Geek culture is big, but even in the vast, loosely defined ocean of "geek" there are a few universal touchstones. That's not to say that everyone agrees on them — hell, if you can get five geeks together in a room who agree on more than two separate geek-related things, I think a certificate of accomplishment magically appears on your wall. These are just things every geek is familiar with — or should be. Call it a geek canon, if you want to be pretentious, or just consider it the basics of geek culture: the films, books and other media that the vast majority of geeks know and love or hate, or at least have an opinion about. For this second installment of Geekology 101, we're taking a look at television, and specifically at television pre-1980.
The thing is, there’s been a lot of great geek TV, and an awful lot of it has happened in the past twenty years. In order not to give short shrift to some of the early stuff that’s still important, it seemed worthwhile to split television, somewhat arbitrarily, into two eras. The cutoff date I chose is probably due in part to my age, since the vast majority of series on this list predate me, meaning I saw them in syndication or on DVD. Other than the date, my criteria for the list, like the film franchise list that kicked off this series, are a pretty simple combination of the impact of the series on both geek culture and the larger, mainstream culture, and the likelihood that any given group of geeks would have a strong opinion about the series. With that explanation, on to the selections.
5) The Prisoner
Easily the least well-known series on this list, but in some ways one of the most important, The Prisoner was like nothing before or since. Okay, a few shows have borrowed some of its unique elements — parallels can be made with Lost, for example, since both involve people mysteriously trapped on an island for unknown reasons — but for the most part, The Prisoner stands alone. For seventeen very weird episodes, the show mixed science fiction with Cold War paranoia and an edgy, dark surrealism to tell its tale of a former spy who finds himself trapped in The Village. No one has a name, just a number, and all kinds of weird shit is afoot constantly. Trying to figure out WTF is going on is a big part of the appeal (again, much like Lost — in the early days, at least). The show is smart, stylish and guaranteed to get you thinking, and the pervading sense of paranoia and mistrust make it some of the most dystopian sci-fi ever to grace the small screen. If you've somehow missed it, please rectify that at your earliest convenience.
4) Mork & Mindy
Arguably the best sci-fi comedy show in TV history, Mork & Mindy managed to neatly fit all manner of weird science fiction ideas into the tried-and-true sitcom format. It also happened to have introduced Robin Williams to middle America, which was no small accomplishment. The first season was its best, by far, but even in its weaker episodes the show was rarely less than entertaining, thanks in no small part to the relentless wit and charisma of Williams as Mork. Without the success of this show, it's hard to imagine many other sci-fi sitcoms getting off the ground, so all you Alf and Third Rock from the Sun fans owe Mork a debt of gratitude, even if you've never seen a single episode.
In the modern era, Batman is a dark, brooding character, almost joyless in his intensity. Not so much in his original TV incarnation, which was garish, campy and a hell of a lot of fun. Adam West played the titular hero as a sort of sardonic, pun-dropping badass (well, as badass as he could manage in tights) with a sweet car and a utility belt full of kickass toys. Along with his trusty sidekick Robin, he fought a nice selection of classic character actors, from Eartha Kitt to Vincent Price, complete with comic-style sound-effects balloons and high melodrama. Superheroes have never been done in quite the same way, and even if you think that's a good thing, it's still a fascinating look at both its era and the character, and deserves extra credit for being at least partially responsible for making Batman one of the all-time most popular superhero characters.
2) Star Trek
Before it was Star Trek: The Original Series, it was just Star Trek, and for three glorious years in the late '60s it changed what science fiction on TV meant. Volumes have been written about everything from its attempts at racial and gender equality (yes, somewhat laughable by today's standards, but groundbreaking for 1967) to the unprecedented fan campaign to save it from cancellation. It's also telling that "original series" had to be added to its name, since no fewer than six Star Trek series eventually made it to television. Set all that aside, though, and what you have is a smart, but still exciting, show about humanity overcoming its worst impulses to travel among the stars and learn as much as possible about the universe we live in, all as a way for Kirk to get lots of alien action. That's a timeless message, and Star Trek is a timeless show because of it.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
1) The Twilight Zone
Rod Serling's anthology series is the stuff of legend. Nominally science fiction, Serling's show dipped into everything from psychological horror to allegorical fantasy, making some of the smartest material ever shown on TV in the process. Social commentary was the show's forte, and they got away with it by cloaking everything in the fantastical trappings of outer space and creepy monsters. It didn't hurt that a lot of the shows were genuinely frightening, even to this day. Serling himself wrote most of the episodes, but heavy hitters like Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson contributed classic episodes as well, and many a recognizable actor made an appearance, including William Shatner himself. Nothing since has come close to its weird style and creepily effective storytelling, and chances are good nothing ever will.