TV finally gets the book it deserves

tv the book new

A couple decades ago it might have been one of the jokes in the list of "World's Shortest Books": A collection of the greatest TV shows of all time.

Now, in the midst of a sustained run of outstanding work across the ever-expanding shows-on-screens industry, you can read 400 pages on the subject of great television shows and still feel some worthy titles were left out.

Those 400 pages come from longtime TV critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, who have taken on the assignment -- which truthfully seems more fun than challenge -- of not only naming and analyzing the top 100 shows in the history of the medium, but actually ranking them. As in: "Freaks and Geeks" is a greater achievement than "The Dick Van Dyke Show." And "In Treatment" beats out "The West Wing." And "Batman" somehow scores higher than "Gilmore Girls." (Not with my wife, it doesn't.)

At least one point of "TV (The Book)" -- the parentheses are part of the title -- is to stimulate the same kind of argument that attends the evaluations of other archetypes of American culture, like outfielders (Williams or Musial); rock icons (Elvis or Bruce); or movie candy (Sno-Caps or Twizzlers.) That is to say: it's going to have readers comparing and contrasting their own preferences, accompanied by shock or awe about the authors' opinions.

And when you disagree with some of the judgments, as you probably will, it only means you care more about television now more than ever before, which is really the reason to write and read a book like this.

tv the book new

But Sepinwall and Seitz (I know and respect both men as professionals in a field I have long toiled in myself) are really not in this for the value jousting. This is not a series of seat-of-the-pants pronouncements of personal opinions. And aside from some meaty back and forth disquisitions about the merits of the true contenders for the ultimate prize, there is not a lot of explanation for why, say, "Arrested Development" gets a higher grade than "The Honeymooners" or "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

The explanations really lie in the book's appendix, which is a big chart of number scoring -- in a system not unlike judges' scores in the old gymnastics contests: 10 is perfection.

The authors have taken seriously their attempt to find a system to evaluate TV shows based on a range of criteria.

The criteria amount to the basics of great narrative art. (There are no sabermetrics involved.) Was the show consistent? Did it influence what followed? Was it innovative? The average television viewer might only decide they flat-out liked a show and never consider -- or ever care about -- those elements. But Sepinwall and Seitz wanted a way to separate shows of relatively comparable worthiness.

Related: How HBO stole back "The Night Of," its next big show

Certainly other criteria could have been included -- such as sustained success, or awards, or how shows hold up over time. ("Mary Tyler Moore" might have edged out "Arrested Development" in that case, for example.)

Sepinwall told me his original preference would have been simply to write a book about the greatest shows, in no special order. And Seitz, also a long-time film critic, said he always resisted putting together rankings like lists of the year's top ten movies, which seemed forced and hopelessly arbitrary. But the book's editors urged them to go with a true reckoning. "They told us: people are going to want to know what was the best," Sepinwall said.

It's the American way: We keep score.

Not that it was easy in this case. Sepinwall and Seitz found themselves splitting the hairs on a hare to separate the shows at the very top. They wound up with five shows with the top score in their system: 112 points. It's not really being a spoiler to announce their results because they do not write cute about them: there is no countdown in the book to the circle of glory; they start the book out at the top.

The ultimate assessments among this version of the Final Five are thrashed out in some lively point/counterpoint writing between the two critics, where they decide why "Breaking Bad" can't be the best show of all time (some will surely disagree); why "Cheers" is not quite the best comedy (nor is "Seinfeld," which finished out of the top-5 money); and why "The Wire," which has long been unchallengeable among some critics, was nosed out in this evaluation by "The Sopranos."

As it happens, all of them lost out to "The Simpsons," which gets the golden remote-control scepter as the all-time TV champ. The choice, while entirely legitimate, seems to buck some of the authors' own standards of excellence, since the show's longevity has inevitably damaged its consistency. But both men ardently defended the classic comedy series from some devil's advocate questioning about whether animated characters can really match up performance-wise with Bryan Cranston, James Gandolfini and Edie Falco.

Actually, in some ways being a pure fan matters even to serious critics. Sepinwall argued that even in its diminished latter years "The Simpsons" would be a contender. He has seen all 596 episodes of the series.

"The Simpsons" is also one of the most successful shows ever on television. But success was not a factor that helped elevate shows to greatness for the pair. Some of the top shows, like "The Wire" and "Man Men" (rank: 6) never posted impressive audience totals. But many others in the top ten were among TV's biggest all-time hits like "Seinfeld" (7th), "I Love Lucy" (8th) "All in the Family"(10th). Another massive hit, "M*A*S*H" was 11th.

But the authors also displayed fondness for shows with less profound commercial status, like the critical darling "Arrested Development" and a show that many critics miss perhaps more than any other, the drama "Deadwood." Not only do Sepinwall and Seitz rank the HBO western all the way up in 9th place (some shows behind it: "NYPD Blue"-31st; "Lost"-24th; "The X-Files"-20th; and "The Twilight Zone"-14th) but Sepinwall said if HBO had not inexplicably ended "Deadwood" when it did after three seasons "it would probably be considered for the top spot."

As for shows with outrageous commercial success, some got mentioned in the book's category of "A Certain Regard" -- like the hugely popular night-time soap, "Dallas" -- but others were cold shouldered entirely. That was the case with "C.S.I.," which, during its long run was by far the most-watched show in the entire world. It is not mentioned in the book. Seitz said police shows were well represented by numerous other contenders. He did acknowledge one "conspicuous omission," the recent medical drama, "House."

It's probable that fans of television will think of many more of their favorites that didn't win any regard at all in "TV (The Book)." But that's as it should be: not because the shows were necessarily unworthy, but because this is, after all, the assessment of two individual viewers. They just happen to be extremely informed viewers with both a comprehensive take on the art form of television and the skill to write compellingly about their choices.

And sometimes they are even right.

"TV (The Book): Two experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time," a book from Grand Central Publishing, is on sale September 6.

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