I could write an ode to BSG simply for the fantastic physics involved with how their Vipers fight and fly. That’s right, because this show is in space, y'all, and that actually changes things. The commitment the show has to the intricacies of what the last limping shreds of humanity would go through to escape their destroyers is unparalleled in any storytelling form. Not only are the physics and survival necessities (clean water, green houses, spinny wheel ships) attended to, but the political, moral, and philosophical realities are drawn out in beautiful and heartbreaking forms. It leaves you stunned by the writing teams’ insights into the essence of the human condition: of course the political and military branches wouldn’t just sing kumbaya. Of course there would be power struggles, machinations, new religious fervor, and petty press junkets. All of this is coupled with a commitment to follow the individual character’s journey, to never shirk away from the messy entanglements that every decision creates in such a small microcosm of humanity. Sorry, I’m just going to stop writing and power up some BSG episodes right now. I talked myself into it. It’s a far smarter option than work.
Both Carl Sagan and Neil de Grasse Tyson have revolutionized popular science in media. Whereas most science shows stick to campy experiments geared toward kids (and we still love you Bill Nye), Sagan and Tyson operate under the revolutionary idea that their audience consists of intelligent, thinking adult who want more than science buzzwords to "wow" impressionable co-workers. While Sagan was the initial pioneer, Tyson proves to be a worth successor to the genius of Cosmos, continuing the tradition Cosmos: A Personal Odyssey established of approaching the wonders of the universe with refreshing straightforwardness. In his revamped show, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Neil de Grasse Tyson not only presents scientific facts and informs his audience with the creative aid of the most beautiful production to ever grace TV, he delivers an honest approach to science by dispensing with forced mystery and relying on its natural mystique. Repeatedly, Tyson reminds his viewers that science doesn't have all of the answers. He encourages his audience to be curious, to ask questions, and to stay open to new discoveries that challenge previous beliefs. He teaches us how to actually be smarter, not just memorize the information that we consider to be smart.
Considering that Frasier Crane was created as a snobbish, cultured foil for Sam Malone on Cheers, it’s a given that a show centered completely around him would carry a certain je ne sais quoi. However, the remarkable thing about Frasier is the way that it took these educated characters and proved, time after time, that all the book smarts in the world do not equal true expertise. But it did that while walking a fine line. Frasier didn’t ridicule these characters. Although Niles and Frasier were certainly capable of pomposity, the show didn’t revolve around utterly bringing these intellectual boobies down a peg. It wasn’t the ode of the common man tearing down the bourgeoisie. It was a show that wallowed in the shores of education and gave that institution its due, but with a greater knowledge that people are people, no matter what station.
The smarts of this show lives in it’s neurotic level of self-awareness. Other shows may have shared a fondness for perpetuating inside jokes across episodes, but can anyone match the unabashed parody of Jerry and George pitching to NBC “the show about nothing”? Seinfeld demonstrated throughout its run a freakish awareness of its presence in the cultural zeitgeist, and never shied away from overtly spelling it out to the public. The writing team took as a personal challenge every nugget of mundanity that could be turned into comedic gold. An entire episode where the group waits to be seated at a Chinese restaurant? Done. Half an hour of concrete sets because they spend the episode lost in a mall parking lot? Easy. A scheme to drive a truck of cans to get the 10-cent deposit in Michigan built up to the heights an epic hero’s quest? Done and done. By never taking itself seriously, and immersing itself in the minutiae of daily life, Seinfeld remains one of the smartest bite-sized bits of self-absorption in syndication.
Guest Writer Jason Clark
How does one begin to explain the magic behind the show M*A*S*H? Truly it was a marvel of its time and even today there are few shows that can go toe-to-toe with it in the ring. Character development, commentary on the Vietnam War (takes place in Korea but was airing during the Vietnam War) and social climate (women's rights, race, religion, morality, the list goes on), unadulterated wit, the longevity of the series (11 seasons, 256 episodes), the casting . . . M*A*S*H is a juggernaut and holds no punches back.
Led by the ever amazing Benjamin Franklin Pierce, aka Hawkeye (played by Alan Alda *swoon*), it is hard not to get attached to the characters within a few watches. Whether you identify with the alcoholic playboy idealism of Hawkeye, the grounded family centered BJ Honicutt, the childlike innocence and loyalty of Walter "Radar" O'Reilly, the strong feminist but delicate Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan, or even the stern fatherly love of Colonel Sherman Potter, this show has someone you'll fall in love with. To be honest though, it's hard not to love all of them.
If there is one thing that sets M*A*S*H apart of many shows it's the leveling agent that comes from war. Characters from all walks of life find themselves cramped together working impossible hours in impossible conditions in a Korean War MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit. The crucible of war forces them to become an eccentric family regardless of their differences. Forced to hold on to their sanity, maintain their efficiency, and survive hellish conditions; the M*A*S*H 4077 not only reveals character, but helps maintain it.
M*A*S*H is an amazing show, and it truly deserves to be ranked high on the list when it comes to anything television. If you haven't watched it, give it a shot. If you have watched it, you surely know what I'm talking about and are yearning to watch it again. Family friendly and witty to boot, M*A*S*H has it all.
Now, fast-talking doesn’t equal intelligence, but when that supersonic banter alludes to everything from the lowest pop culture (Cop Rock!) to the highest philosophy (Swan’s Way!), it’s hard not to give these characters some credit for their brain power. Gilmore Girls contains characters that are the most well-read, the most well-listened (to this day, I still don’t understand all of Lane’s music references), and the most well-rounded. But what’s most impressive is the way that such "in-the-know" mentality is effortless. Rory, Lorelai, and the gang don’t flaunt their preternatural knowledge of everything under the sun. It’s taken for granted as part of life, a part of life that each audience member can aspire to. Thanks for making that nerdiness awesome, Gilmore Girls.
Eureka made scientists sexy (well, except for Fargo. Artichokes have more sex appeal than Fargo). The concept is that Eureka is a “company town,” where the company is the U.S. government and the coal-miners are this generation’s best and brightest scientists, mining the universe for the strange and wonderful and accidentally explode-y. Somewhat similar to Fraiser, Eureka strikes a likeable balance between the intellectual elite and the necessity of common sense. It celebrates the advantages of scientific curiosity, education, and obsessive devotion to study, while taking a good-natured poke at the stuffier corners of myopic focus within academia. Which brings me back to my original point: without glorifying or remaking scientists into crimefighters with easily palatable personality “issues” — I’m looking at you, Bones — Eureka keeps the messy and irritating bits of science-y pioneers and makes those weirdos downright attractive. Also, the commitment in later seasons to a true “alternative timeline” (as opposed to convenient ones that fade away after a two-episode special) shows an intellectual ferocity within the writers that has been rarely replicated.
All I really remember from my freshman year of high school is a thousand-page behemoth hardcover of The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes. 14-year-old ignorance and elitist tendencies turned me into quite a Holmes hipster (I visited 221B Baker St before it was cool), and thus I approached the series premiere of Sherlock with ready-to-bite snark. What I found was a shockingly accurate depiction of everyone's favorite literary sociopath. Sherlock focuses on the spirit of the Holmes tales, of an outcast who uses his intelligence as a crutch to rise above what he feels are unnecessary and illogical social niceties. The dialogue, carefully-crafted puzzles, and consistent characterization coupled with gradual development alone herald Sherlock as one of the best text-to-film adaptations ever made, but Sherlock took its analytic representation of Doyle's characters a step further with John Watson. By melding topical personal struggles (PTSD, rampant cynicism, morbid fascination, chronic escapism, being British), Sherlock created a perfect proxy for a modern audience, making the show validating and challenging as we identify our faults in Watson. Ultimately, Sherlock Holmes himself is the hook of the show, but John Watson is the heart. (Although, let's be honest: the three-episode season was a masterpiece of sadism and genius, and would in itself be enough to land it on this exclusive list.)
What’s that, a cartoon? You bet your bootstraps it’s a cartoon. When a cartoon hosts a gaggle of characters, from a creepily animated Peter Lorre to the nefarious Brain (and Pinky — NARF!); when a cartoon takes history and science and geography and math and slams these concepts into three-minute songs; when a cartoon takes classical music and introduces it to the young ‘uns in palatable ways; when a cartoon has jokes and asides that reference everything from Prince to Mickey Rooney to Einstein; well, when all that happens it’s a cartoon worth mentioning. Animaniacs proved that a kid’s show doesn’t have to talk down to be entertaining. At first glance it might seem as if it set the precedent for the current slew of “smart kid, dumb adult” shows that permeate kids programming. I’m looking at you, Disney Channel. But while Yakko, Wakko, and Dot easily pulled the wool over their caretakers at the Warner Brothers Studio, they had equally intelligent adult foils on the show. Besides, the shorts and pacing were so frenetic that smug smarts were never the focus. Everything existed to service the funny. With highbrow jokes and off-the-wall-capers for old and young alike, Animaniacs embodied a show that has it all.
And the Winner is . . .
Rosemary: The Newsroom constantly pushes its audience to think — think about personal struggles, about issues, about industries. More than the story elements, though, The Newsroom leads its viewers to think about their own role in the issues and industries it highlights. Aaron Sorkin has created a televised Call to Action, the first step on a Hero's Journey to a better society for anyone who dares take it. It's a modern day Don Quixote, and by using the recent past (a bold stroke of genius) as a framework, Sorkin holds up a mirror to our own farce. We find ourselves frustrated and angry with the public in the show only to remember that we are the public. The characters inspire or incense us because of their reactions to story events, a stark contrast to our own reactions to events, our own mistakes, and our own perfected hindsight. This format forces self-refection (uncomfortable, at times), discussion, and learning. More than anything, The Newsroom makes us believe that knowledge — educating ourselves about the world around us — can save us. I'm beginning to believe it can.
Cat: One of the main complaints against The Newsroom is (as Mary alluded to) its overblown idealism. Critics say that by setting the show in the past, using real examples and showing “how it should have been handled,” the program is taking the easy way out, and comes across as pretentious and smug. To that I say: so? Present-day America is drowning in pessimism. Perhaps it started with the hipsters, those who decided that caring about things is only acceptable with a detaching filter of irony, that passion is overrated. Maybe it started with the disillusionment of the modern man, the people who have been beaten down by recessions and corrupt politics and an easily-swayed media. In the face of these obstacles, is it so bad to have a TV show that still believes, as the pilot states, that America can be a great country? It’s not there yet, but the tools are in place. Perhaps we can reclaim some dignity by watching people who are fallible but striving to be better. By having something that inspires us toward greater performance and a brighter future. Yes, The Newsroom has zippy Sorkin dialogue and intriguing characters, all of which make a smart show, but what truly sets it apart is intelligence undimmed by cynicism. What makes The Newsroom great is the possibility of hope.