Two titan dramas battled for first place in the semiannual TelevisionWeek Critics Poll, and the result is a draw.
ABC’s “Lost,” winner of the past three Critics Polls, tied for first place with HBO’s “The Sopranos,” which has won five previous polls. With “The Sopranos” off the air for the past two years, the summer 2006 survey is the first time the dramas have gone head to head.
Fifty-three critics participated in the poll, which ranks critics’ favorite and least favorite TV series, movies and networks. In addition to “Lost” and “Sopranos,” other top shows included ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and Fox’s “24” and “House.” Critics’ choices for worst shows were Fox’s “Unan1mous” and “The War at Home” and HBO’s “Lucky Louie.” Among networks, Fox was named most improved and NBC least improved.
More on those later. First, back to the “Lost” vs. “Sopranos” fight: Both shows enjoy the distinction of winning every previous poll for which they were eligible. (“Sopranos” was ranked lower on some yesteryear winter polls, before TVWeek excluded programs that did not air originals in the current season.)
For the second season of “Lost,” critical consensus held that the show provided high-quality writing, great characters and engaging mysteries. A few critics took issue, however, with ABC’s presentation of the series, accusing the network of over-milking the cow. “It’s not the show’s fault that ABC interrupted it with repeats, clip shows and pretty much every gimmick except a televised online chat,” wrote Rick Kushman of The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee. “People can be ticked at ABC, but ‘Lost’ did its job with class.”
Melanie McFarland of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer left this heartfelt message for the series: “You strung me along. You abandoned me for weeks! But whenever we’d meet up, it was magic-pure magic. ‘Lost,’ I’m hooked, but on some level, I just know you’re going to end up breaking my heart … call me!”
For the penultimate sixth season of “The Sopranos,” critical praise was mixed despite its high ranking. Some critics felt this season’s introspective and tangent-filled story line derailed the show’s momentum, particularly sidelining protagonist Tony Soprano in the hospital for several early episodes. Even those who rated “Sopranos” No. 1 felt obligated to address the skeptics.
“I won’t abide by all the complaints that it’s fallen in quality somehow-a gripe that usually equates to ‘There’s not enough whacking,'” wrote Roger Catlin of The Hartford (Conn.) Courant. “David Chase and his team are only being more subtle and thoughtful as the clock winds down.”
Bill Goodykoontz of The Arizona Republic agreed, writing: “Either you found it challenging, difficult and disappointing, or challenging, difficult and rewarding. I’m in the latter camp.”
And one critic did the unthinkable, ranking “The Sopranos” as the worst show on television. “I put it on [the worst] list for how far it has fallen compared to how high it soared in every season prior,” wrote Marisa Guthrie of the New York Daily News. “It’s utterly mind-boggling that the same team that gave us episodes including ‘Long Term Parking’ and ‘The Pine Barrens’ is sleepwalking through stories about Hollywood swag rooms and defective rides rented for a street fair.”
In the No. 3 spot is ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” up from fourth place in the winter poll and No. 12 a year ago. “This show is so brave in so many ways,” wrote Shelley Gabert of Emmy Magazine and FilmStew.com. “It features strong, flawed, independent women who have sex when and with whom they want-not relegated to appendages or girlfriends or mothers.”
Fox’s action-drama “24,” a longtime Critics Poll favorite, came in at No. 4. “Forget DVRs,” wrote Matt Roush of TV Guide, who gave “24” top marks. “This needed to be watched live or on the same night it aired, because no one who watched could keep their mouth shut the next morning. In a fantastic year for network dramas, ’24’ blew everything else away.”
Meanwhile, Fox’s medical drama “House” continued to climb in the standings, landing at No. 5. “Just when we think we’ve seen it all, the next episode is bigger, more shocking and more compelling than the last one,” said Victor Balta of The Herald in Everett, Wash.
NBC’s “The Office” made significant gains in its second season, both among viewers and in the poll. A year ago it was tied for 19th; this year it climbs to the No. 6 spot. “When the American version premiered, I thought it was a weak imitation of the British classic,” Mr. Goodykoontz wrote. “But the show got better and better. It handles the interoffice romance better even than the original.”
Sci Fi Channel’s “Battlestar Galactica” was another gainer, leaping from 23rd a year ago to 11th place. “Finally, a series that not only takes the shame out of being a sci-fi nut, but tackles profound political and social issues,” Ms. McFarland wrote.
The remainder of the top 20 had a couple of new additions and one severe plummet.
The highest-ranked newcomer was HBO’s latest drama, “Big Love,” which was 12th. “Television’s most incisive look at marriage came this season from the most unlikely of sources: a family of middle-class polygamists in Utah. Beautifully written and acted, it deserves all the love it can get,” wrote Ellen Gray of The Philadelphia Daily News.
Second among new shows was Comedy’s Central’s “Daily Show” spinoff, “The Colbert Report,” which came in at No. 15. “Colbert’s blinkered diatribes are among the most artfully crafted writing on TV today,” wrote the Los Angeles Daily News’ David Kronke.
But the most dramatic shift in the poll was ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.” A year ago the drama was No. 2. This year it’s No. 23. Most striking were the lack of comments, positive or negative, about the show. One year after nearly every critic put the show in the top five, very few had anything to say about it.
“I love how people are bitching about [‘The Sopranos’] being in a creative slump,” wrote TV Guide’s Michael Ausiello. “Um, have they seen ‘Desperate Housewives’ this past season? That, my friends, is a creative slump.”
Networks, Movies, Worst Shows
Among networks, Fox supplanted ABC as “most improved” while NBC retained its “least improved” mantle.
“Fox still has to find a few decent comedies to fill the holes in its schedule, but you have to give Peter Liguori some credit,” Ms. McFarland wrote. “He’s slowly building the network into something to be taken seriously, and he hasn’t had to fall back on reality stunt programming as heavily as his predecessor did.”
Though critics named NBC as least improved, most did it without comment, a testament to the dead horse nature of its ongoing slump as a topic of interest. Most critics wanted to talk about ABC-ranked neither best nor worst, but frequently criticized as resting on its laurels.
“Not one of ABC’s new fall shows from last season has survived, the midseason shows did even worse and behind-the-scenes bungling turned ‘Commander in Chief’ from its biggest out-of-the-box hit to a humiliating embarrassment,” wrote Brent Furdyk of TV Week Magazine, British Columbia. “When ‘What About Brian’ is your only new ‘hit,’ I’d call that a bad year.”
Shifting to movies, miniseries and specials, HBO’s “Elizabeth I” was named the best program. “The first half sizzled, the second half fizzled, but Helen Mirren was spot-on in her various bouts of eagerly restrained sexuality, paranoid defenses and dejected old age,” wrote Doug Elfman of the Chicago Sun-Times.
NBC’s “10.5: Apocalypse” was picked as the worst program in the category. “Actually, it wasn’t bad as a comedy,” wrote Tom Jicha of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
But more than a couple of critics had to rack their brains to think of entries to include for either category. “Were there any good ones?” asked Tim Clodfelter, Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal.
On the worst shows list, Fox took the top honor with the reality show “Unan1mous,” in which contestants were locked i
n a bunker and given the task of voting on which one would walk away with $1.5 million. “Fox is proud that it subjected its participants to such psychological torture,” Mr. Kronke wrote. “I thought this sort of thing had been banned after Stanley Milgram’s behavioral studies.”
Added Mr. Roush: “Almost made me miss ‘The Swan.'”
Chart: Best and Worst Series
Chart: Best and Worst Movie, Miniseries or Special
Rodi Alexander, Bergen News Group; Marc Allan, Nuvo Newsweekly; Amy Amatangelo, Boston Herald and Zap2It.com; Vicki Arkoff, Sweet 16 and MAD; Michael Ausiello, TV Guide and TVGuide.com; Victor Balta, The Herald (Everett, Wash.); Anne Louise Bannon, freelancer; Chuck Barney, Contra Costa (Calif.) Times; Rick Bentley, The Fresno (Calif.) Bee; Robert Bianco, USA Today; Winnie Bonelli, North Jersey Media; Larry Bonko, The Virginian-Pilot; Roger Catlin, The Hartford (Conn.) Courant; Tim Clodfelter, Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal; Greg David, TV Guide Canada; Doug Elfman, Chicago Sun-Times; Michael Elkin, Jewish Exponent (syndicated); Brent Furdyk, TV Week Magazine (British Columbia); Shelley Gabert, Emmy Magazine, FilmStew.com; Judith S. Gillies, The Washington Post; Bill Goodykoontz, The Arizona Republic; Ellen Gray, The Philadelphia Daily News; John Griffiths, Us Weekly; Marisa Guthrie, New York Daily News; Jay Handelman, Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune; Hugh Hart, Los Angeles Times and On DirecTV Magazine; Heather Havrilesky, Salon.com; Tom Jicha, South (Fort Lauderdale) Florida Sun Sentinel; Wayne Karrfalt, Extra Extra; David Kronke, Los Angeles Daily News; Rick Kushman, The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee; William LaRue, The (Syracuse, N.Y.) Post-Standard; Ed Martin, MediaVillage.com; Julio Martinez, Latin Heat Magazine and Latinheat.com; Charlie McCollum, San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News; Mike McDaniel, Houston Chronicle; Melanie McFarland, Seattle Post-Intelligencer; Mark McGuire, Times Union (Albany, N.Y.); Bruce Miller, Sioux City (Iowa) Journal; Gerri Miller, Satellite Direct; Terry Morrow, The Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel; Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; Alan Pergament, The Buffalo (N.Y.) News; Robert Philpot, Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram; Virginia Rohan, The (Bergen County, N.J.) Record; Matt Roush, TV Guide; Dusty Saunders, Rocky Mountain News (Denver); Jonathan Storm, The Philadelphia Inquirer; Alex Strachan, CanWest News Service (Canada); Miki Turner, AOL Black Voices; Nancy Van Valkenburg, Standard-Examiner (Ogden, Utah); Diane Werts, Newsday; Molly Willow, Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch.