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Genre Turning Point / Live-Action TV

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  • I Love Lucy (1951-57) has so many turning points attached to it that one can honestly wonder if television as a whole would look the same today without it. It was a Killer App for television in the days when a TV set still cost almost as much as a small car. The show's cinematographer Karl Freund perfected and codified the three-camera sitcom setup that is still in use by many popular shows to this day, even with the rise of the single-camera sitcom in the 2000s. It invented the live Studio Audience, and their laughter was used by CBS to create laugh tracks for their other sitcoms. And when Lucille Ball got pregnant in the second season, leaving her unable to fulfill the 39-episode order, executive producer (and Ball's husband and co-star) Desi Arnaz decided to rebroadcast older episodes instead — inventing the rerun and, later, syndication once it became clear that these episodes were a potential cash cow. Emily Todd VanDerWerff of The AV Club described the show, together with The Honeymooners, as "one of the two foundational texts of American TV comedy."
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  • The Tonight Show (1954-present) defined what the late-night Talk Show would be for generations to come, a Variety Show-esque mix of an Opening Monologue, humorous commentary on current events, celebrity interviews, Sketch Comedy, "man on the street" interviews, Audience Participation, and musical performances with the host as the central figure of the program. Notably, while NBC would briefly try to experiment with this formula, turning The Tonight Show into basically a nighttime version of Today after the original host Steve Allen left in 1957, they would quickly go back to the format that Allen laid down, which The Tonight Show retains to this day despite many hosts and competing shows over the years.
  • Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, creators of Hancock's Half Hour (1954-59 on radio, 1956-61 on television) and Steptoe and Son (1962-65), gave the sitcom format a uniquely British spin and, as such, are generally credited with inventing the Brit Com. In particular, they codified the idea of the head writers as the most important figures in the staff of a British sitcom, diverging from the American style that was built more around the lead actors.
  • The eruption of the quiz show scandals in 1958, in which it was found that hit shows like Twenty-One, Dotto, and The $64,000 Question were being rigged at the behest of advertisers, has been pointed to as the end of the first Golden Age of Television for the impact it had on the medium.
    • In the immediate term, most of the quiz shows on television were yanked from the airwaves by 1960. When they did make a comeback in The '70s, they were now called game shows, and the changes to the format ran deep. The big-money prizes were gone, while the focus of the challenges went from general knowledge to word games, puzzles, and panel games. It was only in the late '90s with the success of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? that the kind of quiz show that was discredited by the scandal made a comeback.
    • It also set off a sea change in both television advertising and the power of the networks over show runners. The television networks in The '50s largely had a laissez-faire policy with the shows they broadcast (only really caring about what the FCC would find unacceptable), which allowed producers and advertisers to work together to create the illusion of high-stakes challenges between two highly intelligent contestants that were in fact scripted from start to finish.note  Afterwards, the networks put their feet down and ended the kinds of overt corporate sponsorship that led to the scandal, and exercised more control over television productions in general.
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    • Finally, the scandals are often blamed for television moving increasingly downmarket in The '60s. Quiz shows had been seen as fairly highbrow programming in which contestants engaged in battles of wits and knowledge, and most of the shows that replaced them were sitcoms, Westerns, and the aforementioned game shows. FCC chairman Newton Minow's famous 1961 speech "Television and the Public Interest", better known as the "vast wasteland" speech for how he described the TV landscape of the time, was written a few years after the scandals had reshaped television.
  • The Twilight Zone (1959-64) was a critical turning point for the horror genre as a whole, and not just on television. Together with Hammer Film Productions in the world of film, it established that the genre didn't have to be defined by the cheesy B Movies that dominated horror in The '50s — and while Hammer was doing so by giving the genre lavish production values and cranking up the sex and violence, The Twilight Zone, which couldn't afford or show such, made horror into a vehicle for social commentary, using its monsters and scary situations to explore and satirize real-world issues in a way that Rod Serling knew he could more easily get away with (especially in the heavily censored TV landscape of the time) by working in "genre" fiction.
  • The 1960 Presidential debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon didn't just revolutionize how television networks covered politics, causing TV to displace radio as the mass medium of choice for news and debate, they also changed political campaigns themselves. Nixon arrived to the first debate having just gotten out of the hospital a few days prior while refusing to wear makeup, meaning that he did not look to be in great shape when standing on stage next to Kennedy, who built his campaign around youth and idealism despite being only four years younger than Nixon. The popular story claims that radio listeners either thought the debates ended in a draw or thought that Nixon won, but that television viewers thought that Kennedy won — and sure enough, Kennedy went on to win a narrow victory in the election, his performance in the first televised debatenote  putting him over the top. For better or worse, image became as important to political campaigns in the age of television as oratory had been in the age of radio, and politicians in the US and beyond quickly recognized television as a vital campaign tool. (The debates' producer, Don Hewitt, went on to create 60 Minutes for CBS.) Both Nixon himself and his running mate Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. believed that his underestimating the power of television cost him the election, with Nixon stating in his 1962 memoir Six Crises:
    "I should have remembered that 'a picture is worth a thousand words.'"
  • Doctor Who (1963-89, 2005-present) can be roughly described as the "British Star Trek" for the impact it had on TV and science fiction in The United Kingdom.
    • In its original run, it spawned numerous copycats, ranging from the long-running but much-mocked The Tomorrow People (1973) to the dark and cerebral Sapphire and Steel, as well as many other less well-known examples. Since the '60s, virtually every British science fiction series has inevitably borne the influence of, or at least been compared to, Doctor Who in one way or another, and American media like the Bill & Ted films and Futurama have also homaged it. Even the word "cyber" was popularized by the recurring villains known as the Cybermen.
    • Similarly, the 2005 revival is credited with restoring Saturday night family dramas to British television as others began to capitalize on its success, as well as with breaking down the barrier for British television in the American market (British TV often had to be Remade for the Export or shuffled off onto PBS before then), as British shows ranging from Sherlock to Downton Abbey to Black Mirror became trans-Atlantic hits.
  • Ultraman (1966-67) for Tokusatsu. Prior to the show, the genre was defined almost entirely by kaiju like Godzilla and Gamera stomping around on cinema screens and destroying things. With the debut of Ultraman, it not only introduced the idea that heroes could battle these destructive monsters and win regularly, but that Toku could be adapted to the schedules and budgets of television with the same results and great success. The result? Toku transformed into a primarily television-based genre revolving around superheroes battling Monsters of the Week, allowing for the birth of popular franchises like Kamen Rider (which started the "Henshin Boom") and Super Sentai. The kaiju flicks were nearly put out of business, as people loved being able watch Toku weekly over having to wait for a new movie to come out each year in a period where home video releases were still just a dream.
  • Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-69).
    • Despite not doing spectacularly well in the ratings, it spawned numerous short-lived imitators (a few coming from Gene Roddenberry, Trek's creator) in comic books and television. During the '70s, it became the template for Science Fiction television in America (and to a lesser extent, the rest of the world) until the advent of Star Wars, even if the clones tended to only last for a season or two. Even the original Battlestar Galactica and other works influenced by Star Wars showed its influence. Its impact lasted as late as the '90s, though more in the form of television reacting against the series.
    • Star Trek's influence would go on to shape far more than science fiction as a genre. Not only is it the Trope Codifier (and Trope Namer) for the Power Trio, but things like automatic doors, Kindle, iPods, Bluetooth, cell phones, and laptops were all first conceived for Star Trek. Its impact even goes beyond pop culture and technology; Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to work in space, was inspired to become an astronaut after seeing Lieutenant Uhura on television as a little girl.
    • Even its cancellation left a mark on television. When the major networks realized, through the study of demographics, just what a potential golden goose NBC had killed when it canceled Star Trek, it became a major factor in The Rural Purge in the early '70s as the major networks strove, arguably to the point of going overboard, not to repeat that mistake.
  • In 1968, American network ABC was a distant third to its rivals CBS and NBC. Unable to compete with their news departments' coverage of the Democratic and Republican Party conventions that summer, ABC News instead hosted a series of debates between two intellectuals and bitter ideological rivals, the conservative William F. Buckley Jr. and the leftist Gore Vidal. The insults flew fast and furious — among other highlights, Vidal called Buckley a "crypto-Nazi", to which Buckley responded by calling Vidal a "queer" and threatening to punch him in the face. On that stage, the modern image of the Pompous Political Pundit, and the format for the "talking head" political Talk Show, arrived on television in the form of Buckley and Vidal with their back-and-forth insults, while ABC and its news department went from a perennial also-ran to a major player in American television, joining CBS and NBC as one of the Big Three networks.
  • During the 1970-71 television season, CBS premiered two shows that revolutionized the medium as a whole and the sitcom in particular.
    • The first was The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77). Whereas sitcoms in the past were driven primarily by one-liners and wacky situations, MTM featured fleshed-out characters and mined its humor from their relationships and interactions. Moore herself, and her character Mary Richards, have also been pointed to as a turning point beyond just television, bringing women's liberation into American living rooms by featuring a working, unmarriednote  professional woman as the protagonist rather than having her be a stay-at-home wife.
    • Four months later, CBS premiered All in the Family (1971-79), which marked the arrival of Norman Lear as one of the most revolutionary TV producers of all time. Starting with All in the Family, Lear's shows brought a new level of social consciousness to American television in The '70s, raising the bar for the social, cultural, and political topics that could be discussed on TV and demonstrating that the "idiot box" could tackle serious issues with nuance and depth while still being funny and entertaining. He brought the "social realist" theater of the early 20th century into the age of television, telling stories about ordinary people living ordinary lives while confronting, and being confronted by, the issues and changing social norms of the day. His shows also brought a previously unheard-of degree of diversity to television, with his various female and non-white lead characters including the likes of Fred G. Sanford, Maude Findlay, Florida and James Evans, George and Louise Jefferson, and Ann Romano.
    • When the impact of these two shows was taken together, they, for better or worse, helped drive The Rural Purge at CBS and other networks in The '70s, as their success seemed to vindicate CBS' strategy of focusing more on younger, urban/suburban demographics. It's not a coincidence that, almost immediately after MTM and All in the Family became hits, all three major networks began hunting for more shows like them, often enlisting Moore and Lear's production companies to do so, and shows like Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Family Affair began getting chopped down.
  • Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75) was the show that figured out how to make horror work on television outside the context of an anthology series: namely, by combining the genre with the Police Procedural and focusing on the people investigating the various horrors. With that, the Monster of the Week format was born as Intrepid Reporter Carl Kolchak hunted down monsters of various sorts. Chris Carter cited Kolchak as one of his main influences when he created The X-Files, and it's not hard to see why.
  • In 1976, Ted Turner, owner of the Atlanta independent television station WTCG, created cable television as we know it. Before, cable had been primarily used to distribute television to remote areas beyond the reach of broadcast signals, but Turner, wishing to broadcast Atlanta Braves games in Boston so he could watch them from his yacht in Marblehead, hooked WTCG up to cable systems across the US and changed its name to WTBS (Turner Broadcasting System), the first TV "superstation". For the first time, cable had value beyond just utility; it had stations of its own that weren't carried on regular broadcast television.
  • Dallas (1978-91) wasn't the first successful Prime Time Soap (that would be the 1964-69 adaptation of Grace Metalious' novel Peyton Place), but it was the first to become a true smash hit, bringing Soap Opera storytelling and melodrama to the evening hours with far more lavish and decadent budgets, costuming, and set design than were afforded to their daytime counterparts (which ran at a rapid clip of up to five episodes a week and had to stretch their budgets thin as a result). Within the show, the biggest landmark was the "Who Shot J.R.?" Story Arc. As hard as it may be to believe now, it was considered unthinkable for an American TV show in 1980 to end a season on a cliffhanger, so when Dallas did it, it legitimately shocked the nation and produced what remains one of the most widely-viewed television events of all time. Dallas, together with shows like Dynasty (1981), Falcon Crest, and the spinoff Knots Landing that followed in its wake, changed the soap opera and American television forever by demonstrating that prime time dramas could play around with the same kind of long-running, serialized stories, laying an important crack in the soap opera's dominance of daytime television as the genre migrated to prime time — especially once shows in genres outside of the "family drama" format common to soaps, from cop shows to sitcoms to sci-fi and fantasy, began doing the same.
  • Ted Turner revolutionized cable TV a second time in 1980 when he launched CNN, the first 24-hour news network. Before, people had to wait for the morning and evening newscasts and papers to catch up on the daily news, but CNN allowed them to do so at any time, in real time, and developed the media infrastructure that allowed them to be the first to respond to a breaking news story with national reach. The advantages of this became apparent during The Gulf War, the moment when CNN was catapulted into the national spotlight as its reporters were able to offer on-the-ground, instantaneous updates of the conflict in a way that CBS, NBC, and ABC's news teams couldn't without interrupting their other programming. CNN's coverage of the Gulf War made cable news a serious competitor to broadcast news in both popularity and legitimacy, leading to the creation of MSNBC and the Fox News Channel in 1996 to compete with it.
  • Hill Street Blues (1981-87) was the series for which the term "gritty cop drama" was invented. The use of handheld cameras gave viewers the feeling of being in the middle of a messy, dangerous, often chaotic, big-city landscape. Other camera techniques, such as tight closeups, use of offscreen dialogue, and rapid cuts between stories, gave the series a documentary feel. It pioneered intertwined storylines in an episode, some of which took several episodes to play out. Many episodes were written to take place in a single day. It was one of the first cop shows to have dirty-cop arcs instead of one-shot or guest appearances. A Jack Webb series it wasn't.
  • The People's Court (1981-93, 1997-present) revolutionized the "court show". Before, programs built around depicting the legal process were dramatizations, using actors to play the judge, the jury, the litigants, and the attorneys. What The People's Court did was turn it into a proto-Reality Show, with a real arbitrator deciding real small-claims cases on national television, a format that spawned a slew of similar programs that turned reality court shows into a staple of daytime TV while the dramatized versions all but vanished.
  • Robin of Sherwood (1984-86) introduced a number of changes from previous depictions of Robin Hood: being the first version to get away from the green-tights-and-hat-with-a-feather image in favour of something a band of 12th century outlaws might actually wear, introducing the idea of a Saracen outlaw which was copied by later adaptations, returning Maid Marian to being an Action Girl after being a Damsel in Distress since Victorian times, and portraying King Richard as just as bad as Prince John (although that didn't catch on as much).
  • Bill Cosby created The Cosby Show (1984-92) to present a more idealized portrait of black America, the Huxtables being a loving, well-educated, upper-middle-class African-American family in contrast to the heroes of the blaxploitation films and Norman Lear sitcoms of The '70s, who he saw as lower-class stereotypes. While that part of the show's legacy would eventually inspire backlash from other black TV writers (even before Cosby's personal disgrace years later), many of them will still point to The Cosby Show as a trailblazer for the Black Sitcom and for African Americans on TV in general, portraying a family that was unmistakably black but also aspirational, and which faced many of the same issues as their white counterparts. Furthermore, it also helped revive the Dom Com for a new generation, modernizing the traditional sitcom nuclear family (the mother Clair was a lawyer while the father Cliff worked from home and took on many "feminine" roles in the house) but still embracing many of the tropes of its '50s forebears. This article by Jake Flanigin for The New York Times goes into more detail.
  • While The Phil Donahue Show pioneered the tabloid Talk Show, it was The Oprah Winfrey Show (1986-2011) that turned it into a genre and spawned all the imitators. Winfrey used her syndicated talk show as a platform to discuss hot-button issues on a national stage, making the issues personal in a way that even Donahue (himself not one to shy away from controversial topics) never did and putting them directly into viewers' living rooms. Notably, her influence wound up flowing in two different directions: shows like The View and later seasons of Today embraced Winfrey's conversational style on one hand, while the likes of The Morton Downey Jr. Show, Geraldo, and The Jerry Springer Show on the other went for the controversial subject matter, leading to the "trash TV" subgenre of "extreme" talk shows.
  • Speaking of The Morton Downey Jr. Show (1987-89), it popularized a very different sort of TV Talk Show: one in which the host was openly combative towards his guests, using his program as a bully pulpit to pontificate on political and cultural issues. While Downey's career as a talk show host only lasted two years before going down in disgrace, he was also a clear case of Short-Lived Big Impact, as the style of his show has been pointed to as an inspiration for both Reality TV and the Fox News Channel. Even Al Sharpton, a pundit who sits on the opposite end of the political spectrum from the conservative Downey, cited him as an inspiration for his confrontational style; perhaps not coincidentally, Sharpton was a frequent guest on Downey's show. Andrew O'Hehir, writing for Salon, said that "[i]f he wasn't quite the first host to understand a political talk show as primarily a form of theater or a revival meeting, rather than a conversation or debate, he pushed that realization to its illogical extreme."
  • Seinfeld (1989-98) changed the way sitcom characters and stories are portrayed so completely that the original series seems derivative in the new context it created. It helped pave the way for American sitcom protagonists who were far less moral and sympathetic than before; while there had been people like Archie Bunker, Al Bundy, and Roseanne Conner in the past, the cast of Seinfeld was unique in that they were all abrasive, selfish jerks with nobody to balance out their worst tendencies, with the show's humor coming from watching them go through life and handle it badly without learning a damn thing (hence the show's famous credo of "no hugging and no learning"). Along the way, it also increased the standards of sophistication for sitcom humor, having been created by a stand-up comic who eschewed the cornball humor and Aesops of many contemporary sitcoms in favor of biting wit and satire. Shows like It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Curb Your Enthusiasm (created by Seinfeld veteran Larry David), and Shameless (US) probably would not exist without the influence of Seinfeld.
  • When Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990-2000) premiered on Fox, it revolutionized the American Teen Drama. Before, teen-oriented TV series in the US had been either issue-oriented Afterschool Specials, sitcoms with mostly teenage casts like Welcome Back, Kotter and Saved by the Bell, or transmissions of CBC's Degrassi High that made it over the border or onto PBS stations. 90210, however, brought the genre sex appeal, soapy drama, and Character Development that made it a sensation among young people and a cause for concern among their parents, while handling teen issues with a mix of realism and sympathy for the teenage characters that was unheard of for such shows at the time (at least in the USnote ), bringing the revolution started by John Hughes' teen movies in The '80s to television. The sea change that 90210 started was such that virtually every teen drama of the '90s and 2000s bears some of its influence, even if only in reaction to it.
  • Two programs in the first half of the '90s are credited with popularizing Reality TV in the US.
    • The first was The Real World (1992-2013). It didn't invent the Reality Show; programs like Candid Camera and COPS predated it, and The Real World itself was inspired by the 1973 PBS documentary series An American Family. However, it was this show that laid the foundation for what would become arguably the most common Reality TV formula: a group of strangers selected to live together and generate the show's drama and storylines organically, often having been screened and picked out by the producers in the hopes that their personalities would clash. The Real World's Docu Soap format became the template for innumerable shows that followed, most notably Survivor and Big Brother, the shows that turned reality TV into a sensation beyond just The Real World's MTV youth audience (namely by adding a competitive component and thus combining it with the Game Show). Going beyond television, Pedro Zamora on the show's third season in 1994, The Real World: San Francisco, is often credited with breaking down taboos around AIDS and homosexuality with his sympathetic portrayal.
    • The second wasn't a "show" per se, but rather, the O.J. Simpson trial in 1994-95. The highly sensationalized case — a superstar athlete turned actor at the peak of his celebrity is credibly accused of murdering two people, in a case where people's opinions one way or the other served as a shibboleth for numerous cultural fault lines in American society — felt to many Americans like a thrilling arc out of a Soap Opera, and that was just how it was treated by the media. Many networks devoted their daytime programming to covering the "Trial of the Century", which not only crowded out their actual daytime soap operas and set off their decline due to the disruption of their schedules, but also whetted people's appetites for more programming in that vein.note  Lili Anolik, writing for Vanity Fair, has described the media circus around the trial as the first true reality TV hit. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Kardashian family, among the most famous figures in reality TV, first entered the public eye due to lawyer and family patriarch Robert Kardashian being part of Simpson's "Dream Team" of legal defenders — a point that American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, a dramatization of the trial and the coverage of it, frequently made with its portrayal of Robert and his daughters.
  • In the UK, meanwhile, the turning point for Reality TV came when ITV premiered Police, Camera, Action! (1994-2010), a show focused largely on police dashcam videos, chiefly from the UK initially but later with videos sourced internationally (they even did an episode on the aforementioned O. J. Simpson trial in 1996). While ostensibly an Edutainment Show in its early years, it was Darker and Edgier than anything else on TV, with a heavy dose of Grey-and-Grey Morality and the police themselves portrayed as just as susceptible to crime and corruption as the public, and while it wasn't the first police documentary series even in the UK (that would be the obscure, short-lived 1992-1993 Channel 4 documentary The Nick), it was a seminal influence on British reality shows as a whole going forward.
  • Power Rangers (1993-present) brought tokusatsu to the West, combining dubbed footage from Super Sentai with new English-language scenes shot with Western actors to great effect. It spawned a legion of copycat action shows in children's television (many of them produced by Haim Saban, the man behind Power Rangers seeking to make lightning strike twice), and beyond that, its success, together with that of Baywatch, has also been pointed to as leading to a wave of syndicated sci-fi/fantasy action series in The '90s, many of them leaning heavily on camp and comedy.
  • In 1993, the Fox network was already known for hit shows like Married... with Children, The Simpsons, and Beverly Hills, 90210, but it was still viewed as something of an upstart in American television, having launched just seven years earlier. But when they outbid CBS that year for the rights to air NFC football games, and proceeded to pillage most of CBS Sports' on-air talent and several of CBS' most valuable affiliates (including Atlanta, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, and Dallas) the following year, they were established as a power player. No longer were they "the fourth network"; after 1993, the Big Three networks ignored Fox at their own peril, and by the 2000s Fox had joined their rivals in what are now the Big Four. CBS, meanwhile, saw its Dork Age, already ongoing since the mid-late '80s, deepen further; it wouldn't be until 2002 when they fully recovered.
    • Fox's NFL coverage also revolutionized the way sports was presented on American TV by introducing the continuous score/clock graphic on the upper part of the screen. It was was derided as visual clutter by the other networks but fans quickly expressed their approval and it's now nearly universal for all live sports broadcasts. NFL on Fox also marked a huge jump toward packaging football as entertainment rather than the often dry style that dominated sportscasting by the early 90s.
  • Star Trek and Star Wars were (and still are) considered the bastions of American Science Fiction, both being notable for their 'optimistic' views. Starting in 1993, however, three shows — Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-99), Babylon 5 (1993-98), and The X-Files (1993-2002) — started taking sci-fi in a new direction, away from the Space Opera/Space Western concept and more towards a mix of character-driven drama inspired by cop shows and long-running story arcs. (The X-Files was even set on present-day Earth, drawing less from 'classic' science fiction tropes for its lore and more from real-world UFO conspiracy theories.) This started a slow but steady shift in American television that started with things like Farscape, the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, and the Stargate-verse, and later grew beyond science fiction in a big way with the premiere of The Sopranos (as noted below).
  • The X-Files, in addition to leading the aforementioned trend towards Darker and Edgier, more character/story-driven science fiction on American television, also left its mark in a number of other ways.
    • At the time, it was among the scariest shows on television, and while there had been scary shows before it going back as far as The Twilight Zone (1959) and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, it helped open the door for far more explicitly horrifying content on TV. The 2010s' boom in horror shows like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story likely would not have happened as it did if not for The X-Files leading the way.
    • It also heavily impacted the Police Procedural, and not just by raising the bar in terms of the violence such shows could get away with. Emily Todd VanDerWerff, writing for Vox at the time of the show's 25th anniversary, has said that "our modern crime dramas are usually just X-Files that have jettisoned the supernatural elements", namely in terms of the greater focus that they have placed on technology, forensics, and the process of investigation versus earlier police dramas.
    • It raised the standards for direction and cinematography on television. For a long time, TV was seen as a place where visual style went to die unless you had managed to recruit a big-name director for an episode (a big part of Twin Peaks' early appeal was the involvement of David Lynch as the Show Runner). The X-Files showed that supposed "journeyman" TV directors could turn in aesthetically stunning work far greater than what people normally expected of television productions, such that it's not a surprise that many of them made the leap to working in film. While The Sopranos creator David Chase is often credited with leading the charge for more cinematic flair on television, at the time he created that show he was considering directing for The X-Files.
  • If Seinfeld was "the show about nothing", then Friends (1994-2004), its NBC "Must See TV" stablemate, took sitcoms in a very different direction. While its basic setup and a lot of its humor were decidedly old-fashioned (its hip Big Applesauce setting and young cast aside), its sense of continuity wasn't; instead of having each plot be resolved at the end of each episode (save for a handful of big moments), it had its characters grow and form relationships that developed as the show went on. If Dallas brought long-form storytelling from daytime soaps to primetime dramas, then Friends brought it to sitcoms in turn. Today, one would be hard-pressed to find a sitcom made in the last twenty years that doesn't have a continuing Story Arc.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) had a similar impact to The X-Files when it premiered.
    • Together with The X-Files, it played a major role in boosting the critical respectability of 'genre' television. Early in its run, the show's title alone saw it dismissed by critics expecting teenybopper junk, but by the time of its Grand Finale, it and its Spin-Off Angel were the subject of serious academic analysis. After Buffy and The X-Files, the Sci Fi Ghetto began to crumble on television, as critics could no longer dismiss fantasy and science fiction shows sight unseen. Veronica Mars, Lost, True Blood, the Arrowverse, and the relaunched Battlestar Galactica (2003) and Doctor Who are just some of the shows that proliferated in their wake, winning a level of acclaim that had never been afforded to similar shows in the fairly recent past.
    • Also together with The X-Files, it demonstrated that there existed a potentially massive female fanbase for fantasy and science fiction stories, beyond just Estrogen Brigades attracted to hunky male leads, breaking the stereotype of genre fiction being a male-dominated fandom. More importantly, while The X-Files was chiefly marketed to men with the female fans being seen as an unexpected but welcome bonus, Buffy, a Teen Drama with Horror Comedy elements and overtly feminist messaging, was explicitly marketed primarily to women from the very beginning. A staggering number of female protagonists in genre fiction since (especially in Urban Fantasy) can probably trace their lineage back to this show's titular Valley Girl Vampire Hunter.
    • Finally, its fusion of self-aware comedy and witty dialogue with genuine danger and pathos, without becoming either too silly or too grim, left a mark far beyond just television. Russell T. Davies cited Buffy's tone as an influence on the relaunced Doctor Who, and Buffy Show Runner Joss Whedon later had a major hand in shaping the Marvel Cinematic Universe and, by extension, the entire world of blockbuster filmmaking in an image not unlike that of Buffy.
  • HBO led a revolution in television in the late '90s and early '00s.
    • Shows like Oz (1997-2003), Sex and the City (1998-2004), The Sopranos (1999-2007), and The Wire (2002-08), with their focus on cinematography, acting, and complex themes and storylines developed through sharp writing and in-depth characters, proved that television productions can be just as good as Hollywood movies, and that cable television could seriously compete with the broadcast networks on their own turf. This has led to what some have described as a new Golden Age for American television, one that is still apparent on HBO with shows like Game of Thrones and Westworld but has also spread to basic cable channels. The catalyst for that is described in more detail below.
    • Said shows also brought more mature content into American television, which, until then, was largely restricted to fairly tame (about a mild PG-13) programming due to the FCC, whose rules only covered broadcast networks (cable, as a pay service, was exempted). By contrast, shows on broadcast TV like The X-Files and NYPD Blue regularly had to tone down their most graphic content in order to avoid getting their networks slapped with fines. Due to these restrictions, much of the creative boom in American TV during the 21st century has been on cable networks — and more specifically, on premium cable networks, which not only don't have to worry about the FCC, but also don't have to worry about advertisers being pressured by Moral Guardians to pull their ads.
    • If any one HBO series can be pointed to as the most impactful, then most people would suggest the gangster drama The Sopranos as the harbinger of the era of "Peak TV". It took the innovations of the aforementioned The X-Files and brought them from science fiction to a comparatively grounded crime story, focusing on character drama, Grey-and-Gray Morality, a deep and complex Myth Arc, risky storytelling that wasn't afraid to "go there", production values on the level of a Hollywood movie, and a contemporary, easily-recognizable setting in the form of suburban New Jersey. Many critics have hailed it as the greatest TV show of all time, or at least in the upper echelon, the show that proved that television could be True Art on the level of film; Maureen Ryan, writing for PopMatters, said that "[n]o one-hour drama series has had a bigger impact on how stories are told on the small screen, or more influence on what kind of fare we've been offered by an ever-growing array of television networks." Its impact can be felt on crime shows in particular (especially those with a Villain Protagonist) but also throughout the landscape of modern serialized television.
  • The Daily Show during the tenure of Jon Stewart (1999-2015) took the News Parody and turned it into a major genre of late-night television comedy, mainly by fusing it with a genuine political Talk Show. While there had been shows like That Was the Week That Was, Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, and the Weekend Update sketches on Saturday Night Live before it, Stewart brought earnestness and righteous indignation to the genre and used his show as a platform for more than just "above it all" snarking at dumb politicians and pundits, staking out specific positions on policies and issues and inviting public figures on for interviews while giving the material a humorous bent. Beyond just the various spinoffs created by Daily Show alumni (most notably Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee), the success and impact of Stewart's Daily Show meant that other late-night talk shows had to up their game with their political humor if they wanted to compete.
  • It's rare for a TV show to revolutionize a genre, and it's damn near unheard of for its Transatlantic Equivalent to do the exact same thing to a radically different version of that genre in another country. Yet that's exactly what the British (2001-2003) and American (2005-2013) versions of The Office did with the sitcom. They each popularized a single-camera, Laugh Track-free format inspired more by mockumentaries and Reality TV than traditional sitcoms, and brought long-term arcs and more complex storytelling into a genre previously defined by Negative Continuity outside of a few big episodes. The American version also brought Cringe Comedy to heights unseen in mainstream hit shows in the past; while such humor wouldn't have been out of place on a traditional Brit Com, for American sitcom viewers it came as a shock. The list of sitcoms on either side of The Pond that can trace their roots to both versions of The Office is staggering.
  • FX's The Shield (2002-2008) brought the quality and mature content of premium cable to basic cable, previously viewed as a wasteland of reruns and old movies. After the success of The Shield, not only did FX make other hit series such as Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me, and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but other cable networks started making their own edgy, acclaimed, and wildly successful series, most famously AMC with Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Today, basic cable shows have gotten close to premium cable in terms of what they can show, with networks like FX, the USA Network, and AMC allowing Precision F Strikes on their original programming, and compete head-to-head with the broadcast networks in terms of ratings. At its peak, AMC's The Walking Dead, a program whose content would never have made it on broadcast television, regularly pulled in well over ten million viewers, a number that not only was once thought unattainable by smaller cable shows but, thanks to cable turning the audience tide, actually dwarfed the ratings of most broadcast fare in the 2010s.
  • Lost (2004-2010) popularized the idea of shows built around long-term, mystery-focused myth arcs that jerk the viewer's mind around, as well as bringing sprawling, Soap Opera-style storylines into TV sci-fi. While it has its antecedents (Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Babylon 5), the boom in such programming after LOST's success shows why the trope is called the Noughties Drama Series. Lost also played a significant role in convincing networks that a successful mainstream series could experiment with non-linear storytelling.
  • The High School Musical trilogy (2006 and '07 on the Disney Channel, the third film going to theaters in 2008) heralded a revival of live-action children's programming after the field had been dominated in the late '90s and early '00s by animated series, as well as the Disney Channel's shift to a greater focus on Teen Idols. Beyond just television, it's also been credited with getting a new generation of kids and teenagers interested in musical theater, chipping away at the stigma that had developed around it by then and making it something that it was okay to unironically love, leading to the success of Glee, the Pitch Perfect films, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, and the broadcast networks' live TV musicals in the late '00s and the '10s. Aja Romano, writing for Vox at the time of the films' 2019 TV series adaptation, goes into more detail in this article.
  • Netflix not only revolutionized the types of programs that air on television, it also fundamentally changed how people consume and interact with the medium.
    • The launch of Netflix's streaming service in 2007 changed television from "appointment" viewing, where people tuned in at specific times to catch programs or set their VCRs or DVRs to record them, to a model where any episode could be watched at any time. One major consequence of this was that serialized storytelling, built around Story Arcs spanning multiple episodes or even seasons, grew to displace procedural storytelling, built around standalone episodes with contained stories, as it became possible to "binge-watch" multiple episodes at once and follow a long-running story more easily. Binge-watching had first taken off a few years prior with DVD releases of TV shows, and for decades TV networks had known the appeal of running marathons of popular programs, but streaming made binge-watching much easier and less expensive for viewers now that they no longer had to purchase expensive DVD box sets or check their listings for when networks were running marathons. The streaming revolution that Netflix heralded is often pointed to as a key factor in the "Golden Age of Television" that took off in the 2000s, which was characterized by critically acclaimed, Better on DVD serialized TV shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men that, just a few years prior, likely would've been canceled due to their low ratings in first-run broadcast.
    • Eventually, as TV producers came to recognize the value of streaming as a second-run distribution platform and started charging more money for streaming rights, Netflix got into the business of making its own original shows that it would own the rights to... and revolutionized television for a second time. House of Cards (US) (2013-18), Arrested Development season 4 (2013), and Orange Is the New Black (2013-19) completely changed TV audiences' perceptions of shows exclusive to streaming services, from mediocre stories and poor budgets to exceptionally well-made and highly successful shows that stand on par with prime-time television. It's no coincidence that, soon after, Netflix's rivals Hulu and Prime Video got in on original streaming productions in a big way in order to challenge them, that shows from all three services became contenders at the Emmys, and that other television networks and film studios launched their own streaming platforms.
  • Breaking Bad (2008-2013), in addition to leading the aforementioned trend towards Darker and Edgier direction on American television in the 2000s and '10s, also left its mark in terms of Character Development (such as the longest, most complex Face–Heel Turn in modern TV) and impact on crime dramas set in modern times. It eschewed the classic Mafia tropes and Vice City setting that had dominated the genre since the early days of Hollywood, instead taking place in rural New Mexico and focusing on a crude, gritty, macabre storyline where Mexican cartels, corrupt corporations, and white supremacist biker gangs are in charge of the drug market. Its influence led to a wave of crime shows and movies set in the small-town American heartland rather than the big city, such as Sons of Anarchy, Queen of the South, and Ozark.
  • The Walking Dead (2010-present) and American Horror Story (2011-present) were hardly the first horror TV series; in fact, other examples of the genre are listed further up this page. They did, however, shift the focus of the genre away from anthologies, procedurals, and Monster of the Week shows and towards a much greater focus on long-running Story Arcs, proving that a show could have every episode devoted to telling a single continuous story and still be scary. When analyzing the boom in the horror genre on television in the 2010s, most critics will point to these two shows as the ones that blazed the trail.


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