‘The Sopranos’ tops WGA list of best-written TV shows ever

Senior Television Writer
06.03.13 199 Comments


Last night, the Writers Guild of America released its list of the 101 best-written TV shows of all time, a delayed follow-up to the WGA’s 2006 list of the best-written films ever.

Like any such list, it is meant to do two things at once: 1)Serve as a historical standard, and 2)Stimulate conversation. And by “conversation,” I mean “outrage and indignation,” because that will further stimulate genuine talk. If everyone looked at the WGA list – both the shows included and their rankings – nodded their heads and said, “Yup, that seems right,” then the list would be forgotten quickly and used only as occasional reference material.

So while “The Sopranos” as the top-ranked show on the list would seem like an obvious choice to some, I know from the reaction to my book(*) that a lot of viewers soured on “The Sopranos” after the finale, and after some of the shows that followed it. I’m sure fans of “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” etc. are annoyed by that ranking, just as I’m sure “The Simpsons” fans think their show should be much higher than 11th, that fans of ’50s and ’60s TV are unhappy that “The Twilight Zone” is the only pre-1970 series in the top 10, etc.

(*) I bring up the book less because all 12 shows highlighted in it are on this list (as they should be), with “Oz” taking the last spot, than because today is the last day of HitFix’s contest where you could win a signed copy of it.

I can certainly quibble with a lot of the individual rankings, and also with the inclusion of one or two shows – “Homeland” at 48 is much too high, given that I’m not sure a show with one great season and one problematic one should be on the list at all at this point – but on a whole, these are 101 shows for the medium to be proud of. But before I give you the full list, I have a few overall thoughts:

* As noted, “The Twilight Zone” is the only pre-1970 show in the top 10, though “I Love Lucy” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show” are both rightly in the top 15. The composition of the top 10 suggests that the best time in history for TV comedy was the early ’70s (“All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”), while the best time for TV drama was around the turn of the century (“The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “The West Wing”). Sounds about right overall, even if some of the individual placements seem off.

* By including miniseries, variety shows, talk shows, and shows from the UK, the list opens itself up to many more questions of inclusion and exclusion than if it had just stuck to American sitcoms and dramas. Why “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “Late Night with David Letterman” but not “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson”? Why “Band of Brothers” but not “From the Earth to the Moon”? Is “The Prisoner” really only the 90th best-written show ever? (Recency bias also figures into “Downton Abbey” being the highest-ranking Brit show of all time. Even if I filter out my own issues with that series, it’s absurd that it’s higher than “The Prisoner,” “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” “Fawlty Towers,” “The Office,” etc.)

* A lot of writers pop up on the list multiple times, sometimes with a mix of shows they worked on and ones they created (David Chase for “The Sopranos,” “The Rockford Files” and “Northern Exposure,” Tina Fey for “30 Rock” and “SNL,” to name just two), sometimes as the creator or co-creator of multiple series (Steven Bochco with “Hill Street Blues,” “NYPD Blue” and “L.A. Law,” plus one-time “Hill Street” writer David Milch for “NYPD Blue” and “Deadwood”). One writer who surprisingly only has one show on the list: Norman Lear, with “All in the Family” standing in for his entire ’70s empire.

* WGA vs. Emmy: Emmy winners for best comedy that didn’t make the list: “Ally McBeal,” “My World and Welcome to It” (1970), “The Monkees” (1967), “The Jack Benny Show” (1959 & 1961), “Make Room for Daddy” (1955). Emmy winners for best drama that didn’t make the list: “The Practice” (1998 & 1999), “Picket Fences” (1993 & 1994) – the only David E. Kelley show on the list at all is “L.A. Law,” which he didn’t create but ran for a while – “Cagney & Lacey” (1985 & 1986), “Lou Grant” (1979 & 1980), “Police Story” (1976), “The Waltons” (1973), “Elizabeth R” (1972), “The Senator” (1971), “Marcus Welby, MD” (1970), “NET Playhouse” (1969), “Mission: Impossible” (1967 & 1968), plus a bunch of other anthology series in the late ’50s and early ’60s. (Note: I went with the series awards over the writing awards because writing is for individual episodes, whereas in theory the series awards represent an entire season at least. Among the Emmy writing winners who weren’t on the list and weren’t already mentioned above: “My Name Is Earl,” “The Bernie Mac Show,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” “Ellen,” “Frank’s Place” and “Holocaust.”

Anyway, I’m sure there will be much arguing about what’s on, what’s off, and what should be ranked above what else, so here’s the whole list:

1. “The Sopranos”

2. “Seinfeld”

3. “The Twilight Zone” (1959)

4. “All in the Family”

5. “M*A*S*H”

6. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”

7. “Mad Men”

8. “Cheers”

9. “The Wire”

10. “The West Wing”

11. “The Simpsons”

12. “I Love Lucy”

13. “Breaking Bad”

14. “The Dick Van Dyke Show”

15. “Hill Street Blues”

16. “Arrested Development”

17. “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”

18. “Six Feet Under”

19. “Taxi”

20. “The Larry Sanders Show”

21. “30 Rock”

22. “Friday Night Lights”

23. “Frasier”

24. “Friends”

25. “Saturday Night Live”

26. “The X-Files”

27. “Lost”

28. “ER”

29. “The Cosby Show”

30. “Curb Your Enthusiasm”

31. “The Honeymooners”

32. “Deadwood”

33. “Star Trek”

34. “Modern Family”

35. “Twin Peaks”

36. “NYPD Blue”

37. “The Carol Burnett Show”

38. “Battlestar Galactica” (2005)

39. “Sex & The City”

40. “Game of Thrones”

41. (tie) “The Bob Newhart Show”; “Your Show of Shows”

43. (tie) “Downton Abbey”; “Law & Order”; “Thirtysomething”

46. (tie) “Homicide: Life on the Street”; “St. Elsewhere”

48. “Homeland”

49. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”

50. (tie) “The Colbert Report”; “The Good Wife”; “The Office” (UK)

53. “Northern Exposure”

54. “The Wonder Years”

55. “L.A. Law”

56. “Sesame Street”

57. “Columbo”

58. (tie) “Fawlty Towers”; “The Rockford Files”

60. (tie) “Freaks and Geeks”; “Moonlighting”

62. “Roots”

63. (tie) “Everybody Loves Raymond”; “South Park”

65. “Playhouse 90”

66. (tie) “Dexter”; “The Office” (US)

68. “My So-Called Life”

69. “Golden Girls”

70. “The Andy Griffith Show”

71. (tie) “24”; “Roseanne”; “The Shield”

74. (tie) “House”; “Murphy Brown”

76. (tie) “Barney Miller”; “I, Claudius”

78. “The Odd Couple”

79. (tie) “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”; “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”; “Star Trek: The Next Generation”; “Upstairs, Downstairs”

83. “Get Smart”

84. (tie) “The Defenders”; “Gunsmoke”

86. (tie) “Justified”; “Sgt. Bilko (The Phil Silvers Show)”

88. “Band of Brothers”

89. “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In”

90. “The Prisoner”

91. (tie) “Absolutely Fabulous” (UK); “The Muppet Show”

93. “Boardwalk Empire”

94. “Will & Grace”

95. “Family Ties”

96. (tie) “Lonesome Dove”; “Soap”

98. (tie) “The Fugitive”; “Late Night with David Letterman”; “Louie”

101. “Oz”

What does everybody else think?

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