In 2009 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 often 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 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 2013 Cincy Awards:
The Bridge. Like border towns across a river, there were two shows facing each other in The Bridge’s first season: a decent crime story about a vengeance-minded serial killer, and a breathtaking story about the meeting of rich and poor, Anglo and Mexican. I liked this season, but there’s real greatness here, just a stone’s throw away.
Getting On. Cable’s dark comedies (or light dramas) are often good candidates for Cincies, because they try difficult things and often need a while to get their tone right. I didn’t love the first season of HBO’s adapted half-hour about the thankless work of end-of-life eldercare, but I loved what it was trying to do: take a tough but affecting look at what lies ahead for all of us.
The Mindy Project. If Mindy’s pilot weren’t so strong and Mindy Kaling so smart and funny, I’d probably be content to expect nothing more from this comedy. But I’m still waiting for the great sitcom about a difficult protagonist that I sometimes see behind this show’s workplace wackiness.
Nashville. Musical director T-Bone Burnett left ABC’s soap opry after the first season, saying essentially that its commitment to musical realism was too compromised by drama injected to juice the ratings. I’m still sticking with it, because between the car crashes, meltdowns, and assassination attempts, there are some fascinating intertwined stories of what creative women and men do to keep a career going. Nashville is never going to be Treme, nor should it try to be, but here’s hoping, like Rayna James, that it figures out a way to greatness through its own compromises.
The Sound of Music Live. I tend to give out the Cincies to series, but NBC‘s huge ratings hit is really a perfect example: a show that could have been better creatively but that took a huge risk that deserves applauding and repeating. Carrie Underwood swelled with emotion whenever she had the chance to sing as Maria, but when the music stopped she was like an SNL guest host cast in too many sketches; Stephen Moyer lost the wry sophistication of Captain Von Trapp and played him like a human ironing board. But the stars were surrounded by a great ensemble–somewhere, someone is still giving Audra McDonald a standing O–and seeing live theater on TV is an electric experience that needs to be tried again. And thanks to Rodgers and Hammmerstein and Underwood, it will be.