The Writers Guild announced its 101 best-written TV series on Sunday night, and it will surprise exactly no one to learn that David Chase and “The Sopranos” topped the list, followed closely by “Seinfeld” (Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, creators) at No. 2.
Beyond being consistently splendid shows, both helped usher in the current golden age of television. “The Sopranos” officially established HBO, and by extension cable’s, reputation for cinematic television, while “Seinfeld” took mainstream comedy existential.
But the real winners are the surprising number of shows dubbed “best” while still on the air, the media equivalent of being eulogized before your actual death. “Mad Men” (7), “Breaking Bad” (13), “Arrested Development” (16), “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” (17), “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (30), “Modern Family” (34), “Game of Thrones” (40), “Downton Abbey” (43), “Homeland” (48), “The Good Wife” (50), “The Colbert Report” (51), “Sesame Street” (56), “South Park” (64), “Dexter” (67), “Justified” (87), “Boardwalk Empire” (93), and “Louie” (99) need no longer worry about the power of their finales — their place in history has been sealed.
For these shows and their creators, this list is not only suitable for framing and tweeting but it’s also good for Renewed Interest that could lead to a Potential Ratings Bump. Which most (though not all) shows that make these sorts of lists inevitably need. (Biggest beneficiary: Netflix, with the resurrected “Arrested Development” and many older shows.)
More important, the WGA’s 101 list is timed with almost suspicious perfection for this year’s Emmy campaigns. The good folks at AMC must be doing a little dance. Last year, “Mad Men” ended its drama dominance and walked away empty-handed, while “Breaking Bad” has never been nominated for a writing award. This year, how can voters argue with lucky Nos. 7 and 13?
Of course, it’s just a list, and they are arbitrary, even when they are devised by one’s peers. Perhaps especially when they are devised by one’s peers.
Anyone who watches television will be delighted by some of the selections — “Taxi” at No. 19! — and take umbrage at others — in what universe is “Downton Abbey” better written than “Homeland”? When will the mythology that “The Daily Show” is better than “The Colbert Report” end? And why is “Maude” not on this list? Or “Doctor Who”?
But then disagreement is one main purpose of this exercise — if you ever want to open a discussion, simply throw down an opinion disguised as a definitive. Then stand back to watch the fun.
To their credit, WGA members managed to evenly divide their selections between drama and comedy, throwing in a few top notes of sci-fi and fantasy — and a nod here and there to nostalgia. “Your Show of Shows” (42) and “Sgt. Bilko” (86), anyone?
Still, the list is very much skewed to the modern; almost 20% of the “best” contributions of a more than 60-year-old medium are, apparently, the ones we’re watching now. “The Twilight Zone,” “All in the Family,” “MASH” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” all made the top 10, but a sizable portion of ranking shows come from recent decades.
HBO is represented 11 times, quite a feat, considering it’s been in the original content business for half as long as CBS, NBC and ABC, making this list one more proof of the ascendancy of cable. (Oh, NBC, look to this list and your glorious past.)
Cable networks, premium and then basic, may be the best thing to happen to TV writers since, well, TV. It blew out the back of the idiot box, freeing creative types from the pressures of the Nielsen family, the 23-episode season and the censor.
In television, writers have always commanded the control and respect they often lack in film — if there is an auteur theory of television, it is hooked to a writer rather than a director. And in its post-"Sopranos” years, television has become ever-more ambitious and increasingly reluctant to play second fiddle to the cineplex.
So is it fair to measure shows bound by an inability to show the marital bed, a pregnant woman or a gay person against the unfettered modern program? Probably as valid as putting a show on a definitive “best” list when its ability to withstand the test of time is unknowable.
Those of us who write like to believe that good writing is a constant, defying fads and politics. But the term “instant classic,” though loved equally by critics and marketers, is an empty phrase; in the long run, “best” is as much about endurance as excitement.
The real value of a list like this comes from its ability to remind us of that, and of all the wonderful stories that have been told so well throughout the years, marking the passages in our life and our culture. Whether you agree with the choices or the rankings, this list is testament to our desperate, glorious need to tell the stories of ourselves to ourselves in the best way we can at the time.
Who can look at such a rich array of memory and desire and not want to revisit shows gone by?
Like I said. Biggest beneficiary: Netflix.