Television is often referred to as a writer’s medium. Three-act movies don’t have a lot of wiggle room for literary flair (although screenwriters like Quentin Tarantino have managed it), but TV shows hark back to the earliest forms of storytelling. The format is taken from theater and the narrative structure is taken from serials, giving writers the freedom to explore their characters and compound their experiences over a long period of time.
In 2013, the Writers Guild of America published a list of the “101 Best Written TV Series,” including all the usual suspects (The Simpsons, Breaking Bad, Arrested Development) with a few surprises in the top 10.
The West Wing (1999–2006)
Aaron Sorkin’s signature walking-and-talking dialogue can be seen in a bunch of his behind-the-curtain TV dramas, from The Newsroom to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, but according to the WGA, his best-written small-screen creation is The West Wing.
The curtain that Sorkin peeks behind in The West Wing is the U.S. government. The great Martin Sheen stars as fictional President Jed Bartlet, alongside such greats as Rob Lowe, Allison Janney, and Bradley Whitford.
The Wire (2002–2008)
When HBO subscribers are asked to name the premium cabler’s greatest original series, it’s usually a coin toss between The Sopranos and The Wire. Whereas The Sopranos is undeniably stylized, The Wire is the complete opposite.
David Simon and his team of writers, actors, and filmmakers took an almost documentary-like approach to their study of crime and corruption in an American city throughout five perfectly crafted seasons of The Wire.
Cheers revolutionized television comedy. Every sitcom about a group of eccentric characters hanging around a workplace owes a debt to Cheers. Every sitcom with a will-they-or-won’t-they couple owes a debt to Cheers.
Ted Danson stars as a ballplayer-turned-bartender alongside Shelley Long as his love interest, the late Nicholas Colasanto as his mentor, and George Wendt as his favorite regular.
Mad Men (2007–2015)
Of all the “Peak TV” dramas about reprehensible antiheroes, Mad Men is arguably the classiest, because it didn’t need to rely on murders or meth lab explosions to keep its audience on the edge of their seats.
For seven seasons, Mad Men managed to grip viewers with nothing more than sleazy affairs, board room meetings, and brooding contemplation over a glass of scotch.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970–1977)
After starring alongside Dick Van Dyke in one of the most beloved sitcoms ever made, Mary Tyler Moore starred in an even more beloved sitcom of her own, The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
The series broke new ground for female representation with its depiction of a woman who is neither married nor financially dependent on a man, which was rarely seen in American TV shows at the time.
Robert Altman’s darkly comedic Korean War movie M*A*S*H was a surprise smash hit in 1970. Two years later, its perfect blend of comedy and tragedy – and its use of the Korean War setting as a poignant allegory for the then-ongoing Vietnam War – was adapted for television.
M*A*S*H went on to become one of the longest-running sitcoms of all time, ending its 11-season run with one of the most acclaimed (and highly rated) series finales in television history.
All In The Family (1971–1979)
Over the course of his legendary career, Norman Lear contributed a ton of classics to the sitcom landscape. But easily the most iconic and influential of the bunch is All in the Family.
All in the Family offered a snapshot of working-class life through the eyes of Archie Bunker, a spot-on satire of blue-collar conservatives. Throughout the series’ groundbreaking run, Archie’s conservative views are contrasted against the more liberal views of his son-in-law as a sort of sociopolitical sounding board.
The Twilight Zone (1959–1964)
Rod Serling inspired a generation of storytellers with the spooky tales of The Twilight Zone. Countless subsequent sci-fi and horror anthologies have tried to recapture the spark of Serling’s original classic – including remakes of the series itself – but none of the show’s imitators have come close.
The allegorical fears of episodes like “Time Enough at Last” and “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” hit just as hard more than half a century after they initially aired.
Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David conceived Seinfeld as a show about how a comedian gathers his material, but they ended up revolutionizing TV comedy with the quintessential sitcom. Seinfeld is a comedy of errors and a comedy of manners rolled into one.
Seinfeld introduced the notion of dovetailing storylines. The A-plot and the B-plot of a typical Seinfeld episode will intertwine and overlap on their way to an ironic twist that brings both of them crashing down.
The Sopranos (1999–2007)
David Chase struck a truly unique tone with The Sopranos’ combination of stunningly realistic drama and a slight surreal streak. The Sopranos kicked off the “Golden Age of Television” with the sobering naturalism of a Scorsese mob epic with the bizarre imagery and dream logic of a David Lynch movie.
A couple of Sopranos writers went on to become prolific showrunners in their own right: Terence Winter created Boardwalk Empire and Matthew Weiner created Mad Men.