No history of television can ever truly be complete while the medium still exists, but TV (The Book) by Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz is a commendable effort, providing an overview of American television both broad and deep, current right up to its September 2016 publication date. The book’s primary aim is to rate the top 100 shows in American television history, which the authors attempt by means of a robust rating system and more than a little friendly argument. But because they’re passionate critics with an extremely large knowledge base, they don’t stop there, extending the discussion to dozens of other shows, from the popular to the obscure.
The challenge of comparing such a huge number of dissimilar shows is a daunting one. This struggle is best illustrated, perhaps, in an early chapter in which the authors wrestle with a five-way tie for first place between Breaking Bad, Cheers, The Simpsons, The Sopranos, and The Wire. How can you hold up modern dramas against classic sitcoms, or live action to animation? How can the simple conventions of 1950 compare against the more sophisticated techniques of 2015? Questions like these abound, and the only answers, really, lie in that early chapter: a fair amount of debate and subjectivity is involved. Every entry in the top 100 pantheon is essentially an argument in favor of the show’s belonging, and some arguments are more convincing than others. Their extended debate about the top five, for example, is highly persuasive. The entry about Seinfeld, on the other hand, seems to rank the show much higher than the authors’ passion for it. Overall, though, the top 100 list is impressive, even if at times the rating system elevates popular, mediocre shows over more groundbreaking or interesting ones. (I would argue against Everybody Loves Raymond and How I Met Your Mother, for example, being top 100 shows over better and more innovative shows like, say, The Good Wife, Mission: Impossible, and Treme.)
One can quibble with the inclusions and omissions, but the authors are true to their methodology, and broaden their coverage in appendix chapters discussing shows that are still in-progress (and therefore not ranked), honorable mentions, miniseries, and TV movies. By and large it’s an impressive achievement, providing an enlightening collective overview of the medium’s history. I suspect it won’t be long before the passage of time demands a new, revised edition, but for now it’s an entertaining, enlightening look at the medium that should provide most casual viewers with plenty of ideas for their next binge.