The premise is that we’re living in a new golden age of television. The proof is in the next six pages, an unassailable argument for the creative dominance of the medium at a time when the availability of a thousand channels feels justified. From the rigorous elegance of dramas like 24 and The Shield to the addictive spectacle of reality shows like American Idol and Survivor, TV is where pop culture is born, celebrated, psychoanalyzed, judged, and recycled in rapid succession. Some may swear by The Sopranos and The Daily Show, others pledge allegiance to Prison Break and Desperate Housewives, but all of us are beneficiaries of a full-circle moment in mass media when the smartest guys in the room are working for the small screen.
As CBS Paramount TV president David Stapf puts it with no false modesty, ”TV is as good as it gets because the form forces writers to be better. You don’t have time to meander. So writers hone their craft on 22 little movies a year.”
The evidence — and an intelligent person’s guide to separating the best from the rest — is elegantly presented by writers from EW’s TV department. All that’s left is to explain why a critic usually found in darkened movie theaters is here cheering for her home TV.
That part is easy: Any episode of any Law & Order is better than half the feature-length dramas released each week. Any episode of The Office is better than 80 percent of the comedies. Any episode of The Wire (which didn’t make this roundup since the focus is on series you can see right now; The Wire returns this fall) is as good as anything nominated for an Oscar. Television is where interesting indie filmmakers like Michael Almereyda and Darnell Martin go to direct episodic dramas when Hollywood runs out of uses for them, where Crash writer-director Paul Haggis goes after he wins an Oscar, and where great actresses like Jean Smart and Stockard Channing go to dazzle when they age out of Hollywood’s camera range.
It’s where I go every day for cultural grounding, amazed at what point-and-click riches there are to be found while sitting in my sweatpants. You too? — Lisa Schwarzbaum