On June 2, 2013, the WGA announced its list of 101 Best Written TV Shows as voted on by the Guild’s membership. On April 28, 2017, one of our amazing library patrons Christina Irion finished reading at least one script from every available show on the list. After giving her a moment to rest her eyes and brain, we asked Christina to tell us what she learned from the experience. In this post, she shares ten highlights, offering a glimpse into TV storytelling, network history and how to make exceptional use of your friendly Writers Guild Foundation Library.
TEN THINGS I LEARNED FROM READING THE 101 BEST WRITTEN SERIES
Every time I popped into the WGF library I noticed a list hanging on the wall by the front glass doors. With 101 titles, these television shows were voted the best-written series of all time. Seeking to broaden my knowledge and challenge myself—with zero awareness of the commitment I just made—I decided to read the entire “101 Best Written Series.”
Over countless hours (with encouragement from the librarians and forced coffee breaks), I tackled the list from 101 all the way down to number one. Reading the pilot, or the earliest materials I could find from each show, I also created my own nerdy chart to track each script. Below are the top 10 things I learned.
1. Cha- Cha – Cha – Changes
The top 101 series are categorized by top-voted writing before June 2013. This meant that in one day I could read scripts with a wider age gap than Gloria and Jay on Modern Family. In reading scripts from different decades, I found it interesting to see how scripts and shows have changed over time.
From teleplays in the '50s to HBO dramas in the late 2000s, I found discrepancies in the amount of dialogue and number of act breaks in the scripts. Specifically in comedies, I noticed a change over time that resulted in more act breaks per episode and a quicker pace.
For example, Family Ties (Multi-cam) and Modern Family (Single cam) are both ABC comedies set decades apart. Structurally they are very different. While Family Ties is broken into only 2 acts with about 3 scenes in each act, Modern Family’s pilot is broken into 4 acts and a tag with about 9 scenes in each act. As a control in this experiment, I also tested this structure-change with scripts from Friends, comparing scripts from Season 1 to Season 10. I noticed that while each Friends script is broken into two acts, there are more scenes in Season 10 verses Season 1.
Going back to comparing Family Ties and Modern Family, there is a huge difference in scene length. In the Season 2 Family Ties episode “Not an Affair to Remember” the script is comprised of far more pages and dialogue per scene - usually about 7-10 pages of dialogue. Modern Family has a quicker pace with most long scenes lasting between 2-3 pages.
I think this shows the shift in the way people absorb media and possibly indicates the added time for commercial breaks around the story.
2. Top Producers and Writers – Starting To Make That Web
One of the best things about reading the scripts was learning about key players in the history of television. I knew my favorite writers and executive producers from my top shows—Tina Fey, Michael Shur, Ricky Gervais—but the list allowed me to branch out and discover more. With each series, I kept digging. I learned about different producers and writers and gained an understanding of projects they previously worked on, their collaborators and their sensibilities.
For example, one of the most-represented writers on the list was James L. Brooks. He dominates the top 101 with three hit shows, two of which I knew, the third of which surprised me. I knew of him from hit comedies like Taxi and The Simpsons. I was surprised that he also topped the list for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I had never looked into his filmography in depth, but I quickly hopped onto IMDB and saw that his other credits ranged from The Tracey Ullman Show to, surprisingly, Terms of Endearment.
As I read the top 101 list, my own list of favorite writers and producers grew. I began to understand a larger network of show creators and developed a web of their work. If you want to be either a writer or development executive, the top 101 list and the WGF library can help you study the top influencers throughout TV history.
3. Whoa, This Used To Be Like That?
A few of the top shows on the list have been on the air for decades. What is on screen today looked a lot different 25 years ago. Like looking at your mother’s old high school yearbook photos, I found it fascinating to read past scripts and compare them to the present-day version.
Saturday Night Live, Sesame Street, and The Muppets stand out the most with this phenomenon. Over decades, writers change, society shifts, and comedy transforms, so it is not surprising that formal writing style fluctuates because of this. I will say, though, that side by side - the comparison is jarring. For example, the older generation of Sesame Street seems like a slightly weird cousin to its current version.
Comparing a Sesame Street episode from the '80s to the 2000s, there is an obvious change in how the segments are broken up and who is highlighted in those segments. In the 80’s version, there were shorter segments and less dialogue (the font was MUCH larger) while the 2000’s version was comprised of long scenes with more emphasis on the celebrity guest. Perhaps Sesame Street made its programming longer to combat quick-paced programming that encourages shorter attention spans.
Comparing these scripts from different decades was an interesting way to see how shows can morph over time to better appeal to a current audience.
4. Which Network Reigned Supreme?
One of the biggest draws for me to read the top 100 list was to track the shows and their networks/cable companies. If anyone is development-driven, reading and studying the top 101 shows is a great way to see what types of programming each network/cable channel is known for, which production companies/writers they have worked with, and how each show fits into overall brands and missions.
It was no surprise that NBC, CBS, and ABC had the most top shows (they have been around the longest, to be fair), but their show genres differed. NBC’s best-written series consisted of large-cast comedies and procedurals like Cheers, 30 Rock, ER and Law & Order. CBS’s top shows tended to be variety shows surrounding comedic actors like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Carol Burnett Show and The Bob Newhart Show.
Knowing the history of each network and cable outlet seems like an extremely helpful tool when shopping scripts and ideas. By doing research, a writer can show that their outline or script will fit well with what the cable/network strives for in their shows.
5. “Young, Attractive Female..”
When reading the list, I tried to read mostly pilots. I wanted to get a good idea of how each show introduced its story. This meant reading hundreds of character introductions. One character introduction that became way too familiar was “[INSERT NAME] a young, attractive female”.
Repeatedly this was how background, secondary, and main female characters were introduced. While I saw this dissipate in the newer scripts, it was jarring to see how often appearance had to be added as a qualifier for women in these scripts. Not to say that “attractive male” wasn’t also seen, but there was a definitive, overall sense that the female characters had to also be “attractive” to be interesting and catch the eyes of the characters around them.
6. New Found Favorites
The top 101 list has a LARGE variety of genres, formats, and styles and is a fantastic way to broaden one’s taste in scripts. I found gems I never thought I would enjoy. The list opened my eyes to new genres and shows I would not have read otherwise.
Northern Exposure, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Playhouse 90 were all fantastic shows that previously slipped under my radar or were set aside in favor of familiar shows and genres. Each show featured amazing writing that I look forward to sitting down and scrolling through again.
7. Script To Screen – “That Seems…Different”
Only by reading material from the top 101 list did I notice that that the screen and script versions of certain shows could seem vastly different.
For example, on the page, the pilot for Twin Peaks seemed like a fast-paced mystery. When I finally watched the show, I was surprised that on screen it felt slower, more dramatic, and reminiscent of a soap opera.
It goes to show how much power a director (or maybe just David Lynch) has in carrying the script to the screen.
8. “This Is The First Draft ?”
Because scripts go through many drafts from first pitch to pilot, characters names may change, there can be different exposition, even characters’ actions can be changed. Many series at the WGF library have at least two versions of the pilot available. For my favorite shows like The Office (U.S) and Game of Thrones, I read both versions and wow, they were different.
The first version of The Office (U.S) is very similar to its British predecessor, which makes lovable prankster, Jim, look like that creepy jerk at the party. In all honesty, first-pilot Jim wouldn’t have fans rooting for a Jim-Pam romance.
Game of Thrones was rewritten and reshot after the first filming of its pilot episode. The focus of the beginning is pretty different which should make any super-fan curious to see what the earlier draft looked like.
It was eye-opening to see first-hand how development notes can change the pivotal beginnings of our favorite shows. It makes one wonder how the series would look if it weren’t for those notes.
9. Which Came First: Culture or the TV Show?
In the top 101 list, there are shows that take place in varied cities with characters of different races, religions, social statuses, sexuality, and identities. One of the most interesting parts about reading through the list was diving into a different world with every script. I think a lot of the shows were chosen because they had a social commentary to make within their 22 - 60 pages that was not explored in previous shows.
From The Wonder Years to Roots to The Wire, the series’ writers show their audience different viewpoints of history and also put a spotlight on characters and societies overlooked in mainstream pop culture.
For example, when Roots was released in 1977, it was a cultural phenomenon hitting some of the highest Nielson ratings at the time.* The multiple night, mini-series was unexpected and families across the United States tuned in every night to see the story of Kunta Kinte and the generations after him. Roots was an example of a different take on Black television that unapologetically showed the harsh reality of American History. The onscreen portrayal of America’s brutal past in Alex Haley’s novel was a stark difference from the other African American sitcoms at the time. A Newsday Review article from 1977 praised Roots's educational approach to black culture and ancestry by stating Roots goes deeper into explaining black family life than “What’s Happening.”
It really behooves any reader of this list to read some of these scripts and contemplate: “Did culture influence television or did television influence culture?”
10. Off to the Races
Time to sound like every '50s TV mom giving a life lesson when I say, “Like any other muscle, the brain also needs a bit of practice and exercise.” Whether you read scripts for a living now or want to in the future, reading this list in its entirety quickens reading speed and helps you gauge your reading time. Soon the mountain of scripts will seem a lot less daunting.
It became easier to read more scripts with each visit to the library. With thousands of pages to read, there’s not only speed to be gained but brainpower to be strengthened by taking on the Top 101 challenge.
Overall, reading the top list was beneficial in so many ways. I feel like I broadened my mind, became a better reader, and got to understand so much more about the industry I love. I would highly suggest reading down this list as a personal challenge to continue learning and growing.
Whether you decide to tackle the list or read your favorite show, know one thing: the librarians know best. There are hundreds of episodes to choose from and it can be overwhelming if you don’t know what exactly you are looking for.
Javier, Hilary, Lauren, and the rest of the librarians are happy to share fan favorites as well as their own. Don’t be afraid to ask for suggestions because you can find some of your favorite scripts that way. I know that was true for me.