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The Futility of Top Ten Lists


The mass media have a fixation upon throwing up lists.

Sports editors run innumerable lists of the “Top 10” high school and college teams.

Arts and entertainment editors run lists of the top books, movies, songs, and even video games.

Financial and business editors tell us who they believe are the “most important” moguls, and rank each on a scale that has no meaning to anyone, especially the moguls themselves.

Fashion editors love making lists of “best dressed” and “worst dressed” celebrities.

News editors love making end-of-the-year lists of the “Top 10 Headlines.” Like the other editors, they don’t tell us why their pick of the top news story was more important than the No. 2 story—or why the No. 10 story was any more important than the thousands that did not make the list.

TV Guide also loves lists. This month, it threw out a list of what some of their editors irrationally believe are the “60 Greatest Shows on Earth,” complete with a sentence describing each show. And, like most lists, it’s little more than annoying static.

The top three shows, according to TV Guide, are “The Sopranos,” “Seinfeld,” and “I Love Lucy.” Squeezing into the list at the bottom are “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” “The Good Wife,” and “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Inbetween—and completely without any logic, except for the editors’ over-ripe egos that they actually know something—are numerous shows, some great, some better than mediocre. For instance, “Saturday Night Live,” which believes stretching out a good one minute comedy sketch to five minutes makes it five times better, is the 18th best “greatest show on earth.” The editors, who seem to be in a time warp that left them in junior high, placed “SNL” above “The Dick VanDyke Show” (no. 20), “The Tonight Show, starring Johnny Carson” (no. 22), “Friends” (no. 28), “Taxi” (no. 35), “Barney Miller” (no. 46), “The Bob Newhart Show” (no. 49), and “The Daily Show, with Jon Stewart” (no. 53.) No one at TV Guide can explain how “The Daily Show” was 35 places below “SNL” or why “The Colbert Report” never made the list.

The editors also didn’t explain how “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” by all accounts one of the best comedies on TV, was rated no. 7, while Sid Caesar’s “ Your Show of Shows,” a 90-minute live comedy show in the early 1950s that exposed America to the acting and writing talents of Carl Reiner, Imogene Coca, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Howard Morris and dozens of others, was 37th on the list, 19 below “SNL,” which should have used the Sid Caesar show—or even its own first half-dozen years—as models of comedic genius. Missing from the list of the “60 Greatest” is “The Tonight Show, with Steve Allen,” which established the standard by which all other late night show operate.

“60 Minutes,” which has often been the top-rated show, made the list at no. 24. But, “See It Now,” with Edward R. Murrow, one of the nation’s most important and influential journalists, did not make the list, an oversight that could be attributed to the fact that TV Guide editors probably slept through most of their college journalism lectures, days after their after drug-induced high while watching “SNL.”

Also missing from the “60 greatest” list—and indicative of TV Guide’s lack of understanding that America extends beyond the polluted Hudson River— is “NCIS.” TV Guide editors freely mark the best prime time shows to watch each day; they usually don’t give “NCIS” that distinction. Only in the past couple of years, exhausted by seeing “NCIS” at the top of the ratings week after week, have they published major features about “NCIS,” while constantly gushing over shows and stars that have no chance of lasting a decade in prime time.

For 10 years, the actors and crew of TV’s most-watched show have just done their jobs, and they have done it well. Every actor is someone who could be on Broadway or handle a major film role.

The writing on “NCIS” is fast-paced and thought-provoking, wringing emotion from its 20 million viewers each week. Unlike many procedural dramas, this CBS show’s writers layer a fine coat of humor that is far better than what passes as half-hour sitcoms these days.

The production values exceed most other shows—from lighting to camera movement to even prop placement. The behind-the-scenes crew may be among the best professionals in the industry.

Behind the scenes, the cast and crew are family. They work together. They care about each other. Numerous shows claim this is true with them. But, the reality is their claims are little more than PR sludge. With “NCIS,” the claims are true.

There are no scandals and there doesn’t seem to be much ego among the actors.

In 11 seasons, Mark Harmon, who can evoke an emotion in the audience merely by a slight look and no words, has never been nominated for an Emmy. As every good actor knows, true acting is when people don’t know you’re acting.

Portraying the fine nuances of a character is a quality that sustained James Garner’s career for five decades. Like Mark Harmon, Garner never won an Emmy, and his popular show, “The Rockwood Files” never made it to TV Guide’s “60 Greatest” splash of nonsense.

Mark Harmon and James Garner, both masters of their craft, may not even care they’ve never won an Emmy. They, like millions of us already know, a spot on TV Guide’s “60 greatest shows on earth” is not the recognition they crave – but probably deserve.

Walter Brasch’s book, America’s Unpatriotic Acts, was the first major book to catalogue and then destroy the government’s belief that the PATRIOT Act was necessary to protect American security at the expense of the Bill of Rights. His current book is Fracking Pennsylvania, which looks into the health, environmental, and economic effects of fracking. 

Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an analysis of the history, economics, and politics of fracking, as well as its environmental and health effects.

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