If character is destiny, then character has also long been the backbone of great TV writing. The list of the WGA’s 101 Best Written TV Series is a testament to this, as true for a series on which the main character is ostensibly a version of the star (The Cosby Show, to give but one example) as a show featuring a Vulcan aboard an exploratory space ship or a serial killer flitting across both sides of the thin blue line.
Close to half of the 101 Best Written TV Series aired within the last decade. Not coincidentally, this was a period that coincided with a sharp growth in original programming on both basic and pay cable television when writers were given more latitude to explore the moral complexities of the worlds they created.
From this recent blossoming of TV anti-heroes came characters asking audiences to not so much root for them (though they suggested this too) but to reckon with their actions and beliefs. The Sopranos received the most votes, and no show has been more responsible for TV’s storytelling renaissance, in which writers use character both as engines for commenting on the contemporary world and for teasing out the ways in which action reflects psychology in the troubled inner lives of real people. This deeper pursuit of character is evident everywhere on the list, whether via a chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin or a dashing ad man in the 1960s who has literally stolen the identity of someone else.
And yet, as much as you probably couldn’t have done a show about a mob boss in therapy during TV’s first Golden Age, shows from the medium’s previous epochs are well-represented here. These shows are all the more impressive considering the relative creative constraints under which previous generations of TV writers labored. And maybe that wasn’t exclusively a bad thing, since they now shine a light on what is still possible. How exciting would it be to see a network today attempt a live anthology series of teleplays, featuring prominent writers, directors and actors à la Playhouse 90?
Then, as now, it comes down to character—from Lucy Ricardo and Archie Bunker to Andy Griffith and Andy Sipowicz. There are kinships across generations—from The Honeymooners to Roseanne, say, or from The Twilight Zone to Lost. Regardless of the year, or genre, what emerges is a common dynamic between show and audience, the kind of lasting intimacy that writers telling episodic stories are uniquely able to achieve.
Television came into being as a miraculous mass medium, done live—the miracle was you didn’t have to leave the house to see it, and all of America could watch the same thing at once. Now the miracle involves being able to take the content everywhere, on demand, and in your pocket. The audience is not the community it once was, but many different ones, discovering great shows incrementally, and on a multitude of devices. But on this list, at least, a show like M*A*S*H, for whose finale the nation tuned in en masse, exists in the same conversation as a short-lived, rediscovered gem like Freaks and Geeks. Because both shows represent the same question—not how many watched but how deep did the writing go?
Paul Brownfield was on staff at the Los Angeles Times for 10 years, where he wrote about television, film and standup comedy and was the paper's television critic between 2004 and 2008.