I don’t think I’m one of those bitter critics who hates everything on TV. But in 2008, I sometimes felt like one, especially as it came time to compile my top-10 lists for the end of the year. This was the toughest year I can remember to fill out a list, and I can only partly blame this situation on the strike. Yes, there was less new programming this year, especially high-profile scripted series, but there was also a lot of unexceptional material generally. For the first time (I think) since I began as a TV critic, there was not a single new fall broadcast show I wanted to put on my top-10 list this year.
Nonetheless, I managed to put together two lists for Time’s year-end best-of-everything extravaganza, which is online now: best TV shows of the year (the headline says “series,” but they’re not all strictly series) and best episodes of the year. If you’re interested in my explanations and tortured listmaking process, I offer a few thoughts after the jump.
I’m not sure I think of a top-10 shows list the same way other critics do. I don’t think of it, as I think I’ve written before, as simply a list of my 10 favorite TV shows—or else South Park, for instance, would appear every year. Quite simply, “best” means a lot of different things.
Sometimes it means that a show—even one I don’t think of as one of TV’s 10 best per se—had an exceptional year, and I want to recognize it as such. (That was one reason I put on Chuck, the most improved of the post-strike “do-over” shows, which is markedly better than it was its first season.) Sometimes, it means “representing the best of TV as a medium”—which means I try to include a variety of genres, not just load up the list with scripted dramas, for instance. For the same reason I included the Presidential election, not because of any particular accomplishment in journalism or broadcasting, but because just by being, this election was both a spellbinding narrative.
And sometimes it simply means “best,” which is to say, it’s a subjective judgment, and I’m not going to try to defend it objectively, so bleah.
As for the rankings—let’s be honest. Beyond the first few spots, the numbers are fairly arbitrary. It’s apples-and-oranges to begin with to rank a reality show vs. a news show vs. a drama. Often, there’s an element of rating on a curve. I’m not sure I think The Shield, as a whole, is a better series than Lost. But The Shield had a phenomenal final season, especially the last half of that season, while Lost’s season 4 did not, to me, quite match season 3—so it moved down a bit on the list from last year.
You’ll also note that a couple of my entries are not “TV” per se, as they originated as online video. But Time doesn’t do a separate web video list; we’re in a time now when you can watch web video on your TV and TV shows on your computer; and since I’ve seen little on TV as original as You Suck at Photoshop or Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, I thought it would be silly not to recognize them. That said, I don’t think my survey of online shows was as comprehensive as it could have been (I might have included other Web series, like The Line). Next year, I may include more on the list, or rethink my criteria entirely.
Finally, there are plenty of shows I did not list. This does not mean I hate them. At some point I’ll do a blog post about the shows that didn’t make it and the reasons why. I loved Easy Money, for instance, but given that it was axed after a couple episodes, I hardly felt I had sufficient material to judge. (Whereas Dr. Horrible was even shorter, but was a complete work.) It was a rough year for comedies: as I wrote last week, for all the buzz around 30 Rock, its post-strike run was pretty weak, and while it’s had a good run of episodes this fall, on balance it had a better 2007, even if Tina Fey was on fewer magazine covers. (I did put it on the best-episode list, for the outstanding season finale, “Cooter.”) Ditto The Office, which I still love, but which I think suffered from having to compress the end of its season.
Finally, I’m especially interested to hear your own nominations for best episodes of the year. That was the more fun list of the two to do, but I’m also more certain that I egregiously overlooked something that really should be on there.
Oh, and I will blog a 10 Worst Shows list before the year is out. Oh, boy, will I. But in the meantime, the floor is open for your nominations—and your own lists.