The TV Shows That Defined the Past Four Decades

A great TV show depicts the time’s reality but struggles to find a balance between what the viewer wants and what the viewer needs. But a defining TV show offers more. It marks the time’s most quintessential sentiments while still resembling some level of truth and reality about society’s wants and needs in eras to come. From a show capitalizing on the power of women, to a revised view on reality and a production dominated by political satire, these are the TV shows from the past four decades that defined our lives then and continue to influence us today.

1970s: Saturday Night Live (since 1975)

tv shows that defined the decade

How Did it Define Our Culture Then? Bringing together a cast of comedians and characters that have yet to be matched by other productions, SNL allowed us to make light of certain episodes of national and international interests in ways that helped us make sense of it all.

How Does it Still Define Us? Still going strong, the show functions as an interpretation of reality. By poking fun at the very things that capture the media’s attention on a day-to-day basis, the show translates cultural phenomenon in refreshing (and much-needed) ways.

1970s: Three’s Company (1977-1984)

tv shows that defined the decade

How Did it Define Our Culture Then? A sitcom starring John Ritter, Joyce DeWitt, Suzanne Sommers and, after her departure, Jenilee Harrison, Three’s Company was the first attempt to introduce a conversation about sexuality into mainstream media (in an effort to get around a landlord’s requests, Ritter’s character pretends to be gay).

How Does it Still Define Us? The show was a precursor of the sitcoms of years to come (Friends, How I Met Your Mother, Two and a Half Men), which all depicted comical living situations and interesting relationships between roommates.

1980s: Late Night With David Letterman (1982-1993)

tv shows that defined the decade

How Did it Define Our Culture Then? Pushing boundaries, the show put celebrities in unfamiliar situations in ways that Johnny Carson had done on The Tonight Show in the past, yet no one has done as well as Letterman since then. Letterman taught us to treat celebrities with a grain of comedy to truly understand them.

How Does it Still Define Us? Eventually moving to the Late Show on CBS, Letterman has stepped down from his late-night throne this year. Arguably the last host of his kind, Letterman has established himself as guiding the most successful late night tenure for, probably, years to come.

1980s: The Golden Girls (1985-1992)

tv shows that defined the decade

How Did it Define Our Culture Then? Truly pushing boundaries by casting four older, single women as the show’s main characters, The Golden Girls proved that audiences of the time were hungry for laugh-out-loud comedies that boasted great writing… no matter the stars’ sexual appeal.

How Does it Still Define Us? More than defining us in ways that we still see in our culture today, the show proves that society has, indeed, changed. Would a sitcom about four older, single women work today? Probably not.

1980s: Seinfeld (1989-1998)

tv shows that defined the decade

How Did it Define Our Culture Then? Seinfeld was relentless about giving up on sitcom norms to portray our culture in ways never done before. The stuff of every day life (parking tickets, subway etiquette) became the show’s main character.

How Does it Still Define Us? Every subject tackled still rings true today… which is why Seinfeld reruns are still going strong.

1990s: Will & Grace (1998-2006)

tv shows that defined the decade

How Did it Define Our Culture Then? One of the first shows to feature gay main characters, Will & Grace received an incredible amount of award nominations and truly depicted the culture’s slow but existing ability to accept gays in their homes… at least on television. It’s important to note that Ellen (1994-1998), starring Ellen DeGeneres, also helped the cause by tackling the coming-out process (in “The Puppy Episode,” Ellen comes out of the closet).

How Does it Still Define Us? Especially following the Supreme Court’s decision to make gay marriage the law of the land, going back to this show allows us to delineate a precise trajectory of society’s relationship with homosexuality.

1990s: Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990-2000)

tv shows that defined the decade

How Did it Define Our Culture Then? Alongside Melrose Place, this was one of the first prime time soap operas, focusing on love affairs, family problems, friendships and all the stuff that has eventually captured our collective attention in ways that are still evident.

How Does it Still Define Us? This type of TV show is the one that, still today, consistently does well. If the remakes of both Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place, in addition to all other spin-offs and similar constructed shows, are of any indication, we are still discussing teenage and early-twenties lifestyles in the same way we did back in the 1990s.

1990s: The Real World (since 1992)

tv shows that defined the decade

How Did it Define Our Culture Then? It signaled a shift in culture and entertainment, in which professionalism and real acting seized to matter to a show’s success. “Realness” and depravity of content took center stage.

How Does it Still Define Us? A precursor to modern reality TV, which is the most emblematic form of television of 2015, The Real World was, arguably, the first reality TV show–one that gave rise to the enormous amount of reality TV that we deal with today (Keeping Up with the Kardashians, The Real Housewives, etc.).

1990s: Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000)

tv shows that defined the decade

How Did it Define Our Culture Then? Although cancelled after a single season, Freaks and Geeks depicted the raw reality of high school in ways that had never been done before…

How Does it Still Define Us? …and have yet to be done now (with the exception of My So-Called Life, also short-lived).

1990s: Sex and the City (1998-2004)

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How Did it Define Our Culture Then? This was the first show that explicitly dealt with sex. Even more importantly, it did so through the eyes of four women.

How Does it Still Define Us? A sort of harbinger of shows that have taken everyone by surprise relatively recently (think Girls), Sex and the City made it okay to explore taboo subjects via the female sex.

2000s: The Sopranos (1999-2007)

tv shows that defined the decade

How Did it Define Our Culture Then? Although kicking off in the ‘90s, The Sopranos truly revolutionized the television of the 2000s by being a multi-faceted show, completely departing from the sitcom format and reveling in the audience’s ability and need to deal with more avant garde subjects and with characters that were more flawed than perfect.

How Does it Still Define Us? In both its finale and its depiction of humanity, The Sopranos has come to define the audience of today. Smart, engaging and leading to a variety of questions and opinions, shows like Mad Men, Dexter, Homeland and Breaking Bad are direct descendants of The Sopranos.

2000s: Friday Night Lights (2006-2011)

tv shows that defined the decade

How Did it Define Our Culture Then? Critically acclaimed yet not successful in terms of ratings, the show depicted life in Texas in an authentic manner, finally explaining why and how sports are so important to the country’s youth.

How Does it Still Define Us? Just like Freaks and Geeks, Friday Night Lights defines us by constantly reminding us that today’s culture has yet to produce a show of such caliber and authenticity about life while in high school.

The Colbert Report (2005-2014)

tv shows that defined the decade

How Did it Define Our Culture Then? The most unique approach to political satire, the show starred Stephen Colbert as a poorly informed anchorman, reflecting what many believed to be the problem with the media.

How Does it Still Define Us? Poking fun at the very system that delivers our news, this show is more relevant now than ever before. The circus that has become our new cycle is put front and center, in a way that tries to propel us into finding more ethical and moral ways to understand the world around us.