I have read Alan Sepinwall’s work since Bill Simmons’ gave Alan his imprimatur by having Alan on the B.S. Report. Because of his prodigious — and insightful — output, Alan is one of the giants of the Recap Industrial Complex. Sometime later I came to Matt Zoller Seitz, probably because I kept seeing people link to or quote him in my Twitter feed. Or maybe it was after Matt became the editor at rogerebert.com. Or maybe it was after I read one of Matt’s recaps, er, overnight reviews and was struck by his focus on form, and by his humanity.
In TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time, Alan and Matt rank the one hundred greatest scripted American television shows of all time. It’s an audacious undertaking, but one which Alan and Matt are certainly capable and qualified of undertaking. As they write in the introduction, they have a combined forty years of experience, not counting their “misspent” youths. And if I had any doubts about whether Alan and Matt were up to the task, those doubts turned to dust in a section called “The Great Debate: How Do You Pick the Best Show of All Time?”.
Note: After this point I am going to mention shows that are on the list of one hundred, what Alan and Matt call “The Pantheon”. I don’t think mentioning these shows is a spoiler as you would only read this book (and this review) if you already have a pretty good idea of what shows will be on the list. I will not mention exactly where the shows are ranked but I will mention the shows make up the top five. If you don’t want that information then you’re being kind of silly, and you should stop reading here.
In “The Great Debate”, Alan and Matt reproduce a GChat conversation they had in trying to decide between five shows that finished tied at the top of their rankings. The shows are; Breaking Bad, Cheers, The Simpsons, The Sopranos, and The Wire. (See, not exactly surprising.) The range of the debate is fascinating and, as Alan points out, not dissimilar to debates about who belongs in something like the Baseball Hall of Fame. How much does innovation matter versus mastery of something already developed? Which counts for more, peak or consistency? Are there inherent biases when comparing choices from different areas and eras?
“The Great Debate” is fascinating, and is the best part of an excellent book. “The Great Debate” justifies the project, which is described in the introduction as trying to open up the discussion of the Western TV canon. I’m sure there are already plenty of people nitpicking the order of shows in the Pantheon, and arguing that some shows should be in and others should be out, but it is “The Great Debate” that is the heart of the book, its goddamn raison d’être. If you only read part of TV (The Book) then that is sort of strange, but make sure you read “The Great Debate” before you delve into the Pantheon. If you want to understand how conscientiously Alan and Matt made their list then you have to read that section.
And the Pantheon, is it “right”? The Pantheon delivers exactly what Alan and Matt promise it will: “TV (The Book) is Matt and Alan’s canon at this particular moment.” It is not meant to be definitive, not “an attempt to shut down discussion rather than open it up.” And more to the point, the essays about individual shows (or in some cases a group of shows) matter more than the number next to the show’s name. Some essays will make you nod in agreement and some will make you understand something you didn’t previously understand and some will make you laugh and some will make you pretend you’re not crying. And when you finish reading the essays (and the lists and the sections after the Pantheon) you will be surprised that it’s already over and you will go back and reread some sections. And I imagine you will refer to it repeatedly in the future when you think seriously about TV.
Most Inconsequential Quibble I Can Think Of
I really wish in the essay on M*A*S*H that Alan and Matt had used the phrase “meatball surgery”.
Less Inconsequential Quibble But Still Very Minor
When discussing the Cheers finale, I wish Alan and Matt had mentioned the picture of Geronimo which Nicholas Colasanto (who played Coach Ernie Pantuso) hung in his dressing room. After Colasanto passed away, the producers hung the picture on the wall of Cheers, and Sam touches the picture near the end of the finale.
Validation For My Misspent Youth
Shows I loved as a child like Moonlighting, M*A*S*H, and Barney Miller made it into the canon.
The Opposite of That
No room for Magnum P.I.
Show I Was Happiest To See in the Canon
Rectify. I know I tend to go on about Rectify, but no one watches it and I feel like it’s my duty to attempt in my small way to bring more viewers to this excellent show.
Show I Was Most Surprised to See
China Beach. I watched this show before the Recap Era began and I always assumed that it was a show that I loved that wasn’t as good as I thought. (See: Magnum P.I.)