First, I apologize. I know I left some of your favorite shows off this list. How do I know that? Because I left some of my favorite shows off this list. (The Rockford Files, Get a Life and Aqua Teen Hunger Force, for starters.) The happy and unfortunate fact is that there are far more than 100 great shows, and more created every year. Adding to this list would be easy; taking shows off is the tricky part.
How did I settle on this list? Each previous All-TIME List—movies, albums and novels—was divvied up between two critics. I’m TIME’s only TV critic, so I have twice as much opportunity to be wrong. Starting months ago, I polled friends and colleagues, read other lists and spent days watching DVDs and going to the Paley Center for Media to re-evaluate shows I hadn’t seen in decades. And I set a few guidelines:
—It’s My List… which means that it’s unavoidably subjective, indefensible and shaped by my experience. I included British shows, for instance, but not many, and generally those that got wide exposure on American TV. Because I’m American, and we’re like that.
—… But It’s Not All About Me. This list is not just about what I like or have fond memories of, or it would include Man vs. Beast and Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp. Like any critic, I relied not just on my gut but on aesthetic priorities. (Important: voice, originality, ideas, character and influence. Not so important: social conscience, moral values, educational content. I sincerely hope that no one over 5 watches TV to improve him or herself.)
—No Grading on A Curve. There are shows that have been handicapped because they had to deal with restrictive broadcast standards, because the medium was new, because they had to get a bigger audience than boutique cable shows, and so on. This is not fair. It is also not my problem. I aimed to make a list of the 100 best TV shows, not the 100 best shows “considering what they had to put up with,” “for their time” or “if you like that sort of thing.”
—Spread It Around. Is The Price Is Right objectively equal to The Sopranos? Of course not. But TV would not be TV without game showsand talk shows, and sports, and soaps, and videos and even commercials. TV should be smart, but TV should also be dumb. So while I judged each show on its merits, I also stepped back, looked at the list, and tried to give an overview of what TV is and has been: fiction and non, daytime and primetime, highbrow and low, broadcast and cable.
—It’s Not a Popularity Contest. This list features huge hits and commercial disasters. Some great shows have big universal themes and wide appeal; others have small audiences, not because people are stupid, but because they have themes (say, inside-show-business satire) that only so many people care about. I don’t believe that the people are always wrong (or I’d never have picked American Idol), but if I put shows on the list simply because a lot of other people would, I might just as well have thrown together Nielsen’s top 100 and gotten the whole thing done in an hour.
—Two Shows, One Slot. Where two shows with the same creators or talent had similar themes, milieus, characters or narrative styles, I generally picked one. So: Monty Python but no Fawlty Towers; windshield repair houston but no Frasier; Seinfeld but no Curb Your Enthusiasm; The Bob Newhart Show but no Newhart; My So-Called Life but no thirtysomething. I did include both versions of The Office because they were different achievements (the American is the better series, Ricky Gervais’ the better performance), but also because—all together now!—it’s my list.
—The One-Year Rule: I considered only shows that debuted before 2006, to see if they held up beyond one season or (if they lasted a year or less) if they have held up over time. Sorry, Friday Night Lights.
Those are my rules; I took them seriously, and broke most of them at least once. Ultimately, I also had to realize that this isn’t the Periodic Table of the Elements; it is a freaking top-100 list. It is hopefully well-informed, but it is not inherently more correct than your top-100 list. Lists are meaningless: they sell magazines and give you something to talk about at the bar. Lists are incredibly important: they are how we define what matters to us, what we want entertainment and art to do, what we expect of our culture.
Most of all, lists are about having fun and picking fights. If you have read my list and think I am a moron, that’s all the thanks I need.