No Surprise Here: Influencers And Vox Populi Disagree On Best Dramas

Oh, those elites occupying the New York-Los Angeles axis, who know what Kansas City or Indianapolis look like only through a brief glance outside a plane window. How disconnected they are from the folks living in those fine communities who drive much of this country’s underappreciated businesses. And watch TV.

Yes, enough TV to boost ratings that make it possible for the elites to own condos in SoHo and homes on Laurel Canyon. In a nod to the burgeoning wisdom that a golden age of TV drama is emerging, New York magazine’s Vulture section has been conducting a March Madness-style bracket to determine the greatest TV drama of the last 25 years.

But the magazine didn’t just give its “all-star judging panel” of novelists, journalists, actors and playwrights -- all might say they're real-estate holdings disqualify them from elite status -- a chance to weigh in. There was also a Facebook opportunity for the hoi poloi to vote.

And, so the winners of each contest were revealed Monday morning exclusively on a WNYC radio show in New York.

But, why give those away now. So, here's a tease -- a veritable shocker -- the finalalists and winners were different among each group.

As with March Madness, there has been plenty of grist for controversy. That’s both in terms of which shows were selected to join the 16-show bracket, and which ones survived and advanced on the road to the Final Four.

There was a lot at stake. Pride in the creative community, yes, but also that valuable chance for networks to note "New York magazine's greatest TV drama in the last 25 years" in all sorts of ads.

First, credit the selection committee with doing a good job in winnowing the field, even if they left out a number of shows where pockets of viewers still watch episodes over and over again a decade after retirement.

Politics and sports get people fired up about their favorites. But can it be said passion for a TV show engenders greater loyalty and defiance at a dinner party? (Non-elites may choose other less-vaunted venues for their disputes, where amber-colored liquids flow.)

The elites’ poll produced several upsets, most notably “The X-Files” beating “The West Wing” in a first-round match-up. That’s like Norfolk State beating Missouri.

Other decisions, though, seemed intuitive. “Lost” may have had a fervent fan base, but “Mad Men” rightfully topped it. “The Shield’s” victory over “NYPD Blue” may cause some anger in certain precincts. But, the FX show arguably sparked cable’s now massive investment in original dramas, which has helped usher in the golden drama age, so it deserves the win, if for no other reason.

Still, “The Shield” didn’t make it too far, losing in the next round -- justifiably so -- to “The Sopranos.” “Mad Men,” however, posted a win over “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” to join the HBO smash in the Final Four.

Which made HBO and AMC big winners, with two Final Four entrants each -- “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” for the pay-cable network, and “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” for AMC.

AMC, though, quickly suffered a double defeat as “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” moved on to face off in the "Drama Derby" finals. And, the decision was not to be made by committee, but solely by New York TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz.

On WNYC Monday, Seitz doled out praise for all the contestants and offered a window into what makes a transcendent show -- one that could compete again in 25 years for best drama over the past 50 years.

“(They) can be taken as metaphors for other things and you can apply them to your own life,” he said. “And, I think that’s ultimately the real test of whether or not any kind of popular piece of art is durable … if you can extract it from its context and see yourself in it, see your neighborhood, see your country, see your city.”

“The Sopranos” and “Wire” may not seem to dovetail with everyday life, but Tony Soprano’s bouncing between a difficult job and troubled family life might qualify, while “The Wire's” unending questions about the probity in government institutions might also give it some role.

So, Seitz went to work with a lengthy and complex thought process – anyone who thinks TV critics are superficial should give his evaluation a read. He breaks down criteria such as “philosophical sophistication” (the two shows tied); “characterization” (win for “The Wire”) and “formal daring” (“Sopranos").

Seitz credits “The Wire” with being more “consistently excellent.” Huzzahs for "Sopranos" include its occasional “qualities of stage drama, opera, and even Renaissance painting" and its continued role as a pop culture maypole. Much more than "The Wire" -- which has much lower ratings -- people still discuss it as if the finale were yesterday and grapple with it as if it were "a tantalizing dream that could bring salvation or ruination if we could only get a handle on it?”

That endurance alone should have given it the victory.

But in a monumental upset, Seitz goes with “The Wire,” writing it “stands tall as one of the most ambitious, creative, and, yes, audacious dramas, doing more with less, and more with more, than almost any scripted series in TV history.”

So, with Seitz and other influencers having decided their winner -- we'll give the "elites" description a rest -- what did the vox populi think?

In their final, those regular folks had AMC’s currently airing “Breaking Bad” squaring off with “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” which finished its run in 2003.

The peoples' champion? “Breaking Bad.”

What’s wonderful is no matter where anyone sits -- a Hollywood office, Connectciut aerie, newsroom or living room with shag rug -- questions always persist about favorites.

Fortunately, there are more superb dramas than ever that should fuel those for a long time. That's good for everyone.

Tags: television
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