Critic's Notebook: Introducing the TV Mock Draft Version 1.0

Imagine a league of TV networks, channels and streamers. Now imagine starting your own service and getting to "draft" 25 shows from everyone else.
Courtesy of HBO
And the No. 1 pick in the TV mock draft is...

The first thing you need to know is this is going to be a column about television and, in particular, about lots of really interesting TV series you'll want to learn about and eventually watch.

The second thing you need to know is I'm about to start talking about sports and I don't want to lose you because it's going to swing back to the aforementioned TV theme, and I want you to indulge me by hanging in there.

There is nothing so beautifully unhinged as fantasy sports or, for that matter, the between-season craziness of real sports — like right now in football, as free agency in the NFL brings an endless supply of news and speculation about players on one team being given millions of dollars to switch to another team while separate teams haggle on the phone and then trade players between each other, often for draft picks which will be used next month in the NFL draft, where college players become millionaires over the span of three days by being picked, one by one, round by round, by 32 NFL teams.

It's nutty. And fun. That's all you need to know.

Hey, do you like Westworld or The Americans? Atlanta? Yeah, we'll be talking about shows like that in just a second, but first this other thing: In baseball, the season is going to start next month, which itself is great but also gives life to fantasy baseball, which is even better and certainly more insane, as groups of people form leagues and draft baseball players from both the National and American leagues (or, if they're hardcore and disturbed, from only one league), then track various performance stats in multiple categories from those players every day for six months until someone wins.

It's stupid and fake and amazing and addictive.

We're about to talk TV — are you watching Counterpart on Starz? Because you should be. And, wow, Barry on HBO is really weird. More on that in a minute, but let me finish this sports thing real quick: See, before the NFL teams draft those college players in April, endless people create what are called "mock drafts," where they predict which player will go in what order to what team. New "mock drafts" come out daily. Who will the Cleveland Browns take at No. 1 or the New York Giants at No. 2 or the San Francisco 49ers at No. 9?

And before the baseball season starts, there are mock drafts as fantasy players practice picking real players for their fake teams and start tracking those arcane baseball stats. You do "mock drafts" to get better at the real draft. People read about "mock drafts" because it's an allegedly fun way to learn more about what your favorite team might do and which players they might draft: "Oooh, that would be awesome if we got Player X at No. 9, but I like that other mock draft that said we could trade down three slots and still get amazing Player Y and several additional draft choices."

No, really, it's kind of fun. It beats worrying about nukes or stock market crashes. OK, now to the point of this column: You may have figured out I've been reading a lot of mock drafts about what players my favorite football team might draft next month. So, so, so many mock drafts. And, worse, I also play fantasy baseball (NL only — none of that mixed-league weak stuff) and have been spending a mumble-mumble amount of time online participating in mock drafts ahead of the real thing.

Whatever, I like it. You do you.

But it got me thinking about a mock draft for TV shows, and there's a really super-complicated idea in my head that ended up being too boring — yes, even more boring than this — with weighted and ranked shows, valuations, calculations to establish worth, etc., so I settled instead on imagining something else that was a whole lot easier and more simple: what it might be like if cable channels, networks and streaming services were in a "league" and a new channel/network/streamer was allowed into the league and, to get started, was given the chance to cherry pick 25 series from the others in the league. After picking up those 25 shows, it would be stable and attractive enough for viewers to subscribe to it and then, eventually, this fictional channel/network/streaming platform would have enough money to create its own shows.

Yeah, I know, even if you don't, it's not technically a mock draft (I'm not playing against anyone, so series I might want aren't flying off the board before I can grab them, etc.), but I liked the concept of thinking about which shows I, as the owner of this new channel/network/streaming platform, would take, in order, from the others in the league. (If you're wondering, yes, I've already thought about doing the second version of this mock draft with fellow THR critic Dan Fienberg because he's a fantasy geek as well, but I thought I'd give it a test run first and explain the "rules.")

And trust me — I thought this out in various geeky ways ad infinitum, with various rules, etc., to make it more realistic/complicated. Then I got a headache and poured a glass of wine and settled on this more simplistic format.

The goal here was straightforward: creating a well-rounded streaming platform where viewers would be sufficiently enticed to want to spend $10.99 a month on it. To achieve that goal, it's not about ratings, but it is about quality and buzz — like Emmy wins or popping up in my own Power Rankings! (meta!). Disparate offerings to viewers  — Stranger Things!, Bob's Burgers! — would keep subscribers entertained and not tempted to look elsewhere. To that end, the service had to have lots of everything, but 25 shows is not a deep bench. The picks have to be curated, precise, alluring. (In this particular construction, movies are not necessary — it's pure TV.) A key rule: Picking a series gives you access to all the previous seasons. That's huge. Less key rule: Series selected have to be, loosely, in production (otherwise I'd pick 30 Rock, The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc.).

Dramas and comedies had to make up the bulk of the offerings; there had to be a sci-fi presence, because sci-fi travels well across demographics; a documentary or two would be nice; a stand-up special or two for comedy fans is also not a bad idea; and perhaps one just randomly brilliant unscripted series. Beyond that, shows that appealed to both genders seemed essential for balance — so was an effort to be multicultural and representational to the LGBTQ community. In the margins was this idea: Don't be too safe, be unique, offer something different.

Again, 25 total series is not that much, which means it's important to hone that curatorial approach (which is my way of saying there might be a lot more of these coming in the future as an exercise in getting it right).

Let's do this. These are my picks, in order, with the top choices the most valuable:

1. Game of Thrones. HBO. Prestige television that's also popular television. First-round selection slam-dunk.

2. Black Mirror. Netflix. It checks the sci-fi box, it's binge-ready, it's ongoing and it's top-tier for genre.

3. Stranger Things. Netflix. Maybe a reach here in round three, but it's got some horror, some nostalgia and is popular. Downside is there's no clear long-term future. More risk is that it won't age well compared to others.

4. Veep. HBO. The gold standard in smart comedy.

5. The Simpsons. Fox. Kind of a no-brainer here, given all the seasons and the baked-in rewatch potential. It's really the poster series for immediate bench depth. A full 29 seasons and still going.

6. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. FX. Same deal here. Beloved, hilarious and prolific. Hall of Fame series. Smart pick-up.

7. Doctor Who. BBC America. Great value with this pick, given all the reasons mentioned above about legacy series. Not for everybody, but it's a bulls-eye for genre and an endless supply of back episodes with a female Doctor on tap.

8. Star Trek Discovery. CBS All Access. In this scenario, I also get all the rights to the Star Trek franchises, so basically I just won the whole draft.

9. The Walking Dead. AMC. I might not personally like it so much anymore, but for years it was must-see crack and die-hards are still turning out in impressive numbers. It also checks the box on horror, which sells and amplifies the offerings.

10. The Americans. FX. One of the unquestionable drama greats of all time with numerous seasons. It's a 10th round steal.

11. Planet Earth II. BBC America. Yeah, I'll bet you didn't think about this one. Not only does it get me access to the original Planet Earth as well, but the equally great Planet Earth-branded Blue Planet I and II. Visually stunning across the board. This is a coup for unscripted, culturally rich programming.

12. Fargo. FX. Still in production with three excellent seasons already made. The blueprint for smart, funny, violent and thrilling television. A steal.

13. Bob's Burgers. Fox. In Season 8, with 138 episodes and counting, and no end in sight. Animation works everywhere, and this is funny, endearing and sneaky-smart, complementing the Simpsons pick.

14. Better Call Saul. AMC. The 14th round is where you need to find series that should have gone sooner, but somehow slipped through the cracks. This is an elite drama with more in the tank.

15. Orange Is the New Black. Netflix. It may have lost some buzz, but still is a value pick because it hasn't lost its chops. Smart pick here since it's been renewed through seven seasons and checks a lot of boxes on things to value about diverse content on a streaming service.

16. Jane the Virgin. The CW. Maybe a surprise reach in the 16th round, but it's been a high-quality drama of rare gifts (smart, funny, inventive, moving, purposefully over-the-top). Plus, given that it comes from a network, there's a staggering 81 episodes that will be in the can by the time the fourth season ends this spring. Sleeper pick.

18. Atlanta. FX. Some might see this as way too late or way too early. It's only in its second season and who knows with that popular cast how many seasons it can hang together, but always bet on truly original series creators, and Donald Glover is just that. People want to pay for a series that smart creators call home.

19. RuPaul's Drag Race. Logo/VH1. Heading into its 10th season, with a loyal audience, deep bench of episodes and value-added benefits to the brand, this is one of the top five unscripted series to tap, in my book.

20. Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Fox. Great sitcom that will not only age well but grow in its critical appreciation. Multiple episodes, diverse cast and history of never having a bad season — it might be the ultimate sleeper pick this late in the draft.

21. The Vietnam War. PBS. In this fantasy scenario, I get rights to all the Ken Burns documentaries, which is why this will go down in mock draft/fantasy draft lore as one of the great general manager moves ever. He says. (There are limits to this scenario even for me — I considered picking up The Grand Tour because with magical thinking it would get me Top Gear, one of the greatest unscripted series ever, but that's a bridge too far even in fantasy land.)

22. The A Word. Sundance TV. After pick 20, you really need to flesh out the bench with maybe some quirk or at least high-quality, shorter-run series that totally deliver. I had these first two seasons ranked No. 2 in 2017 and No. 6 in 2016 for my THR best-of-the-year lists. A hidden gem.

23. Black-ish. ABC. Picking up ongoing comedies with mass appeal but that are also smart enough to keep up the standards of the brand is essential. I also have to really like the show, so if you're thinking The Big Bang Theory was a better choice, now you know why it's not here.

24. Fresh Off the Boat. ABC. Asians and Asian-Americans have been woefully under-represented on television, and here's a series that at least starts to make up for that and has remained funny through four seasons. Easy choice.

25. The Detectorists. Acorn/Netflix. Until there's definitive proof that Mackenzie Crook isn't going to make more episodes (even though it looks like it), this is going to pass the rules challenge and slide in. Listen, a show like this is the perfect pickup for a new streaming service because most people haven't heard of it and when they discover the slow genius of it they'll say, "Wow, whoever created this streaming service is brilliant!"

Or so I can believe in my fantasies. No mocking.