Thursday, December 12, 2013

On "Best Of" Lists and the Nature of Television

"Top of the Lake" will make my Top Ten but is it really "television"?

Well, it’s that time of year again: when critics and commentators of all stripes start compiling their “Best Of” lists for the previous year.  I’ve always thought this an odd pursuit for television, however.  Not the idea of ranking the best shows, mind you, but the idea that we need to do this in December.  After all, the television season doesn’t run from January to December.  It runs from September to May.  You could extend that out from September to August if you’d like or even go crazy (like the Emmys) and call it June to May.  Sure, there are a few exceptions.  South Park, for almost its entire existence, would run the first half of its season in March and April and the second half in October, November, and December.  TNT has taken to running a few of its dramas during the summer and winter months.  But no matter how you slice it, the vast majority of television series will begin their seasons in or after September and end their seasons before the next September rolls around. 

This isn’t just an academic discussion, but has a real impact when writing about the last year in television.  For example, how do I treat 30 Rock, which had a marvelous final season that culminated in one of my favorite series finales this past January, but which only aired five episodes in 2013 (making it ineligible for the Golden Globes at least)?  I could easily put those five episodes up against anything else aired this year, but without the context of the first eight, do they have the same impact?  Or what of The Returned (Les Revenants), which aired in France in 2012 before coming to the United States a few weeks ago?  Do I judge Downton Abbey by the season three episodes that aired on PBS in January or by the season four episodes I may or may not have found a way to watch this fall that haven’t yet aired in the United States?  Am I even capable of ignoring the new episodes I’ve seen and judging the show solely based on the older ones?

Obviously, writing for an American audience is going to make some of these decisions easy, in that I’m only going to consider shows that aired in the United States during 2013, but the current nature of television causes even more problems.  For example, what do I do with Top of the Lake?  Here’s a show that I’m pretty sure would be a no-brainer to end up in my Top Ten, but the AV Club isn’t even considering it for theirs, owing to its nature as a miniseries and not an ongoing series.  Or what of Black Mirror, a British show that has aired two trios of episodes over the last two years, but which aired all of their episodes in the United States for the first time this year?

This is all a roundabout way of saying that the inherent subjectivity of naming the best (or favorite) television of the last calendar year has been rendered even more incomprehensible by the rapidly changing nature of the medium itself.  As an example of the chaos that is 2013 Top Ten lists, I took a quick look at three critics’ lists (HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall, Time’s James Poniewozick, and Slate’s Willa Paskin) and counted 19 different series, with only four shows appearing on all three lists.  And one of those four shows won’t even be on my list because I just haven’t had the time to watch it yet. 

So what do we make of this new paradigm?  Clearly those proclaiming the end of the Golden Age of Television are wrong.  We may no longer be in the age of “Great Important Television,” but we are most definitely in the age of what Sepinwall calls “Too Much Good TV.”  What is most astounding to me is that, while the “great” shows of the 2000s were largely borne from the same cloth (dark character dramas often fronted by white, male anti-heroes) the era of “Too Much Good TV” is defined by its variety.  Are you looking for a police or legal procedural?  Southland and The Good Wife will welcome you in.  Are character-driven period dramas more your thing?  Try Mad Men and Masters of Sex on for size.  Do you like your period dramas to have more action?  Boardwalk Empire and The Americans will be there with guns a-blazing.  Maybe you’re more in to science fiction and fantasy.  Orphan Black will quench your thirst for the former and Game of Thrones for the latter.  Or maybe you don’t even like dramas.  Maybe you just want to escape with some comedy.  Well Parks and Recreation and Key & Peele will make you laugh all night long. 

Television has never been this deep, broad, and good.  And it’s that depth, breadth, and quality that is going to make me eschew the typical Top Ten process.  Sure, I’ll end up writing a Top Ten piece.  But I’m not going to limit myself to that one list.  Instead, I’m planning also to highlight the shows that, while they may not end up as my ten favorites, are too good to ignore.  After all, isn’t that the entire point of such exercises: to inform your readers of the shows you think they would enjoy as well?

So over the next couple of weeks, expect three “Best of” articles at this site.  The first will look at the new shows and recently canceled/ended shows that didn’t quite make my Top Ten list but still put up great years.  The second will look at the still airing shows worthy of consideration and will also highlight the handful of critically-acclaimed shows that are on my “to watch” list but which I just haven’t gotten around to yet.  And the third will be my Top Ten of 2013 list, because ranking things is apparently just what we do at the end of the year.  I hope you enjoy.

So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me that my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

No comments:

Post a Comment