Twice annually, Electronic Media magazine surveys several dozen television critics regarding their choices for the best and worst shows on TV. The results of the latest poll, which ran in EM's July 10 issue, do little more than reinforce the stereotype of the critics as elitist snobs.
For example, how much more elitist can you get than to name as television's best program one that a great many Americans can't watch? That's what the critics did, voting HBO's mob drama "The Sopranos" number one.
I don't come to praise or bury "The Sopranos." It is a quality production. What bothers me is my sense that in addition to the show's artistic excellence, non-artistic factors -- namely, copious obscenities and violence -- put it on top in the survey. One critic, Aaron Barnhart of the Kansas City Star, acknowledged just that: "No show has better character development and, thanks to HBO's promiscuous standards, more enjoyable dialogue."
I can think of only one other profession where "promiscuous standards" is a term of praise.
Over the past decade or so, with plenty of original movies and such series as "The Larry Sanders Show" as well as "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City" -- voted sixteenth-best in the EM poll -- HBO has become catnip for critics by positioning itself as an almost-anything-goes alternative to the putatively conservative broadcast webs.
"American Beauty" screenwriter Alan Ball, in an interview with Inside.com, contrasted his experience with what he described as a meddling, dumb-it-down ABC, for which he did last year's short-lived sitcom "Oh, Grow Up," with his current development of a program for HBO. "My first note from HBO (said), 'Make it more f---ed up.' That's their mantra," said Ball.
Prime time broadcast TV's high (and rising) level of foul language, graphic sexual material, and disturbing types of violence doesn't seem to concern the critics. In fact, they like it. The WB's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," which this year lurched into bizarre erotic/occult themes, was their fourth-favorite series, and NBC's "Will & Grace," many of whose jokes about gay sexual practices (e.g., sex in public rest rooms) have been remarkably raunchy, placed fourteenth.
NBC's "The West Wing," with its generally liberal political agenda, finished a close second to "The Sopranos," indicating -- now here's a shocker -- that the critics are politically, as well as culturally, to the left. Rick Kushman of the Sacramento Bee lauded "the earnest humanity of the characters" and stated, "This show actually manages to teach us something about America and inspires us to try to make it better." Ask not what your favorite series can do for you, Mr. Kushman; ask what you can do for your favorite series.
Entirely omitted from the best-shows list are family-friendly programs, with the exception of ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," at number 17. It's long been clear that the consistently wholesome and well-crafted "Touched By an Angel" (CBS) and "7th Heaven" (WB) will never receive their due from critics. But what about the WB's "Roswell"? This highly entertaining first-year drama accomplished the amazing by appealing to teens without resorting to sexually-charged plots. The critics didn't care.
The worst-shows list is less disappointing, since all the programs on it are, in fact, garbage. As goofy and gooey as the Sacramento Bee's Kushman was about "The West Wing," he nailed UPN's despicable "WWF Smackdown!": "As socially irresponsible a show as ever existed." Fox's sex-crazed "Ally McBeal," which had been named among the best shows in previous polls, this time made the worst-shows list, albeit because the critics seemed to consider gimmicky, rather than immoral, scenes of lesbians and sex between total strangers.
Speaking of toilets, have you heard about the new promotion recently announced by ABC? According to Variety, the network plans to "install several hundred high-tech urinal billboards that will utilize CD-ROM technology to 'speak' to men as they do their business. Users will hear the digital voice of Norm Macdonald (star of the exceptionally crude ABC sitcom 'Norm'), who will make various toilet jokes and promote his series' move to Friday nights. Among Macdonald's cracks: 'Oh, my God, look at the size of that thing!' (and) 'Hey, watch your shoes!'"
Somewhere out there lurks a television critic who is going to tell us this, too, is "art."