“Our list is guaranteed to start plenty of loud arguments”
When Entertainment Weekly ranked the “100 Greatest CDs” (remember those?) in 1993, the resulting list included an entry from the musical artist Slayer – - no doubt a worthy ensemble, but not one likely to populate many desert-island lists today.
In 1999, Rolling Stone magazine listed the quirky Albert Brooks comedy Lost in America as one of the 100 greatest films of the prior 100 years. These days, Lost in America garners a rating of 7.1 out of 10 at the Internet Movie Database, not even the highest mark for an Albert Brooks film.
Now, in its latest issue, Rolling Stone has given us the “100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.”
Okay: No one regards Rolling Stone as the periodical of record on American television, or film. It is the periodical of record on records. Music is its bailiwick, although some recent judgments – - such as awarding four stars to every Rolling Stones album since 1990 – - have prompted even record fans to search elsewhere for counsel.
Yet, the new list has drawn substantial press coverage, partly because the publication apparently invited television critics from other mainstream publications to cast votes. (A canny move, come to think of it.)
“Our list is guaranteed to start plenty of loud arguments,” writes Rob Sheffield, the magazine’s popular-culture concertmaster, in a short introduction to the list.
It has. And I would seem to play into Rolling Stone’s hands if I started another one. Yet, I am the author of a book that posits The Andy Griffith Show as – - arguably - – the most enduring television program of its era. My book also claims that Andy Griffith has never reaped the respect it deserves from either the Hollywood industry or its salaried critics. The fact that poor Andy has been omitted from Rolling Stone’s list, and from another recent list compiled by the Hollywood Reporter, would seem to prove my point.
In truth, I love lists. When I was twelve, a poster hung in my room. It pictured not Farrah Fawcett, or the cast of Star Wars, but a fine-print list of the 500 greatest rock ‘n roll songs of all time, as assembled by one of the Top 40 stations in my home town of Chicago. My favorite bands were the Beatles and the Stones. A song by Queen was listed at No. 1 on this poster. I knew, even then, that the list was wrong, and that history would vindicate me. (I mean, the song wasn’t even “Bohemian Rhapsody.”)
Anyone who has spent as much time with as many “all-time” lists as I have can tell you their fatal flaw: The more recent the work, the less reliable the list. The passage of time yields hindsight, weeding out the ephemeral from the enduring, the derivative from the original.
On my desk sits a book released a decade ago by the beloved British music magazine Mojo, listing several hundred records that, according to its writers, everyone should own. The entries for the 1960s and 1970s may not be unassailable, but they are at least defensible; critical opinion on the merits of Deep Purple’s Machine Head or Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book is, at this point, relatively fixed. But as I approach the back end of the book, where judgments are made on works just one or two years old, I read with growing trepidation. Yes, I know Nick Cave is a major artist, but is Nocturama really his magnum opus? I love Aimee Mann, but surely she has done better than Lost in Space.
If “greatest” lists are least trustworthy when they consider recent works, then Rolling Stone’s list of Greatest TV Shows is one risky endeavor. The list is top-heavy with contemporary programs, including productions that are still on the air, some just reaching their apex, others about to jump the shark.
The first sentence of the piece seems to explain the temporal bias: “There’s never been a creative boom for TV like the one we are living through right now,” Sheffield writes.
Well, perhaps not. But are all the programs listed beneath those words a part of that boom? Is Portlandia a show for the ages? Is Broad City? I’ve read a lot about The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, but that program aired this very year. Is it already time to declare it timeless?
Seventeen years ago, Entertainment Weekly ranked the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time. Scanning the list now for unlikely titles, I see that it includes The Last of the Mohicans, a fine action film that has slipped off the radar over the passing years, just like Lost in America.
I have to admit, though, that the rest of the list looks pretty solid.
Seventeen years from now, let’s check back on Rolling Stone’s TV list and see if it, too, has stood the test of time.
–Daniel de Vise for Classic Movie Hub
Daniel is Don Knotts’ brother-in-law. Andy and Don is a lively and revealing biography and the definitive work on the legacy of The Andy Griffith Show and two of America’s most enduring stars. The book features extensive unpublished interviews with those closest to both men and a wealth of new information about what really went on behind the scenes. Click below to purchase Andy and Don on Amazon.