I was recently on a long car trip with some friends when I was suddenly alerted to an aspect of my personality that I never knew existed. One of them told me that I’m a nerd.
I balked at this characterization at first. I’ve never thought of myself as a nerd. Then, a few days later, I learned of the existence of a new book by TV critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz. It is called, TV (The Book.) It is a listing of the top 100 American TV shows of all time.
Once my paycheck permitted it, I ran right out and bought an unabridged audio copy.
So now, in my glorious TV nerdiness, here is the complete listing of the top 100 TV shows, according to these two critics.
The shows they selected are only scripted dramas and comedies. No variety shows like Saturday Night Live, news shows such as 60 Minutes, talk shows such as Oprah, etc.
With only a couple of exceptions, no shows currently on the air were included, such as The Big Bang Theory and Game of Thrones. They figure that series like South Park have been around long enough so that the true measure of the show can be accurately judged.
Sorry, Jim Henson. They chose to avoid children’s programming, promising that a separate book will follow at some point. The animated programs chosen are intended for both kids and adults, or in one case, adults only.
The shows are judged and ranked on the basis of six categories, with a point score of 10 maximum per category, per author. The six categories are: innovation, influence, consistency, performance, storytelling and peak.
Shows that last one season or less were considered, though they were penalized with lesser point values.
And now…the list as ranked from greatest to least:
1. The Simpsons (1989-present)
2. The Sopranos (1999-2007)
3. The Wire (2003-2009)
4. Cheers (1983-1993)
5. Breaking Bad (2008-2013)
6. Mad Men (2007-2015)
7. Seinfeld (1989-1998)
8. I Love Lucy (1951-1957)
9. Deadwood (2004-2006)
10. All in the Family (1971-1979)
11. M*A*S*H (1972-1983)
12. Hill Street Blues (1981-1987)
13. The Shield (2001-2008)
14. The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)
15. Arrested Development (2003-2006, 2013)
16. The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998)
17. The Honeymooners (1955-1956)
18. Louie (2010-2015)
19. The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977)
20. The X-Files (1993-2002)
21. Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-2011)
22. SpongeBob SquarePants (1999-present)
23. Twin Peaks (1990-1991)
24. Lost (2004-2010)
25. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
26. Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000)
27. My So-Called Life (1994-1995)
28. Oz (1997-2003)
29. The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966)
30. Friday Night Lights (2006-2011)
31. NYPD Blue (1993-2005)
32. Frasier (1993-2004)
33. Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999)
34. Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009)
35. In Treatment (2008-2010)
36. South Park (1997-present)
37. The West Wing (1999-2006)
38. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976-1977)
39. The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968)
40. The Cosby Show (1984-1992)
41. Moonlighting (1985-1989)
42. Taxi (1978-1983)
43. East Side/West Side (1963-1964)
44. Hannibal (2013-2015)
45. ER (1994-2009)
46. Parks and Recreation (2009-2015)
47. Roseanne (1988-1997)
48. 30 Rock (2006-2013)
49. The Bob Newhart Show (1971-1978)
50. Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006)
51. Miami Vice (1984-1989)
52. The Office (2005-2013)
53. St. Elsewhere (1982-1988)
54. Community (2009-2015)
55. The Golden Girls (1985-1992)
56. Police Squad! (1982)
57. 24 (2001-2010, 2014)
58. The Defenders (1961-1965)
59. Gunsmoke (1955-1975)
60. Sex and the City (1998-2004)
61. Star Trek (1966-1969)
62. Firefly (2002)
63. Law & Order (1990-2010)
64. Maude (1972-1978)
65. The Rockford Files (1974-1980)
66. China Beach (1988-1991)
67. Enlightened (2011-2013)
68. Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-2005)
69. The Wonder Years (1988-1993)
70. Barney Miller (1975-1982)
71. Frank’s Place (1987-1988)
72. It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (1986-1990)
73. The Jack Benny Program (1950-1965)
74. Justified (2010-2015)
75. The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show (1959-1964)
76. Thirtysomething (1987-1991)
77. Columbo (1971-1978, 1989-2003)
78. Friends (1994-2004)
79. Futurama (1999-2003, 2008-2015)
80. The Outer Limits (1963-1965)
81. Northern Exposure (1990-1995)
82. Batman (1966-1968)
83. King of the Hill (1997-2009)
84. Veronica Mars (2004-2007)
85. Cagney & Lacey (1981-1988)
86. EZ Streets (1996-1997)
87. Gilmore Girls (2000-2007)
88. Six Feet Under (2001-2005)
89. Sports Night (1998-2000)
90. Wiseguy (1987-1990)
91. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999)
92. Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995)
93. Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014)
94. NewsRadio (1995-1999)
95. Picket Fences (1992-1996)
96. Scrubs (2001-2010)
97. WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-1982)
98. How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014)
99. Soap (1977-1981)
100. Terriers (2010)
I have always leaned toward television dramas over comedy. Many of my comments on individual programs will focus on dramatic fare. This is why I don’t have much to say about Andy Griffith, Seinfeld or The Office. M*A*S*H is an exception and you can find more detailed thoughts on it in an earlier entry.
The only animated stuff I occasionally watch is cartoons from my childhood; The Flintstones, Scooby-Doo, The Transformers, etc.
Sepinwall and Zoller Seitz were smart enough to acknowledge the absurdity of ranking art from the start. In terms of objectivity or long-lasting substance, the contents of this volume amounts to little more than bathroom reading.
They also acknowledge that some of the shows made the list merely because they have a soft spot for them. Thus, they know their rankings and opinions will make a lot of people mad. So, since they already put the shoes on their own feet, allow me to lace them up.
As you browse the list, you’ll notice that modern shows score higher. I would define “modern” as 1990 to the present. The essays that accompany each entry tend to be lengthier and evoke more passion from the authors when the show is more recent. This is not a coincidence. Both Sepinwall and Zoller Seitz have been critiquing these shows for decades. They are human beings with a certain worldview. Therefore, they tend to gravitate toward shows that espouse a more post modern worldview, thereby validating their biases.
In Sepinwall’s case, his apparent impartiality may be coming from a more crystallized place. Four years ago, he wrote a book called, “The Revolution Was Televised,” in which he chronicled the rise of 12 TV programs that changed the modern television landscape. Unsurprisingly, 11 of 12 shows made the top 50 in this list. To that end, he interviewed 11 of the 12 showrunners, including David Chase (The Sopranos), David Simon (The Wire), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) and David Milch (Deadwood). In fact, after the controversial finale of The Sopranos, David Chase granted only one interview. Guess who won the prize.
Can you really be objective about a show’s placement in a historical context when you’ve had coffee and chatted it up with a showrunner? The reader will have to be the judge.
The Simpsons as the best show of all time?! Really!? I was never a fan so I can’t comment on the particulars, but I do know that The Simpsons offers critical commentary on much of modern American life. Such criticisms are tame compared to South Park and Family Guy, but they are there nonetheless.
I am, however, thoroughly familiar with The Sopranos and The Wire. Aside from featuring excellent storytelling, both series offer a mostly bleak outlook on the American experience.
At its heart, The Sopranos offers a not-so-subtle indictment of excess; a failing that David Chase seems to view as uniquely American. Never mind that the story is told from the point of view of members of the mafia; a subculture that is undeniably criminal in our society. In Chase’s jaded view, the harsh truth about American hypocrisy and materialism still holds. The series finale is called, “Made in America,” a title that is not accidental. Nothing David Chase does is accidental, including the infamous black screen that still causes consternation amongst Sopranos fans to this day.
The Wire is a show about failure; specifically, the failure of institutions as reflected in America’s futile war on drugs. It was also a thinly-veiled commentary on the Iraq War and the post 9/11 war on terror. The title of the third season finale is, “Mission Accomplished,” which was a jab at President George W. Bush’s willfully misunderstood speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003.
If I seem contrarian in my own critique of the critics, I don’t mean to be. I loved The Sopranos and still find it infinitely rewatchable. I respect The Wire more than I like it. If the former had claimed the top spot, I wouldn’t have griped at all. The latter would have elicited more skepticism from me, though no surprise.
Then, we get to Cheers. I didn’t watch it in the ‘80’s, but I remember many adults constantly discussing it. My folks, my teachers, friends of my folks, babysitters…even my grandma loved the show. I could have swallowed Cheers as the best show of all time before The Simpsons.
This brings up the issue of, “The Pantheon,” which is Sepinwall’s and Zoller Seitz’s name for the grand list. This is an appropriate name, not just for the list, but for the book itself. It is intended as an affectionate, somewhat flippant reference to the list, but there is more than a touch of unintentional pretentious snobbery in it.
In writing about The Pantheon, our two heroes show us a transcript of a debate in which they try to rank the top five shows of the list. Why shouldn’t Breaking Bad be number one? Why is The Sopranos better than The Wire? Why is The Simpsons better than Cheers? In the end, after they’re finished, you get a lot of opinion dressed up as pseudo intellectualism. It is very fitting for the entirety of the book.
Why not Cheers, indeed? Again, I’m not a fan. I have always been curious to catch up on it; for nostalgia, if nothing else. Doesn’t Cheers capture the human experience just as well as The Sopranos, or is it too optimistic? Or maybe it’s just too ‘80’s. That wouldn’t surprise me one bit.
It will surprise none of my three loyal readers to learn that Breaking Bad is the ultimate deity in my personal pantheon. No TV series is without its missteps, but the flaws of Breaking Bad are so minor in comparison with its greatness in craft that I can overlook them. In contrast to the other two dramas in the top five, Breaking Bad is the ultimate story of change. Vince Gilligan said that TV is all about keeping its characters in stasis. This is true even of The Sopranos and The Wire. The Sopranos is all about the virtual impossibility of change within people. The Wire is all about the constant failure of institutions. Each season may look a little different, but it’s themes and basic execution never change.
Breaking Bad is more narrow in its focus as it tells the story of one man’s transformation from a hen-pecked husband and over-qualified chemistry teacher into a murderous drug lord. It is a character study, rather than a societal study.
Let me put it another way. You can watch the first season of The Sopranos and quit. After the viewing, you will have felt the fullness of The Sopranos experience. Some fans (myself included) would argue that season one encapsulated the show at its best. That doesn’t mean the rest of the series isn’t worthy, but only that the show becomes repetitious after a point. The same holds true for The Wire, though our heroes would prefer it if you watched the fourth season in a bottle if you so chose.
But you can’t stop at the end of the first season of Breaking Bad, because there is clearly more story to be told. See my point?
In fairness, I must admit that Breaking Bad validates my worldview. My father always said, “Life’s about choices.” That maxim illustrates Breaking Bad in a nutshell. Society did not turn Walter White into Heisenberg. He followed his own path based on deliberate, conscious choices.
Then, there’s Deadwood. I loved Deadwood. I was sorry to see it canceled before it’s time. Part of me still longs for it to be resurrected in those wrap-up movies that we’ll probably never get. That said, it has it’s weaknesses that our two heroes tend to gloss over.
This is where RyanO, TV Nerd extraordinaire, really shows his face. When I truly dig a show, I watch all of those behind-the-scenes DVD extras.
Series creator David Milch doesn’t write his scripts. He lies on a couch and dictates them to one of his other writers, who transcribes it on a computer. It’s important to note this so that you understand me when I say that, Mr. Milch loves to hear himself talk. This is why many of his characters are so loquacious. There are times when good old swearin’ Al Swearengen is delivering a soliloquy and you wish he’d just shut the fuck up and get on with the blood-letting. This excess of verbosity becomes apparent in the show’s third season as the language gets richer, but Calamity Jane and company bloviate more and more.
Also, the character of George Hearst is a walking card board cut-out of predatory capitalism. He is a cigar-chomping villain who does not contain the depth and breadth of his fellow townspeople. Compare Hearst’s actions in the finale of season two to his actions throughout the whole of season three and see if you don’t detect a swerve in Milch’s intent for the arc of the character.
And there’s the theater troop. But never mind…I don’t want to pile on, thereby giving a false impression that I didn’t love Deadwood dearly. Sufficed to say that I don’t think the show belonged in the top 10. I would’ve taken top 20, gladly.
Ditto for The Shield. It was a solid cop drama with one of the best finales in TV history, but it owed its existence and success to Tony Soprano. I would’ve placed it somewhere in the top 50, below Homicide and Hill Street Blues; either of which are far more realistic, less hyperbolic cop shows.
We also have another character swerve on the part of Vic Mackey, the show’s main anti-hero protagonist. The Vic who killed Terry Crowley at the end of the pilot was not the more careful, calculating Vic we came to know in the course of the series. Yet, Sean Ryan needed to top the evil antics of Tony Soprano in order to push the envelope so he could sell the show to FX. Ahh well. It was a great series
I was glad to see The Twilight Zone make the top 15. 51 years after it went off the air, people still recognize the term and the iconic theme song. I’m still waiting for some kindhearted sighted person to describe, “The Invaders,” to me.
Sepinwall claims that the finale of The Shield elevates everything that came before it. I agree. Many fans believe the opposite of Lost; the finale pretty much ruined the whole series. I never got past the first season because I didn’t buy the image of a guy listening to Mama Cass inside The Hatch. Everything after that point just seemed ludicrous to me.
Do you notice how Buffy, Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life are all ranked together? For those unaware, all three are dramas with teenagers at their center. Hmmm.
Despite my desensitization to the brutality of modern crime shows such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Deadwood, there are certain lines I have no interest in crossing. Oz represents one of those lines.
Sepinwall and I disagree about the appeal of Homicide. He says the show was at its best in its early years when it stuck to the small moments, such as the banter between Munch and Stan ‘The Big Man’ Bolander. Yes, those moments are what gave Homicide it’s special texture, but even in later seasons when the series became more conventional and adopted more cop show clichés, it was still great TV. Yes, Alan, Luther Mahoney was a bit of a trope, but Homicide still did him far better than Miami freakin’ Vice. Whatever the case, Frank Pembleton will go down in my pantheon as the best TV cop ever.
Notice that the reboot of Battlestar Galactica is ranked 34th, while the original Star Trek is way down there in 61st place? To paraphrase George Orwell, “That is so absurd that only a critic could believe it.”
Yes, by today’s standards, the original Trek was pretty clunky. Yes, the special affects and Shatner’s acting were cheesy. But how do you minimize the cultural impact that Trek had after it went off the air? Take the spin-off series, movies and novels out of the equation. Spock deserved better than a lower 50 rating.
Sidebar: People make the mistake of assuming that playing Spock was not a challenge for Leonard Nimoy due to the repressed nature of the character. Such people couldn’t be more wrong. I would place Nimoy’s acting skills on par with Patrick Stewart’s any day.
Meanwhile, I made it through three seasons of Battlestar Galactica before I threw up my hands in disgust. Starbuck as an angel?…meh.
This is what I mean when I talk about bias. Sometimes, our two heroes are clearly blurring the line between an attempt at impartial critique and fan service. Just like the three Davids (Chase, Milch and Simon), our heroes love Ronald D. Moore, creator and head writer of the BSG reboot.
Moore was also instrumental in the evolution of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Some elements of both shows are similar including overt themes of politics, religion and heavy serialization. It also may explain why DS9 made The Pantheon, while Star Trek: The Next Generation was excluded, even though Zoller Seitz admits that TNG was the best of all the series when it fired on all cylinders.
I’m not at all surprise that Deep Space Nine made the list, while TNG did not. Sepinwall and I had a Twitter debate once over which series was better. He lost. I mean…he’s got a major internet site and a few books published and decades of newspaper columns and he’s met Bryan Cranston in person and he rubs elbows with the cream of the TV crop on a regular basis. And I’ve got…this blog? But I don’t give a merry damn. He lost.
For my money, DS9 didn’t work because of flawed acting and mostly uninteresting characters. Avery Brooks was terrible as a leading man. I mean, I’d watch him in a scene and his stiff acting would pull me out of it. That was acceptable when Shatner was the only Federation starship captain in the universe, but after Patrick Stewart, the bar was raised and Brooks failed to clear it.
Yes, DS9 was more ambitious in its storytelling, but who cares about the Dominion War when you can’t care about Sisko, Kira and Quark? If Patrick Stewart was the only good apple in an otherwise bad barrel (a point that I don’t concede), then the same is true of René Auberjonois.
One of the most sadly moving parts of the book is when Sepinwall wrote about his decision to no longer hold viewing marathons of The Cosby Show for his kids. As a child of the ‘80’s, the unfolding saga of Bill Cosby’s downfall is a heartbreaker for me. I didn’t watch his sitcom, but I loved Fat Albert and his comedy albums. I know I shouldn’t convict him before his trial, but I think he’s already been rightly judged in the court of public opinion.
Most TV critics are liberal. Zoller Seitz is no exception and restrains himself less in his political expressions than does his writing partner. I suspect that it was very hard for him to acknowledge that 24 was the 57th best series of all time. At one point, Zoller Seitz says, “Torture rarely works in real life, but the version practiced by 24 got results.” Mkay, Matt. Tell that one to Kathryn Bigelow. To give you an idea of where Zoller Seitz comes down on the political spectrum, he just published a book celebrating the career of Oliver Stone.
Actually, I didn’t care for the torture scenes on 24 after a while because they began to smack of plot repetition and the controversy eventually overshadowed the better aspects of the series. Also, Zoller Seitz claims that seasons one, two and four are the peak of the series. He’s right about the first two, but Day Four is when the torture controversy got out of hand through its overuse as a plot device. He also ignored season five, which began with the death of David Palmer and ended with Jack being kidnapped and shipped off to China. In between, we got President and Mrs. Logan. The show didn’t get any better than that.
I was glad to see Gunsmoke on the list. I preferred the radio version to the TV, but the early scripts by John Meston were truly groundbreaking for their time. It’s also not inconsequential that Gunsmoke was one of only two TV dramas to last 20 years.
The other was Law & Order. I went through a two-year phase in college when I was obsessed with this show. Long after I got over it, I kept coming back to it because it’s TV comfort food. I’m not sure why it made this list because it’s really a cookie-cutter procedural. Maybe it was the two-part structure that made it unique? Maybe it was Jerry Orbach. I can except either explanation. That said, I did enjoy Sepinwall’s rankings of every cast combination over the course of the series from best to worst.
The Rockford Files deserved to be in the top 50, rather than at 65th place. During the first four decades of television, the private eye genre was a staple of entertainment. Rockford represented the best of that genre, just as Gunsmoke represented the cream of the TV western.
Jack Benny also deserved better than 73rd place. People wouldn’t remember it now, but he was considered the king of comedy from the ‘30’s through the ‘50’s. I guess I should be glad he made the list at all. The only reason I know this is due to my love for old-time radio.
I should also be glad Justified made it to 74th place. I loved this show, though it was very uneven at times. In their usual critic logic, our heroes seemed to value the dialogue of Elmore Leonard and themes of manhood and poverty over the show’s more basic elements. In truth, the plots were often overly-convoluted and too clever by half. Still, I’ll take it. I loved the show so much that I named my cat after Mags Bennett. “It was already in the glass, not in the jar.”
“Hey Rocky! Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!”
God bless Peter Falk! Columbo is an American treasure, though the original NBC Mystery Movies from ’71 through ‘78 were superior to the later AB C version, when the writers played up Columbo’s eccentricities until they reached farcical levels.
Whatever my criticisms of Zoller Seitz may be, he absolutely nailed it in his essay about Batman (1966). Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan took the comic book genre far too seriously. At least Adam West and company knew that they were doing campy comedy. This may offend WatchMojo.com, but they can just give me a great big “Pow!” in the jaw as payback.
P.S: God bless Frank Gorshin! Best. Riddler. Ever. And I still want to marry Julie Newmar. I don’t care if she’s 83!
Sometimes, I would smile when I came across a show, not because I was a fan, but because it reminded me of a friend. I never got into Hannibal, but Katy enjoyed it. I was glad to see Cagney & Lacey make the list because my friend Amy always loved that show.
No, Alan, Picket Fences was not David E. Kelley’s signature work. That was merely a legal drama masquerading as a quirky small town drama. Kelley’s best work came in the first five seasons of, The Practice (1997-2001), which does not appear in The Pantheon or in the honorable mentions section. Kelley was a former lawyer who knew the trade inside and out. The Practice served as an excellent counterpoint to Law & Order, which hit the height of its popularity at the same time that The Practice went on the air. The afore-mentioned quirky small town drama was done better by Northern Exposure and Twin Peaks, both of which made the list.
Two more of my favorite shows rounded out the top hundred; Boardwalk Empire and Terriers. Again, I love them both and long for the day when NetFlix announces that it will revive Terriers, but aside from personal prejudice, I don’t understand what made Terriers worthy of the list. Sepinwall even admits that every trope put forth in the show was done before. Could it be that it was a favored underdog because, like Deadwood, it was canceled before its time?
As for Boardwalk, it was more consistently solid than The Sopranos. Yet, it somehow lacked that emotional punch that would’ve made it water cooler conversation.
To my mind, there was only one obvious, glaring omission. Dragnet (1951). It received an honorable mention in the, “A Certain Regard,” section, but that’s not good enough.
It was apparent that Zoller Seitz, who gravitated more toward the historical programs, was judging Dragnet based on the 1967 revival series. This is unfair and did not represent Dragnet at its earlier peak.
Let’s take the categories one by one:
Innovation: Dragnet is the undisputed progenitor of the police procedural. Nothing like it had ever been done before. Prior to Dragnet, cops were mostly painted in crime fiction as corrupt, incompetent or mere window-dressing for the superior private eye. Jack Webb’s documentary-style approach was meant to depict a more authentic portrayal of police work.
Influence: The theme song aside, Dragnet was a cultural phenomenon in the ‘50’s. It was even parodied by Stan Freberg and later, Johnny Carson. It was a constant ratings success and even generated a feature film in 1954.
Consistency: For better or worse, Dragnet never changed its formula. Neither did Law & Order, Rockford and Columbo, all of whom made the list.
Performance: Webb wasn’t much of an actor and he insisted that all of his actors deliver an understated performance in the name of realism. For that matter, Jerry Seinfeld was a limited actor. I already beat up on Bill Shatner, so I won’t do it again.
Storytelling: The original author of most of the early Dragnet scripts was James E. Moser. He did not write Sgt. Joe Friday as the pompous, autocratic cop we would come to know in the later series of the ‘60’s. He wrote Friday as a soft-spoken, humble police officer who went about each case with the quiet intent to close it. The comical elements were lent by Ben Alexander as Frank Smith and were underplayed, unlike Harry Morgan’s over-the-top approach in the latter show. Moser also addressed many themes that were unheard of for their time, including sexual assault, pedophilia and child neglect.
Peak: I’m not fully certain what this means. There are far fewer episodes of the original Dragnet available today, whereas the entire 1967 series has been available since it was first broadcast.
Yes, based on style and substance, Dragnet seems dated today, but it’s no more fair to compare it to Hill Street Blues or The Wire than it is to compare Gunsmoke to Deadwood or I Love Lucy to Sex and the City. If we’re applying different standards to different eras, Dragnet should have been included in The Pantheon.
I’m also bummed that Perry Mason didn’t get a nod. It’s first three seasons were faithful to the spirit of Gardener’s novels. If you look at it from a sociological viewpoint, it was probably a subtle answer to McCarthyism, which represented the dark side of the 1950’s. If Joe Friday represented law and order, Perry Mason represented every American’s right to due process.
I’m glad I read this book, much as it frustrated me at times. It was a lot of fun to chew up and digest. Incidentally, there are many other bonus features outside of The Pantheon, including ‘Best Miniseries’ (remember those?), ‘Best TV Moms and Dads’, ‘Best TV Cars’, ‘Best Hair’, ‘Best Deaths’, and much more. If you want to learn about the exact rankings for each show, buy the book. It’s worth it.
Writing about it has exhausted me. Guess I’ll go watch The Flintstones and relax before I scour the internet trying to find copies of Wiseguy and The Rifleman.