What Are the 10 Greatest Television Shows of All Time?
In response to a challenge. This is one of my favorite topics.
Many people say "TV is bad". But right now all the best writing, best acting, best directing, is happening on. The golden age of TV started around 2000-2010 and I thought that was it but streaming has brought it back.
It's also hard to define "great" when mixing genres. There are great sitcoms and great dramas. Hard to determine which is better.
1. Mad Men
2. Better Call Saul / Breaking Bad
3. Lost - yes, even the ending.
4. I'm going to throw in a few sitcoms: Dave
6. Curb Your Enthusiasm
Larry David is the godfather of the modern sitcom.
Larry David has said that the “Larry David” he plays on “Curb” is not really him. It’s what he’d LIKE to be.
But the lesson from Curb is that comedy is often about subtraction.
You take the real Larry David and you subtract all sense of etiquette and “following the rules” and an ability to hold himself back from what he’s really thinking and you get Curb.
Steve Kaplan in “The Hidden Tools of Comedy” says that comedy is often about subtraction.
Another thing about Curb. Almost every scene is improvised. Instead of a 20 page outline, Larry David will often only write a 3-4 page outline and let people improvise.
So when you see the actors laughing, they are REALLY laughing, not just acting like someone laughing. There’s a big difference and the viewer can feel it.
Also, almost all the actors are professional comedians (JB Smoove is unbelievable in the show) or improv actors or (in the case of Ted Danson and the one season with Michael J. Fox) comedic actors.
I like the fact that such an accomplished scriptwriter can improve on the form to create a better show.
Andy Samberg made a joke during the Golden Globes. He said, “There has been several reclassifications this year: ‘Orange is the New Black’ has gone from comedy to drama’ and ‘Louie’ has been reclassified as ‘Jazz’. “
Which is funny because Louie is obviously a comedy simply because it’s written, directed, produced and starring Louis CK, a comedian.
And it’s about a comedian named “Louis CK” (in the genre of comedians shows about comedians (Seinfeld, Louie, Jim Gaffigan Show, Maron, Crashing, and probably others I’m not thinking of).
But there is something jazz-like about the show, beginning with its opening theme.
There’s an improv to it that just barely stretches reality enough that you still believe what’s happening even though you are accepting of the stretches of reality.
And it’s DARK.
My favorite scene is when Louie is lonely for the holidays in the season finale of season 3. He runs into my all-time favorite actress, Parker Posey, on a bus and…something happens. You have to see it.
Every episode contains darkness. But the wisdom that drives Louis CK’s comedy drives this.
And Louie is the master of his craft. He took the umbrella of comedy 30 years ago decided to master all the sub-skills:
Standup, writing for a show, writing for a talk show, making a movie, making a TV series (“Lucky Louie” which was cancelled after one season on HBO), and then negotiating to become the first TV producer to completely create a TV show on his own terms without any notes from the executives.
Perhaps the first time that’s happened on a major network.
The result is a sitcom that completely plays with the form. For example, almost every other sitcom has a main storyline told in three acts.
Often Louie doesn’t do this. There are many episodes with two complete stories without the requisite breakdown into acts.
Plus, if you watch the compilation of just his standup-bits in the show, they are FUNNY. Unlike other shows about funny people (“30 Rock”, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” – a great drama), the “Louie” bits are incredibly funny.
But isn’t this just like Seinfeld, a show about a comedian with the same name as the show who is up and coming in the comedy world?
Yes, but this isn’t a show about nothing. Louie is darker in every way than Seinfeld and I found myself both laughing and crying often within the same episode.
Louie says he could’ve made many of these storylines into a movie. Instead he fit them tightly into an episode on this show.
8. The Larry Sanders Show
Like Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show is almost the grandfather of every other sitcom that came after it.
I can’t make a list about sitcoms without one of the most creative of all time.
A show about the inner workings of a talk show called “The Larry Sanders Show”.
Garry Shandling, one of the best comics of all time, stars in it, and the guest includes well known comedians such as Bob Odenkirk (him again! By the way, best sketch show of all-time is “Mr. Show” starring Odenirk and David Cross (“Arrested Development”) which also appeared on HBO, and also great actors such as Rip Torn and Larry Sanders and tons of guest appearances (David Letterman, etc).
Even more revealing is the amazing staff of writers who worked on that show including a young Judd Apatow who says Garry mentored him to success via this show.
I once wrote a spec script for this show that I was very proud of. It was about how Larry Sanders wanted to get respect and write a memoir.
I was about to send it in to the staff of the show when the very next episode was about this exact topic. So I missed my chance.
As Garry Shandling put it, “The show is about people who love each other but show business gets in the way”.
Garry wouldn’t do a joke simply because it was funny. It had to move the story forward. The jokes had to be about something.
Writers like Judd Apatow never forgot that (and 10 monster box office hits later, it’s clearly good advice that Judd used).
And, culturally significant. Even though it was fiction, whenever “Larry Sanders” went on vacation, his guest host on the fictional show was often a young comedian named “Jon Stewart”.
When the Larry Sanders Show finished its fun, even though the show was fiction and not real, Jon Stewart was finally given a chance to host his own talk show: The Daily Show.
9. Freaks and Geeks
Canceled after less than one season. But I could watch this series over and over again.
I also recommend Judd Apatow’s description of the failure of this show.
It was Judd Apatow’s first attempt at producing for TV. He hadn’t yet done: “The 40 Year old Virgin”, “Knocked Up”, my all time favorite comedy “Superbad”, “Funny People”, and other series like “Girls”, and “Crashing”.
Imagine creating a high school show without pretty people.
He wanted to create the opposite of “Beverly Hills 902010”. A bunch of geeky kids combined with a bunch of burnout kids and everyone’s awkward attempt to fit in.
Growing up is awkward and painful and there’s no guidebook.
But this is what’s amazing:
Imagine a show with the first appearances of unknown actors such as James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Siegel, Martin Starr (“Silicon Valley” much later, as well as others), Linda Cardellini (“Mad Men” much later), and also the comedic writing talents of Paul Feig (I recommend his book, “Superstud”, he wrote and directed “Spy”, he directed a lot of “The Office” and “Arrested Development”).
How did he find all these future mega-stars? Judd Apatow did it and they show their future skills in this show.