Never trust writers or their guilds

Writer's Guild of America's list of best-written TV shows leaves much to be desired

There was a time when I fancied myself a purveyor of fiction, destined for greatness in the New York publishing scene or the sun-washed Los Angeles movie paradise.

Five years and one million words about meth heads, city budgets, parking garages and crazy old men in the Applegate who do chainsaw art later, I'm a purveyor of words that surround newspaper ads.

It's a strange existence, newspaper reporting. I poke into people's lives just long enough to gather enough useful data to fill 15 inches of column space, and then I'm off. You'd think no one would be willing to open up to such an ill-begatter as me, but I'm constantly shocked at how willing people are to divulge their deepest, ickiest secrets to a stranger with a notepad. Never underestimate the human need to over-share.

It's no lie that I speak to Medford police Chief Tim George more than I do my own mother. My mother! In fact, I announce that I'm calling home when it comes time to ring the police department for information about the latest meth-related something or other.

Despite my lack of success, or trying, at literary fiction, I remain interested in creative writing matters. This is why the Writer's Guild of America's list of the top 101 best-written television shows of all time caught my attention earlier this week.

I'm a television junkie. Why pretend otherwise? And so are most of you, if Netflix is to be believed. The company says that most of its streaming television shows are watched in blocks of three to five hours. In one sitting.

I remember discovering "The Shield" after three seasons had been released. I spent one sweaty summer afternoon in my un-air-conditioned studio apartment in Corvallis binge-watching that show for at least 10 solid hours. After the 10th episode, I remember peeling myself off my twin bed and stumbling down the block toward the grocery store, not needing anything in particular except fresh air and human contact.

I got back home and watched three more episodes before bed.

Television writing is an interesting beast. Smarty-pants people like to tell us that we are living in a golden age of television, but really scripters have fallen back on the tried-and-true cliffhanger narrative tricks of old. TV in the '70s and '80s was episodic, because you didn't have streaming devices that allowed for continued narratives and, perhaps, because people had better things to do 30 years ago than binge-watch episodes of "Arrested Development."

I'm a huge James Garner fan, so I will throw on a few episodes of "The Rockford Files" on Hulu. I'm always impressed by its languid pacing and self-contained structure. Rockford never changes as the series continues. He's basically a crappy guy with a don't-give-a-damn attitude who coasts through life, not really caring whether he solves a crime or helps a person in need.

This wouldn't fly in today's TV formula. Characters are given long narrative arcs that suck us in because of these monumental changes they experience as the seasons progress.

The WGA named "The Sopranos" as the best-written series in history. "Seinfeld" is number two, followed by "The Twilight Zone." Hard to argue with any of these.

However, the list denies love to some of the best kids' shows, of which "Duck Tales" is the gem. For all Disney's faults — and of course the show was made to sell plastic crap to kids — "Duck Tales" was a real delight to anyone over the age of 30 who grew up watching it on late afternoons. The show perfectly captured the feel of genius comics artist Carl Barks' work on the Uncle Scrooge books. But this kids' show gets no love from the WGA.

Instead, the WGA champions New York nihilism porn of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and that ilk. I suppose it's well-written, if you're into that kind of thing, but it's not for me.

The list is very 2000s-era specific. Seeing "The Prisoner" ranked in the 90s was a head-scratcher. Not only is that British sci-fi, acid-trip, brain maze well-written, but it paved the way for shows such as "The X-Files" and "Lost." Surely the literary merits of "The Prisoner" are higher than "Friends," yes?

Either way, these random Internet taste lists are fun to skim and make for great bar-debate fodder.

Check out the list at http://goo.gl/36Ps6. I'd love to hear what you guys think. And be sure to take time from binge-watching "Downton Abbey" to go out and enjoy the sunshine.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or cconrad@mailtribune.com.


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