Was There a 'Great' Drama on Network TV This Season?

Julianna Margulies in "The Good Wife" (CBS)

When CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler recently said The Good Wife was a 'great' series, my eyebrow raised in reflexive skepticism.

In the world of broadcast television, The Good Wife might be considered great, but doesn't come close to holding up against cable offerings. And it seemed pointless then to make a big stink over that categorization, since broadcast folks are notoriously defensive about their quality as compared to cable. And when they get a good show, they get really proud. To the point of losing all connection to reality.

But assessing this last season's dramas, I not only clung to my belief that The Good Wife is, in fact, very good -- but not great -- I went down the list of network dramas to seek out something great.

I found one. And that one is not The Good Wife. It's Friday Night Lights. (And when NBC tried to make the show popular -- during Season 2 -- it almost ruined it in the process. Thank God NBC gave up in frustration). But the larger point here is -- one. That's all.

This shouldn't be shocking news. The broadcast networks play under different rules in many ways. In fact, the very nature of "big tent"  programming limits the upside of greatness. It's very difficult to be broad -- successful via the ratings -- and attain greatness. It's a rare occurrence when something is massively popular and also an aesthetic, intellectual triumph. This second-class status, as it were, bothers people in the broadcast business because they are proud -- rightfully -- of their work and more than a little pissy about cable series dominating the awards process.

But you can't have it both ways. CBS produces a number of very good dramas. So does Fox. Almost every network has a drama to be proud of, artistically. But as a commercial venture, broadcast television isn't really worried about its shows winning acclaim. It's more important to win the time slot. To win the demo battle. Everybody in the business understands this. So they shouldn't be so upset that the drama Renaissance they helped usher into the broadcast world somehow falls short of the artistic triumphs on cable. You do good work. Let it go.

This parsing should take nothing away from The Good Wife, even if I think the reason so many people are floored by it has something to do with the quality that surrounds it. But what about poor old Friday Night Lights, still starving for attention all these years later? At the very least shouldn't it get a medal for being a high end product of a manufactured world? Shouldn't it at least be called great? 

Sure it should, which is why this post exists (though the first three episodes of this final season nearly put a dent into the show's reputation).  In any case, after scouring the network dramas from this past season, here's the scorecard I came up with:

Very Good: The Good Wife (CBS), Chicago Code (Fox) Parenthood (NBC) Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC), CSI (CBS), Fringe (Fox), House (Fox).

Most of the rest of the dramas belong in the "good" category.  I mean, we could all split hairs about Bones (Fox), NCIS (CBS), Detroit 1-8-7 (ABC), Supernatural (CW) and Glee (Fox) deserving inclusion in a higher tier or, at the very least, removed from the dreck of say, Hellcats (CW), Off the Map (ABC), Outlaw (NBC), etc., etc. But people should know that difference by now. You can argue the merit of some in-bulk offerings (the other CSI series, Human Target, Lie to Me, Grey's Anatomy) being "very good," if you wish, but there's no real harm in being merely good. Or, for that matter, a fit for your network. The level of quality has risen impressively through the years on broadcast television. Good shows fail. Entertaining shows fail. But those series that make up the majority of "good" shows are what they are -- no shame in that. Plus, with good ratings come renewals and with renewals come paychecks. Don't whine about success -- it makes you look bad.

(There seems no need to point out the obvious -- that The Cape (NBC), The Event (NBC) Harry's Law (NBC) The Defenders (CBS), Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior (CBS), Law & Order: Los Angeles (trend alert - NBC) and many, many others were never any good to begin with. Right? Don't make me dredge up the others.)

The point is, again: one. Friday Night Lights can arguably be called a "great" television series, while the others here can not (at least convincingly).

On the plus side, there is more than one great comedy on broadcast television. But that's for tomorrow.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine