The 100 Best-Written Shows…

My thanks to “Soap” scholar Jeff Krueger for calling my attention to the naming of the 100 best-written American television shows, according to the Writers Guild of America.

As with most of these lists, the amount of credence you pay them is in direct proportion to how closely you agree with them. And to answer your question, “Soap” placed….97th.

Really.

Let me give you an idea of the shows that were deemed better written than “Soap.”

  • Cheers (#8)
  • I Love Lucy (#12)
  • Taxi (#19) (!)
  • Friends (#24)
  • The Honeymooners (#31)
  • Northern Exposure (#53)
  • Everybody Loves Raymond (#63) (!!)

One hates to get into one of those “this show was much better than that show” spleen-sessions that can go on for weeks. Still, there is something drastically wrong here when we remind ourselves that this is about the best written shows rather than the most popular. A couple of those mentioned above were well written for their day, but certainly don’t stand up to more recent standards. And two or three of the more recent ones above are little more than cookie-cutter sitcoms.

Looking up the rankings of some of the shows I would deem the best written quickly told me I was never going to see eye-to-eye with this list.

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: To my mind still the best plotted American television series to date (disregarding the first two seasons) in terms of the philosophical issues it tackled and the imagination it used to do so. #49
  • Monty Python: Perhaps the only series to actually transcend the TV medium completely to become a transatlantic cultural text all its own. #79
  • Fawlty Towers: Arguably the most tightly-written series in history. #58
  • Gilmore Girls: In the interests of full disclosure, my last book was about the making of this series. Still, in terms of dialogue alone, this is probably the best-written American series. On the WGA list: doesn’t even rank.

What chance did our beloved “Soap” stand?

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30 comments on “The 100 Best-Written Shows…

  1. i don’t think it’s a knock on “Soap” that shows like “Taxi”, “Cheers” and “The Honeymooners” are ahead of it. I’m sure “Soap” is # 1 in most of our books. I think “Friends” is way overrated. But of course, this is all subjective. And how do you compare something like “Sesame Street” or David Letterman to “Soap”? “Sesame Street”? It’s a classic but best written? “I’m going to find the letter Q!”
    I think probably the best idea would’ve been to just list the shows and not number them (like the AFI does for the Best Films of the Year). Everybody would still have their protests but it would cut out the silly competition.
    But at least “Soap” got recognized, as did Susan Harris’ “Golden Girls” (Norman Lear only got one show on the list). Just because of my personal tastes I’m happy with a lot of the choices, including unusual favorites of mine like “Battlestar Galactica” (with Donnelly Rhodes’ terrific role as Dr. Cottle) and “Twin Peaks”.
    This might be a good place for “Soap” fans to talk about their other favorite shows (not necessarily best written). My top 10 would be: “Soap”, “Taxi”, “Battlestar Galactica” (2000’s version), “Alias”, “Twin Peaks”, “Mork and Mindy” (sue me), the “Planet of the Apes” TV show (sue me again),”Twilight Zone”, “Barney Miller” and “Entourage”. With the acknowledgement there are many great shows I’ve never seen (like “Gilmore Girls”). : (

    • @#$ Sesame Street. (My bid for controversy πŸ˜‰

      And yes, Jeff, we will be suing you over a couple of your choices. But I really appreciate your even-handed approach over a medium that thrives on anger, spleen and name calling. I think we can appreciate that a show is well written without actually liking it.

      My wife still doesn’t understand why I don’t like the new Battlestar Galactica. Science fiction has always been a hard sell for me, but I watched the first two seasons with her and I have to admit it was very well written, it just wasn’t for me. I have a much harder time with things like Friends, Taxi and Cheers. But to each their own. Still….97? Just can’t see it myself.

  2. I’m not happy with the ranking either. SOAP should have been much HIGHER but I’m just happy it’s on this list at all. Please don’t hate me Jeff and Aaron.

  3. I know it’s nitpicking, but isn’t Curb Your Enthusiasm (#30) notorious for being heavily improvised? I attended a panel years ago where writer David Mandel made that clear. Funny show, but written is not what it’s best at.

    • What a good point, Thomas. Though frankly, I’m still trying to get over “Sesame Street” being on there.

  4. Soap does deserve higher, but at least it didn’t miss the cut. Maybe a couple of the bizarre storylines and that fourth season affected some’s perception of the show. However, how was it nominated at the Emmys for Best Comedy in its fourth season and not its second? The Emmys are usually better than something like the Grammys, but in this instance, bizarre. Also, the Emmys ignoring Buffy the Vampire Slayer was just wrong.

    • Aw, it’s high school all over again — people voting for their friends, industry politics, and at the center of it, an institution that is only ever thought of when it puts out one of these lists. But I’m not bitter… πŸ˜‰

      • You hit the nail on the head Aaron. That is why I’m never a big fan of these kinds of lists. Some choices are good, some choices are bad, some why are they even on this list and some just don’t make it all. 😦

  5. I agree that ‘Friends’ is overrated. ‘ I Love Lucy’ can be underrated, so it’s great to see it here. Leaving out ‘Buffy’ is SO typical and almost negates the value of this list! Perhaps a good judge of writing should be to look at 1) How difficult is it to write the show and 2) Do the results still hold up in terms of popularity. Farce and slapstick are very hard to write, and ‘Soap’ meets those criteria just as well as ‘Lucy.’

    • Kyle, I appreciate your nuanced, well-thought-out examination of the issue. But I’ve had this torch and these angry villagers assembled since the list came out, and I’m either gonna have to storm the WGA offices with them now or look like a fool πŸ˜‰

  6. Let’s see if this perks you up a bit. In next weeks Entertainment Weekly( I subscribe, so it comes early) , they rank the 100 greatest movies, TV shows, albums, books, and plays. In the TV category, Soap was #52. (Gilmore Girls was #45).

  7. EW.com just posted the ENTIRE list of their 100 Greatest TV Shows Of All Time just in case you don’t have the magazine.

    Here is the link to SOAP which placed #52 on the list.

    http://www.ew.com/ew/gallery/0,,20712079_20716622,00.html?stitched#21359962

    In case you can’t click on the link here is the quote about SOAP:

    “Built on an ingenious conceit, the series parodied daytime soaps with a mixture of absurdist humor (Chuck and his mind-reading ventriloquist’s dummy, Bob), social commentary (Billy Crystal as Jodie, one of TV’s first gay characters), and truly poignant family drama.”

    I think this is a great summary of what SOAP was. Do you think you will put this in the book Aaron?

    • Thank you for posting the link to the whole piece, Becky πŸ™‚ They certainly did a good job of summing it up in a single sentence. As for putting it in the book, at this point everything is pretty well locked down. As I’m sure you can appreciate, you could keep on adding to this book indefinitely (and some wags out there I’m sure will say I’ll probably end up doing exactly that πŸ˜‰

      • Has anyone seen Family Tree on HBO? One of the characters is played by ventriloquist Nina Conti, who basically does with her monkey puppet what Jay Johnson did with Bob. (concept still works)

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