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Two Critics Pick The All-Time Best TV Shows. And They Know You Already Hate Their List

TV (The Book) co-authors Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz talk their ranking system and how debates shaped their new book.

Two Critics Pick The All-Time Best TV Shows. And They Know You Already Hate Their List

Let's get this right out of the way: Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, the authors of TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time, know you won't agree with all of their choices, and they don't expect you to do so.

"I'm already kind of dreading the think pieces that might be written about this book. 'How dare these guys presume to rank these shows! Here is what you forgot, and here is what you shouldn’t have put in for X reason!'" says Seitz, who is the TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com as well as the editor-in-chief and lead film critic of RogerEbert.com. "We said in the introduction, this is not meant to be the definitive pantheon of all time for everyone. It's only Matt and Alan's list. That's all it is. We want more people to do more books like this."

Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller SeitzPhoto: Herman Lee

"I would agree with Matt. There is a reason we put 'The Book' part of the title in parenthesis. It's a pompous-sounding title," says Sepinwall, who writes "What's Alan Watching?" for HitFix.com and is the author of The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever, "but we are not intending to be pompous about it. We just felt like we wanted a book like this to exist. And we want to see—as Matt says—lots of other lists. We've given our 100—we cannot wait for yours."

Here, the two television critics and close friends talk to Co.Create about the ranking system they created for TV (The Book), how they influenced and educated each other while debating what shows to include, and how they would still be revising the book right now if there was no such thing as a deadline.

The Sopranos[Photo: courtesy of HBO]

Sometimes Criticism Involves Number Crunching

Sepinwall and Seitz, who first met in the late 1990s when they shared the TV beat at The Star-Ledger newspaper in Newark, New Jersey, came up with their top 100 list—dubbed "the Pantheon"—using a complex numerical ranking system, which is explained in detail over a few pages at the start of the book.

In brief, the guys started with a list of what they considered several hundred of the best shows of all time—considering dramas and comedies that had mostly completed their series runs (as the mostly implies, there were exceptions to that rule for shows like The Simpsons and South Park)—then assigned anywhere from 1 to 10 points to each show in the categories of innovation, influence, consistency, performance, storytelling, and how great each show was at its absolute peak. You can see the scores every single show that made the top 100 earned in each category and in total in charts at the end of TV (The Book). Not one of the shows got a perfect score.

"There is a school of thought that holds math is antithetical to the idea of evaluating art, but if you are really meticulous about it, it's really just a way of sort of hanging a number on something you feel," Seitz says of the numerical ranking system that he and Sepinwall relied upon.

Sepinwall credits the numerical ranking system with creating a sense of order for him and Seitz as they worked on the list and allowing readers to get an understanding of the criteria involved in the selection process, showing everyone that the choices weren't made at random.

"Orange Is the New Yellow" episode of The Simpsons[Photo: courtesy of Fox]

Working With Another Critic Expands One's Thinking

Choosing the No. 1 show involved negotiation because there was a five-way tie for first place between The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Cheers, The Simpsons, and The Wire, with each of the shows scoring a total of 112 points. A chapter of the book is devoted to how Seitz and Sepinwall ultimately decided to rank The Simpsons No. 1 after talking through the merits of all five series and arguing their points in a series of GChats. It's enlightening to read the GChat transcript and see how the two critics challenge each other's thinking and finally come to a decision they can both stand behind.

"It's a useful exercise because when you talk your opinions out with someone whose taste you admire—if not necessarily always agree with—you start to clarify your own thinking. There are several moments in that discussion where Alan is really challenging some assumptions that I make, and that I've always made—in some cases, assumptions that I didn't know were assumptions," Seitz reflects, pointing out: "For example, I was resisting the idea that The Simpsons could be the No. 1 show. I eventually figured out with Alan's help that it was because I have a little bit of an anti-comedy bias. That's something that I've been railing about for years—this idea that comedy is somehow inherently less important than drama. Here I have been agitating publicly for people to disabuse themselves of this idea that comedy is less important than drama, and I had a touch of that myself."

Louise Lasser as Mary Hartman in Norman Lear's Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman[Photo: courtesy of Sony Pictures Television]

Smaller, Less "Successful" Shows Get Their Due

While their top five shows are known quantities and plenty of other iconic shows ranging from The Dick Van Dyke Show to Seinfeld are celebrated, less widely known shows like In Treatment, which centers on a psychotherapist's (played by Gabriel Byrne) sessions with his patients, made the list. "When I was at the TCA [Television Critics Association Press Tour] this summer, I ran into someone who is a producer on In Treatment. I showed him the book, and I showed him where it ranked. Even he, who worked on the show and knew how good it was, couldn't believe that his obscure little show would be considered up there among the other things it ranked next to," Sepinwall says. "Things need to be reconsidered in that way."

"I think there is a tendency not just in television but in film criticism and books, everything, to latch on to certain titles and just treat them as though they are the only titles that exist," Seitz says. "I don't want to be a snob about this at all, but there is more to literature than To Kill a Mockingbird, there is more to cinema than Citizen Kane, and there is more to television than The Simpsons, The Sopranos, The Wire, Cheers, and Breaking Bad, which are my top five."

TV (The Book)'s Pantheon includes series that the authors hope a new generation of viewers will be inspired to discover, like the groundbreaking Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, an odd, satirical soap opera about a housewife (Louise Lasser) that aired in the 1970s and was created and produced by Norman Lear, and Frank's Place, a half-hour show about an African-American professor (Tim Reid) who leaves Brown University to move to New Orleans to run his late father’s restaurant and bar and ran for one season in the late 1980s.

You can buy Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman on DVD, but Frank's Place is not available on DVD or via streaming, though you can catch a few episodes on YouTube. As Seitz points out in the book, Frank's Place had a great soundtrack featuring blues, jazz, rock, and prewar standards that made the show too expensive to relicense for DVD release or streaming. "I'll tell you, my greatest fantasy is somebody is going to read this book and go, 'Wow, Frank's Place. I've never heard of it before. I want to see that.' They are going to be upset it's not available, and somehow, miraculously, the show will get a proper DVD release with all of the music relicensed so that people can appreciate what it was like when it ran on CBS in 1988," Seitz says.

UnReal[Photo: Michelle Faye, courtesy of A&E Networks, Lifetime]

Does One Ever Stop Writing A Book? Nope.

While TV (The Book), published by Grand Central Publishing, is written, edited, and on sale September 6, neither author is 100% satisfied with the book. "Literally, not a day goes by that I don't read the book and go, 'Why the hell isn't X in there?' or 'Why the hell isn’t Y in there?'" Seitz admits. "It's like a running joke."

TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time

"We were making changes past the point where our editor said it was still acceptable to make changes. One of the very last changes we made was in the current shows section," Sepinwall says, referring to the Works In Progress chapter, which highlights great young shows that are still in the midst of their runs and didn't qualify for inclusion in the Pantheon. "I argued for expanding UnReal. Originally, UnReal just got a one-sentence thing toward the end. I said, 'No, this is a great show. We need to do a whole essay on it.' Then UnReal season two went and promptly wet the bed, and now we are praising it to the heavens in the book."

"That Works In Progress section is going to be the bane of our existence," Seitz cracks. "I can already tell."

Hopefully, the pair will have the chance to update the book down the road. "If it is successful, that's our plan," Sepinwall says.

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