Yom Kippur is nigh, so I have a confession to make: I’ve been feeling listless for some time. You know, that nagging feeling — or rather, lack of feeling — that you have neither the will nor the way to do anything about anything.
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Being the practical person that I am, I did muster enough energy to embark, listlessly, on the road to recovery. And as a firm believer in the healing powers of the human language, I’ve taken my cue for a remedy from the very word that summed up my gloomy mood. If I am listless, the only thing that can save me is a “list,” which is something I evidently lack, more or less.
And the list that snapped me out of my listlessness was in Rolling Stone, which recently concocted its “100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.”
The U.S. entertainment magazine says it polled “actors, writers, producers, critics, showrunners” for its survey. “All shows from all eras were eligible; anybody could vote for whatever they felt passionate about, from the black-and-white rabbit-ears years to the binge-watching peak-TV era. The ratings didn’t matter — only quality,” it adds.
When you celebrate your birthday, well-wishers talk to you about living (well) until the ripe old age of 120 (if you are Jewish) or 100 (if you are Polish, like yours truly). Be that as it may, 100 is a lot. And while the very fact that being on the list of “greatest shows” is meritorious, we can all probably agree that no one (bar those with a personal investment) really cares about the TV series placed 79th on a list of 100 shows (OK, if you really want to know, it’s “In Living Color”).
It’s a bit like the medals at the Olympic Games. A gold will bring you fame and fortune, the silver less so and the bronze yes, we Israelis cherish our bronze medal winners, but that’s mainly because they’re the only ones we’ve got.
Anyway, here are the 10 greatest television shows, as ranked by various members of the TV industry for Rolling Stone:
10. “The Daily Show” (1996-present)
9. “All in the Family” (1971-1979)
8. “Saturday Night Live” (1975-present)
7. “The Twilight Zone” (1959-1964)6. “The Simpsons” (1989-present)5. “Seinfeld” (1989-1998)
4. “Mad Men” (2007-2015)
3. “Breaking Bad” (2008-2013)
2. “The Wire” (2002-2008)
1. “The Sopranos” (1999-2007)
Torturing the data
Before saying a few words about the shows that make the top 10, one must say that any such list — the fanfare celebrating its cultural clout notwithstanding — is completely arbitrary.
The magazine says it polled actors, writers, producers, critics and showrunners, but doesn’t divulge how many it polled, or whether the list of pollsters was in any way representative of the TV audiences’ age, gender or ethnicity. Neither does it reveal whether those polled were asked to provide their personal list of 100 “greatest” shows (highly unlikely) or if the final result was a combined total of a list of 10 personal “greatest” shows. Besides, what does the adjective “greatest” really mean?
The other thing to bear in mind when trying to make sense of such an arbitrary list is the adage — which experienced interrogators know very well, but pollsters, those polled and the followers of lists tend to forget — that if you torture data for long enough, it will tell you anything you want to know.
With this in mind, it’s not surprising that seven of the top 10 spots are occupied by shows that are either still on television or were aired during the current century.
The three that are still on air have a longish pedigree, have a satirical bent and refer to current events in a slanted way: “The Simpsons” (No. 6) is now the longest-running animation series in the United States and shows no sign of drawing to a close; “Saturday Night Live” (No. 8) starts its 42nd season next month and is still going on air not because it’s ready but because it’s 11:30 P.M., as creator Lorne Michaels likes to say; and finally there’s “The Daily Show” (No. 10), which started in 1996 but really flourished when Jon Stewart hosted it between 1999 and 2015. Nowadays, of course, it’s presented — to considerably less acclaim — by Trevor Noah. Former “Daily Show” correspondent Stephen Colbert is much lower down the list with his “Colbert Report.”
The other thing worth mentioning is the fact that the top four spots are all occupied by TV shows that, by their choices of protagonists and milieu, excel — to borrow Louis C.K.’s line from his Web series “Horace and Pete” — in “justifying horrible behavior.” (“Louie,” of course, is on the list, at No. 22.)
“The Sopranos” “humanized” gangsters; “The Wire” provided us with a glimpse into the twisted world of undercover activity among the criminal classes; “Breaking Bad” gave us a good man turning bad under the circumstances of life as it happens to him; and “Mad Men” looked at how we manipulate ourselves into believing our own publicity, and how thin that sheet of publicity upon which we tread has become.
With 100 TV shows on the list (“The Cosby Show” is not on the list, I dare say, for reasons that have nothing to do with “greatness” or lack thereof), my mind wanders to the past.
Not to the television of yore, but instead to the British musical stage (by the way, “Downton Abbey,” “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and “Doctor Who” all make the list; “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Brideshead Revisited” do not) and the immortal song of Ko-Ko, Lord High Executioner of the town of Titipu, and the male chorus in “The Mikado” (lyrics by W.S. Gilbert, music by Arthur Sullivan):
“As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,
I’ve got a little list — I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed — who never would be missed! [...]
Then the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone,
All centuries but this, and every country but his own; [...]
But it really doesn’t matter whom you put upon the list,
For they’d none of ’em be missed — they’d none of ’em be missed!”