicrous by today's standards. The show, and McGavin, knew it; they labored to inject wit and intelligence into the premises, attaining a fairly high success ratio. (David Chase, later of Northern Exposure and The Sopranos, was one of the writers.) McGavin, though, sold it: Kolchak was by turns skeptical but credulous, brash but persuasive, ultimately coming up empty-handed but relentless nevertheless, the precursor to Fox Mulder in The X Files (and it's no coincidence that McGavin twice guest-starred on that show), with Oakland an engaging foil à la Mulder's sparring partner, skeptical Dana Scully. The series was preceded by two TV movies whose popularity fostered the series, with the first one, The Night Stalker, being the better of the two. (Vampires in Las Vegas—who'd a-thunk it?)

5. Lost


(2004 – 2010. ABC. United States. 121 episodes.)

One of the first truly 21st-century series, Lost broke free of most storytelling conventions while responding to its fan base's largely internet-based feedback, becoming as close to an interactive TV dramatic series as we've yet seen. It didn't hurt that this sci-fi thriller began with an explosive premise—a jet airliner crashes on a tropical island, with the survivors now forced to adapt to being marooned on a most unusual island—and then it parsed out tantalizing clues as to much, much bigger things controlling the survivors' destiny, provoking profound questions of both existential and spiritual reality.

Despite the superior writing and execution, there did come a point where one had to wonder: Are they just making this up as they go along? By abandoning even its own internal logic, at least as revealed to viewers, Lost became by definition untrustworthy, and viewers just simply had to go along for the ride to see how it all turned out. (It could be that the show's creative element was simply trying to stay one step ahead of the increasingly rampant internet speculation.) Still, the bravura blending of crime story, science fact and fiction, magical realism, political intrigue, romance, and Gilligan's Island Meets the Prisoner made Lost one of the most fascinating television series ever, with Ben Linus (Michael Emerson) becoming one of TV's most memorable villains. Chalk one up for the Dharma Initiative!

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Last modified on Thursday, 22 March 2018 01:54

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