The current embarrassment of riches in quality TV — helping birth annual “best lists” that balloon to 20 or 30 entries — doesn’t erase the fact that there’s still plenty of lousy stuff too, another byproduct of an age of abundance.
So as a companion to CNN’s recent “best of” roster, here’s a Top 10 list of the worst individual programs and a few wider trends of 2016. In terms of criteria, note that projects were judged more harshly if their creative auspices invited somewhat higher expectations.
Crisis in Six Scenes (Amazon):
The streaming service was clearly thrilled to be able to promote an original TV series from Woody Allen, but someone forgot to tell the director to share its enthusiasm. The result: A completely phoned in afterthought that felt like a particularly dreadful Allen movie stretched out over six episodes.
The X-Files (Fox):
“TV reboots” almost earned its own category, but enough of them were pretty good to avoid that indignity. Still, after two movies, and 14 years since the series ended, Fox got the “X-Files” gang back together, and while a lot of fans wanted to believe again, the truth is they shouldn’t have bothered. The stand-alone episodes were uninspired, but the mythology chapters were particularly bad, before closing on a ridiculous cliffhanger.
Sarah Jessica Parker’s much-ballyhooed return to HBO came in the form of a lifeless, jokey series that ill served its talented cast and looked especially pallid juxtaposed with its less-heralded companion, “Insecure.”
Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders (CBS):
Even for a spinoff of an existing procedural, this drama about Americans threatened by homicidal lunatics abroad was xenophobic and nasty. Given CBS’ heavy reliance on crime shows, it also signaled that the network has so exhausted the domestic supply of serial killers that it felt compelled to import them.
60 Days In (A&E):
There’s no denying that A&E’s undercover “experiment” — putting several ordinary people inside a jail wired with hundreds of cameras — was compelling and provocative. But it also lowered the bar in terms of at least creating the appearance of unnecessarily placing people in potential harm’s way as a source of entertainment, and prominently featured one participant who came across either as a posturing reality-TV wannabe seeking 15 minutes of fame or wholly delusional.
Despite its real-life inspiration — with famed lawyer Mark Geragos and former “Larry King Live” producer Wendy Walker among its creative team — this attempt to do a sexy court-and-crime show by mixing a beautiful cable news producer and dashing defense attorney was ill-conceived on most every level. (The network also produced a close runner-up with the equally unnecessary “Conviction.”)
Granted, critics have only seen the pilot and two upcoming episodes. But based strictly on that, it appears Fox and producer Lee Daniels tried to replicate the music-driven soapiness of “Empire” — and came up with a latter-day “Showgirls” instead.
Hunting Hitler (History):
Although the show technically premiered in late 2015, its second season began in November. There’s nothing wrong with having an open mind and curiosity, but it’s worth pointing out in a year when “fake news” received so much attention, History is willingly promoting bad history — filled with unsubstantiated theories and speculation — pitched specifically to conspiracy-theorist types eager to believe that Bigfoot exists and Hitler is working at a Walmart somewhere.
The idea of presenting an assortment of voices to articulate candidates’ views isn’t a bad one. But unlike analysts and commentators who could be counted on to express their own opinions, these unapologetic partisans simply defended their man or woman regardless of the circumstances. Beyond often trafficking in misleading information that frequently did more to obscure than enlighten, at a certain point the arguments became just plain boring.
JonBenet Ramsey revisited:
If you need a demonstration of TV’s me-too impulse at its worst, look no further than the deluge of programming intended to reopen this 20-year-old child murder, yielding specials on CBS, NBC’s “Dateline,” A&E, Investigation Discovery and CNN. There was also a new Lifetime movie, “Who Killed JonBenet?,” creepily “narrated” by the dead girl.
Why all the sudden interest? Because “Making a Murderer” and “The Jinx” were hits and media sensations — prompting everyone in TV to join the true-crime trend. As a bonus, like the O.J. Simpson trial, the Ramsey case’s 20th anniversary offered an excuse for various networks to pile on.