Friday, June 23, 2017

Tube Talk

Not long ago, I finished reading a book about TV -- specifically, one with the unwieldy but illuminating title: "TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time." In their introduction, co-authors Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz observe that while countless film critics have published "Best Movie" books that serve as fuel for debate, there aren't really any comparable books about television. And in a world where TV is widely acknowledged to have caught up with (or even surpassed) films in quality, that seems an unfortunate oversight.

Sepinwall and Seitz qualify their endeavor in a number of ways. They stick to shows produced principally in America (feeling that their knowledge of foreign shows isn't expansive enough to do otherwise). Their official Top 100 list sticks only to shows that have completed their runs (with one notable exception); a special section gets into several dozen currently running shows that could conceivably make the list if their quality holds over time. They also build their list with a formula, applying points to each show in a variety of categories and then ranking them by score, in an effort to apply some semblance of rigor to a subjective task.

Each of their picks is expounded upon in an essay. They write (sometimes at length) about a show's best qualities and its influence on television that followed. This is the most intriguing part about the book, not just because they are engaging writers, but because the order of their picks itself is suspect. They themselves acknowledge this in their introduction, insofar as they write that they hope their list spurs debate and perhaps more books of the same style, with differing opinions.

I won't go into too much detail about their picks; you can read the book yourself for that. But I will say this much: while I think their Top 100 list overall includes almost everything that deserves it, I really take issue with their ordering. They generally give higher marks to a show that "gets there first" over a show that "does it better." For example, they rightly identify The Sopranos as the progenitor of modern television's obsession with anti-heroic main characters, but I think they elevate it too highly for that. (Then again, I've never been much for mobster tales, so take my view with a grain of salt.) They also fall into the typical television critics' trap of deifying The Wire (a good show, to be sure, but I think just as surely overrated).

And this much I will spoil: their number 1 pick is The Simpsons, which just seems to me to be wrong, wrong, wrong. Hell, they spend a significant portion of their essay on The Simpsons apologizing for the poor quality of later episodes and urging you to focus on early episodes, which seems to acknowledge right there that they know their pick is dubious. (Not to mention that "quality over time" is supposed to be one of the criteria factoring into their scoring system.) But hey, healthy debate, right?

Still, the writing is very good, and the overall list is a great representation of what's been great on American television. I'd give TV (The Book) a B+. I'm sure any fan of quality television would enjoy it.

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