Written by Alan Sepinwall, Matt Zoller Seitz
Audiobook read by Alan Sepinwall, Matt Zoller Seitz
Published by Grand Central Publishing on September 6th 2016
Genres: Nonfiction, Television, History & Criticism
Is The Wire better than Breaking Bad? Is Cheers better than Seinfeld? What's the best high school show ever made? Why did Moonlighting really fall apart? Was the Arrested Development Netflix season brilliant or terrible?
For twenty years-since they shared a TV column at Tony Soprano's hometown newspaper-critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz have been debating these questions and many more, but it all ultimately boils down to this:
What's the greatest TV show ever?
That debate reaches an epic conclusion in TV (THE BOOK). Sepinwall and Seitz have identified and ranked the 100 greatest scripted shows in American TV history. Using a complex, obsessively all- encompassing scoring system, they've created a Pantheon of top TV shows, each accompanied by essays delving into what made these shows great. From vintage classics like The Twilight Zone and I Love Lucy to modern masterpieces like Mad Men and Friday Night Lights, from huge hits like All in the Family and ER to short-lived favorites like Firefly and Freaks and Geeks, TV (THE BOOK) will bring the triumphs of the small screen together in one amazing compendium.
Sepinwall and Seitz's argument has ended. Now it's time for yours to begin!
The following discussion of TV (The Book) contains no spoilers. You’ll have to read it–or other stories about it–to find out what the Greatest American TV Show of All Time is. But for what it’s worth, I agree with the choice.
TV (The Book): In Which Two Guys Rank 100 TV Shows
- What’s it about? TV (THE BOOK): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time is exactly what its title says it is. TV critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz have been debating television since they covered it for the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger 20 years ago. This collection of essays on the shows they’ve rated as the 100 best ever may be the culmination of their discussions, but it’s likely to fuel plenty of others.
- Why did I read it? I knew I’d read this as soon as I knew it existed. I love talking about television almost as much as I do about books. Also, ranking shows can be a fun and challenging exercise. Sepinwall is one of my favorite TV writers. He discussed 12 of the shows covered here in his last book, The Revolution Was Televised. TV (The Book) doesn’t go as deep as that did, but it covers a lot more ground.
A Five-Way Tie for Number One!?
- What worked for me? When Sepinwall and Zoller Seitz crunched the numbers, they had a five-way tie at the top between The Simpsons, The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad and Cheers. They provide a thorough recap of their tie-breaker discussions in “The Great Debate” that opens the book. The excerpt I’ve quoted below outlines their scoring methodology and parameters, and a show’s score chart accompanies every essay. TV (The Book) mixes up the format at times by discussing similar shows within a single essay, and throws in sidebars rankings characters (“Best Moms,” “Best Dads,”), settings (“Best Workplaces”), and assorted minutiae (“Best Catchphrases,” “Best Hairstyles”).
- What didn’t I like? I bought TV (The Book) in trade paperback as soon as it came out…and then I got impatient. I tend to get to audiobooks faster than non-review print books these days, so I also bought that format. The authors trade off the narration; Zoller Seitz cohosts the Vulture TV Podcast and Sepinwall was half of the Firewall and Iceberg Podcast team, so they have relevant experience and do a fine job. However, the book itself is just not ideal audiobook material; it’s too easy to lose track of where you are. Fortunately, I can refer back to the print version, but I should have waited till I could read it that way.
- Recommended? This is a must-read for people who take their television seriously. Christmas is coming–get a copy of TV (The Book) for the TV junkie in your life. And then borrow it so you can discuss it with them!
TV (The Book): The Methodology (An Excerpt)
The heart of TV (The Book) is the Pantheon: a list of the one hundred greatest comedies and dramas.
To create it, we made a list of several hundred candidates for the best shows of all time, allowing for various caveats explained in the following pages.
Then we set about the sensible and not-at-all-controversial task of assigning numerical values to art.
We decided on five categories, to which we eventually added a sixth. Each of us was assigned 10 points per category, for a possible maximum score of 120 if both of us gave a particular series perfect scores. (No show got perfect scores across the board.)
Those categories are:
- Innovation. Was the show trying something — in terms of form, subject matter, or both — that felt new, or was it following or embellishing upon tradition?
- Influence. How much of an impact did the show have either on the medium of television or on the culture at large?
- Consistency. How much did the quality fluctuate from episode to episode, or season to season? That said, consistency isn’t a mark just of smooth sailing from start to finish but of how well a series weathered storms beyond its control.
- Performance. This deals not only with how great the actors on the show were but how well-crafted their characters were.
- Storytelling. Here we come to the parts of writing beyond characterization, such as tone and structure, not to mention such filmmaking elements as direction, production design, editing, and music. Among the seeming intangibles that come into play are comic timing, suspense, surprise, formal audacity, and its obverse, perfectly executed classicism.
- Peak. A late addition, factoring in how great each show was at its absolute best, using a full season, more or less, as our unit of measurement. Other categories were judged against the entirety of television; this was graded on a curve against the rest of the Pantheon.
What Shows Were Considered?
1. US television shows only.
2. Completed shows only. Mostly.
3. Narrative fiction only.
As it is, comparing comedies and dramas — let alone shows from different eras, like trying to decide whether The Fugitive is greater than 30 Rock — was onerous enough without also trying to figure out variables for sketch comedy, talk shows, documentary and news programs, reality TV, sports, and so on. Comedy versus drama is already apples and oranges; to add plantains, tangelos, and star fruit would have been foolish indeed.
4. One-season shows are eligible, but with some penalties.