Welcome back to Stay Tuned, Vulture’s TV advice column. Each Wednesday, Margaret Lyons answers your questions about your various TV triumphs and woes. Need help? Have a theory? Want a recommendation? Submit a question! You can email firstname.lastname@example.org, leave a comment, or tweet @margeincharge with the hashtag #staytuned.
Being only 23 years old, I know I have missed out on some truly excellent television. Knowing I like shows like The Wire, West Wing, The Good Wife, Friends, and Parks and Rec (eclectic but all great character-based shows with some excellent dialogue), what shows that were big before I was do you recommend? —Alana
Oh God, Alana, you baby munchkin, there is so much TV for you to catch up on. And there’s no one right way to do it, because if you want to be versed in TV in general, yeah, watch The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy. But I don’t know how much you’ll like them — it’s not impossible that you would, certainly, but that’s a recommendation for education, not enjoyment. This list is going to focus just on shows for delight, not for comprehensiveness or historical significance. Also, there’s no way to make a complete list, and there’s no one alive who’s “caught up” on everything, so give yourself over to the idea that there will always be shows from the past that you haven’t seen and might never get to. Such is life. Trust me, I’m older than you, so I know.
The first thing on your list is ER. There’s a ton of ER, but my guess is you will burn through the first four or five seasons pretty damn quickly, so the pressure of 15 seasons is not as massive as it seems. The latter years get a little wonky, but the show gets its mojo back in the final two seasons, so feel free to bounce around a little and to skip episodes that are set somewhere other than the hospital. It’s not dialogue-driven, per your request, but it’s completely enthralling. Sometimes ER gets left out of conversations about the Great Shows, and that is a massive oversight. ER is so damn good.
You should also watch Homicide. Everyone should watch Homicide, all the time, but particularly if you’re a fan of The Wire. Watching ER and Homicide back to back will also probably make you want to pursue a career editing TV shows, and that is a noble pursuit, and we here at Stay Tuned encourage you to chase your dreams because you are 23 and that’s an excellent time for dream-chasing. I mean, it’s always a good time for dream-chasing, but it’s not going to get a lot easier than it is at 23.
Then you should watch M*A*S*H. Most current comedies can trace at least some of their style to Cheers — oh, Cheers, you should watch Cheers, too — but Cheers can trace some of its style to M*A*S*H. There’s a reason old people like this show, and it’s because they’re right. (The show ran for 11 seasons, but feel free to stop around season six or seven.) Think about how much the characters are making jokes for one another’s behalf versus how much they’re making jokes for the audience’s behalf; on M*A*S*H and Cheers (and later, on Frasier, too, which you should also watch) the bulk of the humor is directed at the other characters. Compare this to, say, Everybody Loves Raymond, where the audience laughs at lots of the lines (I’m told) but other characters don’t see the humor in it. P.S.: Skip Everybody Loves Raymond. I love Friends — madly — and I love Parks and Rec, but I don’t respect either quite as much as I respect M*A*S*H and Cheers.
Going a bit further back, watch all five seasons of The Twilight Zone. You don’t have to watch every single episode, but you should watch a least some from each season. Once enough Twilight Zone episodes have whet your appetite for both sci-fi/alien stuff and for stories about the profound distrust of the government, then it’s time for The X-Files. Once The X-Files has primed you for normcore redheads, My So-Called Life is your new jam. And once you get through MSCL and you’re feeling sort of optimistic about how people are, come back down to earth with Daria.
I’m going to assume you’ve seen Sex and the City just based on the show’s ubiquity, but if you haven’t, remedy that. The Sopranos is a gimme, though a higher priority is Deadwood, which is a good show to consider when you’re thinking about what TV does and what it’s for. As long as you’re on an HBO kick, I truly believe the world would be a better place if everyone watched Mr. Show With Bob and David. Watch Mr. Show with your friends. Six Feet Under is also a must. If you like feeling a lot of emotions, you should also watch the 2003 HBO version of Angels in America, which isn’t really a TV show, but it was on TV, so I’m including it.
This is a list that’ll never really be done, but: Roseanne is an essential, too. (Stop after season seven.) The Wonder Years. In Living Color. SCTV. The Kids in the Hall. Sports Night. Buffy. Veronica Mars. Battlestar Galactica. Seinfeld. Twin Peaks. 30 Rock. NYPD Blue. The Shield. The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Golden Girls. Are you too young to have watched Friday Night Lights? You’re old enough to be cognizant of Breaking Bad, right? Is there a reason you’re avoiding Mad Men?
This is now becoming just a list of my favorite shows, and as of now, this article recommends close to 3,000 hours of TV. If you were watching TV as your full-time job, this list alone would still take over a year. So … start with ER, and go from there.