Two years ago Time Magazine made a list of best 100 television programs of all time. While the list was extensive, it was also somewhat subjective. The the man who made the list, James Poniewozik, the only television critic on Time's payroll, even admitted as much. And while it was a good list (another subjective term) it struck me (more subjectivity) as incomplete. For one thing, it failed to include even one program created by the very prolific, very accomplished, David E. Kelley. Kelley has created over a half dozen successful television programs and won 10 Emmys in his long career. He's also the only writer to win Emmies for best comedy (Ally McBeal) and best drama (The Practice) in the same year, 1999. To leave him off the list of the best 100 shows of all time seems criminal, at least to me. Therefore, Mr. Kelley will receive ample representation on my list, if only to appease me, and perhaps convince him to take a look at the script for an Ally McBeal movie that I co-wrote with a friend.
Now, for some ground rules. This list will be limited to dramas, comedies and (Mr. Kelley's favorite genre) dramedies. It will not include talk shows (as they are not completely scripted), animated series (as they contain no actors) and certainly not any "reality" television (as they ostensibly contain no script at all). It will also be somewhat limited in scope since I have had limited access to some programs. But rest assured, I have seen episodes of The Sopranos, Sex and the City, The Wire and Mad Men, and have chosen not to include them.
First, some honorable mentions. These programs nearly made the list, but for one reason or another (possibly because they were already very popular and didn't need any more accolades) didn't quite make it.
Everybody Loves Raymond—Winner of multiple acting Emmies, this show also artfully demonstrated the absurdities of logic a husband can get into when arguing with his wife. In one hilarious episode, Raymond and his family convincingly argue that Debra thinks she's better than they are.
Picket Fences—David E. Kelley's first solo creation followed the lives of a sheriff and family doctor trying to raise a family in a small Wisconsin town. Things really got interesting when a federal judge orders the town to integrate hundreds of students from nearby Green Bay, most of whom are black and many of whom are in gangs.
Cheers—The goings on in the famous Boston tavern featured some of the best one liners in television history, such as this nugget from bar regular, and compulsive beer imbiber, Norm Peterson. “It's a dog eat dog world, and I'm wearing milk bone underwear.”
ER—The cornerstone of NBC's Thursday night domination for years, this program helped launch the career of George Clooney. and featured some of the best drama television could offer. Co-created by Michael Crichton,the program not only dealt with saving sick and injured patients, but also with the love lives of the doctors and nurses, and the political and financial struggles within the hospital itself.
The Cosby Show—The genius of Bill Cosby was never more on display than when this show debuted. Though later criticized as unrealistic, the first few seasons of the comedy that centered around an affluent African American family was spot on for many Americans, and showed how clever parents had to be in dealing with children who always seemed to want more, yet never considered the consequences of such desires.
Okay, now that the preliminary stuff is over, let's get on to the real meat of it. Without further ado, I give you (in reverse order) THE BEST WRITTEN TELEVISION SHOWS OF ALL TIME...according to me.
- 10. The Larry Sanders Show. Our first entry comes from the cable network HBO, and featured comedian Gary Shandling playing a character very similar to himself. Larry Sanders was an insecure, selfish, sex-obsessed, host of a late night talk show. Sounds like a simple enough life, right? Well, not for Larry. From arguing with with network representatives, to dealing with problem writers, to trying to keep co-host Hank Kingsley (played by Jeffrey Tambor) at arm's length, Larry was never at ease. The following is a clip of Larry trying to convince his sidekick not to use his favorite catch phrase.
A hybrid between talk show and standard comedy, the show was partially filmed before a live audience, and featured guest stars such as Jim Carrey, David Spade and Alec Baldwin. The rest of the show, however, was filmed in “Larry's” office, studio and home, leaving the audience to wonder, how close was this to reality?
- 9. Weeds. Another entry from the cable networks (this time Showtime) this program poses the eternal question: what do you do when your husband keels over one day while jogging, leaving you with two adolescent sons to raise, an ever demanding maid, and a whole bunch of bills to pay? The answer for middle-aged housewife Nancy Botwin (played by Mary-Louise Parker) was to sell high priced weed to her fellow suburbanites--the same people who make six figure incomes, sit on the city council and attend PTA meetings. Of course, there's a lot of risk in such a venture. Fellow dealers don't take kindly to her moving in on their turf, and avoiding law enforcement is always a concern. But the real drama happens at home. In the following scene she does a little out sourcing and lets her no good brother-in-law deal with her son's newly acquired interest in his own body. Intended for mature audiences only.
8. Castle. Of course a program about a murder/mystery writer who follows around a sexy police detective for “research” has to be well written. Wouldn't be plausible if it wasn't. But Andrew Marlowe's semi-serious drama about the rich, famous, and immature novelist Richard Castle (played by Nathan Fillion) and the all-business, take-you-down-if-you-mess-with-her detective Kate Beckett (played by Stana Katic) seems to balance the seriousness of solving murders with the gallows humor of police work quite well. The sexual tension between Castle and Beckett is not only obvious, but frequently talked about by fellow members of the squad. As is the off hand references to Fillion's former series (Firefly) as well as numerous other TV shows and films.
- A nice wrinkle is the relationship Castle has with his mother (an aging actress) and his daughter (an almost grown teenager) both of whom still live with him.
7. Firefly was Josh Whedon's short-lived science fiction (meets the Old West) series about a group of smugglers living on the cargo ship, Serenity, and traveling the outskirts of a far away solar system, hundreds of years in the future. Captain Malcolm Reynolds (again played by Nathan Fillion) had fought in the war against the Alliance, but had lost his faith after witnessing dozens of his comrades sacrificed for expediency. Now the captain and his crew eke out a living doing dangerous, low paying jobs that keep them under the Alliance's radar. Until, that is, they take aboard a young, idealistic doctor and his mentally fractured sister (an experiment in assassination training by the Alliance).In addition, the crew also encounters a host of other dangerous characters, but always seems to find appropriate ways of dealing with them.
Despite the fact that the show has been off the air for nearly a decade, fans will not give up on it. In 2005 Whedon turned his story into the feature film Serenity. While the film was a financial flop, it did awaken more people to the Firefly phenomenon. Most recently, Netflix has agreed to buy the rights to the show and plans on producing 26 more episodes. Terrific news for browncoats (self named fans of the show) everywhere. It will be interesting to find out if Fillion can juggle both Reynolds and Castle once Firefly returns. TV fans will definitely be hoping he can.
6. Sports Night. Aaron's Sorkin's first foray into television was a behind the scenes look at the production of a fledgling cable sports show. Unsure of exactly how to market the show, ABC initially tried having a laugh track, then a live audience, before dropping the idea of a traditional comedy altogether. Ostensibly about sports, this show concentrated more on the lives and loves of the sports castors (played by Josh Charles and Peter Krause), the producer (played by Felicity Huffman) and the executive producer (played by Robert Guillaume). But the most compelling relationship was between Jeremy and Natalie (Joshua Malina and Sabrina Lloyd). In the following clip they work things out over a game of poker the staff engages in while waiting for the show to being.
Unfortunately, because of low ratings and Sorkin's desire to work primarily on The West Wing, Sports Night ended after only two seasons. Even so, this show ended stronger than it began, and left fans with many fond memories.
5. Boston Legal. David E. Kelley's first entry on the list was a whimsical look at the top players in a powerful corporate law firm. The partners at Crane, Poole and Schmidt, it seems, were always plotting to topple their founder--the once brilliant, now buffoonish, Denny Crane (played by William Shatner). Luckily, Denny had a couple allies in the form of the brilliant, silver-tongued Alan Shore (played by James Spader) and the distinguished Shirley Schmidt (played by Candace Bergen). In addition to being Denny's friend, Alan was also a brilliant trial attorney. Here is a clip of him defending his client, and demolishing the ridiculous tenets of scientology.
The best part of the show (other than Alan's closings) had to be Alan and Denny's weekly meeting on Denny's balcony for cigars, scotch and political jousting. Despite their differences (Alan being liberal, Denny being conservative) their friendship continued to blossom over the years, until it reached its ultimate outcome in the final episode.
4. The West Wing. While this show lasted seven years, the last three were written mainly by John Wells. The show's original creator and main writer, Aaron Sorkin, left after four years. And while the show maintained its high standards in drama and tremendous acting, a lot of the humor and wit of the early seasons was lost. Like David E. Kelley, Sorkin is adept and infusing dramatic elements with humor. And like Mr. Kelley, Sorkin also uses his programs to make a political point, such as when he has President Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) dismantle the hypocritical condemnation of homosexuality by a right wing, bible thumping talk show host.
In the last years the series focused a lot on who would succeed Sheen's character. It pitted the moderate republican Arnold Vinnick (played by Alan Alda) against the young, latin democrat Matt Santos (played by Jimmy Smits). Some say this foreshadowed the race between John McCain and Barack Obama. Whether or not this is true, it made for entertaining television.
3. The Practice. This was another terrific show created and written by David E. Kelley. Unlike its spin off, Boston Legal, however, The Practice was a much darker, more serious take on the legal profession. The show followed a small law firm specializing in criminal cases, and featured such terrific actors as Dylan McDermott, Steve Harris and Lara Flynn Boyle, who played District Attorney (and firm frienemy) Helen Gamble. The dynamic between these two friendly, yet opposing, forces led to some of the greatest court battles ever seen on the small screen.
The show lasted eight seasons; however, after sinking ratings Kelley was forced to fire the show's main actors and bring in James Spader. Unfortunately, while Spader's Alan Shore was very engaging, the show didn't last, and Kelley decided use the last episodes to segue into Boston Legal. Even so, it is interesting to see Alan Shore and Denny Crane in their original forms.
2. Ally McBeal. Another David E. Kelley creation, this show followed the personal and professional life of a skinny, neurotic, kind-hearted lawyer in Boston who wanted to “change the world," but who also wanted to "get married first." Unfortunately for Ally, her first love, Billy, is over her. Not only that, but now he's married to Georgia, a partner at the law firm where they both work. When Georgia figures out that her husband had dated Ally all through high school and college, she tells her in stunned honesty, "I hate you." To which Ally, who has had time to think about it replies, "I hate you right back." It is at that point that the two women bond.
Ally also featured some of the most creative and entertaining special effects ever seen on TV. Ally would frequently hallucinate, a problem that, on more than one occasion, got her into trouble. The following is a clip (which includes Dylan McDermott as Bobby Donnell from The Practice) in which they didn't.
Ally also featured a slough of great characters, such as John Cage (whose nose whistled), Richard Fish (who became aroused when he looked at his portfolio) and Elaine Vassell (whose head Ally imagined got bigger and bigger while she talked).
In the fourth season, Robert Downey Jr. was added to the cast as a new love interest for Ally. Unfortunately, because of real-life legal problems, Downey was fired from the show and fans were always left wondering what could have been. Now that Downey's troubles seem behind him, can anyone say feature film?
- 1. Moonlighting. Created by Glenn Gordon Caron, this show introduced us to the fast-talking, booze-loving, female-oggling David Addison (played by Bruce Willis) and the beautiful,sophisticated, slightly uptight Maddie Hayes (played by Cybill Shepherd) as partners in a budding detective agency.
Of course, breaking the 4th wall (like they did in the preceding clip) was something they did all of the time on Moonlighting. Whether it was having the stars talk directly into the camera at the beginning of the show, make clever asides, or have David and Maddie tool around the set in a go cart with a little person, this show took a lot of chances. And they almost always paid off. Some of the best episodes were also some of the most creative, such as the "The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice," "Atomic Shakespeare," and "A Womb with a View." Every week when viewers tuned in they knew they would find something smart, sexy, hilarious and unexpected.
And though the show often featured silly chase scenes, delays due to rumored behind the scenes bickering between the two stars, and some very uneven episodes in the final seasons, it is still the greatest star ever to shine in the pantheon of the small screen's sky...at least in my opinion.
Well, there you have it. The best written shows in the history of television...according to me. I hope you made it through the whole list. And I hope you enjoyed it. Perhaps, this will inspire you to seek out a show you haven't seen before, or maybe just revisit one you haven't watched for a while. As alluded to early, television can not only entertain, but at times instruct and even, perhaps, improve society. If this list does nothing else, I want it to get one message across:David E. Kelley, please read our script!
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