“So I’m just wondering, after reading quite a few of your reviews, is there a secular TV show you guys do like?”
A reader emailed me that question just a couple of days ago. It’s a pretty simple question, really—one that probably some of the rest of you have also asked a time or two. “Man, these guys don’t like anything!” You might’ve muttered under your breath.
Truth is, like in the context of Plugged In is a surprisingly tricky little word. Primarily, we’re not here to tell you whether we like something: We’re here to help you figure out what’s in the thing (be it a TV show or a music album or such), so you can decide whether it’d be good for you and/or your family. Sure, Mad Men may have won a ton o’ Emmys. We all know this. But if Don Draper’s hopping into bed with secretarial candidates, then that’s something we feel you should know, too.
This year, though, the Plugged In staff is trying something new and, we hope, kind of exciting. We’re going to tell you what we did like this past year—through both our Plugged In prism and our own fallible sets of eyes and ears. And we’re going to start today, with television. (Our lists of favorite games and music will be published Jan. 4 and 11, respectively … and we’ll talk about movies as we get closer to Academy Award nominations.)
Before we dive in, let me offer a couple of important disclaimers: Just because we list something here doesn’t mean we’re giving it an official Plugged In seal of approval. That’s particularly true when it comes to these television shows: Everything on the telly—at least on the networks and basic cable—has problems, and sometimes those problems are serious. Read our reviews carefully even if a show manages to get included in this list.
Also, remember: These lists are inherently subjective. We didn’t compare swear-word tallies or use complicated mathematical formulas to make our selections: We picked products that stood out to us—which means you can argue with us as much as you’d like. In fact, we’d love some discussion in the context of this social experiment known as a blog.
So, enough preamble. Here are the five TV shows that stood out to me while reviewing nearly 100 of them in 2012 (listed in alphabetical order).
The American Bible Challenge (GSN): Pitting teams like “the Gospel Geezers” against each other for charity, this Bible-based trivia contest debuted as the Game Show Networks’ most popular program ever. And it stands to reason. Despite its inherently somber and profound subject matter, The American Bible Challenge (thanks in part to host Jeff Foxworthy) manages to keep the tone light without ever trivializing the faith. Sure, the game show stumbles occasionally: Many of our readers were not thrilled with the gospel choir. But when looking for a program that can be as fun as Jeopardy and almost as good for you as Sunday School, this game show’s hard to beat.
Go On (NBC): Yes, Matthew Perry’s new comedy has problems—enough to make it a nonstarter for most families, in fact. But frankly, when it comes to network-based sitcoms these days, it’s a relief to run across something that’s only crass on occasion. And even though the show slips and slides, I like what it tries to do. It’s predicated on loss and grief—especially the hidden angst Perry’s character deals with after losing his beloved wife. But in the producers’ and writers’ deft hands, these somber themes can be seriously funny—probing our need to grieve with our desire (and sometimes the societal pressure to … well, go on. The show goes beyond that, of course, exploring the importance of relationship of all stripes. And it reminds us that we, too, can move past life’s roughest patches—with a little help from our friends.
Good Luck Charlie (Disney Channel): Let’s face it: Television is nearly bereft of quality family comedies these days. Even Go On doesn’t really qualify for that. It seems that if we want to watch something funny, we’re asked to either compromise our values or resign ourselves to reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show. But if there’s one comedy close to what we remember from yesteryear, it’d be Good Luck Charlie. The sitcom may be on the Disney Channel, but this is no Hannah Montana-like tween magnet. Charlie was written with not-so-modern family viewing in mind, and its strong cast can often redeem its sometimes groan-inducing jokes. It can be a bit crude at times, saccharine at others. But for families who long for a traditional sitcom that’ll leave you smiling more than covering your collective eyes, this one might fit the bill. (Or Charlie.)
Once Upon a Time (ABC): There’s a certain power in fairy tales, something about them that taps us to our very core. Stories of good and evil, of bravery and sacrifice … these stories live on in our hearts for generations. Once Upon a Time takes those tales and pushes them into our own world—twisting and twining them along the way. Again, words of caution: The program’s loaded with magic, and its environs are far grittier and, at times, more violent than you’d remember from classic Disney movies. But the drama series does do a nifty trick: While acknowledging that reality isn’t always so black-and-white as our stories sometimes make it seem (even the Evil Queen, we’re learning, isn’t necessarily beyond redemption), it still insists that there is good and evil in the world, and it matters what side we choose. We can be heroes, too—if we have the courage to be so.
Touch (Fox): Fresh off his run as super-brutal agent Jack Bauer in 24, Kiefer Sutherland plays an altogether different character here—a father struggling to connect with his incommunicative son. The boy, while he’s never talked and barely looks at other people, has a remarkable talent: He sees patterns in everything. And those patterns somehow reveal parts of the future. Now obviously, this show doesn’t teach us about spiritual reality. And yet this conceit allows Touch to tell us something quite true and beautiful: We all have a purpose in God’s plan, a reason for why we’re here. We have jobs to do. And sometimes, in the case of Touch, that job consists of loving and helping a troubled little boy.