How we chose the 100 All-Time Greatest TV Shows

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As far as jobs go, reporting, writing, and editing stories about television is a pretty fantastic gig to have. One could almost call it a privilege — almost, because no job that includes “watching the pilot for every UPN series ever made” can realistically be called a privilege. If you haven’t noticed, we at Entertainment Weekly take television very seriously — so seriously, in fact, that I may have threatened to fire Senior Writer James Hibberd when he dared to suggest that The Wire should not be the No. 1 show on our All-Time Greatest TV list because it wasn’t commercially successful. (It’s a suggestion that was made even more appalling by the fact that Mr. Hibberd has never actually watched a full season of The Wire.) (And yes, I was kidding about firing him.) (Mostly.)

Which brings me to the matter at hand: How, exactly, did the Entertainment Weekly TV staff decide which shows deserved a spot on our All-Time top 100 list? In a word: Meetings. Lots and lots of meetings. But that’s not what you’re interested in, right? You want to hear about the rules, the process, the criteria, all the boxes a show had to tick in order to be considered worthy. It probably won’t come as a surprise to you that we had no specific formula — e.g. “ratings + length of run x Emmy wins / individual season grades” — but we did use three guiding principles while evaluating all the shows in contention:

1.    Entertainment value, then and now. If a series was hilarious/moving/addictive decades ago, does it still have that effect today? (See: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, No. 4; St. Elsewhere, No. 43; Twin Peaks, No. 41, among others).
2.    Social and cultural significance. Maude (No. 36) made TV safe for feminists. The Wire (No. 1) explored the lives and deaths of a forgotten class — poor, inner-city African-American men — with Dickensian scope and complexity. And The Brady Bunch (No. 100) is so inextricably ingrained in America’s pop culture consciousness the Fed may as well stamp “Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!” on our dollar bills right under In God We Trust.
3.    Groundbreaking originality. One way a TV show can become an All-Time Great? By changing the medium. As Jeff “Doc” Jensen wrote of The X-Files (No. 29) in the issue, the series “launched an era of geek cook and mythology-mystery serials.” The original U.K. Office (No. 14) essentially invented the now-ubiquitous cringe-com genre, and can you even remember a time when TV wasn‘t filled with shows featuring seven (or 10, or 25) strangers living in a house and having their lives taped (The Real World, No. 40)?

So those, dear readers, were our All-Time Greatest TV signposts — but they don’t tell the whole story. Really, this was a list forged from the deep, occasionally strident passions of the Entertainment Weekly TV staff. There isn’t one show on the list that wasn’t championed by a writer or editor, someone who demanded its inclusion either with a stirring, cogent argument or by force. I will admit I played the “Because I’m the TV editor and I said so, that’s why!” card on at least one occasion (Mystery Science Theater 3000, No. 89), and that we knew some of our choices were going to prompt head-scratching (The Comeback, No. 97), but we chose them anyway because we simply couldn’t imagine our list without them. (See also: The Golden Girls, No. 32.) The Dick Van Dyke Show — which didn’t make the list, much to your collective chagrin — is a classic, but it’s just not a classic that resonates as much with the EW staff as, say, The Bob Newhart Show (No. 38) or Soap (No. 52). In other words, it’s not you, Rob Petrie – it’s us.

Lists are made to be debated, and ours is not an exception. Love it, hate it, ignore it — just know that it was chosen with the utmost care and respect by people who love TV so much it’s borderline unhealthy. And if this list prompts just one person to mainline all five seasons of The Wire over the holiday weekend, then our work here is done.


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