The Little Picture: You can judge a TV critic by his top 10 list

Jan 7, 2002  •  Post A Comment

History does not record whether the journalistic tradition of rating the year’s 10 best and worst TV shows/movies/books/and so forth was inspired by David Letterman’s Top 10 List. More likely it was the brainchild of an anonymous features editor who needed to fill space after his writers took off in mid-December to use up their remaining sick days.
Either way, the lists that critics write are themselves coming in for some critical scrutiny. Mike James, the self-declared “surly editor” of the News Blues Web site, last week published an online screed blasting these “stale and thoughtless” columns and alleging that critics slap them together to avoid having to do real work during the New Year’s break.
Some of my colleagues also expressed reservations about doing best-and-worst lists this year. In light of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, they wondered, what’s the point?
Well, the point is this: For the TV critic, the year-end list can be one of the most useful columns he or she writes all year. For readers it provides a clip-and-save map to all the gems buried around the vast (and getting vaster) wasteland of televisiondom.
Newspaper critics act as a sort of consumer watchdog. Often all a reader knows about an upcoming show is what the advertisements say about it-that it’s not to be missed, that so-and-so stars in it, that it’s from the director of “I Know How Much You Grossed Last Summer,” and so on. The critic’s independent voice can help readers sort through this marketing muck and figure out if whether the show really is worth their time.
The special challenge faced by the TV critic comes from series that, unlike movies or plays, don’t just disappear after a limited engagement. They return dozens of times over several seasons, evolving and fluctuating in quality from one year to the next. For the average overwhelmed TV scribe, with dozens of screening cassettes beckoning on his desk, it’s not easy to find time to go back to old shows for a fresh assessment.
Many series, in fact, play out their entire runs with little critical attention. “The Drew Carey Show” is a perfect example.
Ignored at its creative and ratings height three years ago, the show is now equally overlooked during its alarmingly rapid decline.
The year-end list is a chance to make amends. On my Web site (tvbarn.com), I did my own critics’ poll, gathering best-of lists from two dozen critics, ranging from the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times to New York magazine and Entertainment Weekly. When I tallied the results, I found-as expected-that tastes varied widely. Even the most acclaimed programs weren’t mentioned in more than half of the critics’ 10-best lists. And far from being “stale” or “thoughtless,” many of the critics had made a point of singling out long-running programs that had gotten little ink during the year.
All told, the critics I surveyed named more than 70 shows to their 10-best lists. Many of these were newer shows or specials, but a surprising number were not. “South Park” made a bit of a comeback in 2001, getting onto several critics’ lists after being practically ignored the year before. A few critics still kept the torch for ABC’s “Once and Again.” Others remembered “Farscape,” “Frontline,” “Any Day Now” and “King of the Hill.”
I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that most of us could come up with a list of the 20 best, or even 30 best television shows. If there’s a lesson in all this, it’s that channel proliferation not only has flooded us with more mediocrity than before but also has brought more of the good stuff. That makes a TV critic’s job not only more demanding than ever but also more rewarding and of greater service to readers.
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On a personal note, I want to thank the hundreds of readers of this column and my Web site who sent their best wishes in 2001 as I recovered from hairy cell leukemia. My latest tests in December show that I am back to normal (good thing, because I’ve been working full time since July). Many of us were more than happy to leave last year behind, but I think I was happier than most.
Aaron Barnhart’s column appears monthly in EM. He covers television for the Kansas City Star, and his Web site (www.tvbarn.com) covers TV topics daily.