Issue 10: Getting Objectified: The Ranking Epidemic
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Can you remember the results of the last ranking list you saw? Even one you read yesterday? I can’t, and I have a tendency to remember trivial matters like this. The market is so flooded with them, none stand out.
I have a feeling much of this ranking fever can be traced back to sports fans. Unlike most art forms, sports are able to crown a definitive “best” every year through a playoff system that doesn’t require opinion and voting. Acting, for instance, doesn’t have this luxury. Phillip Seymour Hoffman isn’t able to take on Daniel Day-Lewis in a conference playoff game to determine who was a better actor in 2007.
Though sports are able to delineate clear winners and losers every year, fans still find other things to compare and argue about. For instance, they argue over whether one championship team could beat one from an earlier era. Could the '61 Yankees beat the '27 Yankees? Does LeBron James have more natural talent than Michael Jordan did in the '90s?
These types of subjective, impossible-to-resolve arguments have become ubiquitous in the mainstream sports media in the last decade and it was only a matter of time before the concept started seeping into other topics. It led to entities like the American Film Institute ranking Psycho’s Norman Bates as film’s second greatest movie villain of all time, falling short to Hannibal Lecter.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo recently made news when it dethroned Citizen Kane as the British Film Institute’s greatest movie of all time. The institute’s Sight & Sound magazine has published its Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time every 10 years since 1952. Citizen Kane has been at the top ever since the beginning, but that changed in 2012 when Vertigo overtook it.
While I understand that critical opinion can change over time, I also wonder what the point is of determining an “all time” winner if it’s liable to change anyway. If we’re continuously re-assessing and changing our mind about what the greatest fill-in-the-blank of all time is, it seems to be a hollow title.
I hate to put on the nostalgia-colored glasses, but whenever you see these “all time” lists, you rarely see anything from the modern era anywhere near the top. This makes sense, as it can come across as “generationally arrogant”, so to speak, to place a movie or album that came out in the last few years alongside ones that have stood the test of time for 50 years or so.
But the realist in me thinks little from the modern era measures up to the classics anyway. It’s virtually impossible to imagine anything ever coming out today the critical community would mention in the same breath as Citizen Kane or the Beatles.
Which brings me back to The Wire. Airing from 2002-08, the show is an extremely modern creation for something that is frequently referred to as “the greatest TV show of all time”. While it’s nice to think that a show from the current era is worthy of holding that lofty title, it also seems a bit premature to make that proclamation. It would make sense to wait a few decades and see if it still holds up.
As a fan of The Wire, I hope for the show’s sake it doesn’t get overwhelmed by its critical reputation. The “greatest of all time” title is a heavy burden to bear, as it leads to expectations that are almost impossible to meet. Why can’t we just say it’s a really good show and leave it at that?
A COUPLE OF years ago I was eating dinner with a friend and his wife when we happened to get in a
discussion of which TV show was better – The Sopranos or The Wire. On the surface it might have
just been dinnertime conversation about a couple of HBO shows, but as anyone who has a tendency to take novelistic, expansive TV dramas a little too seriously knows, this wasn’t merely a debate about preferring New Jersey Mafiosos to Baltimore drug dealers.
It was a matter of great importance, as the winner would be blessed with the title of (drumroll please)
”The Greatest TV Show of All Time” - or at least according to two guys with Netflix subscriptions sitting in a Mexican restaurant in Northeast Minneapolis.
Many of our conversations going all the way back to junior high have evolved into debates over TV shows, movies and music, so it was only natural that the “Sopranos vs. Wire” discussion would come
up, as these two are typically cited as examples of TV at its highest form. But the person with the most shocking statement of the night happened to be his wife. After listening to us go back and forth for about 20 minutes, she simply asked, “Why does it matter? Why can’t they both just be really good shows and leave it at that?”
Now this was something that never occurred to us. Of course it mattered – how could it not? The greatest TV show of all time? This is not something that should be taken lightly. This is an important proclamation.
But the more I thought about it, the more I agreed with her. There is no point in trying to reach an official answer as to which is the best because the question is stupid to begin with. There isn’t such thing as the “Greatest TV Show of All Time”, and even if there somehow was a consensus opinion on it, I’m not sure what that would accomplish. Would it make the second, third and fourth best shows any
less valuable?
Nevertheless, ranking things like TV shows, movies, albums and just about everything else has become a dominant part of the media landscape. We in Generations X and Y probably didn’t invent the concept of attempting to objectively rank creations that will always be subjective, but it has become an epidemic problem.
Go to any magazine rack at a grocery store and count the number of times you see headlines like “The 50 Best Romantic Comedies of All Time”, “The 25 Greatest Seafood Restaurants in San Francisco”, “The 100 Best Guitar Solos in Metal”, or what have you. It’s probably more difficult to find a magazine that doesn’t have one of these lists than one that does. The internet is the same way, inundated with websites that take the liberty of ranking everything from Coen Brothers’ movies to Simpsons lines.
Like anything else, these lists range in quality quite a bit. Some are well researched and present a clear and logical explanation as to how they were formed, whereas others were quite obviously slapped together quickly with the goal of increasing page views by having thousands of visitors click “Next” on their web browser 25 times in a row.
Compiling these types of lists isn’t hurting anyone and it can be fun to debate with friends (or more likely, anonymous internet commenters) why a movie or band is better than another. But not only is it ultimately a pointless endeavor, these rankings have become so commonplace they are not even memorable, which is what they should be at the least.
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This article can be found in Vhcle Issue 10

Marc Ingber is a communications specialist and writer for a nonprofit based in Minneapolis, MN. He was born and raised in the Twin Cities and attended journalism school at the University of Kansas. His primary interests include rock n' roll, movies, food and drink, the Minnesota Vikings and the Minnesota Twins - probably in that order.
Read other articles by Marc Ingber
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Getting objectified:
the ranking epidemic
Getting Objectified: The Ranking Epidemic by Marc Ingber, September 2012 Vhcle Magazine Issue 10, Life