Sunday, 6 April 2008

Teacher, mother, secret lover

A collection of my thoughts, observations and responses to Empire's 50 Greatest TV Shows Of All Time (annoyingly, Empire don't seem to have the whole countdown as a list on one page, so here's a link to a page that does):

Firstly, Empire really set the boundaries incredibly wide. It's not the fifty greatest comedy series, or the fifty greatest drama series, it's the fifty greatest TV series. The scope is so huge that I think they pretty much set themselves up to fall down in some way or other from the get-go. The list was also voted by the readership of Empire, which automatically means the results they get will in no way actually be a definitive list of the fifty greatest series ever. They'll be closer to "the fifty most popular TV shows of the readership at this time". And in some ways that's pretty much what they've got. There are some surprises, and some that I'm pleased to see there that I didn't really expect, but a lot of what is there falls into that heading rather than the one Empire's chosen.

I can't comment on all of the series within the list as I haven't seen all of them, but to those that I have seen I'd like to respond. I'm quite glad to see Father Ted placed higher than Only Fools And Horses, just because Father Ted to my mind maintained a much higher level of quality throughout its run. Only Fools And Horses may have run for longer and represent some of the finest traditional British sitcom writing at its best, but there are some decidedly average episodes within the series, and as Empire implies, it didn't know when to stop, leaving the series going out on a relative low. Father Ted has probably had more influence on British comedy than Only Fools And Horses with its style of humour permeating many programmes, and indeed films, in the 21st Century.

I can only make a passing comment really due to my limited knowledge of the franchise, but I was very surprised to see three different Star Trek series (original, The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine) make appearances.

I was really quite surprised to see Spaced place so highly at number 10, making it the highest ranked British show (a statistic that is disappointing but also not entirely surprising, if I'm honest). I am a fan of Spaced, but I can't help but think that the work of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost since Spaced (Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz in particular) has influenced the voting. True, it could be seen as "great" in terms of propelling its stars to the next level and reinvigorating British comedy cinema, but its placement just doesn't sit right with me.

Good to see Family Guy pretty high up the list. In my heart of hearts I reckon it should probably be slightly lower, but as a ridiculously big fan I'm happy to leave it there...

Friends as the highest placed sitcom at number 7 just goes to show that people prefer their comedy safe and unchallenging. Yes, that's part of what sitcoms do, but when you see series such as Frasier at 34 which in my opinion regularly contained far superior writing and acting to that found in Friends it is a little disheartening.

Heroes at 15 and Lost at 5 proves that quite a lot of the list is about what's popular now and not necessarily what will still be great ten years from now. That's coming from someone who really enjoyed the first series of Heroes (I haven't managed to see the second yet) and is a huge fan of Lost. I'd say out of those two, Lost currently has the potential to be an all-time great, but as it's only halfway through the whole story it's telling, I'd say it's too early to judge.

Blackadder should be higher than 20. Nearly twenty years on and it has some of the sharpest comedy writing you'll find on TV anywhere.

The Office should be higher than number 23. Whether you like it or hate it, you have to admit the phenomenal amount of influence it's had on comedy writing and just in general since it was first shown.

Finally, The Simpsons should not be number 1. If The Simpsons had stopped at around its tenth season, then maybe it could be considered as one of the greatest shows ever. But it is now being run into the ground, pandering to the lowest common denominator and essentially besmirching those classic episodes from the first ten years or so of its existence. The Simpsons needs to be brought to an end. It should have been a long while ago. Additionally, even if we look to the influence it's had in TV and in general, it hasn't done a huge amount that can be considered pivotal. It follows a format that has been seen in sitcom for decades, and can't even be thought of as bringing animated sitcom to the mainstream as The Flintstones (glaringly absent from the list) did that a long time before too. I could go on, but I won't. I no longer really consider myself a Simpsons fan really, as I haven't enjoyed it for so long and only ever watch the episodes I know are any good. I also disagree with Empire's statement about Futurama at number 25: " It's unfair to compare Matt Groening's other show to The Simpsons. Because what is as good as The Simpsons?" Futurama was stopped just as it was hitting its stride, and I believe "Matt Groening's other show" at its best is indeed superior to The Simpsons at its best in both writing and characterisation.

N.B: I realise the irony of where the title for this blog entry came from following what I've said in the preceding paragraph.

So, of the series I have seen on the list, which do I think should be at number 1? Without a doubt, The West Wing, placed fairly respectfully in Empire's list at number 4. I could go on about all the different ways The West Wing is the greatest series ever made, but I won't. The fact that any form of fictional media depicting US politics post-West Wing will be weighed against it, and the fact that pretty much every episode feels like a 45-minute cinematic film, and could potentially be extended into a good feature film, says it all for me. I've never watched The Sopranos or Buffy The Vampire Slayer properly (although I've been meaning to give the former a go for some time), but to be placed higher than The West Wing for me they would have to do something pretty phenomenal.

This has become rather a rambling entry, so I shall stop here. Obviously any list of this type and magnitude is not going to please everybody (or more likely anybody) who reads it entirely, and these are obviously only my thoughts and opinions. I'd be interested to see what others think of Empire's list, however, and indeed of my comments.


TheTelf said...

Obviously the problem with this kind of list is that in order for it to be a judgement of quality (rather than popularity), every voter needs to be equally familiar with every show, something that is just not possible.

Another issue is that it's difficult to compare shows with totally different feels. Saying The Wire at 8 is slightly lower than Friends at 7 says almost nothing, given the differing audiences and content of the two shows. Really, as you say in your post, it needs to be more specific (at least breaking into comedy, drama etc.).

As a list of highly rated television shows, it seems pretty reasonable, though with some strange omissions (no M*A*S*H? no Oz? Carnivale? House??). Clearly any one person's list would be different from any other's (and I might actually do one for comparison at some point). For the moment, I'll just stick down some thoughts on what in general I would have done differently.

Firstly, I'd have included Oz and Carnivale, as well as Green Wing and House, Sealab, and possibly Robot Chicken and The Mighty Boosh. Not that all of those would ever get into a general top 50, but we're talking about my preference here.

I'd have gotten rid of all those I hadn't seen, clearly, along with Arrested Development and Spaced, both of which I have seen, but don't rate highly (I know, I know, I'm a philistine).

While it's not fair to exclude a show that hasn't 'finished' as such, I would also generally exclude those shows that have only had one season (and which haven't finished their run) on the grounds that they haven't had a chance to prove consistency. So no Dexter and no Heroes (both of which I enjoyed season 1 and have been unconvinced by season 2).

The main problem I have is with shows like The Simpsons and Scrubs. I'm not going to go off on a rant about the Simpsons, but I agree with a fair amount of what you say in the article (I'd maybe give it a bit more kudos for influence on TV, but that's an argument for another day). The Simpsons in general would probably just about make the back end of my list, but seasons 6 to 11 (or there abouts) would be near the top. Scrubs, seasons 1 to 4, would certainly be top 10, seasons 5 and onwards, not even top 50.

And my favourite? I don't know. I'll think about it and maybe do a post or another comment with some rankings.

James said...

As a different comment; is this exclusively dramas and comedies?

Whilst I don't like soaps in generaly they are extremely popular and so some must have some merrits? Also, documentaries? My choices would be Attenborough and World at War, but surely there should be some? Any kids shows? Disney cartoons / Luney Tunes / Thomas the Tank engine are all obvously high quality in their own way and you don't need 3 star treks.

Anyway West Wing for the win.

Anonymous said...

Thanks guys, good to see some feedback on a post I read back a little after writing and felt was a bit too "ranty" in places ;-P

I'd say the list's two main failings are sheer scope as mentioned in my entry and by others, and something that I intended to mention in my post but appear to have omitted: not defining its terms. What makes a series great? Is it popularity? Amount of viewers? Highest ratings? Awards won? To me, I don't really look at those things per se. Greatness to me means evidence of high and consistent quality in the series as a whole. Therefore, if a show was written superbly but the acting was crap, it wouldn't be quite as great. Equally, if a series was of very high quality for its first three series, for example, but then the quality dipped significantly in the following three series, the series overall would not be great. The Simpsons definitely falls into this category. I have only seen seasons 1-3 of Scrubs so far, so I can't comment, but I have heard from multiple sources that that is the case with that programme too.

The other thing I would define greatness through is positive influence the series has had either culturally, socially or just on other media. That's why I'd place The Office a lot higher than it is, and another reason I'd knock The Simpsons down several places at least.

I also agree with James' point about the lack of factual series and documentaries. I'm guessing Empire decided to stick to fictional series, although with the scope they'd already set themselves I would have liked to see documentaries included. There would almost certainly be some David Attenborough in there, possibly along with some Michael Palin travel series as well.

TheTelf said...

Just as a quick point - I don't like the inclusion of the 'Best Episode' note on the Empire countdown. It means I can't really look at entries there for series I haven't seen, because OMG teh spoilz0rs.