The Year in Television
Sixteen ruthless, sun-scorched castaways on the South Seas island of Palau Tiga kept a large percentage of Americans who actually bother to turn on the television during balmy summer evenings in their captivating thrall. Viewers hooked on Survivor nevertheless wisely declined the ho-hum totalitarian fishbowl of CBS' other reality show, Big Brother.
Sadly, audiences clamored to see two strangers tie the knot on Fox's Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? in March. Somehow, the notion that the participants in this cheesy debacle would have concealed something unseemly in their past was more objectionable to the masses than the show itself. (At a summer barbecue, I overheard someone bad-mouthing phony Gulf War vet Darva Conger with the kind of rancor one might reserve for, say, Eva Braun.)
Two reality or reality-based programs--ABC's Hopkins 24/7 and HBO's The Corner--put Charm City in the national spotlight. Hopkins 24/7, a documentary miniseries produced by ABC News and broadcast late in the summer, profiled some real-life patients and doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The Corner was a gritty dramatic adaptation of Edward Burns and David Simon's nonfiction tome about street life and the drug trade in West Baltimore. In September, it won three Emmys, including one for Best Miniseries.
Of course, television played a pivotal role in keeping the nation in touch with the presidential campaign and its tangled outcome. The talk shows provided a year-round venue for Al and Dubya, who lassoed couch gigs as a way of appearing likeable and, hopefully, electable. There were the conventions, debates, made-for-TV campaign stops, and all sorts of prime-time punditry. There was Election Day itself, when the networks' news divisions botched the polling results and played a part in making duck soup out of a contest that took more than a month for the courts to sort out. Finally, there were the cable news outlets, which spewed post-election updates and analysis 24/7. The hunt for the next Leader of the Free World didn't relegate itself to just real life, either. Viewers apparently enjoy fantasizing about an America helmed by a just, wise dream president, as the popularity of NBC's The West Wing proves. (The Aaron Sorkin-penned drama was the year's big breakout show, a regular top-10 ratings habitué and an Emmy winner for Best Drama.)
The election may have given you a sinking feeling about democracy's current status, but some of us got the heads-up way back in January. That's when it was revealed that the White House's Office on National Drug Control Policy had cut a deal in 1998 with some major outlets (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, ESPN, and VH1 among them) to give back millions of dollars worth of ad time it had purchased in exchange for the networks planting anti-drug messages in prime-time programs. (Apparently, descent-into-junkiedom episodes of VH1's Behind the Music count.) The policy office crossed the line by requiring networks to submit scripts in advance, in order to gauge the adequacy of any promised drug-dissing, without cluing in the American public.
Diversity on the tube was another hotly contested issue. Despite the criticism of media watchdogs, the networks failed to significantly infuse their programs with minority talent, according to a report card issued by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other advocacy groups last month. CBS was drained of most of its color when it canceled the milquetoast hospital drama City of Angels recently. Since networks seem to be having enough trouble lately creating high-minded hits--let alone populating them with minority actors--I wouldn't hold my breath if I were the NAACP.
Elsewhere in TV land, the process for reviewing Emmy candidates was updated, and as a result some of the shows that won prizes this year actually deserved them. The ante was upped in the creation of shocking and distasteful advertising--some ads showed stuff that would never be permitted within the context of a television show. (I'm thinking of that faux-blow-job Reebok ad that ran during Survivor.) Speaking of survivors, David Letterman had bypass surgery, recovered, and gave a truly heartfelt on-air acknowledgment to the doctors who saved him. Tom Green was treated for testicular cancer, and survived to produce a really ooky MTV special about his brush with death. Kathie Lee Gifford ditched the small-screen when she vacated the morning show she co-hosted with Regis Philbin. Hopefully, her television career will not survive.
Here's my top 10 for 2000:
The Corner (HBO) No contest. Stars Khandi Alexander and T.K. Carter gave the best performances in any medium this year in this piercingly insightful, Charles Dutton-directed miniseries about the "war" on drugs and the fallibility of human nature.
The Sopranos (HBO) It seems like an eternity since a new episode of HBO's mob drama aired, but all of season two's attributes--a meatier role for Edie Falco's Carmela; the addition of Tony's scheming, free-spirited sister Janice (Aida Turturro); the least predictable plot twists on television (sayonara, Richie Aprile!)--kept the fires burning. Veteran actress Nancy Marchand, pitch-perfect as acidic Soprano matriarch Livia, died over the summer and will be missed. (The Livia-less season three begins in March; HBO is currently rerunning seasons one and two, if you need to jump-start your memory.)
Survivor (CBS) Fifty-one million sets of eyeballs can't be wrong. OK, they can, they're just not in this case. Survivor, a game show designed to see which of 16 contestants could prevail while roughing it on a serpent-swarmed island, was the most bandied-about program of 2000 (probably because CBS' publicity machine went into overdrive to promote the thing, co-opting its news division in the process). With its emphasis on human drama, it also made for incredibly addictive television, a water cooler-klatsch spectacle that made viewers wonder about the ethical price of success.
Father Ted (BBC America) This notorious Britcom about three daffy, wayward priests living in a rectory on a remote island off the coast of Ireland made its U.S. premiere this year on--appropriately--St. Patrick's Day. The clerics' fascination with the encroaching secular world's most tasteless and inappropriate aspects is what drives this gut-busting import, which wrapped filming in 1998, shortly before its star, Dermot Morgan, died of a heart ailment.
Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS) On the surface, Raymond is just a meat-and-potatoes family sitcom. But it's also one of the most incisive shows on television about relationships between adults, and how they evolve when marriage becomes routine and your partner's cute quirks become old news. It's wickedly witty, and the well-developed characters allow everybody in the cast to shine.
Iron Chef(Food Network) This wacky Japanese game show (dubbed in English) featuring a fast-paced showdown between two chefs who must spontaneously spin culinary magic from a "secret ingredient," is a gonzo cult-TV sensation. Inherently campy, it's the one cooking program that, because it refrains from being instructional, is a guilt-free must-see for slacking nonchefs.
One Day in September (HBO) This harrowing documentary, which premiered just before this year's Summer Olympics, revisits the Munich games of 1972, when a a squad of terrorists seized a group of Israeli athletes. The German government, anxious to avoid scandal and the interruption of the games, botched its every attempt to resolve the situation. The result was a horrifying massacre that flew in the face of everything the Olympics are supposed to be about. (September is just being released theatrically in Baltimore; see page 38.)
The Daily Show (Comedy Central) Host Jon Stewart and a passel of witty, deadpan correspondents hit their stride during this year's election, making cracks about the candidates that were cathartic for many a frustrated voter. The humor wasn't all political, though. My favorite TV bon mot of the year was Daily Show commentator Lewis Black's explanation as to why famous substance-abusing writers prefer booze to pot: "Because nobody wants to read a book about the best-tasting Pop Tart."
First Person (Bravo) The up-close, sometimes uncomfortable immediacy of documentarian Errol Morris' signature visual style characterized this series of profiles. His unwavering focus on subjects as varied as a designer of humane slaughterhouses, a crime-scene cleaner, and a squid hunter--all looking straight into the camera when they tell their stories--creates a revelatory and uncomplicated narrative, unique to the medium of television.
Rachel Ashwell's Shabby Chic (E!) Maybe it's just because blond design mogul Ashwell and I share similar decorating tastes, but I can't help loving Shabby Chic, a home-improvement show that pops up frequently on E!, and also the Style channel (not available in Baltimore City). The program's aesthetic involves bringing out the beauty in old, treasured items through restoration or restructuring, like taking the beaten-up spindles from a stairway railing and turning them into distressed candlesticks. You get the idea that you can redecorate without ever leaving your house. "Quite lovely," as host Ashwell would say in her clipped British accent.
The Year In Tracks (12/15/2009)
. . . just in the case the album really is dead.
The Year in News (12/9/2009)
The Year in Movies (12/9/2009)
The Year in Television (12/19/2001)
1Sept. 11 attack coverage (NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, and Fox News Channel) Watching the second plane...
Put Me in Coach (11/14/2001)
Shopping New York With Someone Else in the Driver's Seat
Harpo Speaks! (9/26/2001)
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