Episodes: The best TV lineup ever


An idea we kicked around a few times at AV Club but never quite licked was the idea of some sort of feature on the best lineups in TV history. We had a few different notions of how to tackle this, from single-article ideas, to full-fledged features. But nothing ever stuck.

I suspect a big part of this is that there are really only three satisfying answers to this question. To really qualify, you almost have to have a full night of programming, which rules out Fox, the various netlets, and anything on cable, and it has to be a full night of really great shows, without a dud in the bunch. It also doesn't help that even with the heavily TV-savvy audience AV Club had, there was often a real sense that nobody cared about network scheduling nearly as much. They'd just watch stuff on their DVRs or Hulu.

So let me remind you of the three candidates, then look at a couple of intriguing other possibilities.

CBS Saturdays, 1973: It's pictured above. All in the Family at the height of its powers. M*A*S*H in the Larry Gelbart years. Mary Tyler Moore just starting to hit its peak. Bob Newhart wasn't a GREAT show yet, but it was still reliably entertaining. And then you close things out with Carol Burnett, never a favorite of mine but definitely a TV classic. That's three solid hours of some of the best TV comedy ever made, and if you were to argue for any one of those first four shows as the best TV sitcom of all time, I wouldn't push back too strenuously. (Well, I would on M*A*S*H, but mostly because I like being a contrarian dick.) This lineup (my forever pick for the best) lasted just one season.

NBC Thursdays, 1984: This lineup actually ran for a few years, but we want to catch Hill Street Blues when it was still sort of relevant, so we'll go with the first year of its existence. The Cosby Show's landmark first season leads off the night, leading into the third (and probably best) season of Family Ties. Cheers is up next in its own third season, followed by Night Court in its second. (Part of my mind wonders what would have happened if NBC had saved Buffalo Bill instead of Night Court and put it in that 9:30 spot. But I suspect that show was never going to be a hit.) The night ends with Hill Street Blues, which is sagging a bit in its fourth season but is still one of the shows you have to watch. Much has been written about how The Cosby Show "saved" the sitcom; comparatively little has been written about how NBC was smart to build a lineup full of low-rated pieces it already had laying around, hoping those shows could gain some momentum from a hoped-for new hit. It worked.

NBC Thursdays, 2009: Another one-season lineup that lasted far less time than people assume it did. The first season of Community leads into the second season of Parks and Recreation. These are two of the best comedy seasons of the last 20 years. Easy call. The second hour's a little rougher, with The Office in its weaker sixth season (though it has some great moments) and 30 Rock in its fourth (and worst) season. The night caps off with, uh, The Jay Leno Show, which is why this will always be in last place on my list, but lots of people love it.

Here are some other possibilities of note!

Fox Sundays, 1997: Simpsons into King of the Hill into X-Files. Great lineup, hurt slightly by not having a third hour. (Fox actually broadcasts in the 7 p.m. hour, but I know nothing about The World's Funniest, which was awkwardly sandwiched there.)

ABC Tuesdays, 1990: This is a tantalizingly close "almost!" lineup. The weak link is leadoff Who's the Boss, which is a better show than its reputation, but not to the level of the shows that follow, namely The Wonder Years, Roseanne, and (yes) Coach. The night ends with one of the best dramas of the era, thirtysomething. That said, this lineup only lasted a half-season, and I am vastly overstating the quality of Who's the Boss and Coach (though both are OK).

NBC Thursdays in the '90s: Yes Friends. Yes Seinfeld. Yes ER. But the stuff in between those shows was always terrible, even though NBC consistently had the pieces to build a rock-solid comedy bloc in this decade. It's maddening! There was a time when we could have had Friends into Third Rock (not my favorite show but certainly one many love) into Seinfeld into Newsradio into ER. That would have been amazing. But we mostly got crap. The closest anybody came is Fall 1994, when it was Mad About You into Friends into Seinfeld into Madman of the People into ER. But Madman is TERRIBLE.

CBS Wednesdays, 1964: This is not a serious nomination, but I love the thought of watching Mr. Ed, My Living Doll, and The Beverly Hillbillies, and then watching The Dick Van Dyke Show. TV of the '60s is often regarded as unsophisticated, and it often was. But a big reason for that was how few places there were to PUT non-gimmicky shows.

ABC in the '70s: ABC had Soap, Taxi, and Barney Miller at the same time, and never managed to get them all in the same lineup. Too bad!

In conclusion: network scheduling is hard, and we should all care more about it. I'm sure you have other suggestions. Please send them in!

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Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.