The last scene of “The Sopranos” may have polarized viewers, but critics were nearly united in their belief that the final season of HBO’s acclaimed drama was the best television program so far this year.
Still stunned by its mercilessly abrupt and endlessly debated conclusion, the dozens of television critics surveyed for TelevisionWeek’s semiannual Critics Poll rated “The Sopranos” their favorite series by a wide margin.
“I’m not sure I would’ve ranked it No. 1 until the last scene,” wrote Rick Kushman, Sacramento Bee. “The sheer brilliance of it created a culture-wide frenzy that showed how deeply this series has embedded itself in our national psyche.”
“The Sopranos” has topped the summer Critics Poll nearly every year it has been on the air. Even when critics were frustrated with the show, they considered its missteps the result of a noble experiment that transcended the competition.
“You have to admire any series that was true to its original vision right up to the very end,” wrote Charlie McCollum, San Jose Mercury-News. “‘The Sopranos’ never wavered, never gave in to the pressure of television conventions and left us with seven seasons of brilliant TV—including the most maddeningly wonderful ending.”
By network, NBC had the most shows in the top 10, with four. ABC was second with three. Despite Fox having the highest adults 18-49 rating last season, and CBS having the most total viewers, neither network landed a program in the top 10.
“The Sopranos” wasn’t the only show lifted by a strong finale. ABC’s “Lost” came in second, largely on the strength of its season-ending episodes.
Critics were annoyed by the broadcast drama’s third season until a streak of post-hiatus episodes recaptured the show’s original sense of mystery and action-drama intensity.
“The comeback kid,” declared Matt Roush, TV Guide. “‘Lost’ reclaimed its reputation as TV’s most adventurous and surprising series with a run of terrific and exciting episodes, culminating in the most mind-blowing finale of the season.”
Agreed USA Today’s Robert Bianco: “With a terrific string of spring episodes, leading up to a game-changing, risk-taking finale, this audacious, gorgeous show re-established itself as network TV’s best.”
NBC’s critically beloved yet low-rated “Friday Night Lights” ranked third.
“Drenched in authenticity, it depicts real people in a real place without condescension or pandering, and manages to engage our sympathies and devotion without becoming overly sentimental or melodramatic,” wrote Mr. Roush, who rated it No. 1 on his list. “If ever a show deserved to be embraced by a wider audience, it’s this one.”
“Lights” was one of four NBC shows developed under former Entertainment President Kevin Reilly to make the top 10. Mr. Reilly’s successor, Ben Silverman, produced three of the top 10 titles. Both men take credit for the success of “The Office,” which placed fourth on the list.
“More than a copy of the brilliant, cringe-worthy original, it’s evolved into something so uniquely American,” wrote Ellen Gray, Philadelphia Daily News. “I’m no longer embarrassed to admit I get happy just hearing the theme music.”
Ms. Gray is not alone. Mr. Kushman wrote, “When the music starts playing, it just makes me happy.”
But NBC’s “Office” companion “My Name Is Earl,” which last summer ranked seventh, dropped out of the top 25 entirely.
ABC’s freshman breakout “Ugly Betty” placed fifth.
“Smart, snappy dialogue and deliberately overwrought acting disguised thin plot lines,” wrote Mike McDaniel, Houston Chronicle. “[But] who cares? We loved, loved, loved these characters.”
NBC’s new hit “Heroes” came in sixth. Like “Sopranos” and “Lost,” the season finale factored in critics’ decisions. But this time critics said a muddled and anticlimactic final episode cost the drama points.
“A mildly disappointing finale knocks the show down a couple of spots, but the series had a wonderful first season,” wrote Mr. McCollum.
“Good story, good characters, disappointing resolution,” agreed Robert Philpot, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
In seventh place was “30 Rock,” with critics praising Alec Baldwin’s supporting performance.
“Tina Fey’s initially fey sitcom really settled down in the latter half of the season to become a gut-punchingly funny show, satirical and, um, slapstickical,” wrote Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly. “The byplay between Alec Baldwin and Fey—really, between Baldwin and anybody—was priceless.”
In eighth place: FX’s “The Shield,” which critics praised for its consistent high quality during its sixth season. Molly Willow of the Columbus Dispatch ranked it her favorite show. “I know ‘The Sopranos’ is supposed to be the official TV critic’s answer, but this season of ‘The Shield’ … wow,” she wrote.
ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” dropped from third place in last summer’s poll, but the addictive ensemble soap still received enough props from critics to land at No. 9. Fellow medical drama “House” on Fox fell out of the top 10 despite gaining viewers this season.
“At times [‘Grey’s’] is unbeatable,” wrote Mike Hughes, Gannett News Service. “Its three-part arc after the ferryboat accident was the best thing on TV this season.”
Showtime’s new historical drama about the lives and loves of King Henry VIII, “The Tudors,” made its Critics Poll debut to round out the top 10.
“A fresh take on the story and handled with exquisite care,” wrote Luaine Lee, McClatchy-Tribune News Service. “This is a top-notch ensemble show, with Jonathan Rhys-Myers sexy and commanding as Henry.”
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