New from Sarah Welch-Larson on Substack: 21: Ranking Art

Last week Rolling Stone published a list of the 100 greatest TV shows of all time. I tend to find these lists tiresome; it’s the same conversation held on a different platform over and over again, with a lot of the same shows ranked in slightly different order. They’re good shows! But repeated top-100 (or top 50, or top 5) lists feel an awful lot like running on a hamster wheel. I didn’t bother clicking through to the list. It’s not a list for me—a flaky TV watcher at best—anyway.

Then Rolling Stone published an interview with Alan Sepinwall (their chief TV critic) and Raphael Bob-Waksberg (the creator of BoJack Horseman). Bob-Waksberg had been invited to submit a ballot for the top 100 TV shows list, and his ballot is a thing of beauty. Sure, the usual suspects (Mad Men, Seinfeld, you get the drill) are on the list, but it’s how Bob-Waksberg talks about the shows that caught my attention. He doesn’t just list shows on his ballot, he calls out what makes them special to him specifically:

#29 – Batman: The Animated Series, which remains the platonic Batman all other Batmen are compared against

#14 – Final season of Breaking Bad which you watched in a New York sports bar packed with fans who also didn’t have cable and you all gasped and cheered together like you were spectators at the Coliseum

#41 – Grover-as-a-waiter sketches on Sesame Street

I love this. I think ranked best-of lists are reductive, a sort of repetitive consumer’s guide for What To Watch Next. Bob-Waksberg gets into this too; he’s concerned about the fact that so many best-of lists tend to look the same, and he points out that much of that sameness can be traced back to the sameness of the critics and tastemakers who make the lists in the first place. Bob-Waksberg even points this out with some of his votes (“#44 – still haven’t gotten to Pose but I’m sure I would love it!!!!!”). As a definitive, serious criticism, ranking a show you haven’t seen yet feels irresponsible. But on Bob-Waksberg’s list, this line feels like admitting the truth: it’s impossible to see everything, and we tend to gravitate toward what we know. There’s a sense of obligation inherent in the ranked list, a need to acknowledge the things that have already been established as canon, which makes the ranked list feel more like homework for both ranker and reader.

What’s important about the ranked list isn’t cracking the definitive ranking, but the individual critic’s evaluation; the more specific and idiosyncratic the list, the more interesting it’s bound to be—and the more it’s going to say about the person who put together that list. “I think all writing…is a form of autobiography,” says Bob-Waksberg in the interview, and I’m inclined to agree with him up to a point. The art we find meaningful is meaningful in part due to the meaning we bring to it when we engage with it. I love Mad Men and 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example, but the reasons I love them shouldn’t be boiled down to their ranked place in my personal canon. They’re grounded in the artistry behind the work, and in the place I was when I watched them for the first time; it’s my job as a critic to excavate those reasons and, in effect, give my readers the opportunity to see that art through my own eyes without getting in their view. Ranked lists should be rough drafts, not the final result.

Someday I’ll write a full manifesto against ranking and listing art. There’s got to be a better way to talk about the movies we watch, the songs we listen to, the books we read. For now, I’m glad we have people like Bob-Waksberg, who are willing to play with the form, to poke holes in it, to question it.

Note: Usually I send out a paid-subscribers-only issue at the end of the month. I’m moving them to mid-month from here on out, because the end of the month has been a time crunch lately, and I don’t want those issues to feel perfunctory for you, the reader, or like a burden for me, the writer. Thanks for understanding.

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What I talked about:

The Alien fanatics over at Perfect Organism podcast had me on to talk about feminism in the Alien movies.

For the Think Christian podcast, I had the opportunity to dig in to The Rings of Power with Josh Larsen and Claude Atcho.

This week’s Seeing and Believing podcast is coming soon (Hurricane Ian delayed production a bit). Kevin and I reviewed The Woman King (it’s good!) and talked about Zero Dark Thirty, a movie I’ve been hesitant to watch ever since it first came out ten years ago. I think it’s a very good, very upsetting movie, and I still have reservations about it, which helped to fuel a great discussion. Can’t wait to have you tune in.

What I watched:

Last night I revisited Kogonada’s movie After Yang, which I’m writing about for an upcoming piece for Bright Wall/Dark Room. The movie’s a tender piece of science fiction, one that’s touched me deeply; I’ll get into it in my essay, but in the meantime, if you haven’t seen it, you should seek it out. It’s available on Showtime and on Blu-Ray and DVD.

What I’m listening to:

The new Paramore single “This Is Why” rules, so I built my quarterly seasonal playlist around it. I’m a melancholy person by nature, but I like to lean into it in the fall, and I tried to get at that feeling with a lot of jagged guitars and testy songwriting.

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