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Episodes: How to make a top 10 list


Emily VanDerWerff

Dec 22 2015

5 min read



Few aspects of being a critic seem to fascinate readers more than the making of the annual top 10 list. (Okay, getting TV screeners/attending movie screenings are more interesting to most.) The irony here is that many critics hate to make them — narrowing a full year down to just 10 titles? Blasphemy! But for readers, they're an attempt to take something inherently inscrutable — what was the best? — and solve it with math, even if that math is just putting things in numerical order, so, basically, the easiest math of all.

But there's also a tendency to presuppose, I think, that most critics have, like, elaborate spreadsheets on which they jot down every single thing they've seen. That's really not true, in my experience, though it's also possible I'm decidedly atypical.

So now that my top 35 (sigh) list is live, go take a look. Then come back and read about the EXCITING SECRETS behind it.

I actually prefer a top 10: I ended up feeling really solid about that top 10. There are tons of shows I would have loved to squeeze in there, but I do genuinely feel like the 10 shows I listed are probably my favorites of the year. But one of the things we like to do at Vox is sort of, I guess, shock and awe you with the amount of things that are out there. I started out with a list 31 strong, then tweaked it to 35 when I just couldn't get ditch some things. And I still, as predicted, completely forgot about The Fall. (And Looking, which was probably one of my 35 favorite shows of 2015, unless you consider that completely forgetting about it until it was too late suggests it wasn't. Entirely possible.)

That said, the gap between #2 and #35 is really small: Every year, I have a firmly established number one. I usually know it as soon as I see it. "Oh, sure," I'll say. "That's my number one." It's rare, though, that I'll have an instantly recognizable number two or three (though it happens; in 2013, my top three was set in stone for a long time). If you were to instantly swap Togetherness and The Leftovers on my list, I might frown a little bit, but I still think it's something I could more or less stand behind. I tend to view shows in tiers, and I think Togetherness is probably on a tier below The Leftovers. But it's not like they're separated by as much as 33 places on the list would suggest. It's, like, the gap between a five-star show and a four-and-a-half star show. Not that far.

I view this more as a mixtape than anything else: I stand by my rankings, but if you think, say, #22 is too low or #3 is too high, I'm not going to get too upset (unless you think The Americans is bad, in which case, get thee behind me, Satan). I'm trying to present a rough ranking, yes, but I'm also trying to create a sort of mixtape of the year in TV that was. I will tinker, endlessly, with the order of shows to achieve this result, too. I tried out fully nine different shows at #2 (some of which slid out of the top 10 entirely) before settling on Leftovers — before swapping it with Mad Men at the last minute, then swapping it back at the even more last minute.

Every show down to Jessica Jones was in the top 10 at one point or another: I tried out a lot of different permutations. I even thought about several smaller top 10 lists, without one overriding one. But then how would I have gotten search engine traffic? (Those lists, incidentally: 10 period piece dramas, 10 sad comedies, and 10 great genre shows. You can still sort of see the remnants of that approach in the list.) The show I was saddest to cut ended up being Fresh Off the Boat, which is why it's at 11. (Sidebar: Have you seen that show lately? It's on fire.)

I wish I could have fit Making a Murderer on there: I was really into it! I'd put it on my 2016 list, but I'm all but certain I'll have forgotten about it by then. I sometimes worry about top 10 recency bias, and I think this is a good sign of that.

Comedy placement tends to be driven by surprise: Broad City's second season was better than its first, I think, or, at least, not appreciably worse. And yet it turned up on few critics' lists and took a major tumble on mine. My best guess here is that the show, airing in January, is at a disadvantage in terms of critics remembering it exists. That didn't happen in season one, because the show was new and surprising. But comedy is at a disadvantage when compared to drama, because it's harder to surprise viewers season after season after season. Game of Thrones can throw out a major ice zombie battle; Broad City can't really do that, so it disappears down the memory hole a little bit.

Having 60 shows on there is just ridiculous: Shock and awe aside, it really is. Here's hoping 2016 has crappier television!


Christmas stuff tomorrow. Remember to drop me suggestions, even though I probably won't use them.


Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't 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 Dot Com.

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