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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Let’s Be Careful Out There

The private reaction I received to last week’s post on career opportunities was quite overwhelming.  I expected to get a few calls asking for similar consultations from people I know trying to decide between this or that gig, and I did, but the breadth of emotion I received in reaction to the first paragraph — the seemingly unmovable 9% national unemployment factor — reinforced for me just how far this epidemic has reached.  A few years ago, I remember hearing about how many of my college classmates could not afford to attend our 25th reunion.  That was eye-opening and unsettling.  This is much worse.

Look around you.  The impact is everywhere.  People need jobs.  People need opportunity.  People need leadership.  People need purpose.  They are wondering if anyone is listening.  I don’t mean running for office, I mean listening.  Caring.  Responding.  It is hard to see much evidence that any response is on par with the outcry.

For the past few years since the recession began, it would seem many people have been suffering if not in silence, then at least maintaining a difficult quiet.  Of late that pain has become manifest in anger.  The anger we are seeing expressed by Occupy Wall Street is one form of reaction, but there are others all around us.  If you are not personally impacted, just listen to the dialogue around you.  Listen, really listen.  You may be surprised at what you hear, and who is saying it.

Compassion is a noble reflection that we celebrate usually in the final few months of each year during the annual holiday season.  Regardless of our various faiths, public messages of Peace on Earth become evident in everything from retail sales displays to city street decorations.  Then shortly after the Rose Bowl, we take down all the signs with all those slogans and catch phrases and get back to normalcy with the new year.  Can we afford to do that this year, with all of the requests for outreach we are hearing from friends and acquaintances?  I wonder if this time maybe it’s different.

Each holiday season I look forward to a touring rock band known as Trans-Siberian Orchestra that puts on a theatrical spectacle with a tremendous amount of meaning captured for me best in the following few lines from a song called Old City Bar:

If you want to arrange it
This world you can change it
If we could somehow make this
Christmas thing last
By helping a neighbor
Or even a stranger
And to know who needs help
You need only just ask

I usually post these lyrics around the holidays, but I thought I’d get an early start so the sentiment does not get lost in the year-end noise.  We need compassion now and year round.  Some people are going to ask you for help.  Others are not going to feel as comfortable asking, so maybe you can offer it without the ask.  As I discovered in the response to my post last week, sometimes it’s as easy as being a good listener to someone who has lost hope, having chased down every opportunity they can and not found work.  For others you can make a phone call or two, or help edit their resume, or simply remind them that they are good at what they do and these are extraordinary times.  Just returning a phone call can be a very big deal.  The point is that your compassion will go a long way right now, further and deeper than you can comprehend.  Remember Pay It Forward?  It’s always a good time as Steve Jobs would say to make a brand deposit.  Now is an especially good time, never better.  Someday you too will need a withdrawal.

There’s one more thing on my mind this week besides reminding us all to be compassionate, to help where we can, and to not let the message of the holidays flicker out when the crowds leave the Rose Bowl.  There remains a good deal of misunderstanding on all sides of the equation as to whom we can blame for our problems, the catastrophic impact of hyperbole and invective, how simplistic notions of corrective strategies can be naive, and whether justice is a shared ideal that can be broadly and fairly enacted.  When you combine the complexity of all that anxiety with the pain and anger that seems to be spiraling, you have a very bad brew.  The potential for rotten things to happen — events that cannot be reversed, stalemates that cannot be reconciled, words that cannot be taken back, violence that will be regretted — becomes a turbine gaining momentum, suddenly with its own inertia.

Certainly we all want change for the better, regardless of whether we agree on the definition of better.  What we can agree on is certain definitions of harm — physical harm to individuals, extended harm to the economy, permanent harm to our democracy.  Business enterprise is not all wrong, investment is what drives opportunity; there are no jobs without investment, and there will be no investment without risk and return, that is the backbone of free enterprise and prosperity.  A nonviolent protest against unfairness is not wrong, there is a message in the expression of pain and anger we need to hear; every one of us plays a role in this economy as a consumer, that voice cannot be taken away, and that voice says people want to work.  Real trouble begins when an impasse cannot be bridged because too many people decide that it cannot be bridged.  The path through that impasse is ours to negotiate, one at a time, with each other.  It is the very compassion of one person helping one person that gets the wheels moving again.  We don’t have to wait for a grand proclamation of resolution to express humility.  To not do so is to let a fire burn that we needn’t allow consume all that we have built together.

People always wonder if they can make a difference, if any individual can make a difference.  The answer is yes, one individual can make a difference to another individual, and that can become a movement.  The opposite choice is to allow the stalemate to divide us.  That seems like a dangerous choice.

On the groundbreaking 1980s TV series Hill Street Blues, a police drama set in an extremely troubled and decayed metropolis, the avuncular Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (played until his own premature passing by Michael Conrad) would conclude roll call each week with the words, “Let’s Be Careful Out There.”  I think for the foreseeable future that is very good advice.