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The Passion of The Critics

The B&C poll finds dramatic highs, reality lows, too few laughs 7/06/2007 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Where would we be without TV critics? For starters, probably looking at a 2007-08 broadcast season without 30 Rock and Friday Night Lights on NBC. It was critics, after all, who led the successful campaign for those low-rated but high-quality shows to win a second season.

And they did it not by beleaguering the network with shipments of nuts (à la fans of CBS' Jericho) but by sharing their unique perspectives—sometimes giddy, occasionally snarky, never short on sheer passion. So for the third consecutive year, we turned to them to tell us what was best and worst during the past year in television.

The third annual B&C Critics Poll offers results of a survey of 105 television writers, who shared with us which shows inspire their continued faith in the medium. They told us why those shows should keep all of us coming back—and why certain others should fade to black immediately (with or without a Journey song playing in the background).

As in previous polls, dramas dominated, leaving critics to cry out for something—anything—to laugh at. As for reality, critics may have given the gold to American Idol once again, but they are losing patience—with both the show and the genre. And judging by their pick for Worst Show of the year, we doubt any will be spending their nights at home watching televised bingo—or, at least, admitting to it.

This year, alongside the current medalists, we offer a look back at last year's results to reveal which shows have held up and which have been cast away by exasperated critics (sorry, Lost).

B&C thanks the critics and writers who gave their time and effort to make our poll a smart, entertaining reflection on the past season. Herewith, the results, compiled by Bryon Rudd and Alex Weprin.

Best Show

'The Sopranos' (HBO)

Silver: Friday Night Lights (NBC)

Bronze: Heroes (NBC)

Last Year:

Gold: Lost (ABC)

Silver: 24 (Fox)

Bronze: The Sopranos (HBO)

Now that The Sopranos is dead and buried after an eight-year run, television critics are throwing it a wake, celebrating it as the best show on television.

But despite a season rife with memorable scenes—many critics cited the moment Tony Soprano kills his nephew Christopher—the dearly departed HBO hit won the category by a nose: It edged out NBC rookie Friday Night Lights by a single vote.

However much critics praised it, the entire final season of The Sopranos was instantly—and perhaps henceforth—overshadowed by the final moments of the series finale, which arguably generated more buzz than any other in TV history.

Roger Catlin of the Hartford Courant is among those who praised Sopranos creator David Chase's decision to end with an abrupt cut to black that left viewers wondering whether or not Tony had been whacked.

“The final scene was genius,” he writes. “Any other ending and we wouldn't still be talking about it weeks later. Just the editing of it was so great; it made it satisfying to watch over and over just to get the clues (which weren't necessarily there).”

And while the ambiguity left many fans less than thrilled, Tim Feran of the Columbus Dispatch thinks it was right on par for what Chase had been up to since day one: “I find it interesting that people who understood what The Sopranos was aiming for from the beginning are usually the same ones who really understood why the finale was terrific. It's not that difficult … it's just that a lot of viewers, I suspect, wanted more action.”

But Baltimore Sun's David Zurawik isn't having it: “I invested so much time and brain cells, as did so many other people, who all trusted David Chase, but in the end, he was just a Hollywood producer. I love Hollywood producers, but spare me the B.S. of all the artistic integrity that you wanted to put into the finale when this was the easiest way out of the box that he was in. It makes perfect sense if you think about, though: How could you kill off these characters that are worth so much money? He led us to believe he was of some higher stuff, but in the end, he lost his nerve.”

Best Drama

'The Sopranos' (HBO)

Silver: Friday Night Lights (NBC)

Bronze: The Wire (HBO)

Last Year:

Gold: Lost (ABC)

Silver: 24 (Fox)

Bronze: The Sopranos (HBO)

When NBC announced at its recent upfront presentation in New York that Friday Night Lights will return for a second season, the audience at Radio City Music Hall erupted with such unrestrained joy that you would have thought the place was filled with TV critics.

What a difference from a year ago, when the news that NBC had greenlighted a drama about high school football in a small Texas town prompted collective eye-rolling. Sports-themed shows—even those aspiring to higher quality—are a notoriously tough sell on network television (see ABC's Sports Night).

But a funny thing happened on the way to the gridiron. Friday Night Lights drew praise as one of the best-written shows on television, exploring both the pressures of high school and the challenges of family life. And while critics have been cheering on the Dillon Panthers along with the other rabid fans in the stands, viewers still aren't showing up. Just last month, NBC yanked low-rated reruns off the air.

“[I am] at full grovel, crawling toward Nielsen households, begging that they flip on Friday Night Lights,” wrote Troy Patterson in his review for Slate. “The show is terrific, the most engrossing new drama of the season, but it's also the worst-rated, and that's just not fair.”

The Colorado Springs Gazette's Andrew Wineke says that Friday Night Lights has the “best writing I have seen in a while.”

And the Chicago Tribune's Maureen Ryan, explaining why she voted for the show, sounds like she's auditioning for head cheerleader.

“Why? Not just because it regularly made me cry,” Ryan wrote. “Not just because Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton and the rest of this exemplary cast gave exceptional performances. Not just because the writing was truthful, wise, witty and unshakably devoted to realistic depictions of life's telling moments, big and small. But because, thanks to all those things, Dillon, Texas, became a real place—one that I wanted to visit for far more than one hour a week.”

Best Comedy

'The Office' (NBC)

Silver: 30 Rock (NBC)

Bronze: Ugly Betty (ABC)

Last Year:

Gold: The Office (NBC)

Silver: My Name Is Earl (NBC)

Bronze: Scrubs (NBC)

Winning the Best Comedy category these days is a little like winning the Stanley Cup in the early years of the National Hockey League: There were only six teams, and few people were watching anyway.

Another year has come and gone without a true breakout half-hour comedy hit, a show that everyone in the industry says—or prays—will reinvigorate the genre. And once again, our critics sample picked NBC's The Office as the best comedy.

The show, which just finished its third season, is clearly being cultivated by the network for a Seinfeld-like run. But NBC also introduced some promising new blood this past year with 30 Rock. Breakout performances by Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin didn't inspire big ratings, but they did produce big laughs and great reviews.

“Who knew that Tina Fey's show would end up being far, far more entertaining than the amply hyped Studio 60?” writes the Chicago Trib's Ryan.

“It's the perfect TV show,” writes Chicago Sun-Times' Doug Elfman. “I think it'll be the next Seinfeld if NBC figures out how to get people to watch the network again.”

The other fresh face in comedy was ABC's Ugly Betty, a sign that hour-long dramas can be funny, too.

“It's the perfect combination of great casting, over-the-top dialogue, kooky schemes and touching moments,” writes the New York Post's Maxine Shen. “Plus, it's got a fresh attitude and is a refreshing change from all the crime and woe-is-me-my-love-life-sucks drama that crowd the airwaves.”

Best Reality Show

'American Idol' (Fox)

Silver: The Amazing Race (CBS)

Bronze: Project Runway (Bravo)

Last Year:

Gold: American Idol (Fox)

Silver: The Amazing Race (CBS)

Bronze: Project Runway (Bravo)

Mom always said, If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. Happily, critics rarely heed that advice, particularly when it comes to the subject of reality television.

Critics have long been uneasy about reality TV, often dismissing it as a low-brow genre that plays to viewers' appetite for humiliation and voyeurism.

A typical response for this year's Best Reality Show category came from Rick Bentley of the Fresno Bee: “If you put a gun to my head, it would be Amazing Race … although the reality of reality shows is bad.”

The Sun-Times' Elfman was a little less restrained in casting his vote for The Apprentice (which did not place among the top three).

“It's the best reality show by default,” Elfman writes. “The whole genre totally blows lately. At least The Apprentice makes people actually earn rewards and doesn't give riches and roses to pretty zombies.”

Best New Show

'Heroes' (NBC)

Silver: Friday Night Lights (NBC)

Bronze: Ugly Betty (ABC)

Last Year:

Gold: My Name Is Earl (NBC)

Silver: Prison Break (Fox)

Bronze: Big Love (HBO)

Of the 24 series that made the network fall schedules last fall, there was only one true hit in both the ratings and the reviews: NBC's comic-book–infused drama Heroes.

Critics and viewers alike clamored for more of the far-flung gang of ordinary people who discover that they have extraordinary powers. Even the marketing clicked: The “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World” tagline was one of the most-repeated mantras of last fall.

The praise heaped on Heroes stood in stark relief to the pasting critics unleashed on last season's early episodes of Lost, another supernatural serial drama that won the Best Show and Best Drama categories in last year's poll.

“We're still in a honeymoon period of discovery with freshman hit Heroes—and Lost fans can tell you how long that lasts,” writes TV Guide's Matt Roush. “There's nothing routine about Heroes, which can still be ungainly and uneven but has grown in intensity and fascination as the paths among the cast of conflicted characters keep intersecting. Can Heroes stay on top? Ask me in a year. For now, the ride is thrilling.”

In touting Heroes, Los Angeles Daily News' David Kronke threw down the gauntlet: “Hey, Lost guys: This is how you tell stories.” »

Cable Network More People Should Watch

BBC America

Silver: Sundance

Bronze: Showtime

Last Year:

Gold: BBC America

Silver: FX

Bronze: The N

Once again, critics named BBC America the best underappreciated—and under-viewed—network. And with former WB Chairman Garth Ancier in charge and former CBS News veteran Rome Hartman developing a new evening newscast, the network may not qualify for the category next year.

But perhaps the most interesting result here is the appearance of premium channel Showtime in the top three. Now that The Sopranos is swimming with the fishes, pay-cable juggernaut HBO is adjusting to life without the kind of buzz-worthy hits it has enjoyed for years. And with the sport of boxing—an HBO mainstay—on the ropes, this could be Showtime's moment to pounce with critically praised originals.

USA Today's Robert Bianco says Showtime “clearly has shows (like Dexter and Weeds) that deserve to be shown a lot more.”

Chicago Trib's Ryan echoes the sentiment on those two shows. “If every new Showtime program was as good as those series, HBO would have a lot to worry about.”

Worst Show

'National Bingo Night' (ABC)

Silver: Sons of Hollywood (A&E)

Bronze: Til Death (Fox)

Last Year:

Gold: Unan1mous (Fox)

Silver: The War at Home (Fox)

Bronze: The Apprentice (NBC)

Whether scribbling love letters to favorite shows or diatribes against those they detest, critics are at their best when their passions are stirred. Which makes the Best and Worst Show categories fitting bookends to our survey.

The Worst Show was ABC's late-season salvo National Bingo Night. It may have had viewers playing along online but couldn't get critics to play nice.

Scoffs the Baltimore Sun's Zurawik, “They went back to the bowling shows with Milton Berle in the '50s!”

Tribune Media Services' John Crook cast his vote for Sons of Hollywood, A&E's unscripted series chronicling the lives of three privileged L.A. scions: “Didn't have to think about that one.”

Of course, there were votes for other shows, many of which inspired some of the vitriol that critics are known for. US Weekly's John Griffiths offered a choice sample along with his vote for NBC's The Black Donnellys, a failed drama about the criminal exploits of young Irish-American brothers. Griffiths' assessment: “A big serving of Irish blew.”

Yep, where would we be without critics?

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