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That Darn List! When Good Shows Go Bad. Also, Good Grief!

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In today’s installment of That Darn List!, the problem of good shows that turn bad. One problem I dealt with over and over when deciding whether to put long-running series on my top-100 list was what to do with shows that started great and ended embarrassing. Do the sanctimonious years of M*A*S*H outweigh the hilarious years? Could The Simpsons ever become mediocre enough to erase its greatness?

I wish I could say that I came up with some universal equation, but I just handled it case-by-case, with attention to the differences between genres. For instance, it’s much harder for serial dramas to stay as consistent as non-serial sitcoms, anthologies, or procedurals, which can repeat themselves for years. With 24, I decided the lousy last season didn’t outweigh the first five; with NYPD Blue, the last several years of melodrama killed the originality of the first few in my memory.

The fact is, a list like this is a snapshot. There are shows I put on the list today that I would take off five years from now. Maybe even next week. No one is safe!

Shows set in high school or college, by their very nature, are vulnerable to the goodness-to-suck ratio: Beverly Hills 90210 was in trouble more or less after “Donna Martin graduates!” and The O.C. might have had a shot at my list had it ended after one and a half seasons. (I worry about Friday Night Lights, which shows no sign of jumping the shark but will have to introduce new characters if it’s lucky enough to live long enough.)

The flip side of this problem is whether some shows benefited from being cancelled early. Who knows if My So-Called Life had more than one good season in it? (I refuse to entertain the thought that Freaks and Geeks could ever have gotten bad.) But I decided that once a show was canned, it was a finished work–if it held up, I didn’t care how long it ran. I did drop a couple shows, like EZ Streets, simply because I realized my original list was too heavy on brilliant-but-cancelled shows, but that was more a question of overall list balance.

Speaking of brilliant-but-cancelled–and this will drive the Firefly fans crazy–I actually had Firefly on my list until nearly the very end. Finally, I decided that the show–which started off muddled, partly from network interference but hit its stride before Fox killed it–simply didn’t get enough time on the air to prove its greatness and realize the obviously grand vision Joss Whedon had. That’s not fair, no, but I’m a TV critic, not a psychic; I can’t put a show on the list on the basis of what I think it would have done. Just one more injustice for the Browncoats.

Bonus question of the day: How can you consider A Charlie Brown Christmas a TV Show? Because it aired on TV. You’ll notice that the list is not call the All-TIME 100 TV Series. Yes, most of the shows on it are series, because TV is mainly a serial medium. Some people have complained that I included one-shot works like Charlie Brown or The Day After, and an entire network (MTV in its music-video era)–but the fact that these are unusual is exactly the point. TV is wildly diverse, and I wanted the list to give a little taste of all the things it could do. (And as wide-ranging as the list is, I know I didn’t cover everything.)

Now you can argue that other specials were better, and you can disagree with me that Charles Schulz was one of the greatest pop-culture artists of the 20th century and that this special deftly translated his tone to TV, but hey–not everyone likes Dolly Madison Zingers either.

Besides, isn’t the lesson of A Charlie Brown Christmas to look beyond the obvious choices? Sometimes among all the giant flashy pink aluminum trees, there’s a scraggly little underdog that just needs a little love.