Nightfly, at long last, shares his specific method for qualitatively ranking TV episodes.
Welcome to the land of super-subjectivity! Today I share with you readers the method I've used to score scripted shows for at least the last decade. In all honesty I've not scored every episode of every show I've watched since creating this method, but, it has been an invaluable tool to help me judge which shows topped my past couple years' worth of TV Week in Review list columns. Not being a pack-rat, I've certainly not kept all the scoresheets filled-out in the past and I've also not kept records of scores because I've found that an episode can generate slightly different scores depending on ephemeral factors (such as mood) on any given day.
If you decide you want to emulate this scoring methodology, I suggest pursuing it on printed paper sheets (the way I do it), but on the other hand the point of this article is to help you find your own way.
First off, ideally, this scoring approach produces a perfect maximum score of 100. For the record, I've never awarded any show a perfect 100 but I have seen scores in the high nineties (from shows like Human Target, True Blood and more recently Touch). I originally developed this scoring formula to guage how great an accomplishment any given episode represents, but I can't pretend it doesn't also cater to my particular tastes and predilections. The goal, however, is primarily to rate the level of production difficulty an episode reflects and to score how successfully an episode coordinated and orchestrated what it tried to deliver.
The scoresheet consists of two tiers, with the top tier comprised of five categories each carrying a maximum score of ten (10) points. The second tier is comprised of ten categories each able to be scored no higher than 5pts. So, if all five Tier I categories earned their maximum of ten points and all ten Tier II categories earn their maximum point total of five, you get the magically perfect score of 100.
Here are my Tier I categories with a brief explanation for each one (all five categories can earn scores up to ten points).
Acting (1-10): While it may seem unfair, this category is as often as not about casting. It's possible, however, that a cast not full of favorites can still turn-in an extraordinarily performed episode. Naturally, if a cast of beloved actors delivers an especially well acted episode (typically found in finales and/or premieres) this score can reach its maximum amount of ten (10) points.
Directing (1-10): Some may argue that this category is unfair because most directors, especially in TV, don't always get Final Cut. And with most series cranking out an episode every seven or eight days, the ability to get complete or comprehensive coverage is definitely a rarity. That said, there are a number of helmers (like John Dahl) that reliably impress with episodes expertly directed despite the profound constraints of television's fast paced production demands.
Writing (1-10): This area shouldn't require much description. Obviously it's subjective and can be highly personal, but if you really loved an episode's writing then this category earns a high score.
Editing/Pacing (1-10): Assuming the coverage exists to cut, the editor can make a scene so much more than the sum of its parts. And no matter what else goes right, a poorly paced episode can seriously diminish a story's impact. This category isn't always the easiest to score but it's worth familiarizing yourself with what Editors bring to a project and appreciating the enormous thumb pacing puts on the (proverbial) scale.
Poignancy (1-10): I know, I know, what the frack does this mean, right? It basically refers to a reversal of a norm, or a profoundly revelatory or moving turn. Framed in super-simple terms, I use this category to rate how well a comedy momentarily moves me dramatically - or when a predominantly sad drama unexpectedly makes me laugh. A couple of my favorite actors in this area are Robin Williams and Ty Burrell. M*A*S*H and Glee are, by my estimation, two of the most poignant shows in the history of TV. The sitcom Scrubs had a special (downbeat, slow tempo) musical cue for their overtly poignant moments.
Now to my Tier II categories (these all top out at a maximum of five points)
Costumes (1-5): Fairly self-explanatory. Period pieces naturally have an advantage in this area but modern shows can earn high scores in this category too. Modern shows can score well here by being stylishly "fashion forward" but also by being eclectic and/or extra creative. Current shows routinely scoring high marks from me in this category include Once Upon a Time, Lost Girl, Hart of Dixie, Doctor Who and most recently Copper (to name just a few). By the way, bowties and fez's are cool.
Auxiliary Casting / Diversity (1-5): This category pertains to seconday and tertiary casting as well as the quality of (one-off or recurring) guest stars. Diversity is half the name of this area because even a cast of Academy Award winners will not earn a maximum score of five if it does not accurately reflect the diversity dictated by reality. Tokenism isn't ideal, but finding room for more than one ethnicity is always appreciated - assuming the casting properly matches the realism of the story.
Make-Up / Hair (1-5): Depending on how knowledgeable you are on these topics, you may choose to make these two separate categories. Since I'm not exceedingly knowledgeable in these fields I've been well-served by combining them into one. This is also arguably one of the more subjective categories of my scoring system as beauty is inevitably in the eye of the beholder. And, as with costuming, period pieces tend to have a natural advantage here. Shows with EFX make-up also get easy high scores in this area too.
Set Design (1-5): One of the reasons I'm so looking forward to Syfy's upcoming show Hot Set is because I've long appreciated a visually appealing set. Having many outstanding sets can be advantageous, but so too can a single set if it's as signature or unique as the Bridge of the Enterprise.
Fight-Dance Choreography (1-5): Shows employing choreography, particularly complex choreography, always gain favor with me. Whether it's the combat of Nikita or evocative ballet of Bunheads, how can you not reward and marvel at expertly executed choreography? I'm a sucker for storytelling via movement, and, as dance fans surely know - few things in life communicate emotion as effectively as the human form in motion.
Music Design / Score (1-5): As a musician this area is very close to my heart. I use the term "Music Design" because this category isn't just about incidental music. There's a definite probability that I'd love Supernatural just as much without the (classic rock) music of Kansas being so prevalent, but maybe not. It also always impresses me when shows choose to spend chunks of their budget on official licensed music, especially if used in particularly poingant moments. Shows featuring casts that sing (like Glee) surely earn easy high scores here too.
Vehicles (1-5): Another highly subjective area. I personally love seeing helicopters, muscle/sports cars and combat planes in primetime. Maybe you're a big fan of trains, bicycles or Harley-Davidson choppers. While it's enough to just showcase the cool or exotic vehicles I love, action sequences featuring them always get the highest scores from me.
Locations (1-5): Similar to the category of Set Design, this area reflects the beauty, difficulty and diversity of locales depicted. And similar to the Enterprise's Bridge set, it's not necessarily a negative if a show has limited primary locations (such as the mostly Hawaii-bound Lost). Most sitcoms, unfortunately (by design), don't score very highly in this category but the sitcoms that do venture outdoors (like Parks and Recreation) rate best.
Geek (1-5): Unquestionably the most subjective category in this system because what's "geek" to me likely isn't "geek" to you. Since I value references to sci-fi franchises, the 1980s and comic book superheroes shows like The Big Bang Theory and Psych do exceedingly well in this area with me. Perhaps you geek out more over unicorns, steampunk or rpg video games, so episodes citing those topics would earn more Geek points from you. Still, you might be surprised at how often shows like Grey's Anatomy or The Good Wife earn a few points from me in this super-subjective category.
Animals (1-5): If you know the ol' axiom about Kids & Animals then you know why this category exists. I don't give shows extra credit for employing kids because I believe their presence is ubiquitous, but I do give shows credit for including 'n showcasing animals. I especially reward the inclusion of rare or dangerous animals, but, dogs and monkeys are point earners too. NBC's new sitcom Animal Hospital (premiering 9.26) will undoubtedly dominate in this area like no other.
So if you add all those maximum point totals up you'll see how it reaches 100. And since almost no series is set up to deliver on all those areas, it's easy to see why I've yet to award my first 100 to any episode of any show. Nevertheless, I've found this scoring method useful and've used slight variations of it for several years. If you've read all this and think it potentially useful to you, I thank you. I sincerely questioned whether or not anyone would care or want to know how I rate episodes, but with the Fall season beginning I thought someone might get some inspiration or use from it. I welcome your comments and/or suggestions and wholeheartedly support you tweaking (or totally changing) the categories to Your tastes. And if, by chance, you ever arrive at a perfect 100 score for an episode please let me know - that'd be a show I wouldn't want to miss.
I've never come up with any similar type of scoresheet for Reality Shows - if you come up with one please share it with me as I watch a lot of reality fare and could use a good method to rate 'em.