We love TV critics.
We love them because they're a passionate, opinionated and irascible lot. We love them because they love TV as much as we do. And we love them because they were good enough to share those qualities with us for our second annual B&C Critics Poll.
For this year's survey of the best and worst from the 2005-06 season, B&C received responses from 111 television critics and writers (for our purposes, everyone's a critic!)—eight more than last year. They told us what thrilled, tickled and disappointed them most about the last season. And though it may be a truism that critics instinctively swim against the current of the mainstream, our sample ratified popular taste more often than not.
Judging from the results, last season was a big one not only for dramas, which dominated the Best Show category, but also for serialized dramas that leave viewers dangling after each installment. NBC shows swept in the Best Comedy category (if not in ratings). And while critics finally gave in to the mass appeal of Fox's American Idol, they otherwise rejected—with near “unan1mity”—the network's occasional penchant for depravity.
We added two categories this year—Cable Network More People Should Watch and Most Memorable TV Moment—and the responses from critics were predictably lively and thoughtful. B&C would like to thank the 111 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 Scott Clifford, Ben Grossman and Joel Topcik.
Silver: 24 (Fox)
Bronze: The Sopranos (HBO)
Intricate, improbable and frustrating—these are the hallmarks of great shows, according to our critics.
Lost, last year's winner for Best Drama, continues to defy early doubters who predicted its stuck-on-an-island premise would get stuck in the mud. “Its intricacies dazzle me,” says Houston Chronicle's Mike McDaniel. “It's the one and only can't-miss show.” Alan Pergament of Buffalo (N.Y.) News goes even further, calling Lost “the one must-see family show on television.” The Denver Post's Joanne Ostrow isn't alone in calling attention to the interactive pleasures of the Lost Experience, an extension of the show's universe online (and off) in which “searching for clues and chatting with fellow fans is almost as much fun as watching the broadcast.”
“If I judge this category based on which show I can't miss each week,” says Jay Handelman of the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune, “then 24 is a clear winner.” Although Jack Bauer's (Kiefer Sutherland) capacity for surviving very difficult days—serialized hour by hour over the course of five seasons—has reached mythical proportions, even inspiring cheeky Web testimonials to his Paul Bunyanesque toughness, that doesn't bother Mark McGuire of the Albany, N.Y., Times Union: “What it's missing in plausibility is made up for by the sheer rush of it all.” Says Charlie McCollum of the San Jose, Calif., Mercury News, “For sheer entertainment, there is nothing quite so addictive.”
The appearance of The Sopranos this year has more than a little to do with the irregularity of cable seasons—and it may have even more to do with the fact that the exasperating wait for a not-quite-perennial favorite was finally over. Some critics were resigned in their votes: “Not on its game,” says the Colorado Springs (Colo.) Gazette's Andy Wineke, “but still better than the other choices.”
But others like The Arizona Republic's Bill Goodykoontz stand by the show: “I think, sometimes, critics and viewers tire of sustained excellence and take it for granted. But from the minute you hear the opening song, there's no show as exciting as The Sopranos, no show as edge-of-your-seat tense, no show as good.”
And how the mighty—rather, the desperate—have fallen. We feel compelled to note that last year's Best Show, Desperate Housewives, fared poorly with critics in its sophomore season. Only one submitted it for the category this year. Indeed, TV Guide's Michael Ausiello banished it to the “Worst” column: “OK, maybe it isn't the worst show, but it's certainly the worst in terms of living up to its potential.”
Bronze: The Sopranos
Our critics made a bold statement with their picks for Best Drama this year. Not only did they put the same shows in the Best overall category, in the same order of preference, they voted overwhelmingly for serial programming. While the industry has long believed that heavily serialized shows ask too much of casual viewers and have limited value in syndication, critics and viewers agree that shows like Lost, 24 and The Sopranos are just too good to miss.
With DVDs, online plays and digital video recorders (on track to be in 37% of homes by 2010, according to Forrester Research) that allow viewers to catch up, networks can bet that the Albany Times Union's McGuire isn't the only one who believes that serialized shows like 24 are “best consumed by recording several episodes and watching in one sitting.”
The Office (NBC)
Silver: My Name Is Earl (NBC)
Bronze: Scrubs (NBC)
To hear our critics tell it, NBC is the place for comedy.
Gail Pennington of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch calls gold-medal winner The Office “just about the only thing on TV that makes me laugh so hard I cry—and sometimes is so poignant I almost really do cry.” The adaptation of British comic Ricky Gervais' wince-inducing study in the daily indignities of work life prompted Denver Post's Ostrow to muse, “Who knew NBC would nurture a comedy that shows so much respect for the audience's intelligence?” And The Hollywood Reporter's Ray Richmond takes that sentiment further: “How this thing managed to slip through the cracks and not get cancelled is fairly astonishing—and [NBC Entertainment President] Kevin Reilly's gift to mankind.”
Maybe so. There's no doubt that critics—and some 6 million iTuners—love The Office, My Name Is Earl and Scrubs. But such adoration has yet to translate into true breakout status: None of the shows even crack the top 20 when it comes to ratings. In praising the ensemble on hospital romp Scrubs, TV Guide's Ausiello invoked another NBC comedy from the glory days of Must-See TV: “Zach Braff, Sarah Chalke, Donald Faison and Judy Reyes tickle my insides like no TV quartet since Seinfeld.” No doubt, NBC hopes next season's ratings will make good on that comparison.
American Idol (Fox)
Silver: Amazing Race (CBS)
Bronze: Project Runway (Bravo)
“Ignore American Idol at your own peril,” cautions Hartford (Conn.) Courant's Roger Catlin, expressing the general conclusion among critics that, when it comes to Fox's glorified talent show, resistance is futile. “In a mass society with splintered interests,” he adds, “[Idol] alone may define contemporary pop culture. The process is fascinating and more fun than ever.” Many are grudging in their acquiescence: “For all its annoyances, the fact [that] Idol still sustains interest is a testament to its quality,” says Albany Times Union's McGuire. “Say what you will,” says Denver Post's Ostrow, “It's a wonderfully simple premise [that is] well executed.” But others find true enjoyment in the spectacle, if not the talent, on display: Sweet 16's Vicki Arkoff finds “entertainment value” in watching judges Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson “slowly go insane on 'live' TV.”
Many critics stood by last year's winner, Amazing Race, “because it's amazingly fair,” says Alameda Newspaper Group's Susan Young. “You don't have undeserving people brought to the final two, like in Survivor, just so the strongest person has an easy person to beat for the million.”
Although Project Runway snagged only the bronze, the fashion competition has a number of devotees who even voted it Best Show. At the least, says freelance writer Bridget Byrne, “no one is asked to sing!”
Best New Show
My Name Is Earl
Silver: Prison Break (Fox)
Bronze: Big Love (HBO)
Last year, we asked our critics to pick the Best Upcoming New Show from among the crop of pilots in circulation. The winner, Everybody Hates Chris (UPN), lost its luster with our voters, though: It didn't even place among the picks for this season's Best New Show.
But Earl, last year's runner-up, charmed almost everyone this year with the comic exploits of a reformed miscreant looking to kick-start his karma. “The gimmick draws you in,” says Houston Chronicle's McDaniel. “And how can you not like these characters?” Denver Post's Ostrow calls it “a distinctive, wonderfully outrageous show” that “is forever true to its point of view and, in that way, scary for what it says about a certain realm of American life.”
Los Angeles Daily News' David Kronke calls Prison Break “the most inventive and exciting show, with breakneck pacing and plotting, and a group of pretty fascinating characters. And it all fits together a lot more sensibly than 24.”
And critics have much love for HBO's new polygamy drama, Big Love, “which transforms that iffy premise into a stunning show,” says Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel's Hal Boedeker. Says Slate's Troy Patterson, “Big Love works as well as it does, which is fairly well, because it's thoughtful and playful and it approaches its sensational subject with restraint.”
Silver: The War at Home (Fox)
Bronze: The Apprentice (NBC)
Although critics couldn't resist the gravitational pull of Fox's Idol, they found the network's Unan1mous all too resistible. And nothing inspires literary glee like the chance to swing the critical hatchet on a show like this, where nine “greedy, back­stabbing liars” (per Houston Chronicle's McDaniel) locked in an underground bunker watched $1.5 million in prize money dwindle away the longer they failed to agree on who should win it.
“Leave it to Fox to come up with a low-budget version of Survivor—one without a beach,” wrote Maureen Ryan in her Chicago Tribune review. “It makes Big Brother look respectable,” wrote Orlando Sentinel's Boedeker.
Wineke, of the Colorado Springs Gazette, proposes a new slogan for Fox's The War at Home: “Must-cancel TV.” Says San Jose Mercury News' McCollum: “There were several others at least as bad, but War gets the nod because Fox is actually bringing it back.”
Critics were surprisingly restrained in voting The Apprentice the Worst Show, perhaps assuming that its ratings crash spoke for itself. Extra Extra's Wayne Karrfalt dismissed franchisee Martha Stewart with her own catch-phrase: “'You just don't fit in,' indeed.”
And Production Update's Margie Barron summed up the general distaste for The Donald: “Our little 36-inch screen isn't big enough for his ego.”
Cable Network More People Should Watch
Bronze: The N
For this new category, we asked critics to survey the multichannel universe, and it's clear that there's a network for everyone. Military Channel, Animal Planet and OLN all got votes, but BBC America, critics say, rises above niche status. “Good programming, a clear idea of what it is, and no apparent need to be 'mainstream,'” says Zap2it's Rick Porter. “Can't ask much more of a cable network.”
The Arizona Republic's Goodykoontz says, “It's where the original version of The Office first appeared, so it's basically grandfathered in as the coolest little-seen cable network out there.” McCollum at the Mercury News laments, “Most homes don't even get it.”
He's right. BBC America is available only in some 49 million homes. The same for bronze-winner The N, the tween-targeted haven for Degrassi devotees. Average prime­time viewership for both in May was less than 250,000 combined.
FX is in 88.5 million homes and averaged 1.51 million primetime viewers in May. Not exactly underappreciated.
Given that critics have long championed FX shows like The Shield, we can only assume they have a particular sampling of viewers in mind. “Clearly,” L.A. Daily News' Kronke says, “not enough TV Academy members watch it, or it'd get more appreciation come Emmy time.”
Most Memorable TV Moment
Coverage of Hurricane Katrina
Silver: Uncle Junior shoots Tony on The Sopranos
Bronze: Michael shoots Ana-Lucia and Libby on Lost
Truth proved stronger than fiction last season. While critics applauded the journalistic achievement of the Katrina coverage, they counted the images of devastation and moments of confrontation among the most dramatic stuff they saw on TV in the past year.
Chicago Sun-Times' Doug Elfman marveled that President Bush was MIA “while an American city perished in front of our eyes, if not his.” Zap2it's Daniel Feinberg joined many in citing CNN anchor Anderson Cooper's “smackdown” of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.): “Cooper cut through spin and politics, demanding answers and accountability. His rage—journalistic objectivity be damned—was ours.”
The Sopranos moment, says Goodykoontz, was “the gut shot—pun intended—that the show needed.” And Tribune Media Services' Kate O'Hare spoke for many when she said, “OH MY GOD, THEY KILLED ANA-LUCIA AND LIBBY!”
A final thanks to all the critics for a memorable poll indeed.