Virtually everyone who has seen the newly published list of the Writers Guild of America's 101 best-written television shows has a quibble with it – Lost at 27! Where's Doogie Howser, M.D.? – but it's difficult to not be impressed by the depth and breadth of the compiled programs. From The Sopranos at the peak right down to Oz at 101, this is a list that demonstrably proves the writer's crucial relationship to enduring television.
Where would the best-written Australian television programs variously place in such a ranking? Could you credit The Slap – my selection as this country's finest effort – above Hill Street Blues (15 on the WGA list) or 30 Rock (21)? Could Frontline displace Roseanne (72) or The Colbert Report (51)? You could make a case for either, but that's not the problem. We have exceedingly well written television shows in Australia, just not that many of them.
In this country we don't have a culture of television writing that the American industry possesses. There aren't the fertile writers' rooms, which prove to be a combination of finishing school and creative greenhouse; writing for television is a solitary business conducted on assignment and it must be hard for initiates to gain traction.
What's noticeable about the list below is how contained many of the entries are. The Slap and Blue Murder were mini-series, while Chris Lilley's Summer Heights High was designed for a single season. Most of the other shows ran for three or so years. It's rare that an Australian show will commit to a concept and a character and pursue them across years. Instead, too many of our shows run on the spot, accepting weekly familiarity over change.
What was the last Australian show that ended with the central character in a radically different psychological state or standing in society than when it began? One of the things that made Love My Way such a welcome variation on the local norm was that Claudia Karvan's Frankie Page was nowhere near the person she had initially been after 30 episodes. The writing had changed her circumstances, hopes and beliefs, and it made for great television.
The American model also allows for talented writers to rise to a position where they can flourish. David Chase not only created The Sopranos and guided the show through six seasons, he also hired and instructed writers who went on to create their own programs. Both Matthew Weiner (Mad Men, ranked 7th) and Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire, 93) made their bones on the mob family series; The X-Files (26) was the proving ground for Vince Gilligan, who subsequently gave us Walter White and Breaking Bad (13).
Of course the American industry is predicated on the viewing market's vast size and the economic benefits that brings. Writers and producers who create their own shows are the most powerful creative figures in American television, and the resulting level of compensation rewards those who build a fictional world for Jed Bartlett, Don Draper or the Bluth family to inhabit. It's cruel and cutthroat, but nonetheless much of TV's golden age stems from unfettered capitalism.
The 10 best-written Australian TV shows
1. The Slap (2011)
Presenting devastatingly detailed portraits of eight interconnected characters, four writers – Emily Ballou, Alice Bell, Brendan Cowell, and Kris Mrksa – turned Christos Tsiolkas' best-seller into a masterpiece.
2. Blue Murder (1995)
Ian David's saga of institutionalised corruption in NSW not only gave us vividly unforgettable characters, but a feeling for a world spinning out of control.
Too many of our shows run on the spot, accepting weekly familiarity over change.
3. Frontline (1994-1997)
A masterfully executed update of the workplace sitcom from the Working Dog team that still feels relevant today.
4. Love My Way (2004-2007)
Created by John Edwards, Claudia Karvan and Jacquelin Perske, this domestic drama dug deep into the central characters.
5. The Fast Lane (1985-1987)
John Clarke's contributions to Australian television are numerous, but this comedy about two bumbling private eyes remains the best (and should be repeated on ABC2).
6. Summer Heights High (2007)
Chris Lilley's best work to date, Summer Heights High gave us Mr G, Jonah Takalua and more Ja'mie King – three excruciatingly well-penned characters.
7. SeaChange (1998-2000)
Across three seasons Andrew Knight and Deb Cox's creation offered a mix of charm and wry humour, with an often surprising ensemble collection of characters.
8. Newstopia (2007-2008)
Sharply written because it had to move at the pace of series creator Shaun Micallef's sizeable brain, this half hour news satire was packed with smart gags.
9. Janus (1994-1995)
Long before Underbelly and Animal Kingdom, this series about Victoria's police pursuit of a crime family proved to be a fascinating procedural.
10. Number 96 (1972-1977)
Using that most cliched of formats, the soap opera, Number 96 turned out to be a vehicle for discussing social change in Australia.