Like so many snarky, embittered Santa Clauses, TIME’s critics are busily making our year-end lists right now. As in past years, I’ll be counting down the 10 best series and episodes of the year next month, and I’ll probably generate a few bonus lists to post here at Tuned In around the holidays. (TIME book critic Lev Grossman writes about his own list-making process here.)
The particular challenge in doing a list like this for television is that TV series are ongoing works, not completed ones. That is, if a movie critic really loves Moneyball, there’s no danger that Moneyball is suddenly going to start to suck in late November and December. For series that finished their seasons earlier this year, this isn’t a problem, but it’s an issue for seasons still airing right now—especially brand-new ones. I’ve been loving Homeland, but my continuing to love the series will depend a lot on how it finishes out its first season, which will happen after my list is put to bed. And while I don’t want to ignore new series, I also don’t want to overrate them on the basis of a strong first few episodes. (In retrospect, I probably did this, for instance, the fall Modern Family debuted, though I still like the show a lot.)
Usually, though, that problem is more a question of how high I’ll rank a show on my list than whether it belongs there at all. Putting a list in ranked order is a maddening, ulcer-making process, until one day you have an epiphany and realize the secret: All lists are bogus. Well, at least, they’re arbitrary, they’re compromised and they’re in some way engineered.
Readers usually want to think that the ordering of a list is a rational process determined by iron-clad evidence: Show Number 5 scored 88 Qualitons on the Qualit-o-Meter, while Show Number 6 score a mere 85, and so on. Nah. I usually have a pretty good sense of what #1 is (that’s true this year with my Best Series list, not so much with Best Episodes), but below #3 or so, I could shuffle most of the items in a different order on any given day.
Then there’s the question of which shows to leave off. Why do I only have 10 items on my lists? The plain answer is: because that’s how TIME tells me to do it. But beyond that, I think there’s a value to setting a difficult, arbitrary limit. Some critics prefer to make their lists longer and essentially recognize everything that was in some way worthy in the past year, and that’s fine.
To me, though, there’s no real reason to make a list if you’re not forcing yourself to draw sharp lines and declare priorities. A list should be hard to make, and it should hurt to cut off the items you have to to make it fit—otherwise, it’s not really saying anything. I’ll admit, for instance, that, forced to choose between two shows, I’ll give a bump to one that I think has been underrated and deserves more attention. Is that cheating? Maybe, if you believe that there is such a thing as a carved-in-stone, Platonic-ideal list of the Actual 10-Best Shows. But there’s not. If you had me draw up a top-10 list on 10 different days in December, you would probably get 10 different lists.
Finally, why don’t I make more than two lists? Why not do Best Comedies, Best Dramas, Best Reality Shows, Best New Series, &c.? Because I am a lazy, lazy man. There have been years I did separate lists of new and continuing series, but I think it’s more meaningful to have a single list that simply rewards what was best on TV, period.
On the other hand, I originally resisted doing a Best Episodes list, because it was necessarily going to be inaccurate (unlike a film critic, a TV critic can’t physically see everything). But now I like it for that very reason—it’s more subjective and more eccentric, and therefore more fun. And maybe more important, it makes an important point about TV, which is that there is often a difference between a show that makes great individual episodes and a show that adds up to a great series as a series.
The fact that I will almost certainly realize I omitted some episodes that should be on my list is, really, all the more reason to make that list. To me, a good list isn’t the one that is most inarguably “right”—that’s boring—or that I agree with most: it’s a list that, as an overall document, says something about what matters to the list-maker.
I’ve got my preliminary lists together already—and no, I am not going to say what’s on them—so this isn’t a call to lobby for your favorite show. But I am curious: What would you put on your personal best-TV list that wasn’t on it last year? And what was on last year that you’d take off?