The Writers Guild is currently conducting a survey of its membership to select the 101 Best Written Television Series, asking members to submit votes for their personal top twenty. Although the usual suspects pop up immediately – I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Twilight Zone, Mary Tyler Moore, The Sopranos – filling out the list turns out to be self-revealing in more ways than I’d thought.
To begin with, any show with a writing credit and more than six episodes is eligible. That includes talk shows, cartoons, mini-series, variety shows – and unfortunately excludes one of my favorites, the ’84-’85 Bears Super Bowl Season. Just kidding. Really.
But what constitutes best? How do I evaluate shows that I watched religiously as a kid, or discovered in reruns when I was in high school and college? When a show creates characters that are so compelling that they become part of the national conversation, isn’t that a sign of great writing? (Think Star Trek). And how about a phony conservative talk show host who stays hilariously in character four nights a week and jump starts the national conversation on election finance? The Colbert Report makes my list.
Despite the fact that my TV credits have been on the drama side, I found myself drawn to comedy. Certainly you can draw a straight line from Sid Caesar’s writing room — Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, et al — to most every significant show that followed. It wasn’t until the movie “Ten From Your Show of Shows” was released that I actually saw those sketches, but I think any “Best” List has to start there. Similarly, even though my memories of Ernie Kovacs are sketchy, he burrowed into my subconscious early on.
Most of my favorite sitcoms would be on everybody’s list: Seinfeld, MTM, Dick Van Dyke, Lucy, MASH…and if The Larry Sanders Show isn’t exactly a sitcom, it was brilliant from start to finish. (Any show that motivates me to actually pay for HBO gets on the list). Carol Burnett certainly belongs. Not so obvious, I think, is Barney Miller. If you asked cops during that time period what was their favorite cop show, they would have chosen Barney over most of the dramas. It conveyed the everyday pathos of life in the precinct with wonderfully constructed characters and stories. That said, I was drawn to Hill Street Blues, and followed it right to the end.
You’ve certainly got to include The Simpsons when you turn to animation, and I would go back to Rocky and Bullwinkle as a forerunner – for those of us who grew up with Moose and Squirrel, it is still hilarious.
There are way too many great shows to limit a list to twenty – the final WGA list will be a hundred and one. From the other side of the pond, there are plenty of great dramas – my favorite is The Jewel In The Crown, and Tim Pigott-Smith is one of the great villians of all time. And of course, Monty Python.
But…but…What about? And where’s….And Beaver! Where’s Leave It To Beaver? Sorry. I’m still trying to figure out how to include Bears 44, Dallas 0.