Last year around this time, I invented a new kind of TV award, or perhaps “award.” Like a lot of critics, I always list the best shows of the year, and the worst. But that inevitably leaves out a certain, often more interesting, group of shows: not mediocre ones, but shows that have ambitions that, for various reasons, they don’t manage to quite meet.
I named these awards The Cincies, for HBO’s 2007 drama John from Cincinnati, which was in some ways an inscrutable mess, but had moments of astonishing brilliance. If it was a failure, it was an interesting one, which is often a better thing to be than an unremarkable success.
A Cincy can be a commercial failure or a success; it can be a show that tried hard and just failed at greatness, or a show with the potential for greatness if it tried harder. Appearing on this list is not an insult; as I wrote last year: “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.”
On that note, I give you the 2010 Cincy Awards:
Caprica. You almost could not create a more textbook Cincy if you had Daniel Graystone engineer one in the lab. This Battlestar Galactica prequel about the creation of artificial intelligence and virtual worlds could be slow and self-serious, and it sometime felt hobbled by the linkage to the BSG original. (I wondered if it might have been a better series had it been created outside the BSG universe, though it may then have never been made.) But it could also be–like Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse and BSG itself–an intriguing examination of consciousness and the implications (morality, immortality and more) of separating consciousness from physical existence.
Glee. A Cincy Award can mean different things. It can be a salute for a worthy failure–or, as in this case, it can be a message to try harder. In 2009, I put Glee at #8 on my best-of-the-year list, saying that while it was inconsistent, at its best it could be transcendent. In 2010, though, the show got too comfortable with its success, and doubled down on fan-pleasing elements–the songs, Sue Sylvester–often at the expense of believable character and story. Even this year, Glee has shown it can do episodes, like “Dream On” and “Furt,” that combine its musical surrealism with stories grounded in plausible emotion. But because Glee has shown that it can be not just mindless escapism but an actual great TV show, it has no excuse not to be.
Lone Star. Critics read a lot of meaning into the spectacular failure of this well-reviewed Fox drama about a con man and bigamist working two different scams in the Texas oil business. But while it may be true that it would have been better off on cable, the two episodes that aired also had issues of tone: struggling to be edgy while making the protagonist relatable, they felt a little too dark for broadcast, yet a little too soft-focus for cable. But in a remarkably unadventurous year for the big networks, it gets credit for trying something ambitious…
My Generation. …as does this less favorably-reviewed ABC mockumentary about a high school class, ten years after graduation. I get the objections: it relied too much on soap-opera twists and worked too hard to shoehorn in the Important Events of Our Decade. But the apporach was also bracing and fresh, and the show had a visual kick that was missing in broadcast’s big debuts this fall. Faults and all, My Generation at least interested me, and executed better, it could have been a relationship drama in the Zwick-Herskovits vein. (Which of course, probably would have meant it would be canceled anyway, but who’s counting?)
Running Wilde. It’s impossible to know if this Mitch Hurwitz sitcom (with Will Arnett as another playboy in a state of, er-um, arrested development) was doomed from the concept or whether, as he’s suggested in interviews, it was sanded down into mediocrity through network notes. But every once in a while the show’s class-conflict comedy gave a hint of the charming, satiric screwball romance it sounded like on paper–and that TV could use.