I need background noise to work to. Music is often too distracting unless it’s the soothing joys of a lo-fi hip-hop anime beats playlist. Ambiance can be helpful. Most of the time, people talking is too distracting, but often it’s exactly what my brain craves. When I need something to watch while I embroider or eat or f**k around on my phone, I don’t want a film that demands and deserves my full attention. Mercifully, the perfect solution to both of my problems presented itself while I was in the midst of a YouTube rabbit hole: the list show!
You know what I’m talking about: the old VH1 and Bravo listicle shows where a bunch of comedians, B-list actors, and occasional legends get together to discuss an arbitrarily chosen ranking of pop culture. Maybe it’s the most shocking Hollywood murders or the scariest movie moments. The guy in the hat from 30 Rock cracks very 2000s jokes as we listen to the best one-hit wonders of the ’80s. Susan Sarandon announces the greatest women in rock and roll. You know the drill. I used to devour stuff like this when I was younger and rediscovering it in the bowels of the algorithm was a true delight. It also served as a reminder of how much this kind of entertainment format shaped me.
For many of us, these shows were our first introduction to so much art. A Channel 4 countdown of greatest horror moments was how I discovered a ton of classic British thrillers. I’m pretty sure I can blame an old E! list show on shocking entertainment moments for inspiring my interest in gossip and thus leading to my entire career.
I think these shows feed a highly specific part of our brains, the area that craves a mixture of the old and new as well as a kind of curation to ease the chaos of such ideas. We like to see things put into a nice neat arrangement, even if the criteria for doing so is unexplained or totally inexplicable. It’s fun to argue over whether that song you love should be at number 99 or 9. Wait, why is Family Guy higher than King of the Hill? As a critic, it’s something I relate to, that desire to figure out something and place it within a wider context. Nothing inspires a rigorous debate quite like the illusion of order. Well, maybe apart from nostalgia, something else the list show is designed to pander to.
This format was everywhere in the early-to-mid 2000s. It was cheap to put together, offered a solid platform for up-and-coming comics, and can fill out a solid five hours of programming if you do it right. Here was true infotainment, although the truly educational qualities of these series were often questionable. Then again, you never really tuned in for a history lesson. You wanted digestible facts, tidbits that would inspire you to look into things in your own time. It seemed ideal for that pre-Facebook, pre-TMZ era of pop culture. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that this format all but died off at a time when Buzzfeed essentially defined the listicle and dominated the internet with them.
It’s not as though the rise of YouTube entirely killed this sort of show or interest in it. How many channels are there online dedicated to quickly compiled top 10s and the like? How many millions of views do they garner? Yet nowadays, I think there’s this sense that the list is more about clickbait than anything else. It’s a way to incite fury more than discourse, whether you intend it or not. I’ve written lists for websites and they easily garnered some of the strongest page views I’ve ever received as a writer but they also led to some of my more interesting abusive emails. Often, it doesn’t feel worth the hassle, but I still miss that gap in the market.
Mercifully, we are seeing a small return to this kind of programming. Shudder is releasing its updated take on the scariest movie moments list, with solid production values and surprising big-name figures in film and TV sharing their thoughts (Edgar Wright! Bryan Fuller!) And it still works. It still inspires the same giddiness and sense of discovery in me that the old shows did when I was a curious teen. I’ve already compiled a list of films I need to check out thanks to this series (hey, it’s one way to get good use out of my Shudder subscription - excellent business strategy, guys!) It certainly seems like a prime means for more niche streaming services to get eyeballs on their platform and plug their wares. Given how much money is spent on enticing people to your channel, all while viewers tend to just crave re-watches of stuff they’ve already seen, why not give them what they want? It seems like a far more financially efficient strategy than spending half a billion dollars on one season of telly.
So, networks of the world, I implore you to revive the list show. Give us the 100 greatest sci-fi movies. Put the best pop songs in order. Get into totally ridiculous arguments over why one movie-star gets to be 17 places higher than another. I promise you that you’ll have at least one dedicated viewer. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think there’s a list show about the greatest adverts on YouTube I haven’t watched yet.