Sepinwall, who writes for HitFix, along with his friend and fellow well-known critic Matt Zoller Seitz of Vulture, recently released a book - appropriately entitled TV (the Book) - in which they outlined the best American TV shows of all time. I have not yet read the book, although they have released excerpts about their restrictions - only (mostly) complete, American, narrative television shows were eligible, and duration mattered - their methodology, and their results on various sites.
The critics evaluated shows based on six criteria - Innovation, Influence, Consistency, Performance, Storytelling, and Peak - giving twenty points in each category. They included a hundred shows in their final list, and they have let it slip that the top five - which, as you can find in this article (spoiler alert!), included two comedies and three dramas that are commonly regarded among the best in their craft - all ended up with a tie score. I can understand why they broke the tie how they did (spoiler alert II!), and I am very much looking forward to reading the book. But in the meantime, their work has inspired me to write a post of my own summarizing my own journey with TV.
My Critical Viewing History
My reflections on my journey in the world of prestige television have made it very clear that I really don't have the pedigree to be a TV critic. While I am choosy and critical about what I watch and I have a well-developed sense of what I enjoy and what makes good television, there are a few strikes against me being a true critic of the medium.
For one thing, I'm too young to be a true critic. I did not become a teenager - the point at which I would regard it to be possible to begin to appreciate the nuance and depth of prestige television - until the mid-1990s, so I missed a lot of the early years of prestige television: Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, L.A. Law, Twin Peaks, and the early years of NYPD Blue. The first time I really remember watching "prestige" television was ER; the first episode I remember watching was "Hell and High Water", in which Doug Ross (George Clooney) tries to save a kid stuck in a flooded culvert. I was captivated, and I watched ER for a number of years afterward as a result.
In fact, I have really only been intentionally attentive to television as a medium for a decade. For the first few years of my TV life (at least, more than Saturday morning cartoons), I was in high school and I did not prioritize watching television outside of The Simpsons and Seinfeld and the rest of NBC's Thursday night "Must-see TV" lineup. I half-watched a number of prestige shows in those years - ER, Law and Order, The Practice, The X-Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (mostly because I had a big crush on Miss Sarah Michelle Gellar) - but I was not committed to TV as a medium whatsoever.
I similarly did not give time or attention to television in my first few years of university in part because I had a vibrant social group and in part because I took time away from all media for a few years. Although I watched a few shows here and there over the years between 2003 and 2006 - mostly Survivor and The Joe Schmo Show - it actually was not until the fall of 2006 that I really got back into television. That fall featured one of the best network premiere line-ups I can remember, as 30 Rock, Friday Night Lights, Heroes, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip all debuted on NBC, and I was really hooked. Dexter also premiered that fall - although I did not discover it until the following spring - and by the time I added Chuck to my regular viewing in fall 2007, I had a fairly regular rotation of shows that I followed.
In the decade since, I have continually had shows that I have followed and I have been much more active in following television. I have posted regular updates of shows I have watched over the course of my twelve years of blogging, and many of those updates contain what are now amusing references to shows I at one time was interested in watching (most of which never made it to my queue). It is also interesting that the past decade also marks my time as a teacher (as opposed to a university student) as well as as a husband, so many of my viewing choices and patterns have been shaped by those realities, whether that is limitation of time because of work or limitation of choice because of my wife's interests.
In this process of reflection, I discovered that I do not actually watch all that much television. Sure, I watch about ten different series in a year, but it only works out to a few hours in a week at most - and that includes comedies, variety, reality, and dramatic programming. I was actually quite surprised by just how few dramatic TV shows I have actually watched through to completion, and a little dismayed as I went through my blog archives that many of the shows that are on my "to watch" list have been listed there for at least five years (if not longer).
I already revised my list of favourite sitcoms in recent memory, so I'm taking a bit of a different angle to this blog than Seitz and Sepinwall did in their discussion. Mostly, I'm collating information that I have shared in my years in review and media updates into one master post. I briefly considered separating this list into three categories - "intense" dramas, more "realistic" fare, and science fiction - but then I realized that those differentiations were fairly arbitrary and the process caused more problems than it was worth, so I have grouped all dramas together here.
I decided to use similar guidelines to Sepinwall and Seitz, choosing to focus on completed narrative television (for the most part). I did not necessarily limit myself to American television, but I also did not choose to wade too far into international waters. Most of my viewing comes from the past ten years, though a few examples extend back twenty (or slightly more) years. My goal is primarily to be descriptive, not prescriptive, and to rank the shows that I have watched in their entirety at this point. I have included several lists that are intended to illuminate or comment on some of the gaps in my television watching history.
Whereas the two real critics had a long process in which they ranked series based on those six criteria, my process has been far less intensive. My goal was to rank the shows I have watched to completion in terms of my preference in watching them again. My final rankings were a bit problematic as a result - particularly my top two - but I'm mostly happy with where the shows landed.
Shows not included
There are many notable shows that did not make my final list for various reasons. Some were mini-series that I found it difficult to quantify in the same way because of the intentionally limited nature of the story that they were telling. Even though there might not be much separating these series - including Band of Brothers; Generation Kill (yet to watch); The Night Of; The Pacific (yet to watch); and Show Me A Hero - from some of the inclusions on the list, particularly the prematurely cancelled series, I decided not to include them because they were not intended to last longer than they did. I was not sure where to include True Detective, so I'll just add it here as an addendum to this list; besides, I only watched the first season.
There are some shows that are missing because I have no interest in watching them. There are a variety of reasons that any of these shows are on this particular list, ranging from timing of when they originally aired, the time commitment required to watch them, a lack of interest in either the content, actors, or created world, or in some cases some of the moral issues raised. Here are ten shows - any of which might otherwise factor into this conversation - that I have not watched and which I am not likely to watch: 24; Deadwood; Game of Thrones; The Good Wife; House; Lost; Orange is the New Black; Six Feet Under; Sons of Anarchy; and The Sopranos.
Another group of shows that I did not include are those that I have not yet watched. Many of these shows have been on my "to watch" list for five years (or more), and they vary greatly in my desire to watch them and my shame in not having done so. Some are short series of limited significance; the best example being The Cape, a short-lived NBC superhero series whose main claim to fame and appeal to me is that Abed's infatuation with it in an episode of Community led to the original "six seasons and a movie" hashtag for that show).
Some are shows that rank lower enough on my "to watch" list that I will not likely take the opportunity to do so (like Treme), whereas others are short enough that I just have to prioritize them in my queue (like The Hour). Then there are a few long-form science fiction shows, like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Fringe, that have been on my radar but never with enough vigor to really push their way up in the queue (although we did start watching DS9 this summer thanks to Netflix).
Then there are the Final Five, the five shows that have been on my "to watch" list for at least five years. These are the shows that I am embarrassed to not have watched by this point. I've started all of them, but stopped (often after watching the pilot) despite my interest, usually because I got distracted or consumed by other television. These five, in ascending order to highest priority, are: Mad Men; Battlestar Galactica; Friday Night Lights; The West Wing; and The Wire.
The final group of shows that are not on my list are series that I started watching, but that I did not finish. Some were through choice, some by attrition, and some by some combination of the two, but these are shows that I started but that remain - and mostly which shall stay - incomplete, along with the amount of the show that I actually watched and a short commentary on my reasoning therein.
Boardwalk Empire (almost halfway through Season 1) - I bailed early on this HBO gangster period drama, as there just was not enough there to keep me interested; I also had a glut of "non-wife" shows going on at the time, so it did not make sense to add another. I heard it really got interesting in Seasons 3 and 4, but it just didn't seem worth it to go back to it at that point.
Friday Night Lights (Seasons 1 and 2) - The only show on this list that I want to pick up again, I stopped watching FNL after the second season was abbreviated by the writer's strike and I never picked it up again mainly because I wanted to watch it with my wife, which meant starting over from the beginning. I'm still holding out hope that we might go back to Texas sometime.
Glee (Seasons 1 and 2) - It seems like such a long time ago that I was taken up by the first season of Glee in the course of a weekend. I dropped it partway through Season 2, returned to finish it a few months later, and then never picked it up again and never looked back. It seems odd to me now that this show ever would have been a thing for me, but such was the zeitgeist in 2010, I suppose.
Heroes (Season 1 to late Season 3) - Heroes was my first real TV breakup, so in some ways it was the hardest to leave behind. Even though it was clear that the show had been a mess for two years, I stuck with it until almost the end of the third season. I learned a valuable lesson about relationships with TV shows through my experience with Heroes: it's good to break up with a show early on and to not prolong the separation.
Homeland (Seasons 1 and 2, and 5 episodes of Season 3) - I, like many viewers, was immediately enraptured with the first season of Homeland when it debuted. I was less enthused about the second season, although it still had enough of the DNA of the first season that I was willing to endure some of the largesse of the plot. I tried to keep watching through Season 3, but I eventually fell behind and just never bothered to catch up. Although I heard it had a renaissance in Season 4, I just never returned to it.
House of Cards (Season 1) - I watched the first season of the pulpily delicious Netflix political drama in the course of a week in which I was deliriously sick and at home from work. I had always intended to return to it, but I'm not disappointed that I did not follow it up. It feels like how I never watched the second or third Matrix movies - that the original is better off for not continuing to pursue the story.
Luther (Season 1) - I watched the first season of this intense British detective drama mainly because of star Idris Elba. I started watching season 2 and then never returned to it. I might yet go back to it someday.
After all of those exceptions and exemptions, I ended up with only eleven narrative dramas that I have watched through to completion - a surprisingly low number, and, as I said earlier, one that automatically disqualifies me from ever becoming a "real" TV critic. But I guess I have to start somewhere, so this is my list as it stands. Keep in mind that this is not a list of the "best" TV shows, but rather a list of my favourites, with some consideration of artistry as part of the final ranking.
NR. Dexter - My only true television regret and the one show that I would unequivocally not recommend among the shows I have watched. Despite my wife's admonitions to stop watching the show for many years and my own misgivings about the morality of the show, I kept watching Dexter until its bitter end, which is really only worth watching for how bad it really is. I cannot even recommend that anyone start the series, even if they intend to not watch it all the way through.
10. The Newsroom - Sorkin's critique of cable news started off great in Season 1, faded in Season 2, but then came back in a shortened third season. It has its moments and some great characters, but it mostly feels like a missed opportunity.
9. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip - I still have fond memories of Studio 60, despite its status as a punchline in most television critic circles. Sure, it was self-indulgent and silly and maudlin and melodramatic, but I will always have a soft spot for Matt and Danny and the rest of the gang.
8. Doctor Who - I almost divided this into two separate entries - the Russell T. Davies years and the Steven Moffat years - but I decided to include the entire modern run of Doctor Who as one series, and I included it here even though it is not yet complete. The rebooted series has undeniably improved with each Doctor, and I am really excited to see the new series in the new year.
7. The Shield - To date, The Shield is the only Golden Age show I have watched after it was finished (as opposed to watching it while it was airing). I would argue that it is in the conversation of the best police shows of all time, and its use of "real-life" camera as well as the way in which it advanced the anti-hero make it one of the indispensable entries in the development of TV in the new cable age. Still, somehow, it is still underrated, and it's one of those shows that often gets ignored, on the tier below the big three "best shows" (The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad). But The Shield has as much entitlement to that conversation as those three shows do; it has a truly Shakespearean structure with five acts, and Season 5 (with Forest Whitaker as IA officer Jon Kavanaugh) remains among the best seasons of TV ever produced.
6. Justified - Justified is the only "Peak TV" era show on my list (ie. post-2010), and one of the few "intense" dramas on the list. Its combination of western, action, detective, and comedy is pitch perfect throughout its six seasons, and I can easily see myself going back to Harlan County, even if just for brief visits in particular episodes.
5. Chuck - Sure, this spy send-up was campy at times, but it was also incredibly entertaining and heartfelt right until its conclusion. I don't know that I have ever had as much fun watching a TV show as I did with Chuck. It was brilliantly meta- in so many ways, both about its genre, but also about American corporate culture and nerd culture, and it remains one of those shows that was made more special by its constant status on the TV endangered list; the fact that we fans got five seasons remains one of TV's modern miracles.
4. Freaks and Geeks - In some ways, this show is better for having not lasted longer than the one season it was given. It remains a perfect time capsule not only of the time it demonstrates (1980-81) but also of the time in which it aired (1999-2000). It is one of - if not the - best high school show ever aired, and despite its short run, it remains emotionally resonant and pop culturally poignant, up to and including (I'm sure) serving as inspiration for Stranger Things, my favourite show of this year so far.
3. Firefly - If this science fiction show had aired even three years later, I have no doubt that it would have lasted five or six seasons, rather than the fifteen episodes that were produced. The fact that the Verse is still alive and well in nerd culture speaks to how great of a show Firefly actually was (and still is).
2. Star Trek: The Next Generation - You knew it would be somewhere on this list, and it almost ranked "Number One". In fact, I would venture that TNG would be most likely from any show on this list to be my "desert island" series, but I still could not rank it at the top despite my personal history with the show. The first couple of seasons are a little wonky, and even later seasons have a few faltering moments, but it's mostly because of the other show that this lands here.
1. Breaking Bad - The king. Would I actually choose Breaking Bad over TNG if I had to choose? Probably not. But I don't think I could actually rank anything over Breaking Bad, which still remains my measure for any "intense" stories I might choose to pursue in the future and the measure of the success of the medium in general. I honestly do not know that anything will ever top - or even equal - Breaking Bad in terms of narrative and pop culture success - and no, Thrones is not near that mark - and I think that Bad will still be part of our literary fabric in fifty years.
Television is a fascinating medium in so many respects. It demands a level of commitment in time that other media do not necessitate as part of their nature. There is a familiarity and a comfort that develop with its characters that does not happen with movies. And there is an emotional bond that grows that is not really present in any other medium.
For each one of the shows I listed as having watched - including those I watched in part - I have many distinct memories not only of moments from within the world of the show, but also from how my own life intersected with the show. I remember where I watched "Ozymandias", the best episode of Breaking Bad, or conversations about when and why Heroes and Dexter went wrong, or discovering Firefly for the first time.
There is something intimate about television that transcends its limitations, so in that respect, I am glad that I have been as choosy as I have been about the TV I have watched; if anything, I wish I had been choosier. Movies, in particular, are easy to forget, but TV stays with you if you keep watching. Watching television is really like reading books; after all, there will always be more books to read than there is time to read them, and it is easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of classic and contemporary literature that I have not read - or TV shows I have not yet watched.
But although it can feel overwhelming to always be thinking about the gaps that exist in my personal experience of either the literary or television canons, it is important not to be paralyzed by their presence. I acknowledge those shortcomings and I do my best to work around them or through them in both my reading and viewing patterns. I cannot watch more than one show or read more than one book at any given time, so when I finish one, I just have to ask "what's next?" and proceed that way.
In spite of (or perhaps because of) all of these thoughts about my history with the medium of television, for the most part, I am happy with my viewing habits. I do not spend an inordinate amount of time, energy, or money on television, and although it is indispensably part of my media fabric, it is not so intractably so that I cannot go without TV for periods of time.
I'm surprisingly okay with having only a few shows on the go at any given time, and that I choose not to consume a vast majority of the content being produced. Sure, I am embarrassed at times from not having seen those five shows, but all it will take is the right spark and I will start to correct those oversights.
I do wonder how much my list will change from what it is. Each of those top ten have a definitive place in my personal canon, and in some respects, it is difficult to see that list expanding by too much over the next decade. I might add a show or two a year to my "following" list, and if my experience over the past decade is any indication, I will drop several of those shows well before their completion.
I think the best possibility for additions or shifts in my personal list will come from those five shows that have been on my list for years, although there are a surprising number of current shows that could (and/or will) end up in their ranks by the time they finish. There are shows that I am currently watching - Better Call Saul, Broadchurch, Fargo, Sherlock, and Stranger Things - that, if they continue their current trajectories, will easily rank among my personal favourites. Furthermore, there are currently airing shows that have been on my radar to watch (for years, in a couple of cases) - The Americans, Mr. Robot, Orphan Black - that might someday make my list.
Although I lamented not having been born earlier in regard to my inability to become a true TV critic, I would argue that it has never been a better time to be a TV fan. Not only is there more TV being produced than there ever has been, there is more access to more quality TV from the past than ever. Streaming has revolutionized television, and it is truly exciting to be in the midst of the "Peak TV" age.
I think there is a distinct possibility that, much as the early 1980s and mid-1990s marked significant shifts in the history of television, these mid-teens might mark a similarly significant shift in the medium, and it is truly exciting and invigorating to see where it might go. And it will be interesting to return to this list in future years just to see how much it changes for me as I continue to watch and learn. Now let us all bask in television's warm glowing warming glow.