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Episodes: The problem with top 10 lists


Emily VanDerWerff

Dec 17 2015

6 min read



I went on a bit of a Twitter tear a week ago, spurred by the HitFix TV critics poll but, really, by any list that aggregates a bunch of critics' votes together. I used to run one, in the AV Club's annual poll, and I counted the ballots every year, so it was easy to see how the chips fell.

And the simple answer was that any show that was watched by, say, 2/3 of the voting body, even if a fair number of them didn't like it, was very, very likely to make the list. We had years when The Walking Dead made the list (albeit quite low), just because enough people watched it to throw it a couple of points here and there. (Full disclosure: I was one of those people one year.) The same has generally held true for the Hitfix list, though the numbers are far larger there. If a significant number of people watch a show, it's going to make the top 10, again, even if there are quite a few people who don't like it.

I started talking about all of this because I saw a fair amount of grousing about a.) Fargo winning and b.) comedies performing poorly compared to dramas. In terms of the first, well, Fargo's a show we all watch. I specifically didn't vote for it (even though it's on my final top 10 of the year), because I knew it didn't need my help, and I was hoping against hope to push The Americans or Transparent to the win. (I hate nothing more than the same thing winning over and over and over again.) The Americans finished a distant second and Transparent in fourth. So much for that.

Similarly, over most of the years I counted AV Club ballots, it was all but guaranteed that Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Louie would finish in some order in the top five, because everybody watched all three shows. One of the reasons we switched in 2013 to a system where we discussed our list in a secret forum was because I wanted to see if we could affect this order in any way. And it worked! Breaking Bad cracked the top five, but the other four were Enlightened (our winner), Bob's Burgers, Orange Is the New Black, and Game of Thrones. It was a humongous amount of work, though, and not just for those discussing. (Our editorial team, I think, wanted to murder me.)

That 2013 list is still one of the AV Club things I'm proudest of, but curating it required a certain level of absolute madness that I don't know if I could have summoned for another year in a row. (I left that job, so we never had to find out.) But it felt to me like it really did reflect the best of TV in 2013, not just the same shows everybody watched. I didn't agree with every pick in that top five (I was hellbent on New Girl making it in, which turned out to be a vastly minority opinion), but I at least understood why all of them landed there, and in the process, I got to watch a lot of great TV I might not have otherwise. (Bob's only cracked the top five because lots of people were basically forced to watch it and ended up loving it -- for a short time, it was actually our number one, a result that would have tickled me endlessly.)

That, however, is an impossible task to ask a group to perform. In our era of Peak TV, it's just impossible to ask anyone to watch all of the same stuff. I, for instance, think that Manhattan would have finished much higher on the Hitfix list if more than a handful of people kept up with it, but it's not like it's on a network people think of as a go-to for great TV. I'm sure you can think of any number of under the radar shows for which this is true.

Please note that when I'm saying this, I'm not saying shows like Fargo or Breaking Bad are UNWORTHY somehow. I think they're great shows that have won the favor of voters honestly. But I also think the continued dominance of a few programs can create an impression that they're far and away THE BEST shows, and I'm less sure that's true.

That's even more true for comedies, which are less universal in nature than dramas and, thus, find it much harder to scrape together a winning coalition. When even You're the Worst, a show that's gotten glowing reviews from lots of people, can't land in the top 10, it suggests hard comedy (i.e., not dramedy) is probably always going to struggle. People laugh at different things. This is likely inevitable.

And this is also not a problem that exists in TV and only TV. The same books, albums, and films keep turning up on top 10 lists less because they're "the best" and more because they're the ones everybody has agreed to see. Does this mean that H Is for Hawk, To Pimp a Butterfly, and Carol are unworthy? Heck no. (Carol's my favorite film of the year.) It does mean that there's a sort of caste system when it comes time to make these lists -- the things you HAVE to catch up with, the things you MIGHT catch up with, and the things you just let slide.

What's changed in TV is that in the last three or four years, most of us finally have a substantial number of things we let slide. Keeping up with the best of TV in 2005 was easy, because everybody could agree on the same 20-30 shows, for the most part, even if you had to watch, say, The Daily Show nightly. Now, however, nobody can agree on anything, except maybe the five shows we all watch (which I'd peg as probably Fargo, Americans, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and Transparent). And, look, I think Game of Thrones is kind of a mess right now, but when I'm drawing up my list for Vox, it's still going to weigh on my mind, because I watched it.

I'm not trying to suggest group top 10s are pointless, or that the five shows we all watch are terrible (I really love four of them). I'm just saying that when it comes to this sort of thing, all shows are equal, but some shows are more equal than others.


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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