The Year in Television
Two weeks ago, when Roone Arledge --the instrumental TV producer who created such broadcast behemoths as Monday Night Football and Nightline--lay down for his eternal dirt nap, our night was ruined. Not because he was dead, but because his death fucked up the entire evening lineup. Legions of us loyal TV watchers had sunk into our sofa cushions, looking forward to another night of somnolent, waking-coma, Doritos-fueled distraction. But the rosy power button on our remote had not even grown cold by the time we realized that all we were gonna get that night was Roone. Roone everywhere, on almost every channel. And why? Because, over the course of his decades-long career, he turned dozens of pseudo-journalists into TV stars, and now that he was dead, they all had to clip on their lapel mics and take turns interviewing each other. Barbara Walters on Connie Chung Tonight. Tom Brokaw and Barbara Walters on Nightline. Even Larry King broke away from his interview with Princess Di's butler to give his staccato regrets on the passing of the man. Roone Arledge. Dead at 71. Great man in American television.
It was a night that exposed all of television's worst weaknesses. Where TV has always excelled in being crude, pedestrian, and unpretentious, everything that night was precious and smarmy. And where TV had an opportunity to be light-handed and insightful, it was showy and self-indulgent. Owing to all of their misty anecdotes and sturdy summaries, we learned way more about Barbara, Connie, and Larry in those hours than we ever did about Arledge. Like skinny teenagers in oversized suits at their father's funeral, they were the real focus of attention, their brave faces, their strength in the face of having to carry on his legacy.
Plus, Jesus Christ on a bike, it's not like he invented the cathode-ray tube. What Arledge did, and did with the slow but gradual gains of a blight, was turn television news into television entertainment. He made sports more fun to watch at home than at the stadium by inventing suspense-lending tricks like instant replay, and by hiring polyester jesters--like an abrading labor lawyer named Howard Cosell--to animate the proceedings. He also led the troops over the cliff of the "news magazine" format by pioneering 20/20 and PrimeTime Live, which borrowed the sobersided air of 60 Minutes and tarted it up with sensationalism, drumming out story after story about spouses who have gone missing, or parents who lost or never had or were reunited with or murdered or surgically separated their children.
And above all, Arledge helped turn TV journalism into a cult of personality. He was the first to hit upon the fact that viewers crave familiarity with their news. He hired or recruited newsreaders who had much more going for them as personas than as journalists, and we couldn't get enough of them: Walters and Cosell, Sam Donaldson and Hugh Downs. But by the time the next generation of wooden soldiers started appearing on other networks--Stone Phillips, five minutes to air, please--it became clear that we would never see the straightforward, wonky, shoe-leather likes of Lawrence Spivak, Eric Sevareid, and Walter Cronkite ever again.
You'll notice that no Arledge productions are in our roster of the year's top 10 TV shows, although one--the narrative-rich Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel--is certainly cut from the same bolt of cloth. It's hard to say whether that means Arledge's arc of influence has already hit the horizon, or if us City Paper types just aren't the target audience for the kind of television-making that continues in his name. But there was a time when everyone was watching his stuff, and that's what ruined things for us the day he died. What we were looking for that night, as we sat there in the cold glow of the screen, was unalloyed entertainment, which is what Arledge managed to make most TV news feel like. But all we got were hollow pieties about how he made a bunch of talking heads what they are today. What really sucks for us now is: Not only do we have to live with the standard of glitzy crap that Roone Arledge set for television, but without him, the kids he left behind might not even be able to live up to it. (Blake de Pastino)
Six Feet Under (HBO) The saga of the mortuary-owning Fisher family bested its network mate The Sopranos this year with a more unified narrative and a more moving examination of a fraying family struggling to hold together. In its sophomore year, the series moved beyond glib suburban satire and found its feet, standing up to the undertows of emotional neediness (Ruth smothering Nikolai, David smothering Keith), mortality (Nate's health crisis), and self-destruction (Keith's meltdown, Nate cheating with Lisa). And speaking of self-destruction, Brenda's downward spiral was truly scary. (Heather Joslyn)
The Sopranos (HBO) The pace has slackened from previous seasons, and some subplots bored. (The Columbus Day episode blew. And did anyone really give a shit about the Carmine Lupertazzi/Johnny Sack feud?) And why were we so deprived of Melfi this year? Hints abound that creator David Chase, who has said that next season will be the show's last, may have written himself into some corners. But what first looked like desperate shark-jumping stunts (Carmela plus Furio) paid off in the raw-edged finale (Carmela minus Tony). Despite this year's stretch marks, it's still the only show that matters at the water cooler. (HJ)
King of the Hill (FOX) As the elderly Simpsons slowly fades into that great good night, prime time's other great animated sitcom keeps finding new colors--and, rare for cartoons, lets its characters age. Hank's continuing embarrassment over his only son's lack of interest in the rituals of Texas manhood only gets more intriguing as Bobby gets older, while Bobby's growing sense that he is disappointing the old man gets more poignant. Add to this Peggy's occasional rebellions against that Arlen state of mind, and it all makes for more three-dimensional family dynamics than most of its live-action counterparts. (HJ)
Mark Twain (PBS, January) This two-part documentary about the cantankerous, hilarious, depressive, daughter-obsessed, moral, brave, and prescient literary giant rescued "the Lincoln of our literature" from his most recent role as punching bag in school-board disputes over The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Most importantly, it made viewers want to turn off the tube and read his books. Mark Twain almost makes one forgive director Ken Burns for turning his previous work, Jazz, into one big ode to the jitterbug. (HJ)
The Shield (FX) This hard-boiled, morally ambiguous police drama makes NYPD Blue look like Adam-12. It first won attention for cranking up the sex, violence, and profanity level on basic cable. But far more shocking were the diabolical plot twists you'd never expect on television, and The Shield kept and gained viewers through compelling, unpredictable, character-driven stories. Michael Chiklis (The Commish) deservedly won the Outstanding Lead Actor Emmy for his electrifying, career-altering performance as the murderous Mackey, but the stellar ensemble cast (particularly Benito Martinez, Jay Karnes, and CCH Pounder) is the reason we can stomach him weekly. Stunning proof that no seemingly played-out genre is beyond resuscitation. (Tom Siebert)
Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel (HBO) The monthly magazine show broke news this fall (former Minnesota Viking Esera Tuaolo announced he's gay on the show), but it has been diligently exploring many of the subjects the sports world prefers to keep closeted for years, from broken bodies to abusive coaches. A bracing antidote to the rah-rah coverage found everywhere else. (HJ)
The West Wing (NBC) Creator Aaron Sorkin can't rein in his sanctimony, but he still writes screwball comedy-worthy banter--and employs a formidable platoon of fast-talking dames (Stockard Channing, Mary-Louise Parker, Janel Moloney, and alpha dame Allison Janney). Departing empty suit Rob Lowe has been replaced with sparkplug Joshua Malina (an alum of Sorkin's beloved banterfest Sports Night). And the Bizarro World presidency of St. Martin of Malibu retains undeniable appeal as the real-world regime marches us deeper into a quagmire. (HJ)
The Bernie Mac Show (FOX) Bernie Mac grabbed a sputtering genre (the live-action family sitcom) and smacked its head till the white meat showed. His show's premise--flamboyant entertainer and his hard-charging buppie wife become reluctant parents to his troubled sister's three adorable kids--could have been a cringe-inducing sapfest. But Mac's ferocious tough love and swaggering charisma burns through all discernible sap. He even manages to make the hoary old talking-to-the-camera gimmick seem fresh. (HJ)
Silent Sunday Nights (TCM) Ted Turner's relentless championing of silent movies, during its Sunday midnight showcases and in the occasional weeknight feature, performs a valuable public service. The cable channel has single-handedly kept pre-talkies from fading into the mists of antiquity by offering them as what they were: pieces of populist entertainment. And many of them, like this year's prime-time premiere of West Point, a lively, long-forgotten 1928 comedy starring Joan Crawford and sassy William Haines, were indeed tons of fun. (HJ)
Monk (USA, ABC) It's a smart, witty update of the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson team, featuring a perfectly cast Tony Shalhoub (Big Night, TV's Wings) as a brilliant but obsessive-compulsive and phobia-ridden private detective and Bitty Schram as his exasperated but loving nurse. The first half of the show's debut season had tight, tidy mysteries and was both laugh-out-loud funny and unexpectedly touching--a continuing story line about Monk's inability to solve his wife's murder, which caused his disorders, brought surprisingly effective pathos. But the program may have already peaked; as ratings took off and it was picked up by ABC, celebrities started appearing (Willie Nelson, Gary Marshall), plots became increasingly gimmicky, the dead-wife subplot disappeared, and Monk's bizarre behavior started to feel like shtick. Don't expect it on this list next year. (TS)
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201