ABC roared into TelevisionWeek’s semiannual Critics Poll, with “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” debuting at the top of the list, knocking previous favorite “Arrested Development” down to the No. 3 spot.
At the other end of the critical spectrum, CBS’s “Center of the Universe” was named worst show, edging Fox reality series “The Swan.”
Thirty-six critics weighed in for the survey, which saw a tight race for best show between the two ABC hits. But the sci-fi-tinged drama “Lost” squeaked out a win over-the-top Nielsen-rated suburban soap opera.
“A triumph on so many levels,” wrote TV Guide’s Matt Roush, who was among the critics ranking “Lost” as their first choice. “It turns what initially sounded like a hokey premise into a character-driven drama of psychological depth. Beautifully produced, incredibly well cast, and the writing is superb.”
Runners-up included HBO’s “The Wire,” a perpetual critics’ favorite, which Charlie McCollum of the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News called “the closest television has come to a truly great novel”; Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart”; and FX’s “Rescue Me” and “Nip/Tuck,” about which Mr. Roush wrote, “It doesn’t seem possible, but the show got even wilder and more twisted in its second season.”
“Lost” executive producer J.J. Abrams credited co-creator Damon Lindelof for that show’s success, while noting one key factor. “If it works at all, it’s because the audience and the characters want to know the answers to the same questions.
The mysteries that we’re grappling with while watching the show are the same ones they’re grappling with, and that’s part of the fun,” Mr. Abrams said.
As for the much-lauded runner-up, “Desperate Housewives,” The Arizona Republic’s Bill Goodykoontz aptly summed up the show’s appeal: “It’s just so, I don’t know, naughty,” he wrote. “To call it a guilty pleasure is to sell short how good it is. But there’s plenty of guilt involved. Pleasure too.”
With stellar Nielsen ratings to match their critical acclaim, “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” represent a rarity in the Critics Poll, where underdogs (“Arrested Development”) and HBO’s finest (“The Sopranos,” which was not eligible this round) have recently reigned.
“[The shows] are a welcome change from the dominance of procedurals, which are so based on realism that it’s easy to forget the real reason you watch TV-to turn off reality for a little while,” wrote Melanie McFarland, Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
In addition to ABC’s “Lost” and “Housewives” landing at the top of the survey, critics overwhelmingly selected ABC as the network that most improved its schedule.
“If you would have told me ABC would be within a tenth of a point of tying NBC in any category at the end of November sweeps last year, I would have laughed out loud, long and very publicly at you,” Ms. McFarland confessed.
Terry Morrow of The Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel wrote that the network “has risen like a phoenix from the ashes by going against the prevailing trends of prime time.”
“Both shows offer a different view and voice to network television,” he wrote. “ABC’s losing streak of the past few seasons actually [gave the network] the freedom to break from the pack and try something new.”
But ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson said creative risk-taking should be kept independent from success.
“You can make a connection between a lack of success and looking for shows that are going to break out from the pack,” Mr. McPherson said. “But one can argue that if you’re in a bad place you could also look to imitate what’s working. You have to take risks regardless.”
Some critics worried that “Lost” will be unable to continue to satisfy, given the high level of suspense and mystery established in its early episodes. “I just hope producers don’t screw up a good thing,” wrote Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But Mr. McPherson said the show will maintain its high-wire act.
“The show’s writing and production staff are working incredibly hard,” he said. “We have a good sense of where a lot of the bigger arcs and mysteries are going well beyond this year.”
This month Mr. McPherson will pair “Lost” with Mr. Abrams’ other ABC show, “Alias,” on Wednesdays in hopes of creating a two-hour power block of programming from Bad Robot, Mr. Abrams’ production company.
A few critics noted that UPN has also improved its schedule with shows such as “Veronica Mars,” which landed at No. 8 on the poll, and “Kevin Hill.”
“UPN went from zero decent shows to two and, as any precious sixth-grader can tell you, any increase over zero is infinite,” calculated Jonathan Storm, Philadelphia Inquirer.
Other debuts on the Best Shows list include Fox’s “House” at No. 10 and The WB’s “Jack & Bobby” at No. 11. “Eloquent and optimistic and has so much potential,” wrote Rick Kushman, The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee, of The WB drama.
For original movies, miniseries and specials, critics picked PBS’s “Broadway: The American Musical” as their top choice. “A social as well as cultural history, with wonderful interviews and clips,” wrote Mr. Roush. BBC America’s “The Office Special” was second, which Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle described as the “absolute perfect ending to what was, all told, rare genius.”
Sci Fi’s four-hour miniseries “Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars” came in third. The NBC-owned network produced the program after an extensive lobbying campaign by fans of the original “Farscape” series.
“Score one for the fans who never gave up when Sci Fi short-sightedly canned this show a year too early,” Mr. Roush wrote. “The best sci-fi show in years lived to see another day.”
Among reality shows, critics once again gave the most respect to CBS’s “The Amazing Race,” consistently citing the show’s lack of mean-spiritedness and high-quality production values. “`Amazing Race’ is so exciting that I usually have to get up and walk off the tension,” wrote Hal Boedeker of The Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel.
“Survivor” came in second, though even its admirers acknowledged the Vanuatu season was one of the show’s lesser outings. “These people earn what they win without overly demeaning themselves in the process,” wrote Tom Jicha, South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
And then there are the programs and networks at the other end of the critical spectrum.
On the Critics’ Poll Worst Shows list, John Goodman had the unfortunate distinction of appearing in two entries: “Center of the Universe,” which received the most votes, and the animated “Father of the Pride,” which ranked No. 3.
“Yet another sitcom stinker with a sterling cast,” wrote Eric Deggans, St. Petersburg Times, referring to “Center.” “John Goodman should fire his agent for sticking him in the two worst comedies of the season.” Critics derided “Center” for being a lowbrow family sitcom knockoff of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” “Uninspired drivel built around sexual dysfunction and fart jokes,” wrote Joanne Ostrow, The Denver Post.
In the No. 2 spot was “The Swan,” marking the second time the makeover reality series has made the Critics Poll list of Worst Shows.
Critics were nearly unanimous when choosing which network least improved its schedule. NBC’s fall season, noted Mr. McCollum, was “pretty much a train wreck.” Shows such as “Hawaii” and “LAX” took particular heat. “One of the worst ideas ever,” Mr. Roush wrote of “LAX.” “An hour a week in an airport? No thanks.”
The network’s disaster movie “Category 6: Day of Destruction” was selected as the worst movie, miniseries or special, followed by USA’s “Frankenstein” and TNT’s “Evel Knievel.”
Some critics blamed NBC for a lack of long-term planning rather than its latest moves.
“[NBC] has finally fallen down the `Friends’-less dark hole everyone predicted was coming their way,” Mr. Deggans wrote. “Th
e years of failing to build new scripted hits on Thursday has finally hobbled the Peacock Network.”
Several critics praised NBC’s medical comedy “Scrubs,” which ranked No. 17 in the Best Shows poll. (“Take away `Scrubs’ and [the network is] about as useful as Pax,” Mr. Goodman wrote.) But even this choice criticised, with several critics slamming NBC for “ignoring” the show.
“The network is determined to ignore this gem,” Mr. Morrow wrote. “Despite the fact the show gets little promotion, has no strong lead-in and is tucked away on Tuesday nights, `Scrubs’ is intelligent and has mastered the art of going from silly to deadly serious in one scene. NBC has the best show sitting right under its nose and doesn’t even know it.”
CBS and NBC declined to comment on the poll results.
Other critics took shots at Fox, which is also struggling this season after debuts such as “The Billionaire” and “The Next Great Champ.” “Does Fox actually have a schedule until `American Idol’ comes back?” Mr. McCollum asked. Mr. Roush took aim at Fox’s reality offerings: “Even when the concept is solid-`Wife Swap’ works on ABC-when Fox clones it, it turns out cheesy and unbearable,” he wrote.
The list of leading national critics we polled for our survey:
Joe Amarante, New Haven (Conn.) Register; Ed Bark, The Dallas Morning News; Walt Belcher, Tampa (Fla.) Tribune; Robert Bianco, USA Today; Hal Boedeker, The Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel; Lawrence Bonko, The Virginian-Pilot; Peter Carlin, The Oregonian; Roger Catlin, The Hartford (Conn.) Courant; Ted Cox, Daily Herald (Arlington, Heights, Ill.); Eric Deggans, St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times; Glenn Garvin, The Miami Herald; Steve Gidlow, In Touch Weekly; Tim Goodman, San Francisco Chronicle; Bill Goodykoontz, The Arizona Republic; Ellen Gray, The Philadelphia Daily News; Jay Handelman, Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune; Mike Hughes, Gannett News Service; Tom Jicha, Sun-Sentinel of South Florida; David Kronke, Los Angeles Daily News; Rick Kushman, The Sacramento Bee; Charlie McCollum, San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News; Melanie McFarland, Seattle Post-Intelligencer; Mark McGuire, Times Union (Albany, N.Y.); Bruce Miller, Sioux City (Iowa) Journal; Terry Morrow, The Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel; Joanne Ostrow, The Denver Post; Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; Alan Pergament, The Buffalo (N.Y.) News; Matt Roush, TV Guide; Bob Sassone, Pop Culture Guy; Dusty Saunders, Denver Rocky Mountain News; Jonathan Storm, Philadelphia Inquirer; Kevin D. Thompson, The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post; Dave Walker, The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune; Tom Walter, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.); Diane Werts, Newsday.
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