The Best of Television: The Inaugural Flow Critics’ Poll
Welcome to the first (perhaps annual) Flow Critics’ Poll. Polls of critical evaluations have a long tradition in nearly every medium, with annual rankings of film, music, and literature serving as seasonal rituals of discussion and debate. Television, as typifies its lowbrow status, merits only one noteworthy poll, Television Week’s Critics’ Poll, which garners none of the prestige of the major polls for other media. Even academics get in the act in other media, via polls through the AFI or Sight and Sound. Given that Flow’s mission is to bridge the gap between academic and popular writing about television, a critics’ poll seems like an excellent conduit both to help general readers regard television from a critically informed perspective, and to push scholars to address one of the major concerns of general viewers: what’s good on television?
Based on this poll, quite a lot. I asked Flow writers and editors to provide a list of ten items (non-ranked) that they believe represent the “Best of Contemporary Television” from the period between July 2005 to June 2006. Twenty-four responses came in from a range of contributors (listed below), and the votes are suggestive both in terms of depth and breadth. The programs receiving the most votes were not terribly surprising–academic viewers clearly appreciate the narrative complexity, sophistication of cultural allusions, and attention to detail demanded by shows like Lost, Arrested Development, Veronica Mars, and Deadwood, and the political engagement and humor of The Colbert Report, The Daily Show, and South Park, all programs that have been discussed here on Flow in some depth. While these top-rated programs might suggest nothing more than a shared taste culture of highly-educated TV scholars (who certainly share other demographic attributes I dared not ask), I do think they are indicative of a shared sense of excellence and quality that must be asserted into a cultural milieu where television is still assumed to be lowest-common-denominator ideological drivel, not (arguably) the most vibrant and creative storytelling medium of the day, or home of some of the most engaged social commentary to be found.
Notably one of the most cited titles, Stephen Colbert’s speech at the White House Press Corps dinner from April, aired in the US on C-Span, a nearly-unwatched public service cable channel; however the video went viral via BitTorrent and YouTube, becoming a must-watch item amongst politically savvy surfers. Thus one of our examples of the Top Ten Best of Television was hardly seen on television itself, suggesting the medium’s transformation into its on-demand downloadable form is clearly upon us. Likewise other examples of “television” noted included a YouTube video of a confrontation on a Hong Kong bus (”Bus Uncle”) and the digitally shared “Lazy Sunday” clip that rejuvenated Saturday Night Live. Additionally, numerous critics suggested that the categorization of “new programming” by markers of the traditional TV season was less relevant than ever, as shows on DVD, VOD, and digital download services make scheduling almost irrelevant. Certainly had such requirements had been opened up, The Wire would have been atop many lists (and we can project it as an early favorite for next year’s poll). As distribution, scheduling, and transmission technologies shift control away from the traditional industry and toward viewer preferences and viral buzz, we may see the role of the critic gain more centrality–if sites like Flow can help guide viewer attention to the best television outside of the typical mainstream network flow, I believe we provide a useful public service.
The breadth of selections was quite surprising–94 different items were cited on at least one ballot, running the gamut of genres from sports to advertising, news to cooking shows, plus the standard issue of comedies and dramas. As the comments of critics reprinted below attest, the notion of “Best” is somewhat under debate, as some programs were cited for what they represent or marking social trends or achievements. Some cited personal pleasure as their primary criterion, while other critics highlighted how such choices stand-in for larger valuations and taste systems, and some just let their picks speak for themselves. Although Flow’s group of writers span the globe, all but one ballot came from US scholars–unlike film, music, or literature, distribution of television is still nationally segmented and determined enough that it is difficult to imagine how an international panel of critics could evaluate a common body of work, although certainly programs were hailed from non-US (mostly British) sources.
Obviously such a list cannot be seen as either definitive or evidence of anything larger than the eclectic rankings of a somewhat arbitrary sample of media scholars. However, as I will discuss more fully at the upcoming Flow Conference and have discussed previously on Flow, television scholars should not hide their tastes and value judgments away in the closet, bringing them into public only when off-duty. I believe that our opinions about and evaluations of television are worth sharing, arguing about, and explicitly incorporating into our scholarly and pedagogical practices. Television has been too easily dismissed as disposable and not even worthy of evaluation–let the debate focus on what should be valued rather than whether we should value, and I believe both the medium and our field will gain importance and legitimacy.
|The Colbert Report
|The Daily Show
|6||Stephen Colbert’s White House Press Dinner Speech||7|
|The Countdown with Keith Olberman
|Katrina News Coverage||3|
|My Name is Earl
|Six Feet Under||3|
|The West Wing||3|
|FIFA Football World Cup||2|
|Frontline (votes for both The Age of AIDS and The Meth Epidemic)||2|
|The Amazing Race||2|
|41||“Head On” commercial||1|
|“Lazy Sunday” Saturday Night Live skit||1|
|2005 Ashes cricket series||1|
|America’s Got Talent||1|
|America’s Next Top Model||1|
|Barry Chappell’s Fine Art Showcase||1|
|Curb Your Enthusiam||1|
|Dog Bites Man||1|
|Dog the Bounty Hunter||1|
|Everybody Hates Chris||1|
|Extreme Home Makeover||1|
|Feasting on Asphalt||1|
|Fox News Watch||1|
|I Love the 80s 3D||1|
|Iron Chef America (but not when Bobby Flay is cooking)||1|
|It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia||1|
|Life on Mars||1|
|No Reservations (with Anthony Bourdain)||1|
|Proving Science Wrong||1|
|Queer Eye for the Straight Guy||1|
|So You Think You Can Dance||1|
|Spicks & Specks||1|
|That’s So Raven||1|
|The DL Chronicles||1|
|The Girls Next Door||1|
|The Look for Less||1|
|The Power of Nightmares||1|
|U.S. of Ant||1|
|What Not to Wear||1|
The Critics’ Comments
Tim Anderson, Denison University
A few comments: Six Feet Under, the final episodes of the final season of the only program that made me want to become a better person. The “Head On ” Commercial is the only commercial in the last three years I actually remember. The stupidity of its design and execution makes the “Head On” commercial almost profound. Almost. Countdown with Keith Olbermann gives MSNBC an anchor and a formula that allows them to recycle content and hosts in an a way that is both entertaining and informative. The World Cup 2006 Championship Match — Four words: Zinedane Zidan’s head butt. Colbert’s press dinner: Something I have not seen much since 9/11… someone with the intestinal fortitude to speak Truth to Power. After The Office’s second season one could make the case that this is perhaps the best adaptation of a British television show since Til Death Us Do Part was transformed into All in The Family. My Name is Earl is where Buddhism meets “red state” America. The result is a wonderful comedy about the necessity of making amends and the laughter that can accompany forgiveness. After the 2004 election, my British colleague, Kay Dickinson, recommended that I view the BBC2 series The Power of Nightmares in order to better understand the American neoconservative movement. I BitTorrented the files and was reminded that very little has changed since De Toqueville wrote Democracy in America in the 19th century: if you are an American and want to know why your country is the way it is, ask a European.
Christine Becker, University of Notre Dame
My favorite show of the year was Veronica Mars. My love for TV has grown exponentially with the rise of prime-time serials over the last decade, and VM is the best of the lot for me. I know some fans complained that the 2nd season plotlines were too hard to follow across the season, but I ate that up with a spoon. I just adore the fact that there could be some largely anonymous character in season two who says cryptically to Veronica something along the lines of, “Hey, I kept your secret,” and to make sense of that comment you had to drag your brain back to season one and remember this extremely minor character’s promise to her to keep a hugely crucial plot event under his hat. That kind of multi-episode/season connectivity is the divine beauty of series TV for me, and Veronica Mars just nails it. Lost is good for that too, but I think the Lost writers could take lessons from the Veronica Mars writers for compelling plotting. Plus, what Jason Dohring does with Logan Echolls should be taught in acting classes.
Jonathan Gray, Fordham University
It hurts not to put The Wire on this list, but I just discovered it on HBO On Demand, and have only watched two thirds of Season 1, so although it’s new to me, and in look and delivery seems remarkably original/”new,” the rules stymied me here. (But they allowed a belatedly-OnDemand-watched Rome on, so HBO wins one, loses one.) There are also other shows (like South Park) that I feel *should* be on the list, but I somehow tend to miss too often for me to honestly put them on.
John Hartley, Queensland University of Technology
Of my ten: 2 were international sporting events; both screened on “multicultural” SBS-TV; 2 were drama series (one comedy, one fantasy) made by BBC Wales; shown in Australia on the “national broadcaster” ABC-TV; 2 were drama series (one comedy, one costume) made by the UK BBC; shown on the ABC; 2 were non-broadcast TV (one “anthropological” the other “viral”); circulated via YouTube and/or Google Video; 1 was a documentary series made by UK Channel 4 (commercial minority-taste broadcaster); shown on the ABC; 1 was a comedy quiz show; made in Australia by and shown on the ABC. None of them was broadcast on commercial TV, and only Time Team was made by a commercial TV broadcaster (albeit the unusual Channel 4 UK). None originates from US Network TV. That said, I did include the clip of Colbert at the Washington Press dinner (which went out on C-SPAN at your end). Also, America’s Next Top Model did make it to about Number 13 in the Top 10 list; and we also enjoyed the second season of Dead Like Me, as I mentioned in one of my Flow columns. Both of these screened on subscription-TV Foxtel (channel Fox8 here). I guess the BBC is seriously over-represented, and I didn’t even mention David Attenborough’s valedictory voice-over, the very luscious HD Planet Earth. This must be because the Beeb made some great TV in an otherwise lean year (nothing to do with my origins, of course). One show on the list was made in Australia (which is probably one more than most of your critics). It must also be noted that two of the freshest drama series all year — the cult Dr Who and the ought-to-be-cult Rocket Man — were both made by TV-minnow BBC Wales. Innovation at the margins! I have not included any News shows or Reality TV shows, for fear of not being able to tell them apart.
Henry Jenkins, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
(see more at Henry’s blog)
Some have speculated that there is a kind of academic canon of television — certain shows that are watched by all academics but are not necessarily highly rated by the rest of the world (I sometimes wonder if everyone who watches Veronica Mars, for exmple, has a PhD or more importantly, if ever PhD in the world watches the series). Or conversely, that there are programs that are highly rated across the general public but which no academic will be willing to publicly acknowledge. For the moment, I am talking about academics who are proud to say they like television. Don’t get me started about the liars and hypocrites who claim not to even own a television set. So, as social experiments go, this looks to be a fascinating one. I know in my case, it has already forced me to think about whether my taste as a fan and as an academic are necessarily aligned: are there shows that interest me intellectually but not emotionally? Are there shows I love to watch but don’t really admire on that level? Are there shows I should be watching (and don’t) but might want to list anyway? Are there shows that don’t deserve the top ten but might benefit from my listing them more than the predictable choices that I know every other academic is going to list? (It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Lost is going to be in the top few vote getters here). Do I want to fall in line or signal my idiosyncratic tastes and interests? How do we pick the best in a medium whose cultural standing is still under question or where there are not widely agreed upon standards of evaluation? Writing these entries, I discovered a few things about my viewing preferences — the centrality of characters (especially witty and intelligent characters) whether we are judging drama, comedy, or reality television; the imaginative use of genre elements to explore aspects of the world around us; and the interest in serialization over self-contained episodes. I suspect that puts me squarely in the middle of academic taste culture — even if my fan boy interests in science fiction and superheroes push me to the outer edge. I will be most curious to see how others came out on the poll.
Mary Celeste Kearney, University of Texas – Austin
Drama, darling, drama, particularly that involving smart girls with good quips. By the way, in the age of DVDed TV series, is a critics’ poll that includes only series airing new episodes appropriate? New to me isn’t necessarily new to the airwaves – for instance, I didn’t see the first season of Veronica Mars until spring 2006. Perhaps it’s time to expand what we mean by “new TV.”
L.S. Kim, University of California – Santa Cruz
My criteria include: 1) complexity of writing, 2) quality of execution (i.e., in production and editing) and performance/s, 3) significance in offering diverse perspectives, and 4) a sense of social critique or commentary. I wish there was a television program with an Asian American lead and recurring character that I could include. I expect others will nominate Grey’s Anatomy (Sandra Oh) or Lost (though the Asian characters are not portrayed as American whilst being played by Korean American actors, Yoon-jin Kim, Daniel Dae Kim); Gilmore Girls has had its moments, including a minor focus on a parallel mother-daughter relationship between a Korean immigrant mother and her second-generation daughter (Keiko Agena); and of course, the Law & Order juggernaut features B.D. Wong who is unequivocably talented but also ubiquitous as the Asian American nonsexual male on television, stage, and in film. Bobby Lee doesn’t quite help that cause (his performances include an unusually high number of disrobings, “exposing” sexual perversity rather than sexuality), and he appears past prime-time, but my vote will go to Mad TV (Fox).
Derek Kompare, Southern Methodist University
(see more on Derek’s blog)
Looking over my list, I think it’s safe to say the 90s are over. Each of these programs illustrate, in widely different ways, the key cultural trope of our time: insecurity, or, to put a more positive spin on it, flux. The television of previous eras (especially pre-1980) was largely about policing difference. In contrast, television today (or at least the most interesting television today) seems to be about the process of forging new identities from difference. The demographic boxes advertisers and networks anxiously and aggressively place us in (especially every fall) may be more fluid and multiple than ever before, but they still fail to capture the degree and scope of the impact of some of this year’s most effective television. Moments like the Dharma Initiative’s incongruous orientation films (Lost), Number Six’s Baltar-infused “resurrection” (Battlestar Galactica), and the Doctor and Rose’s awkward goodbye (Doctor Who) work so well because we don’t see them coming. Not a bad year for a medium so many seem to be writing off.
Amanda Lotz, University of Michigan
First, the unquestionable top of my list, The Wire, is not eligible for competition because it hasn’t aired a new episode since December 2004, but September is just around “The Corner.” This was an interesting and revealing exercise. I first dashed off a list of eight shows that are my favorite, based on how much I miss them between episodes, speed with which I view them once loaded on the DVR, or level of devastation I experience should some sort of recording malfunction occur. I then quickly listed another seven that would fight it out for the remaining slots. And then I realized that I can’t defend some of my favorite shows as better television than some not on the list. So given the call, I amended the list. Deadwood is indisputably an incredibly beautifully shot (have you seen the opening credit sequence in HD?) and skillfully written show, and yet, it often languishes on on-demand, four episodes behind, as I know I should watch, but…while I never let so many episodes of Big Love–an arguably inferior show whose central premise and characters I nevertheless contemplate at least weekly–go more than a day. A few take-aways: favorite TV (even of a discerning and extensive viewer), is not necessarily the best; I easily could have listed twenty shows–these are good times to be a TV viewer; even I was surprised by how few broadcast network shows made my list.
Daniel Marcus, Goucher College
I picked the ones I watched the most, generally (proportionate to the availability of new episodes). Actions speak louder than words. I think there should also be a separate category for repeats in syndication, DVD, etc., with up to 3 choices. Mine would be Seinfeld and The Wire.
Jason Mittell, Middlebury College
Some moments of excellence to note: Colbert smacks down the press & gets millions to watch C-Span online; South Park takes on both Scientology and Comedy Central… and wins!; The Boondocks brilliantly combines radical politics and gorgeous animation; Lost makes fans go crazy online with the blast-door map; The Office surpasses the original with its pitch-perfect TV romance and wonderful menagerie of background characters (see Kevin’s grin); and what might be the greatest series finale in television history, Six Feet Under.
Brian Ott, Colorado State University
My sole criterion for identifying the “Best in Contemporary Television” was personal pleasure. Viewers may seek different pleasures and find pleasures it different shows, but that’s ultimately why they watch.
Elliot Panek, Emerson College
For now, I believe that the role of the critic is, in part, to recognize true innovation and reward it. That means that even if a show has one truly innovative aspect but is utterly out of tune with contemporary culture or the culture the critic happens to inhabit, it should be rewarded. In addition, I think the critic should recognize shows that are liable to survive the profound changes media is undergoing (stalwarts like Charlie Rose). In short, I believe that critics should use their knowledge of the culture and the medium to try to predict what aspects of a show (plotting, style, character relationships, subject matter) are likely to survive for 10, 20, 50 years. Of course, this is very difficult to predict, but it’s worth a try. The alternative seems to be proscriptive criticism, which can and should be avoided. A few specific notes: The Hills – underrated. By combining a pre-existing social group too full of themselves to care about being on TV, the creators have translated real-life melodrama to TV – a first (if you count this show as an extension of LB). These heartfelt moments of incoherence (”I, y’know, totally like you. I guess”) are a welcome alternative to the overblown and/or ultra-literate melodramatic dialogue that saturates not only teen drama but every TV and film genre, “reality” or otherwise (The Real World being a prime example). So what if the characters are vapid – the format of this show is the future of reality TV. The Sopranos – Not nearly as good as it once was, and many plots (the rapper getting shot?) seem to come out of and go nowhere. Still, the first 3ep coma was gutsy and may set up interesting identity issues in the finale. Proving Science Wrong – Like LB & The Hills, the characters and the execution of this “show” aren’t that great, but there’s something innovative here, and it’s not just the fact that it’s a vlog. It translates what appears to be real life melodrama, but does The Hills one better by making it interactive and real time. In theory, viewer comments could affect the relationship of the will-they-or-won’t-they main characters. The fact that it all might be an act only makes it more intriguing. Scrubs – seems to have been one of the first of many successful single-camera comedies. Very densely packed w/ jokes (a la AD). Odd mix of seriousness and absurdity. Still taking chances. Lost – overrated. Many critics fail to mention that this is, by and large, a traditional, somewhat sappy, melodrama from week to week. The flashbacks, by their nature, halt the forward momentum of the show and I find them irritating. Still, for its attempts to engage the audience off-TV, I give it high marks. American Idol – Hasn’t worn out its welcome. Initially, it seemed like the faddish type of show, but now one wonders if it’ll be the next Super Bowl (going on for 40+ years). Charlie Rose – The classic, unadorned format and smart questions are a tailor made alternative for the era of info clutter. While Charlie was out, there were a ton of terrific stand-in interviewers from all fields. I Love the 80’s 3D – Marketing nostalgia is not a new idea, but VH1 has found the perfect formula for exploiting it and hasn’t tinkered w/ it much. It’s a testament to the brilliant simplicity of the format that I will watch 3 or 4 straight hours of this show despite the fact that I detest half of the comedians offering commentary.
Avi Santo, Old Dominion University
Overall, I would say that my list favors programs that make me feel uncomfortable as a viewer. Most of the shows I have listed seem designed to court controversy, exploit conflict, or narratively convey discourses of community crisis and/or struggle. Most seem to revel in their moral ambiguity, refusing ideological closure, but also encouraging conversation about their trouble spots. Though I recognize this as coalition building and fan cultivation institutional strategies and, therefore, commodification of political discourse, I’m hooked. Other points of note: none of the programs on my list are on the standard broadcast networks (except for Project Runway, which is rebroadcast on NBC, though I watch it on Bravo). Justifying my choices was harder than I thought. I had to fight against the impulse to invoke terms like ‘quality,’ ‘realistic,’ ‘truthful,’ or ‘important’. At the same time, I also consciously struggled against reducing my choices to merely ‘pleasure’ (though I take pleasure – sometimes perverse – in all of my choices) and ‘distraction’ (though, again, I am often a distracted viewer, especially as most of these programs air several times a week and can be rewatched if I miss something the first time around). Finally, in coming up with this list, I noted how I both wanted to conform in my viewing habits to what other media scholars are likely watching AND simultaneously, to stand out by identifying at least a couple of shows that wouldn’t make other people’s lists. Identity politics and occupational habitus do rule the day.
Janet Staiger, University of Texas – Austin
The Colbert Report, but unfortunately, Stephen is perhaps too good at playing the role as a conservative talk show host; at times he out-argues the liberals. Of course at other times he loses to them in brilliant ways. And 24–my secret sin. I don’t even answer the phone when it is on.
Charles Tyron, Catholic University
A quick note: “Bus Uncle” is one of many YouTube videos I could have chosen, but I think it nicely illustrates the site’s unique ability to promote the most banal aspects of everyday life into an international “hit.”
Frederick Wasser, Brooklyn College
I tried to resist but couldn’t, due to Hustle (BBC-AMC). It has been in production at the BBC for three years and finally starting showing up on AMC this year. I cannot resist its retro stylishness (recycling Robert Vaughn yet again and its anti-entrepeneurial society stance). Even better is that since each script involves a con game, all the details of the script have to be worked out and planted in the beginning of the show. It avoids the haphazardness that permeates the American crime procedural shows. Thus good craft writing is yet another retro pleasure it gives us. But the best is that the bad guys are new age business men. Second marks to Entourage (HBO), which does not feature good writing but does have lovable characters. While everyone in the show knows they are legends (in their own minds), we don’t have to get any of them. Exactly the right balance for pop fluff.
Mimi White, Northwestern University
Arrested Development, Boston Legal, and Project Runway are way at the top of this list. Barry Chappell’s Fine Art Showcase is not a regular “series” but is a sublime program that appears on cable and satellite systems on Leased Access channels, as part of “The Celebrity Shopping Network,” consisting mainly infomercials. Barry Chappell is live, 2-3 nights a week. He sells fine art (some oil painting, a lot of multi-run paper prints, and art glass). Watch it as performance art. The rest of my list is more iffy. Some of these are shows that I frankly do not consider to be the “best” of television in overall terms, but are included for frankly idiosyncratic reasons. So a word about these “exceptions”: 1) Seventh Heaven verges on being unwatchable, but is included this year for lasting as long as it did (10 years); as a nod to the now-defunct WB; and for passing off as wholesome family entertainment a wholly messed up family. 2) America’s Got Talent presented Leonid the Magnificent to the American public–unadulterated aesthetic excess; the show deserves a spot on the list for that alone. The occasional spectacle of judge Piers making contestants cry by advising them to cut their less talented familial co-performers from their act is one of the show’s more ambivalent pleasures. As for the rest: They are programs I have gone out of my way to watch; but I am certainly aware that there are other shows of similar (or even higher) quality that could have been included. When it comes to Grey’s Anatomy, it is mainly the secondary characters/stories that I like (i.e. not Meredith or “McDreamy”); and I dread what’s coming next, since in the final episode, the show became quite unhinged. It almost lost its spot on the list because of this. I am not sure how I feel about Numb3rs, but where else on television are professors (math professors no less) taken so seriously? Granted, the mathematicians are pretty nerdy stereotypes, and work in the service of the FBI. But more commonly on crime series (e.g. Law and Order), professor/research types are criminal suspects, and are usually sleeping with their students (often the victim) or claiming colleagues’ research as their own. (Well, there is also Bones, so perhaps the scholar as a valued part of a crime-fighting team is a trend-let.) Also, in a sly pedagogic move, the show offers a dramatic rendition of the University of Chicago “everyday math” curriculum for K-8 schooling.
The following Flow contributors sent in ballots without comments:
Marnie Binfield, University of Texas – Austin
Alexis Carreiro, University of Texas – Austin
Heather Hendershot, Queens College
David Lavery, Brunel University
Allison McCracken, DePaul University
Eileen Meehan, Louisiana State University
Please feel free to comment.