Three years ago at Tuned In, 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. (Last year, American Horror Story was on my Cincies list; this year it made my 10-best list.) Appearing on this list is not an insult; as I wrote in the awards’ first installment: “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 2012 Cincy Awards:
Luck. Here’s why I say getting a Cincy Award is not an insult: it was named for John from Cincinnati, created by David Milch, who is probably the greatest pure writer working in television. That show was a spiritual of beautiful losers in Southern California‘s surfing subcommunity; it was poetic and transfixing but also opaque and as hard to grasp as a wave receding on the shore. Milch’s horse racing drama, Luck was more successful and intelligible as a story–I gave it an honorable mention on my best-TV list–and it shared the theme of down-and-outers elevated by a shared passion. It too wandered before finishing strong, and I hoped it would hit its potential in its second season–one that, after several controversial horse deaths on the set, never got out of the gate. But the show had the kind of ambition and lyrical heart that TV should encourage.
The New Normal. Ryan Murphy aims big. He wants the biggest spectacle (Glee), the biggest shock (American Horror Story) or in this sitcom of gay-marital mores, the biggest reactions. I haven’t had this great a swing between the aspects of a show I’ve loved and the ones I’ve hated since, well, the last time Ryan Murphy created a TV show. I salute him for trying to make a Norman Lear-style sitcom of ideas; I just wish it were less of a shrill sitcom of attitudes.
The Newsroom. I’ve rehearsed my issues with this show plenty enough since it came out–the heavy-handedness, the self-satisfaction, the flighty female characters and the general sense of watching Aaron Sorkin jot down snappy comebacks to a year of CNN. I give it a Cincy because I appreciate its aims and the idea: a top-shelf writer using fiction to engage with recent history in not-quite real time. Jeff Daniels did good work making Will McAvoy more than a mouthpiece; a few later episodes, which took Will into therapy, suggested a more complex drama, less certain of its rectitude. I’m not sure Aaron Sorkin wants to write that kind of show, but here’s hoping he does.
Political Animals. This was one of those outrageous ideas on paper—a political telenovela kinda-based on the Clinton marriage—that sounds like it could be a disaster or a masterpiece. This wasn’t quite either; instead of balancing its politically realistic and TV-ridiculous sides, it seemed to alternate between them. But it was enough of a grand experiment that I wish it had gotten a second term.
Smash. I was disappointed enough in NBC’s much-hyped musical to put it on my Worst Shows of 2012 list (and I went into the reasons why there and at length in my initial review). But I admire the idea enough—a broadcast network trying to make a musical entertainment out of the challenge of making a musical entertainment—that I thought I should acknowledge it with a Cincy for trying, as it gets retooled for a second season. Consider this a vote of hope, if not one of confidence.