Five freshman shows stormed the upper ranks of TelevisionWeek’s Winter Critics Poll, while the list was crowned by a veteran program that’s the lowest-rated winner in the survey’s history.
The fourth season of HBO’s critical darling “The Wire” was the favorite show among the dozens of critics surveyed for the semiannual poll. Averaging about 1.6 million viewers per episode, “The Wire” is the least-viewed show to ever take the title.
Though “The Wire” has landed on this list before, the latest poll was remarkable for a number of new shows that dramatically reshaped the rankings, with several previous chart toppers falling in stature. Most notably, four-time Critics Poll leader “Lost” fell from its perch.
Among the networks, NBC was the biggest overall winner, posting four shows-three of which debuted last fall-in the top 10.
NBC’s freshman drama “Heroes” ranked No. 2 on the list, while Thursday night comedy “The Office” landed at No. 3. “Friday Night Lights” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”-both of which have received full-season orders from the network despite low ratings-were ranked No. 7 and No. 10, respectively. Another freshman NBC show, “30 Rock,” came close to cracking the upper ranks at No. 13.
ABC also had a strong showing, landing three shows in the top 10, including freshman series “Ugly Betty.” Fox had one entry, “House,” while CBS, despite being the most-watched television network, had no series in the top 10-or even the top 20. (CBS’s highest-ranking Critics Poll entry comes in at No. 27, “The Amazing Race.”)
Running down the top shows, the final season of “The Wire” crowned the list. The series was described by Dave Walker, columnist with the New Orleans Times-Picayune, as “so far out ahead of the pack that it almost inhabits its own genre: genius TV.”
“This year’s stories alternated between hilarious and heartbreaking, and whatever other mistakes HBO has made, renewing `The Wire’ for a fifth season will stand as one of its smartest all-time moves,” he wrote.
In the No. 2 spot, NBC’s fall breakout drama “Heroes” was called a “beautifully imagined comic strip for grown-ups” by Ellen Gray, Philadelphia Daily News.
Doug Elfman, Chicago Sun-Times, added, “It makes superpeople immensely engrossing and transcends the dork factor. You can tell the writers have taken their time constructing this thing.”
In third place was NBC’s “The Office,” up from 12th last winter. Critics noted that it hit its stride midway through the 2005-06 second season, and has since continued to perform strongly.
“It’s so different in rhythm and tone from any other comedy on TV,” wrote Rick Kushman, the Sacramento Bee. “It manages to say something without lecturing or going soft on us, but it always has a big heart underneath its stone-dry wit.”
ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” took the No. 4 spot, with critics sometimes sounding embarrassed at their enjoyment of the soapy, sex-driven series while still giving it high marks.
“Sure it’s a soap, but it’s such a well-written soap,” Mr. Kushman wrote. “There’s just the right mix of dopiness and those classic standbys: sleaziness and slushy emotion.”
Another ABC drama, “Ugly Betty,” was No. 5. TV Guide’s Matt Roush called the Thursday night freshman series “simply adorable.”
“As critics, we go on and on about edgy programming, but once in a while, there comes along a delectable fairy tale like `Ugly Betty,’ grounded in a star-making performance by America Ferrera, and we just submit to its sweetness,” he wrote.
ABC’s “Lost” topped the Critics Poll the past two winters, but this season misplaced some critical respect in addition to losing some viewers and landed in sixth place.
“Even in a down year, it’s better than almost anything else on network television,” wrote Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic. “But please, let’s get back to the island, folks.”
No show on the list caused more hand-wringing than “Friday Night Lights,” whose low ratings prompted critics to worry about its future. Mr. Roush called the show “the epitome of a TV underdog, the sort of show that gives critics a reason to exist, a show to be championed and cheered on in the faint hope that a mass audience, which often tells us this is exactly the sort of show they’d like to see, will eventually find and embrace it.”
Others praised the show’s ability to capture small-town life.
“Mayberry this ain’t,” wrote Terry Morrow, Knoxville News Sentinel. “Small-town life is finally shown just as it is-occasionally hard, sometimes ruthless and a tendency to be unforgiving [with] hope of better things to come.”
Showtime’s new serial killer thriller “Dexter” came in at No. 8, with critics praising both the show’s compelling drama and the performance of Michael C. Hall.
“Showtime has finally found a mesmerizing series that puts it on the same playing field with HBO,” wrote Charlie McCollum, San Jose Mercury News.
Molly Willow, Columbus Dispatch, added, “I don’t know how they make me root for a serial killer, but they do.”
Sci Fi Channel’s acclaimed “Battlestar Galactica” came in ninth, with critics praising its most recent season as an allegory for the U.S. occupation of Iraq. “A spectacular, elegant and innovative season from a show that never tires of pushing the envelope in many directions,” wrote Kevin Dickson, In Touch Weekly.
Added Rob Salem, Toronto Star, “I keep waiting for this show to peak and plummet, but frak it, it just keeps getting better and better.”
The most widely discussed drama of the fall season, “Studio 60,” came in at No. 10. The Aaron Sorkin series has been alternately praised and damned, and several critics complained that other writers have been too hard on the drama.
One, Toronto Sun columnist Bill Brioux, said he struggled with conflicting feelings about the series for two months, until one night he realized he was a true fan despite the show’s shortcomings.
“By the Christmas episode … I had to break down and admit it: I’d rather watch Sorkin fail every week than just about anything else on TV,” he wrote.
Also cracking the top 20 was the presumably canceled ABC drama “The Nine” at No. 19.
The arrival of all the new shows meant, of course, that some former favorites lost ground.
At No. 11, Fox’s “House” slipped from No. 3 last winter.
Having moved from UPN to The CW, “Everybody Hates Chris” dropped from 5th to not even being found in the top 40.
FX’s “Rescue Me,” which became mired in controversy over a rape subplot last summer, slipped a few spots out to No. 12. Another FX drama, “Nip/Tuck,” went from 15th to 29th.
In addition to “Lost,” ABC’s other former top 10 show, “Desperate Housewives” plummeted from 13th last winter to No. 28.