At first glance, TV (The Book), which came out last week, may look like a survey of what two respected TV critics consider to be the greatest television shows of all time. But, really, it’s a book about friendship.
The joint authors of this tome, Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, first got to know each other 20 years ago when they were TV scribes for the New Jersey–based Star-Ledger. Even though they have moved on to other, high-profile endeavors — Sepinwall is the head TV guy over at HitFix.com, while Seitz is the TV critic for New York and Vulture and the editor-in-chief for RogerEbert.com — they joined forces to once again debate and discuss television as they used to back in the day. (Full disclosure: I’ve recapped TV shows for Vulture, and I contribute pieces to RogerEbert.com once in a while.)
“That was really the impetus for doing the book in the first place,” says Seitz, 47, calling from his Brooklyn home. “You know, Alan and I haven’t worked together in the same office in 10 years. But we still talk to each other all the time. And, a lot of times, we would get together, and the conclusion of it would be we should find a way to work together again. And this book was the best solution we’d come up with.”
“Yeah, it was really nice to have that sort of partnership together after so long apart,” adds Sepinwall, 42, calling from New Jersey.
They forged a friendly, professional bond right when TV was beginning to have a spectacular sea change. Over on HBO, dramas such as The Sopranos, Deadwood and The Wire ushered in what’s now called a golden age. Soon, AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad would follow in HBO’s footsteps, pushing the boundaries of content and storytelling with TV programming that was bold, cinematic, artful. (Sepinwall already chronicled the history of these dramas and others in his first book, The Revolution Was Televised.)
Those shows are at the top of “The Pantheon,” the 100 TV titles that Sepinwall and Seitz round up for this book. Using film-critic guides like Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies series and David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film as inspirations, in TV (The Book) the critics offer thorough, comprehensive passages for a wide selection of sitcoms and dramas, arranged according to a numerical system of categories: innovation, influence, consistency, performance, storytelling. (As they say in the book, they “set about the sensible and not-at-all controversial task of assigning numerical values to art.”)
Their list starts with “The Inner Circle” (aka the all-time greats), then slides into sections such as “No-Doubt-About-It Classics” (second-tier greats), “Groundbreakers and Workhorses” (influential shows, either long-running or short-lived), “Outlier Classics” (cult curios), “Works in Progress” (shows that are still on) and “A Certain Regard” (shows or individual seasons of shows that get an honorable mention).
There are also sections, both written by Seitz, devoted to TV movies and live plays done for television. Even though both might now be considered antiquated forms, Seitz included them to remind readers that unique, risk-taking television isn’t new.
“These are a chance to push back against this idea that everything interesting on television happened after The Sopranos,” Seitz says. “It’s not true, and [that belief] really, really, really annoys the crap out of me. I see young critics floating this line of argument the most. I think it’s just received wisdom or something. But I see people my own age doing it, too. There was artistically interesting work being done on television dating back way to the very beginning.”
As they state in the book, the list is Seitz’s and Sepinwall’s “canon at this particular moment; no more, no less.” They expect complaints about what they’ve included and what they haven’t.
People may most likely get up in their grills about their choice to stick only to stateside scripted shows. “We originally had envisioned sections on sketch-comedy shows, news shows, sports shows, children’s entertainment,” says Seitz. “We floated the idea of a separate category for animation. And, then, we looked at it realistically and realized that a book like that would probably be, like, 1,200 pages.”
“We spent so much time arguing what kind of shows should we have in it,” Sepinwall says. “Should they be competing with one another? Should they be ranked? Should it be alphabetical? If we’re gonna rank it, how are we gonna do it? And, eventually, the process we came up with is what we decided just sort of made the most sense to us. It just would’ve been too much and too sprawling and too many impossible comparisons if we had started dealing with Saturday Night Live and David Letterman and 60 Minutes and Sesame Street and a whole bunch of the other greatest shows in the history of the medium that we decided fell outside our parameters.”
The pair might get back together and work on another volume that will concentrate more on the other genres they overlooked. They may even go back to this book in a few years and revise the pantheon. Says Sepinwall, “We hope it’s popular enough that there will be another edition, because there were last-minute decisions we made on this one that we don’t necessarily feel happy about.”
“One example I would give is Law & Order,” says Seitz. “I watched Law & Order when it was on, but I wasn’t as obsessed with it in reruns as I think Alan was. So I didn’t start seriously, like, scrutinizing the original Law & Order until after we turned in the manuscript. I was going on memory when I ranked it. And I think it would rank a lot higher now.”
“Ha-ha!” Sepinwall enthusiastically interjects. “You were giving me so much attitude about its ranking at the time! Victory!”
Oh yeah — these two definitely will be butting heads about TV again.