The 50 Best TV Shows of the Past 25 Years

Sunday, August 2, 2009

A year ago, Entertainment Weekly put out an issue with lists of the best films and television series in the past quarter century:,,20207076_20207387_20207339,00.html

Here are the caveats:

1. It's actually 26 years. EW's list was '83-'08, given that their list appeared over the summer, they were essentially stopping at the end of '07, but I won't pretend that time hasn't passed.

2. It's actually 51 shows. Actually, with ties and two other, special cases, it's...57 shows. I have no good excuse for this.

3. As did EW, the only eligible shows are ones which did not debut before '83; so programs that started earlier and continued into the relevant period (Cheers, Hill St. Blues, St. Elsewhere, for example) are ineligible.
4. EW, although they didn't specify this, clearly was not just making qualitative judgments; Saved by the Bell was on its list of the 100 Best TV Shows and the Wonder Years wasn't. Be it considering social or cultural significance; EW was doing something other than saying "what was best, X or Y."

I'm not. This is my list of the 50 best shows of the past quarter century, regardless of other factors. Oprah, while as globally significant a show as the US has produced in the relevant period (oh yeah, except for one, all the shows are from American television; it's part of my cultural imperialism) does not make this list.

5. I tried to use the philosophy guiding the baseball (and coming soon, football!) list to inform this one; my bias, as reflected in the sports list, is for career value over peak - meaning that there's worth in playing 20 years even if the back ten are only average.

The philosophy here is a little different - there is value in longevity; a show great for five years has more value than a show great for one. I had a terrible time (actually, am still having a terrible time; I'm pretending I'm ready to put up the list, but actually, I could put any one of 8 shows at number one; I think I've finally settled on everything, but I could be making that up) in determing what to do with a couple of shows that I'm ranking very high given how few episodes were produced.

I think what I settled on was this:

Like sports - better to do something well for a long period than something well for a short period.

Unlike sports - better to do something well for a short period and stop than do something well for a short period and then only adequately for a long period.

And that, I think, is where I sit. I don't want my superstar to retire after a decade when his skills start to fade, because there's good value in years of competence. But I would prefer my art to shut down as opposed to becoming a paler copy of itself.

Example - not on this list is Chicago Hope; I really, really liked the first season of Chicago Hope and thought Mandy Patinkin's character was as entertaining as have appeared on television. Most of the remaining years of the series were just okay. Had it stopped after one year, it would be on the list. Not high on the list - because one great year isn't as good as five great years - but it would have made the list. Somewhere approximating Mad Men, I'd suggest. LA Law might be on the list had it stopped after 2 years. Twin Peaks wasn't my thing really; but had they done 19 episodes, told us who killed Laura Palmer, and went away, it would make the list too.

But the whole body of work counts. I'm not the Emmy committee, just taking your submitted show and giving you a trophy, I'm evaluating your full body of work.

5. I like the TV; I think at its top end its absolutely as good as any other medium of artistic expression; and even well below that top end it can help make people feel better. I'm a solitary cat; most of my life has been spent inside; I've watched my share of shows. I've watched your share too. I know of what I speak. This is the Blog of Revelation after all, it can't be just losing college football picks.

Here are the top 50 TV shows of the past quarter century:

1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer


Episodes: 144

EW rank: 10

She Saved The World A Lot.

After much debate within the offices of the Blog of Revelation, Buffy wins one more time. I don't have any interest in sci fi, in horror, in goth, in vampire lore - as genres they don't engage me on any level. I still think this is the best tv show of the past quarter century. The combination of intellectual richness and emotional satisfaction just edges out the next half dozen shows on the list, and the essential feminist message of the show almost always struck the right tenor for me, carefully balancing the perfectly valid ability art has to convey thoughts with the perfectly valid need of the audience not to feel like they're watching an afterschool special. Smart. Funny. Hot. Incessantly powerful. It couldn't have been by a closer margin, but in the end, I asked myself, were I reading this list - which is the show I'd most want to see at number one - and it was Buffy.

2. Seinfeld


EW: 3

180 episodes

Not only did I like the ending; I thought it was instructive. Seinfeld was a sitcom where (1) the characters were all essentially shallow, destructive people who (2) had no ability to be impacted emotionally, almost at a pathological level and (3) never learned anything. In the way that the old Letterman show deconstructed late night, making the old conventions seem silly - it was impossible to watch a traditional sitcom after Seinfeld and not mock it as treacle. You won't see the Cosby Show on this list; the heavy handedness of traditional sitcoms, pounding out banal lessons always put me off, after Seinfeld I was better able to articulate why.

3. The Sopranos


EW: 2

86 episodes

If the Godfather is the best film ever made, that a television series better seems strong - but that it could add another dimension to cinematic depiction of the mafia is remarkable. I didn't watch when it debuted, and thought silly the level of hyperbole that accompanied it. There was a memorable SNL parody of a Sopranos commercial in which critics blurbs escalated in wildly outsized praise until finally was the orgasmic quote, "Oh, Oh, Oh.....Sopranos!" Then, skeptically I decided to watch, and it was as good as everyone said. I'd never argue with anyone who said it was the best show of all time, but decisions have to be made, the combination of Buffys extra hundred episodes, my belief in its inherent political message, the somewhat underwhelming Sopranos finale, and maybe a desire to run slightly against the grain all may have been factors in the final decision. It was close.

4. The Simpsons

1987 -

EW: 1

428 episodes

It's an almost overwhelming artistic accomplishment; there are going to be 500 episodes of this television show, almost all of them better than almost any sitcom you'll ever see. The density of the universe created is Shakespearean in scope. I don't use that adjective haphazardly; I'm unsure there's a better analogy for what the Simpsons has done. It's only this low for a several year run, maybe for the entirety of this century, that is less brilliant and more familiar. They can make this show forever, for my money, but I'm unsure there are any more worlds to conquer.

5. The Shield


EW: 29

88 episodes

Either you know the phrase Armenian money train, or you do not. When thinking about television (when thinking about everything) I undertake some calculation of the intellectual value of the show and its emotional impact. The Shield wins on gut wrenching wallop. Like an 88 hour long Sophie's Choice. I wrote about the final episode, in which Shane, who was effectively the second male lead during the entirety of the run, kills his wife, his infant son, and then himself, in as much of an appropriation of the Chris Benoit case as dramatic license would allow. And while, out of context, that sounds like exploitation or overly tawdry (in the way that I think a show like Law and Order, which you won't find on this list, can be) within the full sweep of the show it made complete sense, as did Vic Mackey's seeming punishment of winding up behind a desk. I like to play a game called Moratorium, wherein certain elements of popular culture just need to be shut down for a few years; just go away to freshen up, to leave the territory, to use some rasslin' vernacular. With the Wire and the Shield both exiting the air, cop shows need to go away for awhile. It's silly to think they can compete. Moratorium.

6. The Wire


EW: 11

Eps: 60

I like documentaries, which you're aware if you've seen my list of the 100 best movies from this same period of time; The Wire's documentary dense; full, rich, and deep; if you were seriously trying to understand the 21st century American urban environment, I mean, with a scientific level of understanding - right along with the best works of sociologists and political scientists, you would want to watch the Wire. It's a really amazing document. For me, the breadth of its scope; switching its emphasis each year to new characters, slightly minimized the degree of the show's emotional power. It's only slightly, but we're talking about razor thin degrees of difference here in the top 6.

7. Arrested Development


EW: 16

Eps: 53

In my first version of the list, Arrested Development was number one.

I should stop the comment there. The number of episodes was the determining factor in sliding it here, demonstrating how closely approximate I see 1-6. This is the best thing Ron Howard's ever done; like Seinfeld busted the form of the sitcom the decade before; AD took the next step, creating a program where, literally each week, new avenues of funny were being created. I like TV; even as a child, I took offense at criticism of it as requiring one's brain to be turned off to appreciate - I never wanted to just zone out and watch the boob tube - I like to be engaged. But I understood eventually, how a television show can get into a rut, how it often times aspires to get into a rut - how catchphrases and comfortable, uplifting themes are used to sell soap. At its worst, television is Home Improvement - feckless and smug and safe in all ways; like a golfer who earns his living placing 19th at every tournament and feels great about it. Let the other guys go for the pin; he'll pull up short, two putt for a 5, and cash that check. That wasn't Arrested Development. It was audacious and vibrant and I loved it hard. I want to put it second; if I ever see a list where it's higher than this, where someone claims to heart AD more than do I, I'll have to revise.

8. The West Wing


EW: 23

Eps: 156

There's a step down here when we get to the West Wing, as its quality begin to waver near the end of Sorkin's time as showrunner. In all of the permutations of this list, this is the highest ranking of the West Wing, as I tried to balance the strength of the thrust of the series with some of its shakier moments. I value smart in all things; as a virtue, I'll take smart over any other quality - and Sorkin was relentlessly smart. Sports Night was a particular favorite of mine, and it just missed a place on the list - I even liked Studio 60. But it was American government that allowed Sorkin to indulge his wonkishness alongside heart thumping rhetoric. It was boilerplate establishment liberalism as opposed to a more radical sentiment that I might have felt more political kinship with, but even a Chomskyite like me occasionally felt something almost like patriotic stirrings when Jed Bartlett spoke of the promise of America.

9. The Larry Sanders Show


EW: 28

Eps: 89

On the subject of form breaking sitcoms, I bring you Garry Shandling. Sanders combined the behind the curtain plotlines of the West Wing with multiple layers of hyperreality; Shandling's neurotic persona was honed over years as a working comic; he took that "how's my hair" guy, the guts of the character which had defined his career - and then imagined him as a few notches more successful. "How would I be if I were not here, but there?" The result was the 9th best show of the past quarter century.

10. Kids in the Hall


EW: 85

Eps: 111

I love sketch; from the original SNL to the Whitest Kids U Know I have always appreciated the form; after doing a little of it myself, I admire the ability to create some funny in such a tight package (there's a joke there, perhaps about Chris Elliott's daughter - have you seen her - I'm unsure anything's made me feel older than that Chris Elliott has a hot daughter. Get A Life, incidentally, on the theme of form busting sitcoms, did not make this list.) For my dollar, this is the best sketch group which ever was.

The comments will become more abbreviated now. A dude has other obligations.

11. thirtysomething


EW: 36

Eps: 85

The critical knock on thirtysomething was that it was whiny; my two decades later thought is that analysis was a product of the muscularity of the time. No one ever called the Sopranos whiny because Tony spent every episode in Melfi's office. Angst wasn't in fashion in the 80s. Further, the male characters didn't exude Don Johnson-ness; the "sensitive" male of the 70s, the Alan Alda/Phil Donahue male had been plowed over in a red, white, and blue celebration of all matters power. That wasn't thirtysomething; it was a domestic drama in all the best senses of those words.

12. The Daily Show


EW: 14

Eps: 1600+

First, don't sleep on Kilborn. That was a funny show. Not a show that makes the top fifty of the past quarter century; not a show that helped run Crossfire off the air; not a show that has played no small part in the ideological roll to the left of the United States in the 21st century; not a show that displaced Letterman as the most comedically relevant show in late night and Nightline as the most politically relevant. That would be Jon Stewart's show. The 12th best of the past quarter century. But Kilborn was funny and that does count too. Is Stewart moving to CBS when Dave's deal is up?

13. Frontline

1983 -

EW: unranked!

Eps: 500+

The very first thing that struck me when I was evaluating EW's list was the absence of Frontline. I assume it was an oversight. Frontline is overly establishmentarian; I'd rather PBS had done 500 documentaries by Greg Palast, for example. But there's no analogue for what this show sometimes is - in depth nationally televised searches for truth and justice. It's not often sexy; it's almost always smart. 25 years of documentaries are absolutely worth of this spot on the list. Most of the rest of PBS isn't going to make the list; actually, even as I type these words, the only question I have left is if I'm going to include Moyers or not.

14. My So Called Life


EW: 33

Eps: 19

Herskovitz and Zwick then took thirstysomething and made all the characters 15 years old. Those folks just know how to make TV; they never missed; I only saw the one episode of Quarterlife that made TV, and I even liked that. If there were acting awards for the past quarter century, best male actor would probably be Gandolfini, just over Martin Sheen and Michael Chiklis - and female actor would be Claire Daines.

15. The Office (UK)


EW: 17

Eps: 14

A perfect thing. I'm in the tiny run of episodes block; yes, I did consider the length of the run, which is why they are here and not at the bottom of the top ten; but they're premium, top of the line shows, and I couldn't kick them down any further than this. For a show with only 14 episodes to be this highly ranked, they'd have to be flawless, and it was.

16. Freaks and Geeks


EW: 13

Eps: 18

I like the Apatow comedy brand; I've seen and enjoyed every film, and now he and progeny are masters of the universe. But I bet, deep inside, they all know this is the best thing they made. I'm an unfortunate connoiseur of teen dramas; this hour long teen comedy felt more sharply real than virtually all of them. Undeclared isn't on the list, but it was also the good.

17. Curb Your Enthusiasm


EW: 45

Eps: 60

Some episodes fall flat, probably due to the improvisational style and the arc of the show is inherently loose, as David clearly doesn't follow much of a production schedule, having put out 60 shows in 8 years. and that's the only reason it's this low - at it's top end, Curb brings the crazy - and like Sanders before it, the metareality of David playing not only a hyperrealized version of himself - but of George Costanza - one of the most identifiable characters in this time period, makes Curb the ultimate postmodern sequel.

18. The Office (US)

2005 -

EW: 61

Eps: 80+

It's funny. And Jenna gives me the feelings. 

19. Gilmore Girls


EW: 32

Eps: 153

Incorporate my thoughts about the West Wing post-Sorkin atrophy and amplify them here. Oh - and none of Rory's boyfriends were good enough for her. There, I said it and I feel better for having said it.

20. South Park

1997 -

EW: 12

Eps: 181

Occasionally more dumbly crude than funny (like Howard Stern, whose E show will appear on this list) and occasionally just reaactionary politically (why don't you activists just shut up; also a Stern message, actually) it would be a mistake to just think of South Park as subversive genius. But it is sometimes subversive genius, and that slots it here.

21. 30 Rock

2006 -

EW: 47

Eps: 42

There's an uneasy comparison between 30 Rock and West Wing/Gilmore Girls given that the showrunner does the heavy bulk of the writing; eventually there was clear burnout and those shows wavered in their later years. On the other hand there's Seinfeld - David got burned out and left, and for my money, that last season may have been its best. Even there though - I've heard Jerry talk about working without David, and wearing the hats of lead actor and head writer drove him into the ground. I wonder how many years Fey can stay at this high level of production.

22. Chappelle's Show


EW: 26

Eps: 33

He might have run out of funny. The speculation about why Chappelle walked out on his show focused around drugs or insanity or race - but the funny is finite, you don't know when it is going to run out, but it does. I never understood the confusion about, say, JD Salinger's artistic disappearance. He had the one book - he had one thing to say - and that's all there was. Chappelle had about a dozen genius sketches, just as good as any sketch ever put on film, and then nothing else. As a guy, I really like Chappelle and it's entirely possible he has more to say - but if he never does anything this good again, that wouldn't surprise.

23. Space Ghost Coast to Coast


EW: unranked

Eps: 89

Larry King didn't make this list. Space Ghost did. There you go. Your Adult Swim of choice might be Aqua Teen or Robot Chicken; there were moments of Sealab that were hysterically funny - but its the thousand minutes of Space Ghost which make the list.

24. Howard Stern on E!


EW: unranked

I don't like scatological humor; the wack pack makes me queasy, the girls are hit and miss, and the prepared bits, historically, have been embarrassingly bad - Howard talks rhapsodically about his awful sketches, saying, and I believe that he means it, the he, Fred, and Jackie are the greatest sketch writers ever. The bubble in which he lives is almost entirely unaffected by the cutting edge, he is often times as out of touch as the radio hosts he used to bury. But I listen everyday, because when it's just the Stern crew talking - or even better, fighting - it's one of the rare remaining examples of jagged entertainment in an increasingly corporatized landscape. Howard's a broadcaster, turn on the mic and he can go - I talk for a living, have since I was a teenager, and have always been astonished at Stern's craftsmanship.

25. Pardon the Interruption

2001 -

EW: unranked

Eps: 1500+

Not only the template for 21st century sports commentary (for better or worse) but for the MSNBC evolution; I couldn't find a spot here for Olbermann's show, but it owes more than a small formalistic debt to PTI.

26. The Late Show with David Letterman

27. Late Night with Conan O' Brien

28. Friends

29. Angel

30. Da Ali G Show

31. Mr. Show

32. Sex and the City

33. The Colbert Report

34. Once and Again

35. Tie: Project Runway/Top Chef

36. The Awful Truth (TV Nation)

37. Felicity

38. Smackdown

39. The State

40. NYPD Blue

41. Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel

42. Tie: Survivor/The Amazing Race/Big Brother

43. Bill Moyers Journal

44. Will & Grace

45. America's Game

46. Mad Men

47. News Radio

48. Talk Soup (The Soup)

49. Roseanne

50. Tie: Miami Vice/Moonlighting

51. 2 Minute Drill

1 comment

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