Before I get mobbed with Kardashian stalkers or mauled by guidos, let me preface this list with a reminder that popularity does not constitute influence, which is the perfect segue into what “influence” in this article truly means. Influential Rule #1 For a television show to be influential it must either capture the world’s attention, provide a template for future shows, or both. Thus, if Arrested Development were selected, it would be solely on the grounds that it spawned 30 Rock—it simply wasn’t popular when it initially aired. Influential Rule #2 This brings up an important point: eligible shows also need to be recently dominant forces. No one could argue that The Simpsons isn’t one of the most influential cartoons ever, but Family Guy has overshadowed it for years now, eliminating Homer’s 21st century authority. In order for an influential show to be considered for this particular list, the greater half of its prominence on TV must take place since 2005, but it needs to have started before 2009 so that we can properly measure its impact on the current TV crop. This cuts out important newcomers like Glee and Walking Dead, but future writers will likely write about them the same way I elevate the following shows to “most influential” status.
American Idol (2002–present)
Influenced: All Reality Talent Shows, Glee When Simon, Randy, Paula, and Ryan (and that one cohost they dropped after the opening season) first hit the Fox network, American Idol was just a summer replacement program. But the premier of their second season drew 26.5 million viewers, while the third season propelled the show to the number one slot amongst 18–49 year-olds, and gave Fox control of the demographic through 2011. Its popular influence is immense, but American Idol proved the economic viability of talent show programming, and paved the way for innumerable song-and-dance copycats—including the teen dramedy, Glee. Without an acerbic Simon Cowell, and 11 seasons proving that singing is cool, there’s no Sue Sylvester and no New Directions.
The Sopranos (1999–2007)
Influenced: Dexter, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, Weeds The boom in gritty dramas and flawed protagonists that we currently enjoy has one godfather: Tony Soprano. I know the show breaks one of my earlier rules, but I didn’t want to wake up tomorrow with a prized racehorse’s head in my bed. The Sopranos seat at the greatest-of-all-time table is threatened only by a show it helped create (The Wire), establishing it as one of the most influential programs ever—let alone in the past seven years. This elegantly cast and scripted HBO original appealed to the world’s darker half, a side of us that’s insatiable, as well as the world’s intellectuals, an equally unrelenting faction. Given our lust for such programs, cable TV has obliged and blessed humanity with the likes of smart shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men.
Survivor (2000–present)/ Real World (1992–present)
Influenced: The Amazing Race, Fear Factor, Big Brother, The Mole, The Bachelor, Jersey Shore, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, reality television in general The longevity of these shows is unheard of, but so is their list of offspring. Between Real World and Survivor, practically any element of any other competitive and/or lifestyle reality program can be accounted for. Neither is as popular as they once were, but Survivor generated a billion spinoffs, while Real World spawned two of the world’s current favorites: Keeping up with the Kardashians and Jersey Shore.
The Daily Show (1996–present)
Influenced: Colbert Report, political news coverage John Stewart and Co. didn’t just influence The Colbert Report they invented it. The show puttered around for a decade before it mushroomed into the most accurate political commentary in the world, which exposes the sad state of affairs at cable news networks such as CNN and Fox News. With close presidential elections and class warfare providing ample fodder for Stewart, the show has thrived as a thorn in Washington’s side, and a surprising source for political awareness among the most apathetic populace in the world—how’s that for influence?
Battlestar Galactica (2004–2009)
Influenced: V, Caprica, The Prisoner, Sanctuary, Life on Mars Battlestar Galactica turned the B-rate clone of Star Wars into a nuanced critique of current events and human nature. Fans of the genre always argue that that’s the purpose of sci-fi, but then focus all their time geeking out over alien technology, which is why the dialogue in practically every sci-fi television show sounds like two cockatoos repeating phrases they learned from their owners. There’s innovation and technology in Galactica, but it never crowds out the intricate relationships and plotlines that develop onboard the warship. Battlestar Galactica proved that sci-fi could be intelligent in a non tech-obsessed way, and thereby paved the way for other sci-fi dramas.
The Office (2005-present)
Influenced: Modern Family, Parks and Recreation, Portlandia Nothing captured the oddity of cramming disparate personalities into a working environment better than The Office. America’s Cringe-comedy was practically invented in Scranton, and the folks at Dunder Mifflin made the mockumentary style so commonplace that laugh tracks and studios seem almost novel now. Whereas the reality TV “personal diary” scenes were once unique, even standard sitcom characters address the camera once in awhile. Without The Office some of our favorite comedies would just be a twinkle in a producer’s eye.
Desperate Housewives (2004–2012)
Influenced: Cougar Town, Real House, Weeds, Revenge ABC was the laughingstock of most other major networks until this black dramedy rolled onto their lineup. Mapping out the intrigue of horny and malicious suburban housewives must’ve triggered a subconscious fascination in the American populace because a number of cougar clones have popped up on networks everywhere since this series initially aired in 2004. What’s most remarkable is that Desperate Housewives led to the creation of a reality series following a different breed of attention-seeking predatory females—Real Housewives of (insert city here). Here’s to the deceased Mary Alice Young, without whom we’d only ever see Courtney Cox on reruns of friends.