If I were doing a typical ten best list this year — which I’m not, but if I was — here are a few of the items that might be on it:
The underrated excellent program of the year was “Hannibal” (NBC), an elegantly malign serial killer thriller that as close to a premium cable program, in its uncompromising approach to challenging subject matter, as anything the broadcast tubehas yet produced.
The show I had the most fun watching during the latter half of 2013 was “Masters of Sex” (Showtime), a surprisingly romantic comedy of sexual manners, with electrodes and dildo cams.
A list of notable newcomers would certainly highlight the actress Margot Bingham on “Boardwalk Empire” (HBO), a femme fatale torch singer whose charms ignited a conflict between the mobsters Michael K. Williams and Jeffrey Wright, a subplot that single-handedly brought this moribund series back to life.
My favorite new program by a wide margin was the Canadian SF drama “Orphan Black” (BBC America), a twisty clone conspiracy thriller whose astonishing lead actress, Tatiana Maslany, fully inhabited seven characters. The show earns comparisons to “The X Files” and the films of David Cronenberg, and if showrunners Graeme Manson and John Fawcett play their cards right, “OB” could turn out to be one of the greatest genre series in the history of TV. (No pressure.)
I’m not doing any formal year-end lists, however, because I’m skeptical of the view of the medium that such as enterprise requires, which amounts to seeing it as a library of separate works that can be enjoyed one after another, rather than as a river into which one occasionally dips a toe or finger. Lest we forget, that’s what TV has been throughout most of its still short history, a flood that swept us along.
On an episode of the British panel show “QI” that I watched recently on YouTube, the program’s host, the endlessly companionable polymath actor Stephen Fry, compared the character of Lt. Columbo, as played by Peter Falk, with the Greek philosopher Socrates. He also declared that “Columbo” the show was “the greatest television program ever made anywhere.” Fry is a gifted ironist, but none of that was detectable here. Coming from him, the recommendation is worth taking seriously.
There are a great many different ways to evaluate a medium as copious as TV, is the point. And it is shows like “QI” (or “The CBS Evening News” or “So You Think You Can Dance”), rather than densely layered “novels for television” such as “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad,” that most viewers had in mind in decades past when they talked about “watching television.”
The great British TV critic Clive James had a long career in the medium as a presenter but was also a novelist, a translator, a memoirist and a literary critic, an intellectual overachiever who falls somewhere on the Stephen Fry spectrum, writes about watching television. James chose early on, when he began writing for “The Observer” in the 1970s, not to review individual programs as if they were stand alone works, like novels or films, but to watch Telly the way his readers did, day in and day out, and report on the experience. It is James who has come closest to finding the perfect no-nonsense tone and idiom for writing about TV, Pauline Kael-style populism applied to the small screen. To paraphrase the film critic Robert Warshow, “a man watches television, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.”
The Golden Age Critics, with their proclamations of individual Great Works, may be more like the backers of the Tradition of Quality, the conservative critics that Kael and Sarris and the New Wave writers in France, impatiently brushed aside.
It could be argued this approach has been forced upon us by changes in technology and demographics, that it is impossible now to just “watch television” because the landscape is too vast.
The audience for even the most popular network show is a fraction of what it would have been even a couple of decades ago. It was possible to feel that you were taking a dip in the mainstream watching “All in the Family” or “Roseanne.” That simply doesn’t apply to even a show as popular as “Modern Family,” which isn’t hegemonic enough. There is no one show anymore whose audience is The Audience– barring live events such as the recent “The Sound of Music,” or the annual Super Bowl and the Oscars.
These considerations have something to do with why the drawing up of Best lists for TV seems even less defensible now than it did in the past. How can we ever see enough to earn the right to draw up a meaningful list?
The temptation to use the false authority of a promulgated list to boost our own wayward preferences is close to irresistible. I can say that I prefer some TV shows to most movies because they are more like big novels than short stories. I tend to take it for granted that this kind layered richness and extension is the high road to excellence, to making art of TV. On the other hand, there is the declaration a friend whose personal aesthetic favors the self-contained symmetry of a story short enough to be held in the mind as a whole, says he still prefers feature films. And I saw his point.
In his comments on “Columbo,” Fry also noted that Falk the actor had only one eye, while the character Columbo had two good eyes, so the glass eye Falk wore in real life was never acknowledged as such: “It was playing a real eye.” An esoteric point that would never have occurred to me, and more profound than anything I’ve seen all fall on “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
A throw-away show like “QI,” which consists of four clever people trying to one-up each other, is television, too, in other words. Coming up with a critical model of the medium that embraces both “The Wire” and “QI” is our homework assignment for 2014.