“There’s a childlike quality to our physicists,” says co-creator Chuck Lorre, 62, theorizing on what makes his sitcom about nerdy scientists such a huge hit. “These characters are in need of protection.”
“An apocalyptic Western” is how Fear the Walking Dead showrunner Dave Erickson describes AMC’s original zombie series, cable’s highest-rated show. “There was such humanity in something so monstrous … this strange balance of grotesque and human. That’s one of the reasons the show has been successful.”
NBC’s first choice to play Sam Malone? “Bill Cosby,” remembers co-creator Les Charles, 72. “We declined because it would have meant doing the Bill Cosby Show.” Cosby, of course, did get his own show, which turned NBC’s Thursday nights into a ratings juggernaut. “We were worried because the ratings were so dismal,” says George Wendt, who played Norm. “But The Cosby Show premiered, and it lifted the whole night.”
Vice President Biden credited this sitcom about a single woman and her gay best friend with paving the way for same-sex marriage. But not everyone was thrilled with the idea of openly gay characters. “The run-through went well,” recalls co-creator Max Mutchnick, 49. “But that night, our agent asked me if I would consider making the Will character straight. I have a new agent now.”
“People thought we were crazy when we made the Netflix deal,” says Kevin Spacey, referring to the $100 million the streaming service reportedly paid for two seasons of the political drama — season one of which it then rolled out, all 13 episodes at once, in a risky binge-viewing strategy. “But I’m kind of used to people thinking I’m a bit nuts.”
It only lasted two seasons, but David Lynch‘s surreal crime series built enough of a cult following that Showtime is bringing it back for a revival in 2017. That cult includes big names, like Lost‘s Carlton Cuse, who says he’s constantly paying homage to Peaks with his creepy A&E series Bates Motel: “Twin Peaks was like a shot of Everclear straight to your subconscious,” he says. X-Files creator Chris Carter is a big fan, too. “Sui generis” — Latin for “one of a kind” — is how he describes it.
Initially, Mary Richards was supposed to be a divorcee. “But networks at the time didn’t want divorcees, Jews or men with mustaches,” half-jokes creator James L. Brooks, 75. Brooks didn’t win all his battles with network censors, but he won more than most. The newsroom sitcom was the first to make references to casual sex and birth control and to have gay characters.
Tina Fey‘s backstage sitcom — based on her years writing for SNL — never was a ratings bonanza. But it struck a chord with the industry. “I remember the first year [at the Emmys],” Fey, 45, told THR. “It was one of the years the Emmys were in the round, and we were seated behind the stage — we just saw people’s butts all night. We lost everything, but we won best series. Alec Baldwin was so sure we weren’t going to win that he was in the bathroom. He missed it the first time. We’re lucky [it was] repeated.”
“An honest, intense, ambitious fellow” is how actor Noah Keen, 94, remembers creator and host Rod Serling. Keen starred in two episodes of the trippy anthology series (1961’s “The Arrival” and 1962’s “The Trade-Ins”), but the experience continues to haunt him today. “After all these years, people still tell me, ‘I saw you on TV last night.'”
Proving cancellation isn’t forever, the comedy about the dysfunctional Bluth family that Fox shut down in 2006 came back on Netflix in 2013. But with one change: The show now focuses on one character per episode. “I like to think of it as chapters in a book,” says creator Mitchell Hurwitz, “or spokes in a wheel.”
Showrunners Damon Lindelof, 42, and Carlton Cuse, 56, didn’t think viewers would notice the “Dharma Initiative” logo — the emblem for the fringe-science group that wouldn’t become important until season two — stuck on the side of the crashed plane in the pilot of their castaway mystery. “But [the logo] exploded across the Internet,” recalls Cuse. “It really inspired us to be complicated — people wanted that, even though it was certainly not what the network wanted.”
The show’s casting director saw 1,400 actors; 400 of them auditioned for creators Steve Levitan and Chris Lloyd. But even as the cast was whittled down to eight, tweaks were made. “Jesse Tyler Ferguson came in for the part of Cam, but he didn’t feel right,” recalls Levitan. “So we asked him to come back for Mitchell. He said, ‘Thank God, because I’m really more of a Mitchell.'”
Robert Altman famously dissed the TV adaptation of his 1970 film set in a Korean War mobile Army hospital. But “Altman was making only one movie — we were making a whole show,” says Jamie Farr, 81, who played cross-dressing corporal Klinger. “We were groundbreaking. We were the first series to show blood on the screen. We were always pushing to see how far we could go.” Its finale is still the highest-rated TV episode, with 125 million viewers.
What do Carrie Bradshaw and Don Draper have in common? The Mad Men pilot was shot down the hall from SATC‘s longtime home at Queens’ Silvercup Studios, so Matthew Weiner would pay visits to the women next door. “I would sit at the table, and they would say funny shit,” recalls Weiner. “[Showrunner] Michael Patrick King would say things like, ‘Oh, you’re here on the perfect day. We all finally got our periods in sync.'”
Sidney Poitier was the first star approached to play President Bartlet in the political drama, but “those talks didn’t get far,” recalls creator Aaron Sorkin, 54. “Next was Jason Robards, but he was in bad health. We read some other actors — Hal Holbrook and John Cullum — but then one day [producer] John Wells called and said, ‘What about Martin Sheen?'”
There was a recent near-disaster (Harry Shearer almost walked over a contract dispute), but the longest-running scripted series in TV history — 573 episodes and counting — looks set for another 27 seasons. Two things you’ll never see no matter how long it’s on the air: “Homer and Marge will never break up,” promises showrunner Al Jean. “And Bart and Lisa will never age.”
If creator Matthew Weiner‘s former reps had their way, his ad agency drama wouldn’t have gone to AMC. The message he recalls hearing: “You’re coming off The Sopranos. I know you love this project, but don’t go there. It’s really low status. No money. And even if they do it, they’ve never made a show before. You don’t want to be their first.” Fortunately, Weiner didn’t listen.
Its influence continues to be felt today (without Lucille Ball, there’d be no Amy Poehler, Tina Fey or Amy Schumer), with Lucy popping up where least expected. “I have it on in the background [of my trailer] constantly,” says Guillermo Diaz, who plays the former Black Ops assassin on ABC’s Scandal. “It keeps me from going to the dark side.”
It’s been good and not so good, but SNL has remained a reliable comedy fix for 40 years. “My tombstone should say ‘uneven’ because [the show] has never been described any other way,” says creator Lorne Michaels, 70. “You can’t possibly be perfect for 90 minutes. But you can have a certain other kind of magic.”
“New Jersey is beautiful even in its industrial wasteland-ness,” says creator David Chase, 70, of his epic mob drama’s signature setting. “My edict was that all location filming had to take place in Jersey, not in Queens, where the soundstages were. I felt that Jersey gave the show a different look from previous organized crime [dramas].”
“Milton Berle once told me that if you can’t make a character funny, make him interesting,” says Michael Richards, 66, who turned Kramer, Jerry’s screwball next-door neighbor, into the quintessential sidekick on the decade-defining sitcom that was famously “about nothing.”
The biggest hit in HBO history — it has surpassed this list’s No. 6 The Sopranos — keeps fans hooked with the bloodiest, most shocking cliffhangers on TV (say it ain’t so, Jon Snow!). But co-creator David Benioff sees the dragon-and-swords series as less a thrill ride than a sociopolitical parable. “Ultimately, it’s not just about good versus evil,” he says. “It’s about people of good intentions who come into conflict with each other because they have very different views of the world.”
The creepy title music. The endless conspiracy theories. The tapeworm guy living in the sewer. “There was nothing like it on TV,” says creator Chris Carter, 57, of the paranormal thriller, one of Fox’s first home runs. “We were taking a genre that had been unloved for a long time and super heating it. I think we opened up an opportunity for a different kind of storytelling, the kind of saga storytelling that’s become a staple of cable TV.”
HBO, Showtime and, ultimately, FX passed on this dark drama about a disillusioned chemistry teacher turned meth dealer. “It was dead as a hammer,” says creator Vince Gilligan, 48, when his agent at ICM sent it to AMC, which was desperate for original series. “Why don’t you send it to the Food Network? It’s a show about cooking, after all,” Gilligan recalls saying. In 2006, AMC picked up the series and approached John Cusack and Matthew Broderick to star. But Gilligan, a former writer of No. 3 on this list, remembered an X-Files episode with Bryan Cranston and cast the actor as his lead.
On May 6, 2004, more than 52 million people tuned in to the final episode of Friends, making it the fourth-most-watched finale in U.S. history when it aired. But it’s the show’s lingering hold on the zeitgeist that creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman find so gratifying — and a little baffling. “It’s completely surreal,” says Crane, 58. “From the way the show got on the air, to the fact that we had 10 amazing years, and that kids today are embracing it. You’d think they’d be like, ‘This is tired, old TV.’ ”
On the contrary. Even Taylor Swift is a fan; she recently performed “Smelly Cat” with Lisa Kudrow onstage in Los Angeles. Crane and Kauffman laugh today when they reflect on some of the notes that preceded the series’ 1994 premiere. Former NBC chief Don Ohlmeyer thought viewers would think Monica was “a slut” for sleeping with a guy on the first date, and others felt the gang’s coffeehouse couch was too “fleshlike” (it was swapped for something less “downmarket”). “But overall, there were very few notes by today’s standards,” says Kauffman, 59. “Our own personal mantra was, ‘Let’s do a show we would actually watch.’ And we stuck to it.”