TV Show That You Can't Put Down
July 21, 2011 5:09 AM   Subscribe

Since its inception, television has often been criticized for a lack of writing and/or artistic quality when compared to books. What television show made you realize for the first time that television has the potential not only for entertainment but also for quality storytelling?

For a younger generation, some might say The Sopranos or Lost. For an older generation, maybe The Twilight Zone. What's that first TV show that was a "page-turner"?
posted by schleppo to Media & Arts (72 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
posted by archimago at 5:10 AM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

For me it was probably Babylon 5.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 5:12 AM on July 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

Hmm... The first show I remember watching that I thought was really brilliant was Homicide - Life on the Streets on NBC. Not that it was the greatest show ever, just that it was the first show I remember thinking was amazing in a 'literary' sense.
posted by delmoi at 5:12 AM on July 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

The West Wing
posted by hydropsyche at 5:12 AM on July 21, 2011 [11 favorites]

hill st blues
posted by sparkle55 at 5:13 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Battlestar Gallactica - the new one.
posted by Leezie at 5:17 AM on July 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Northern Exposure. It was unlike anything I'd seen before or since. Brilliant writing.
posted by Rewind at 5:18 AM on July 21, 2011 [6 favorites]

I thought I had seen great television. But then I watched The Wire, and it changed the whole game.
posted by guessthis at 5:19 AM on July 21, 2011 [9 favorites]

posted by litnerd at 5:21 AM on July 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

Twin Peaks was the first. Freaks and Geeks was the last.

Also, "page-turner" usually refers to a suspenseful book that you can't put down, but which may not be of particularly high quality -- so I think it's kind of the opposite of the question you're asking.
posted by escabeche at 5:22 AM on July 21, 2011

Northern Exposure
Twin Peaks
posted by xingcat at 5:22 AM on July 21, 2011

A lot of good answers, but I'd encourage you to broaden your vision of "good story telling." Within its genre, for example, The Brady Bunch was often good story-telling. [Grain of salt: this comment from a guy who partially adapted for the stage Land of the Lost decades before the hapless film.]
posted by Mngo at 5:24 AM on July 21, 2011

Hill Street Blues.
St. Elsewhere.
I, Claudius.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 5:25 AM on July 21, 2011

The Office
posted by John Cohen at 5:27 AM on July 21, 2011

Along with some others have already mentioned, The Rockford Files.
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:29 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Singing Detective
posted by nicwolff at 5:29 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

M*A*S*H, of course.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:31 AM on July 21, 2011 [7 favorites]

For me, it was Deep Space Nine, particularly the later series. Before that point, my perception was that most TV episodes were more-or-less self-contained. DS9 blew that out of the water. The idea of a story arc is pretty much mandatory now, but it was something new to me then.
posted by londonmark at 5:33 AM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

The Wire, which I should point out was scripted largely by novelists.
posted by dortmunder at 5:41 AM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

posted by torisaur at 5:48 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Babylon 5
posted by citizngkar at 5:54 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

The X Files, but then again I was a sheltered youth.
posted by meringue at 5:57 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Arrested Development.
Unique and hilarious storytelling. Yes, the acting is brilliant, but the writing is consistently spectacular.
posted by Acton at 6:02 AM on July 21, 2011

posted by Obscure Reference at 6:03 AM on July 21, 2011

The Wire.
posted by dfriedman at 6:14 AM on July 21, 2011

Homicide was the first for me, but The Wire changed everything. All other TV paled in comparison.
posted by General Malaise at 6:15 AM on July 21, 2011

Six Feet Under.
posted by sleep_walker at 6:16 AM on July 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

Grew up with the BBC -- whose charter is to "educate, inform, entertain" -- so was exposed to quality storytelling from earliest childhood.
posted by Mister Bijou at 6:18 AM on July 21, 2011

Either Arrested Development or The Shield. Excellent characters and layered, self-referential storytelling.
posted by mean cheez at 6:25 AM on July 21, 2011

The Simpsons
posted by bunglin jones at 6:26 AM on July 21, 2011

The X Files, but then again I was a sheltered youth.

No, you weren't -- the early seasons of The X-Files had some really great writing. They also had some crap, too, but the good/crap ratio was skewed into "good" in the earlier seasons.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:28 AM on July 21, 2011

Six Feet Under was the first show that I watched on DVD from beginning to end, and the first show that felt that way to me.
posted by cider at 6:29 AM on July 21, 2011

Buffy and the West Wing.
posted by greta simone at 6:29 AM on July 21, 2011

Sports Night
Arrested Development
posted by entropone at 6:32 AM on July 21, 2011

Some of you are living in my head. Please stop.

I, Claudius
Upstairs, Downstairs
St. Elsewhere
All in the Family

There are a ton of others, but they mostly came later. These are the shows that let me know that TV doesn't have to rot your brain.
posted by rtha at 6:37 AM on July 21, 2011

It was an arc for me, from L.A. Law to Twin Peaks to Homicide to Picket Fences to NYPD Blue. Twin Peaks was probably when I really became aware.
posted by troywestfield at 6:49 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Heh. We're showing our age (we're young!).

What about some of those good reruns?

The original Star Trek?

The Twilight Zone?

The Andy Griffith Show?

One X-Files stands out -- the one that opens with the air force pilot dressed in an alien suit, smoking a cigarette, who has been captured by real aliens.

Oh, Another. The vampires in Texas one with Luke Wilson, told first from Scully's POV (Wilson is a Cowboy Dreamboat), then told again from Mulder's POV (Wilson is a Bucktoothed Hick).

posted by notyou at 6:58 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Dexter. My answer marks me as younger than most people here, but it's the first time I've been really impressed with how well written something on TV was.
posted by Gymnopedist at 6:58 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Some X-Files episodes
Doctor Who (both the old and new series)
Veronica Mars
posted by wwax at 7:06 AM on July 21, 2011

posted by box at 7:09 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Murder, She Wrote! Great storytelling more than great writing. I think there can be a big difference. Compare: The Sopranos.
posted by arveale at 7:33 AM on July 21, 2011

I'm too young to have watched them, but I remember people really changing their minds about television with Upstairs, Downstairs, and the miniseries Roots, Holocaust, and The Day After.

For me, it was all about Monty Python, Police Squad!, the Simpsons, and the first episode of ER. And then Arrested Development, which I'm still learning from.
posted by Mchelly at 7:34 AM on July 21, 2011

Prime Suspect
In the cartoon category: Dexter
posted by fivesavagepalms at 7:40 AM on July 21, 2011

For treating the audience like people who don't mind using their brains while watching (which may be a kind of proxy for good writing) I think Yes Minister (BBC) and Sopranos (HBO) were seminal
posted by Gomoryhu at 7:40 AM on July 21, 2011

The Sopranos. Arrested Development.
posted by sideofwry at 7:41 AM on July 21, 2011

For me it was a double smack-down of ER and the X-Files when I was in my mid-teens. The stand out moment in ER was that bit with the guy who jumped in front of a train (if you know what I mean you know what I mean), it was an extraordinarily powerful, shocking moment. Not sure what stands out particularly about the X-Files, but I remember not wanting the episodes to end.
posted by hnnrs at 7:41 AM on July 21, 2011

BTW, I think the way The X-Files fizzled out in the later series was a big part in actually turning me off TV - I couldn't bring myself to invest that much in any characters again. The only series I've watched from start to finish since is The Wire.
posted by hnnrs at 7:42 AM on July 21, 2011

Really good TV shows tend to stand on the shoulders of their predecessors. Even though I was a kid, I remember that there was something pretty special happening on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. All in the Family was certainly groundbreaking, though I didn't really grasp that at the time. MASH was good at the time but didn't really age well, and the same probably goes for The West Wing. Today, I'm mourning the end of Friday Night Lights, although I just saw the premiere of Breaking Bad, and am already enthralled.
posted by Gilbert at 7:56 AM on July 21, 2011

Twilight Zone.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:31 AM on July 21, 2011

Naked City. Combat (some episodes were directed by Robert Altman). Twilight Zone. and so on and so on.
Early criticism of tv hasn't exactly held up.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:47 AM on July 21, 2011

For me?

The Mysterious Cities of Gold

I was six and watched this show after kindergarten with my sister. I watched it in its entirety a few years ago and it's really stood the test of time in quality story telling. Sure, it's a bit simplistic in ways meant for kids to be able to follow it, but the story was well told and included a number of twists that were surprising even on the second viewing twenty years later.
posted by zizzle at 8:59 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Although as I've recently realized it's just doing an americanized version of what other animes have been doing for years.
posted by edbles at 9:05 AM on July 21, 2011

The Wire, as many have said.
posted by epiphinite at 9:38 AM on July 21, 2011

The Prisoner, from when I was a kid.

Nowadays I really enjoy Adventure Time With Finn and Jake (with my kids as cover of course.)
posted by cross_impact at 9:48 AM on July 21, 2011

Kolchak: The Night Stalker
posted by humboldt32 at 9:48 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maybe a specialized example, but I would say the original (Bruce Geller produced) Mission Impossible really demonstrated to me (as a kid) how a story could be told in a way specific to the television medium.

MI took advantage of the series format by structuring its episodes identically each week, so the regular viewer knew the first three sequences ("tape recorder," "dossier" and "apartment") would always lay out the essentials of exposition and backstory. After that, the story was told almost completely in visual terms, with only occasional essential dialogue. (Some episodes might have lots of talking, but it would be incidental to the story: for example, a blowhard dictator might bloviate about crushing the Free World or some such.) In fact, you could mostly follow this show with the volume turned off: Barbra Bain's icy glares and Martin Landau's tense twitches conveyed all the emotional information we needed.

This wasn't book storytelling, because there was no narrator interceding between the action and the viewer; it also wasn't theater storytelling, because there was so little talk. I think you can argue it wasn't strictly film technique either, because the taut and hermetic plots didn't allow for lavish production values: 90% of the story was told in simple two-shots and closeups in a series of featureless small interiors.

It's a cliche to say the series lost some of its zing when Bain and Landau departed, but I'm thinking that the success of the series also led to the network's committing more money to the project, which led to making the show more conventional, with expensive sets and more recognizable guest stars-- and, as I recall it, a good deal more talk -- in later seasons. So the television-specific qualities of the show were diluted, making it more like a conventional late-1960s theatrical film.
posted by La Cieca at 9:59 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Wire.
posted by dougrayrankin at 10:09 AM on July 21, 2011

The Prisoner.
posted by milk white peacock at 10:11 AM on July 21, 2011

One X-Files stands out -- the one that opens with the air force pilot dressed in an alien suit, smoking a cigarette, who has been captured by real aliens.

....I think I know that specific episode -- Jose Chung's "From Outer Space". And yeah -- the particular screenwriter for that one is who I'd name if this AskMe were asking us to name a writer rather than a show. Darin Morgan is a bloody genius.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:31 AM on July 21, 2011

Playhouse 90, particularly the episode that presented Rod Serling's In the Presence of Mine Enemies with Charles Laughton as the Rabbi.
posted by paulsc at 10:32 AM on July 21, 2011

Interestingly enough, my answer to another question applies here also. The Twilight Zone's "It's a Good Life" was tense and horrific and a perfect use of the medium.
posted by rtimmel at 11:04 AM on July 21, 2011

The Sopranos in general, but also "Pine Barrens" in particular (actually, most of Season 3) as well as "College" from Season 1 and "Whoever Did This" from Season 4.

Doctor Who is a good one too, though from the new series I particularly like "Blink," "The Girl in the Fireplace," 'The Empty Child" and "The Doctor Dances," and "Human Nature" and "The Family of Blood."
posted by johnofjack at 11:32 AM on July 21, 2011

posted by radiosilents at 12:46 PM on July 21, 2011

For me, it was Boys From The Blackstuff. Just heartbreaking.
posted by itsjustanalias at 1:28 PM on July 21, 2011

The Outer Limits, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and The CBS Children's Film Festival.
posted by Smart Dalek at 2:52 PM on July 21, 2011

as others have said: Six Feet Under and Buffy.

Also: Cracker, and, from Japanese anime, Blood +

And from my little French-Canadian part of the world: La Chambre numéro 13 (mind blowing show)
posted by kitsuloukos at 3:45 PM on July 21, 2011

I, Claudius

Oh dear Lord that was entertaining. Although, not recommended after brain surgery, or so my friend told me after she had brain surgery.
posted by Leezie at 4:48 PM on July 21, 2011

the original and the best: star trek!!!
posted by sparkle55 at 7:46 PM on July 21, 2011


No hang on I'm serious. There's an episode in series 3 called 'The One Where No One's Ready and it's actually a brilliantly constructed episode: a bottleneck that smoothly develops each character's little storyline while being really really funny.

Chronologically (not for me personally):
House of Cards
posted by litleozy at 5:34 AM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Reilly, Ace of Spies.
posted by qsysopr at 6:06 AM on July 22, 2011

There is an episode where they're caught in a time loop (as I think every sci-fi show does at some point) and John is talking to Zaahn and each time through the loop drops a glass mask, which shatters. Finally, one of the loops, he looks at the mask, sets it gently on the floor, and then crushes it with his foot. The symbolic taking of control in this moment made me turn to my college roommate and exclaim "Now _that's_ good writing."
Right now, it's Sons of Anarchy.
posted by Morydd at 5:41 AM on July 24, 2011

Deep Space 9 for me, too. (Ron Moore, who worked on this show, later went on to bring us the Battlestar Galactica reboot.) Terrorism, freedom fighting, politics, religion, war, slavery, drugs... and that was just the main arc. Some of the one-off episodes were brilliant, too. Far Beyond the Stars, a fourth-wall-breaking episode about racism in the world of science fiction writing, hit me upside the head with a baseball bat.
posted by xyzzy at 8:25 PM on July 25, 2011

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