The 80 Greatest Moments in TV History

From Johnny Carson’s farewell to 'Soul Train,' Tim Goodman looks at the best of television’s past for THR’s 80th anniversary issue.

It hasn’t even been a year, recovering from the difficult task of ranking the decade’s best series. Now this. How to go about picking a mere 80 memorable moments? There could be 80 from Uncle Miltie to Sgt. Bilko, or from any decade’s worth of commercials. Most obviously, there could be 80 news moments — 80 times over.

So this is not a definitive list. It’s not chronological. And it’s numbered for efficiency but not ranked in order. It’s got plenty of room for agreement and argument. By the way, if you’re very, very late in getting to those shows you have on the DVR, there might be some old spoilers.

Eighty moments from more than 80 million minutes?  No problem.


1. Johnny Carson’s goodbye That moment of heartbreak is lost to the catty machinations that have followed it — for years — in pursuit of his coveted chair.

2. The Sopranos finale Hold on to that feeling. Because it was one of the most talked-about and audacious endings ever.

3. The first episode of The Wire It felt like the first pages of an epic novel and went on to be arguably TV’s best series ever.

4. The back of Don Draper’s head. A brilliant directing decision and logo device. And one iconic head.

5. Sept. 11, 2001 Pick an image. But the second plane hitting the tower and later the towers falling were for many people the most shocking things they’d ever seen.

6. I Love Lucy. More than 80 to choose from, certainly. So let’s just say it’s fun when the chocolates move too fast.

7. Who Shot J.R.? The love affair with the cliffhanger got really out of hand.

8. Tie. Two from The Mary Tyler Moore Show: The Chuckles the Clown funeral scene and the final episode. Everybody seems to remember both – and they’re happier for it.

9. The assassination of President Kennedy. Stunning and confounding, even to this day. And the Zapruder footage became the holy grail for TV — and conspiracy theorists.

10. Walter Cronkite fighting tears as he announced Kennedy’s death. The gravity of it all was right there on his face — a nation in stunned disbelief and heartache.

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