The Year in Television
Three-quarters of a century into its existence, television may finally be becoming our mirror. Yes, it's forever been championed as the medium that reflects who we are, but like way too much of our great nation's entertainment, that image was advertiser mediated and market-research pruned into some make-believe fantasyland. Of course, having a kajillion channels means not everybody is going to look at and like the 7th Heaven's Camdens, the nth iteration of the Cleavers or Andersons. As a result, TV is beginning to look like us.
Which is not to say that it's not still run willy-nilly by committee, too eager to glom onto whatever it superficially believes is working. Network-wide TV jumped onto serialism's season-long story line this fall, but there's really only so many plot- and character-thick, drawn-out narratives we're willing to take (sorry, Heist--do know that at least one person watched and enjoyed your brief run). Some formulas work better in one format than another: It's much easier to suspend disbelief about Aaron Sorkin's liberally educated white people with their snappy dialogue just trying to make the world a better place when they're running the White House than when they're Hollywood types just trying to be funny while railing against the Network Man. Prison Break lost some momentum after its convicts escaped, becoming less Escape From Alcatraz and a little too The Fugitive. Shark sadly neutered James Woods a couple of episodes into the series: his gaping-asshole über-attorney was a welcome respite from the norm. And can anybody say what Six Degrees was actually about?
When TV does work, though, it's actually crafting some remarkably entertaining and smart programming--and not just for their surface charms. Spike TV's Blade: The Series took the comic-book movie series and turned it into a rather dark and paranoid allegory about blood relations. Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer continues to lead a life of absurdly ludicrous bad days, but 24 also wondered aloud if our country's biggest threats might be coming from inside the very government that runs it. Julia Louis-Dreyfus' The New Adventures of Old Christine is just another sitcom from a Seinfeld alumni, but it's also a surprisingly candid look at a divorced fortysomething mother's mundane life, with its incipient money problems, body-image concerns, and sleeping with the wrong men. Cop psychic drama Medium offers one of the few TV sketches of a totally functional husband and wife and their three daughters. Friday Nights Lights has commendably never wavered from trying to capture the day-to-day reality of a very small Texas town. And The Closer refreshingly looks at the man's man world of the Los Angeles Police Department through the eyes of one resilient woman who has a love/hate relationship with sweets. Although both meandered a bit, FX's Andre Braugher-powered Thief and the unrelenting The Shield dramatized complicated portraits of conflicted bad men trying, by hook and crook, to be good men internally praying that the questionable means justify the hoped-for ends. And, in one instance, we're still trying to process what we saw on the small screen--for When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, all we can say right now to Mr. Spike Lee is: "Damn."
Naturally, TV is still Pez-dispensed to us in little half-hour or hourlong nuggets, so it's not like we don't watch some mindless entertainment. So thank you, Ugly Betty, for the pure glee that is America Ferrera and the less pure appreciation that is guest appearances by series producer Salma Hayek. Thank you, 30 Rock, for weekly doses of Tina Fey's deadpan wit and Alec Baldwin's midlife comic genius. Thank you for the consistent belly laughs, Everybody Hates Chris and Boston Legal. Thank you, Showtime, for Sleeper Cell, Dexter, and, especially, Weeds and Elizabeth Perkins' totally cynical suburban soccer mom. Thank you, USA, for the sidesplitting lip-sync codas to Psych. And thank you, MTV, for the ongoing glee that is Xzibit hosting Pimp My Ride.
While there's still that shit we watch despite ourselves--hello, Grey's Anatomy, Brothers and Sisters, ER--for our voting critics this year, though, there was The Wire, and then there was everything else. This list was determined by weighted ballots submitted by CP couch potatoes Anna Ditkoff, Ian Grey, Joe MacLeod, Bret McCabe, and Jason Torres, with ties broken with extreme bias by me. (Bret McCabe)
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201