Picking Favorites: The Flow Television Poll

As a periodic contributor to the online media studies webzine, Flow, I received an invitation this summer from Jason Mittell (who regularly posts comments here at this blog) to participate in a poll about the highlights of the past television season. Here's how he described our task:

The goal is to solicit the opinions of Flow's esteemed group of writers & editors (past & present) in generating a poll of the best television of the last year, as somewhat arbitrarily defined as July 1 2005 - June 30 2006. ....A few clarifications - we're looking for "new" television only, so any program or series you vote for must have aired new episodes within the 05-06 season, but it does not need to be a new series. The bulk of Flow's contributors are located in the US, so we expect the majority of entries will be American television - however, if you wish to vote for a non-US title, you may (as long as it aired new episodes within the timeframe). If you are not located in the US, you can vote for any show that aired episodes new to your region within the timeframe, including older shows just coming to your locale.... Finally, you may vote for programs that did not air on traditional television (like an online series or unaired pilot), but please include a way for the curious to find it - we are looking for "television" defined somea broadly, so you can vote for things other than a conventional series, but be sure it fits into the television medium better than cinema or another medium.

Some have speculated that there is a kind of academic canon of television -- certain shows that are watched by all academics but are not necessarily highly rated by the rest of the world (I sometimes wonder if everyone who watches Veronica Mars, for exmple, has a PhD or more improtantly, if ever PhD in the world watches the series). Or conversely, that there are programs that are highly rated across the general public but which no academic will be willing to publicly acknowledge. For the moment, I am talking about academics who are proud to say they like television. Don't get me started about the liars and hypocrites who claim not to even own a television set. So, as social experiments go, this looks to be a fascinating one.

I know in my case, it has already forced me to think about whether my taste as a fan and as an academic are necessarily alligned: are there shows that interest me intellectually but not emotionally? Are there shows I love to watch but don't really admire on that level? Are there shows I should be watching (and don't) but might want to list anyway? Are there shows that don't deserve the top ten but might benefit from my listing them more than the predictible choices that I know every other academic is going to list? (It' s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Lost is going to be in the top few vote getters here). Do I want to fall in line or signal my idiosyncratic tastes and interests? How do we pick the best in a medium whose cultural standing is still under question or where there are not widely agreed upon standards of evaluation?

Here are my choices (listed in alphabetical order). I have never been able to rank my favorites very well. You will also see that I am using some of the references here as placeholders for larger trends within the entertainment space.

Colbert at the Washington Press Club Dinner (as Seen on You-Tube): For starters, this is intended to stand in for the entire genre of news comedy -- Daily Show, Bill Mahr, and Colbert Report. Each in its own way has broadened the conversation about news and current events in this country, educating a generation of young viewers to think critically about newsmakers and newscasters alike, sparking debates about contemporary issues which might have otherwise escaped their attention, and broadening the range of voices heard in these public debates. The list of guests on these shows is significantly more diverse ideologically than what is represented on Nightline, for example. For me, Colbert's appearance at the Washington Press Club Dinner was a highlight of the year within this genre. For one thing, it took an event which long has been associated with the too comfortable relationship between the national news media and the White House and turned it around. The contrast between the skit with Bush and the Bush impersonator (easy laughs) and Colbert's performance (uncomfortable responses) says it all. Whether he was funny or not is beside the point. Seeing him speak truth to power in this context was an astonishing act of courage: the guy's career could have burst into flames at that moment. And it fascinates me that a)the story got so little play on the mainstream news but hit cyberspace so hard; b)many people who never saw this event on CSpan saw it on You-Tube. I can think of no other event last year which more powerfully demonstrated the ability of grassroots media to route around the filters of broadcast media. This, we can hope, is a sign of things to come.

Doctor Who: Within the rules of the contest, I get to play this two ways: the Christopher Eccleston version of the Doctor appeared this year for the first time in the United States (at least legally) on the Sci-Fi Channel and the David Tennant version appeared for the first time this year in England on the BBC. Both are truly spectacular contributions to science fiction television - some of the freshest and most intelligent writing for the genre in some time. As my son, who is the real Doctor Who fan in the family explains, the writers, producers, and cast seem to be starting each episode with the premise "Wouldn't it be fun if..." and then giving themselves the freedom to have fun with the material. This is a classic case of the fans taking over the franchise -- having kept it alive through some dark years -- and then getting to do with it what they want. This shift is generating excitement both in the UK and in the USA. A highlight of the series, of course, is the character of Rose Tyler -- and her chemistry with both of the new Doctors. She is one of the few companions who might have sustained a series of her own -- all the more so because she draws several fascinating secondary characters into her orbit. She embodies a working class girl's transition into adulthood, her growing sense of empowerment and mastery over the universe, her complex feelings of love and friendship for the Doctor, and her efforts to reconstruct a family which was shattered by tragedy. Most of my favorite moments in the series have to do with her character and what she brings to the franchise -- even though I also really liked both of the new doctors.

Entourage -- I discovered this series this summer on DVD, having been skeptical and requiring some convincing from friends whose opinions I trusted. I have generally enjoyed HBO dramas and been left totally cold by their comedies -- including Curb Your Enthusiasm which everyone else seems to love. But this one works for me. I think of it as Sex in the City for men. The friendship between the four (make that, five) central male characters provides the emotional centerpiece of this comedy about people working on the edges of the Hollywood system. It's a toss up as to whether I am most fascinated with the scheming agent, Ari or the puffed up but ultimately pathetic former cult television star, Drama, but I live for the moments either of them are on screen. There's great chemistry between the guys on this series, which offers lots of insights into the nature of male friendship and masculine sexuality. I still haven't caught this summer's new episodes but I am praying for a marathon on HBO before much longer. If I have to wait for the DVD set, I will crawl the walls.

House: My love of House defies all of the rules that normally govern my television viewing. I have always enjoyed shows about cops and lawyers and never ever liked a television show about doctors. I skipped past St. Elsewhere and E.R. for example without the slightest regret. And then I got stuck watching an episode of House while staying at my brother's house and got hooked from the first scene forward. Yes, a lot of it has to do with Hugh Laurie -- though I have never been as infatuated with some his other performances as many people around me. He manages to make me laugh over and over agan and yet still care about what's going on inside his head. He is arguably the most intelligent character on American television (not that there's that much competition) and I tend to prefer to watch shows with intelligent characters. I could care less about the disease of the week plots. For me, it's all about the characters -- and this extends across the ensemble. I care about each of the supporting characters. Each has their own dynamic in relation to House. He is the catalyst who forces them to explore aspects of their personalities that interest me and they in turn touch on different facets of his tortured personality.

Lost: I wrote about Lost here several weeks ago so I will be brief. I admire the complex intertwining of different storylines and elements: the puzzle or mystery elements, the backstory elements, and the story of how these guys form a community and help each other cope with life on the island. What other series on television takes such a global perspective -- taking viewers to stories set in Iraq, Australia, Korea, Ireland, and Africa (all told from a native rather than an outsider's perspective). What other series sustains so many different plotlines involving so many different characters and yet maintains emotional clarity and narrative coherence. I know we all wait breathlessly each week for the producers to screw up and for the series to jump the shark but frankly that's part of the fun. These guys are doing something that's never been done before and they are playing without a net. I frankly don't care if there's a mastery plan or a flair for improvisation driving this as long as it remains as engaging and challenging as it has been so far.

Project Runway: I wanted to put a reality series on the list. Most other years, I would have identified Survivor as perhaps my favorite show. But several things happened this year: Survivor had two pretty off seasons which didn't really engage my interest at a very deep level; there has been a resurgence of dramatic series (and a revitalization of some long standing series) which do grab my attention; and there were some fresh new reality series that showed there was still some life in the genre after all. It was a toss-up for me whether I listed Beauty and the Geek or Project Runway for this slot. I really enjoyed both on different levels and both were in different ways hard sells for me. Beauty and the Geek seemed at first to be exploiting a lot of stereotypes that I dislike, but it turned out to be in fact setting them up so that they could be exploded. There were so many touching moments here as the characters learned things about themselves and each other and found ways to compliment each other's strengths and watch each other's backs. Contestants were honestly thrilled when someone did well, making this the nicest show in reality history, but in this case, niceness didn't mean blandness. But somehow, Project Runway grabbed me even more -- and I am someone who could care less about fashion. My wife, my son, my students will all tell you about my total indifference to the rules of fashion. Yet, I found myself engaged with the assigned tasks and having fun freezing the image and critiquing the clothes along with my wife. By the end, the show had taught me what to look for and I found a fashion competition could be as engaging as, hmm, a spelling bee (Spellbound) or a singing competition (American Idol) or...

Rome: This may be little more than a guilty pleasure. I had mixed feelings about including it in the mix. But, I really did enjoy watching this thing. I loved the historic details about life in ancient Rome. I love the political intrigue and sexual scandel. I loved the over the top dialogue ("Good cock is always appreciated.") There's so little historical fiction on American television and this one brought the qualities one associates with the HBO drama to the form. I know, so does Deadwood, but somehow, I have never gotten over the hump with Deadwood and this one engaged me from the opening credits forward.

Spooks/MI-5: This is the series on my list that is going to be least known to readers of this blog. It's a British series which has received pretty limited airplay in the American market. We heard about it from fan circles, tracked it down on Netflix, and watched it -- in part because it was about MI-5 (and we had really enjoyed a series about a decade ago called The Sandbaggers which dealt with MI-6 and because I really like Greg Rucka's work on the comic book series, Queen and Country, which operates in the same genre tradition). Basically, this is a smart, well-written, intensely paced, complexly drawn British spy series. Most of the episodes deal in one way or another with the war on terror (whether defined in terms of struggles around Islamic fundamentalism or Irish nationalism). As an American, there's real interest in seeing how these issues and debates are impacting popular television in the United Kingdom. We enjoy the trappings of the British bureaucracy. And the show has done a particularly strong job depicting what working as a "spook" does to one's personal life. Like the best British dramas, it has thrown plenty of curves along the road -- not being afraid to kill off major characters or shift key relationships without much warning. This British series barely beats out two American series about law enforcement that I have discovered on DVD and also admire -- The Wire (which deftly criss-crosses between cops and the gangsters, making both seem more morally complex and engaging than anything I've ever seen before) and The Shield (which I am just starting to work my way through and so must withhold judgement but so far has definitely grabbed my attention.)

Veronica Mars: Okay, I agree with many of the critics who say this season was simply too convoluted and added too many subplots about too many secondary characters. But I wonder if we would feel the same way if we could watch the episodes in tighter sequence. It wasn't helped by being stretched so thin with so many pre-emptions and so many reruns sandwiched in the middle. This is a recurring tension right now between series with strong narrative drives which demand real attention and business as usual programming strategies that don't reflect how viewers want to consume the content. But, all these grumblings and excuses aside, I really enjoy this show. I like its sense of humor. I like the emotional dynamics. I like the intelligence of its protagonist. I enjoy the week-in and week-out cases as well as the overarching season long story arcs. It's a fun show to watch.

The West Wing: West Wing is one of my all time favorite series. I am a political junkee and this feeds me precisely what I wanted -- behind the scenes stories (of the kind that I get from Bob Woodward's nonfiction books about the White House and other works in that genre), topical discussions of real world issues (putting this series in the same league with The Daily Show in terms of using entertainment for the purposes of civic education.) But a season or so back, it looked like The West Wing had totally lost steam. But this last season was in my opinion the best ever -- in part because of its willingness to totally reinvent itself. The focus shifts from the White House to the campaign trail. The series dares to imagine American presidential campaigns being run on a different basis -- with intelligent, thoughtful, principled characters in both parties, with a refusal to give over to crude partisanship and a willingness to put the country's needs over personal ambition and party gain. It is the story of what would happen if John McCain was running against Barrack Obama. And along the way, we see the collective damage of 8 years in power upon the personal lives and friendships of the core characters. We watch the forces that split them apart as they enter a period of transition -- as well as what draws holds them together even when they violate our core trust. My big regret is that The West Wing wasn't allowed to complete its transition into a new series. I almost didn't care which of the two candidates won the election. I wanted to see how their presidency differed from the Bartlett administration. Even though I swing Democratic most of the time, I would have been fascinated to see what a Republican West Wing was going to be like. In the end, a series which looked dead two seasons ago ended up dying too soon. My one consolation is that I have seen a sneak preview of the first episode of Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on Sunset Strip and it is really really really really good.

Writing these entries, I discovered a few things about my viewing preferences -- the centrality of characters (especially witty and intelligent characters) whether we are judging drama, comedy, or reality television; the imaginative use of genre elements to explore aspects of the world around us; and the interest in serialization over self-contained episodes. I suspect that puts me squarely in the middle of academic taste culture -- even if my fan boy interests in science fiction and superheroes push me to the outer edge. I will be most curious to see how others came out on the poll.

Regular blog reader Dereck Kompare shares his choices over at his own site, Media Musings.