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Episodes: How I make the top 18 shows list


Emily VanDerWerff

May 04 2017

5 min read



Ever since I started doing my semi-regularly updated "18 best shows on TV" list at Vox (which I am in the process of updating as we speak!), I've been beset by a large number of questions, most of which have to do with "THAT'S the best show on TV?" (The best was when it was 12 Monkeys for a few months, and people were baffled by that. The real answer is that the list is always alphabetical, because reranking it every week would drive me nuts.)

But the other frequent question is one that I'm surprised hasn't come up in the Friday mailbag mail (blatant plug for Friday mailbag!): Just how do I make this list anyway and/or decide what's on it? Well, in the interest of having something I can link to every time I get asked this question, here's the answer!

At any given time, there are 5-10 shows I know I want on the list. In crowded seasons (like right now), that might edge up to 12 or even 15, but it's never enough to fill all 18 spots. But that's where I start: I know these shows are the best. If I were telling you which shows to watch, I'd start there.

After that, there's a lot of grey area, which I try to fill, as much as possible, with things that don't look like the other shows on the list. There are a lot of different kinds of TV shows, and a lot of different kinds of TV fans. If I like a prestige drama and a family comedy roughly the same amount, I'll usually put the family comedy on the list, because my top shows are inevitably going to contain a bunch of prestige dramas. (Two shows I wrestled with including in the newest update? Fargo and American Gods, both of which are good but not yet great to my mind. But I bumped 'em both on because I ultimately liked them better than some of the alternatives I considered.)

I try to be cognizant of my own biases, which tend toward dramas and have a soft spot for sci-fi or horror fare, and, as such, I'll filter out shows that I like just because I Like to Watch Shows Like That. (For instance, I've really been enjoying Billions this season, but I can't say I'm enjoying it more than a lot of very similar dramas on the air right now. As such, I've kept it off the list.) And if someone I trust is really high on the show -- by which I usually mean my colleague Caroline or my wife -- then I'll often weight that more heavily than my own opinion in a vacuum. (I can be wrong about things!)

I'll also, very occasionally, put a show on the list that I'm not wild about but one that's obviously captured the fancy of a significant portion of the TV discussion community online. Such a thing happened with This Is Us in the fall, when I wasn't quite on board, but enough people I respected were, so I tried it out for a few weeks. (It didn't last.) Similarly, I liked Westworld well enough, but the crazy fervor surrounding it from various folks online pushed it over the top and onto the list.

I hope you can see what I'm saying. I don't contort the list to fit my own opinion; I try to curate it to be a vaguely objective resource. Obviously, it can never be truly objective -- it's based on my opinions, on some level, and even the stuff that uses a kind of crowdsourcing is inevitably going to be skewed toward the sort of online TV fans who drive discussions (and have their own biases toward certain types of shows and certain networks) -- but I do want it to have a greater diversity of show type than just "what Todd likes."

Similarly, I try to account for various services and networks people have access to. I try to always have a handful of broadcast shows on there, for folks who only have broadcast. I try to have a few streaming shows on there, for people who only subscribe to Netflix or something. And so on.

It's important to me that everybody who reads the list will come away with something they're at least curious about. If you're a diehard TV fan, I want there to be a couple of shows on there that you either haven't heard of or that my praise of them gives you the extra boost. And if you're my mom (who doesn't watch a lot of TV), I want there to be something for you too.

When I've explained this to some people, they've gotten a little mad that it's not JUST the 18 shows I consider the best. But there's a time for that in my year-end top shows list. The 18 shows list I see as more of a service to readers, and I try to keep it as Consumer Reports-y as I possibly can, while still reflecting my own taste to some degree.


Our Friday mailbag feature is a lot of fun! Please email me your questions over the course of the week, and I'll pick a few to answer. I'll always answer at least three per week, unless I just don't have the material. For ease of inbox search, please put "mailbag" somewhere in the subject line of your email. Thanks!


Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.

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