Barry Monush

Assistant Curator

June 15, 2009

You're the Top?: The Fickle System for Determining TV’s “Greatest”

by Barry Monush

Lists are made to provoke discussions and arguments, so curatorial staff member James Sheridan has some bones to pick with TV Guide about their recent ranking of "The 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time." Maybe what he has to say will "provoke discussions and arguments" ... you decide.

The new, June 15, 2009, issue of TV Guide contains a list called "TV's Top 100 Episodes of All Time." This is not the first time the magazine has put together such a list. Twelve years ago, TV Guide came up with what they considered to be "The 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time." That ranking, which was revealed in the June 28, 1997, edition, was a joint effort with TV Land and was released with plenty of fanfare. To celebrate, twenty-five of the 100 shows chosen aired during a special week on Nick at Nite. In contrast, I didn't hear anything about this new ranking until my TV Guide was delivered the other day.

Several shows, such as I Love Lucy, Mary Tyler Moore, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Seinfeld, and The Odd Couple, had more than one episode on the 1997 list. However, no shows have more than one entry on the new list. More than one-third of the programs on the latest list are series that have premiered since the first version came out in 1997. On lists like these, it is clear that more recent shows are favored. There were only ten episodes from shows from the 1950s and ‘60s represented on the 2009 list (the last list had thirty-five), while fourteen of the episodes listed in the latest issue first aired in the past two years! It seems strange that an episode of Breaking Bad that just aired two months ago is on the list at number 98 (just two places below an episode of Rescue Me that aired the previous week). Similarly, on the 1997 list, an episode of The X-Files, which had just aired two months previously, was ranked at number 72. In the new version of the list, this episode is nowhere to be found. Instead, The X-Files is represented on the new list with the episode "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose," which is ranked number 35, but had been number 10 on the previous list.

The number one episode on the new list is Seinfeld's Emmy-winning "The Contest." This episode wasn't even on the list twelve years ago. Two Seinfeld episodes made the 1997 list, "The Boyfriend" (number four) and "The Handicap Spot" (number 33), but "The Contest" was nowhere to be seen. The Mary Tyler Moore episode "Chuckles Bites the Dust" won the number one spot on the 1997 list, however it is now placed at number three. TV Guide's 1997 choice for second greatest episode, "Lucy Does a TV Commercial" from I Love Lucy, is now at number four. Coming in at number three twelve years ago, the ER episode "Love's Labor Lost," is now at number six. The new number two spot is "College" from The Sopranos, which wasn't on the air yet when the first list was compiled. Neither was Lost, which had its pilot episode come in fifth. The classic "Password" episode of The Odd Couple was in fifth place for the 1997 list, but in 2009, it now comes in at 58! Three episodes that TV Guide deemed worthy enough to be in the top ten in 1997 are nowhere to be found on the 2009 list: Number six, "The $99,000 Answer" from The Honeymooners; number seven," Thanksgiving Orphans" from Cheers; and number eight, "Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth" from The Dick Van Dyke Show. All the shows are represented on the new list with other episodes, though. The Honeymooners episode "Better Living Through Television" is now number seven, "Show Down" from Cheers is ranked number 29, and The Dick Van Dyke Show episode "It May Look Like a Walnut," which was on the 1997 list at number 15, is now number 13.

The new 100 list issue of TV Guide is a lot less fun than the edition twelve years ago. The 1997 list contained a detailed description of all the episodes and what made them great. The new list does this for some special episodes, but primarily gives each show just one sentence of coverage. Another change is that the 1997 list started at number 100 and counted down to number one. The new list reveals the winner right away, which takes away any suspense. A small picture of the cast of Seinfeld appears on the cover of the new issue, which kind of gives away what show the number one episode comes from.

It is interesting that only one of the thirteen people who put together this 2009 ranking was also involved with the 1997 list. It is a shame that so many older television shows are being ignored in favor of programs currently airing, but might not be as great. If TV Guide does another list like this in another twelve years, let's see how many of these brand new shows are included.

—James Sheridan, Curatorial Assistant

  • I was disappointed that one of my old time favorites didn't make the "Top" list, St. Elsewhere.  What a brilliant ending to learn that the entire show was all just the vivid imagination of an autistic child, viewing his imaginary world in a snow globe.  Fascinating concept.

    Another great ending?  Newhart (the show about the Vermont Innkeeper).  Once again, another show that was actually supposed to be the dream of our favorite Chicago psychologist, Bob Hartley. 




    Vic, June 22, 2009 at 2:22 pm


Barry Monush

Assistant Curator


Qualified only to do jobs that require watching television during working hours, Barry Monush joined the Paley Center in 1996. He is the editor of Screen World and author of The Encyclopedia of Hollywood Screen Actors and the newly released Everybody’s Talkin’: The Top Films of 1965-1969.


Movies, Motion Pictures, and Films, in that order. Can also be counted on for trivia pertaining to television, theater, and musicals.


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