Written By Summer 2013 : Page 28
Written tV Series “I’d like to write something that my peers, my colleagues, my fellow writers would find a source of respect. I think I’d rather win, for example, a Writers Guild Award than almost anything on Earth.” 101 Best —Rod Serling, from his last interview, 1975 28 • WG A W Written By summer 20 13
By The Numbers
“I’d like to write something that my peers, my colleagues, my fellow writers would find a source of respect. I think I’d rather win, for example, a Writers Guild Award than almost anything on Earth.”
—Rod Serling, from his last interview, 1975
“A mobster in therapy, having problems with his mother,” was how The Sopranos (No. 1) initially sparked, according to creator David Chase. The Sopranos quickly sprawled to comment upon, or observe, innumerable aspects of American life, from the efficacy of psychotherapy to the ways in which a family-run business, even the Mafia, was dying out to a corporatizing culture. | Seinfeld (No. 2) began life at NBC with an order for only four episodes, the money coming from the network’s variety and specials department. | No show in the history of television has lingered in the imagination quite like Rod Serling’s anthology series The Twilight Zone (No. 3), which could function both as a science-fiction chiller and an issues-driven examination of human behavior and moral complexities, with climactic twists. | All in the Family (No. 4) didn’t become a hit right away—and then it became a kind of national conversation about the cultural and political fault lines separating baby boomers and those who’d lived through World War II—what Archie Bunker called, “The Big One.” | M*A*S*H (No.5) remains the only long-running series, comedy or drama, set around a war zone. The finale drew 105 million viewers, the largest audience to have ever watched a single episode of television. | At the height of the multi-camera sitcom format that would come to make sitcoms feel all the more mass-produced, Cheers (No. 8) conveyed a sense of real place, and the show’s jokes came from clearly established characters and relationships. According to tv.com, Cheers, over the course of its 11 seasons, saw 58 writers come through its room. | No series, arguably, is more responsible for the novelistic ambitions possible for television writers now than The Wire (No. 9), with a Dickensian sense of breadth and social relevance; its stories were told as microcosms of larger ills.
Checking the 101 Best Written TV Series list
All-time lists, regardless of the topic, are tricky things subjective and thus instantly dedatable, prone to generational difference and frankly the winds of memory. That said, the 101 best written TV series, as voted on by guild members, reveals itself to be a multigenerational tribute to lasting quality, if not also the power og netflix
There is even something touching and inspirational about how the twisted pay-cable series Dexter checks in at No. 67, followed by the raw and whimsical and short-lived My So-Called Life, which itself is followed by something as broad and even Vaudevillian as the hit network sitcom The Golden Girls.
In 2005, the WGA released the 101 Best Screenplays of all time as voted on by the membership, an idea dreamed up by the Guild’s Publicity and Marketing Committee. Casablanca was No. 1, and Notorious was No. 101. Here, as the voting worked out, two HBO series came in at No. 1 and 101—The Sopranos and Oz, respectively.
In between is everything from The Defenders to Laugh-In, not to mention Roots, not to mention South Park, not to mention The Wire. Not to mention the writers themselves, known and less known. Bochco and Brooks, Milch and Sorkin, of course, but also the team of Levinson and Link, who first met in junior high, and went on to create Columbo together. Or Lucille Kallen, the only female writer in the famous comedy war room that was Your Show of Shows.
Voting on the 101 Best Written TV Series was done via online balloting. Writers could submit as many as 20 shows, provided the series had aired on American television (shows could originate elsewhere). Miniseries of six hours or longer were also eligible. Each series submitted on a ballot received one vote.
Somewhat remarkably, the list breaks down almost evenly between dramas (46) and comedies (48), with allowances made for various melding of the genres in shows like Moonlighting, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Northern Exposure. There are also five miniseries; the landmark children’s television series Sesame Street; and its primetime variety offshoot, The Muppet Show.
The list invites comparisons across eras but also belies it. Much has changed since the golden era of the 1950s. Television, at the risk of stating the obvious, was done live in its infancy, the business based in New York.
When Jackie Gleason, host of the variety show Cavalcade of Stars, asked his writers to dream up the character that would become Ralph Kramden for a sketch, he gave birth to the working-class hero against whom all future working-class sitcom schlubs are still judged.
Television shows are no longer incubated on the fly like that. The Honeymooners (it’s No. 31 on the list, by the way) is now called classic, which partly indicates how much has changed in terms of the way television is made and what writers are free to say. In 1955, Sputnik had yet to be sent into orbit, much less a satellite beaming down 500 channel options, and wireless Internet was still some lightyears from bringing on-demand episodes of 30 Rock or Breaking Bad into the palm of one’s Hand. Had a network tried to broadcast a show about a high school chemistry teacher who transforms himself into a semi-heroic drug kingpin, it would have faced obscenity charges. At the very least, the network’s phones would have been tapped by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
And yet, eight television shows from the ’50s are on this list, including The Honeymooners and The Twilight Zone.Rod Serling’s creation received the third-most votes of any series, behind only The Sopranos and Seinfeld. Here one is tempted to make a connection across epochs: If character is destiny, then character has also long been the backbone of great TV writing.
Jerry Seinfeld and Tony Soprano, Lucy Ricardo and Hawkeye Pierce, Archie Bunker and Carrie Bradshaw, Andy Griffith and Andy Sipowicz—they’re all here because they created the same dynamic between show and audience, the kind of lasting intimacy that writers in television are uniquely able to achieve.
After Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files (No. 26) had made a movie version of his series, he told Written By: “I think that the big-screen demands of a storyteller seem tyrannical to me. If there’s a moment’s boredom, a moment takes you out of the movie, the audience finds itself back in its seat. You can’t digress the way you can in television. I think some of the best storytelling is being done right now in television with digressions, explorations of character that are not a part of the artery of the plot system.”
That pretty much nails why television is experiencing this latest Golden Age. Of the 101 series on the list, there are more shows, 26, that debuted during the “aughts” (2000-2010) than any other decade. Leading the way is a show that, for the record, came on The air in 1999 but seems to belong more to TV’s new-millennium renaissance.
That The Sopranos is No. 1 seems fitting: No other series has been more responsible for the novelistic sprawl of contemporary shows, and no series has done more to poke holes in the idea that TV heroes can behave one way but not another. Equally apt, The Sopranos was also cable television’s first phenomenon of an original drama, a show that in capturing the imagination of its audience and the temperature of the culture profoundly impacted how ambitious the storytelling art would become on TV.
In a way, The Sopranos reinforced what was always true of great TV writing—character, character, character— but in a way that felt different and revelatory. David Chase made a mob boss so human and sympathetic and psychologically realized it touched off a run on reprobate personality types and redefined the long-adhered-to writer-audience contract.TV heroes no longer strictly ask audiences to root for them (though they suggest this too) but to reckon with their actions, selfdeceptions, and beliefs.
No surprise, then, that the list is well-populated by this new wave of antiheroes, including Vic Mackey, Don Draper, Nucky Thompson, and Walter White.
Do the Math
Some other numbers from the list to chew on: Close to half of the shows on the list were still airing in the past decade. Four—Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Upstairs, Downstairs, Absolutely Fabulous, and The Office—originated in England. Twenty-four revolve around an actual family, which doesn’t account for the shows in which the family consists of friends (Friends) or coworkers (Cheers, Barney Miller, ER, etc.)
At least one, Playhouse 90, is a show from television’s first Golden Age that would probably be deemed too big and ambitious an artistic risk to try now, even on cable. Imagine a Showtime or AMC or HBO announcing a revival of the live anthology series from 1956, featuring original teleplays and adapted works mounted like weekly stage plays. Who wouldn’t want to see an HBO or AMC, say, further burnish its reputation for quality by offering a series in which, say, a short story by Junot Diaz was adapted to television one week, while the next week featured an original teleplay by David Simon or Tina Fey?
It is equally striking to discover, in the narrative of such numerous great series, how many debuted to poor ratings.All in the Family, Seinfeld, St. Elsewhere, Cheers, and Hill Street Blues were hardly hits right away. “I still remember what Brandon Tartikoff said when everybody was giving him credit for Hill Street Blues turning around the network,” CBS President Leslie Moonves said a decade ago in the New York Times Magazine. “He said it wasn’t Hill Street Blues; it was The A-Team that really did it. Hill Street got all the Emmy Awards, but The A-Team brought viewers to Hill Street.”
Television came into being as a mass attraction; the miracle was you didn’t have to leave the house to see it, creating a communal media event—and ratings that the networks no longer even dream of getting. Now the miracle involves being able to take the content everywhere, on screens as small as a watch face. The definition of mass, in turn, has been parsed and redefined, which is to say there is no mass audience anymore, or hardly; there is instead a kind of virtual audience, amassing itself incrementally and sometimes only after a show has gone off the air.
But on this list, at least, a show like M*A*S*H, for whose finale the nation tuned in en masse, exists in the same conversation as a short-lived gem like Freaks and Geeks, just as the intimate comedy Louie exists in the same pantheon as a Dickensian epic like The Wire. Because the shows on the list, you sense, are judged not by how many watched, but how deep, how funny, and how inspired the writing was.
Though I Love Lucy (No. 12) won an Emmy as best comedy, the writers were never so honored (in fairness, the Emmy for sitcom writing didn’t exist until
1955) . The five writers—Jess Oppenheimer, the husband-wife team of Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Carroll Jr., and later the team of Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf—churned out 181 episodes. | Mitchell Hurwitz offered a glimpse into his take on the family sitcom when he spoke of his own parents’ refusal to “quietly disappear into their middle age.” The peppy venality and plain weirdness of the show’s nine central characters helped earn Arrested Development (No.16) an Emmy for best comedy. | Carl Reiner has said he based his first sitcom, The Dick Van Dyke Show (No. 14) on his experiences as a writer on Your Show of Shows, while trying to be a husband and father. | Breaking Bad (No. 13) creator Vince Gilligan said he was joking with Tom Schnauz that the two former X-Files writers might have to rent an RV and cook crystal meth if their stalled Hollywood careers didn’t turn around. From the quip came a character who wouldn’t leave Gilligan’s imagination. “As we were talking,” Gilligan recalled of his conversation with Schnauz, “the idea for this character just kind of popped into my head. It was that proverbial lightning strike. It felt unusual because that doesn’t happen for me.” | Steadily, the Daily Show With Jon Stewart’s (No. 17) faux journalism has focused less on lampooning small-town provincialism and newsmagazine histrionics and more on the sweet spot of cable news’ embrace of partisanship and fevered punditry. | Though 30 Rock (No. 21) was initially viewed as “too inside” for a mass audience, the single-camera behind-the-scenes look at a sketch show far outlasted its presumably limiting parameters and racked up awards. In later seasons, the show’s sense of play—live episodes, a faux reality show within the show within the show—reflected the trust it had earned from its audience.
The Grub Street Productions team of Casey-Angell-Lee furthered the work they’d done on Cheers by moving psychologist Frasier Crane from Boston to Seattle and giving him a radio call-in show. In the process, the writer-producer trio created the last great spin-off, Frasier (No. 23). | Alan Ball pushed dramatic television into uncharted territory with Six Feet Under (No. 18), about the Fishers and their Los Angeles funeral home. The show’s tone reflected Ball’s eagerness for his writers to channel their own emotional DNA into episodes. | Peter Berg wrote and directed the pilot of a show that was the second adaptation of H.G. Bissinger’s nonfiction narrative about the impact of high school football on the hearts, minds, and lives in small-town Dillon, Texas. The TV series Friday Night Lights (No. 22), as opposed to the movie of the same name, could sprawl more in its storytelling. | Larry Sanders (No. 20) brought to pay cable a freshly acerbic glimpse into showbiz narcissism. The show came along when Jay Leno’s succession of Johnny Carson as host of The Tonight Show—sending David Letterman to CBS, replaced at 12:30 on NBC by the no-name Conan O’Brien—had made the late-night ratings wars an ongoing backstage drama. | In its 37 years, Saturday Night Live (No. 25) has endured rumors of its imminent demise. What remains, for the writers, is the system—every week dozens of sketches live or die from the midweek table read to the moment the guest host says, “Live from New York…” | Post-Mary Tyler Moore Show, James L. Brooks, Stan Daniels, Ed Weinberger, and David Davis left MTM, formed their own company, and sold Taxi (No. 19) to Paramount. The show won the Emmy as outstanding comedy series three years running, from 1979-1981. | Fox’s signature drama for most of the ’90s, The X-Files (No. 26) was also primetime television’s last hit science-fiction series. | ER (No. 28) lasted 15 seasons, becoming the most signature medical series in television history. | “We wanted something that felt overcaffeinated,” Kauffman said of Friends (No. 24).
Cosby’s return to network television caused a new vogue for sitcoms based closely on the act of a stand-up comedian, a trend that dominated primetime into the ensuing decades. Cosby’s homespun, discursive, and anecdotal storytelling style onstage made re-creating that approach, in sitcom form, a challenge. Cosby Show (No. 29) writer Erich van Lowe said the star’s advice to his writers was, “Don’t write jokes; write humor.” | A pastiche of genres co-mingled to intoxicating effect on Lost (No. 27). | Larry David turned himself inside out on Curb Your Enthusiasm (No. 30), a game-changer in the industry, seeming to show a new way to approach the half-hour comedy. | The Honeymooners (No. 31), the standard by which all working-class sitcoms are still measured, took shape on The Jackie Gleason Show in 1952 and Toast of the Town, a variety series hosted by Ed Sullivan. | Twin Peaks (No. 35) took a picture postcard and flipped it over to expose a creepy underbelly. “We developed the town before the people,’’ Mark Frost said of Twin Peaks, their fictional town in the Northwest. | Deadwood (No. 32), David Milch’s first created series, was a strange, brilliant, and rococo Western set in a Gold Rush town in the Dakota territories. The show’s most ornate feature was its language, the way the characters spoke with a sometimes Shakespearian flourish, soliloquies profane and poetic intermingling with the muck-filled place Milch conjured. | Sitcom veterans Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan found the sweet spot in Modern Family (No. 34), a mini melting pot that resonated with viewers and earned the series an Emmy as best comedy for its debut season. | Before his death, Star Trek (No. 33) creator Gene Roddenberry said: “It has become a crusade of mine to demonstrate that TV need not be violent to be exciting.” | Steven Bochco made more creative elbow room on network television with NYPD Blue (No. 36), which debuted amid “viewer discretion” hype before settling into what it was—the last important primetime cop series. | Ronald Moore arrived at his remake of Battlestar Galactica (No. 38) determined to bring the “space opera” genre out of its fusty cartoon past.
The Bob Newhart Show (No. 41), a shining example of a sitcom at its most functional. | The recipe for Sex and the City (No. 39)—reveal enough of the female anatomy to keep guys watching, make the relationship angst palpable, add a generous helping of uptown shopping with a pinch of female empowerment— proved to be pay cable ambrosia. | Like other important shows from the 1980s MTM stable, St. Elsewhere (No. 46) twice won Emmys for its writing and was lauded in its day for its tougher-than-usual storytelling approach. | Medieval (or thereabouts) fantasy is not a TV genre with a particularly exalted tradition, which is why Game of Thrones (No. 40) feels so unprecedented in television. | Behind the scenes of Your Show of Shows (No. 42) the war room of gag writers included Neil Simon, Simon’s brother Danny, Carl Reiner, the two Mels (Brooks and Tolkien), and the lone female, Lucille Kallen. | “As far as we’re concerned, television very rarely had people who sounded like we did,” co-creator Ed Zwick said when thirtysomething (No. 45) premiered. | Downton Abbey (No. 43), creator Julian Fellowes’ lavish period piece, is also a pace-driven soap opera, set on a spectacular estate out in the English countryside of Yorkshire, home of the aristocratic Crawleys and their staff. | As TV changed around it, Law & Order (No. 44) remained what it was—a mostly straightforward, largely impersonal dramatization of a crime, the detectives investigating that crime, and the people in the D.A.’s office who would ultimately prosecute the accused. | Influenced by the Israeli TV series Prisoners of War, Homeland (No. 48) centers around an unreliable narrator and an ambiguous protagonist. The protagonist is a kidnapped U.S. Marine returning home as a sleeper Islamic militant, and the unreliable narrator is a mentally ill CIA agent trying to expose him before he carries out his deadly mission.
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