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Best Written TV Shows?

If you haven't read the 101 Best Written Television Series list (voted on by the Writers Guild of America), chances are you've been on a wee internet break for the past 24 hours. But I kinda have been (#sorryboutit) so I've included it here for discussion purposes and with a few notes...

1. The Sopranos
2. Seinfeld
3. The Twilight Zone
4. All in the Family
5. M*A*S*H
6. The Mary Tyler Moore Show
7. Mad Men 
8. Cheers
9. The Wire
10. The West Wing

Mad Men (for many years now the best show on television) has won 11 WGA nominations and 6 wins in its six year run... but what I find fascinating is when groups like the WGA vote for something they didn't originally get behind in a big way; The Wire, for example, makes their top ten all time list despite a measily 3 nominations and 1 win in its entire five year run.

91 more series after the jump

11. The Simpsons
12. I Love Lucy
13. Breaking Bad
14. The Dick Van Dyke Show
15. Hill Street Blues
16. Arrested Development
17. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
18. Six Feet Under
19. Taxi
20. The Larry Sanders Show
21. 30 Rock
22. Friday Night Lights
23. Frasier
24. Friends
25. Saturday Night Live

It strikes me as disingenuous to name Saturday Night Live as one of the best written shows ever. Doesn't consistent quality matter? Are they factoring in the MANY dud skits per episode or the great concept skits which start out super funny but then go on thrice as long as the joke can handle? Are the show's long running mystique and numerous classic moments and amusing then maddening catchphrases - all ideal for tribute reels -  the only thing that people remember when they think of it?

26. The X-Files
27. Lost
28. ER
29. The Cosby Show
30. Curb Your Enthusiasm
31. The Honeymooners
32. Deadwood
33. Star Trek
34. Modern Family
35. Twin Peaks
36. NYPD Blue
37. The Carol Burnett Show
38. Battlestar Galactica (2005)
39. Sex & The City
40. Game of Thrones
41. The Bob Newhart Show and Your Show of Shows (tie)
43. Downton Abbey, Law & Order and Thirtysomething (tie)
46. Homicide: Life on the Street and St. Elsewhere (tie)
48. Homeland
49. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
50. The Colbert ReportThe Good Wife and the UK Office (tie)

Obviously Buffy and Battlestar Galactica are too low -- and though I am loathe to diss the great Twin Peaks and quite happy to see it listed, isn't that more of a directorial achievement than a triumph of genre writing the way that Buffy & BSG are? It's worth noting that the WGA, just like the Emmys and the Oscars, resists quality work in the "B" genres of sci fi, fantasy and horror. Shows like these rarely get their due while they're running. Buffy & Twin Peaks received ZERO WGA recognition during their runs and BSG received only one nomination but all three made the top 50 list of all time.

53. Northern Exposure
54. The Wonder Years
55. L.A. Law
56. Sesame Street
57. Columbo
58. Fawlty Towers and The Rockford Files (tie)
60. Freaks and Geeks and Moonlighting (tie)
62. Roots
63. Everybody Loves Raymond and South Park (tie)
65. Playhouse 90
66. Dexter and the US Office (tie)
68. My So-Called Life
69. Golden Girls
70. The Andy Griffith Show
71. 24, Roseanne and The Shield (tie)
74. House and Murphy Brown (tie)

Tragedy! There is no way in hell that Roseanne isn't one of the ten best written sitcoms ever. How the hell is it so low? Didn't they read Vulture's Best Sitcom Tournament?

76. Barney Miller and I, Claudius (tie)
78. The Odd Couple
79. Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Upstairs, Downstairs (tie)
83. Get Smart
84. The Defenders and Gunsmoke (tie)
86. Justified, Sgt. Bilko/The Phil Silvers Show (tie)
88. Band of Brothers
89. Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In
90. The Prisoner
91. Absolutely Fabulous and The Muppet Show (tie)
93. Boardwalk Empire
94. Will & Grace
95. Family Ties
96. Lonesome Dove and Soap (tie)
98. The FugitiveLate Night with David Letterman and Louie (tie)
101. Oz

Though it never makes all time lists and rarely comes up in conversation I refuse to believe that my beloved Once & Again doesn't deserve to be on every list like this one about the best that TV ever had to offer. I still miss it and wish Sela Ward and Billy Campbell's swoony blended-family-bumpy union could've lasted at least two more seasons (5 being the ideal length for most good series). Also if we can stick to currently running premium cable series there is no way that Dexter (the same episode over and over again with decreasing quality and increasing far-fetchedness - is 50% of the Miami population serial killers? If so, how is anyone still alive?) deserves to be here when Nurse Jackie which is an always evolving series, daring to change each season with its protagonist, and therefore a gorgeous example of television's greatest strength (long-form narrative arc), isn't?

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Reader Comments (48)

Nathaniel, they've specified that they awarded SNL's SEASON 1. I know it's silly but that's how it is stated in WGA site.


June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Rodrigues

I lovvvvvvvvve that THE GOLDEN GIRLS made the list!!!

I always thought they had the best written comebacks of any show on tv.

So good!!!

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

Like SNL's season 1, they've listed the Pilot for I LOVE LUCY in #12, the Season 1 writers of The Twilight Zone in #3, Season 1 of The Honeymooners in #31, the Pilot of Twin Peaks at 35 and the 1st season of The Carol Burnett Show at 37.

These choices are kinda against the logic of nominating the best written SHOWS but there ya go.

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Rodrigues

Also: Get Smart, Gunsmoke, Absolutely Fabulous, The Fugitive and The Odd Couple nominated for their PILOT and mentions for only the season 1 of The Colbert Report, Playhouse 90, Your Show of Shows, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in and Letterman.

And LOUIE also mentioned ONLY for its 1st season.


June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Rodrigues

I can't believe we were snubbed!! We gave some of the best monologues in television history on our show, DESIGNING WOMEN.

-Julia & Suzanne Sugarbaker

And I love that you defended NURSE JACKIE. Such a fantastic little series, that one. And I love the creators for taking the criticism to heart after that dishonest 3rd season and creating a hell of a riot for Jackie in the 4th season.

Besides: that 4th season of Nurse Jackie puts all 'serious comedies' like Girls to shame.

P.S. - I can't believe Armando Ianucci did not get mentioned either for VEEP or THE THICK OF IT. They watch Brit TV, as we can see from the mention of AbFab Uk...

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Rodrigues

#94: Will & Grace....

Karen Walker: "Now you know I've never been a big fan of Willma, but let's face it... the girl can entertain!"


I suspect that her lines alone landed the sitcom on the shortlist!

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCooCoo Ca Choo

How is the brilliant, ground-breaking, and outright BELOVED Picket Fences not on this list! What a load of feces. They must have done the voting here in Chicago. Blech.

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Once and Again forever. I always knew I liked you for some reason...

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTom M

There are so many problems with what's gets counted as a "TV series" on this list that I can't even comprehend the rankings. Also, are the British shows listed here because they appeared on American PBS? Because French and Saunders, as well as Doc Martin, Absolutely Fabulous, and the original Couplings, are funnier and better written than say, Curb Your Enthusiasm. (Oh wait, I just saw AF listed as a tie with the Muppet Show at #91).

Where are Firefly, Family Guy, and Scrubs? Where are The Waltons and Big Valley? Angel? The problem with these kind of rankings is that you feel bad if "your" show is ranked lower than you feel it should be, and really mad when it's left off the list. No Dr. Who in all of its incarnations?

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPam

Julia and Suzanne, love that you chirped in here. "Killing All the Right People" is one of my favorite TV episodes of all time from any show.

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

and YESSSSS - Brookesboy! Where is PICKET FENCES????

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPam

Maddie: Blood right here. Right here, where I'm sitting.
Sarah: Was Laura in it?
Leland (singing): Oh, mairzy dotes and dozey dotes and little lambzie divey.
Sarah: Leland?
Leland (singing): A kid'll dee divey too, wouldn't you?
Maddie: Uncle Leland's hair turned white.
Sarah: Oh, Leland, come back here.

(In other words, Twin Peaks was brilliantly written).

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMarsha Mason

I agree with Julia & Suzanne. Also, thirtysomething is TRAGICALLY low.

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

It also strikes me as odd to have 'Homeland' on there - first of all it is a very new show, second it seemed to plummet in terms of critical respect from Season 1 to 2.

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

LOST????? OK maybe in the first two seasons, but it went downlow from there on and ot was just a terrible mess in the final seasons, full of loose ends, plot holes, black holes, lack of continuity. stuff just thrown together for no reason and making zero sense, no character consistency, abandoned storylines, and that hideous, dishonest, cheating, disrespectful, humiliating, "slap in the face of the viewer" series finale. That was beyond low.

BattleStar, hurray!!!! Should have been ranked way higher, though, but at least it made the list.

Oh, The Wonder Years..... (fights happy tears on the corner of the eye)

Golden Girls!!!!!!!!! Take that, Carrie, Samantha & Co.

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

I would put Buffy and Six Feet Under much higher.

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBia

Buffy below Homeland is all you need to know to not take this list TOO seriously. And this is someone who loves Homeland.

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

I will echo Pam's comment, and suggest that Scrubs is a glaring omission. It has some of my favourite sitcom scripts I've ever seen.

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterOwen

OK, I'm not too serious about this but Frasier, Friends and Frerty..I mean Thirty Rock should be higher.
And I just realised that Mad About You is not on the list!!!! *throws the list in the garbage*

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJames T

I don't see "Soap" on the list! So many of these sitcoms only exist because of "Soap"

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDanny R

Oh nevermind! There it is! It's too low! :)

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDanny R

The Big Bang Theory has excellent writing... it is one of the sitcoms where I laugh out loud...

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrick

People, you are taking your hyperbolic statements on this list WAY too seriously. I mean, we don't really know what the parameters are for this list, so there's no way to know what they took into consideration when putting this list together. Until we know that, there is no way to cry foul over what is on the list, because we don't know what the rules are and how they arrived at those conclusions. Otherwise, this is just like the Oscars, an exercise in collective taste, which is ALWAYS subjective, and if nothing else, it gives us the chance to check out some shows we may not have thought of checking out in the first place (let the list be what it is, please)....

Also, Nat, out of curiosity, have you seen the latest season of Dexter? Not that I think it's one of the best shows on television, but the seventh season is definitely one of the better ones (at least the beginning of it is awesome). Also, I don't think you've ever told us what you think of The Sopranos (that I remember). I'd love to hear your thoughts (I prefer Mad Men, though it's clear Mad Men is a descendant of The Sopranos in many ways, Matthew Weiner worked on The Sopranos before Mad Men premiered). I also personally would not have put Seinfeld anywhere near the top (mostly because I think the show is unbearably misanthropic) but I get why it's up there and I do think some episodes are pretty brilliant. I also would put Frasier higher on the list (even though I'm glad it is pretty high).....

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

Stunned that The Golden Girls and Roseanne are so low on this list.

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDonovan Warren

I think Lost deserves its place and I'm happy to see The Rockford Files included and I don't get why Dexter is there either! I am a bit surprised Deadwood is so much lower than The Sopranos and The Wire. Of the HBO prestige big 3, it seems the most writerly (and also it's great and I love it! Trixie 4eva).

It's funny how it's so much more weighted to the present than an equivalent film poll would be. I wonder did anyone vote for something that came out before they were born? There's so much tv that you'd need a big chunk of time to go back and watch older stuff even if you could access it. I wonder if we're missing any forgotten classics? Or perhaps people are right and the poll is very now-centric because television is now at its best.

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSVG

Rick, another Big bang Theory fan here. That is a very well written show. Clever, sweet, witty, sarcastic, borderline-caricaturesque in purpose, thoughtful, doesnt take itself too seriously and approaches itself with humour while making valid social commentary and smart points on urban tribes, geek-ness, socialization, academic life and pop culture.It has a lot of respect for its characters but its never pretentious or over the top. It laughs at itself when needed while never going into self-parody.

Plus, its really funny.

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

Well sure, Richter, if you want to be REASONABLE about it. :)

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterOwen

Obviously Buffy is AT LEAST Top 20 material, if not Top 10. And frankly, Fawlty Towers is the greatest sitcom ever written, and is WAY too low. And if they're including Brit series, then the sublime dark comedy of Black Books should be included, as should the genius Slings & Arrows (although that's Canadian). Also, it is clear that those voting on this list haven't actually watched Downton Abbey since the first season, since it long ago stopped being a triumph of writing.

On the other hand, it's really hard to argue with any of the Top Five. Well done, WGA.

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

The Wire would be an easy #1 for me, but I can understand why it's "only" #9 (which is still great, considering it's been notoriously snubbed by major awards bodies in the past). When you look at the show, you really have to look at each season as a whole. It's difficult to judge it episode by episode like most other shows, even more so than most other arc-based shows like The Sopranos and Mad Men. So it's probably true that The Wire has less episodes where the writing really sticks out as being spectacular than, say, Mad Men, but I think its overall accomplishment as a piece of writing and as a series in general is unsurpassed. I also think the fact that it's difficult to separate it episode by episode is probably the main reason it never caught on with Emmy voters, since they're required to judge based on individual episodes.

The only thing about the list that really bothers me is the clear bias for American TV shows. Fawlty Towers at 58, Flying Circus at 79, The Office and Spaced nowhere to be found...are we really suggesting that Friends and ER were better written than those shows? I know the popularity of SNL accounts for its rather high placement, but it's still pretty insulting that such a performer-based sketch show--let alone one that only has a total of about five genuinely good seasons--was able to top the brilliant writing of Flying Circus's sketch humor.

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEdwin

Some of these shows just have no place on the list. Downton Abbey and Homelan? Please!

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

Hi Pam, thanks for the shoutout. This rustic noir tapped into something rare, a place no other series has ever gone since. The writers achieved a fascinating hybrid of comedy, drama, tradition, rebellion, absurdism, realism, theatricality, verite, existentialism and humanity.

Picket Fences is the only drama series besides Homeland to sweep the Emmys in its first season.

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Buffy at 49. I can't. I guess I'm glad it made the top 50??? Since it gets overlooked so often. I still hold onto the fact that Sarah Michelle Gellar at least managed a Golden Globe nomination for its last season since she should've been nominated for and won so many major awards.

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

Richter -- i though the 5th season of DEXTER (was that the one with Captain Adama?) was so unbearably bad that I contemplated quitting and should have. starting watching the next season and got quickly bored. made the mistake of tuning in again and when Deb totally acted out of character in a morally irretrievable way I recognized the series for what it is: pure evil. I will never watch it again and I'm sad I can't get those 5 years back.

June 4, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

What about great shows like Felicity? That show completely captulated what's great about college life.

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAkim

I need to elaborate: Homeland and Downton Abbey are not well-written shows. One looks pretty and one is zeitgeist-y and most of the time the actors rise above their material in both.

Mary Hartmann, Mary Hartmann! along with Soap need to be on this list just for influence. Heck, so does Mr. Show. They deserved more respect. And as one who loves Curb, that show is not carried by its writing. It is heavily improv.

Also disappointed the ingenious adaptation of Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks is nowhere to be found. One of the most cutthroat satires on American culture. It makes Colbert and Stewart seem mild.

If we were doing UK TV where is The Thick of It, Extras, and Spaced? And if Roots, I, Claudius, and Lonesome Dove make it as TV events, why are Angels in America: The Mini-Series and The Corner not there too?

I'll also say this: Where is White Shadow? My former boss from India learned how to speak English because of that show!

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

Will & Grace should definitely be higher.

Also, why are there so many ties? If you remove the ties, You have 22 'add-ons' which should really count out all the shows in the final 22 positions on the list. I don't know what the criteria was but that many ties seems like "lets honor everything!" even though they didn't.


June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNic

Nathaniel, the Gay/Straight Alliance and Experience is the Teacher (from Once & Again's final season) are two of the greatest written episodes of television ever.

That is all.

June 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJon Foerster

Any numbered list like this that includes multiple, unrelated ties should be burned and purged from the internet. That this is a Top 101 instead of a Top 100 just makes it more embarrassing.

The Wire, Buffy, and Friday Night Lights are my obvious one, two and three. There are lots of other shows I love, but nothing feels as completely titanic as those three.

June 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTB

I'll of course defend my beloved Rome, always overlooked. If Regina King can't be cast in everything, then give some work to Polly Walker!

June 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

Jon Foerster!!! you haven't commented in forever. how are you?

TB -- agreed. the ties are ridiculous. as is the differeing criteria for different shows i.e. pilots versus specific seasons vs whole series or something. IT MAKE NO DAMN SENSE.

June 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

Six Feet Under should be No.1. Dexter deserves to be on the list for incredible season 4!

June 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChrisD

Everyone: Where in the name of all that is decent is the 90s Batman: The Animated Series? Seriously? That should be painfully EASY top 20 material, balancing lightness, darkness, realism and fantasy in the perfect mixture that is distinctly Batman, not falling into the weaknesses of either Burton OR Nolan. (And yes, I concede they're there and in Nolan's case...yikes, what the bleep WAS The Dark Knight Rises supposed to be saying, even on a "John Blake's Hero's Journey" level?) And it's not on the list at all. I get not being on Vulture's "Drama Derby" (perhaps there was an instituted length minimum of 40 minute episode blocks), but not on Time's Top 100 TV Shows or this list. And even when Nolan love was at it's peak (The Dark Knight), that show was still, generally, considered BETTER. So yeah, that's a total load.

June 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

"And now for something completely different..."

June 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Deadwood should be much higher. Ditto Good Wife and where is Newsroom?

June 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHenry O.

Extra special bonus points on Batman: TAS's writing? The creations of the tragic Mr. Freeze and Harley Quinn (the red and black diamond clad jester, not the hyper sexed idiot of The New 52).

June 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I would pick Dexter & US Office show because have watched every single episode of both series...Both series are too unique with great concept...I really love both shows!!

June 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterArrow Series

Here mentioned each and every show is very creative. Thanks for writing this content. I am really happy after reading your blog.

October 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTV shows

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