Ranking the best TV shows: "I certainly could have been talked into 'The Wire' or 'The Sopranos'"

Salon talks to Alan Sepinwall, co-author of "TV (The Book)," about which shows, including "Deadwood," last

Published August 28, 2016 10:30PM (EDT)

"Deadwood"   (HBO)
"Deadwood" (HBO)

How does television history look from 2016, more than a decade into what many are hailing as a new golden age? That’s the subtext of “TV (The Book),” which is far more engaging than its clumsy title implies. Essentially an enormous annotated list, the volume aims to come up with the best narrative television programs of all time, ranked from acknowledged winners like “The Sopranos” and “The Simpsons” to less obvious choices like “Terriers” and “WKRP in Cincinnati.” The book only considers U.S.-based series and miniseries, though several shows with international casts like “Game of Thrones” are included.

The book’s authors, longtime TV critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, assessed each show they considered using six criteria: innovation, influence, consistency, performance, storytelling and peak (which refers to how good the show was at its absolute best.) When they counted the  scores, the top spot became a five-way tie between “The Simpsons,” “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Cheers” and “Breaking Bad.” The next five are “Mad Men,” “Seinfeld,” “I Love Lucy,” “Deadwood” and “All in the Family.”

Salon spoke to Sepinwall, who began his career at The Newark Star-Ledger and is the author of “The Revolution Was Televised.” The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

This seems like a book designed to spark arguments. You approached it in a semi-scientific way, setting up criteria for what made these shows great and enduring. Was that the original vision for the book?

Matt and I actually resisted the idea of ranking for a very long time. Our original editor on the project — who left before we wound up writing it — was the one who really pushed us and said, No, you want to rank it, and we eventually sort of saw the light in that way. Our fear was basically: We don’t want to spark arguments; we don’t want to make people angry. Then we realized at a certain point how much we personally enjoyed arguing over what should be in, what should be out and tiers and everything else.

So once we went with that, our thoughts were, OK, what do we value in TV? What are some things that we feel the very best shows ever have in common? What are different ways that you can identify this show is great or, in certain cases, this show is important? So there are some shows that are ranked a little higher or lower because of importance. Like “I Love Lucy,” because it’s so hugely influential to every comedy that was made after it, even if it wasn’t funny, and it’s funny, would have ranked pretty highly just based on those first couple of categories.

On the flip side, you have a show like “Parks & Recreation,” which was not influential at all and was not doing anything new and was just so good at it that it wound up in the list. We just sort of said, What are things we value and can we quantify that? Eventually we had five categories, which we expanded to six, and that’s how it happened.

So you’ve got a bunch of different ways of looking at these shows. Interestingly, even with this rigorous approach, you ended up with five shows tied at the top: “The Simpsons,” “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Cheers” and “Breaking Bad.” How did you figure out which one was your personal favorite, and how did it come out differently for each of you?

When we had the five-way tie, we thought — and this is something we did with every other show in the pantheon once we were done writing — that maybe what we should do is go through these five, category by category and say, Well, really do I think that “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” are equally innovative or whatever? Have the scores go head to head and maybe move some things up and maybe move some things down, and if we did it that way, maybe we would wind up with a clear winner.

We thought about that for a long time and then eventually we felt like no, when you have shows at this level, it’s no longer about the numbers: It’s about something less quantifiable. Let’s argue it out. And that’s what led to our decision to just get in Gchat for a couple of days and just talk out. Why do I value this show? I imagine Matt went into it convinced that “The Sopranos” was gonna be the No. 1 show. I felt pretty good about “The Simpsons” as my idea. But I certainly could have been talked into “The Wire” or “The Sopranos” and eventually we went with “The Simpsons.”

One interesting thing about the book that, I think, could throw some older people is that, while there are exceptions like “I Love Lucy” and “All in the Family,” most of the shows up in the top ten and the next tier are from the last decade or so — the post-Sopranos” period. I don’t disagree that this has been a great era for television, but is that fair? Have you gotten any resistance from older people who have read your rankings?

My mom has gone through the book and is very upset that a lot of her favorite shows from the ’50s and ’60s are not in there and said of a lot of these, “I’ve never heard of this; I’ve never heard of that.” That’s just among people who have seen advance copies. We were really mindful, because we’re both in our 40s, we didn’t want to be afflicted by recency bias. I said that so much that Matt got sick of me saying it.

There are probably some older shows that should be in there. “Naked City” is probably a blind spot that just neither of us had watched enough episodes of. So it didn’t get in there. I think, for the most part, TV’s just better now and it’s more in the drama than in the comedy.

When I was doing interviews for “The Revolution Was Televised,” people would ask me if I could do an equivalent version for comedy, and I said not really, because you could make a plausible list of the best TV dramas of all time and not have a single one that predates “The Sopranos,” and it would be a plausible list. If you did the same for comedy, you’d be leaving out “Lucy.” You’d be leaving out “The Honeymooners.” You’d be leaving out “Dick van Dyke” and “All in the Family” and “M*A*S*H” and “Mary Tyler Moore” and a bunch of other things. Then you’d just look like the young punk who says that all the new stuff is good and the old stuff isn’t.

So we tried our best, but I do think that — as we articulate at one point in the introduction — there’s more freedom in TV to do more kinds of things now and to aspire to more than there was in the early days. So when a show was great in the ’50s or ’60s or even ’70s, it was more of a miracle than it is now because the creators had to fight against so many forces that were pushing against the idea that TV even should try to be great.

I did an unscientific poll on Facebook the other day, and it was interesting how it broke down generationally. The older people felt the need to sort of champion older shows, like don’t forget” and then they’d name their favorite series from the ’50s or ’60s. They were swamped by Gen Xers writing in “Breaking Bad” and “The Wire” and so on.

One of my favorite running experiences when we were both at The Star-Ledger together was that any time I would write about “The Sopranos” and talk about it like it’s one of the greatest things ever, which it is and was, there was this one guy who called himself the “Criterion Kid” and he’d write these long, dismissive slug screeds about how “The Sopranos” is so overrated and it’s no “Berlin Alexanderplatz.” And he always mentioned “Berlin Alexanderplatz.” And the fact that I had not seen the miniseries version of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” was proof that I was a bad critic and that none of the modern stuff could hold a candle to the better things that had been made either earlier or overseas.

That’s great, but it’s just sort of a different genre.

One of the reasons we have that section on the live plays of the 1950s is to sort of make the argument that, yes, there was great drama back then. It looked and sounded very different from what we think of as “quality drama” now, but there was that at the start of the medium. That was referred to for so long as “the golden age,” so if you call now "the golden age,” it’s at most TV’s second, and probably, TV’s third golden age because the “Hill Street Blues” period got called the second golden age by people.

In the top ten, what you call “The Inner Circle,” one show pleasantly surprised me. We have things like “The Simpsons,” “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” which are talked about all the time and which I knew would be on there, and then you have shows that were critically acclaimed decades ago like “All in the Family” and “Cheers.” In any case, the show here that surprised me was “Deadwood.”

You are not the first to make that observation.

I don’t challenge it at all, but it feels like the least likely of that top ten, right?

If you had ever worked with us or spent more than five minutes with Matt and me, this would not have been a surprise to you. It’s the show both of us, but Matt especially, can’t stop talking about. It’s always been a very special little pet of ours. I think the reason it seems surprising to people, and this has come up when I talk to other TV critics too, they can get dismissive of it because it didn’t have an ending — or allegedly didn’t have an ending. That’s all it is. “The Sopranos” finished. “The Wire” finished. “Six Feet Under” finished. All these other shows finished, and sometimes people didn’t like the ending. They don’t like the ending of “Battlestar Galactica” or “Lost.” Or some people hate the ending of “The Sopranos,” frankly. But they ended the way the creators wanted them to.

“Deadwood” — everybody knew that HBO cut it off for whatever reason, and therefore can an unfinished masterpiece be held up on the same level as the others? The argument that we would make is (a) The actual ending that Milch was forced to shoot is the perfect ending for the show — even if there’s more story he could have told. The actual final scene of Swearengen scrubbing out the blood — there is no possible better end to everything that “Deadwood” was about than that scene and (b) even if you accept that it’s unfinished, it’s so good in those three seasons that if it actually did have a fourth that went through the fire and the rebuilding of the Gem and Bullock meeting Teddy Roosevelt and all the other stuff that it could have been about, it would have been in an argument for the top spot.

You say it’s downgraded by some people for not having an ending. But I think it also, more than any of these shows at the top with one exception, it didn’t really have an audience?

If you look at those ratings, especially compared to a lot of what’s on now, it did pretty well. There was even one year where it aired back to back with “The Sopranos.” In that year I think it did very well. That’s probably the greatest two-hour block of dramatic television in the history of the medium, even though that wasn’t necessarily the best “Sopranos” season. But it definitely wasn’t as watched as the others; that’s for sure. But nobody watched “The Wire” when it was on. No one did. That show has had sort of this huge afterlife in a way that “Deadwood” hasn’t necessarily.

One of the things we’re hoping that happens with this book is not just “Deadwood” but “Frank’s Place” and “Easy Street” and “Terriers” and some of the other lesser-known shows — I hope that they get rediscovered. Or in some cases, when there’s not even a home-video version, like “Frank’s Place,” maybe somebody pushes to finally have it released.

A lot of the shows in this book are gimmies. At least half of what’s in the top 100, if you ask any semiserious TV fan to guess what we put on it, they’d be able to very easily. Those shows should be in there and I’m happy they’re there and I think a lot of the writing we did about those is great. But what I hope is a bigger impact of the book ultimately is things like that or “In Treatment,” where they’ve been forgotten and they certainly shouldn’t be.

What makes “Deadwood” so indelible for you?

It has among the richest characters in the history of the medium, especially Al Swearengen, but really everybody. The dialogue is astonishingly good. Every time I go back and revisit it, I sort of discover new lines that I had just forgotten because they get buried under the metric tonnage of every other great line in it. There are certain moments in it of some sort of elemental power like when Swearengen euthanizes the Reverend Smith — I’ve seen it a million times and it still leaves me shaking every time. There are only a handful of other TV shows ever, including “The Wire” and “The Sopranos,” which it was contemporaneous with, that make me feel that way.

One show that I thought would be in the top ten, and it’s very close, is “M*A*S*H.” If you’re my age, it was known as being the great show of the period when we were growing up. And it was a show that a lot of kids and their parents had in common. I think it still has a real meaning for people looking back, and I say that without having watched an episode of it for many years. How do you think it stands up? What’s its place in television history?

“M*A*S*H” was actually originally in the top ten. When I mentioned before that at the last second we re-ranked things, “M*A*S*H” was the most notable victim in that it slid I think from 10 to 11 and switched places with “All in the Family.” I can’t remember exactly what scores got altered that ultimately changed it, but I think part of it was just consistency.

It ran for so long and there were so many different version of “M*A*S*H.” You have some people who adore the Larry Gelbart version where it’s just sort of straight comedy, and some who prefer the much more dramatic Alan Alda-driven version or they like the version in the middle by Ken Levine and David Isaacs that’s sort of a blending of the two. It’s kind of three or four different shows in one. Sometimes you can pull that off — like “Cheers” is two shows in one, but they’re both great shows. So I think that’s probably what elbowed it out. But it’s certainly no sin to be the 11th greatest show of all time by our ranking.

Parts of it have aged well; parts of it haven’t. Matt wrote about the treatment of women and the fact that even though it’s a feminist show and Alan Alda was like almost infamously feminist, the female characters other than Margaret are essentially just sort of there to help Hawkeye realize his own awesomeness.

Yeah, they’re sort of sex objects or prudes or some kind of female stereotype.

One of the things we did when we started splitting off to write the essays is we would start queueing up episodes of the shows. For instance, I watched “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” again, which is the one where Hawkeye’s childhood friend dies in the operating room. And I rewatched “POV,” which is the one that’s shot as if you’re seeing through the eyes of the soldier who has gone temporarily mute. Those are like 40-year-old shows and they hold up incredibly well and don’t feel dated. It’s impressive.

When you went back to watch older shows were there any surprises that really didn’t stand up?

Not necessarily for the process of this. That’s happened with some other things. Like I go back sometimes and I watch old “SNL” sketches, and they seem much flabbier. They feel guilty of all of the sins that I accuse the current “SNL” of.

But in terms of this, not really. But we were also sort of mainly looking at the cream of the crop. It’s not like we went back and watched the full run of “M*A*S*H” or the full run of “Cheers” or, god help us, the full run of “Gunsmoke.” We were looking at memorable episodes or sometimes just memorable scenes to pull a quote or look for some sort of thematic thing. 

We did the rankings before we went back and rewatched things. Our feeling was, we’ve done this long enough, both professionally and amateurishly, to feel like we knew the shows without that. So we were able to score them up on that level.

When you started at the Star-Ledger in 1996, would you have guess at that point that television would be as good and as varied and complex as it is now?

I kind of stumbled into TV criticism through the side door. I was a summer intern at the Star-Ledger and the paper’s TV critic couldn’t go to press tour so I got sent instead. It was sort of a whole series of happy accidents. But I felt like I had sort of gotten in at the best possible moment, because this was the era of “Seinfeld” of “Frasier,” “The Simpsons” at its peak. “NYPD Blue,” “ER,” “Homicide,” things like that. “X-Files.” I’m like, Wow, this is the best TV’s ever been! It can’t possibly get any better than this.

Then a couple of years later, one of our editors says, “Hey, this guy I went to college with, James Gandolfini, is gonna be in some new show about the Jersey mob. I think we should do something about that.”

So we had a front-row seat for everything that happened afterward. But certainly I could not have imagined the TV of today, like any part of it. If you had traveled back in time and handed me an iPhone and said, “Here’s 13 episodes of a show about a daredevil that was all released at once, streaming, and you can watch it on this phone right now,” I probably would have had a coronary.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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