It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it: TV critics Alan Sepinwall (HitFix) and Matt Zoller Seitz (New York) have ranked the 100 greatest comedies and dramas broadcast in the US. The book they’ve co-authored – TV (The Book), which is out this week – is sure to inspire debate, especially their number one pick: The Simpsons. The Guardian spoke to them about the project, the power of the Simpsons and why they included such outliers and obscurities as Frank’s Place in their rundown.
Hey guys. Where did the idea for the book come from?
Matt Zoller Seitz: It was a couple of years ago. I don’t remember the exact circumstances but Alan and I were talking and there are a lot of books along the lines of Maltin’s film guide and David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, but there wasn’t really an equivalent for television. I thought that the time was right for a book like that because Alan and I have been in the business long enough to say not just What do you think is great now? but What do you think are the greatest shows in TV history?
Alan Sepinwall: TV is in this extraordinary time right now. Some people are calling it Peak TV, some people are calling it the Golden Age. Whatever you want to call it, TV is as good as it’s ever been if not better, and has finally achieved a level of respect that the medium has been striving for basically since the 1950s and yet there’s been very little done in terms of canonization, in terms of trying to legitimize it through other forms.
Why did you pick The Simpsons as your number one?
MZS: Well, The Simpsons is not just a television show. In a lot of ways, it is television. There’s almost no political or cultural development in the last 30 years that The Simpsons hasn’t addressed and in many cases had the last word on.
AS: It’s done everything you can possibly do, and it’s done it for a ridiculously long time, and it’s so funny, and it’s so quotable and so versatile and covered so many topics. And it’s stayed good! That’s the dirty little secret that people don’t want to acknowledge. It’s not as good as it is in season four, nothing could be.
One of your biggest disagreements was over the fourth season of Arrested Development, wasn’t it?
AS: Matt has already said that if there’s a second edition, he’s going to write an essay just about Arrested Development season four because he thinks I’m a heathen and a philistine over it.
MZS: It’s a milestone in television storytelling. It’s the first season of a series that is devised and constructed with streaming in mind. The way people watch things on Netflix is very different from they way they watch things on a regular broadcast or cable channel. Mitchell Hurwitz understood this, and it was also an attempt to solve a practical problem, which is that the cast were all in much more demand in 2014 than they were when the show went on the air. I think the solution he came up with was ingenious, which is basically that the entire season is one long episode of Arrested Development: the scenes are 20 to 30 minutes long instead of three.
Why did you choose only American TV?
AS: Our feeling was Doctor Who would certainly be on here, Prime Suspect would certainly be on here, Fawlty Towers would certainly be on here, but while we think that we know what the best British shows are, we probably don’t. We have some blind spots here, while there are probably some shows that are not anywhere in the book and probably should be. If we’re not going to know what those are, we’re just half-assing it in terms of foreign TV and we’re just going with whatever PBS aired, which is not really fair.
What were the other areas of disagreement?
MZS: There are things in there that I think Alan thinks are really what-the-hell – like I did an entry on the HBO series K Street by Steven Soderbergh, which only ran 10 episodes and I think was watched by nine people, but I thought it was an amazing show and that television had never seen anything like it and probably never will again.
AS: I don’t know that we need to have every single show that Michael Mann ever made for television included in the book, but Matt loves Michael Mann. It’s less the main section than the A Certain Regard section where we deal with sentimental favorites, Matt threw in a lot of shows that made me go, Really? He’ll tell you this: he’s really not happy that Boardwalk Empire is in the top 100.
There are some really obscure choices in the book. What’s your most underrated show?
MZS: One of our pantheon shows is Frank’s Place, which ran on CBS for one season in 1988. It was by Hugh Wilson who created WKRP in Cincinnati, and Tim Reid [of WKRP] was also the star, and it’s one of the greatest shows in the history of American television, and almost nobody watched it when it was on except me. It’s never gotten a proper DVD release because of what I think are rights issues. I really hope some attention will be paid to Frank’s Place and that it will be given the reception it deserves.
There’s maybe two full episodes and fragments on YouTube. It’s a shame, because that show was shot on 35mm film without a laugh track in the style of a motion picture. The fact that the cast was predominately African American threw people a little bit because I think at that point in time, viewers were conditioned to expect that every time you saw a non-white face on TV there was a laugh track on it, and this was not like that.
How much rewatching and ranking did you have to do?
AS: The rewatching, when it happened happened during the writing and not the ranking. To do what we do as well as we aspire to do it, you really have to be able to absorb the shows into yourself. I can recite whole Cheers scenes, or diagram Deadwood story arcs without looking at them. These are the shows we know, we’re going to score them accordingly. As it was all written and we were getting ready to turn the manuscript in, we went to a bar in Brooklyn and rescored everything slightly. There were not a lot of major changes.
MZS: We originally had five categories, which were innovation, influence, storytelling/film-making, performance/characterization and consistency. We realized we needed one more category that accounts for the extraordinary burst of creativity that can make a show great even if it’s not perfect, which we called peak. We’d originally considered casting a much wider net – sports shows, live shows, sketch comedy shows, variety shows and children’s entertainment – but as we proceeded down that road we realized the book would be 2,000 pages long.
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