Television critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz started working together at the Star-Ledger in New Jersey (“the paper at the end of Tony Soprano’s driveway in The Sopranos,” says Seitz) in 1996, but their bond actually goes back further than that: both cite the 80s police drama Hill Street Blues as a gateway into the world of TV. And it’s a show that’s stuck with them: in their recent collaboration, TV (The Book), it scores 104 out of 120 points on the scale the pair devised to rank the greatest American television shows of all time.
While at the Star-Ledger Sepinwall and Seitz spent ten years working together on a daily column called “All TV.” It featured reviews, debates, and even more conceptual pieces, like the summary of a fictional lawsuit by the passengers on Gilligan’s Island against Skipper, or an interview with Noah Wyle’s beard on E.R. The two have been itching to find a way to collaborate ever since, and so they took on the task of creating their personal “Pantheon” of the 100 greatest shows ever.
“It literally took us longer to plan the book, and figure out what was going to be in it and what wasn’t, than it did to write the thing,” Sepinwall says, noting that there were plenty of disagreements along the way. “I know Matt’s not happy that Boardwalk Empire is in the top 100. He doesn’t understand what I see in Chuck, I don’t understand why he likes Cop Rock, and I’m not sure we can feature every single show Michael Mann made for television somewhere in the book.”
Because a top 100 was too restrictive (we’re talking about a time when more than 400 original scripted series aired this year) the book also includes sections for shows that are currently on the air, sentimental picks from each critic, and lists of the best miniseries, TV movies, and live plays for television. “There needed to be room for the brilliant screwups, like Moonlighting,” Seitz says.
Part of the book’s appeal is the difference of opinion between the authors—and occasionally arguments about shows that have had ups and downs—which results in an off-kilter canon of worthwhile television. For example, Sepinwall has never seen Maude, SpongeBob SquarePants, or the little-known, hard-to-find CBS comedy Frank’s Place, yet Seitz managed to squeeze them into the top 100. “My fondest wish for this whole thing is that people see the inclusion of Frank’s Place in the pantheon and demand a proper DVD release for it,” Seitz says.
One of the more interesting essays focuses on Sepinwall’s personal experience watching The Cosby Show with his kids right before news of Bill Cosby’s sexual-assault allegations broke. He acknowledges its importance in the history of television—it revived the family sitcom and normalized the portrayal of an upper-middle-class black family—but he also realizes how difficult it is to separate the actions of Cosby from the character of Cliff Huxtable, especially once Sepinwall’s children became aware of the incident. “Its legacy shouldn’t be forgotten,” Sepinwall writes. “It was a great show, but one that nobody will want to watch again for a very long time.”
Similarly contemplative essays cover everything from Daria to Breaking Bad to I Love Lucy to Mr. Robot. The book seems to leave no corner of the television landscape untouched, but since the TV‘s completion in June, both Sepinwall and Seitz have already been creating lists of new shows that they would have included: Atlanta, Better Things, The People vs. O.J. Simpson, Queen Sugar, and Stranger Things top their lists.
According to the pair, there will be more editions and appendages to the book in the future, and they hope other critics create their own lists. TV (The Book) is not meant to be the last word, but an entertaining and thoughtful guide in a world oversaturated with things to watch.
“One reason we thought this would have value is that you can go through it and get all kinds of ideas on better things that are just one or two clicks away,” Sepinwall says. “Browse through it, and you should never ever have to watch House of Cards again.”
TV (the Book) by Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz (Grand Central Publishing)