5 Most Influential Primetime TV Shows

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Once in a while, there are television shows that leave an indelible mark on culture and change the TV landscape for good. There is no question that American television entered a golden age during the late 1990s and early 2000s, in large part because of the rise of scripted shows on cable channels. Plus, networks became willing to experiment with new forms of the sitcom.

5 “Ugly Betty”

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ABC dramedy “Ugly Betty” never got the critical attention it deserved, either for its groundbreaking comedic performances or for the fact that it was the first English-language primetime show with a majority-Latino cast. Its quality suffered as a result of the 2007 writers’ strike, but the show’s overarching message of acceptance was always powerful during its 2006-2010 run. As Betty Suarez, America Ferrera was a quirky and relateable heroine who did not conform to rigid Hollywood beauty standards. The show’s central gay characters, preteen Justin Suarez and fashion editor Marc St. James—played by Mark Indelicato and Michael Urie, respectively—were well done. Justin’s coming-out story in particular defied stereotypes about homophobia in Latino communities. The show also featured masterful comedic performances by underappreciated actors Ana Ortiz and Becki Newton.

4 “The Office”

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Before NBC’s “The Office,” most television sitcoms consisted of laugh-track schlock and cheap jokes. “The Office” — which ran from 2005 to 2013 — was something new. Its quality was sometimes inconsistent, especially after Steve Carell’s March 2011 departure at the end of season 7, but its contributions cannot be overstated. Its best humor could be found in deeply relate-able examples of loneliness, sadness and personal disillusionment. “The Office” also showcased a stellar supporting cast that carried much of the show’s drama. It featured a gay Latino character who never fell into cheap stereotypes, and its central love story — between characters Jim and Pam — was such compelling human drama it put Ross and Rachel to shame. “The Office” paved the way for other critically acclaimed comedies, such as “30 Rock” and “Modern Family.”

3 “Breaking Bad”

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Although “Mad Men” wins Best Drama awards for AMC, we think “Breaking Bad” is the station’s better show. It was the quintessential show of the Great Recession when it began in 2008. After all, there was nothing more American in the late 2000s than out-of-control medical expenses and underappreciated potential. A cancer diagnosis is what first drives chemistry teacher Walter White—played by Bryan Cranston—into meth production. He succeeds tremendously, largely because each season sees him increasingly comfortable with his own psychopathy, and more willing than ever to destroy everyone in his path on the way to what he calls the “empire business.” Outstanding dramatic performances all around—most notably by Aaron Paul, Giancarlo Esposito and Anna Gunn—make the show truly great.

2 “The Wire”

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Another HBO offering, “The Wire,” turned an American staple—the police drama—on its head and created something far better than any of its predecessors. Focusing on social inequality and the realities of urban poverty, the show examined themes in creator David Simon’s earlier NBC drama, “Homicide: Life on the Streets.” From 2002 to 2008, “The Wire” focused on how disparate societal sectors—law enforcement, politics, crime, media, education and labor—fed into the dysfunctional ecosystem of the city of Baltimore. The city served as a central character of sorts, and the show accomplished a seemingly impossible feat: Without an ounce of preachy sanctimony, it showed how institutionalized corruption, poverty, racism and inequality limited characters’ choices and opportunities.

1 “The Sopranos”

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If “Oz” was HBO’s first serious drama, “The Sopranos” was its first masterpiece. The mob drama, which ran from 1999 to 2007, introduced the late James Gandolfini to the small screen and showed that television can be great art. The serial format allowed character development on a scale that film never did. It also made women—often ignored or underdeveloped in mob movies—into central characters, rather than backdrops. “The Sopranos” undoubtedly displayed the critical possibilities of the dramedy. Tributes to the show sometimes neglect to mention its darkly wonderful sense of humor, surely one of the reasons for its widespread popular success.

Christina Lee began writing in 2004. Her co-authored essay is included in the edited volume, "Discipline and Punishment in Global Affairs." Lee holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and politics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a Master of Arts in global affairs from American University and a Master of Arts in philosophy from Penn State University.

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