A. The Second Greatest Work of Art Ever Made
Let’s just say, for the moment, that you’re me. And whatever fine or less-than-fine qualities you possess, you are the kind of person who obsessively makes lists.
Not lists of groceries to pick up or things to do today - that would be entirely too practical and self-beneficial, and therefore repulses you. Instead, you make lists of your favorites: your favorite movies, favorite pieces of music, favorite books, favorite TV shows, favorite episodes of TV shows, favorite musical/literary passages. Eventually these lists extend to ranking your favorite friends, relatives, exes, unrequited loves. Then once you’ve exhausted these lists, you begin to subdivide them - judging works of art for their formal perfection, expressiveness, humor and pathos - all those other unbearably pretentious qualities which it takes to actually talk about art. Then, when you’ve gotten through art and sports (just baseball, in my case), you move onto your personal life. You start ranking friends for reliability, humor, and emotional supportiveness. Then you start ranking crushes and loves over the course of a third-of-a lifetime, requited and (more often) unrequited, for talent at banter, lack of neediness, and most particularly beauty - or call it ‘hotness’ if you feel like being honest with yourself. And if you’re feeling especially pretentious, you start moving onto lists of ‘bests’ - as though you’re capable of determining anything objectively but your own preferences.
The difference between bests and favoites is that favorites are personal, ‘bests’ are an attempt to make the personal into something universal. Ranking favorites is always loads of fun - you get to delve into the minutia of your experience and savor every detail of all the things you love. Determining ‘bests’ is an agonizing endeavor, something necessarily laborious and grandiose - in which you try to judge things by universal criteria than might have nothing to do with your own preferences.
Ergo, You’ve decided that from now on, you will dispense with the problems of determining bests by simply stating that your bests are your favorites. And since you start with art, let’s determine you favorite (ergo: the best) works of art.
You’ve going to dispense with most visual art. Not because you don’t love it, simply because you are an obscenely unskilled nearly colorblind visual person. You can barely remember the details of your own apartment, let alone the details of visual works of art. The exception to this is architecture, which you think you understand for two simple reasons:
1. It’s too big not to notice.
2. Because it’s bigger, there are far more fun details to take in than on a painting canvas.
You’re not a micromatician. You have a mind that loves macro complexities and gets bored far too easily with simplicities. You realize that the problem is yourself, and that you’re missing out on lots of beautiful things. But you can’t help your own preferences. For you, bigger is generally better.
But there’s a proviso in that previous statement. Bigger is better not because of the size but because of the variety. You don’t love largeness of it’s own sake, you love largeness because of the flexibility it provides. Within the giganticism of a Mahler Symphony or a Kieslowski film series is hundreds of startlingly intimate moments, the grandiosity is only there to puncture the intimacy and provide contrast that makes the intimate moments seem still more intimate. Granted, with the best artists, that can be done on any scale, but it’s simply easier to do when you work on the largest scale.
So when you begin to make this list, you realize that while you’re not fit to comment on most visual art, but you can pontificate to your heart’s delight about matters cinematic, literary and musical. You know movies, you know music, and you know books (or at least you know them as well as anyone else in your woefully illiterate generation).
Now what are the criteria by which you judge all those books, movies and music? How much you love them? Well, yes. But it also has to do with how much you’re impressed by them. There are some pieces of comedy like stretching from Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantegruel to Richard Pryor routines in which no matter how often you return to it, you’re forever bowled over by how funny it is - but the genuine pathos within them is in short supply. On the other hand, there are works like Verdi’s Otello and Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure which strike you as so sad that you can almost not bear to return to it, yet you do, only to feel that exquisite sadness all over again.
But then there is that sweet spot between tragedy and comedy where life exists - it’s funny, it’s tragic, it’s hurtful, it’s compassionate, it’s exciting, it’s boring, and usually all at the same time. Art should be everything life is, except boring - and you’re not even sure that it shouldn’t be boring. You forget who said that art is ‘life without the boring parts.’ But that strikes you as the best possible definition of what art should do - as Hamlet said ‘hold the mirror up to nature.’
So what works of art have the best ‘lifeness’, and show us what it means to be born, go to work, have sex, eat food, fall in love, pursue hobbies, have children, use machines, get drunk, endure war, and watch ourselves be unkind to each other.
So you start with poetry, because like many intellectually engaged teenagers, you once fancied yourself a poet, and used to swallow it by the volume. Yet at this point in your life, you can barely remember a page of it. And then you realize all too quickly, of all those ‘great’ poets, there aren’t all that many whom you’d ever want to go back to read. Why? Because good poetry can be really boring for people over the age of 18. Most poetry is so inwardly focused, so narcissistic, so earnest, so ‘goyish,’ that it can barely come to life outside the realm of a prep school English class where you’re taught to believe that You are the Center of the Earth. Life is not nearly as serious as most poets want us to believe, yet the ones who allege that it’s silly have trouble alledging otherwise, and they’re not that funny (anybody who believes that Lewis Carrol or Edward Lear are funny needs to get out more). In your experience, most poetry is so ‘elevated’ that the give and take between the poles of moods which life’s fabric demands is utterly missing. When you tally up all the poems you’d really like to read again, you realize that it encompasses The Canterbury Tales, Ovid’s Metamorphosis and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (though you’d have to finish them both first), maybe certain ones by Frost, William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson, some Phillip Larkin, a couple international poets like Brodsky, Milosz, Szymborska and Amichai, and yes: Billy Collins - the great American poet of our era.
Literary Fiction (we’re not even getting into Non-Fiction):
Far more indicative of ‘life’ as we know it is the novel and its subsidiary genres. But there are plenty of literary works you love that certainly don’t fit this definition. Is it too much to ask that a work of literature make you laugh out loud? Apparently it is, because very few novelists fit this definition. Fabulists like Kafka, Singer, and Saramago could never make it, you love their books, and they certainly have humor, but it’s far too dry. That dryness of humor also excludes books you love like A Bend in the River, Fathers and Sons, The Great Gatsby, everything by Kafka - they all have humor that can charm, but you can’t imagine that it makes anybody laugh. Then you have the writers who are simply lacking in humor: Milton, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Melville. Dostoevsky has humor, but his jokes are horrible. There are also those literary that works that have humor in abundance, but have a certain dryness of spirit - a misanthropic lack of compassion - which excludes them. On this list you’d have to put 18th century works you love like Candide and Gulliver’s Travels. You’d have to put Nabokov (of whom you’ve never been fond anyway), and Gogol (of whom you are very). You must add And there are a number of other novels you’d like to put somewhere on this list, but many of them - like Don Quixote or Middlemarch or Great Expectations or Huck Finn (no, I never finished it, and got into trouble in high school for it) - you haven’t even finished reading once. Were they really that boring? No they weren’t (maybe...), but like so many people of your generation, you found your concentration ebbing in spite of your best intentions. There was always another Simpsons episode to watch. But there are some novels, ones you’ve completed, that you’d certainly put on that list: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners, Animal Farm, perhaps Lincoln by Gore Vidal, or The Human Stain by Philip Roth, or Laughable Loves by Milan Kundera (yes, all three are that good) and maybe even some isolated fragments of Saul Bellow novels, though never a whole novel, the construction is far too loose (and is there anyone else my age who reads Saul Bellow?). And finally, one of your underrated, favorite writers for years: Bohumil Hrabal. You wonder if the fact that nobody’s heard of him is half the fun, but his books are so funny and so poignant that occasionally you wonder if he’s the only 20th century writer worth reading. Long as you’re making a literary list, you’d like to include the Book of Genesis too - though you wish it had a better editor. As sprinkling you could add some Chekhov short stories and perhaps some Maupassant too. And perhaps there are a few books which belong there which you’re aware are plainly beyond your intelligence, like As I Lay Dying, Remembrances of Things Past, and Ulysses.
You’d also like to put down some of your beloved classical music. But again, you run into similar problems. Bach, Schubert and Brahms are all too bathetic to compete for this (you may send complatins to email@example.com), Rossini and Haydn (his last two oratorios notwithstanding) almost exclusively comic, Stravinsky’s too in love with irony, and Wagner’s too in love with himself. If you wanted to make a list of the composers who can make you laugh and cry in equal measure, it would be a surprisingly short list: Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Janacek, Puccini, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Ives, Shostakovich, and Schnittke, arguably Handel, Ravel, Mussorgsky, and Britten belong on this list too, but we’ll leave them off because while you can see why others might find elements in their music to be laugh-out-loud comic, you don’t really. Richard Strauss usually keeps his humor and pathos seperate, except in one work - Der Rosenkavalier, which is both funny and moving. Puccini, ever the superb entertainer, always punctured his tragic operas with comic moments - but only in La Boheme does the comedy and tragedy move concurrently. Schnittke is possibly the funniest composer since Haydn, but his serious side isn’t moving so much as it is disturbing. Ives at his most serious is not so much moving as he is awesomely spiritual. Beethoven could absolutely be funny, but it was hardly ever in his symphonies, which were far too grand for that. In some ways, the most valuable works are the string quartets and especially the piano sonatas, where Beethoven could unbutton his vest and let out some humor in between all that profundity. Schumann was also at his best in his piano music, particularly the Carnival, is genuinely comic and also quite moving. Janacek also makes this list easily, The Cunning Little Vixen is one of the funniest and most moving operas ever written, and From the House of the Dead is barely less. Mahler can also be incredibly funny, nowhere moreso than in the Third Symphony, which is my candidate for the greatest ever written - somehow I always prefer his odd-numbered symphonies to his even (rather the opposite of Star Trek movies). His songs, particularly those Des Knaben Wunderhorn, could also easily reach the top of this list. But the two champions of putting pathos next to humor are Mozart and Shostakovich - both of whom wrote reams of music in which these two crucial qualities stand next to each other in perfect equipoise. Mozart wrote at least four operas which pitch them both perfectly, The Marriage of Figaro, Cosi fan Tutte, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute - as close to perfect music as music can become, for over three hours each at a stretch. Even if Mozart hadn’t written hundreds of other wonderful pieces (including at least three amazing operas not on this list), this would be enough to guarantee him a spot near the very, very top of the list. Shostakovich’s humor, unlike Beethoven’s, is usually reserved for his grandest works. Working in the Soviet Union, his small scale works which he reserved for genuine seriousness. His symphonies are massive works, entertainments meant to captivate the Soviet masses. But they also manage to contain bitingly moving truths, a double-edged vision that is the absolute definition of what life is. For me, the best of them all is one of his most derided works. The Seventh Symphony, the Leningrad, has been a critical bete noir from the day it was premiered. But it is both one of the funniest and most moving pieces of music I know: written during the Siege of Leningrad, it is a moving paean to human resilience almost unequalled in art’s entire history. And then there is the Ninth Symphony, the greatest of all Ninth Symphonies - precsely because it’s the opposite of the world-embracing profundities of Beethoven, Bruckner, and Mahler nines. It is one giant a middle finger to Stalin and Hitler, it is music’s ultimate celebration of life. We’ve survived the great war, so screw Stalin, screw Hitler, screw Beethoven!
But this point, you have to be honest with yourself and say that words alone can be slightly limiting. Absolute music and words on the page cannot convey everything about the human spirit with the deadly accuracy of more dynamic genres. I love concert music, but for my own preferences (which are of course, ‘the best’) it simply can’t compete with the dynamism of a live performance that synthesizes many of the arts like opera. I love books, but they can’t compare with the excitement of theater and movies. There is simply more to which you can pay attention, more possibility for variety, less limitations. So opera will go on my top 5 or 10 list, nothing from concert music will. Complain if you like, it’s my list.
So to point up the greatest operas, and also for the hell of it - here is a list of the most entertaining operas, through which (in a great performance) no one could ever be bored (assembled in five mintes):
1. Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro
2. Mozart: Don Giovanni
3. Janacek: The Cunning Little Vixen
4. Mozart: Cosi Fan Tutte
5. Sondheim: Company
6. Verdi: Falstaff
7. Janacek: From the House of the Dead
8. Puccini: La Boheme
9. Wagner: Die Meistersinger (the only opera of his that seems written by a human being)
10. Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier
11. Mozart: The Magic Flute
12. Gershwin: Porgy and Bess
13. Sondheim: Sunday in the Park with George
14. Ravel: L’Enfant et les Sortileges
15. Mozart: The Abduction from the Seraglio
16. Weill: The Threepenny Opera
17. Bizet: Carmen
18. Britten: Peter Grimes
19. Sondheim: A Little Night Music
20. Verdi: Otello
Honorable Mention - Monteverdi: L’Incorrazione di Poppea
Theater is simply more fun. There’s more interaction than in poetry, it’s more compact than a novel, and I think it’s frankly harder to put on a good show than to write a good book. Intelligent people know that if they want to achieve a singular vision, their best bet is to stick to books. In theater or movies, you have to convince other people (often stupid people) that your vision is better than theirs. How much more of a surprising achievement is it to see actors (generally not the smartest or the most stable people) be guided to act well than to see that an intelligent person can write well? For me, the greatest plays have all the inward focus of novels and poetry, but with a dynamism which no book can equal. But once again, we have to find the playwrights who have that equality of temperament that can both entertain and move audiences.
Strindberg, Ibsen, O’Neill and Albee are far too grim (though I love Albee’s sense of humor), Moliere, Oscar Wilde, and Shaw too frothy. The greatest art needs that melancholy wit. And for that quality, Greek Drama is absolutely out, we simply don’t understand it well enough to appreciate exactly how it was written to be appreciated. In order to appreciate the Greeks, it takes an absolute visionary of a director - and those are, as ever, in short supply. But even when we have it, it is painfully pompous theater larger-than-life but without the human quality that I need for this list.
The playwrights you have left are (of course) Shakespeare, Chekhov, Beckett, Tennessee Williams. Waiting for Godot is a great play, better than anything else you’ve seen of Beckett - and it really is funny, but it’s a strain to say that it’s ‘moving.’ Tennessee Williams at least wrote The Glass Menagerie, which you’d put on any list of the world’s greatest plays, but from there it was all downhill slope: every play of his is worse than the last (you call this The Mel Brooks rule).
Shakespeare is Shakespeare, writer of most of the world’s most moving and the funniest scenes in theater history. The problem with Shakespeare, if it is a problem, is that they were never particularly funny and sad at the same time. Shakespeare was a master of juxtaposing tragedy with comedy from scene to scene, but it’s rare that you get both at the same time. Still, there are at least a dozen Shakespeare plays that would vie for this list. None moreso, for me, than the works he wrote at the very beginning and very end of his career. Late Romances like The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale (exit Antigonus, pursued by a bear) have lots of real comic moments that stand out from some of the most moving moments in theater (Prospero’s last speech is a wonder, a perfectly fitting capstone to Shakespeare’s career, not that anyone should doubt that Shakespeare could have written one). But still more miraculous in some ways is what’s generally called the ‘Second Tetralogy’ of Histories, which have tragedy at its beginning with Richard II, the Falstaff comedy in the middle in the two parts of Henry IV, and ending in the blazing and bombastic triumph of Henry V. Some might call it the first novel, you might call it a model for a Beethoven symphony or string quartet.
But still more amazing to you are the final three Chekhov plays, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. In a great production (how few are they?) can skirt the line between comedy and tragedy so finely that you have no idea which you’re watching, except that you’re almost unbearably moved. Like Shakespeare, he seems to have an equally sympathetic ear for lower and upper-class characters. Unlike Shakespeare, he forces them to interact constantly. It’s difficult to say that Chekhov is a better playwright than Shakespeare, but sometimes you wonder.... And for the purposes of this list, he definitely is.
And then there is musical theater....you don’t hate musical theater, you just hate most things in it. Most of the time, music theater is a byword for inane singing and dancing, with very little desire to portray anything that isn’t adorable. Music theater takes all the greatness of opera, the dynamism and the inward expression, and boils it down to a playground for spoiled rich girls too narcissistic to be bothered with the stuff of what life really is (can you tell you’re bitter?). Even the best works of musical theater (which can be as powerful as anything in Chekhov or Shakespeare) can be ruined by people who want nothing more than to trivialize life into something stupid. What are those works usually ruined? Well, the list starts with Stephen Sondheim. Why Sondheim? Because he is the greatest dramatist of the 20th century (assuming that Chekhov is the 19th). Even Chekhov has to take a back seat to him - Chekhov only wrote 3 or 4 masterpieces (never seen or read The Seagull). Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics to Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Assassins, and Passion. Every one of them is funny, every one of them is moving. All of them belong in contention. There’s only one problem with Sondheim: he’s too in love with Upper-Middle Class angst. Are there enough truly lower class characters (not lower class characters in classily exotic places like 19th century London/Paris/Japan) in Sondheim to exceed your fingers? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much. It only matters because you’re talking about the ten greatest works of art.
More ‘popular’ forms of music should also come into question. For all the same reasons as absolute classical music, you’ll have to do without most jazz. But much of the best pop music is a kind of performance as well. But once again, there are people you have to discount. Bob Dylan is much too serious, Elvis is much too frivolous, Neil Young much too earnest, John Lee Hooker much too inwardly focused. Much as it pains you, most of the great soul artists like Otis Redding, James Brown, and Ray Charles have to be discounted beacuse there’s too little variety. On the other hand, there are artists like Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong who made truly amazing, diverse, funny/moving art. But most often, they didn’t write their own material (Cash and Armstrong were obviously quite a bit more responsible for it than Sinatra). Their shows were truly great art, but the art was as much their personalities as their skill.
But then there are The Beatles: Yes, they belong in the very top echelon. No, they weren’t objectively great musicians from a technical standpoint. No, it doesn’t matter, not at all. No, their studio work was not necessarily an improvement - too much hallucenagenic stuff by then. Yes, retiring helped keep them together for three years, and that gave us much more great music. For me, Rubber Soul will always be their best album, perhaps the only perfect album in existence (though Pet Sounds comes close). The White Album is the worst, simply because it keeps going and going and going and going. There are a number of others that could make the cut, but Revolver is ultimately the album which belongs in the company of Mozart and Chekhov - formal perfection, humor, pathos, and variety.
The truth remains that there are only two art forms of which you are positive you will never tire: Opera, and Movies - because they are an amalgam of all those artforms you love and even some that you don’t. They are the ultimate in variety and brilliance. And while you know that that’s an incredibly childish way of reasoning, you don’t claim to be smart, only that you pretend to be.
And since opera and the movies are you favorite things, they’re also the best. And what are the best examples of these best things: Just to name the ones you find from Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies list: Annie Hall, The Big Sleep, Bonnie and Clyde, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Casablanca, Chimes at Midnight, Chinatown, Citizen Kane, City Lights, Crimes and Misdemeanors, E.T., Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Fanny and Alexander, Five Easy Pieces, The 400 Blows, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Goodfellas, Groundhog Day, The Last Picture Show, M, The Manchurian Candidate, Manhattan, Network, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, A Prairie Home Companion, Rear Window, The Right Stuff, Romeo and Juliet (Zefferelli), The Rules of the Game, Schindler’s List (it does have comic moments), The Third Man, Three Colors Trilogy (especially White), Tokyo Story, Vertigo, and The Wizard of Oz. To this you’d also like to add a list of other eccentric favorites which you think belong on any list of the greatest movies even if no-one else does: like American Graffiti, Back to the Future, Casino, Closely Observed Trains and I Served the King of England (movies from Hrabal books), F for Fake, Forrest Gump, Hannah and Her Sisters, His Girl Friday, The Lavender Hill Mob, Mullholland Dr., Ninotchka, Pleasantville, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Shadow of a Doubt, Shakespeare in Love, Slumdog Millionaire, To Be or Not To Be (the original), and The Cat Returns (very nearly the only Anime movie you can stand to watch twice). And making this list only reminds you of all the movies you still haven’t seen. The list of movies you have seen is overwhelmingly dominated by Hollywood, but you don’t care. You look at it, and the list seems like enormous fun to you.
But since there are so many movies which belong at the highest echelon, let’s be especially merciless and eliminate a few of these right away: some of these movies are simply too grim and misanthropic to be reach the exalted top of this list: Schindler’s List obviously, but also the Godfather movies, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Chinatown, Casino, Vertigo, The Third Man, M, The Manchurian Candidate, the Three Colors Trilogy, and Shadow of a Doubt, all have to go for precisely that reason. For the opposite reason: too light and bubbly - we have to eliminate quite a few: The Cat Returns, Raiders of the Lost Ark, His Girl Friday, Back to the Future, American Graffiti, Groundhog Day, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Big Sleep, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and City Lights (with some reservations about that last one). Then we can take out the movies which lack formal perfection: which deprives us of Chimes at Midnight, Ninotchka, To Be or Not To Be, Closely Watched Trains and I Served the King of England (sigh), Crimes and Misdemeanors, Hannah and Her Sisters, Goodfellas, ET, Casablanca, Shakespeare in Love, and yes, Citizen Kane. Each of these movies is not as structurally sound as the very greatest movies should be - you can tell that different scenes were written or photographed by different people, that there are errors in plausibility, and that various scenes have much too little to do with one another.
This leaves us with Annie Hall, Bonnie and Clyde, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Fanny and Alexander, Five Easy Pieces, The 400 Blows, The Last Picture Show, Manhattan, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Pleasantville, A Prairie Home Companion, Rear Window, The Right Stuff, The Rules of the Game, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare in Love, Tokyo Story, The Wizard of Oz, Forrest Gump, His Girl Friday, Mullholland Dr., and Slumdog Millionaire. Admittedly, this is an extraordinarily weird list of the greatest movies ever made, but it’s your list. Again, we can whittle it down by eliminating the overly frivolous and serious on this list. Annie Hall, Manhattan, Eternal Sunshine, Five Easy Pieces, A Prairie Home Companion (that one pains me), Shakespeare in Love, and His Girl Friday deal with issues that are ultimately a little too frivolous for the very greatest art. Of the remainders, I have to take off Forrest Gump and Pleasantville for being a bit too ‘Hollywood,’ and Romeo and Juliet for being a little too ‘stagey.’ Even if no intelligent person is supposed to include them on their ‘greatest’ lists, I love them both. Yet even I have to admit that there’s something a little to slick about their treatments of characters, plot and history. So we’re let with thirteen movies, a baker’s dozen ‘greatest’ of all time. You’ll cut through the bull and make your final, extremely eccentric list:
The Baker’s Dozen Dozen “Greatest” Movies of All Time:
1. The Rules of the Game
2. Fanny and Alexander
3. Tokyo Story
4. Rear Window
5. F for Fake
6. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
7. The Wizard of Oz
8. Mullholland Dr.
9. Bonnie and Clyde
10. The 400 Blows
11. Slumdog Millionaire
12. The Right Stuff
Honorable Mention: The Last Picture Show
You don’t have the time or the desire to say exactly how one ranks perfection against itself. So you’ll simply say: there it is, a list equally for fun and spiritual guidance through a lifetime.
Why The Movies Are Better Than Opera:
The Movies are ultimately better than opera, because whereas opera needs every type of analog artist, the movies requires just as many digital artists who can frame the results. The Movies are the greatest, most vital artform yet invented. TV is not quite as good (for reasons you’re about to get into) and nobody knows what will be made of video games in the 21st century.
And finally, we come to TV: teacher, mother, secret lover (that alone should tell you what’s next). TV, the machine that raised our children, might be an idiot box. But what an idiot box! Days, months, years of endless entertainment. Is it all interesting? Not particularly, but we’ll never know because we’re too busy watching TV.
Given how quickly TV’s prestige has snowballed in the last twenty years, it’s possible that in two hundred years, the idiot box might be considered the most prestigious, highest of all art forms. Perhaps there will be a ‘Great TV Shows’ curriculum which St. John’s/DeVry College teaches. The artform once condescended to as something only an idiot could love is now the most high-fallutin’ highbrow artform the world currently has. No contemporary literary work is held in as high esteem by so many intelligent people as The Sopranos or The Wire.
But here’s the problem: most recent TV is linear, not episodic. In the good old days before TV had ‘substance’ they could simply entertain, and if an episode was boring, they could drop that plotline and start over. Now that TV has linear plots, it is beholden to all the longeurs of novels. Everything it gains in weight, it also gains in fat. So very few shows can have that prolonged journey through the profundity/entertainment, funny/poignant manner of the greatest art.
The only show of which I’m sure had that sort of prolonged journey through it is The Simpsons. It helps that The Simpsons is the funniest show ever made, but it was also a moving consideration of people’s resentments, aspirations, hatreds, and loves for one another. Few if any works in any genre have ever been so articulate about so many different facets of life. But so much of The Simpsons’ humor is based on cultural references which will date very quickly, will anyone be able to watch The Simpsons in 50 years without footnotes? And will anyone want to watch anything after year 10?
Other shows had something approaching that journey through the humor/pathos region: among comedies, certainly Cheers did in the Sam/Diane years, so did Rosanne. Many people would say that All in the Family and MASH did as well, but the humor on those shows has so dated so quickly and clearly that it’s difficult to take any claim that they belong here seriously. But most comedies are incapable of quite the same broad view of humanity that either early Simpsons or early Cheers had. Any list of the funniest shows has to probably include Seinfeld, Larry Sanders, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, South Park, Curb Your Enthusiasm, the British Office and Arrested Development. But they were funny because they were, one and all, savagely misanthropic views of humanity. None of them belong on this list. The only television comedy which I think stayed on the humor/pathos axis for the entirety of its run was King of the Hill, but King of the Hill was a one joke show:
Bobby: Hey Dad!
Hank Hill: LLLLLLLLLLL? BOBBY!
It’s amazing that this joke never fails to be funny, but we can’t pretend that King of the HIll has the variety of the greatest pieces on this list.
Finding funny dramas is a little easier, but most of them also have the same dull spots which novels do. The Sopranos, The Wire, The West Wing, Six Feet Under, Mad Men even Star Trek The Next Generation all have more hilariously funny moments than I’d ever be able to remember. But each of those shows could be variable in quality (The Sopranos and Mad Men less so) and don’t have the high quality of the very best.
In a completely different way, the BBC miniseries, I, Claudius was a fantastic example of the ability to entertain and movie simultaneously. For all the cheap production values, for all our distance from the events of Roman antiquity, I think it just might be the most consistently funny, moving, and rewarding TV show ever made. I’m convinced that anyone who watches it will feel similarly.
So here it is, because this is already thousands of words too long, and because this is your list: the top dozen greatest works of art ever made:
1. The Rules of the Game: dir. Jean Renoir
2. The Marriage of Figaro: by Mozart and Lorenzo DaPonte
3. The Simpsons: Season 4
4. The Cherry Orchard: by Anton Chekhov
5. Rubber Soul: by The Beatles & George Martin
6. I, Claudius: BBC Miniseries
7. Too Loud a Solitude: by Bohumil Hrabal
8. Fanny and Alexander: dir. Ingmar Bergman
9. Shostakovich: Symphony no. 9
10. Shakespeare: Second Tetralogy
11. Tokyo Story: dir. Yasujiro Ozu
12. The Canterbury Tales: by Geoffery Chaucher
Honorable Mention - Don Giovanni: by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart/Lorenzo Da Ponte
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