The Writer’s Guild of America—the labor union of film and TV writers—has made a list of the 101 Best-Written English-language TV shows of all time. All genres could be considered, from soap operas to children’s programs, from cartoons to talk shows. Each union member could submit up to 20 titles. After all the submissions were processed, the final list was compiled, then released this week by the Guild. Two union leaders released a joint statement that was masterful in its ability to juxtapose a number of words in the English language yet say nothing at all:
“At their core, all of these wonderful series began with the words of the writers who created them and were sustained by the writers who joined their staffs or worked on individual episodes. This list is not only a tribute to great TV, it is a dedication to all writers who devote their hearts and minds to advancing their craft.”
They must write for The Talk.
Many of the picks seemed to be chosen for their revolutionary qualities—shows that presented a way of life or social issues that had never been done before. Hence shows like M*A*S*H, All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show.
There are shows that are simply so synonymous with good writing, a list wouldn’t be complete without them: The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Oz, Mad Men, Louie, Homicide, Homeland, Twin Peaks.
Then there are the comedies, both classic and new: Arrested Development, The Larry Sanders Show, Seinfeld, I Love Lucy, 30 Rock, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Carol Burnett Show. So far, so good. No big upsets.
There are some shows on the list that seem like a stretch: Law & Order, for one, is exhaustingly formulaic, as though written by robots; and you can see every punch line in Everybody Loves Raymond coming a mile away. As for Family Ties and Soap, has anyone watched them lately? They don’t hold up well.
But what really sticks in my craw is the exalted placement of Friends. I’m aware that the head writers and showrunners are very popular human beings in Hollywood, and for all I know, they spend all their free time rescuing kittens in peril. But no one can tell me there’s any poetry to that writing, or that the increasingly banal characters and recurrent, exhausted setups were equal to any of the writing on the shows I mentioned above. Proof positive? The show’s enduring popularity with pretty much everyone in the known universe. If we measure good writing by popularity, then it was good writing, but then, so is Two and a Half Men.
What’s worse is that Friends placed higher (No. 24) than what I consider to be one of the most exquisitely written shows of all time, Deadwood. That HBO show created by David Milch came in at No. 32, losing out to far inferior shows like Cheers (No. 8), Frasier (No. 24) and ER (No. 28). It’s not that those shows are terrible; it’s that Deadwood was so fantastic. Of course, not enough people saw it, and I’m guessing that plenty of Guild members didn’t even make enough money to subscribe to HBO during its tenure. Life can be rough for writers. Or so I hear.
I understand that the assessment of the writing for the purpose of this list tends to be based on a show’s full arc—and that those that run for eight seasons rather than three have an advantage. I also understand that shows with flat punch lines or banal language can still be considered well-written for reasons beyond feats of linguistic fancy. Writing for TV is about so much more than the words that emerge from an individual character’s mouth.
But the words that emerge from an individual character’s mouth matter too, don’t they? And when they are poetic and transform your understanding of what a TV character can sound like—of what language itself can sound like—shouldn’t that be acknowledged over a simplistic guitar song by Phoebe?
The Guild itself acknowledges Deadwood’s singularity with its description of it:
After a dozen years as the bard of NYPD Blue, David Milch’s first created series was a strange, brilliant, and rococo Western set in a Gold Rush town in the Dakota territories, circa the late 1800s. Outwardly, the show portrayed the frontier West’s physical indignities and ruthless chicanery. Within that Milch explored, once again, moral, spiritual and psychological dissolution and redemption. The show’s most ornate feature was its language, the way the characters spoke with a sometimes Shakespearian flourish, soliloquies profane and poetic intermingling with the muck-filled place Milch conjured.
When I first saw Deadwood, it was immediately clear I was in the presence of a language I hadn’t heard before. Sometimes I’d watch the show with close captioning because the words were too rich to absorb any other way. The characters all spoke in different registers, some of them more accessible than others, depending on class or regional variation. The language could be nightmare-inducingly sinister, or hilariously funny—in a single scene. In Deadwood, the language occupied as much room and complications as the set and the plot. It was something to marvel at in every show. Suffice to say, no one will ever convince me that anything Jennifer Aniston ever said on Friends was worthy of comparison.
Because so many people I know haven’t seen Deadwood or have been alienated by the profanity, I’ve chosen a few relatively curse-free quotes to demonstrate the complexity of expression.
Al Swearengen: A man, as it happens a rival of mine, learning the secret of a great man’s lieutenant, would make that lieutenant his slave. My rival knows that expanding the circle of the informed, diluting his power, will confound his intention, so he takes precaution to be the sole sharer of his secret. Then the world being the world, along comes a half-assed knight-errant, Utter, Hickok’s ex-partner, to put all my rival’s plans at risk. I’d seek audience with Utter, verify my thinking. He earns his bread shipping packages. And as the dimwit nobility that made him intercede may now make him reticent, you, Chief, will be my prop and ploy whilst I seek to draw him out.
Francis Wolcott: Believing yourself past surprise does not commend you to me as a friend. A man inadequately sophisticated or merely ignorant, or simply stupid, may believe himself past surprise, then be surprised to discover, for example, that Mr. Hearst already knows of my inclinations and finds them immaterial. Suggesting as a corollary that your skills for blackmail and manipulation no longer are assets to you, and for your fatuous belief in their efficacy, in fact have become liabilities. In short, you’ve overplayed your hand.
Alma Garret: “I’ve wished sometimes only to play checkers or to occupy myself some other way than having to see and feel so much sadness, or feel every moment how difficult things are, to understand or to live with…Can you look to me now, Sofia? Can you try? I will be so grateful if you will trust me with your sadness, and I will trust you with mine, so that even when we are sad we will be grateful for how much we love each other, and know that we are in the world as much in our pain as in our happiness.”
Seth: Charlie Utter thinks it has to come to blood.
Al: Charlie Utter’s likely right.
Seth: And if it has to, that we should strike first.
Al: Believe me, even now, in the forest, the blade would be between my teeth; me and you making our way stealthily forward. And as to us and him, if blood’s what it finally comes to, 100 years from now the forest is what they’ll find here. Dewy morning’s lost its appeal for me. I prefer to wake indoors.
George Hearst: I’m to take you for majestically neutral?
Merrick: I’d make the less exalted claim, as a journalist, of keeping my opinions to myself.
George Hearst: You are less majestically neutral than cloaking your cowardice in principle?
Merrick: I can only answer perhaps, Mr. Hearst, events have not yet disclosed to me all that I am.
And then there’s this, from Friends:
Phoebe: Oh god! Just DO it! Call her! Stop being so testosteroney!
Chandler: And that, is the real San Francisco treat!
I’m a big supporter of organized labor, but the WGA members have some explaining to do.