I’ve never met Alan Sepinwall but I certainly feel like I know him, having read his TV recaps and reviews for years now and watched many of his “Ask Alan” videos, so I thought I had a pretty good idea of what would be in his TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time, which he wrote with fellow critic Matt Zoller Seitz. I was right in that I had a sense of what shows would come in for particular praise in their ranking of the medium’s 100 greatest shows, but I think I underestimated the depth this book provides on so many titles, with tremendous essays on shows’ merits, flaws, influence, and cultural legacy. It’s so good that I could even get caught up in summaries of shows I’d never heard of before – a Novel 100 for scripted, fictional TV programs.
SepinSeitz set some ground rules down before delving into their list, and I’ll repeat them here because, as you know, no one ever reads the intro (or, in this case, The Explanation). The list is limited to U.S. shows only – so no Fawlty Towers or Upstairs, Downstairs – and to narrative fiction, eliminating anything like sketch comedy. They eliminated most shows that are still airing, with a few exceptions for shows with large bodies of work already in the can, and included shows that only aired for one season but penalized them in their scoring system. That system weighs a lot of critical considerations like influence, innovation, and consistency along with what you might consider the show’s contemporary entertainment value. It works in the end, however, as the list they’ve produced is going to start a lot of arguments but at least puts all of these shows in the right buckets to get those debates going.
Since I watch very little TV now, I’m totally unqualified to question anything these guys wrote about shows from the last 15 years or so; I’ve got a few disagreements with shows from earlier in TV history, but by and large I read this book as someone just generally interested in what I missed that was worth seeing. My favorite U.S. show of all time, The Wire, makes their top 5, and several other favorites of mine, including Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation, and Homicide: Life on the Street, all appear in their top 50. They break the list down into chunks – the top ten are “The Inner Circle,” the next forty are “No-Doubt-About-It Classics,” followed by twenty-five “Groundbreakers and Workhorses” and twenty-five “Outlier Classics” – that provide some structure to the list, although I didn’t think the labels were necessary given the depth of the essays on each program. Sure, Police Squad! was a groundbreaker, and Law & Order was a workhorse, but the review for each makes that clear. (SepinSeitz’ ranking of all seventeen L&O cast combinations is a highlight of the book, although I think I disagree with them on “Invaders,” the episode where Borgia is killed, one of the most harrowing of the series.)
Some other scattered observations on the essays and rankings:
• The essay on The Cosby Show is one of the book’s absolute highlights; the authors co-wrote it (many are credited to AS or MZS specifically), and cover everything, including the sheer impossibility of watching the show today given what we know now about the star. It was, however, a cultural milestone in its era, a highly-rated, critically-acclaimed show that anchored NBC’s Thursday night programming for years, and put an African-American family into TV territory that previously had been reserved for white characters. We’d seen upper-middle-class white families on TV that encountered modern problems, but if there were characters of color, they were the neighbors, or one of the kids’ best friends, never at the center of the show. For adults of a certain age today, The Cosby Show contributed to our understanding that there shouldn’t be any differences between families just because of skin color. Unfortunately, Bill Cosby the rapist has destroyed his legacy as a comedian and a silently progressive TV star, and the authors don’t shy away from that problem.
• My one disagreement with the authors here – and with Michael Schur, who knows a thing or two about sitcoms – is the placement of Cheers in their top five. I did watch Cheers pretty regularly for the first half of its run, and somewhere post-Diane, the show turned into a shell of itself, replete with repetitive one-liners, overreliant on lowbrow humor, populated with characters who became parodies of their former selves. (Friends did the same thing after the ‘big’ Ross and Rachel breakup, turning Ross from slightly nerdy but socially functional to awkwardly, annoyingly nerdy and “how is he even friends with these other people?”) I found the show’s last few years cringeworthy enough that I gradually stopped watching, and only returned for the finale and the cast’s drunken appearance on The Tonight Show. They never recaptured what made them a hit – few comedies can sustain anything that long anyway, but I couldn’t put Cheers in the Inner Circle given what it became.
• I was thrilled to see the one Miami Vice episode I remember clearly from when it first aired, “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run,” earn a mention in that show’s writeup. It was stylish, ’80s noir, and I have often felt like I’ve seen its influence pop up in other, lesser cop shows since. (Including, weirdly enough, a Diagnosis Murder episode with Perry King.)
• Shows I was thrilled to see ranked and to earn writeups: Police Squad!, WKRP in Cincinnati, NewsRadio, Moonlighting, Firefly.
• Shows I either didn’t know, or knew but hadn’t considered watching, but will add to my list of shows I would like to watch but might never get to: In Treatment, Terriers, K Street. I’d add Frank’s Place, but it seems unlikely to ever appear due to music licensing issues.
SepinSeitz don’t stop after ranking 100 shows, however, with multiple sections after that to keep you reading and well-informed on the state of TV. There’s a long section of shows currently airing that they recommend and cite as possible entrants to a future re-ranking of the top 100 (or they could do what Daniel Burt did when he updated The Novel 100, extending the ranking to 125 titles). There’s “A Certain Regard,” citing shows that had one great season (Homeland) or did something particularly notable (Little House on the Prairie). They also rank mini-series, which ends up an amusing mixture of big-budget network event programming from the late 1970s (Roots, of course, is #1) and 1980s with HBO mini-series from the current era, and TV movies and even TV airings of plays, the latter two lists by Zoller Seitz.
I could absolutely see someone using TV (The Book) as a viewing guide – maybe not starting at 1 and working your way down, but certainly picking and choosing shows to binge-watch from their rankings and breakdowns. I doubt I’ll ever have that kind of time, but as someone who likes great television and loathes the rest, I just loved the ebullient writing, the joyful praise of shows that entertained and sometimes astounded these two guys who can’t seem to get enough TV.
Next up: I’m slogging through The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1970.