As the year comes to a close, Best Of lists come rolling out — and with them, their condemnation. Criticism is never been universally beloved, and the rise of user-created reviews has made questioning critics more commonplace and widespread. What better time to target critics than with year-end reviews?
These Top 10 or Top 25 or what-have-you lists can never please everybody. Distilling an entire year’s worth of anything into a discrete and definitive number is inevitably short-sighted; this endeavor fills critics, even Pulitzer Prize-winning ones, with dread. How can such a daunting task be handled with any semblance of authority?
And yet, lists will persist. Viewers have an vested interest because, as fans, they support these shows. Thus, they invite consumers to engage with both critics and creators, building a stronger community mindset. Here’s a few more reasons why Best Of lists are frivolous, essential, and not going anywhere.
1. They’re a Public Service
Curation is the most obvious benefit of criticism, but Best Of lists are particularly helpful in highlighting shows that deserve attention. With more than 500 scripted shows in the era of Peak TV, this service is more essential than ever. While these Top 10 lists are by no means a mandate, for the layman who simply can’t keep up they are a good place to start.
Beyond just the sheer number of shows, it’s just as difficult to stay on top of where they all reside. Even if a viewer hasn’t cut the cord, they may be unaware of the offerings on basic cable (where some of the most interesting new shows crop up), ranging from dramas on BBC America and Syfy to comedies on TBS and Freeform. And most consumers still haven’t heard of certain streaming options such as Facebook Watch, even if they are Facebook users.
Critics beat the drum for newcomer “Killing Eve,” which finally drew a healthy audience to BBC America outside of the network’s signature “Doctor Who” and the “Planet Earth” nature series. Critics continue to laud the sexy thriller now that it’s a hit on Hulu and is up for a Golden Globe.
Until science figures out a way for critics to download shows directly into their brains while they sleep, there are not enough hours in the day for one person to watch everything. And critics are not monoliths: Curation can offer different perspectives, especially if one has expertise in niche areas, such as docuseries or foreign costume dramas. These lists aren’t just for consumers; critics also use them to make their own catch-up binge lists.
2. Celebration of Hard Work and Excellence
Awards rarely go to all the deserving parties. Best-Of lists can be a useful tool to remind awards-voting bodies of potential, and also stand in for that well-deserved recognition. While “Atlanta” lost key Emmys to newcomers “Barry” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” that can’t dampen the incredible creative achievement of Donald Glover’s FX series in its second season. It broke through with one of the most iconic new characters on TV and scared viewers silly while crafting a strange, magical world. That deserves recognition, awards be damned.
Besides, being a TV critic can be a slog — both with the number of shows to be watched and the number that are subpar. Coming across a good show reminds critics of why they do what they do, and Best Of lists act as a congratulations and thank you for creating great TV.
Take for example, AMC’s “The Terror,” a period drama about a bunch of British dudes stuck in the Arctic. This unlikely series sneaked its way into the IndieWire TV staff’s heart, not to mention the year’s Top 10 list, because it was not only a marvelous surprise, but each episode was also an engrossing and creative storytelling experience unlike any other on TV. It inspired rapturous testimonials among critics, not to mention in-jokes. Seriously, this is the stuff that makes the job worthwhile.
3. Learning Lessons
The process of creating a Best Of list dredges up news stories from throughout the year, and this provides context whether it’s celebrating trends (surprise Hong Chau on “Forever” and “BoJack Horseman”!) or decrying them. They also serve as lessons on how to approach shows in the new year, revealing which shows fell by the wayside and deserve more attention, and what industry or storytelling decisions to correct.
For example, the reboots-and-revivals trend of the past few years has been continuing unabated despite critics’ cries for mercy. While networks stayed on that horse because of consistent interest and decent ratings, the past year has shown that it takes far more than viewership numbers to keep a show viable.
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The return of “Roseanne” was a ratings hit, but even before the revival aired it was clear that its star was problematic. Curious viewers may have initially tuned in because of Roseanne Barr’s outspokenness and residual nostalgia, but the former was the thing that sank the ship. ABC simply couldn’t stay in bed with a star whose erratic habits and views continued to contradict the network’s messaging, not at the risk of alienating core viewers.
The new year already has plenty of reboots and revivals in the hopper, and networks should heed ABC’s mistakes. Before greenlighting a reboot, get ahead of potential problems. An all-new “Temptation Island” — in which troubled couples hang out in a tropical locale and test the boundaries of their relationship with other sexy couples — is coming to USA Networkl considering the consent issues that “Bachelor in Paradise” faced, let’s hope that USA has already put its scantily clad cast through strict consent training.
4. Positivity Deserves an Equal Voice
The Baffler’s recent bizarre take that TV critics have become too positive reveals the writer fell victim to the critical echo chamber he was trashing. Plenty of negative reviews exist (IndieWire’s TV reviews from best to worst compilation is a good start) for awful television, but it’s also true that TV is better than ever.
That’s because excellence begets excellence, and creators look to top what has come before. With a landscape now broad enough to accommodate unique visionaries and voices, auteurs flock to the small screen. A review doesn’t need Sturm und Drang to be legitimate and if something succeeds, by gum, let’s call for more of it.