TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time by Alan Sepinwall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I received a free ARC of this from NetGalley for review.
In this era of Peak TV I subscribe to a couple of streaming options that I could easily spend a month or so watching non-stop and still not get through the shows on my current watch lists. Meanwhile, my DVR is usually glowing red hot from all the recording it’s doing for the shows airing on the network and cable stations. So what I really didn’t need read right now is a book that makes me want to watch more TV. Still, I'm glad I read it.
Television critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz started sharing a newspaper column 20 years ago just as a revolution was about to occur that would change the TV landscape. Although they both moved on to other jobs they remained friends and had on-going debates about TV topics which has led them to come up with a list of the all-time best 100 TV shows.
They cheerfully admit that this is a bit of a fool’s errand in that there’s something inherently flawed about comparing a show like All in the Family to The X-Files. However, they came up with a ranking system they both used to score shows on a variety of factors, and then used it to come up with their top 100 which they then explained in more detail in short essays about each one.
They used some basic rules to keep it all somewhat in line: Only American shows that have ended were considered although there are some notable exceptions like The Simpsons and South Park which after decades on the air had enough material to adequately judge. Some shows with uncertain futures, like Louie, were included in case their creators never produce more. No reality TV was considered, and variety, skit, and talk shows were also deemed too hard to compare to scripted dramas and comedies. Longevity was also a factor because a brilliant show that only produced a handful of episodes like Firefly obviously didn’t have the burden of sustaining that level of quality over the course of many seasons so there was handicapping done in the ranking system to account for that.
So after applying math and some logical rules to their exercise what did Sepinwall and Seitz come up with? A bunch of shows that’s pretty much what you’d expect if you pay attention to things like awards, reviews, and critic’s Best-Of lists. It turns out what is generally considered the best TV is still the best TV by their standards, and an unforgiving cynic might think this is merely a clickbait interwebs article taken to book form.
However, what makes this interesting to me as a TV fan isn’t the rankings they gave or what shows did and didn't make the top 100 cut although that’s the kind of thing it’s fun to argue about over a couple of beers. My favorite part was an online conversation they had in which they debated how to rank the 5 top shows that tied in their ranking system. Through the course of that discussion they question how much a show’s innovation mattered vs. just doing something familiar as well as it’s ever been done, whether they had an inherent bias towards thinking of dramas as ‘better’ than comedies, and how to judge a show filled with peaks and valleys against a show that was consistently great but didn’t provide as many next level moments.
It was a fascinating, often funny, conversation between two critics who know their subjects, have the skill and self-awareness to step back and ask themselves just what made these shows so great, and then follow those trains of thoughts to logical conclusions. Good criticism shouldn’t just be about giving a score or a thumbs up/thumbs down. It should make you think about what you like or hate, and why you like or hate it which not only teaches you something about the material but maybe something about yourself in the process. So while I found myself disagreeing with their ultimate conclusion it still gave me a lot of food for thought as well as a desire to go out and watch all of them again.
The rest of the essays do a similarly good job of explaining why those shows were considered among the best while pointing out the flaws. They’ve got a real knack for explaining the appeal of a series and describing what made it special. (If anyone ever asks me what’s so great about Deadwood I’ll probably just have them read their description of it.) There’s also some effort made towards explaining what they meant beyond just being TV shows. For example, the article about I Love Lucy doesn’t just pay homage to it as a groundbreaking comedy, but also outlines how Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were true innovators whose impact on television from a creative and business standpoint went far beyond even what they did on screen as Lucy and Ricky.
There’s also some bonus features like funny lists about things like the best and worst bosses on television. They also do lists of the best mini-series, TV movies, honorable mentions, and current shows that will probably make the Top 100 list after they complete their runs.
The essays are filled with spoilers to the shows in the interests of discussing them fully, but it should be easy to avoid by skipping over any ones you haven’t seen it yet. Fair warning that the bonus lists do contain some spoilers, particularly one about the best character deaths so maybe skip those if you’re worried about such things.
Taken all together this is a love letter to television written by two guys who appreciate how lucky they were to be in exactly the right place to help document a golden age.
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