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PopList: Best TV Writers

Neal Justin
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Rod Serling

In "Sunset Boulevard," screenwriter Joe Gillis ends up face down in a movie star's swimming pool, a death that perfectly symbolizes the scribe's status in Hollywood. On a film set, the writer might get as much respect as the gaffer, but he or she is treated with red-carpet respect in television, where churning out scripts on a weekly basis is the toughest challenge in show business. How else can you explain why David E. Kelley ended up with Michelle Pfeiffer?

Here are the most productive, most dazzling writers in small-screen history. And no, Kelley didn't make the cut among the charter members in our TV Writers Hall of Fame. He has enough.

1. Rod Serling

Greatest hits: "Playhouse 90," "The Twilight Zone," "Night Gallery."

Write stuff: The master of the psychological thriller, he was a perfect blend of Alfred Hitchcock and O. Henry, creating teleplays with enough irony to make you scream. In more than 200 scripts between 1940 and 1975, he took his art into a new dimension.

Must see: "Requiem for a Heavyweight" (1956), a knockout production of "Playhouse 90" about a boxer (Jack Palance) doomed to spend the end of his life flat on the canvas.

2. Aaron Sorkin

Greatest hits: "Sports Night," "The West Wing," "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip."

Write stuff: Listening to his rat-a-tat dialogue can be exhausting. Imagine how he feels. No one has ever produced so many teleplays at such a dizzying speed with such rich rewards.

Must see: "Two Cathedrals" (2001), a "West Wing" episode in which President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) has it out with the Almighty, and no, we're not talking about Dick Cheney.

3. Les & Glen Charles

Greatest hits: "Cheers," "Taxi," "`The Bob Newhart Show."

Write stuff: With director James Burrows, this brother duo revolutionized the sitcom format, putting more of an emphasis on pathos than punch lines.

Must see: "Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey" (1979), a "Taxi" episode in which the innocent question "What does a yellow light mean?" took its place alongside "Who's on first?" in comedy history.

4. Dennis Potter

Greatest hits: "The Singing Detective," "Pennies From Heaven."

Write stuff: This former TV critic turned the BBC on its ear with his musical miniseries that blurred the line between fantasy and reality, with heartbreaking results.

Must see: "Pennies From Heaven" (1978), in which a Willy Lomanish salesman (Bob Hoskins) tries to sing his way to Easy Street.

5. Larry David

Greatest hits: "Seinfeld," "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

Write stuff: His shows aren't about nothing; they're about everything, from shirt buttons to "The Producers," all of it unbearably hilarious.

Must see: "The Contest" (1992), in which the "Seinfeld" gang competes to see who is the most, um, patient.

6. Larry Gelbart

Greatest hits: "Your Show of Shows," "The Danny Kaye Show," "MASH," "Barbarians at the Gate."

Write stuff: He presided over the 4077th in the early years (you know, the funny ones) before going on to create TV movies teeming with political satire.

Must see: "The Interview" (1976), his last "MASH" episode, has journalist Clete Roberts interviewing the staff, with insightful results.

7. Amy Sherman-Palladino

Greatest hits: "Gilmore Girls," "Roseanne."

Write stuff: The "Girls" mother hen penned nearly 50 episodes of the series, served often as a director, and yet never lost her ability to pack wit and pop-culture references into even the most trivial throwaway lines.

Must see: "They Shoot Gilmores, Don't They" (2004), a clever tribute both to the film "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" and the spirit of the modern woman.

8. David Milch

Greatest hits: "Hill Street Blues," "NYPD Blue," "Deadwood."

Write stuff: Milch comes up with dialogue while lying flat on his back, perhaps because his lines are too heady to conjure up while standing erect.

Must see: "Trial by Fury" (1982), the finest hour of "Hill Street Blues," has Capt. Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) bending the law to bring in a nun's rapists.

9. Winnie Holzman

Greatest hits: "thirtysomething," "My So-Called Life," "Once and Again."

Write stuff: Few scribes have ever written about relationships with so much warmth, wit and wisdom.

Must see: "So-Called Angels" (1994), a tearjerker episode of "My So-Called Life" in which Angela (Claire Danes) learns that life is about a lot more than kissing Jordan.

10. Carl Reiner

Greatest hits: "Your Show of Shows," "Caesar's Hour," "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

Write stuff: It's no surprise that Sid Caesar's staff would produce another hall of famer with this inductee going on to write most of the scripts for one of TV's most endearing sitcoms.

Must see: "It May Look Like a Walnut" (1963), a surreal "Van Dyke" episode that, appropriately enough, was a spoof of Serling's "The Twilight Zone."

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