The Writers Guild of America announced its list of the “101 Best Written TV Series of All Time” Sunday, culled from online voting by members of the writers’ union from both coasts. The list pretty much included the shows you’d expect (the top ten, in descending order: The Sopranos, Seinfeld, The Twilight Zone, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mad Men, Cheers, The Wire, The West Wing) — with a few notable exceptions. Yes, even in a list of 101 comedies, dramas, variety shows, and (weirdly) mini-series, they’re bound to make a few mistakes.
Browncoats unite! Yes, Joss Whedon’s first television masterpiece made the cut (Buffy the Vampire Slayer is present and accounted for in 49th place — a little low, but that’s neither here nor there), yet his short-lived but widely beloved sci-fi/Western/adventure series is nowhere to be found. Who knows why; with its intricate plotting, wiseguy (and gal) dialogue, and effortless shifts in and out of satire, each episode showcased the untouchable skill of Whedon and his talented writing staff.
Mystery Science Theater 3000
The typical two-hour episode of MST3K was as dense and referential as a master’s thesis, poking merciless fun at the worst of cinema while calling up everyone from Tin Machine to Scott Thorson to Allen Ginsberg to Kronos Quartet to Paul Wellstone to Bob Packwood to Quick Draw McGraw. It was a show that packed a joke (or two) into every possible pause, and attracted a loyal fan base that appreciated not only the obscurity of the references but the breadth of its humor — it could entertain both a PhD and a Three Stooges fan.
And speaking of density — how about Amy Sherman-Palladino’s fast-talking screwball gem, notorious for scripts that ran a good one-third longer than its contemporaries (since her characters had so much to say, and thus had to say it so quickly)? But Gilmore Girls wasn’t just razzle-dazzle; it also gave us some of the decade’s most compelling characters, and examined the mother-daughter dynamic with more nuance than any dozen series. And sure, it all fell to pieces in the final, Palladino-less season, but you shouldn’t hold that against them — hell, The West Wing made the top ten, and have you ever watched its fifth season?
The best father-daughter relationship in modern television was the highlight of Rob Thomas’s moody, sharp, funny, noir–infused mystery. But Veronica Mars wasn’t just a character study or a well-executed throwback; with its two season-long mystery arcs, it also showed an ambition and attentiveness to detail that rivaled more oft-cited serial drama contemporaries like Lost and 24.
And speaking of Lost, how about some love for J.J. Abrams’ previous TV drama? Sure, its whispery dialogue and unalloyed earnestness made it an easy object of ridicule, but those who bothered to watch the show discovered a sensitive, thoughtful coming-of-age story, and perhaps the most honest and painfully candid look at the college experience that network television has yet given us.
Unless you count Judd Apatow’s frustratingly short-lived Fox comedy/drama, which ran for a single, wonderful season back in 2001. Undeclared centered on a freshman dorm suite, its four inhabitants (played by Jay Baruchel, Charlie Hunnam, Seth Rogen, and Timm Sharp), and the girls they pined for (including Carla Gallo and Monica Keena). Over the course of the show’s 17 episodes, Apatow and his writing staff (which included Rogen and future Forgetting Sarah Marshall director Nicholas Stoller) mined the fertile territory of homesickness, casual sex, and collegiate uncertainty, mixing laughs, sincerity, and pathos with a skill that Apatow would find larger and more appreciative audiences for at the multiplex.
NBC’s nearly 40-year juggernaut Saturday Night Live came in at #25 on the WGA list, and deservedly so. But even in that show’s early years, many preferred its Canadian counterpart, Second City Television, a savvy satire of film and television tropes, which migrated from Canadian television to NBC and Cinemax in the early ‘80s. Like its American neighbor, SCTV utilized a versatile ensemble cast, a self-aware style, and multiple breakout, recurring characters; unlike SNL, it was short-lived enough to leave a legacy solely comprised of good years.
The Kids in the Hall
And as long as we’re bemoaning the lack of Canadian sketch comedy on the list, homage must be paid to this five-season wonder, in which writer/performers Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson took the form out of the parody/pop culture realm and into something closer to the surrealism and meta-comedy of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Thirty Helens agree; this was brilliant TV comedy.
Mr. Show with Bob and David
Early in its run, HBO was the U.S. home of The Kids in the Hall, and its influence could be keenly felt on the sketch show that the pay cable giant aired in its wake. Mr. Show was a sharp, stinging, mercilessly funny stream-of-consciousness sketch comedy series, and one that used its off-the-network berth to take on the kind of sacred cows its network brethren usually steered clear of.
Maybe Sports Night’s exclusion is a matter of spreading the recognition — after all, creator Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing made the top ten. But the hell with that; if Will & Grace can make the cut, then Sports Night should, too. This two-season treat peeked behind the scenes at a SportsCenter-style nightly sports show, staffed by a likable crew of decidedly complicated type-A personalities. Sorkin’s distinctive rat-tat-tat, run-and-gun dialogue style was perfected here, and his scripts’ inventive callbacks, back-and-forths, and tendency toward the soul-baring monologue make it a show that somehow gets even richer on revisits.
It could also be presumed that the absence of David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s HBO drama can be explained by the high ranking of Simon’s The Wire — or the weirdly apathetic response to the show in general, by viewers and critics who seem to find its long-form storytelling and music-fueled narratives too taxing. Mark my words: one day, and hopefully soon, Treme will get the reappraisal it so fully deserves, as a rich Bayou tapestry that’s the closest thing we’re gonna get to Nashville in this post-Altman age.
The Jack Benny Program/ The Abbot & Costello Show
Seinfeld scored a mighty-high #2 slot on the WGA list — deserved, but strangely lacking in history, since the two shows that most clearly influenced it are entirely absent. Seinfeld frequently acknowledged the importance of the old Abbott & Costello Show, where everyday observation and fast-paced two handers were par for the course. But debt must also be paid to Benny, whose 15-season show was very much the blueprint of Seinfeld’s: the main character of a comedian, his onscreen persona loosely based on himself, surrounded by an ensemble of oddball supporting players. Like Seinfeld, the comedy on The Jack Benny Program was character-based and rooted in the minutiae of everyday life; it also used a show-within-a-show format that not only set the stage for The Larry Sanders Show, but allowed for spoofs and variety bits that rank among the best sketch comedy of the era.
Parks and Recreation
The WGA voters seemed to have no trouble rewarding relatively young dramas: such new-ish shows as Homeland, The Good Wife, and Justified make the cut, but there’s a real shortage of new comedies. There’s no Community, no Bob’s Burgers, and, most distressingly, no Parks and Recreation, which went from Office imitator to one of television’s most beloved ensemble comedies. At this point, part of Parks’ juju is sheer likability — there’s perhaps no current television comedy that loves its characters more than this one, and that affection transfers to an audience fairly seamlessly — but there’s some seriously skillful writing going on here, a sly mixture of character comedy, set-up/punch-line work, and good old fashioned goofiness.
WKRP in Cincinnati
If for nothing else, if for no other reason, than for the “Turkeys Away” episode.