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October 28, 2013 12:13 PM   Subscribe

Script excerpts and development materials from The Top 20 Best Written TV Series [exhibit] from the Writers Guild Foundation collections.

You are about to enter another dimension. A dimension where everybody knows your name…
posted by maggieb (65 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
The exhibit page doesn't work for me. Unless it's supposed to show a blank grey page.
posted by dobbs at 12:22 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


[Changed link from https to http, seems to have been the issue. Carry on!]
posted by cortex at 12:27 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


For the curious unwilling to scroll:
20: The Larry Sanders Show
19: Taxi
18: Six Feet Under
17: The Daily Show With Jon Stewart
16: Arrested Development
15: Hill Street Blues
14: The Dick Van Dyke Show
13: Breaking Bad
12: I Love Lucy
11: The Simpsons
10: The West Wing
9: The Wire
8: Cheers
7: Mad Men
6: The Mary Tyler Moore Show
5: M*A*S*H
4: All In The Family
3: The Twilight Zone
2: Seinfeld
1: The Sopranos
posted by davidjmcgee at 12:40 PM on October 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


Love it! Loved reading the excerpts. (Anywhere on line where you can read entire sitcom scripts?)

One disagreement: M*A*S*H

The writing always seemed so maudlin, manipulative, inconsistent. I liked the show, as a kid, but I never understand why it's considered one of the greats. To me, it's one of the "better than your average" shows, but not one of the top 20.
posted by MoxieProxy at 12:44 PM on October 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, nearly blank gray page in Firefox 24, even with cookies reenabled and adblock disabled.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:45 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


(Never mind, editing the final URL to change https to http did it.)
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:47 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wow, that top 20 are all in English AND all American? What are the odds?
posted by ethnomethodologist at 12:51 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, what's with the Writers Guild of America focusing on English-language American writing? So weird.
posted by griphus at 12:55 PM on October 28, 2013 [20 favorites]


ethnomethodologist: Wow, that top 20 are all in English AND all American? What are the odds?

The odds that the Writers Guild of America would honor American TV shows are indeed quite high. I would have thought that would be obvious. Maybe you were hoping for a twist ending?
posted by Rock Steady at 12:55 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pretty darn high, once you realize that the Writer's Guild Foundation is associated with the Writers Guild of America.
posted by Curious Artificer at 12:56 PM on October 28, 2013


Well, that's enough piling-on for one day, I suppose.
posted by Curious Artificer at 12:56 PM on October 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


I enjoy looking at the format differences, too.
posted by maggieb at 12:58 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Anyway, I have to take a bit of umbrage with Sopranos being #1. It is an amazing, very well-written show, but so much of the families' dealings -- like, the racketeering and schemes and so on -- were nearly incomprehensible if you missed an establishing scene or two. And while I understand it is a mob-media tradition for people to talk about our friend who has the thing in the place, there were many times where a bit of exposition (even in the incredibly subtle way that would happen on that show) would have been welcome.
posted by griphus at 1:06 PM on October 28, 2013


I love the contrast between The Wire and basically everything else.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 1:08 PM on October 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Seven Lines from Friends
posted by Uncle Ira at 1:16 PM on October 28, 2013 [10 favorites]


"a blank grey page"

An homage to the end of "Sopranos".
posted by surplus at 1:21 PM on October 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


"You're a magnificent pagan beast."

Oh, early Sam and Diane.
posted by NorthernLite at 1:49 PM on October 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh, and I'll just put this here:
https://twitter.com/firehat/status/394906681563701248/photo/1/large
posted by NorthernLite at 1:56 PM on October 28, 2013 [7 favorites]


Oh man that's from that lost episode with the Wario cameo.
posted by griphus at 1:59 PM on October 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


I can't be the only one who's a bit tired of the whole "sopranos is the best show ever written" circlejerk? I realize opinions are opinions, bla bla bla, but i see that touted as if it's fact all over the internet and it's pretty tiresome.

I agree that it's top 20 material, probably even top 10, And i don't even want to start some argument/discussion on what should be #1. But it's quite similar to the "godfather is the best movie of all time" circlejerk.

And then of course a lot of times you bring it up you get hit with the "lol ok hipster too mainstream for you?" type of responses. Ugh.
posted by emptythought at 2:41 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


"McArdle". Tee hee.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:20 PM on October 28, 2013


For the curious unwilling to scroll:

No Deadwood?

WHAT.
THE.
HELL.
WGA?
posted by entropicamericana at 3:34 PM on October 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


Those are all good choices, but I can't help feeling that Barney Miller needed to be in there somewhere.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 3:39 PM on October 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


Three more that I think are criminally absent:

Veronica Mars: seriously, that pilot alone!!! We'll just pretend the third season doesn't exist.

Gilmore Girls: I know it's not to everyone's taste, but the writing is just so much fun, and the characters so well-drawn.

The aforementioned Friends: I feel like the show gets a bad rap these days for being a pop culture artifact of the worst of bland, mediocre 90s American culture, AND for spawning a zillion bland, mediocre knockoffs. But I've been watching reruns lately because they come on right before my bedtime, and the joke-writing is pretty perfect, especially in the middle seasons. They also do a great job of, again, drawing the characters in a way that they are really well-defined and recognizable, while also leaving room for them to have little quirks and unexpected character moments.

Actually, I guess all of these shows seriously declined late in their run (Veronica Mars and Gilmore Girls because of the CW shift, plus Gilmore Girls' creator leaving) so that may be part of the reason they declined. But I also have to wonder if there's some snobbery at play: they're all comedic and/or soapy "lighter" shows that were primarily for young, female audiences.
posted by lunasol at 3:48 PM on October 28, 2013


They're all classics. I'd swap some of the ranking for my personal taste. Twilight Zone would end up near the top of my list. Hill Street Blues was start of a major shift in thinking. M*A*S*H was maudlin, but could sometimes be interesting (one episode was a single-person monologue, which I think Maude did first)... maybe needs more Norm Lear. Barney Miller?

I Love Lucy's shtick seems a bit dated, but the technical innovations of the whole production is a piece of history. My favourite Lucille Ball scheme:

Both CBS and Philip Morris initially balked at the idea, because of the higher cost that filming the show would incur, yet acquiesced only after the pair offered to take a one-thousand-dollar a week pay cut in order to cover the additional expense. In exchange, Lucy and Desi demanded, and were given, the majority ownership in the I Love Lucy films. Putting the show on film, however, would require that Lucy and Desi become responsible for producing the series themselves...

posted by ovvl at 3:49 PM on October 28, 2013


Oh, AND: I was fascinated that The Wire was the only one not written in screenplay format. Does anyone know if the whole series was written that way? It was almost novelistic, which jibes well with the tone of the show, but was just so striking in its difference.
posted by lunasol at 3:50 PM on October 28, 2013


lunasol, I don't believe so. I remember looking at that a while ago, I think it was part of a "pilot package/series bible". That's the draft a screenwriter would put together before writing an actual script, it's the plot synopsis for the episode. But then, who knows.
posted by turbid dahlia at 4:06 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


They chose the ideal episode of MASH, and the AV Club would agree.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 4:15 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's a good list.

See also: Firefly, Freaks & Geeks.
posted by mcstayinskool at 4:49 PM on October 28, 2013


I can't be the only one who's a bit tired of the whole "sopranos is the best show ever written" circlejerk? I realize opinions are opinions, bla bla bla, but i see that touted as if it's fact all over the internet and it's pretty tiresome.

Well what do you want? If I'm making a list of best shows ever, and is think The Sopranos was #1, I should change my mind because "1. The Sopranos" has been done before? That does sound kind of like knee-jerk anti-mainstream hipsterism, if you ask me. If you disagree, make your own list.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:03 PM on October 28, 2013


Autocorrect wanted to change a typo of "Sopranos" in that comment to "Sporrans" and now I want to see that parody.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:06 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Actually, I guess all of these shows seriously declined late in their run (Veronica Mars and Gilmore Girls because of the CW shift, plus Gilmore Girls' creator leaving) so that may be part of the reason they declined. But I also have to wonder if there's some snobbery at play: they're all comedic and/or soapy "lighter" shows that were primarily for young, female audiences.

I think any series where we're instructed to forget a season happened is probably not Top 20 Ever material. I mean, there is the whole "Top 20 Ever" criterion, there, and quite a lot of other shows don't have embarrassing "please forget this happened" seasons to contend with.

As for Friends, I think it's probably underrated, and will most likely be recognized for its awesomeness in another 5-10 years. I think it was just so fucking 90s that we're not quite ready to acknowledge it yet. Right now, for example, we're wallowing in Seinfeld and Roseanne nostalgia, and those shows came on a few years before Friends.
posted by Sara C. at 5:12 PM on October 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


My comment on the actual article:

Wow, look at the contrast between a page of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "Breaking Bad". Dick Van Dyke literally has NO scene description, whereas Breaking is almost all scene description.

Re The Wire, yeah, that's not a script page at all.
posted by Sara C. at 5:16 PM on October 28, 2013


A little heavy on the testosterone, isn't it? For example, I don't begrudge Mad Men being on the list at all, but #7 seems a little high up.
posted by rue72 at 5:20 PM on October 28, 2013


I pulled out the women writers in the top 101 list. I was just curious.

I LOVE LUCY Madelyn Pugh
The Daily Show Madeleine Smithberg
30 ROCK Tina Fey
FRIENDS Marta Kauffman
YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS Lucille Kallen
SNL Anne Beatts, Marilyn Suzanne Miller, Rosie Shuster
THE COLBERT REPORT Laura Krafft, Allison Silverman
THE GOOD WIFE Michelle King
THE WONDER YEARS Carol Black
FAWLTY TOWERS Connie Booth
MY SO-CALLED LIFE Winnie Holzman
THE GOLDEN GIRLS Susan Harris
MURPHY BROWN Diane English
THE ODD COUPLE Peggy Elliott
UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins
ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS Jennifer Saunders
SOAP Susan Harris
LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN Merrill Markoe


I just thought this was interesting.
posted by MoxieProxy at 5:23 PM on October 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


I don't exactly begrudge either Mad Men or Breaking Bad, but it seems a little precious to have them both on a list of the Top 20 shows OF ALL TIME.

I particularly think Arrested Development is out of place. Really? I mean it's a good show, but as far as I can tell it's really only on the list because the only other sitcom of note in that era is Everybody Loves Raymond (or maybe Malcolm In The Middle?). "Was more innovative than some of the garbage that passes for television" is not really Top 20 Ever material. Buffy and Star Trek belong on this list before Arrested Development.
posted by Sara C. at 5:27 PM on October 28, 2013


Buffy and Star Trek belong on this list before Arrested Development.


Now, I totally agree with you, Sara C!
posted by MoxieProxy at 5:35 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Not being an American, and not being that into my recent telly, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that even when you get into the lower reaches of the 101 Best Written you still don't find Porridge or Blackadder or Doctor Who or... but you do get Downton? Really?

Never judge a book before it's twenty years old.
posted by Devonian at 5:42 PM on October 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


At what point do we have to write off The Simpsons as truly great television, because the unmentionable years outnumber the great ones?
posted by Sara C. at 6:25 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I particularly think Arrested Development is out of place. Really? I mean it's a good show, but as far as I can tell it's really only on the list because the only other sitcom of note in that era is Everybody Loves Raymond (or maybe Malcolm In The Middle?). "Was more innovative than some of the garbage that passes for television" is not really Top 20 Ever material. Buffy and Star Trek belong on this list before Arrested Development.

I just saw a link to a set of anecdotes and reminisces from Jim Lorey, who came aboard in season 3 of AD. He distills one of the reasons I think that AD is a truly remarkable show from the perspective of writing:

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT is not written like any show I’ve ever seen. Usually, in an episode of a sitcom, you have a main story and then a smaller story — referred to as an “A” story and a “B” story. Every now and then you’ll have a quick “C” story or runner.

Every episode of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT has an “A” “B” “C” “D” “E” “F” “G” and “H” story. There are eight main cast members and Mitch wants to have a separate story for every one of them in every episode. The amount of plot that has to be generated to make this happen is staggering.


The thing about Arrested Development is the density of the plot and the comedy; there's foreshadowing, call-backs, double entendres, puns, self-reference, fourth-wall-breaking, political references, smut and more firing as rapidly as it's ever been done in a live-action comedy with a plot -- it makes rapid fire landmarks like Airplane! and Monty Python and the Holy Grail look dull and plodding in the same way that The Wire makes every other procedural seem shallow and phony.

Writing has many aspects; character development, plot arcs, dialogue that reveals and obscures exactly the right aspects. The bulk of the top 20 shows excel at these -- Arrested Development, on the other hand, is a masterpiece of joke writing in every form it takes, and while I know comedy writing is not often well regarded in Hollywood (how often does a true comedy win Best Picture?) it's still an amazing achievement and totally worthy of the list.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 6:45 PM on October 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


Not being an American, and not being that into my recent telly, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that even when you get into the lower reaches of the 101 Best Written you still don't find Porridge or Blackadder or Doctor Who or... but you do get Downton? Really?

Yeah, the suggeestion that it's US-only is belied by the presence of Downton, Python, Fawlty Towers, "Upstairs, Downstairs", "I, Claudius", The Prisoner and AbFab. So it's just US-centric; i.e. only shows that got a lot of national airplay in the US, and UK-origin shows just didn't get a lot of votes.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:51 PM on October 28, 2013


At what point do we have to write off The Simpsons as truly great television, because the unmentionable years outnumber the great ones?

"The Simpsons" and "Zombie Simpsons" are two different shows. They just never got around to changing the title credits after season 9.
posted by laptolain at 6:55 PM on October 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


(Also it's pretty hilarious that at #43, a heavy contingent of the WGA not only thinks Downton Abbey is well written, but better written than any of those others.)
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:00 PM on October 28, 2013


Every episode of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT has an “A” “B” “C” “D” “E” “F” “G” and “H” story. There are eight main cast members and Mitch wants to have a separate story for every one of them in every episode. The amount of plot that has to be generated to make this happen is staggering.

That's great writing, but it's not unique. "Heroes" did that to an even greater degree than "Arrested Development" (in that its stories/characters were even more separate), and did it well in its first season. "Gossip Girl" (also in its first season) had the most complex episode structure that I've ever seen and had an amazing amount of dexterity -- and it also was full of satire and wordplay, like AD. Both those shows fell apart after S1, but arguably Arrested Development fell apart quickly, too. I think the bunches of concurrent storylines and the hyper-real tone are more indicative of a certain era than of AD's greatness.

Though I do love AD and don't have a problem with it being on the list. I just find lists like this so tough to argue over anyway because jeez, a whole show? Lots of mediocre shows have had amazing episodes or storylines or even seasons, and lots of great shows have had shitty ones (examples of the latter are Buffy and the Simpsons). I'd prefer a list of best episodes or even best characters, because the criteria would be clearer and the reactions would be more personal.
posted by rue72 at 7:01 PM on October 28, 2013


The thing about Arrested Development is the density of the plot and the comedy; there's foreshadowing, call-backs, double entendres, puns, self-reference, fourth-wall-breaking, political references, smut and more firing as rapidly as it's ever been done in a live-action comedy with a plot -- it makes rapid fire landmarks like Airplane! and Monty Python and the Holy Grail look dull and plodding in the same way that The Wire makes every other procedural seem shallow and phony.

I'm not saying Arrested Development sucks or anything, just that it might not be Top 20 material. Especially when you look at some things that have to be left out in order to find it a space.

I'm especially not sure that the A/B/C/D/E/F/G/H plot story is relevant. It actually does have an A/B/C plot structure, it's just that the writers bothered to care what each individual character's role in those plots would be and how it would contribute to other episodes told from slightly different perspectives. In one episode Gob's little thing is a throwaway gag in a scene of the B story, but three episodes later we come back to Gob's little thing as the center of its own A story. That's really fucking cool, and maybe a sort of* groundbreaking approach.

Also, re the speed of jokes, that can also be done to the detriment of a show. I find Two Broke Girls unwatchable because the jokes are just too rapidfire, to the point where I can't find a way in. Arrested Development handles its pace better than Two Broke Girls, but "has a larger quantity of jokes" is not really a good criterion for deciding what the best comedy is.

*I equivocate because these are things we assume to be the case in dramas, and really are only "innovative" when you look at the sorry state of the wooden multi-camera sitcom. And even so, I think all the great modern comedies have them, just not quite as self-consciously. I mean we love Kramer as a character because he does exactly the sort of thing that Gob or Tobias does on Arrested Development.
posted by Sara C. at 7:10 PM on October 28, 2013


I think Sopranos is okay, but that's because I only watched it recently and had therefore been spoiled by Deadwood, The Wire etc. So then, yeah, I guess this list is a little bit whiffy because it's "best written", not "most influentially written". Best written is easily Deadwood, and those that doubt me...suck cock by choice.
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:39 PM on October 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


So would you say that some of the shows that didn't make this list were... Friends-zoned?

...I'll see myself out.
posted by maryr at 9:05 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


The wire extract is from the Wire Bible, which David Simon wrote before the series was commissioned, I believe. Its worth a read, as while there are some scenes which are directly in the show, there's a lot of difference.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 12:55 AM on October 29, 2013


Yeah, I'll chime in and say that Sopranos is great, but not necessarily #1, for which I'd nominate Mad Men or Breaking Bad. And I'll also defend that -- this is really a golden era of television writing, and it's not surprising that we have such great shows now. It's not just recentism, it's a flowering of much more creative, flexible, and non-standardized or homogenized television, largely due to the end of the three-broadcast-network dominance that forced shows into tight straitjackets in order to maintain a sufficiently large fraction of the national audience. So there's that.

In a way it's almost unfair to put some of that earlier, by-the-numbers stuff up against newer fare. I watch Cheers now and it's still a masterpiece of writing and timing, but very predictable in a way that, say, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia isn't. It also has a much more gauzy, haloed view of its characters, which the latter explicitly tries to undermine. The much more anarchic comedy of 30 Rock or Arrested Development seems like it's from a different planet entirely.

Whereas a show like M*A*S*H is important, and was excellent at the time, for pushing that envelope, trying consistently in its strongest seasons to break the box and tell a much more humanist and emotionally compelling story than the material on which it was based. Altman's movie is certainly moving in its own way, and had the freedom of cinema rather than the constraints of television, but is also of its time (the novel/memoir, of course, is basically a drunken sex romp through Korea). The show made a conscious effort to tell real stories sent in over the transom from combat doctors and nurses, and its nuanced view of military service is astonishing when compared to today's much more jingoistic guidelines (which so many movies and television achieve through a close relationship with the actual military, granting them "realism" but perhaps not perspective). And even so it reached a huge American audience.
posted by dhartung at 3:50 AM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


[Folks? If the problem you have is with MeFi-in-General, go to MetaTalk don't just rant in here.]
posted by jessamyn at 8:51 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


this is really a golden era of television writing, and it's not surprising that we have such great shows now.

Yeah, but neither Breaking Bad nor Mad Men is the best TV show of all time. Breaking Bad, especially, while I get that people are all hyped on it now because it just ended, is just not Best Of All Time material. It's Miami Vice for the 21st century. If you watch half a season you start to immediately see the seams. It leans on all the hoariest cliches and time-worn-est tropes, and has even started to make the Male Antihero trend look tired. It's not a hack job, exactly, but it's not nearly as good as everyone thinks it is right now because we're all still high on it.

I've heard others say the same about Mad Men, and while I love Mad Men too much to be very critical, I'm sure those critiques are valid.

I definitely don't think either show is the Best Of All Time, and I think it's really questionable as to whether both of them are Top 20 material. I would call both of them the best TV shows on right now. Which is high praise. But better than The X Files, or Prime Suspect (the British version), Battlestar Galactica (the recent version), Buffy, Star Trek, ER, or Deadwood? Just to mention shows that could be considered somewhat comparable.

I'd be curious to see Best TV Of All Time lists from previous decades.
posted by Sara C. at 8:59 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Note how many of the comedies that made it on the list don't use laugh tracks or live audiences: 30 Rock, Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office, Larry Sanders, Modern Family, Louie... The standard of writing this requires is much higher.. In my house we could only watch 30 Rock tivo'd because while you were laughing at one line you'd miss the next one. We'd literally have to pause it after every joke sometimes just so we wouldn't miss anything. Compare that to the experiments where they've suppressed the laugh tracks in, say The Big Bang Theory. The first thing you notice is that the jokes aren't even jokes. The deathly silent pauses is of course an artifice due to having to wait for a laugh that isn't there but it's still clear that there's precious little funny in these scenes.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:08 AM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sara C.: "Breaking Bad, especially, while I get that people are all hyped on it now because it just ended, is just not Best Of All Time material. It's Miami Vice for the 21st century."

There's probably a valid point to be made that critics and viewers have been a bit too quick to crown Breaking Bad as the greatest television show in history, but comparing it to Miami Vice smells like contrarian overcompensation to me. It seems like there's plenty of space between "best show EVAR" and "Miami Vice for the 21st century."
posted by tonycpsu at 10:23 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


George_Spiggott: Compare that to the experiments where they've suppressed the laugh tracks in, say The Big Bang Theory.

Wow. That is... something.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:58 AM on October 29, 2013


It'd be interesting to see an attempt to cut that trackless edit down to fill get rid of most of the dead air that's not an intentional laughless beat for a setup. Probably be jarring and wouldn't make the jokes any better per se, but it'd give a clearer picture of what the writing sans laughtrack pauses would sound like.
posted by cortex at 12:14 PM on October 29, 2013


I watch Cheers now and it's still a masterpiece of writing and timing, but very predictable in a way that, say, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia isn't. It also has a much more gauzy, haloed view of its characters, which the latter explicitly tries to undermine.

I don't think predictability or an attempt to make characters likable are bad things or even things that are DOA -- they just aren't as popular now, with some subsets of viewers. There are also a lot of shows on that list that are as predictable as anything that came earlier, Mad Men among them.

Mad Men is a pretty straight forward drama that for the most part follows the conventional formula of: A-story around a work project, B-story around a romantic relationship, C/etc-stories around the rest of the ensemble cast as needed (sometimes a Sally story, sometimes a Freddie story, etc), with all the stories constructed as different takes on a common abstract theme. They also went very old-fashioned in their characterization. For example, for Don -- rags-to-riches back-story, womanizing son of a prostitute (it's not his fault, it runs in the family!), and the things that makes him a "bad guy" are being a coward in the war and having trouble with monogamy. He could be a Thackery character, with that kind of set up. I'm not saying those are bad things, and in fact think of them as signs of good craftsmanship on the part of the writers/show. But I also don't think good craftsmanship is somehow revolutionary or means that Mad Men is OMGTHEBEST. If this were a list in order of "best set design" or "best aesthetics" or even best direction, I think that Mad Men could very well be on the top. But to put it on the top because its writers put out a solidly professional product seems a little breathless, let alone to put it there because its writing is somehow revolutionary.

Honestly, I don't think that the shows with the most revolutionary writing are likely to be the best anyway, because the shows creating new methods are unlikely to be the ones to perfect those methods. I don't think shows that accomplished such different things in such different contexts can be ranked on "overall quality" because of that -- it's unfair, they're working in different paradigms.

But again, that's why I find these kinds of lists pretty difficult -- they're so general. And a list like this, put out by the WGA essentially, is also overtly political. Of course it's going to lean really heavily on shows that have writers still in the game or who are currently popular/hyped, of course it's going to reflect which writers and producers have influence now. Why bother putting a bunch of shows on there whose writers are all dead or nobodies or otherwise pointless to ego-stroke or align yourself with? Likewise, why bother putting a bunch of shows on there whose writers are already spoken for in terms of projects for the foreseeale or whose cachet is that they aren't part of the mainstream and so wouldn't be happy getting that kind of public ego-stroking (cough Joss Whedon cough)? I don't know the particular politics of who wants to do favors for whom or why, so I can't go down the list and say why any particular show is on there and why it's in the position it is, but I'm sure that was part of the process because come on. In that perspective, the older shows are basically on there to flatter the current ones -- as though to say: oh look, you're here in some amazing company, Current Writer/Producer! But they're not going to crowd out the new shows, because this isn't some document culled from a bunch of Super Fans' "best of" collections, this is a list put out by a group representing people in the business *now.*
posted by rue72 at 1:40 PM on October 29, 2013


I don't think predictability or an attempt to make characters likable are bad things or even things that are DOA -- they just aren't as popular now, with some subsets of viewers.

Yeah, a lot of the notion that Arrested Development is better than (for example) Cheers has more to do with the zeitgeist than any objective (or even well-informed subjective) quality difference.

Right now we are pretty much on the downward ebb of the multi-camera "filmed in front of a live studio audience" sitcom pendulum. The shows like that getting produced now are not among the great shows currently on TV. The only multicamera sitcom I can think of that is even better than average is How I Met Your Mother, which is a legacy show at this point, just barely hanging on from a time when multicamera shows were still a thing.

So it's not really fair to compare Arrested Development with Big Bang Theory. Big Bang Theory is not a good show. It's garbage. It's not comparable to Cheers or All In The Family. When you count the jokes (and evaluate their funniness) in Big Bang Theory vs. Arrested Development and find BBT lacking, it's not because Arrested Development is the best show in the history of TV. It's because BBT is shit.

And, never fear. In another decade or so multicamera comedies will come back, and we'll all be saying that Latest New Show is the best ever, and if you compare X aspect of LNS to Arrested Development, it's obvious that multicamera is objectively better in every way.
posted by Sara C. at 2:34 PM on October 29, 2013


Well what do you want? If I'm making a list of best shows ever, and is think The Sopranos was #1, I should change my mind because "1. The Sopranos" has been done before? That does sound kind of like knee-jerk anti-mainstream hipsterism, if you ask me. If you disagree, make your own list.

Eh, i just think it isn't really qualified. As was said above, there's plenty of shows like deadwood that were churned out around the same time by the same mill that didn't get the same attention. Sopranos now sits where i imagine breaking bad will in a few years. It's a puffed up dong with not a lot to back it up besides "oh yea, and this one, because this ones the best" at the end of a list where otherwise i can understand the position or at least bracket within a unit of 10.

It reminds me far too much of a lot of the top albums in this list being pavement, despite the fact that not a lot of people besides elitist music snobs would slap them in the top 10 of any list like that, right up there with MBV and shit.*

There's a lot of the breaking bad/mad men worship in this thread too. It's being attacked and addressed, but those shows i feel occupy the same kind of space. Sopranos is good in the same way that breaking bad is, which i feel in another 10 years(and probably more like 20 for BB) will be in more of the "babylon 5" category of solid, memorable show but not necessarily "obelisk to an era of human creation" like quite a few others on that list are.

Then again, i'm one of those people who likes arrested development but thinks that about it as well. I think that breaking bad and arrested development are right up there with firefly in "decent, quality shows but not 10/10 that are wanker over by neckbeards on reddit"

So who knows, maybe i am a jackass hipster. I just think that a lot of these lists, while i acknowledge they are opinion pieces, surprise me in getting taken over by that sort of thing when they're theoretically made by a committee of people and not just a single person, who i'd expect to be above that sort of internet nerd level of thinking about this type of thing.

I'd love to see the same peoples top 20 movies list for the same reason. Really curious to see what sort of taste of the moment stuff would be on there. I'm even more curious to see what this sort of list, looking back on this era, will look like in say.. 2050. I absolutely agree that there's a flat out renaissance of quality episodic television going on right now. But i think that everyone kinda has beer goggles about it from being right in the midst of the firefight.

*And i realize this is my biases/opinions showing, but i've had a lot of experience with talking to music nerds, record shop snobs, DJs, fairly midsize bloggers, musicians big and small, and all kinds of other people who are just really in to music. Anyone who puffs up pavement that much generally has a really cargo-cult view of what it takes to sound like they really know shit about music. I have a very similar opinion of people who unilaterally state that godfather is the best movie, or sopranos is the best tv show ever. If they can explain to me why without sounding like they're trying to remember exactly how a soundbite attempting to qualify it was phrased on a list on some site they read i'll instantly take them more seriously. No one as of yet has been able to though.

Really though, if i just sound like i'm tripping over my own feet not trying to sound like a knee jerk anti mainstream hipster let me know though. It just bugs me that people repeat this without thinking as if some greater tastemaker than themselves already made the call ages ago, and it's almost become lore.
posted by emptythought at 1:30 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


emptythought: It just bugs me that people repeat this without thinking as if some greater tastemaker than themselves already made the call ages ago

I get where you are coming from, and I'm not trying to antagonize you, but this is the most "anti-mainstream" thing you've said. You are assuming that they are parroting the opinions of someone else, rather than making their own careful choices. You may well be correct, but the automatic assumption that you have considered this question more than they have (and, implicitly, better than they have) is the hipster stance. Just because something is the popular choice doesn't mean it isn't a good choice. Does that make sense?
posted by Rock Steady at 6:57 AM on October 30, 2013


I'm willing to lay it out there that The Dick Van Dyke Show might be the best TV show of all time.
posted by Sara C. at 10:23 AM on October 30, 2013


I get where you are coming from, and I'm not trying to antagonize you, but this is the most "anti-mainstream" thing you've said. You are assuming that they are parroting the opinions of someone else, rather than making their own careful choices. You may well be correct, but the automatic assumption that you have considered this question more than they have (and, implicitly, better than they have) is the hipster stance. Just because something is the popular choice doesn't mean it isn't a good choice. Does that make sense?

I think we may have reached an impasse then. Because, pretty much;

I'm saying that i can't accept it as a statement of fact without there being some kind of explanation rather than it just being a defacto thing with a little quote from the script. That i want to see it somehow qualified with a nice explanation. Most lists like this even dedicate a full page, usually double the space or more to the top 1 or even the top 5 qualifying why and explaining there logic as to what made them decide that these things on the list were in these places. Like "The originator, the classic, the standard. The first show to do XYZ and also the first show to do ABC at all like DEF" and then bolt on a couple paragraphs about those things, or specific great moments, etc. I realize the scripts are there as great moments, but to me that almost feels like being a retcon "asking for forgiveness is easier than asking permission" type of weakass thing. Do you get that at all?

You're saying, on the other hand, that the fact that there isn't any qualification of my "because duh, #1" theory that there's really nothing to back it up because it's just hipsterism.

I have no idea how these two sides could ever really lay down arms. We're both saying there's no qualification for the other points side which is pretty much like the definition of never the twain shall meet.

What i will make clear though, is i'm not making any assumption that i've consider this question more than they have. Unless you're saying that me thinking they didn't really even consider several of the items on this list and basically just filled in the gaps between them as being that? As i said a couple sentences above, there is absolutely no way to prove my point here. It's just idle speculation. And the "well a lot of people have done it" line i lobbed got rejected as hipsterism as well.

That, honestly, was my main point. That it just doesn't even get thought about. That it's like a race against michael schumacher in his prime: everyone else is just racing for second place. Except more of as a thought experiment, and not because #1 is actually doing anything above the others to win.

I'm not even saying it wasn't considered, but just that there's probably a lot of rote reasons that are used like hammer to push it to the front in any discussion about this. Go read some other top TV show lists which list it as #1 or in the top 5 and see how similar all the arguments for that position are.

I'm probably belaboring my point here though, so i'll fuck off. I expect to be making this same point against breaking bad and mad men in a few years though.

Really though, as a closing thing, to sort of qualify my argument a little bit more at least... I think that it's just sort of stuck in peoples craws and minds. It happened just recently enough that everyone working on this list probably remembers sitting down and watching it themselves right as it happened, a sort of glamorization only remember the best bits "I was at woodstock/the first XYZ show/premiere/etc maaan!" kind of thing. It's like a reverse stages of grid thing, sort of whatever still in limerence stage comes right after the "getting high on the drug of love" first step that everyone is still jammed in with BB and mad men. There's definitely an element of "we were there man!" in everyone declaring this the top dog. I'd almost support there being some kind of "nothing newer than 15 or 20 years ago" rule for this type of list. I almost feel like it's that glamorous-seeming middle period of remembering only the best about someone who just dumped you and going "oh god, how will i ever get anyone that good again, they were SO HOT". It's like opinions haven't settled down yet, and later on you'll feel that what you felt at the time was emotionally dishonest to how you really feel in the long run.

I don't even know if that makes any sense or just sounds like more bullshit, but two of my major points are that it's seen as the "discerning critic and viewer" thing to pick, and that everyone isn't coming at it from a standpoint as objective as they are with other older items on the list. If that still rings as "lol hipsterism" then i give up.

And yea, i do really like the sopranos, i'm not saying i think it sucks or anything. Just to be clear here.
posted by emptythought at 3:37 PM on October 30, 2013


I realize the scripts are there as great moments, but to me that almost feels like being a retcon "asking for forgiveness is easier than asking permission" type of weakass thing. Do you get that at all?

I think there's a slight difference here, though.

The thing in the link is specifically an "online exhibit" from the Writers Guild Archives about the 20 Best Written TV Series. If this was an AV Club article or something, sure, the expected format is sort of a listicle where they explain exactly what their reasoning was on each choice.

But this isn't really that. The WGA decided (possibly by member vote?) on the best shows and now they are showing us excerpts of those scripts. The scripts are the POINT of the link. It's not a discussion about which shows are best and why. The scripts aren't offered as some kind of lazy "why bother to explain yourself" thing. The interesting part is supposed to be that we get to see scripts/development materials from these great shows. Not why, exactly, the WGA has dubbed The Sopranos the best show.

I see where you're talking about the list of 101 (where this Top 20 comes from), it would have been cool if they'd provided more content about the shows and what made them great rather than quotes from the creators. But it's the WGA, and the goal of this exercise wasn't to create new content, it was to figure out how to use the content they already have to grow their brand. So you get the intern to copy and paste quotes from interviews, et voila, you've got your text to go along with each item in your (absurdly too long) top 101 list.

I mean, I don't think The Sopranos is the best TV show of all time, either. Certainly not the best written show of all time, in any event. But I can see why they didn't provide us with a 1000 word essay on their rationale, as well.
posted by Sara C. at 4:01 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also, yeah, the top 101 is completely ludicrous. I think the little foreword they commissioned from the LA Times TV critic mentions that half the choices are from the last decade. Which, yeah New Golden Age and all, but that's still completely ludicrous.
posted by Sara C. at 4:07 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah this is totally a pointless argument to be having, but I'm saying, like Sara C., that this is the Writers Guild, so I'd like to think that they've thought an awful lot about what makes for a well-written show, and that this wasn't just a popularity contest, and even if you disagree with their choices it's kind of harsh to assume that they are just filling in the blanks. Knowing what little I know about Hollywood and professional organizations, maybe I'm being a bit naive, and I certainly can't prove my point any more than you can. I'm just saying that (to me) the sincere approach would be to assume that the WGA came to these rankings honestly and with some intellectual rigor behind the scenes and the hipster, anti-mainstream approach is to assume that they are just being followers and toeing the party line.
posted by Rock Steady at 4:42 PM on October 30, 2013


I think you might be overestimating the membership of the WGA.

See also that website that leaks, ranks, and reviews screenplays before the movies come out. The screenplays that guy orgasms over always make the fucking WORST movies.

I'm convinced the vast majority of screenwriters are not that savvy at judging the best screenwriting. Most likely they're just subject to the same biases we are. I mean, I feel like I really get TV, but I'd probably vote for Mad Men ahead of something like WKRP Cincinnati just because I know it better.
posted by Sara C. at 5:33 PM on October 30, 2013


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