Last week, Amazon dropped the entire first season of Transparent, a dramedy about a divorced 60something in LA (Jeffrey Tambor) who is trying to fully live his life as a woman, and the struggle of his selfish children to grasp the situation. Created by Jill Soloway (Six Feet Under), Amazon is hoping that the show, which is getting a lot of critical attention, will put Amazon Instant on the map for original programming the way House of Cards did for Netflix.
PLAYBOY decided to take a look at the shows that “made” their networks over the last 45 years, with the caveat that we didn’t include the “Big Three” broadcast networks: CBS, NBC and ABC. Those three have had so many reincarnations over the decades that to pin one show down for each of those would be nearly impossible. But for other networks? The picture is a hell of a lot clearer:
Mad Men (2007-Present)
Until Matthew Weiner’s examination of the booze-fueled advertising world of the 1960s debuted, AMC was known for airing badly-edited versions of old movies. But as soon as viewers glimpsed Don Draper (Jon Hamm) sleeping his way around 1960 New York, they were hooked, paving the way for Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.
House of Cards (2013 - Present)
Sure, it’s pretty much “Scandal for Guys” at this point, but the combo of Kevin Spacey and David Fincher made this moody examination of backroom Washington politics a must-watch for politicos and civilians alike. Its Emmy nods in 2013 made Netflix a serious player in original programming.
The Shield (2002 - 2008)
Until FX started airing the searing Shawn Ryan drama about crooked cop Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) running roughshod over both criminals and his colleagues, the network was mostly known for reruns and failed comedies. But this set the tone for challenging anti-hero dramas that the network is known for today, from Justified to The Americans.
The Sopranos (1999-2007)
Sure, the premium network had original programming before Tony and his “family” hit the air; the network was especially deft with comedies like Larry Sanders and Sex and the City. But David Chase’s contemplation of the meaning of a violent life made HBO a place for high-concept drama and the first cable network to take home armfuls of Emmys in major categories.
The Knick (2014 - Present)
For a channel previously known as “Skinemax,” any decent original drama would have been an improvement. But after moderate success with Banshee and Strike Back, they’re going all in with this early 1900s-based medical drama starring Clive Owen and produced and directed by Steven Soderbergh.
Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (2012-Present)
At first it was seen as a cute vanity project for Jerry Seinfeld to do in his post-sitcom semi-retirement. But Jerry’s easygoing, revealing interview style, along with the A-list guests he gets, has made this a must-watch for the little-known Sony-owned streaming channel. Come for the cars, stay for the revealing laughs.
The Real Housewives of Orange County (2006 - Present)
By the time RHOC debuted, Bravo had already moved from artsy fare to reality shows like Top Chef, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Project Runway. But the formula of money, bored-and-Botoxed blondes, and Chardonnay was too much for audiences to resist. Not only has the show spawned six Housewives spin-offs, but it seems like 90 percent of Bravo’s programming are clones of the franchise. Oh, and it helped put Andy Cohen on our screens. We’re not sure how we feel about that.
Politically Incorrect (1993 - 1997)
Before The Daily Show or South Park, Bill Maher and Politically Incorrect showed that there was a hunger for funny discourse on current events. It helped that Maher’s smug demeanor mixed well with guests of all stripes, from Al Sharpton to Ann Coulter. It lived on for five more years after it moved to ABC in 1997, but its formative years were on the then-fledgling cable channel.
The Simpsons (1989 - Present)
Shows like Married… With Children indicated that FOX was going to be more irreverent than the “Big Three” networks, but The Simpsons showed that the then-new fourth network could mount a worldwide hit (one which also would become a cultural phenomenon). Who knew that Bart, Homer, Lisa, Maggie and Marge would be on our screens for a quarter-century?
The Closer (2005 - 2012)
In 2005, not many movie stars in their prime were doing TV series, but Kyra Sedgwick saw a good role and went for it, playing complex detective Brenda Leigh Johnson for seven seasons. The Closer not only paved the way for other movie stars to play complex roles on TV but showed that TNT was about more than just reruns and sports.
Monk (2002 - 2009)
Tired of seeing lighthearted dramas with quirky, conflicted leads on USA? Blame Tony Shalhoub. He spent seven years raking in Emmys as the OCD-addled detective Adrian Monk, and the show was a standard-barer for the network, ushering in dramas like Burn Notice that never took themselves too seriously.
The Real World (1992 - Present)
MTV still showed music videos when they decided to produce this “documentary” series about “seven strangers picked to live in a house,” a really funky one in New York City. Fights over issues like race, sexuality and culture clashes captivated “the kids” and led to 28 more seasons, as well as spin-offs like Road Rules and The Challenge. There would be no Teen Mom without The Real World.
Behind the Music (1997 - Present)
What was VH1 before Behind the Music? Even people at VH1 didn’t know. But the probing documentary series that dove into the reasons why bands got together, broke up, and reunited help establish MTV’s cousin as more than just the place for viewers to go when they outgrew MTV.
Queer as Folk (2000 - 2005)
Showtime has always aspired to be like its premium-cable competitor, HBO, and it started to go in that direction with the daring examination of gay life in Southern California. Of course, now it seems tame compared to shows like Homeland and Masters of Sex, but you’ve got to start somewhere…
Top of the Lake (2013)
Named after Robert Redford’s movie festival and mostly known for showing art-house movies, Sundance showed the critically-acclaimed New Zealand-based miniseries to establish itself as a place for original programming. It helped to have Jane Campion directing Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss to one of her best on-screen performances, complete with a killer Kiwi accent.
Portlandia (2011 - Present)
Like Sundance, IFC was known for airing art-house films before giving this sketch show from Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein a shot. Their quirky view of Oregon’s largest city established IFC as a place for oddball comedy like Maron and Comedy Bang-Bang.
Spartacus: Blood and Sand (2010 - 2013)
Viewers largely shrugged when Starz tried original programming with fun but little-watched shows like Party Down. But Spartacus had the right mixture of violence, sex, and violence to bring in the fans that made the much tamer ‘90s shows like Hercules and Xena big hits.
Trading Spaces (2000 - 2011)
TLC truly was “The Learning Channel” before this home insta-improvement show debuted in 2000. The combo of adorable host Paige Davis, the home makeover aspect, and interesting personalities like Verne Yip, Ty Pennington and Genevieve Gorder.
House Hunters (1999 - Present)
This infuriating but addictive show made people tune into HGTV just to yell at home buyers for rejecting a house because the carpet was the wrong color. It also helped fuel house jealously when two schoolteachers were depicted walking around half-million-dollar houses.
Howard Stern (1994 - 2005)
E! brought an edited version of Howard Stern’s radio show to TV when Stern was at the height of his pop culture powers, and it attracted an audience who either dismissed the channel for its red carpet shows or had no idea where it was on the dial. It also showed that Howard and the gang were about more than sex talk with strippers; it was the first place a mass audience showed Howard’s skill as an interviewer.
Sesame Street (1969 - Present)
Sesame Street literally made PBS, because there was only a loose collection of independent public television networks when Jim Henson’s Muppets started teaching kids about letters, words and numbers in 1969. It signaled to parents, though, that it was OK to watch TV with your kids and made educational TV a lucrative business for all networks.
Battlestar Galactica (2004 - 2009)
This one might be a fudge because when BSG aired, the network was still called “Sci Fi” and theoretically had a science fiction focus. The remake of the campy 1970s series showed that not only could the network mount a high-quality drama, but that complex, Sopranos-style drama wasn’t confined to terra firma.
Emeril Live (1997 - 2007)
Bam! Emeril Lagasse took the traditional “dump and stir” cooking demonstration show that had been around since the days of The Galloping Gourmet and made it into an event, complete with a band, audience, and people making orgasmic faces when they tasted the chef’s creations. Phrases like “kicking it up a notch” and “pork fat rules” added to Emeril’s common touch and brought personality to the Food Network. If you’re irritated at Guy Fieri, then you have Emeril to blame.
Duck Dynasty (2012 - Present)
A&E hasn’t been about the “A” part — Arts — for years, and shows like Duck Dynasty are big reasons why. Some of the network’s reality shows, like Hoarders or Intervention, got some pop-culture juice, but the “reality sitcom” about the Robertsons became one of the most-watched shows on TV because bearded goofs plus money minus good sense equals gold!
Pawn Stars (2009 - Present)
Remember when History used to be nicknamed “The Hitler Channel” because of its unending World War II documentaries? That was already changing when Rick Harrison’s family-run pawn shop in Las Vegas debuted on the channel. It’s generated three spinoffs and made much of the channel’s programming antique-centric, showing people happy or sad at what their junk is worth.
Manhattan (2014 - Present)
The superstation, mostly known for Cubs games, got into the original programming game with the witchy Salem. But the more restrained, Manhattan Project period drama got the network the type of critical attention that was reminiscent of when Mad Men debuted on AMC.
The O'Reilly Factor (1996 - Present)
If any host defined the FOX News Channel’s conservative bona fides, it was the bombastic Bill O'Reilly, who was then best known as the host of Inside Edition. His formula of unvarnished opinion, pugnacious interviewing style, and intolerance for “pinheads” led to a slew of similar shows of talking heads yelling over each other, on both sides of the political fence.
Larry King Live (1985 - 2010)
Unlike O'Reilly, Larry King gave his interviewees time and space, often lulling them into personal revelations via seemingly easy questions. His interview show gave CNN a lead personality that definitely wasn’t a stuffy newsman or intrepid reporter, and despite Larry’s suspenders, huge goggles and rough, New Yawkian manner, he became a must-watch for millions for 25 years.
Joel Keller is one of the cofounders of the site Antenna Free TV and cohosts the weekly AFT Podcast. He was editor-in-chief of the now-defunct TV Squad, and since those heady days, he’s written about TV and other topics for The New York Times, The A.V. Club, TheAtlantic.com, Fast Company’s Co.Create, Vulture, Parade, Indiewire and elsewhere.