It’s that most wonderful time of the year, when people who presume to know start telling you what the 10 (or 20 or 100) “Best fill-in-the-blanks” are. I am a TV critic, so my list will be about television and I’m going to make it, honor bright, in just a minute, right after I explain how meaningless it is.
Well, not meaningless, precisely. It has some meaning, which is to say sincerity — I’m not going to just randomly rattle off a group of shows or moments or performances that I hope will make me seem smart or quirky or steps ahead of all those other critics who insist that (fill in the blank) is a good show. But there’s no way the list isn’t going to reflect more about me than it does any series or television in general.
Because television, like people and hot sauce, has moved way past any sort of legitimate rankability.
There was a time when the genre had clear “winners,” when most critics and viewers would agree on a shortlist of superior shows, with only a little wiggle room for personal taste. Back when there were three or four major broadcast networks and HBO, say, when shows like “All in the Family,” “MASH,” “Hill Street Blues” or “The Sopranos” rose vividly above the scrum.
Or even more recently than that; as I have not yet tired of pointing out, less than 10 years ago reality television seemed poised to rule the world, with scripted programming in danger of extinction. Instead, the latter exploded, on channels previously devoted to other things and platforms that did not exist.
Now television comes in every size, shape, tone and genre imaginable. Fantasy, sci-fi, horror and period; character dramas, character comedies and every sort of ensemble; procedurals and glorious hybrids of the two. Censor-free on many platforms, stories now include sadistic violence, graphic sexuality, emotional evisceration and deeply dark comedy.
Structurally too, the genre is all but impossible to define. A “season” can now consist of four episodes or nine or 12 and varies in story and cast from year to year. There remain plenty of traditional 22-episode broadcast shows, but even they are now broken, with increasing drama, into separate parts by the midseason break. Miniseries and “special events” abound; some now start as one and turn into another.
And so much of it is so good, studded with virtuoso performances, splendid writing and the sort of direction, design and camerawork once reserved for cinema. Most new shows fail, but every season brings a handful of stand-outs to the nation’s already overstocked DVR queue.
Even the biggest snobs concede that the problem with television is there’s too much good stuff to watch and, even with a plethora of platforms and portable devices, not enough time to watch it.
Ironically, this makes the traditional year-end list both more necessary and more absurd than it’s ever been. Yes, it is part of a critic’s job to assist an eager but overscheduled public, but how do you compare apples with oranges, and bananas and kale and quinoa and birthday cake?
So here instead are a few lists structured in ways that make sense to me. You will note, there are just nine on each list (and fewer for miniseries). Feel free to tweet me your choice for the last spot, or post your entirely different lists in the comments section.
If nothing else, it’s pretty clear why DVR management has become such a big issue.
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