The New York Canon: TV

Photo: Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images

What makes for a classic New York TV show? There are lots of shows that take place here (Law & Order), but then again lots of those shows could have been set anywhere. (The Cosby Show didn’t make the cut—who remembers that it takes place in Brooklyn Heights?) There are shows that captured our everyday lives (Rhoda) but also shows that sold a myth of our lives to the rest of the country (Friends). And then there are shows that are New York essentials even though the Chrysler Building never appears once: We’ve got at least one show here that takes place on Sesame Street, and one that’s set in Alaska.

New York has always been (even post-CNN) the capital of TV news—thanks largely to this 40-year-old stalwart, which has pulled the neat trick of influencing every news program that came after it, without ever being surpassed. –A.S.

A multiculti block, a brownstone stoop, a bunch of lefty hippie neighbors, and an elephant-beast that only one person is able to see? Where do you think this landmark kids’ show takes place—Philadelphia? –A.S.

ALL IN THE FAMILY, 1971–1979
Did Archie Bunker pave the way for Fox News? Either way, the fact remains that Carroll O’Connor’s workingman-buffoon came to represent, to most Americans, the entire borough of Queens. Thus, the geography of Bunker’s brain takes on a significance akin to those of Broadway and Wall Street, Harlem and Greenwich Village. –J.L.

KOJAK, 1973–1978
Telly Savalas orchestrated investigations in a noir New York where the natives came in rainbow colors and babbled in many tongues. Not the least of Kojak’s contributions was the fact that it employed actual Broadway actors, with used faces, imperfect bodies, and discordant voices, keeping them out of the restaurants. –J.L.

THE ODD COUPLE, 1970–1975
Every joke was about Manhattan: The apartments are too small, the rent is too high, and careers torpedo marriages. Oscar the slob was a familiar type, but it was Felix we loved: a charming local hybrid of nerd, snob, and closet case. –E.N.

MAUDE, 1972–1978
Two lovably mouthy New York spinoff gals. Rhoda Morgenstern’s apartment exactly recalls life in the Beame years: knockoff Victoriana and bright prints all over a too-snug room. Add Carlton, TV’s greatest disembodied servant, and your irritation at the glib simulacrum of Friends will only grow. And then there’s Maude: Edith Bunker’s Tuckahoe cousin, all city sass and left-wing brio. –C.B.

There has always been something wrong with it. It was always better before. It has also always enjoyed offending everybody, indulging an almost fatal desire to displease, which meant that nobody who deserved it was ever safe from ridicule. –J.L.

Are you there, Byrd watchers? A soft-porn cable-access classic and reminder to every tourist, teen, and channel-surfing insomniac that he’s not in Kansas anymore—never mind that, these days, the cameramen shoot Byrd pretty much from the clavicle up. –C.B.

Late Night was more than New York’s ironic rejoinder to Carson’s laid-back L.A. joshing. It was Dada TV for the masses. Letterman’s pranks (Velcro suits, monkey cams, stupid tricks) tilted the late-night continent by defining what was funny to the next generation. –A.S.

Dating a black cop named Nathaniel Hawthorne, eating Chinese, and listening to rockabilly on the UWS: Blair Brown’s Molly Dodd never quite met life at the proper angle. But the underloved Molly Dodd was by far the best of the boomer New York sitcoms. –J.L.

Before the D’Onofrio subsidiaries, these cops and prosecutors were consumed by the moral math of race, class, money, and power. And in boardrooms and pawnshops, garment districts and private schools, they rewrote our tabloid headlines: a Mayflower Madam bust, a Marla Hanson slashing, a Tawana Brawley scam. –J.L.

Some of us are convinced that the best representation of our New York was set in Alaska. The town of Cicely, founded by lesbians and populated by artists, prophets, shamans, and chefs, was so congenial to the fantastic and so forgiving of eccentricity that it was as if Dr. Joel had landed in an Alaskan suburb of the idealized East Village. –J.L.

SEINFELD, 1990–1998
All sarcasm, no politics, and, in a ground-rattling reverse, not a single character sought to ingratiate him- or herself to you. Instead, Seinfeld, that Cheez Doodle of urban fecklessness, turned the same face to the audience that New York turns to the country: So? What’s it to ya? –J.L.

NYPD BLUE, 1993–2005
If only for Dennis Franz as Andy Sipowicz, a hero only New York could love. –J.L.

FRIENDS, 1994–2004
The humor was toothless Seinfeld, and its whitewashed Manhattan, full of free time and cheap lofts, looked nothing like New York to New Yorkers. But this mythical land was a pleasant enough place to hang out in, if only for a half-hour each week. –A.S.

Obnoxiously smart, relentlessly witty, and not nearly as influential nationally as its advocates would like to believe—this show is New York. –A.S.

SEX AND THE CITY, 1998–2004
Blame Ms. Bradshaw for all the stylish plagues, from cupcakes to busloads of Carries. This show holds up because the writers nudged their cartoon ensemble into a real debating society on single women’s lives. –E.N.

Lots of jokes only New Yorkers will get—“See something, say something”; the maple-syrup smell—but the true punch line is the romance of workaholism, as exemplified by the oddball duet between overlord Alec Baldwin and dork-serf Tina Fey. –E.N.

MAD MEN, 2007
This sixties period drama started out like an homage to a Manhattan built on bourbon and lipstick. But the nostalgia receded to reveal an unsettling diorama of the last hurrah of the urbanite man’s man. –E.N.

Back to the New York Canon Main Page

The New York Canon: TV