Does anyone doubt that the best TV dramas of all time happened since 1999? I mean, if you asked any critic to rank their top five dramas ever, what do you think is going to make the list? The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and something else from the 21st century, right? The consensus on those four shows makes them the Mount Rushmore of serious fiction television. (Actually, that’s unfair…to TV. Teddy Roosevelt was never as locked into a top-4 consensus as those shows are. Thanks Difficult Men book.) Every single “greatest” drama came out in the Bush-Obama years right? Besides the top four, there’s Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, The Shield, Justified, The Killing, Game of Thrones…these are the best shows ever, right?
We don’t think this way about movies or music. Nobody is arguing that your all-time top 10 movie list or top 10 album list should be mostly or entirely 21st-century. It’s just TV drama (not comedy). And it’s just that simple.
Now, with an opening like that, you might expect me to disagree with the consensus. Nope! Those are great shows. I agree that the best dramatic TV shows have been in this century. I just want to point out one tiny little thing. None of those shows ever produced a whole lot of…uh, what do you call them again?…episodes. I sometimes wonder what the creators of great TV dramas of the 20th century – people like Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley – think when they read yet another encomium to the brilliance of David Simon or David Chase. Do you think they ever wonder about the relationship of quality to quantity? That it isn’t easy to write 10 amazing episodes a year when a network has your feet to the fire to come up with 22 in the same amount of time? You ever think they think, “Sure, Matt Weiner, Mad Men is great. Try making 22 of those a year and we’ll see how much the critics love you.”
How many of the legendary 21st-century shows do you think ever aired a 100th episode? Try…none of them. And the way TV is going – more like HBO, more like Britain – how likely do you think it is that any outstanding drama is going to get its episode count in triple digits? Game of Thrones? They’ll be done in 8 seasons if not sooner (80 episodes total). Boardwalk Empire? With that costly cast? Anything after season 6 (60 episodes) would be a shock. Orange is the New Black? The real-life Piper served 15 months. Sherlock? After Benedict Cumberbatch has starred in three more $100-million movies? Really? The Walking Dead? Want to wager? Homeland? You’re kidding right?
So, as the sun sets on even the possibility of a great 100-episode drama (like the sun once set on major league pitchers starting more than 40 games a season), let’s just take one blog entry to look back. What were the best American dramatic shows to make it to 100 episodes? (Not quite an arbitrary number; 100 used to be the gold standard to get your show into syndication.) You know what? Let’s vote. Vote for the best, rank a top ten, throw in your own suggestions, or rock it ten other ways. Let’s look over my Top 10, in alphabetical order:
Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Before Joss Whedon was running Hollywood, he was perfecting the ironic snark that we now see on lesser shows like Glee, while providing an antidote to the then-emergent Disney princess movement of Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, etc. And Buffy wasn’t the only Wonder Woman in her Justice League; she had all kinds of female (and male) helpers in the Scooby Gang, and yet we also remember the brilliant teachers and mentors and villains and all-round scenery-chewers of Sunnydale High (and U.C. Sunnydale). This was no procedural and nothing teeny-bopper; this was a show that knew how to raise the stakes (sorry). Yes, the supernatural premise was occasionally cheesy and too-easy, but now it seems ahead of its time.
ER – Rarely on any kind of Top 10 list now. It’s easy to take ER for granted, like a fruit tree in the garden or a pair of reliable tennis shoes. And I mean reliable: ER aired 331 episodes, perhaps running on fumes for a few of those last few seasons (although Maura Tierney can do no wrong). But ER took over the trail St. Elsewhere blazed, and managed to create riveting stories and even more compelling backstories, week after week. You cared about most of the main cast of ER – they were family. If this list was about the best show to air 300 episodes, who’s the competition – Gunsmoke? However, if this list (compared to Breaking Bad, The Wire, etc.) proves that stretching to 100 episodes gets you to the B-list, did ER push itself to B-minus?
The Fugitive – If you’ve never seen it, you’re probably wondering, how did they stretch that movie-length premise into 120 episodes? Well, let’s just say that Dr. Richard Kimble had to consider his medical ethics pretty much every hour of the show. But you might be surprised how many ways a good show can spin that. Before Prison Break, before Shawshank, before the Escape From films (Alcatraz, New York, Witch Mountain), there was something original, pulse-pounding and incredible here. There’s a reason the finale was the most-watched single episode of TV ever – uh, for 15 years.
Gilmore Girls – Yes, Gilmore Girls. Amy Sherman-Palladino deserves a place in the hall of fame next to people like Whedon and Bochco just for this show, which brought Preston Sturges-esque banter to a loving mother and daughter, where said banter has always belonged. Somehow, this small Martha Stewarty town felt like a small town and not like the movie backlot it obviously was. Somehow, though Lorelei’s parents reeked of entitlement, you couldn’t get enough of them. And the show gave the world Melissa McCarthy – you’re welcome.
Hill Street Blues – This basically took the sensibilities of the final, preachy seasons of M*A*S*H (a comedy, remember) and put them into a worn-down, female-friendly, multi-racial police station that was years ahead of its time. For its enthusiasts, this show was the 1980s (it ran from 1981 to 1987) – a reckoning with the changing faces of crime, and a sort of shaggy sobering up after too much partying in the 1960s and 1970s. In the end, its achievement was closer to the movie M*A*S*H – the pioneering of an organic ensemble where you cared so much about different characters that you might take any particular character’s side in a given argument. Often imitated, rarely equaled.
House, M.D. – All props to X-Files, but this is the most compelling, most consistently excellent one-hour show Fox ever ran. I saw the websites that charted the show’s bad science – that didn’t matter. More than any other show on this list, its quality lay in one central performance, that being Hugh Laurie’s. Give The Sopranos credit for giving America a theretofore unknown, unlikable anti-hero, but then give Laurie credit for taking House, and us, wherever the hell he wanted, into dark humor one minute, drug-addict pathos the next, into the depths of atheism and amorality. Not generally on lists like these, and should be.
Lost – Yes, it went off the rails with the time-travel and sideways universe, and instead of 121 episodes it should have had 108 (ooooooooooo). But amongst all shows with fantastical elements (before Game of Thrones), you cared about these characters. Over-rated: the puzzles. Properly rated: the actors, Hawaii. Under-rated: the “whoosh” noise between past and present – like an airplane falling. You won’t believe this, but pre-Lost, TV didn’t really flashback to a lot of character’s pasts – but Lost still did that best, because if your plane crashed on an island, there would be a big past-present schism in your life, more than on the many shows that now use flashback like using Kleenex.
Star Trek: The Next Generation – Certainly an acquired taste. If TNG is an anthology series, it’s the best one-hour anthology ever made. TNG was always painfully aware that it was straddling a galaxy-thick line between appealing to hardcore sci-fi nerds and drawing in people who never owned a comic book. In some ways it was the perfect show for the end of the Cold War; it wrestled with the issues at Fukuyama’s “End of History” better than almost any show ever could. Sure, it could be a little plastic, as though the dialogue was being read from a Klingon translation, but there was remarkable inventiveness and creativity here. Also, Patrick Stewart is a god among men, and Brent Spiner’s work here never hit a false note.
The Twilight Zone – Simply the best anthology series ever; Rod Serling’s original show ran for 5 years and aired (gasp!) 156 episodes. Deal with that, Terence Winter. Looking back, even the least of them had some kernel of a fascinating idea or moral conundrum that’s still just as relevant today. And there were plenty of all-time gems. Slightly handicapped on this list by its half-hour length and also by not repeating the same characters and actors week by week; it’s a staggering achievement that somehow gets more impressive every year.
The West Wing – Yes, I’ve seen both the Sorkinisms videos. And that’s reasonable critique. And no, The West Wing shouldn’t have repeatedly beaten The Sopranos at the Emmys. (Though if you think about it, each show probably had about the same amount of excellent minutes per season – not per capita.) But The West Wing is a little better than you remember. The dialogue is too much of its own style, and the characters sound too similar to each other, but at least half of it – usually the half featuring Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford, or John Spencer – really works.
Honorable Mentions: Alias, Columbo, Dragnet, The Good Wife, Law & Order, LA Law, NYPD Blue, St. Elsewhere, 24, The X-Files