This is my third column for The Michigan Daily, which is particularly important because “third” things tend to be the best — the third season of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the third season finale of “Mad Men,” the third time the Charmed Ones had to vanquish Cole. And for this special third column, I’m going to tell you all about the very best show on television.
Spoiler Alert: There is no best show on television. Well, maybe there is and I’m just stuck in my ways, but I’ve never felt comfortable declaring a single show as the best. Even when I break it down into painstakingly specific categories, I can’t reach a conclusion — is “Breaking Bad” really the Best Show That Uses Crystal Meth As a Plot Device, or is “Justified?”
I don’t even like top-10 lists. First of all, they operate under the assumption that the person or people creating them have sampled everything there is to sample. Otherwise, the judgement wouldn’t be fair, right? I believe there are only three people on this planet who watch more TV than I: my dear friend and aspiring television writer LaToya Ferguson, my arch-nemesis and aspiring television writer Nate Levy, and AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff. I, however, do not believe that the four of us — even when factoring in our collectively astronomical consumption of television — could come up with a satisfactory top-10 list.
I suppose I should have distinguished between the terms “best” and “favorite” upfront. Except that there isn’t a difference. When it comes to television, there really isn’t a distinction between what is “best” and what is the the “favorite” of the person or group labeling it as such. No matter what that pretentious “Boardwalk Empire” fan you’re friends with says, a television show cannot objectively be the best. You can’t check little boxes next to subcategories and add them all up to equal a numerical score. This isn’t figure skating.
This is why I frequently struggle with assigning star valuations in TV reviews. I get that “Pretty Little Liars” is riddled with plot holes, but I’ll be damned if I ever give it less than 3 1/2 stars, because it keeps me glued to my television more than “The Killing” ever managed to. And a TV show that rightfully earns a five-star review seems so implausible to me. Five stars imply perfection, and there hasn’t been a perfect season of television since “My So-Called Life” was canceled. Perfect episodes of television are hard enough to come by (the recent ones that come to mind are “Queen of Jordan” on “30 Rock” and “The Son” on “Friday Night Lights”).
When people ask me to simply rank or recommend shows, I have a mental breakdown. Is “30 Rock” really better than “Damages”? Sure, one’s a sitcom and the other’s a legal drama, so it’s hard to stack them against each other, but I can’t even compare a workplace satire like “The Office” to an animated action-comedy like “Archer.” And is it fair to hold up the first season of “Game of Thrones” against the current season of “Fringe,” when one has the obvious advantage of an HBO budget? How do either look next to Showtime’s new “Homeland,” which is the polished, provocative action-drama “24” always wanted to be? Speaking of “24,” Elisha Cuthbert and the rest of the cast of “Happy Endings” have really blossomed, but is that enough to make the ABC sitcom better than a cable comedy like “Louie”?
When I am finally forced to choose and rank, I do what I think most people do — I make politically strategic choices. Maybe if I keep insisting “Community” and “Cougar Town” are the best, more people will start watching these hilarious yet ratings-poor network sitcoms. I also love making radical statements like “ ‘The Vampire Diaries’ is the best show on television,” because, you know, it probably isn’t, but it is a damn good show that explores familial issues more deftly than “Modern Family,” and maybe if I throw in the “B”-word, people will shut up and watch.
As someone who writes and talks about television every day, I frequently get the weighty “What’s your favorite television show of all time?” question. All time? Why don’t you just ask me what I think the meaning of life is? Before you declare your own favorite show, keep my personal rule in mind: An all-time favorite show should no longer be on air. A television show needs to be a complete body of work before it’s worthy of such praise. I feel bad for the people who prematurely called “Dexter” or “Weeds” their ultimate favorites before both shows fizzled into mediocrity after such strong starts.
None of this is to say that I don’t think awards shows have a purpose. I hate them, but it’s probably a good thing I don’t control them, because there would be approximately 317 categories ranging across absurdly specific criteria, like Most Varied Facial Expressions in a Supernatural Teen Drama (tie between Chris Zylka and Ian Somerhalder) and Best Horse on Television (Lil Sebastian, obviously). I also don’t think TV critics should stop making their top-10 lists. I just think it’s all a bit of an illusion. The best TV show is like a boring episode of “Revenge” or an unfunny episode of “Childrens Hospital” — it simply doesn’t exist.