What makes a classic? For academics extolling the virtues of Mozart and Homer, it’s often a question of who got to the great ideas first. That leaves those who follow behind with sloppy seconds. As the famously cantankerous Yale professor Harold Bloom notes in The Western Canon, ”Contemporary writers do not like to be told that they must compete with Shakespeare and Dante.” No kidding. But these days, the Bard and Beethoven must compete with living artists, too: with Steven Spielberg and Paul Thomas Anderson, with Jerry Seinfeld and South Park, with Jay-Z and Radiohead. And the old guys don’t always come out ahead in the bargain. Did the Bard ever conceive a plot as pretzel-like in structure as Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction? Or choreograph a bit of comic silliness as sublime as Ricky Gervais’ Flashdance-meets-MC Hammer dance in The Office?
Over the last 25 years, artists have created a body of work that deserves recognition as classic, and in the pages that follow, we celebrate the best of the best. (In the case of TV, we include only shows that debuted since 1983.) Will the choices we’ve made provoke arguments? You bet. Around the offices of Entertainment Weekly, they already have. But there is a method to our madness. For one thing, we include memorable works that have endured in the public consciousness despite shrugs from academics — and the Academy. Do you lament that comedies and action flicks never seem to win Oscars? Or that graphic novels are snubbed for literary prizes? So do we.
Our selections run the gamut from justly praised critical darlings like The Sopranos and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain to benchmark genre fare like Spider-Man 2 and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. For the most part, we limit superstar directors, writers, and musicians to just one or two slots. It was tempting to devote 10 spots on our Stage list to August Wilson’s magnificent 10-play saga about African-American lives in the 20th century; we settled for two. Quality was our guiding principle, but we took influence into account as well. The Matrix and Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code have inspired countless imitators, while even clear non-blockbusters like Arrested Development and Arcade Fire’s Funeral have built up a growing word-of-mouth legacy.
Back at Yale, Professor Bloom likes to talk about ”the anxiety of influence,” how artists are burdened by their unconscious efforts to copycat — or to avoid copycatting — everything that’s come before. So EW’s New Classics may make some people a little bit, well, anxious. But that’s a good thing. Especially if all this great entertainment sparks the next generation of masterpieces.