Best Written TV Series of All Time

This is not a “normal” blog entry for me, but it seemed fun and worth sharing.  Earlier this month, I received the following announcement from the Writers Guild:

In 2006, the Writers Guilds of America, West and East presented the 101 Greatest Screenplays, honoring the best screenwriting of all time as chosen by WGA members. The final list and tribute event garnered major media and industry attention.

Now in 2012, the WGA turns its attention to the small screen with plans to unveil the 101 Best Written TV Series, honoring the most outstanding television writing of the past seven decades and spotlighting the writers who crafted the acclaimed TV shows that helped shape our lives.

If you would like to take a trip with the Ghost of TV’s Past through an extensive but still incomplete list of WGA acclaimed television series, they have provided the link included here.

The request was to vote for my own Top 20 in no particular order, which I found so interesting, enjoyable and difficult, I offer it here.  I share this not because it is definitive or I think my choices are in any way the correct ones, but to offer a perspective of what gets me jazzed about good commercial writing for the media.  This is highly subjective ground and potentially controversial, but what it says to me is that our choices of what we find to be good writing help define our own unique place in the world by nudging us to articulate a personal sense of aesthetic.  Storytelling in any compelling form can offer a window into interpreting our own motivations.  What we like is what we like, and that helps make each of us who we are.  No doubt you will think I am wrong for both what I included and did not, but hey, that’s the fun of it.  Maybe you’ll talk me in or out of a title.  Vive la difference!

Some of these lasted a single season, a few more than a generation.  Clearly the ones that went on longest had the most ups and downs, but even where they may have been inconsistent, the fact that they held my attention to stay connected kept me from penalizing the rough patches.  I tried with each to think about writing specifically as the key element in my selection, although too often it is hard to tease apart the written word from acting, directing, and even show design.  Television is known to be the writer’s medium, but there are times when a featured actor creates a character so defining it can carry the show beyond the craft of the teleplay.  Although outstanding writing is a critical component in what I enjoy, I did not approach this as a “favorites” list per se — otherwise as many as a half-dozen of these picks might have been switched.

The shows noted all had an impact on me for all kinds of reasons, personal, professional, in work and play, writing and non-writing professional work.  In no particular order, with a touch of bias toward recency, here is what I came up with for my best written 20:

1) Hill Street Blues

2) NYPD Blue

3) Friday Night Lights

4) Roots

5) thirtysomething

6) My So-Called Life

7) Man Men

8) Sopranos

9) Lost

10) The West Wing

11) Boardwalk Empire

12) The Dick Van Dyke Show

13) Mary Tyler Moore

14) All in the Family

15) Modern Family

16) M*A*S*H

17) Cheers

18) Married with Children

19) Daily Show with Jon Stewart

20) Saturday Night Live

If you want to know why or why not, please feel free to comment, but make sure you suggest at least a few of your own!  We’ll see how all our tastes aligned with the compiled WGA ballot tabulation when the 101 Best Written are announced later this fall.

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12 thoughts on “Best Written TV Series of All Time

  1. From my youth I would add: Davey and Goliath for the simplicity and purity of its message; The Honeymooners for its light-hearted portrayal of the struggles of Everyman; and My Three Sons, for opening the door a crack in showing that even imperfect families can still be successful at being families. If “variety” shows can be included, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers should be added too.
    For more recent shows I would add everything that came out of Ari Gold’s mouth on Entourage, 30 Rock, House MD and In Treatment

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  2. Great picks, Stewart, I am sure many of those will make the compiled WGA 101. Honeymooners was on and off my list a bunch of times, same with Rowan & Martin and Smothers Brothers. It really is hard to knock it down to 20.

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  3. Just stumbled across this post and cannot really argue with any of the choices, though some of the shows I’m not as familiar with. Three I would make mention of as far as strongly, strongly written shows, especially during their heyday, even though all somewhat, inevitably, slipped toward the end…Northern Exposure, Frasier and Boston Public.

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    • Appreciate the feedback, Daniel. I know a lot of people who really enjoyed Northern Exposure. The writing team for Frasier now oversees Modern Family, which made my list because of its unpredictable nuances in character — plus it is laugh out loud funny, which is quite unusual for TV. I never watched much of Boston Public, but David Kelley is a consistently outstanding writer who I think may surprise us at least one more time with something powerful.

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    • Thanks, John. This is not an official list, just my list. I know a lot of people really liked The Wire, it just never quite hooked me, but that doesn’t mean much. I appreciate your chiming in!

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  4. ABC just released a fan poll on the top TV shows of all time which will be featured on 20/20:

    http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/Best_In_TV/love-lucy-voted-best-tv-show-time/story?id=17263942

    My focus was exclusively on writing, but we agreed on several, including All in the Family, M*A*S*H, and Cheers. I struggled and wanted to include Lucy, but in the end considered it’s excellence more a result of acting than writing, though close. I also liked Seinfeld and laughed along, but it never got to any deeper emotion for me, which was I didn’t include it for writing,

    We also overlapped on 3 of their 5 top dramas – Mad Men, West Wing, and Sopranos, but I didn’t include Twilight Zone or ER, liked the writing on Twilight Zone a lot, never could get into ER.

    WGA announcement should be coming soon for more comparison!

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