Sunday, December 23, 2007

SDD's Top 100 Series of All Time -- Supplemental List #9: Overrated

(I'm meaning to get back to many of you who have left comments, but as it turns out, the holiday season was the exact wrong time to do this, insofar as me having a lot of free time. It's coming! -- ed.)

Television is so, so easy to overrate. Indeed, I've put a good number of overrated shows on the list proper, and I actually think one member of my top ten list is a little overrated (we'll talk about it when we get to it). I think it's easy to overrate television, again, because of the personal connection we feel towards the series we watch -- even something like Family Matters starts to become rather agreeable if we watch enough of it, and it certainly doesn't help that the very low level of quality that television holds itself to makes even the most mediocre television seem better than it probably is.

But that said, here are ten series that often pop up on lists of this sort that I find highly overrated and a little rationale for why I feel the way I do. You probably disagree, and you probably have several series in the list proper you think are greatly overrated. What's important is that deep down, you know I'm right.

10) The Golden Girls
NBC, produced 1985-1992

The Golden Girls isn't actually all THAT overrated by the critical community, where most people regard it with a shrug, if even that. After the series won a couple of Emmys and was a critical darling early in its run, it mostly went the way of Murphy Brown -- a show acclaimed at one time that most critics just don't talk about all that often anymore, sort of the Out of Africa of television, if you will. So that's why The Golden Girls is only at #10 on this list. I don't really think that it's anything more than a fairly innocuous sitcom that had some good episodes and one pretty good season. In the grand scheme of things, shows like M*A*S*H or The West Wing or even Friends are far more overrated than The Golden Girls. But The Golden Girls has something in common with those shows all the same -- a large, vocal cult of fans, mostly on the Internet (though high ratings and DVD sales prove their existence as well). What bugs me about this is that I don't see WHY the Golden Girls gang provoked such a passionate response. I've laughed at the show before, and the characters are nice enough, but it's nothing more than a thoroughly competent mid-80s NBC sitcom. Why this show and not, say, Night Court, which was a much riskier series that tried some daring things? Generally, the shows that are huge syndication successes (I Love Lucy, M*A*S*H, Cheers, The Simpsons, Seinfeld) make some sort of sense from that perspective. I don't know what it is about Golden Girls that makes people watch it over and over and over, and that consigns it to the overrated list.

9) Law & Order
NBC, 1990-present

I liked Law & Order once upon a time, which is why it's so low on this list, despite the fact that its overrating is actually pretty bad. What makes Law & Order overrated is exactly what catapulted it into a pop culture sensation unusually late in its run -- ripped-from-the-headlines stories. The idea of a show that follows the police, then the prosecutors is a good one, and the casting on the show was top-notch for its first ten seasons or so. But when the series almost completely switched over to "THIS IS BASED ON SOMETHING THAT REALLY HAPPENED" stories, Law & Order stopped being a reliably entertaining warhorse of a series and became something altogether lazier. What's more, this allowed a kind of critical shorthand for the show (especially at the beginning). "This show is tackling REAL ISSUES," many critics brayed. But, no, it wasn't. It was tackling bizarre crimes that landed in the news, not, like, inflation or the rising price of gas or anything. Most critics have caught on to this trick nowadays, but the series is also a faded shell of its former self now (fitting for a show as old as it is), so it's far easier to see the weaknesses that were always there. Law & Order was a thoroughly competent drama for quite a while there -- maybe competent enough to land in the lower reaches of the list -- but by shifting its focus so completely, it stopped doing what made it good and turned itself into almost a self-parody. When it comes to the big crime show franchises, I prefer CSI, mostly because what you see is what you get. There are no false promises of profundity, and that can be nice.

8) Family Guy
Fox, 1999-2002, 2005-present

At this point, the constant bashing on Family Guy has reached a point where the series is almost underrated. This is not to suggest the series is all that good, but it's certainly watchable, unlike many other animated shows that appeared in the wake of The Simpsons' success. Family Guy, though, is still one of the Internet's favorite shows, and its ratings are up quite a ways this season, so it's catching on with the public at large (instead of just disaffected twentysomething males). The problems with Family Guy are so well-documented (many of them pointed out by South Park, of all things) that it's almost not worth bothering pointing them out -- but they're there regardless. The show, for all its edginess, is not really edgy at all. The cutaways are teeth-gratingly irritating and only funny if you get the reference involved. And the humor is based less on actual character-based joke construction and more on just letting the audience be a part of the show's smarmy club. Also, the characters sing way, way too much (but, OK, that one's just petty). I don't think Family Guy is the devil, and I usually chuckle once or twice per episode, but the characters are so non-existent as to basically just be mouthpieces for whatever the writers want to say that week. At least on South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone maintain some semblance of who would do what. On Family Guy, it's just a bunch of boobs shouting pop culture wackiness into the ether.

7) The Monkees
NBC, 1966-1968

There are very, very few shows from the pre-80s television era that are genuinely overrated, I think (though there are some who argue that about some of the MTM shows). Most of the time, we've developed a good idea of whether what we're watching is good TV, good fun or good camp (quick classification: Dick Van Dyke, Get Smart and Gilligan's Island, in that order). You almost never see critics championing, say, Gomer Pyle as a hidden classic of all time. While this is probably a bad thing for discussion (critical consensus is boring), it makes making a list like this hard without resorting to all recent shows. Fortunately, you have The Monkees, a show which was influential in its own time (with its crazy filming style and hypnotic look) but has aged poorly. Still, it tends to get a pass from many who just like that it ushered in an era of goofy sitcoms that looked real purty (and the music was good too). Watch The Monkees today, and you'll find it pretty strained. I'm sure it looked good in 1967, but COME ON. A lot of things did back then. And for good reason!

6) American Idol
Fox, produced 2002-present

For a long time, we TV critics had a compact with the good people of America -- we would bitch about those stupid audition episodes of American Idol (the ones that are always the highest rated), and then we would respectfully watch the performance shows and get the results on the Internet. We'd all tune in for the finale, and we'd all feel bad about it in the morning. Meanwhile, we wouldn't pretend that the show's extreme popularity signified anything other than its enjoyable bastardization of democracy and/or how much everyone enjoyed being a music critic. But in recent years, American Idol has turned up on the TCA's program of the year list, on year-end top ten lists and on all-time top 100 lists. I mean, what in blazes? Most critics who praise the show cheerfully acknowledge that a 15-minute time slot can fit most of the needed content into it with a quick TiVo remote finger, but THIS SHOULD NOT BE A NET POSITIVE. I'm not one of those people who thinks that Idol has ruined music forever (the music industry did a pretty good job of that for itself), nor do I think it's all that bad of a show (it's entertaining in its own spastic way), but it's stopped being about itself and more about its excess, and that's not something we should be praising, regardless of how popular it is. Idol at its best is a fun riff on the talent show genre, but at its worst (as it was much of last season), it's a mean-spirited riff on just how fun it is to kick people when they're down.

5) Will & Grace
NBC, produced 1998-2006

Will & Grace was kind of fun there for a little while, I think we can all agree. In its first two seasons or so, the series had some of the best one-liners on TV. The problem was that that was ALL the show had. Remember how I praised Who's the Boss for having remarkably specific characters on the underrated list? Well, Will & Grace is sort of the opposite -- a show with sparkling joke writing that had terribly unspecific characters. A show can survive on one-liners only so long; after that, you need to have characters that are worthy of holding our interest. Will & Grace didn't -- all of its characters were shrill types, designed to simply be joke-spouting machines (see, you had the shallow and uptight gay man, the shallow and flighty straight woman, the shallow and outrageous gay man and the just plain shallow slightly older woman). Will & Grace should definitely get props for proving that mainstream audiences were more than happy to watch a show with a gay lead, but the show itself was pretty bad, especially after season three or so. The characters don't really resemble human beings in any way, shape or form -- they're just a collection of quirks smoothed over with some amusing enough lines.

4) Nip/Tuck
FX, produced 2003-present

I had reserved this spot for "Most FX Dramas," until I realized I like The Shield, I liked Rescue Me, I find The Riches enjoyable, no one likes Dirt (making it not really rated at all), and the jury's still out on the oft-infuriating, oft-brilliant Damages. So, pretty much, I just find Nip/Tuck overrated. But that's fine, because I'm comfortable with that stance. Sometimes, even on the best FX shows, it feels as if the network saw that HBO was doing great things with its adult-themed shows and then completely forgot that the network's dramas tended to also wed these adult themes to compelling characters, smart writing and excellent direction. Some of the FX shows were strong enough to overcome this (The Shield), while some were strong enough to overcome it for a little while (Rescue Me). Nip/Tuck was never anything more than empty envelope-pushing, a series where the characters were simply there to do outrageous things, designed to shock and provoke. The problem is that nothing can be shocking when the only reason your show exists is to shock. Nip/Tuck has a fascinating show about vanity and male friendship in it somewhere, but it's always subsuming that show in favor of coarse language, graphic surgery scenes and ass shots. It's all so many empty calories, and the critics who praise it simply because it superficially resembles an HBO drama are irritating.

3) The Oprah Winfrey Show
syndicated, produced 1986-present

None of what I say should be construed as criticism of Oprah herself. She's an amazing woman, and her rise to the top is the sort of thing that the best American dreams are made of. That said, her show is mostly sucktastic. I don't buy that it's a terrific talk show or anything, because the whole show is less about the people she has on and more about Oprah herself and her control of her weirdly cult-like audience. Oprah is rarely a show where serious issues are discussed (like they were on the greatest daytime talk show -- Donohue) or where serious life stories are told or even one where there's discussion of the arts or politics or sports or ANYthing. Oprah's show is, more often than not, a naked celebration of consumerism, vapid self-help type stuff and most of the other things that have made the last 20 years in American culture so vapid. It's great that Oprah got all of those bored housewives to read (and it's great that she switched to "classics"), but her literary discussion was rarely substantive (she turned The Road into a book about the undying love of a father for his son, for God's sake -- I mean, yes, that's in there, but it's definitely NOT the main point). The same goes for her self-help episodes, her weight loss episodes, her championing of The Secret, that episode where everybody got a car, etc., etc., etc. Oprah herself is a fascinating figure, but she's used her powers for mediocrity, not good.

2) The Carol Burnett Show
CBS, produced 1967-1978

Look. I'll SPOT you the dentist sketch (shown above). That's just a terrific concept and features some of the best physical comedy in television history. And the Gone with the Wind gag is funny enough, though that's based far more on the costume design and the fun sight gag than anything else. There are some other half-funny Carol Burnett sketches, surely, but the series, even at its best, is one of the weaker sketch comedies on sheer hit-to-miss ratio. There are two reasons people cling to Carol Burnett as one of the all-time greats -- a.) the cast was full of genuinely appealing and nice people (particularly Burnett herself) and b.) the show has had dozens upon dozens of reunion specials that mostly regurgitated the show's greatest hits. Any show that runs 11 years is going to have enough good stuff in it to fill a reunion special, but when you actually watch a Carol Burnett Show EPISODE, you find a lot of clumsy sketches mixed in with the occasional good one. None of this takes away from the appealing star presence of Burnett or Tim Conway or even Vicki Lawrence, but the show itself doesn't deserve the adulation it's received.

1) Six Feet Under
HBO, produced 2001-2005

There are a number of reasons this shouldn't be number one. First off, it's not really BAD, per se, just deeply mediocre and something that doesn't live up to its potential. Second off, the first season and a number of episodes after were pretty good television. And thirdly, a lot of my objection to the show comes from reading a lot of interviews with the show's producers and writers. But I can't help it. HBO, the standard-bearer for TV drama in the early 2000s, chose to follow up The Sopranos with a deeply superficial kitchen sink drama that had some good ideas but was mostly pretentious twaddle. I normally hate the word pretentious, but there's literally no other way to describe what was wrong with Six Feet Under. The show was so impressed with its navel-gazing "innovations" that it forgot to follow the first rule of HBO drama -- tell less; show more. The series was devoted to deeply emotional monologues where everyone shouted about how they were feeling and how miserable their lives were and just how REAL it all was, man. And the smug self-satisfaction of the writers and actors (many of whom I really, really like) in interviews, where they talked about how SFU reflected REAL LIFE grew rapidly insufferable precisely BECAUSE the show didn't resemble real life at all -- it resembled what real life would look like if we all lived in a television show. SFU was a "realistic" drama filtered through the easy consumption of dramatic perception -- real life as stage play. You were never in any real danger of having deep truths exposed, simply because the show never really WENT there, choosing to always stay on a level of superficiality. In addition, where other HBO (and other network) dramas expanded their universes to include recurring players and whole WORLDS of characters, SFU remained ever more navel-gazing, meaning every character marched through a long level of depressingly unbelievable trials and tribulations. I like a lot of SFU (and the last ten minutes of the finale are some of the most extraordinary TV filmmaking I've seen), but I also dislike how it's become the television standard-bearer for the emo/"LIFE IS FILLED WITH PAIN" set. The show SFU dreamed it was was truly one of the top ten TV shows of all time. The show it actually was was a mostly frustrating mediocrity that comes so close but falls just as short.

Today's Christmas tune: Everyone knows that Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime" is the worst song ever, but this version by Tom McRae takes the song and turns it into something sad and special.

Tomorrow: Places 20-11, including a bunch of stuff you're probably expecting by now.


Jason Mittell said...

Ooh - my first major disagreement. SFU is in my pantheon of Top Ten all-time shows, beating out its more-lauded HBO sibling of The Sopranos (which I'm assuming is high in your top ten). I'll refrain from laying out why here (once your full list is up, I want to write a reply on my blog), but it reminds me of the pair of MTM 80s dramas - it seems that most people (or at least those who love quality TV) were either Hill Street or St. Elsewhere advocates, with less passion for the other. I remain in the St. E camp (and I assume you're putting Hill St. in the pantheon), and I think the parallel to SFU/Sopranos is comparable.

But do you really think SFU is so overrated to not rank in the top 100, worse than Big Love, Picket Fences, Leave it to Beaver, Pete & Pete, Everwood, etc. from the lower layers of your list? Seems harsh...

Carrie said...

I've got to side with Jason to a certain extent. I really like a lot of SFU (although there were stretches that were unbearable) and definitely think in the long run it will prove to be better and have more to say than, say, Big Love.

I totally agree with you on Law & Order, however. The early years are some truly satisfying television, but it has become something tired and sad and lazy. I will say that I am going to tune in again this season to see how Jeremy Sisto does. What can I say, I'm easy.

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