Here’s the full list of the 101 Best Written TV Shows Of All Time revealed tonight by the Writers Guild of America and their sponsor TV Guide in an event at the WGA theatre in Beverly Hills. This one seems tailored to some very short memories, or perhaps it is just designed to sell magazines for TV Guide. Voted on by the WGA membership in May 2012, this list does not have any completely disastrous embarrassments among the shows chosen. But there are a number of ridiculously shocking omissions in my opinion. In summary, the WGA membership could and should have done a lot better. It’s a slap to what many called the Golden Era of television – the 1950s and 1960s – because only a single show from that era, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959), was deemed worthy enough to make the top 10. The rest of the top 10 were all from 1970 forward: HBO’s The Sopranos led followed by #2 Seinfeld, #3 Twilight Zone (1959), #4 All In The Family, #5 M*A*S*H, #6 The Mary Tyler Moore Show, #7 Mad Men, #8 Cheers, #9 The Wire and #10 The West Wing. Let the arguments begin.
This TV list is a sequel of sorts to the WGA’s 2005 roster of the Top 101 Screenplays which many still argue over (led by 1943’s Casablanca but inexplicably putting Groundhog Day at #27 well above classics like Midnight Cowboy, The Searchers, Psycho, The Bridge On The River Kwai, Rear Window, The Hustler, It Happened One Night, The African Queen and so on). It’s kind of fun to argue about such lists. But this one seems to be a list that sadly leaves off a lot of TV’s finest series not to mention many of the writers who made the medium what it is today. That is why ultimately these lists mean nothing.
Of the 101 Top Series Of All Time, only 12 were in black and white to give you an idea of how skewed it istowards more modern tastes. There are only seven shows from the 1950s included at all. Not a lot of long memories here in a list that completely omits bonafide classics like The Untouchables, The Naked City, Alcoa Theatre, Studio One and just about any other example of the Golden Age of Live TV drama other than #65 Playhouse 90. It also ignores as well lesser known gems like the brilliant but short-lived 1960s series East Side, West Side with George C. Scott and Cicely Tyson, and The Senator with Hal Holbrook, and He And She, the 1967 CBS sitcom that won three WGA script nominations in its sole season. And yet much more recent examples of quickly cancelled gems did make the cut like My So Called Life and Freaks And Geeks. There was also no room for iconic westerns like Bonanza or Have Gun Will Travel, but at least Gunsmoke honored the genre by showing up at #84.
Although Norman Lear was on the WGA panel tonight, only one of his ground-breaking shows of the 1970s, All In The Family (#4), made the list. But really there should have been room for Maude at the very least, a show that pushed the boundaries in its time as much as any other. And though The Mary Tyler Moore Show deservedly made the list at #6, I would have loved its dramatic spin-off Lou Grant remembered, a show that took a sharp look at journalism. (You would think writers of all people would recognize that.) Asked on the panel if he wishes he could bring it back, Jim Brooks said, “We’d be covering the death of journalism if we did that show today”.
Another bewildering example: the list includes Late Night With David Letterman (tied at #98 with FX’s Louie and The Fugitive), and The Colbert Report (#50), and Daily Show With Jon Stewart (#17). But not the most influential late night show of all, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson? WTF? Carson didn’t have writers to make him as good as he was? But what do you expect from a list that has I Love Lucy (the recent #1 champ in the People Magazine-20/20 list of greatest TV shows of all time) at only #12 and just four spots above Arrested Development? Is this a joke? And for that matter I would have included other sitcoms of that era including The Danny Thomas Show which spawned #70 The Andy Griffith Show. At least that classic made it.
Included in the evening was a sterling panel of TV’s top creators hosted by writer Merrill Markoe and including Norman Lear, Carl Reiner, Steven Bochco, James L. Brooks, Matt Weiner (who should be happy since he wrote for two shows in the top 10), Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan, Gail Parent, Steve Levitan, Winnie Holzman and Battlestar Galactica’s Ronald D. Moore.