List of Ten -- Come Again?
They're great for generating debates around the water cooler, these 10 Best Shows lists, but they do toy with common sense. First off, what has the number 10 ever done -- apart from having the good sense to be a nice, easy-to remember round number -- to become the yardstick by which Year-End Lists are measured? What if, heaven forfend, there are more than 10 good shows on the air in a given year? Or, more likely in an age when David E. Kelley continues to find work, what if there are fewer than 10? Say after hours of painstaking research, you can only come up with six shows worthy of a Best-Of List. What are you supposed to do -- slap in a couple of also-runs, a daytime soap opera and a Taxi rerun to keep the other four spaces warm?
And unlike other end-of-the-year lists -- which come out this time of year because, well, the calendar says so -- the TV wrap-up should really be done back in June when the curtain comes down on the regular season. Instead, lists wind up comparing new fall shows with last season's installments -- apples to oranges, West Wings to Frasiers -- with the old, musty offerings getting the short-end of the comparative stick.
And that's just the new shows. Gauging how a program performs over the course of a calendar year as opposed to a fall-to-summer season can force TV critics into more contortions than a Cirque de Soleil tumbler. Take The X-Files. To assess its place in the Best TV Has To Offer, Y2K Edition, which episodes do you consider? Do you look at the first half of the year -- the part where the plots were full of gobbledygook and David Duchovny just showed up to collect his pay stubs and even the guy who smokes the cigarettes looked bored as hell -- or just episodes from this fall when Robert Patrick leapt onto the show's prone body and began pounding on its chest?
In my case, neither one. I really don't care for The X-Files. But I think the point still stands.
So these are the conditions under which Snell expects us to labor. You can see what havoc they played with his own list: Two of the shows he lauded can't even be seen anymore, unless you watch Freaks & Geeks reruns on the Fox Family channel or Now and Again reruns on whatever Saturn-based cable system services the Snell household.
Jason -- and it bears repeating: nice guy, bad haircut, a little bit crazy around the edges -- had this idea that each one of the Vidiots would come up with their own List of 10. Which is further evidence of his rapidly loosening grip on reality.
We don't believe in much here at TeeVee, certainly not hygiene or good manners or the rule of law. But we do steadfastly believe in the principle of groupthink. If one of us is foolhardy enough to come up with an opinion on his own, he had best make sure it meshes with what the rest of us think, if that opinion is ever going to see the light of day.
I mean, why do you think Boychuk never writes anything? All you'd ever see from that guy would be articles about how great Tony Danza is and how you won't find 30 funnier minutes of television than Cursed. If we didn't tie him to a chair and use orange-filled socks to beat some sense into him, that is.
Boychuk's re-education regimen aside, Lists of 10 from each Vidiot would get more repetitive than a Jewel album. As much as I like to taunt Snell -- and his hair -- I have to say his Best Of TV list pretty much goes for me, too. Oh, I'd dump Survivor. And the silly sci-fi for the kids -- the Buffys and the Angels and the lamentable Stargates -- I'd seal those in an oil drum and stash them in a landfill. But the rest of Snell's picks, they're all first rate.
But this feeble chorus of "Me Too" -- this is of no service to you, the loyal TeeVee reader. You don't need me to mumble more lukewarm kudos about shows Snell already heaped lavish praise upon a weak ago. No, today's on-the-go TeeVee reader demands data! Information! High-resolution pictures of barely legal topless stewardesses. And, since customer satisfaction is Job-1 with me, I'm going to give it all to you.
Except for the stewardesses part. That's just unseemly.
So here's my list of shows -- 10 different shows. Ten shows you can still find surfing around your TV. Ten shows you can proudly take home to your parents and watch with the shades up, unafraid of what the neighbors might see.
These certainly aren't my favorite shows -- Snell stole my West Wing and Good Eats thunder last week. But they are easily watchable, entirely accessible and, most important, eminently entertaining.
10. WWF Raw, USA; WWF Smackdown! UPN. We all have our private shames, I suppose. Mine is that I've been a fan of professional wrestling since my boyhood in the early '80s. (Love that Junkyard Dog!) So believe me when I tell you that the World Wrestling Federation is going through a creative renaissance not seen since Captain Lou Albano started showing up in Cyndi Lauper videos. The wrestling's almost beside the point now; I watch these shows as much for the behind-the-scenes tomfoolery as I do for the in-the-ring action. Why? Because an interview with The Rock or Kurt Angle has more genuine laughs in three minutes than a Friends episode does in 30.
9. Iron Chef, Food Network. Truth be told, I miss the old Iron Chef, the Japanese-language version with English subtitles that used to air on local TV here in San Francisco. (As an added bonus, you also got to watch the Japanese-language commercials, which -- if such a thing is possible -- were even more incomprehensible than Iron Chef itself.) Still, the dubbed edition that airs on the Food Network is not without its charms. We get a better look into the dark heart of MC Kaga -- he refuses to attend Battle Pork after the Iron Chefs rack up too many defeats! And the Battle New York, in which Iron Chef Morimoto battles celebrity chef Bobby Flay, may have been the funniest and most surreal hour to air on American TV in 2000.
8. Junkyard Wars, TLC. I have to thank fellow Vidiot Gregg Wrenn for alerting me to the existence of this British import, in which warring teams of geeks and propeller-heads have 10 hours to build a machine out of scrap iron and discarded home appliances. You wouldn't think a show that relies so heavily on physics, engineering and fancy book-learning would be so entertaining; then you watch a team of scientists build a hydraulic crane that tears down brick walls out of a discarded VW van. And if my high school physics teacher looked more like the spikey-haired British cutie who created (and co-hosts) Junkyard Wars, I might have opted for a different career path. Simply put, Junkyard Wars is the second-best game show on TV.
7. Two-Minute Drill, ESPN. And this one's the best. The first game show aimed at shut-ins who spend their time reading sports almanacs and the Baseball Encyclopedia, Two-Minute Drill offers all the excitement and showmanship of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire without the drab, boring questions about topics other than sports. True, this violates my "must-still-be-on-the-air" rule -- the last installment of Two-Minute Drill aired Christmas Day. But ESPN is likely to bring the show back and has already begun combing the dark recesses of sports bars for potential contestants. I have the entry form to prove it.
6. SportsCentury, ESPN Classic. ESPN started producing these documentaries in 1999, as a companion to the network's own arbitrary Best-Of List, the top 50 athletes of the 20th Century. You could argue with that list's conclusions (Michael Jordan as athlete of the century over Muhammad Ali? If Ahmad Rashad's making the final call, maybe...), but you couldn't argue with the quality of the 50 episodes. Recognizing it had a good thing going, ESPN brought back the documentary series, expanding its scope to feature more athletes and its length to a full hour. Sure, a non-sports fan may not get the same giddy thrill that I do from an hour-long look at the likes of Bill Mazeroski or Jacques Plante. Even so, the in-depth interviews, solid pacing and stylized narrative approach make this the best biography series on TV.
5. The Vicar of Dibley, BBC America. I worry that all this talk of sports and wrestling may leave you with the impression that I lead a dull interior life. So let's include this British import about a female Church of England vicar -- played by the redoubtable Dawn French -- relegated to a rural English village. Don't let the funny accents throw you -- this show can trade laughs with the best sitcoms the U.S. has to offer. Though, considering what passes for Must-See TV these days, that must seem like faint praise. Give Vicar a try, though. If the smart writing doesn't win you over, the eclectic cast of supporting characters -- everyone from a vaguely sociopathic farmer to a not-so-closeted senior citizen -- will.
4. King of Queens, CBS. I gave this Kevin James sitcom a mixed-to-bad review when it debuted three years ago, and I had plenty of good reasons. There was an awful sister-in-law character, Jerry Stiller's antics left me cold, and the writing was tepid at best. Since then, three wonderful things have happened -- the sister-in-law was sent off to the Land of Chuck Cunningham where she was never heard from again, Jerry Stiller's character faded into the background where it belonged, and the writers began focusing on the relationship between James and his wife, played by Leah Remini. (Now if my high school physics teacher looked like her, I'd be writing this from reform school...) James and Remini have developed great chemistry together, particularly when they play off the obvious physical disparity between the two of them. This season's "Fatty McButterpants" episode in which James' insecurity of being a tubby guy with a hottie wife -- a pain I know all too well -- managed to be poignant and funny at the same time. If you dismissed King of Queens as typical sitcom banality when it first premiered, you'd be doing yourself a favor by giving it another chance.
3. The Daily Show, Comedy Central. I hardly watched a lick of CNN during the presidential election, and I'm petitioning my cable company to have MSNBC and Fox News dropped from their lineup. Instead, I tuned into The Daily Show -- Comedy Central's twisted take on the Dateline-ization of news programming -- and I am a better-informed man because of it. The departure of Craig Kilborn has decreased the show's smarminess by a factor of 10. With Jon Stewart and the current cast of correspondents, the show has become more biting and incisive than ever. Yeah, the show has its valleys -- I can take or leave the more-or-less worthless celebrity interviews -- but the peaks make it worthwhile. And that, after all, is why the good Lord invented the fast-forward button.
2. Everybody Loves Raymond, CBS. Snell says this show would have been number 11 on his Top 10 List. I say he needs to get over his Survivor fixation. Raymond is the funniest show on TV not featuring animated people. The current season has had a few more down spots than I'm used to -- the hour-long season premiere where the family went to Rome was a double-dog drag -- but the Raymond cast and crew has more than recovered with some hilarious episodes. Few sitcoms can deal with familial matters without descending into the pits of mawkishness. Raymond never does, and it gives you a bunch of laughs along the way. That's a hell of a lot better deal than watching some fat naked guy double-cross his Wisconsin trucker friend off the shores of Borneo, I'd say.
1. The Simpsons, Fox. It's not as funny as it used to be, diehard fans bleat. It's on its last legs, doomsayers insist. And when I watch an episode built around another tired celebrity cameo -- Drew Barrymore's appearance nearly caused me to smash my TV -- I want to agree with them. But each time I do, I remember that even the worst episode of The Simpsons is still better than 90 percent of what you'll find on TV these days. And the aging slugger can still hit one out of the park. The Behind the Music parody that concluded last season? Absolutely brilliant. The episode from this fall when Bart and Homer become grifters? Moments of madness that harkened back to the show's finest efforts during its first five seasons. Everybody's ready to write off The Simpsons, to send it to the retirement home for venerable Fox shows where it will join the likes of... well, it will have plenty of room to itself. The point is, that if you were to sit down and list the shows that were still more entertaining than not after a decade on the air, you'd have yourself a pretty short list. And The Simpsons would most certainly be on it.
If that doesn't deserve the top slot in a nonsensical Best Of List, I don't know what does.
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