There were a number of absurdly difficult decisions to make in Round 2 of our online bracket competition for best TV series of the past 50 years. Readers had to choose between “M*A*S*H” and “Seinfeld,” two groundbreaking comedies that took polar opposite approaches. “M*A*S*H” ushered drama and sorrow into a comedy format; there was hugging and there was learning. “Seinfeld,” on the other hand, was all about a group of raging — and ragingly funny — narcissists.
(”Seinfeld” only won by about 50.7 percent of the votes to “M*A*S*H”'s 49.3 percent.)
I was most struck, though, by the matchup of “Game of Thrones” and “The West Wing.” Both are remarkable series, both were given plenty of Emmy love in their day, both feature big casts filled with extraordinary actors. Both are flawed, but highly ambitious. And both are about politics, and governing, and the people fighting for power and control in a rarefied realm far from those they represent.
My initial impulse was to vote for “The West Wing.” I’m a words guy, and the show created by Aaron Sorkin is very written, by which I mean it is crammed with dialogue filled with big ideas and subtle takes. The characters are all smarty-pants, and they do love to go on, never at a loss for more words. But what they have to say is usually compelling and relevant. The show frames the White House, Congress, and the processes of democracy with reverence and idealism, but it also very much takes into account the problems with them, which often form the plot of an episode. It’s a hopeful portrait of a civilized government.
“Game of Thrones,” on the other hand, is about an uncivilized world where leadership is taken by primitive force. We watch power-mongers circling the Iron Throne, forcing loyalties with the threat of death, feeling entitled to rule based on bloodlines and old promises. The battles are set in another world, and, indeed, “Game of Thrones” is transporting enough to inspire the mainstreaming of the fantasy genre on TV. But we see very familiar kinds of human nature and behavior on display nonetheless, despite the dragons and the existential threat of the White Walkers.
And then my second thought was to vote for “Game of Thrones,” for giving us the nightmare version of government, the hell we’re either free from or heading back into.
(“The West Wing” ended up winning by 65 percent of the votes to “Game of Thrones”'s 35 percent.)
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.