1. Valerie / Valerie’s Family: The Hogans / The Hogan Family (1986-91)
A long-term relationship with a TV show can be like a long relationship with any public institution. Sometimes the shows adapt to the needs of their patrons, evolving in tone, style, and purpose over time. Sometimes there’s turnover in personnel. And sometimes even the name changes. Rhoda star Valerie Harper returned to TV in 1986 with the sitcom Valerie, playing a working mother trying to balance the demands of her job and the rambunctiousness of three growing boys, including a teenage Jason Bateman. The show was often issue-driven, discussing teen sex, condom use, drunk driving, and AIDS. Then Harper quarreled with her producers, presuming (wrongly, as it turns out) that a show called Valerie couldn’t afford to lose its star. The next season, Valerie became Valerie’s Family: The Hogans (and later just The Hogan Family), and Harper’s character was killed off and replaced by her sister-in-law, played by Sandy Duncan. The topical subject matter gradually faded too, and the show became more about everyone in the household—including a crochety old grandpa added during thefinal season—trying to find romance. Before it was cancelled for good, the show even jumped from NBC to CBS. Anyone who stuck with it through all that was devoted. (But to what?)
2. Good Morning, Miss Bliss / Saved By The Bell (1988-93)
The longtime Saturday-morning (and now nearly every weekday morning) mainstay Saved By The Bell was originally a Disney Channel show called Good Morning, Miss Bliss: an apt title, considering the show’s original focus was on a harried, good-natured history teacher at an Indianapolis junior high. Cancelled after one season, the renamed series was picked up by NBC, which changed the title, moved the setting to Bayside High in California, and shifted the spotlight to a charismatic blond scamp named Zack Morris (plated by Mark-Paul Gosselaar), who could, on occasion, literally stop time. The show went on to run for four more seasons, eventually spawning two spin-offs (Saved By The Bell: The College Years and Saved By The Bell: The New Class), one disconcertingly beefcakey Extra correspondent (Mario López), and one Showgirl (Elizabeth Berkley). Today, Saved By The Bell is virtually unavoidable in syndication—turn on your TV during any given weekday, at almost any given time, and you can find an episode. Good Morning, Miss Bliss episodes are often aired as Saved By The Bell episodes, with a little intro from Zack Morris explaining that crazy things often went on even when he was in junior high. The fact that he apparently moved to California with two of his friends from Indianapolis (Lark Voorhies and Dustin Diamond) and his junior-high principal (Dennis Haskins) is one of those “crazy things” that’s never addressed or explained.
3. Charles In Charge (1984-87)
In season one of the groundbreaking “manny” sitcom Charles In Charge, college student/live-in babysitter Scott Baio was “in charge” of the Pembroke children: superficial older sister Lila, nerdy middle son Douglas, and troublemaking youngest son Jason. By season two, however, Charles In Charge had moved from CBS to syndication, and the Pembrokes had mysteriously moved to Seattle, sub-leasing their house (and evidently Baio’s manny services) to the Powells. Taking care of the Powell children—superficial older sister Jamie, nerdy middle sister Sarah, and troublemaking youngest son Adam—wasn’t much of a stretch for Baio, considering their considerable similarities to the Pembroke kids. By season two, the theme song should have been “The new boy in the neighborhood/lives downstairs and it’s understood/he’s there just to take good care of whomever’s there.”
4. The Doris Day Show (1968-73)
Few mutant TV series changed as frequently or as radically as The Doris Day Show, which began in 1968 as a sitcom about an urbane, widowed mother of two trying to make a go of it back at her family’s Northern California ranch. At the start of season two, while still living on the ranch, Day’s character began driving into San Francisco to work as a secretary at a hip magazine. For season three, she and her kids moved to the city (above an Italian restaurant), and Day became a part-time journalist. And in the show’s final two seasons, the emphasis was on Day as a single career gal trying to find romance. Kids? What kids? Ranch? What ranch?
5. The Daily Show (1996-present)
When Lizz Winstead co-created The Daily Show in the mid-’90s, she envisioned a program driven by politics rather than just personality. But due to forces beyond Winstead’s control, The Daily Show debuted in 1996 as a showcase for the snarky “charm” of former ESPN anchor Craig Kilborn, whose smug mean-spiritedness permeated the show’s often cruel, overwhelmingly “Craig-centric” sense of humor. Kilborn and Winstead famously clashed about the direction of The Daily Show behind the scenes, and the conflict spilled over into the pages of Esquire, where Kilborn referred to his executive producer as an “emotional bitch.” Winstead was long gone by the time Jon Stewart stepped in in 1998, but he eventually made The Daily Show what she wanted it to be all along: a hilarious, thought-provoking reaction to the news and how it’s covered.
6. The Avengers (1961-69)
Although most audiences, especially in America, remember The Avengers for the suave super-spy antics of Patrick Macnee’s John Steed and a succession of kinky-booted female sidekicks, the show started out as more of a straightforward detective drama, and Macnee wasn’t even the main character. That honor went to Ian Hendry, playing a medical doctor who got into crime-fighting to, well, avenge his fiancée’s death at the hands of a drug gang. Women were peripheral characters on the show (which had nary a hint of international espionage), and most of the action focused on the often-combative relationship between Hendry and Macnee, his partner. However, the combination of a show retooling, a television strike, and the sudden popularity of the James Bond movies completely revamped The Avengers. By 1962, Honor Blackman had been added as Macnee’s new sexy doctor partner Cathy Gale (to the delight of fans across Britain), and The Avengers quickly dumped the dueling-detectives angle and became all about small-screen super-spies. Macnee became more Bond-like, Blackman was replaced by bombshell Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, and the ratings went up and up.
7. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68)
The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s first season offered spry, sophisticated spy stories shot in crisp black and white. When the show switched to color in season two, the producers began to make the villains cartoonier, and the move toward the ridiculous continued up to the abbreviated season four, when U.N.C.L.E. made a belated stab at restoring some sobriety. Though arguably responsible for popularizing the TV spy craze in America, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. fell victim to the genre’s runaway success, and scrambled to keep up with the rapid evolution of TV adventure series into camp and beyond.
8. Mannix (1967-75)
The quintessential private-eye show began with Mike Connors’ fiercely independent gumshoe working for somebody else. For Mannix’s first 26 episodes, Connors clocked in at a state-of-the-art detective agency, where he was the guy to call when the super-computers couldn’t get the job done. For season two, Connors hired a secretary (Gail Fisher’s iconic Peggy Fair), hung out his own shingle, and Mannix became the show everyone remembers: a stylish tribute to breaking and entering, getting beaten up, and going the extra mile to uncover some malfeasance that others would’ve missed.
9. Wonder Woman (1975-79)
The first-season Wonder Woman is pretty high-concept, as far as ’70s superhero TV shows go. Instead of following Bill Bixby’s wanderings from back lot to back lot, or watching Nicholas Hammond run aground gangsters in the big city, Wonder Woman gave the world Lynda Carter vs. the Nazis, settling the Amazonian princess in Washington, D.C. near the tail end of World War II. Wonder Woman and her buttoned-down alter ego Diana Prince, along with Lyle Waggoner as stalwart Steve Trevor, fought against a seemingly endless series of guest stars working for the Third Reich, including Red Buttons, John Saxon, and Robert Loggia. The series proved popular, but when ABC stalled on negotiations for a second season, the show moved to CBS, which had only one request: Make it modern. The writers maintained continuity by having Wonder Woman bounce back to Paradise Island for a few decades, while Waggoner’s Steve Trevor was replaced by Waggoner’s Steve Trevor, Jr., who happened to look exactlylike his dad. The Nazis were long gone, but in their place, Carter fought something like actual supervillains, including Martin Mull as a rock-star Pied Piper flutist. The CBS version ran two seasons, and the final filmed episode promised even more changes: dropping Trevor completely, moving the remaining cast to L.A., and throwing in an indestructible chimpanzee. But it wasn’t meant to be, and the series ended in 1979.
10. Dark Shadows (1966-71)
Dark Shadows was never exactly a normal soap opera, but the gothic-tinged daytime drama did cling more or less to the genre’s standard conventions—dressed up with extra gloom—for its first few months. By the end of 1966, the strange goings-on at the Collinwood Estate and the adjoining town of Collinsport had turned paranormal, with the appearance of ghosts and ancient Egyptian death-cults. But it wasn’t until the following year, when the show introduced Jonathan Frid as the immortal vampire Barnabas Collins, that the show really went nuts—and not coincidentally, became a runaway hit. Collins quickly became the show’s main character, and Dark Shadows went ever more deranged, with parallel realities, Cthulhu cults, werewolves, and time travel all making it far and away the weirdest soap in history—at least until Passions showed up.
11. Family Matters (1989-98)
A spin-off of Perfect Strangers, Family Matters began as a fairly formulaic sitcom about a black middle-class Chicago family, airing as part of the wholesome ABC “TGIF” lineup. Within a year, the show introduced next-door-neighbor/über-nerd-novelty-character Steve Urkel, a shark the program wasted no time jumping. Alas, the gimmick of Urkel’s obnoxious pestering could only be sustained for so long, so producers eventually tossed the family-life themes, ramped up Urkel’s brainiac cluelessness, and morphed the show into a sort of ongoing Absent-Minded/Nutty Professor clone by introducing Steve Urkel’s suave-but-menacing alter ego Stefan Urquelle, the UrkBot (an intelligent android that becomes a police officer), the UrkPad (a teleportation device), a time-travel invention, a weight-reducing machine, and a cloning machine. Appropriately, in the show’s final episode, Urkel heads off into outer space to test an anti-gravity contraption.
12. The Joey Bishop Show (1961-65)In 1961, Rat Pack favorite Joey Bishop starred in a sitcom as the harried assistant to a big-shot L.A. press agent. The show was balanced between inside-showbiz jokes and material about Bishop’s extended family, who kept trying to use his connections to meet celebrities. By the end of the first season, the family bits became less prevalent, and for the second season (now in color), The Joey Bishop Show underwent a full-scale reboot. Bishop’s character (whose name didn’t change) now lived in New York, and was a late-night talk-show host with a pretty wife who didn’t fully understand his jetsetting lifestyle. The Joey Bishop Show 2.0 became a minor classic. The first version is all but forgotten.
13. Newhart (1982-90)
Grammy and Peabody Award-winning comedian Bob Newhart returned to TV in 1982 with Newhart, playing a how-to book author who convinces his wife (Mary Frann) to help him run a small country inn in a Vermont town populated by guileless eccentrics. In the first season—shot on videotape—Newhart and Frann mainly deal with passive-aggressive guests, deceptively friendly townsfolk, a pathological-liar neighbor, and a handyman with the temperament of a pouting 10-year-old. From season two onward, Newhart was shot on film and played more for farce. Julia Duffy and Peter Scolari joined the cast as clueless yuppies, the show ratcheted up the appearances of William Sanderson as philosophical hick Larry, and even Newhart became less of a straight man and more of a loony in his own way. Newhart was a good show from the start, but it evolved into something unlike anything else on TV at the time.
14. These Friends Of Mine / Ellen (1994-98)
In the wake of Seinfeld, Home Improvement, and Roseanne, networks began snapping up high-profile stand-up comics and trying to build shows around them. The chipper, fumbly Ellen DeGeneres was a natural fit on TV—like a cross between Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore—but ABC’s first attempt at a DeGeneres vehicle sputtered. These Friends Of Mine cast DeGeneres as a Los Angeles bookstore manager who, along with her generic TV pals, swapped stories about their various romantic misadventures. In season two, the show’s name was changed to Ellen, half of her “friends” disappeared, and after a curt resolution to a lingering subplot about DeGeneres’ crush on her roommate Arye Gross, the “Ellen goes on bad dates” stories also faded. Then in 1997, Ellen underwent its biggest change, as DeGeneres’ character finally acknowledged what the actress herself had recently revealed: that she was gay. The final season of Ellen returned to a little of the romantic comedy of season one, though mostly it became about how Ellen’s family and second wave of friends reacted to her new lifestyle.
15. Love, Sidney (1981-83)
The intentions were good. NBC tried to cast Tony Randall in the first TV series with an openly gay leading character, but after testing the waters with a TV movie—a strange kind of pilot for a half-hour sitcom—the network reduced Love, Sidney’s gay content to strictly between the lines. Randall still played a fastidious single man living platonically with a wayward actress and her daughter, and he still showed little to no interest in the predatory wife of his building’s superintendent. But aside from one brief glimpse at a picture of a man after Randall referred to his one passionate romance, Love, Sidney kept its hero’s sexuality an open secret. Meanwhile, the show itself experienced a turnover in its supporting cast between its two seasons, and changed its tone from “Neil Simon witty” to “Diff’rent Strokes meaningful.” (Which means that in its own way, to put it in junior-high terms, Love, Sidney did become totally gay.)
16. The John Larroquette Show (1993-96)
Television producer Don Reo was coming off a big success with Blossom in 1992, and actor John Larroquette had been a breakout success on Night Court, so the timing seemed perfect for the two to try something different together. And that’s exactly what The John Larroquette Show was—for its first season. Reo gave free rein to the darker, more intellectual side of his humor, and Larroquette sank his teeth into the role of a recovering drunk who could only get employment as the night manager of a ratty St. Louis bus terminal. The show was rife with literate jokes, drug references, sexual innuendo, and extremely black humor, and it was a critical success. But its ratings were mediocre, so NBC executives ordered a major retooling. By season two, Larroquette’s character had become more likeable, and no longer lived in a dingy, creepy apartment. (His transvestite hooker friend also all but vanished.) The bus station was made to look less dire and sleazy, and even the theme music was brightened up. The John Laroquette Show dragged on for another year, but it was never as good again.
17. Homicide: Life On The Streets (1993-2000)
Fans of NBC’s gritty Baltimore cop show Homicide—which blazed the trails followed by The Wire and The Shield—learned to live with the compromises required to keep the series on the air for seven years. Though Homicide remained quality TV all the way up to its feature-length finale, it gradually evolved from the wry, very dark depiction of the existential crises of police detectives that dominated its early episodes, and became more conventionally melodramatic, with big shootouts and confrontations. Homicide’s wit and melancholy held constant, but under pressure from NBC, sensationalism often took precedence over poignancy.
18. Happy Days (1974-84)
Happy Days was famously conceived as a nostalgic coming-of-age comedy about clean-cut, whitebread teen Ron Howard learning life lessons alongside chums Anson Williams and Donnie Most. Then came the Fonz. Henry Winkler’s loveable, defanged greaser character became such a fan favorite—and his trademark catchphrases grew so ubiquitous—that the balance of the show tilted unmistakably and permanently in his favor. After Howard left the show to pursue a filmmaking career that never went anywhere, Winkler became the star of Happy Days, even receiving top billing in Howard’s absence. This same dynamic played out around the same time with Good Times, which evolved (or devolved) from a Norman Lear social-issues comedy about a struggling black family to a showcase for the mugging and catchphrases of breakout star Jimmie “J.J” Walker. The best-laid plans of television people are no match for the public’s lusty embrace of a breakout character.
19. The Facts Of Life (1979-88)
Itself a spore-like outgrowth of Diff’rent Strokes, the original version of The Facts Of Life followed the Drummonds’ housekeeper Edna Garrett (Charlotte Rae) as she became the den mother to a batch of socioeconomically diverse students at Kimberly Drummond’s all-girls private school. But as early as the second season, major retooling was already underway: Mrs. Garrett was suddenly the campus dietitian, and much of the original cast had been jettisoned—including a still-unknown Molly Ringwald, and major characters like John Lawlor’s headmaster—in favorof focusing on spoiled rich girl Blair (Lisa Whelchel), sarcastic chubby girl Natalie (Mindy Cohn), and gossipy token black girl Tootie (Kim Fields), with Jo (Nancy McKeon) brought in as Blair’s “streetwise” foil. This was only the beginning of the show’s many, many permutations. Over the years, NBC went to great lengths to revive flagging interest in the show, beginning with putting the now-graduated girls to work in Mrs. Garrett’s bakery. When that grew stale, Edna’s Edibles was burned to the ground and replaced by the Spencer’s Gifts-like shop Over Our Heads, which doubled as a mullet-breeding ground for hunky new support star George Clooney. By 1986, however, even Rae was tired of the desperate measures, and she abandoned the sinking ship, so producers brought in Mrs. Garrett’s never-before-seen sister Beverly Ann (Cloris Leachman) to mind the store. Almost immediately, Beverly adopted loveable orphan Mackenzie Astin and an Australian exchange student, but even an infusion of cute, troubled moppets couldn’t save the show. After several detours into fantasy episodes based on The Golden Girls and The Twilight Zone (shades of Roseanne’s final season), The Facts Of Life gamely tried to bring everything full circle by staging a first-season “class reunion,” meant to launch its own spin-off where Blair would become the Mrs. Garrett to a group of new students (played by Seth Green, Mayim Bialik, and Juliette Lewis). By then, the show had been born again more times than Whelchel, and was all but unrecognizable.
20. The L Word (2004-09)
The L Word began as a lesbian soap opera, following the lives and loves of a group of (mostly) lesbian friends in Los Angeles. In season two, the show ramped up the ridiculousness to include an absurd plotline about a male roommate who planted hidden cameras throughout the home he shared with Jenny (Mia Kirshner) and Shane (Katherine Moennig), leading Jenny to experience several repressed memories of sexual abuse at a carnival, apparently by klezmer musicians. By season three, the show bore almost no resemblance to reality—even soap-opera reality—and in seasons four and five, the show seemed to embrace its ridiculousness and turn into farce. In season six, the show’s writers decided to take a stab at another genre—why not?—by introducing a murder-mystery, although the L Word version was, naturally, high-camp. But The L Word isn’t just a mutant television series: Several of the characters are mutants as well, changing personalities from season to season or episode to episode. Alice Pieszecki (Leisha Hailey) is an out-and-proud bisexual in season one, but her sexuality has completely disappeared by season two, with no explanation or revelation. In season two, Helena Peabody (Rachel Shelley) is introduced as a ruthless, manipulative, cold-hearted outsider whose only goal is to make Bette Porter’s (Jennifer Beals) life hell. By season three, she’s generous, kind-hearted, and good friends with all of Bette’s friends. Continuity is definitely not an “L word.”