“Are the walls still pink?” asked Alan Sepinwall, the former managing editor of Street (Ed note: His reign was in 1995, aka the year I was born). He cut his teeth writing for our beloved magazine, and is riding the wave of excitement following the release of his second book, TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time.
Sepinwall co–authored this compendium with fellow television critic Matt Zoller Seitz, whom he met while working at the Star–Ledger New Jersey in his post–Penn life in the '90s.
It all started about two years ago when Zoller Seitz called him up and seriously brought up the possibility of compiling a TV canon.
They signed the Grand Central Publishing book deal and spent a year and a half just going back and forth trying to cut down the nearly 250 titles in their shared spreadsheet to a ranked list of 100.
“We got together and we decided we were going to decide what were the 100 greatest shows of all time,” Sepinwall explained. “And we ultimately came up with this complicated rating system where we scored the shows according to a bunch of criteria that we felt that each of us valued in the TV shows that we loved the best.”
The original criteria they used to score the movies included Innovation, Influence, Consistency, Performance and Storytelling.
“After we did the initial tabulations, we looked at the rankings and we said ‘This doesn’t look right. Something is missing.’ So we decided to add a sixth for ‘Peak Value’ which is basically at its best over the course of a season, how did this show compare to the other shows in our top 100?”
And they got it right the second time, agreeing on the ordering of the films and taking the next six months to write essays expanding on their placements and justifications for doing so.
Their desire to compile such an exhaustive record of television sprung out of desire to fill the same niche occupied by other catalogs of great cinema.
“It felt like it was long past time for someone to try to do this,” discussed Sepinwall in talking about how he felt that they tapped into an untouched market.
Still he realizes how unsurprising many of the choices might be: “You’re gonna find a lot of the sort of critical usual suspects in there.” And naturally, the top five television series of all time in order are The Simpsons, The Sopranos, The Wire, Cheers and Breaking Bad. But there are some other surprising selections, such as the inclusion of Frank’s Place, a show that was cancelled after one season and never got a video release.
And besides the road bump with the criteria, Sepinwall and Zoller Seitz saw the necessity to narrow what sort of programs they would be judging, so that The Sopranos wasn’t going up against The Wire in addition to Saturday Night Live. They arrived at the understanding that they would only judge American sitcoms and dramas, and not consider children’s shows unless they had value for adult viewers, like SpongeBob, which falls as number 22 on the list. They also didn’t consider on– air shows like Game of Thrones and Transparent, although they see the opportunity to create a second edition that includes these critical darlings once they finish their runs.
Another interesting inclusion in the book is the "A Certain Regard" section, to include shows that they personally love but know shouldn’t crack the list, or shows that are great in pieces but messy as a whole, like season one of Homeland.
But more than a static declaration of what the two of them have deemed the greatest, Sepinwall hopes that it can be a guide for the weary watcher, slumped into a mediocre series that they feel obligated to finish.
“You can watch almost anything at any moment with the click of a few buttons and that can be kind of paralyzing choice– wise,” he explained.