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10 Shows That Changed Our Lives

AARP critic Tim Appelo shares his picks of those that have altered how we think, live and hope as we approach the 75th anniversary of the Emmys


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RyanJLane/Getty Images; 20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection; HBO/Everett Collection; CBS/Photofest; PBS/Photofest; Bettmann Archive/Getty Images; Focus on Sport/Getty Images; CBS/Getty Images; Gerry Goodstein/NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection; ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images; NBC/Photofest

The Show That Made Food Hip

spinner image julia child in the french chef
PBS/Photofest

The French Chef

Back when Americans were gobbling frozen TV dinners and those quivering Jell-O desserts, Julia Child’s cooking show, The French Chef (1962–73), snapped us out of our culinary trance, making us believe we all should consider croquembouche for dessert. Her show practically invented the foodie movement, empowered chefs both professional and home-based, and led to a whole new industry of TV food shows, cooking competitions and rock star chefs to satisfy and expand the nation’s suddenly sophisticated palates.

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The Show That Made Us Love Planet Earth

spinner image jacques yves cousteau and his crew preparing for a dive on the undersea world of jacques cousteau
ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau

Jacques Cousteau first wanted to be a pilot. But after he drove his dad’s car off a cliff and started swimming to overcome his injuries, he channeled his energy toward inventing the Aqua-Lung (the first widely embraced underwater breathing apparatus) and took us all on a trip to the bottom of the sea. The thrills of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau (1966–76) and The Cousteau Odyssey (1977–82) helped inspire a renaissance in nature programming on TV and ignited the environmental movement, even when most people couldn’t imagine the oceans were in danger.

The Show That Put a Mirror in Front of America

spinner image left jean stapleton as edith bunker right carroll oconnor as archie bunker on all in the family
CBS/Photofest

All in the Family

While anti–Vietnam War protests, civil rights marches and assassinations filled the news, prime-time TV shows such as The Beverly Hillbillies (1962–71) and Green Acres (1965–71) strenuously sidestepped reality. Norman Lear’s All in the Family (1971–79) broke tradition by tackling tough but real topics — politics, race, feminism, homosexuality. The characters were modeled partly on Lear’s parents (his dad often told his mom to “stifle”), and the arguments between Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) and his “meathead” son-in-law (Rob Reiner) were prompted by the liberal and conservative debate in George Bernard Shaw’s play Major Barbara. Lear “wanted to throw the arguments out there,” Reiner told the Television Academy, “to get people thinking and talking about the issues of the day.”

The Show That Inspired Us All About the Future

spinner image from left to right nichelle nichols as lieutenant nyoa uhura then leonard nimoy as mr spock then william shatner as captaion james kirk in star trek the original series
CBS/Getty Images

Star Trek

By focusing on aliens rather than humans, Star Trek (1966–69) smuggled contemporary social commentary past censors. But its biggest influence — besides dozens of TV and movie spin-offs and innumerable imitators — was in opening our eyes. “To boldly go where no man has gone before” became so synonymous with space exploration that NASA even hired actress Nichelle Nichols (Lieutenant Uhura) to recruit astronauts. Scientific American called Trek “the gold standard of scientific plausibility in TV entertainment,” presaging actual gizmos and innovations such as medical monitors and the internet (Mr. Spock’s “computer library”). Watching an episode where Captain Kirk saves Spock using his handheld communicator prompted Martin Cooper to invent the mobile phone, and Lieutenant Commander Data’s computer music on Star Trek: The Next Generation inspired Karlheinz Brandenburg to come up with the MP3 digital format.

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The Show That Changed the Way We Sleep (or Not)

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NBC/Photofest

The Tonight Show

Once upon a time, after the 11 p.m. local news told us about tomorrow’s weather, Americans turned off the TV and went to bed. For many, The Tonight Show (1954–present) changed that. Sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer joked that the show ruined America’s love life, and filmmaker Billy Wilder called Johnny Carson, its host from 1962 to 1992, “the Valium and the Nembutal of a nation. He has captivated the American bourgeoisie without ever offending the highbrows.” Like news anchor Walter Cronkite, Carson was a trusted, reassuring commentator on current events. He helped shape a sense of consensus; somehow his gags helped us sleep better. Carson’s successors, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon, along with a slew of other late-night talkfest hosts, have managed to keep the nation up way past its bedtime ever since.

The Show That Turned Sport Into Spectacle

spinner image earl cooper number forty nine of the san francisco forty niners celebrating after a touchdown against the cincinnati bengals in super bowl x v i in nineteen eighty two
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The Super Bowl

TV is why football replaced baseball as America’s most popular pastime — it’s more telegenic. Monday Night Football’s 1970 debut made polysyllabic commentator Howard Cosell a legend. And who could forget Joe Namath’s 33-yard scoring pass? Plus, Sunday Night Football has been the most popular show on TV for 12 years in a row. But the biggest sports show of all, without question, is the Super Bowl. The most-watched show in American TV history was the 2023 Super Bowl LVII, when 115.1 million fans tuned in. The Super Bowl​ halftime show, meanwhile, has become a centerpiece of the music industry — and for the first time, last year’s show, featuring six of rap’s greatest stars, won the Emmy for live variety special.

The Show That Revealed the True Nature of War

spinner image from left to right loretta swit then mike farrell then david ogden stiers on the t v show mash
20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection

M*A*S*H

TV had already taken on war in gritty dramas such as Combat! (1962–67) and lighthearted comedies like Hogan’s Heroes (1965–71), but the war show that earned more than 100 Emmy nominations (and 14 wins) was M*A*S*H (1972–83). It was the first to blend violent horrors and sitcom high jinks in a way that still influences shows all the way through Breaking Bad and Barry. It also won a vaunted Peabody Award for “the manner in which comedy is used to lift the spirit and, as well, to offer a profound statement on the nature of war.” Its 2½-hour finale is the most-watched series episode ever, with 106 million viewers. Besides changing our thoughts about war, the show represented a significant social change from the extreme sexism of the original book and the 1970 Robert Altman film version. Actress Loretta Swit, who’s never watched the rather anti-woman M*A*S*H movie, won the right to change her character’s name from Hot Lips to Margaret — a huge victory for servicewomen everywhere and for TV comedy.

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The Show That Made History Feel Real to Us All

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Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The Civil War

Ken Burns’ docuseries The Civil War (1990) ignited a hunger for history that TV watchers never knew they had. Its trademark storytelling tricks — slow pan shots of archival documents, with haunting fiddle music and moving commentary by intellectuals such as Shelby Foote — were soon ubiquitous. Foote became so popular that fans sent him marriage proposals, and his The Civil War trilogy (which made him a millionaire) helped spark a long-term craze for historical bestsellers (and their TV versions). The show opened the door to dozens more historical TV documentaries, many of them by the tireless Burns. The Civil War touched our emotions, making the war seem like our own tragic family drama, not a remote event dimly remembered from school lessons. In a country more future oriented than history bound, it recaptured America’s past in a way that helped all of us remember, at least for a moment, our national soul.

The Show That Altered How We Measure Justice

spinner image left jerry orbach right chris noth on law and order
Gerry Goodstein/NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection

Law & Order

Before Law & Order (1990–2010 and 2022–present), we had cop shows and shows about courtrooms, though never a show about the particulars of both catching suspects and then prosecuting them, in cases ripped from the headlines and brilliantly tweaked to create maximum drama. The show taps into our fears about crime in society and soothes us by solving a case a week and putting perps where they belong. It educates us about our system and changes our attitudes. A 2015 study found that watching the Law & Order franchise, particularly the stories on Law & Order: SVU, made viewers less likely to believe myths about rape and more apt to be insistent about seeking consent for sexual activity. In addition to inspiring its many spin-offs, Law & Order helped drive the immense proliferation of true-crime shows on TV.

The Show That Redefined Good vs. Bad

spinner image james gandolfini as tony soprano in a swimming pool smoking a cigar in the sopranos
HBO/Everett Collection

The Sopranos

There used to be good guys and bad guys, but The Sopranos (1997–2007) made us root for Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), a mob boss who kills both the innocent and those who are guilty as sin. He’s a family man who can’t trust his murderous mother and whose wife (Edie Falco) averts her eyes from the sources of their comfy life. The show succeeded by breaking longtime TV rules, with startling violence, cynical comedy, morally ambiguous characters, and plots and subplots that stretched out across several episodes. Among other influences, the show started a stampede of antiheroes on other series, including Breaking Bad and Succession.

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