Writing TV History

"The Sopranos" tops a list of best-written shows – offering a reality check amid the battle of scripted vs. unscripted television.

By Jere Hester
|  Tuesday, Jun 4, 2013  |  Updated 9:59 PM EDT
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Preview: America's Got Talent Season 8

"The Sopranos" tops a new list of best-written TV shows.

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Preview: America's Got Talent Season 8

Howie Mandel and Nick Cannon talk season 8 surprises at the shows new home, Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Tune in for the premiere June 4th at 9/8c on NBC.
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The latest "Mad Men" arrived Sunday night with the purloined title "A Tale of Two Cities" – which not only fit the episode but summed up the current state of TV.

As fans unraveled the installment – what is the deal with Bob Benson, anyway? – the Writers Guild of America gave TV lovers more to dissect this week by releasing its list of the top 101 best-written series of all time. "Mad Men" placed at No. 7, leading current programs, which make up about 10 percent of the field.
 
The list offers a welcome conversation starter for water coolers, physical and virtual. But the Guild’s bigger gift is giving us a reality check – underscoring we're in a best-of-times-worst-of-times entertainment era, with both writing worthy of Dickens and unscripted junk filling the airwaves.
 
The list, even if flawed, provides potent reminders of how smart the boob tube can be at times. The top three classic shows run a representative gamut from drama to ensemble comedy to fantasy: "The Sopranos" to "Seinfeld" to "The Twilight Zone." While the list boast a strong share of contemporary series – "Breaking Bad" and "Modern Family," to name two starkly different examples – TV's inaugural Golden Age is represented by "The Honeymooners" and "Your Show of Shows," among others.
 
But as with any subjective list, there is plenty of room to argue over placement and omissions: "All in the Family" clocked in at No. 4 (it could have been No. 1). But where are other great and groundbreaking Norman Lear sitcoms, like "The Jeffersons" and "Maude?"
 
Late night comedy talkers "The Daily Show," "The Colbert Report" and David Letterman's old "Late Night" made the top 101. But the only Carson represented on the list is the butler from “Downton Abbey” – "Tonight Show" legend Johnny is nowhere to be found (somebody had to write all those monologues and Carnac bits).
 
There's “Family Ties,” but no “Family Guy” (“The Simpsons” and “South Park” were the only animated shows to rank mentions). “The Bob Newhart Show,” at No. 41, deserves better. So do the UK (No. 50) and US (No. 66) versions of “The Office.”
 
It’s heartening to see that the often-underrated “Barney Miller” and “The Odd Couple” made the cut. But where's "Lou Grant?" Or “The Jack Benny Program?” Or “Burns and Allen?”
 
The excellence of the omissions speaks to the overall strength of the list. The Guild’s latest contribution to television, hopefully, will get people not only talking, but demanding more of the kind of quality TV viewers deserve. So keep the conversation going: use the comments below to weigh in on the list, which, like “Mad Men,” serves as an effective ad for the potential greatness of television.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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