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.
11. ABC’s Wide World of Sports and “the agony of defeat” His name was Vinko Bogataj, and watching him wipe out on a ski jump during the opening credits of this show was riveting every time you saw it – and you saw it a lot.
12. Elvis Costello’s first appearance on Saturday Night Live He got banned (temporarily) by Lorne Michaels for playing “Radio Radio” despite being asked not to. Costello started a song, stopped, then crashed into the raucous anthem about wanting “to bite the hand that feeds me.”
13. Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction The gore of CSI and such is just fine, but a nipple is apparently a step too far.
14. Charles and Diana’s royal wedding It was a Disney moment for romantics and turned people in this country into Anglophiles.
15. Princess Diana’s funeral Not a Disney ending.
16. Tomorrow With Tom Snyder Here’s a man who could really interview, and he was fearless about putting on edgy punk and rock acts. His standoff interview and battle of wills with Johnny Rotten stands out. Most were settled over a smoke.
17. The Gulf War Gas masks. Scud missiles. CNN’s Bernard Shaw reporting live from under a desk at the Al-Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad. War in real time was riveting and sad.
18. The Shield finale Top 20, no doubt. It all went to hell, and Vic Mackey gets a desk job. Then he walks away — to where?
19. Conan O’Brien gets NBC’d The network was scorned for the late-night screw-up then made him more popular by leaving him on the air to gain sympathy and skewer NBC.
20. “Do you believe in miracles?” Nobody needs to tell you what Al Michaels meant by that. And maybe the definition of a great TV moment resides right there as the upstart kids from the USA beat the pros from Russia.
21. John Lennon’s death Like JFK’s assassination, people remember where they were. But hearing the news from Howard Cosell on Monday Night Football only added to the unexpected nature of the tragedy.
22. Seinfeld finale Before you scoff: It was the first time many viewers considered that their beloved characters were,in fact, unlikable and mean. Later, Curb Your Enthusiasm would make this more obvious, but the Seinfeld finale was like the reveal of a ruse on the country: You’ve been loving cruel people. And this is what happens to them.
23. M*A*S*H finale If 106 million people watch you say goodbye, a record not topped until the 2010 Super Bowl, then they really loved you.
24. The walking and talking on Hill Street Blues Bodies in random motion, conversations lost or interrupted. It helped usher in a realness to television.
25. Roots A perfect example of television being our nation’s shared cultural experience.
26. Challenger explosion Like most shocking visuals, you just couldn’t believe. In this instance, there was confusion and doubt. And then no doubt.
27. Bill Clinton playing saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show It looked awfully strange and just a tad impolitic, but it worked out just swell. And protocol was never the same.
28. Hugh Grant’s mea culpa on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno He wasn’t the first star to embarrass himself, and he hasn’t been the last. But this was spin control meets insatiable celebrity gossip in the middle of a late-night talk-show race.
29. Sesame Street No, not the Katy Perry moment but hundreds of others, to be sure. One? The Richard Pryor alphabet. Another: Bert and Ernie go fishing. Ah, so many.
30. Andy Kaufman vs. Jerry Lawler on Late Night With David Letterman Performance art at its finest. You could pick just about any Kaufman “hoax” and appreciate its bracing nerve.
31. O.J. slow-speed chase The white Bronco. The riveting pursuit. You couldn’t turn away. It was the ultimate celebrity-meets-reality moment unfolding in the slow lane.
32. Jack Ruby kills Lee Harvey Oswald on live television Chaos, the further tearing of the social contract and visual proof that the world was scary and uncontrollable.
33. Fall of the Berlin Wall The smashing, sure. But the pouring out of people was
34. Ellen DeGeneres coming out on television She spoke into a microphone, so there wouldn’t be any mistake. Another small step in the evolution of television
35. The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show Insanity. And people remember it instantly. Probably because their ears are still ringing from the screaming.
36. Elvis presley on Ed Sullivan See above.
37. The “I Want to Believe” poster on The X-Files It not only defined Mulder but everyone who watched.
38. Newhart finale You might not remember many other episodes of the series, but the “dream” and waking up with Suzanne Pleshette was inspired — a twist and a spoof.
39. The Munich Olympics Terror and tragedy on national television.
40. First video on MTV The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Later, reality nonsense would kill videos.
41. Tie: Drew Barrymore/Farrah Fawcett/Crispin Glover/Joaquin Phoenix Riveting appearances on Letterman.
42. Survivor, Season 1 A summer surprise and the birth of a hit.
43. The 1989 San Francisco earthquake during the World Series People tuned in to see a ballgame and witnessed a natural disaster. Al Michaels went from calling the game to naming neighborhoods that were on fire. Surreal.
44. The 24 clock New. Different. Stressful.
45. Twin Peaks For a moment, take the dwarf dancing and talking backward. The freakiness of what David Lynch brought to staid broadcast TV made it exponentially more unsettling. People hadn’t seen anything quite like it.
46. Hurricane Katrina When local, state and government inefficiency (and racism) makes New Orleans look like a Third World country, it’s unnerving. Helicopter shots of people holding onto the roofs of their submerged houses was one thing, but the same elevated shot of people dying in the sun was quite another.
47. The Nixon-Kennedy debate Politicians learned what everybody in this town already knew: Makeup and wardrobe choices shouldn’t be left to chance.
48. The Macintosh 1984 computer ad It wasn’t just a great ad, it was a statement. When the woman ran into the room to smash Big Brother, it was Apple upsetting the corporate cart.
49. Moon landing One giant step for “I can’t believe this is happening.” Suddenly, anything seemed possible.
50. Tie. Michael Johnson running in gold shoes and Michael Phelps swimming for record gold. Two Olympic moments in a history of thousands. The Olympics are tailor-made for TV memories, and Johnson’s astonishing speed and Phelps flying in water symbolize why it’s hard to forget physical achievements.
51. Hank Aaron running around the bases after breaking baseball’s home run record A thing of beauty, sans steroids.
52. Joe Theismann’s leg snapped on Monday Night Football Not a thing of beauty. But it was impossible not to look.
53. The Chinese dissident facing down the tank in Tiananmen Square Stunning for his bravery and for the thought that the tank would fire at any second.
54. Lloyd Bentsen-Dan Quayle debate “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” A platform is nice, but a sound bite like that doesn’t hurt.
55. Schoolhouse Rock Kids learned about “Conjunction Junction,” but the function of these animated gems was to learn and remember. People did.
56. Tie: “Where’s the beef”/“I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up”/“Let’s Get Mikey, He won’t eat it — he hates everything.” When commercials went viral the old-fashioned way.
57. “Da plane” Everybody said it. Corny as it was, it became a pop-culture catchphrase and reminded everyone of the medium’s sway on the public.
58. The Rockford Files theme song It never got old.
59. The birth of obsessive cable coverage as Baby Jessica falls down a well And 24-hour cable news was never the same again.
60. Rod Serling introducing episodes of The Twilight Zone The episodes often were unforgettable, but so was the man. Gravitas and intrigue.
61. Monty Python skits Pick one. It’s impossible.
62. Dick Van Dyke tripping over the ottoman Classic and timeless.
63. Teletubbies They freaked out adults. They engaged the youngest demo in TV.
64. Tie: Adriana killed on The Sopranos/Stringer Bell killed on The Wire Not entirely unexpected but chilling proof that great writing and loyalty to story trumps the safety of fan favorites.
65. The death of Col. Henry Blake on M*A*S*H Now that was completely unexpected. And ditto on keeping the story real.
66. Sinead O’Connor rips up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live She brought the crazy on that one.
67. Tie: Any acceptance speech from Tom Hanks/Sally Field loving your love/Roberto Benigni going batshit/Jack Palance doing one-armed push-ups/Adrien Brody kissing Halle Berry like nobody’s business/Cuba Gooding Jr. Viewers care about awards shows even when they say otherwise — and it’s not just for validating their picks. These are moments they remember.
68. Tie: Pee-wee Herman talking to crazy objects on his kids show/Pee Wee Herman spoofing his obscenity charges on the MTV Video Music Awards The polar opposites of a career.
69. Obama inauguration Our nation’s first black president. Politics aside, it was inauguration as integration, and we all felt good about ourselves. The cameras pouring over the multi-ethnic crowds — capturing their tears, happiness and, yes, hope — bore that out.
70. The Simpsons opening credits No, it’s not a cop-out to say “pretty much all of them.” But if pressed, how about the bleak one from Banksy?
71. Tie: Any scene where William Shatner chews scenery as Captain Kirk/Shatner on Saturday Night Live, chewing out Trekkies Before the shtick got old.
72. Law & Order No, not the episodes or the spinoffs. That iconic sound.
73. The Rodney King video Solidified every person with a video camera as a potential journalist/witness to history.
74. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, episode 107 “Buffy the Musical.” Gleefully perfect.
75. The last minutes of the Six Feet Under series finale Other series enders might have been more bold or unusual, but this wrap-up gave the people what they wanted: closure on the lives of characters they loved.
76. President Reagan getting shot An unsavory extension reaching back to Dallas.
77. Shock and awe It wasn’t just the massive explosions, the dark night lighting up and the sounds of destruction: It’s that we witnessed the countdown to the start of a war, like it was a moon launch.
78. The Muppets The mixture of puppets and people — a very young Elton John fit right into the goofiness — somehow made this a show for the whole family.
79. Tie: David Letterman talking about his heart surgery/Letterman talking about his affair with a co-worker and getting blackmailed over it There’s something about honesty from someone who normally employs snark that can generate both compassion and forgiveness.
80. Watching Soul Train and thinking, “That’s how it’s done."