Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The 101 Best Written TV Series

The WGA just announced its 101 BEST WRITTEN TV SERIES OF ALL TIME. Proud to say that shows I wrote for finished 5th (MASH), 8th (CHEERS), 11th (THE SIMPSONS) and 23rd (FRASIER). We’ll never know if they would have ranked higher had I not written for them. But seriously, I’d consider it a tremendous honor just to be associated with one show on this list, much less four. And to have all four in the top 25. Wow.

Here is the complete list.

Some random thoughts:

I wonder how many writers who have contributed so much to the success of these gold standard shows can’t get work today.

Anytime you put a list together and rank them you’re going to get disagreement. Especially when you’re combining genres. You have BAND OF BROTHERS just above LAUGH IN. How often is SESAME STREET and OZ on the same chart?  Personally, I think FRASIER should  have been higher but I'm not exactly an objective bystander. 

I have no quarrel with any of the top ten. Yes, there are some other shows equally as deserving, but I can’t think of one of the chosen ten I’d slide down to accommodate something else.

Shows from the early days of television generally don’t get their due. Voters aren’t as familiar with them, don’t take into consideration their impact at the time, and don’t appreciate them as much because styles change and they now may seem dated. YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS was not only hugely popular in its day, it was a major reason why many people bought their first televisions. It helped create the industry. And yet it’s ranked only 41. Another example: LATE NIGHT with David Letterman made it but THE TONIGHT SHOW with Johnny Carson didn’t? Not to mention THE TONIGHT SHOW with Steve Allen.

When I was a radio DJ in the ‘70s, stations would often ask listeners to send in their three favorite all-time songs and they would be compiled for a BEST 300 SONGS OF ALL-TIME countdown (usually on holiday weekends). We’d receive thousands of post cards. And the songs most listed were the current hits. Really? Your favorite all-time song is “The Night Chicago Died?” So what we did was just throw out all the post cards and make up the list ourselves. At least the WGA survey was put together by industry writers. Otherwise, THE VOICE might be considered the best written series.

There will always be slights. Personally, I thought WINGS was better written than a number of the sitcoms that did make the list. Same with BUFFALO BILL, RHODA, BECKER, and MAUDE. I’m sure one or two of your all-time faves that didn’t make the cut. But if the chart was the top 202 BEST WRITTEN TV SERIES there would still be four deserving ones left off.

I was thrilled that some shows that weren’t mega hits still found their way onto the list. MY SO CALLED LIFE for one.

I wouldn’t know where to place SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE because there were years it was the best written show on television and years it was the worst.

And finally, if there are shows on this list that you are not familiar with, treat yourself.  Seek them out.  I hope THE DEFENDERS is available somewhere.  But between Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and a number of nostalgia channels like Cozi, MeTV, and Antenna TV you should be able to track a fair number of these gems down.

And once again.  It's an honor to be among the exceptional writers whose work appears on this list. Even the ones who can't get arrested. 


Richard Rothrock said...

Congrats, Ken! You are a funny and deserving writer. Heck, VOLUNTEERS still makes me laugh after all these years.

Of course, nobody agrees with these lists. That's what makes them fun.

My thoughts on the best shows:

I STILL have never seen YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS!

RockGolf said...

Did you see any of the WGA cablecast? Merril Markoe probably went overtime by half an hour just talking with Norman Lear and Carl Reiner. Worth every second.
(And was my comment in yesterday's blog the first you heard of this?)

Johnny Walker said...

I'm currently working my way through TAXI. Wow, what a show that is. I think it's shot up to my second-favourite sitcom of all time.

I've never really watched THE TWILIGHT ZONE and a few of the other classics, but I can't argue with the other titles in the top 20 that I HAVE seen -- and I really can't wait to watch the ones I haven't.

bruce said...

I'm proud that my father, Sidney Reznick, did a few episodes of #78 THE ODD COUPLE. His best work was on variety shows of the 50s and 60s which, in general, were not syndicated or re-run and so are basically lost.

Richard Rothrock said...

TAXI was soooooooo funny and moving. "On the Job" is hilarious. The taxi company closes & they have to get other jobs. I remember laughing so hard that i couldn't stop.

Reverend Jim's ode to his race horse in "Jim Gets a Pet" sticks with me to this day.

Reverend Jim is one of the great TV characters & Christopher Lloyd is brilliant.

Charles H. Bryan said...

"The Night Chicago Died". Still awful after all these years. If "horrible songs that get stuck in my head" is ever a topic of conversation, this is my go-to example.

Oh, crap. It's stuck in my head.

Pamela Jaye said...

I just wanted to note that usually when you make a blog post, I'll see 2 tweets about it from "you," very close together. This morning I saw 3 (in the past hour). So maybe you have some automation going on that you've forgotten?

Daniel Klos said...

I agree that "Frasier" should be ranked higher (and "Northern Exposure" should be ranked higher than "Twin Peaks").

But any list this long which does not include "Slings & Arrows" anywhere on it (seriously?) doesn't have a lot of credibility in my book.

(The "AV Club" has been doing a pretty great job over the past few months analyzing why "S&L" is so unbelievably great)

John said...

I've always thought these lists should kind of be like Hall of Fame voting -- there should be a 5-10 year waiting period after a series goes off the air before any show can get on the list, because that tends to eliminate any reaction of the moment buzz that can propel a series to heights of praise/popularity that a decade later have viewers (in some cases, the same viewers) wondering what all the fuss was about?

Based on that, this list isn't that bad, compared to some of the other 'greatest' lists that have come out, because it isn't as front-loaded and does at least acknowledge there were good TV shows before the 1970s.

McAlvie said...

Current tv viewing would be so much better if they used the writers from the listed shows. Those shows were smarter while also being funnier. And they are on the list because they stand the test of time.

If it's any consolation to you, 20 years from now that list won't have changed much. Few shows written today are worthy.

Bamboo Harvester said...

How could they leave out Mr Ed?

Anonymous said...

One Western? A dominant genre for half a decade?
And it was Gunsmoke, which was a fairly pedestrian show, with unremarkable writing.
There are few shows on that list, even in the top 10, that would compare with the writing on Have Gun Will Travel.
And the first season of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, before he went in to the Army, ranks with virtually anything on the list also.

PolyWogg said...

In the heat of a summer night,
In the land of the dollar bill,
When the town of Chicago died,
And they talk about it still.

Yep, still talking about it.


P.S. Becker? Really?

PolyWogg said...

On a more serious note, Ken, here's a real question, potentially too complicated to even attempt to answer. Do you think some of them on the list are tehre because the PREMISE was fantastic, even though the writing itself was ho-hum?

If we look at Star Trek's three seasons, very few of the episodes are great writing...the premise of the plots are innovative, a couple even groundbreaking (for TV at least), but the dialogue was poor, and the deroulement often sucked. But the premises were solid.

ST:TNG was similar, particularly in Season 1. It isn't until Season 2 that you really get to the a decent plot (Measure of a Man) and even then, it is the acting by Stewart, Spiner and Frakes which raise it up to worthy art, not a lot of the dialogue.

All in the Family, for example, was groundbreaking, but what people love about Jean Stapleton I just found completely annoying and the dialogue grating, simplistic, scenes overly contrived even for the era. But because the characters were innovative, and some of the issues ambitious, we say "Great show", neglecting that in some cases or many episodes, the writing plain sucked.

To give a parallel, it's like reading some of Agatha Christie's early stories -- among the first to do certain plots/premises/clue structures, and thus seen as amazing, but some just don't hold up as well as others because she gamed a few of the endings (a classic Hercule Poirot only works because she slipped the PoV for a half a page).

Or I could just be on crack. But it does suggest to me why some shows like Whitney stay on -- because there aren't that many female lead premises so someone thinks they're doing something "innovative" rather than address the lame show?


Anonymous said...

How about some unconventional choices of undeniably brilliant writing?
The Adventures of Rocky and His Friends- in many respects the template for The Simpsons
Wiseguy- Stephen J. Cannell's best
The Beverly Hillbillies - the first few seasons were dead-on satire of early 1960's Southern California
Green Acres- was there ever better surreal sitcom television?
That Was the Week That Was - perhaps the best topical news satire ever

Roger R. said...

"The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd". This was the original "Sex and the City" but more literate, smart and better constructed.

The show had a dream-like quality as if it only took place in Molly's head (and sometimes it did - how else can you explain her daed father randomly appearing in her living room having cocoa?).

Bravo to creator Jay Tarses, who played Molly's garbageman with political ambitions, and cheers to Blair Brown who played it beautifully.

www.bohemianrhapsody.dk said...

All 101 shows are written in the English language.

Here are some obvious misses of the top of my head:

Forbrydelsen - Danish show, major hit in England two years ago

Riget - Danish mini-series by Lars von Trier

Carlos - multilingual French/German co-production

Das Boot - the extended movie-version got edited into a successful TV mini-series

Not my cup of tea, but receives near-universal acclaim outside the U.S.:

Fanny and Alexander by Ingmar Bergman

Heimat - German TV-Series about WWII

Mac said...

Cool list, which actually serves as a good checklist - stuff to have on your DVD shelf or download list.

I always thought "Becker" had an astonishingly high 'hit' rate - I don't remember a bad ep, or a bad scene in any ep. Ted Danson's never dropped the ball, right across the decades.

Rockgolf said...

The two highest ranked series not completely available on DVD:
#17: The Daily Show, which, given the sheer volume and impermanance of the material is understandable
#46: St. Elsewhere, only 1 season available on DVD. Come on!

WVL ymeeoff course - Why me off course?

Shan said...

You are exceptional, Ken.

Great Big Radio Guy said...

It was an early dream of mine to have my name roll by on the credits of a MARY TYLER MOORE or MASH or any iconic show - in any capacity. Key Grip? Sure. Assistant to Whoever? Absolutely. Just to have my name attached to even one episode of great work would have been a thrill.

But to be able to say that you wrote those words and composed those actions? Transcendent. We know your pride in these shows, and we share that pride in knowing you. Congratulations, Ken and David. Making people laugh and think is an amazing accomplishment.

Barry Traylor said...

Not sure if these lists mean all that much if they did not include either Steve Alen of Jonhny Carson, I suppose I am bit biased but Letterman is not better than either of those.

Michael said...

It would be interesting to see how different the list would have been if it was created by critics. I'm sure Community and Girls would have made their list given how much praise most of them give these shows (for reasons that escape me).

Mike said...

Apparently almost all of the good shows were made in the last 20 years or so, and it really drops off after 30 years.

cadavra said...

Congratulations four times!

On the other hand, not a single show written by David Kelley? What the hell did he do to those people? Had he done nothing but BOSTON LEGAL, he'd be among the greats.

And yeah, the B&W era is sorely neglected. Don't get me started...

MikeBo said...

Congratulations, Ken! That's quite a track record.

Daniel Saks said...

I think the list is spot on perfect. I mean the writing on Rosanne was IDENTICAL to the writing on 24. As a matter of fact I often confuse to to to this day.
Ok kidding Ken you are right esspecially about Maude.

Pamela Jaye said...

I still haven't quite made it to reading your post - I read the top 101 list and then took a side-trip thru St. Elsewhere's Wikipedia entry. Why would I do that? Because I wanted to read something that got it right (as the 101 did not.) St E hospital was in the South End, not South Boston.

The South End in the 80s was... not the best part of town. I worked near there and a friend lived there. South Boston - home of the Irish - I don't know what it was like back then (or now) despite having been there twice, but I heard it was a hotbed of protest during forced busing. Apparently people who are not from Boston don't know there's a difference.

Off to read your post now.

Rosariorose9 said...

Agree with Anonymous on 'Wiseguy'. Keven Spacey was mesmerizing on that show. And how about 'China Beach'?

Pamela Jaye said...

Thanks so much for that song stuck in my head.:-P
I hadn't even noticed about DVDs - perhaps cause I never paid attention to whether the other shows were available but the fact that seasons 2 - (6?) of St E aren't available is a travesty. According to the book Television's Second Golden Age (I think) all the funny bits I love did not start till after season 1.
Did you know Dr. Auschlander's oncologist was the Doctor from Julia? I missed that one till someone reran an eps of Julia years later and I noticed it right off. At least I knew who Dr (head guy fro Medical Center) was. And the Betty White thing, I remember to this day.

chuckcd said...

Nice to see "Northern Exposure"
at #53.
My Favorite show of all time.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Becker! Really!

Diogo said...

some random thoughts:

No way that the odd couple is all the way down in 78. it should be up there with Cheers. actually it should be up there with Cheers and Frasier, but that's another story

How come currently running shows get to make the list? Breaking Bad and Mad Men may deserve those spots, but, on serial shows, you've got to have the full picture before you announce it as X number of the 100 best shows of all time. Frasier should be way higher than 30 rock. 30 Rock may be "Ha" funny but Frasier managed to be "ha" funny and "haha" funny at the same time.

Brian Phillips said...

For those of you who have not seen "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour", the sketches from that show were indeed great.

I saw a full "Your Show of Shows" episode. The SKETCHES were great, but because they had to fill up ninety minutes, there was a lot of singing and dancing, too.

For people like Richard Rothrock that haven't seen any of it, I submit these three links:

The Clock

From Here to Obscurity, part one:

Part two:

thomas tucker said...

Wow. Mad Men, really? That's one of the most tedious shows I've ever had to quit watching. I'd rather watch My Mother The Car.
And the omission of Johnny Carson is horrendous.
What a fantastic honor for you though, Mr. Levine!

thomas tucker said...

Pamela- you are right, the South End in the 80's was dicey, but has now been gentrified. I used to walk by that building every morning on my way to work. But I wouldn't have done it after dark.

thomas tucker said...

btw, there are amany British TV shows missing, including one of the best ever, House of Cards.

Rob said...

The Cosby Show, Family Ties and The Golden Girls may have been funny and entertaining, but I don't think they were brilliantly written. Half the Cosby Show pilot was lifted from Bill Cosby: Himself. The Golden Girls got by on acting talent. ER certainly wasn't one of the best-written shows either. Roseanne was only good for the first 4-5 years.

The list should include WKRP in Cincinnati, Lou Grant, The White Shadow, Frank's Place, I'll Fly Away and Cagney & Lacey.

I saw "Goodbye Radar" again last night. Thanks for that Ken. Col. Potter's goodbye always gets me.

Cap'n Bob said...

It left off Leave It to Beaver. Total bullshit, man. Seriously, I see these kind of lists all the time and it's apparent they're compiled by callow youths who thought the world was formed the day they discovered the mall.

FYEO, Ken: the word "must" at the end of the first paragraph should be "much."

And many congrats for your participation in so many winners, no matter what their places on this nonsense list.

Jeffrey Mark said...

Maude should have made the list for certain. The writing was spot-on hilarious. "God will get you for that!" And what about The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour? Groundbreaking show with a young Steve Martin writing. And they had Pat Paulson and Leigh French. Buffalo Bill should have made the list but I guess it didn't because it wasn't on long enough.

Route 66 should also have been on the list. Superb Sterling Siliphant writing. Oh well...it's only a subjective list and nothing more.

Yair said...

Yes, the list seems quite skewed. You can see the pretentiousness when you see that they chose The Prisoner, even if it was the British version.

Also, they have Buffy (which was great), but they don't have Firefly, which was written much better (and is quite possibly the best show from the last decade).

Or they don't have Due South, which is one of the better shows from the nineties (here's a good example, where the good scene actually starts a couple of minutes in and runs into the next video, but the bit before it is useful for exposition:

Part 1, Part 2.

And David Marciano has a much better role there than he did in Homeland, which is another feature on the list. And they can't even say that that's a British show that no one ever heard of, because it was originally on CBS).

John said...

Northern Exposure is the one show that really is undervalued here. Just to be balanced, I would drop Taxi down quite a bit. Good, not great writing.

chuckcd said...

Kudos to you Ken! 4 shows in the top 25. Most impressive...
Cheers is #2 on my all time list.

benson said...

First, Ken, congratulations and thanks for the entertainment.

I'm very jealous of GBR guy, as he wrote what I wish I had thought of .

The list is the list. Like others, I said "really?" to several selections. The only real quibble is Andy Griffith at #70. Should be in the top 20.

Agree with @cadavra. Picket Fences was brilliant.

And the lone voice in the wind. Brooklyn Bridge was, too, too good for television.

K.M. Richards said...

As soon as I heard about the posting of this list, I had to come here and see what you thought, Ken.

I'm sure it's a great feeling for you to know that M*A*S*H made the top ten!

thomas tucker said...

I would also include a show called James at 16 (from the 1970's,) and The Waltons.

Nat Gerter (sitcom room veteran) said...

There's also the question of whether you judge a show at its best, or at its typical.

Folks are waving around Wiseguy, which at its best was great - but its best was all in the first season. The later seasons had a lot of great scenes and set-up and characters, but the overall plots were weak; the stories didn't go anywhere. Even the greats often lasted long enough to be merely good. All In The Family had the advantage of cutting to a different title for most of its "merely good" period.

VincentS said...

Congratulations, Ken. Well deserved.

Michael said...

If we picked the best-written episode ever, as opposed to series, we could just end it at "Chuckles Bites the Dust," I suspect. Ken, a question for you: IS that the best-written single show ever?

I don't care how great or awful the show is, we need to remember the words of a wonderful writer, Russell Baker of The New York Times. One of the editors asked him to shift one of his three weekly op-ed columns to the Sunday magazine. Baker said, "Which one?" The editor said, "The best one, of course." Baker said, "If you want to print the best of Russell Baker, you'll also have to print the worst of Russell Baker."

Well, even great shows nod a bit. M*A*S*H stayed too long at the fair. The West Wing had some fine shows in its final three seasons, but after Sorkin's departure at the end of season four, it never approached what it had been. Some Dick Van Dyke episodes were a bit too silly. And isn't it nice to be picky about genius?

-bee said...

Initially - due to the exclusion of Monty Python I figured they were limiting the list to American Shows - but then entertaining but definitely second-rate Downton Abbey shows up??? Did the WGA voters miss the idiotic way Matthew was dispatched?

Would "I, Claudius" count as a series?

olucy said...

I can't believe 30 Rock came in ahead of Frasier. Nerts!

Hollywoodaholic said...

If the WGA is going to post a list honoring the best written shows, why don't they acknowledge the most iconic writers associated with each who made them such? It is the WGA, after all.

And what other writer could claim work on four shows in the top 25? Congrats, Ken.

Hollywoodaholic said...

Oh, shit. Ooops. That's what I get for seeing the list on HuffPost instead of the actual site. I'll go gripe there.

Gazzoo said...

No "Sports Night"? Really?

Jake Mabe said...

"China Beach" should be here. Leaving out Carson is a travesty.

I'm a little surprised that "Hello Larry" didn't make the cut, but such is life... :)

Alan said...

I wonder how many writers who have contributed so much to the success of these gold standard shows can’t get work today.

Far too many of them. Age discrimination is such a problem among writers in the motion picture and television industry, and particularly among comedy writers. Oh, people may be quick to tell you how brilliant your scripts were, but try to get work out of them and the tone changes. "Well, yes. You're scripts were brilliant--for their day. But you know, comedy has changed so much in the last few years, and the kind of material you write just wouldn't get laughs from young, contemporary audiences. But, you know, if your kind of stuff ever comes back, we'll call you. Honestly. Hey, I love watching those old shows you wrote on cable TV, though. Brilliant stuff. Just brilliant."

RareWaves said...

Overall, a good list. I won't speculate why some shows were included or not, but I agree with previous posters that the following shows were funny and innovative: Slings and Arrows, The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

Blair Ivey said...

Great list, and goes to show how many exceptional shows there have been. I'm not sure that mini-series' should make the list; perhaps an episode minimum?

But no 'Firefly'?

Shun-SHENG duh gao-WAHN

Yair said...

But no 'Firefly'?

Shun-SHENG duh gao-WAHN

... was I ever not asking what the captain thought...


Anyway, I don't see Community either, which would easily kick many others off the list for its good and original writing. And The Neighbors isn't there either. ;)

Seriously though, here's the Friday question time - Ken, did you actually bother to watch The Neighbors? It's surprisingly good (the season finale had George Takei and Mark Hammill trading Star Trek/Wars insults and references) and it has Clara Mamet, who is your new favorite person in the whole world... Maybe you should try watching it and then review it. I would say that it could also knock some items off that list.

Melissa C. Banczak said...

Wings should have made the list. It was so underrated it's entire run. (but if they'd lost the lowell character it would have been even better)
My husband has a friday quesion, and he even pronounced your name correctly!
The radio drama episode of Fraser (my favorite by the way) is hysterical and makes such great use of the entire cast. Is there a story behind how that episode came together?

Dr. Leo Marvin said...

Congrats, Ken. Well deserved.

Plenty of quibbles, of course. Glad to see Justified got a mention. If only the Television Academy were as perceptive.

Breadbaker said...

Congrats, Ken. Well-deserved. You did indeed contribute well to those series, and a few others that are glaring omissions.

I think they'd have done better to have limited it to American shows, because the British imports seem rather hit and miss. No Blackadder, seriously?

Mike said...

I'll give a vote to Voyagers. Not the Star Trek spinoff which would belong on the bottom 100, but Voyagers.

mickey said...

Re: Carson's omission. If you focus on the show as a whole, and the longevity of Carson as a host, the omission is puzzling. But if you are focusing just on writing, it must be said that the skits that appeared as Mighty-Carson-Art-Players were some of the lamest, hackiest excuses for entertainment that ever appeared. The smart, hip guy who hosted the show and traded wisecracks with guests was never evident in any of those skits.

Wayne said...

I just read a great books of interviews with some of TV's greatest writers.
Allan Burns
Arnold Margolin
Austin Kalish
Bernie Orenstein
Bill Persky
Bob Carroll Jr.
Bob Schiller
Carl Kleinschmitt
David Lloyd
Ed Scharlach
Elroy Schwartz
Fred Freeman
Irma Kalish
Jack Elinson
Jerry Mayer
Jim Parker
Lilia Garrett
Madeylyn Davis
Paul Wayne
Rick Mittleman
Sam Bobrick
Sam Denoff
Saul Turteltaub

I was surprised at some because David Lloyd didn't do many interviews.

Here's trivia. What suggestion did the MTM room make that David Lloyd admits himself improved "Chuckles Bites The Dust."

The answer is in Funny You Should Ask: Oral Histories of Classic Sitcom Storytellers.

I got it on Amazon.