Thursday, 14 January 2010


The Guardian's great and good critics selected their 'greatest 50 TV dramas of all time' (you can hit the link here); all-time in this case meaning all-time within the UK, which is reasonable enough since you couldn't really expect them to judge shows their audience has never seen. As usual, such lists are very heavily weighted toward the present; since the TV critic slot is one traditionally given to the editor's roommate at Oxford, next-door neighbour in Islington or the Cotswolds or someone who had actually seen a programme on the wireless, that's to be expected. But the list did throw up some surprises. The biggest one was that an American series, The Sopranos, was judged the greatest of all time (when many would argue it isn't even the greatest imported from HBO). The rest of the top ten (apart from number 4, Mad Men, also from HBO, also tremendous, and current) was filled by British shows, which pointed out another difference: they were primarily in the mini-series format: self-contained movies cut into a limited number of episodes, while the Americans tend to work on the continuing series, which changes the dramatic focus, and almost demands ensemble casts and soap-operay story-lines. Indeed, continuing mini-series, like Prime Suspect (somewhat undervalued at 19) have a distinct advantage over a series like, say Hill St Blues (hugely influential, at number 37--NYPD Blue, its direct descendant, didn't make the cut).

Even in British terms: the only crime series included are Cracker (23), Morse (30) and The Sweeney (47). No Between The Lines? Resnick?, Minder? The Vice? Ghost Squad? And choosing four straight-forward soaps like Coronation Street (26) East Enders (28) Brookside (38) and the best of the lot, Grange Hill (50), is a joke, a pandering to an audience the Guardian doesn't have. All four, but no Dallas?

Obviously, I can only comment about British shows of my youth that made it to America, but though The Prisoner, daring even now and off the charts back then, gets in at 34, there is no place for The Avengers which surely is a landmark whichever side of the ocean you were on. I'd like to see The Saint and Danger Man included too. I have no idea about which shows from 1950s or 1960s America made it over here, though the Twilight Zone does sneak into the chart at 40. I'm pretty sure The Untouchables made it over on ITV and I wonder if The Defenders did. I'm a little surprised American mini-series don't get a look, apart from Band Of Brothers (again, HBO, and with a British lead), but Lonesome Dove seems quality in retrospect; Roots does look a bit too worthy now, but no one appreciated Robert Mitchum's spot-on performance in War & Remembrance.

Nice to see St Elsewhere recognised as the best doctor ensemble show, but perplexing to see 24 (although its format was innovative) and The Shield both in, and no place for Crime Story, Michael Mann's exceptional early 60s show or Homicide, the precursor to the Wire, and very good indeed. Odd to see This Life ('it's not a British Friends', writer Amy Perkins protested over and over again, before anyone had said it was, desperately prompting Brit critics to say how much better than Friends it was. They obliged, and no one noticed it was more a kitchen-sink less glossy 30 Something). Odd to see Buffy at 22 and Battleship Galactica at 25 and not a single western. Nor the newspaper show Lou Grant, a spinoff from Mary Tyler Moore intended as a TV version of All The Presidents Men but closer to The Defenders.

That The Wire comes in at 14, behind Twin Peaks even, seems bizarre. That Six Feet Under is right behind it at 15 seems even more so. Six Feet Under but no Law & Order, which has run over here for years and spawned a British remake that simply copies the original scripts and makes them boring? Where was Edge Of Darkness, maybe the best mini-series of them all? I Claudius? John Adams? LA Law? HBO's Oz got in, which was interesting, but how about Wise Guy, which lasted about as long? Even the first couple of series of Spooks were worth more than Coronation Street. And I saw Guardian readers asking about the German Heimat, but what about those two recent imports to BBC Four, Spiral (France) and Wallander (Sweden), the first exceptional in the mini-series format and the second a tremendous series.

The Six Most Egregious Omissions: The Avengers, Law & Order, Homicide, Edge Of Darkness, Crime Story, Between The Lines

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