I sometimes think that we critics spend too much list-making time focusing on the wrong things. Best-TV-of-the-year lists are fun to read, but there’s a lot of overlap among them. Worst-TV lists are more diverse, but TV offers so many easy targets; does it take much insight to beat up on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here?
Of course I want to praise TV, but when I think back on TV past, some of the shows that are most compelling to watch, and that stick with me longest, are the interesting failures: shows that may have ambitious, that might have been great, that may even had moments of greatness, but somehow fell short of their potential.
That’s why I’ve decided that those shows need their own award.
A show that aims high can fall very hard. But I’d rather see shows that try hard and fail than shows that aim low and succeed. Maybe the classic example from my TV critic career was HBO’s John From Cincinnati. It was a mess, it was sometimes (OK, often) pretentious, it was sometimes (OK, usually) incomprehensible. But is also had moments of astonishing brilliance, and it had ambition. If it had succeeded in its goal–a TV series about a Divine visitation that explained the ways of God to Man–it might have been the greatest TV series ever.
It didn’t succeed. Oh, well. I’m still glad it was made. This kind of risk is why channels like HBO exist, and–apologies to Deadwood fans, of which I’m one–if David Milch comes to you with an idea like this and wants to make the series, I believe you have to give him the chance to swing for the fences.
This is why I am using John from Cincinnati to borrow the name for Tuned In’s new honor: The Cincies, which honor TV’s most interesting failures of the past year.
A Cincy is different from a brilliant-but-cancelled show. It’s not just a great TV show that the mass audience didn’t recognize. It’s also a show that, on some level, failed to live up to its creative potential, but that deserves to be honored for trying. It’s a show that took a worthwhile chance and somehow didn’t quite make it, maybe because of its difficult premise, maybe because of its creators’ limitations, maybe because of network interference. (Another example: Swingtown, CBS’s ’70s wife-swapping drama, which might have worked better had it been made for pay cable.) It might be a show that has been canceled; or it might be a show that’s still on the air and could theoretically still meet its potential someday. A Cincy is a show that took a chance that was worth taking.
And there’s a very fine line between a Cincy and a Best or Worst show of the year. Any given year on my best or worst lists, I could probably find some shows that could have been Cincies if things had gone a little differently. I put Glee on my Best-Shows list, for instance, but someone could reasonably make the argument that it better qualifies as a Cincy.
The Cincies, to me, represent one of my most important principles as a critic: that consistency and competence are less important than originality and ambition, and that sometimes, failure makes a greater contribution than success. There is too much programming on TV, and too little time in life, to spend that time with just-reliably-OK TV shows. The Cincies remind us that greatness and awfulness have more in common with each other than with adequacy and mediocrity.
I’ll post my list of the 2009 Cincies tomorrow (it’s already written up). In the meantime, post your nominations for 2009’s Cincies in the comments. And what shows from past years would you nominate for the all-time Cincy Hall of Fame?