With the start of the Television Critics Association confab and the announcement of the Emmy Awards nominations this week, B&C thought this would be the ideal time to canvass some of the most TV-saturated experts of all—TV critics and journalists—to find out what they prized most about the 2004-05 season. B&C quizzed 103 of these mavens, soliciting their views on half a dozen categories, from the best show overall (Desperate Housewives) to the worst (Fear Factor).
For the six categories we asked critics about, we’ve listed the top vote getters, as well as some other notable favorites, and the percentage of the total vote that each received.
As you might have heard, folks who write about TV can be a rather headstrong bunch. Just because they rave about a show (Arrested Development, for instance), doesn’t mean the public will follow, and their critical brickbats somehow can’t put a dent in viewership of some stalwarts, such as, say, CBS’ Yes, Dear. Not that critics speak with one voice: As you will see, although the winners in our poll were usually clear-cut, none of them succeeded in winning a majority of votes.
The editors were delighted by the enthusiastic response to our questions and appreciate the time and thought that went into making the selections.
The B&C Critics Poll 2005 is the first entry in what promises to become an exciting summer rite at the magazine.
BEST SHOW: Desperate Housewives
Critics have been raving about Desperate Housewives all season long, and in the B&C poll, creator Marc Cherry’s convention-bending, hour-long comedy emerged as their pick for the best show of the year. Not only did it revive Teri Hatcher’s career, but it also got critics using superlatives to describe an ABC series again.
Housewives “has found a way of playfully mixing comedy, mystery, drama and soap opera into an engaging hour. It’s life, slightly over the top, and I can’t wait for its return,” Jay Handelman of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune noted on his ballot.
“Housewives is just what TV needed,” said Dave Walker of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Indeed, Ed Martin of The Meyers Report said the show is just what devoted TV viewers needed: “It’s television for people who love television, written and produced by people who truly understand and respect their audience.”
Bob Laurence of the San Diego Union-Tribune appreciates that the show is “always fun and irreverent,” but he did sound a cautionary note going into the second season: “It’ll be interesting to see how long they can keep it fresh.”
Critics don’t always agree, of course, and there wasn’t anywhere near unanimity on which is TV’s top show. Here’s a sampling of other voices:
•Lost, because it was a simple idea—a cliché, really—told brilliantly, … because it renewed my faith in the viewing public.”—Alex Strachan, CanWest News Services
•The Daily Show With Jon Stewart “is the one show I cannot miss. Funny, smart, aware, current, idiotic. What’s not to like?” —Rick Kushman, Sacramento Bee
•SportsCenter on ESPN hands down. Oh, scripted stuff? Arrested Development.” —Tim Goodman, San Francisco Chronicle
BEST DRAMA: Lost
We heard over and over again from critics that this is a “golden age” of drama. And the show that glowed brightest in their estimation was Lost, with a seemingly unpromising stranded-on-an-island premise that its inventive creator, J.J. Abrams (with Damon Lindelof), has turned into giant hit.
“Lost takes an improbable concept and makes it fascinating by structuring the narrative in a breakthrough and thoroughly absorbing fashion,” said TV Guide’s Matt Roush, who lauded Lost’s trademark flashbacks as an ingenious way for the show to “change tone week to week as it explores the secret lives and past torments of its well-cast ensemble.” Ed Bark of the Dallas Morning News echoed that sentiment, saying that Lost’s “genius is in accompanying the island’s 'mythology’ with intriguing backstories that put its characters in ever changing contexts.” Linda Haugsted of Multichannel News called the show “challenging, frustrating, unconventional. Despite the critical blogs dissing the lack of answers in the season finale, I like having to try to figure out what will happen next.” Still, Shelley Gabert at Emmy magazine urged the producers to start tying up storylines: “They had better answer more questions and soon, as they are trying many regular viewers’ patience.”
Some other favorites were touted as best drama:
• Right now, no drama is doing better than HBO’s Deadwood. Profoundly profane, beautifully acted and willing to take risks with its storytelling, this Western just finished a second season that was unmatched by any other series.”—Charlie McCollum, San Jose Mercury News
• “House on Fox. Each story is written with intelligence, surprises and—oddly—moments of genuine humor.”—Mike Hughes, Gannett News Service
• The Wire alone is worth the price of HBO. It’s smart, intriguing and filled with one great performance after another.”—Sonia Mansfield, San Francisco Examiner
BEST COMEDY: Arrested Development
Critical kudos (and an Emmy Award) helped save the ratings-challenged Arrested Development from cancellation last year. Audiences still haven’t found the Fox show, but the critics remain loyal to this hilarious saga of the nutso Bluth family in Orange County, starring Jason Bateman and a bevy of loopy co-stars that includes the reliably wonderful Jeffrey Tambor.
“It’s consistently funny on the surface, but repeat viewing tends to bring out even more laughs, something that hardly any live-action show seems capable of at the moment,” said Rick Porter of Zap2it.com. Indeed, the added value of repeat viewings was a common theme (“This rare and fragile comedy is laugh-out-loud funny and grows with each viewing,” said the Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s Jay Handelman), as was continuing concern about Arrested’s ratings. The “woefully underloved show,” said the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s Dave Walker, has “a terrific cast, ballsy premise and ultra-sophisticated composition.”
Even if they were unrestrained in their praise of the show, some critics were not hopeful about its prospects for survival. “I don’t expect it to be around much longer than Christmas,” predicted Glenn Garvin of the Miami Herald.
Other respondents to our poll eagerly touted non-Arrested comedy favorites. A sampling:
• Everybody Loves Raymond left the air on a high note, exhausting every tirade left in the Barone household for its best season ever.” —Neal Justin, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
• The Daily Show is consistently the funniest program on television. The ability to be so on-target with this level of satire is almost frightening.” —Rick Bentley, Fresno Bee
• Reno 911!. Seriously. Or, actually, unseriously. Minute to minute, for pure laughs and complete escapist irreverence, I just love Reno 911! (I never said I was mature).” —Rick Kushman, Sacramento Bee
BEST REALITY: The Amazing Race
The Amazing Race ran away from the competition as far as critics were concerned, although their reasons for citing the CBS Tuesday-night reality hit were as varied as the locales that the contestants sprint through in pursuit of the million-dollar prize.
Bill Goodykoontz at the Arizona Republic liked the fact that Amazing Race, even with this season’s nasty duo of Rob and Amber, is “still not as mean-spirited as most. The fun here is picking a team to root for (or, in Rob and Amber’s case, to root against), not watching people demean themselves for (relative) fame and (in rare cases) fortune.” Victor Balta of The Herald in Everett, Wash., admired both the show’s exceptional production values and the fact that “the competition combined with the worldwide trek that actually teaches viewers a little something about places they may not have known before.” The San Jose Mercury News’ Charlie McCollum describes the show as “one of those rare reality series that might have a shelf life in repeats.” Seeing the show in reruns probably would be fine with Sonia Mansfield at the San Francisco Examiner: Amazing Race is “the only reality show that makes me yell at the TV in a good way: 'Run, run, run!!!’”
Other critics (at least those who didn’t disparage the entire genre and decline to cast a vote) touted some other reality favorites:
• “Starting Over definitely deservies its Emmy Award. The stories are always watchable and relateable.” —Shelley Gabert, Emmy magazine
•American Idol. The people have voted. Simple, yet compelling.” —Mark McGuire, Times Union (Albany, N.Y.)
•Survivor, the granddaddy, is still the best. It’s not mean, and everybody involved still seems to remember that it’s just a game.” —Chase Squires, St. Petersburg Times
WORST SHOW: Fear Factor
Although critics love to champion TV shows they dearly love, there’s one thing they seem to relish even more: shredding really bad television. Enough of our respondents were so heartily sick of the stomach-churning challenges of NBC’s Fear Factor that the show eked out a “victory” in this category. Tom Jicha, veteran critic for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel was one of the voters who went nuclear: “Fear Factor demeans and dehumanizes weak souls by taking advantage of the knowledge that some people will do anything to be on TV.”
But TV, alas, is a veritable banquet of contenders for the “worst” distinction, so we thought we’d just provide a sampling of the shows that had writers unsheathing their sharpest knives:
• The Insider is puerile, mean-spirited, manipulative, celebrity-obsessed, unfair, hypocritical—all while being spectacularly lightweight and brainless. The Insider is absolutely horrific, and everyone involved should be embarrassed.” —Rick Kushman, Sacramento Bee
• Trading Spouses. Worst example of mates as commodities, cast for maximum trailer-trash values. Barf.” —Linda Haugsted, Multichannel News
• The Simple Life. I’m not sure what bothers me more: the fact that this obviously scripted, or at least highly staged, show is passed off as 'reality,’ in some way, or the contempt that both Paris and Nicole and the behind-the-camera people seem to have for the everyday folks with whom they come in contact. It’s really depressing to watch.” —Rick Porter, Zap2it.com
• Britney & Kevin: Chaotic. I watched it for one episode, and I don’t think I ever regained the IQ points that drained away during those 30 minutes.” —Melanie McFarland, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
• Television is littered with soul-sucking lameness. There’s just too much failure even to contemplate. It’s a miracle no critic has leapt from a building or a bridge.” —Tim Goodman, San Francisco Chronicle
- Winner: Fear Factor, NBC, 11%
- The Simple Life, NBS, 9%
- Britney and Kevin: Chaotic, UPN, 8%
- American Idol, FOX, 7%
- The Bachelor, ABC, 7%
BEST UPCOMING SHOW: Everybody Hates Chris
Several of the writers we polled declined to pick the best of the fall crop, pleading (understandably) that they hadn’t seen all the pilots yet and didn’t want to be unfair to some as-yet-undiscovered gem. But those critics who did venture an opinion showed a strong preference for UPN’s off-beat comedy Everybody Hates Chris, which features comedian Chris Rock’s voiceover narration of his hardly idyllic but comedy-rich childhood.
“Everybody Hates Chris is spit-take funny,” said Times Union’s Mark McGuire, a sentiment shared by many people who’ve been able to snag one of the tapes of the pilot, which have been passed around like mad in newspaper and magazine offices around the country for the past couple of months. “I call it the anti-Everybody Loves Raymond. It’s wise and funny and, as with Arrested Development, brilliantly constructed,” said CanWest News Service’s Alex Strachan. And then there was the response from the San Francisco Examiner’s Sonia Mansfield: “UPN’s Everybody Hates Chris. Hilarious. I’m sure it will be cancelled immediately.”
Other shows that critics are looking forward to include NBC’s My Name Is Earl, about a cretinous ne’er-do-well trying to right a lifetime of wrongs, and ABC’s Commander in Chief (“Geena Davis and Donald Sutherland are spectacular together,” says Myers Report’s Ed Martin). B&C contributor Paige Albiniak sums up the outlook for this fall by recognizing that critics might have been spoiled by 2004-05: “We can only dream of having another TV season this year like last. It’s rare to have so many break-out hits in one year on one slumping network like ABC. It just shows that broadcast TV isn’t going away.”
- Winner: Everyone Hates Chris, UPN, 27%
- My Name Is Earl, NBS, 15%
- Commander In Chief, ABC, 9%
- Invasion, ABC, 5%
- Prison Break, FOX, 4%