The Critics’ Top Seven
TV Shows of 2004 (Sort Of)

by Jeff Lewis

Music critics go raving mad, rabies-style, when they compile their lists for the top albums of the year and, consequently, the number of yearly Top 10 lists floating around the internet and in magazines is astounding.  End of the year lists for the top television shows, on the other hand, pique the interest of only a handful of TV critics, presumably because New Year’s Day cuts through the main television season at a meaningless point.  The critics apparently save up their computations for the end of the season, or at least the midway point.  Consequently, Top 10 lists for 2004’s TV shows are hard to come by, and roughly half of the twenty-odd lists I found applied only to new series.

After spending hours tabulating a list of music critics’ nineteen favorite albums for my last article, I felt a little sheepish.  Surely I have better things to do.  Upon completion of that dubious task, I did a little soul searching, with hopes of persuading myself to show a little self control when it comes to compiling long numerical lists.

To make myself less guilt-ridden, I concocted a plan:  compile the critics’ Top 10 TV shows of 2004.  The difference:  instead of spending many hours combing the internet, entering many numbers into a database, I would approach this lackadaisically—an afro pick instead of a lice comb, if you will—and scribble the results on a piece of scratch paper.  If I could apply the knowledge that I gained in my Top 19 albums list to my TV list—the knowledge that compiling lists takes many, many hours if you put a lot of effort into it—I could whip up a Critics’ Best list in thirty minutes, or maybe an hour tops.  If I then averaged the total number of hours spent on these two projects, those hours that I wasted on the Top 19 list look statistically less wasteful.

What I didn’t take into account was the scarcity of Best Shows of 2004 lists that I alluded to earlier.  There aren’t enough to make a compilation statistically meaningful, particularly because I was too lazy to note more than the top three shows on each critic’s list.  As a result, I could only create a Top 7 list.

Laziness comes with a price.  In my case, that price is more guilt; I am sorry that I only have this meaningless Top 7 list to present to you, although not guilty enough, I suppose, to go back and create a better list.  Here is the definitive, poorly-tabulated list of the TV critics’ seven favorite shows of 2004:

  1. Lost, ABC – 25 points
  2. Desperate Housewives, ABC – 24 points
  3. Arrested Development, Fox – 20 points
  4. The Wire, HBO – 18 points
  5. Deadwood, HBO – 13 points
  6. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Comedy Central – 8 points
  7. The Sopranos, HBO – 6 points

Since my Top 7 list didn’t take very long, I figured I might as well compile a second list based on the viewing trends of the Lewis household, which watches it’s fair share of television.

  1. Arrested Development, Fox – As I mentioned in an earlier article, my wife considers this to be “the funniest show in the history of funny.”  The fact that I’ve seen each episode no fewer than two times—and the pilot at least five times—suggests that I agree with her.  Even after multiple viewings, we can’t bring ourselves to delete the show from Tivo without a dispirited sigh.  Recently, I was discussing Arrested Development with some fans of the show, who were telling me that they’ve begun to reevaluate their relationships with friends who don’t like the show.  I see where they’re coming from.
  2. The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, Comedy Central – Occasionally the contributors lay on the irony and sarcasm a little thick, but it is mind-boggling how many top-notch lines the writers can pack into the show, with heavy doses of the “PPFFFF—I can’t believe he just said that” type of humor.  The show likely isn’t as funny for those whose politics swing right of John 3:16, but even the leaders of Bush’s campaign seemed to enjoy their stints on the interviewee’s couch.
  3. Chapelle’s Show, Comedy Central – Not every skit clicks—at least for a PBS-watching mid-thirties white couple—but the highs match anything we’ve ever seen on TV.  Rick James, Prince and the waters of Lake Minnetonka, the Racial Draft, the Wayne Brady Special, I Know Black People, Charlie Murphy’s grin:  genius.
  4. State of Play, BBC America – This conspiracy thriller debuted in Britain in 2003, but didn’t make its way to the U.S. until this past spring.  This mini-series’ plot took a back seat to the humor that the script and great cast—most notably Bill Nighy and Kelly MacDonald—wrung out of the tension.
  5. The Office, BBC America – The Office is brilliant comedy, the type that is consistently painful to watch. This was particularly true of the final “Christmas Special” episode that aired in 2004.  If this list included the episodes from past years, it would be tied at the top with Arrested Development.
  6. Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness, PBS – Helen Mirren reprises her Emmy-winning role as Jane Tennison, Detective Superintendent of the London Metropolitan Police, after a seven-year break.  This installment’s plot, cast and acting are as good as any in this masterful series—arguably the best TV police procedural franchise ever—and the cinematography is stunning.
  7. Table for Five, IFC – This is the show to watch if you’re itching to go to a great dinner party, but don’t want to leave your house or don’t have witty, famous friends.  In each installment, actor and director Jon Favreau hosts a dinner with four people connected with the film industry.  These actors, directors, producers and writers eat, drink, cuss, smoke cigars and tell anecdotes.  Because Favreau promises to let the guests nix any portion that they find embarrassing, they warm to the task and consequently, most episodes make me laugh out loud—something that rarely happens while watching a sitcom (even though I feel a little embarrassed that I’m spending a half an hour watching rich people eat a free meal).
  8. Independent Lens, PBS – This series capitalizes on the resurgent popularity of documentaries, consistently delivering provocative and touching snapshots of American life.  Notable documentaries in the series covered immigration, adoption, prison rodeos, polka and Dr. Seuss.  “The New Americans” documentary, which follows families and individuals from five nations as they leave their homelands and start life in the U.S., was the most engrossing show we watched all year.
  9. Foyle’s War 2, PBS – It is a pleasure just to watch suspects squirm in this WWII police procedural, as Chief Inspector Christopher Foyle interrogates them with a bevy of nods, blinks and soul-searching stares.  Michael Kitchen plays Foyle, who keeps southeast England safe during the Battle of Britain.  With luck, Hollywood will find Kitchen a career-defining role, like Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, so that he gets the movie roles that he deserves.  Maybe the new Harry Potter book will include a character that nods, blinks and stares meaningfully.
  10. Nature, PBS – While I’m often disappointed with National Geographic, National Geographic Explorer and Nova, I seldom finish an episode of Nature without wishing that I had a spare $20,000 to travel to Croatia, Africa, British Columbia, Western Russia, etc., plus another $100 million to give to research and preservation.