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Yesterday, AFI Embraced TV's Best; Today, ABC and NBC Don't
December 17, 2007  | By David Bianculli
Clash of the Choirs

The American Film Institute yesterday announced its eighth annual roster of the year's most outstanding achievements in film and television. Today, ABC and NBC present the premiere installments of their latest prime-time series offerings: a quiz show named Duel on ABC, and a music competition show named Clash of the Choirs on NBC.

A year from now, don't expect either of those shows to make the AFI's list.

Quiz, game, competition and reality shows can be the most popular shows on television, but they're rarely contenders for anyone's Top 10 list in terms of excellence. That's true now, and it was just as true in the 1950s, when the quiz show The $64,000 Question was the top-rated series of the 1955-56 TV season.

Number two that year? A little sitcom named I Love Lucy.

Lucille Ball

Half a century later, Lucille Ball remains a TV icon, her shows watched and loved on cable, and collected and treasured on DVD. Now ask yourself the real $64,000 question: When's the last time you saw an installment of The $64,000 Question? Or wanted to?

What's the difference? The difference is obvious. Lucille Ball was a wonderful comedienne, her co-stars and guest stars were talented, and the scripts and direction were - and are - inspired. All of the hit unscripted shows of that period, from Groucho Marx's You Bet Your Life to I've Got a Secret, were diversions.

Today, so is Survivor, which concluded last night, and The Amazing Race, which returns Sunday, and American Idol, which returns next month. They're here today, and very popular and profitable today - but do you collect them on DVD? And a decade from now, will you remember them at all? It hasn't even been a decade yet since ABC revived the prime-time quiz show with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and look how quickly that TV comet burned out.

And those shows, in the competition and quiz genres, are the quality entrants. Most of the others - and, because of the ongoing writers' strike, we're about to be hit with a veritable tsunami of unscripted series - are a lot worse. As when the genre began in the '50s, they're all diversions. But soon, because of the strike, there won't be much from which to divert us. Just reruns, rejects and reality, pretty much wall-to-wall.

Quality scripted shows, for a while, are going to get increasingly scarce. So savor, for a moment, the just-released roster of AFI outstanding TV shows: Dexter, Everybody Hates Chris, Friday Night Lights, Longford, Mad Men, Pushing Daisies, The Sopranos, Tell Me You Love Me, 30 Rock and Ugly Betty . Except for Tell Me and Longford, it's a very astute and impressive list. (I served on the inaugural AFI TV panel in 2000, so I can attest these nominations are taken, and debated, very seriously.)

Will viewers be watching Sopranos and 30 Rock a generation from now? Yes. Big Brother and American Gladiators? No.

Oh, and what do all the really durable shows have in common? Writers.

Keep that in mind - because the studio and network executives seem to have forgotten it.


1 Comment


Omer Tomlinson said:

What a shame that the best show on TV, "The Wire" is even ignored by AFI, let alone the Emmys. I am excited to see the final season coming up next month. That is one show that delivers the best promise of telvision. Dave, what can we do to give this worthy drama the proper recognition?

Comment posted on December 17, 2007 6:34 AM

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