Flow is an online Television Studies journal hosted and edited by the Radio-TV-Film department at the University of Texas-Austin. Offering “criticism at the speed of TV,” it’s one of the best sites for sharp, current, accessible academic television criticism (full disclosure: I was a regular columnist there in 2005-06). Frequent Flow-er Jason Mittell, resident media sage at Middlebury College, asked us regulars to list (not rank, but list) our top ten TV programs from the past year (July-June, for the purposes of this poll). He’ll tally the numbers, and Flow will post the results (along with some of our brief thoughts about the past year on television) some time in September. I thought I’d take advantage of the call and list my top ten, along with a few comments about each.
A couple of opening caveats, however. First, I can’t see everything. No, really! I’m sure there are at least ten other shows out there that may be equally worthy of consideration; I either haven’t had the time to check them out (most likely), or they fell just shy of my top ten (hello Gilmore Girls and 24). Second, those of us who do Cultural Studies have an ambivalent relationship with evaluation. For complex reasons entire books and anthologies have pondered, we typically avoid qualitative judgements in our work. That said, almost always off the record, we’re total geeks for evaluation. Gotta reconcile all of that someday. In the meantime, I’ll keep this as simple as possible; check in with me for elaboration and/or refutation.
In alphabetical order…
The Amazing Race (CBS) After a nearly catastrophic decision last fall to mount a “family” edition of TAR, the series righted itself in the spring by going back to basics (teams of two, and no kids), and getting the hell out of the US. The resulting nail-biter was one of the best races yet, not only for its teams (from joyful hippies BJ and Tyler, to dysfunctional Floridians Lake and Michelle, self-confessed nerds Lori and Dave, and 60-something lovebirds Fran and Barry) but for its depictions of Americans abroad. Never one to pull punches (at least within the still controversy-shy parameters of US network TV), the series showed not only the “amazing” places of the planet, but also the wide variety of reactions to these places from “our” citizens (good, bad, and sometimes really ugly). The bloom’s long off the reality rose, and they still need more non-white contestants, but this series, somewhat akin to 30 Days (below) is one of the few that offers a look (if still heavily mediated) beyond our comfort zones.
Arrested Development (Fox) Not only the best sitcom in the past year; hands-down the best American sitcom of the 2000s thus far. Trouble was, not many people were ready for its mix of soap opera, omniscient voiceover narration, politics, surrealism, and unrelenting pop culture references (Henry Winkler literally jumped a shark in one episode). It shredded convention mercilessly, as if all involved knew they were playing with borrowed time. Way too many highs to list here (and truth be told, Season 3 was the weakest); just check it out for yourself if you get a chance.
Battlestar Galactica (Sci-Fi) There’s probably a lot of people put off by the series’ title, if not its premise (essentially, humans versus robots), or its original 1970s version. And that’s a shame, because this is the best show on TV. Even though it’s set on the other side of the galaxy, at an unspecified time, it consistently has the most thoughtful, most disturbing, and (ironically enough) most realistic take on our own projected, Age of Terror fears and uncertainties. Most surprising of all, it avoids easy dichotomies of “good” and “evil” for a delicate, nuanced deliberation on not only “humanity,” but sentient life itself. Yes, it’s SF, but it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen on TV.
The Colbert Report (Comedy Central) Yes, TDS still packs a punch, but Stephen Colbert’s bravura satire of every cable news channel blowhard has exceeded its promise. Amazingly, some people don’t get the joke (including the folks that scheduled his devastating appearance at the White House Press Corps dinner in April), which indicates both how effective Colbert is, and how far television “journalism” has sunk. And if that’s not enough, for a “fake” newsman, he often puts more “real” pressure on his studio guests than they ever get on CNN or Fox.
Doctor Who (BBC, Sci-Fi) Talk about exceeding promises. After 15 years off the air, it was thought all we could hope for was that it didn’t suck. Well, it didn’t suck. It was, to quote Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor, “fantastic” in every sense of the word. Fast, funny, scary, irreverent, thrilling, and genuinely moving (often in rapid succession), it successfully updated a cultural institution into the 21st century. Moreover, it did so twice in the space of a year, as David Tennant’s brash, exuberant Tenth Doctor demonstrated in the 2006 episodes. Next season will be a real test without Billie Piper’s ultimate companion, Rose, but we know it’s all in good hands.
Katrina coverage (various) As my students know (or will know soon), I’m no fan of contemporary television journalism. Accordingly, it was shocking, and more than a little inspiring, to see its brief comeback in the first couple weeks of September last year. What started out as routine hurricane coverage rapidly became the documentation of profound human tragedy (and equally profound government indifference and incompetence) rarely seen in this country (at least rarely seen by TV news crews). The gaps in our knowledge about society, and the misplaced faith in our government (and many of our current journalistic standards) were revealed in all their disturbing detail as New Orleans drowned. This is what TV journalism could do, but it seemingly happens all too rarely these days.
Lost (ABC) Yes, it’s still the “hot” show of the moment (Emmys be damned), but certainly not unjustifiedly so. Aside from what’s going on over in DC and Marvel, it’s arguably the ultimate example of complex serial storytelling in our popular culture today, complete with clues, MacGuffins, betrayals, shocks, frustrations, and (most of all) revelations. Moreover, it’s done in style, from the unique atmosphere gained by shooting exclusively in Hawaii, to the odd little details (e.g., the pile of message tubes in the jungle clearing, Libby in Hurley’s mental hospital, etc.). They might not hit it out of the park every week, but they damn well try, which is reason enough to keep on watching.
Scrubs (NBC) I’m not on the bandwagons yet for more recent single-camera comedies (and I still much prefer the original UK version of The Office), but I keep coming back to this wacky, rugged gem, which has somehow survived some of the most tumultuous years in NBC history. Zach Braff’s filmmaking and love life aside, it’s always been out of the limelight, which is oddly appropriate to its rich, if fantasy-filled, depiction of the daily grind at an overworked hospital. Like the best workplace comedies, Scrubs is best when it focuses on the difficulties of just getting by, just living life, whatever that is supposed to be. On top of that, it features, top-to-bottom, the most capable comic cast on TV today. Like AD above, and Braff’s JD, it’s off in its own world, and all the better because of it.
30 Days (FX) Of the many prescient thoughts about television offered by John Hartley over the years, the most intriguing is his conception of TV as educator (and a damn good one at that). I think Morgan Spurlock’s documentary series comes pretty close to what that function might look like at its best. As I mentioned above, TV journalism just doesn’t get it 99% of the time. Spurlock does, and this series’ social inversions (e.g., an evangelical Christian living as a Muslim, a couple of self-confessed energy “hogs” living in a thoroughly green rural commune) consistently show how distant our social and cultural worlds are, and, ideally, how they could be brought closer together after all. Moreover, it does so without resorting to the juiced-up conflicts of so many “self help” reality shows (see Laurie Ouellette’s thoughts on this topic).
Veronica Mars (UPN) While the self-consciously witty teen heroine amidst the horrors of high-school life is a familiar figure, almost ten years AB (after Buffy), its particular incarnation here, as socially conscious private eye, is unique. A virtual amalgam of the past decade’s dominant TV genres (in addition to teen soaps, toss in procedural crime drama, and, in glorious narrative asides, reality television), VM is melodramatic, socially prescient, and (yes) very witty. This past season’s convoluted mysteries were almost too clever for the show’s own good, but it pretty consistently delivered, not least of which due to its outstanding lead actors. It’s getting a fairly major stylistic adjustment this coming season (as it moves to the new CW), which is always an uncertain sign; hopefully, though, enough momentum will keep it going as Veronica adjusts to college.
And that’s that. I’ll link to the final poll when it’s posted. I’ll also offer some thoughts on a few of the new shows coming down the pike in the next couple of months. As they say, stay tuned.