The Sopranos tops the WGA’s list of 101 best-written shows of all time. But Norman Lear and Carl Reiner singing a duet onstage at the Writers Guild Theater? Now that’s the show of shows. 

(June 6, 2013) 

Photos: Michael Jones
(L) Carl Reiner and Norman Lear sing a duet.  

Over the seven decades that television has been around, millions of words have been written for tens of thousands of episodes of thousands of shows. The best written? A daunting question that was answered last Sunday night when the Writers Guild West unveiled its list of the 101 Best Written TV Series of all time, a project seven years in the making that gathered together a group of television luminaries that is not likely to be seen again anytime soon.

From nonagenarian icons Norman Lear (All in the Family) and Carl Reiner (The Dick Van Dyke Show), who spontaneously broke into tune, to the creators of today’s most critically acclaimed shows Breaking Bad and Mad Men, the three-hour tribute event/panel program, co-sponsored by TV Guide Magazine, was a reminder, as WGAW President Chris Keyser said, that “at their core, all of these wonderful series began with the words of the writers who created them and sustained by the writers who joined their staffs or worked on individual episodes.”

“It was a funny, fascinating, moving retrospective and tribute to the great writers and television shows on the list,” added Aaron Mendelsohn, creator of the “TV 101” project and chair of the WGAW’s Publicity & Marketing Committee, which also includes W. Bruce Cameron, Michael Conley, Diane Driscoll, Gary Goldstein, Katherine Fugate, Margaret Howell, Ken Pisani, Ari Rubin and Susan Walter. The list has since been released to the general public, garnering enormous worldwide press coverage and, as of this printing, the WGAW website has exceeded a million page views for TV 101-related content. "It has sparked a lot of conversations and debates," said Mendelsohn. "But the nice thing is, they're all talking about writing."

“Sitting in a room with those guys was my college.” Carl Reiner, on the Your Show of Shows writers room.  

The Sopranos topped the 101 list in first place. The nine series that followed in the Top 10 are Seinfeld, The Twilight Zone, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mad Men, Cheers, The Wire and The West Wing. At the other end of the list, Oz came in at 101, with The Fugitive, Late Night with David Letterman and Louie tying for 100. “I think the list was very well balanced between genres and decades,” said Mendelsohn. “I was very happy to see a lot of well-written shows from the 60s and 70s represented.”

Shows were revealed in groups of 20 (from the bottom up) interspersed with discussion about early television, the Golden Age of the 70s and 80s and TV today. In addition to Lear and Reiner, the panel of showrunners and writers whose series made the TV 101 list included Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues), James L. Brooks (The Mary Tyler Moore Show), Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad), Winnie Holzman (My So-Called Life), Steven Levitan (Modern Family), Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica), Gail Parent (The Carol Burnett Show) and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), and host/moderator Merrill Markoe (Late Night with David Letterman).

What became clear throughout the discussion was that showrunners have always faced obstacles. Parent, who was the only female among ten writers on The Carol Burnett Show, wasn’t hired on the The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour because, she was told, “the writers room is so filthy.” (Parent went on to write for The Golden Girls). Weiner waited four-and-a-half years before his script for Mad Men was turned into a pilot; he gave it to HBO three or four times “and never even got into the building.” Bochco went to war with the network censors over language, nudity and storylines on Hill Street Blues. He broke new ground and ultimately became an early proponent of the story arc, which has become a mainstay of television drama.

“When I die just put on my tombstone that I spent my life fighting broadcast standards.”Steven Bochco  

Photos: Michael Jones
TV 101 Panel: (L-R) Matthew Weiner, Ronald D. Moore, Gail Parent, James L. Brooks, Steven Bochco, Winnie Holzman, Vince Gilligan and Merill Markoe (moderator). Not pictured: Steven Levitan.  

“We had created so many characters in the pilot that when we got to the series we realized there was no way we could service them all if it was purely episodic,” said Bochco. “We decided to serialize the show with long story arcs so that even if your character was only in two or three scenes, they were in significant scenes that were part of a larger story.”

Moore, who cut his teeth on Star Trek: The Next Generation before creating Battlestar Galactica, said writing sci-fi gave him the freedom to stealthily address provocative issues. “We got away with murder as far as content and subject matter. We dealt with religion, fundamentalism, polytheism, monotheism . . . and the network basically never said anything about it. If it’s sci-fi it doesn’t count.”

Throughout its history, the panelists agreed, television has both impacted and reflected the culture. Seinfeld’s famous masturbation episode was a turning point in television, recalled Levitan who, along with co-creator Christopher Lloyd, broke new ground with the portrayal of a gay couple with a child in Modern Family.

“The America population is subversive, and we are an anti-authoritarian culture,” reflected Weiner. “. . . it comes across in the most populist medium, which is television. It is the hypocrisy between what we publicly tolerate and privately enjoy. What’s out there now in the marketplace is controlling that, and it’s been a great time.”

Read the complete list of 101 Best Written TV Series