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In our Best TV bracket, a deserving final four — and a couple of agonizing choices ahead

Clockwise from top left: "All in the Family," "Seinfeld," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and "The Sopranos."Courtesy Sony Pictures / NBC, via Photofest/ AP Photo, HBO, Barry Wetcher/MTM Entertainment

All due respect to the many friends of “Friends,” but if the sitcom had beaten “The Sopranos” in Round 4 of the Globe’s bracket competition for best TV series of the past 50 years, I would have been beside myself. There’s no question “Friends” means a lot to a lot of people, both from its original run and its high-profile streaming afterlife. It’s an ensemble comedy beloved for its characters, the actors who played them, and the warm family vibe among them all.

But in terms of quality — the writing, the acting, the ambition — “The Sopranos” is at the top of the TV storytelling heap, featuring some of the strongest TV acting of all time from the likes of James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, and Michael Imperioli. So I’m glad it beat “Friends” with 66.5 percent of the vote. To me, “Friends,” is unchallenging, feet-up, comfort food TV, and certainly valuable as such; but, with its sloppy story arcs (Joey and Rachel) and its poorly aged jokes, it’s just not best-series material.

I’m not suggesting drama is automatically more worthy than comedy. In the other three contests of Round 4, comedies prevailed, and in each case it seems fair.


1. There are very few shows that I can tolerate winning over the brilliant “Breaking Bad,” a tense drama without a gram of fat, and “All in the Family” is one of them. Norman Lear’s series remains funny, and relevant, and insightful, as it digs into all the issues that define our daily lives. Politics, civil rights, sexism, racism, cultural wars, they’re all embedded in the scripts, along with a sharp eye for character and family dynamics. And that cast, featuring Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton as the Bunkers, was all aces.

I was sorry to see Lear’s “Maude” and “The Jeffersons” fall earlier in the competition, but “All in the Family” — which took 63.4 percent of the vote in Round 4 — is the best of his many shows, and it fully deserves its survival. I voted for . . . one, and then, when I could vote a second time, the other. Yup, I wimped out, unable to make a choice between two shows I revere.


2. I’m a huge fan of “Mad Men,” a literary take on the historical, cultural, and social shifts of the 1960s and their impact on individual lives. Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss delivered phenomenal performances, up there with the leads on “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad,” and the show’s scripts and production design were sharp.

But “Seinfeld,” which beat “Mad Men” with 68.5 percent of the vote, is near the top of my favorites list, too, if for very different reasons. The show turned TV comedy inside out, roasting a group of narcissistic, petty, shameless New Yorkers and, with its rule of “no hugging, no learning,” refusing to fall back on feelgood sitcom tropes. “Seinfeld” pushed into and laughed about taboo areas of our lives that comedy had previously ignored, while it gave us beautifully structured episodes whose plots dovetailed wittily.

Oh, and “Seinfeld” gave us Julia Louis-Dreyfus, in itself a supreme achievement.

3. Even while “The West Wing” was flawed, with a few wrong-headed plot arcs and some poorly managed sentimentality, it was an intelligent look at the US government (pre-Trump) and the people running it. But “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” so warm and so perfectly cast, beat it in a close race, winning 56 percent of the vote. And I’m good with that. Like “All in the Family,” it moved TV comedy 10 steps forward, away from the illusory domestic ideals that were sold to us in the 1950s and 1960s. It reflected the reality of many women, and it found heart in its characters without relying on schmaltz.


4. We’re getting close to the end with a pair of intensely difficult contests in the semifinals. Round 5 finds “The Sopranos” up against “All in the Family” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” facing “Seinfeld.” Disclaimer: The Globe is not responsible for any hair that gets pulled out in the process of making these choices.

Listen to Matthew Gilbert and Meredith Goldstein talk about the Best TV Shows project here. And sign up for e-mail updates by filling out the form below:

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Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him @MatthewGilbert.