The Year on Television
So now it's official, there are two kinds of television: the kind you watch, and the kind you gawk at...
The above paragraph is not intended as an indictment of reality TV. After all, most traditional sitcoms and hourlong dramas are about as appealing as a serving of cat-shit sorbet, while the best of reality TV has embraced and perfected many of the classic quality-television virtues. Witness CBS’s Survivor; though aging and self-conscious, it still managed to strike sparks in its seventh season with real-life “characters” like Rupert and Jonny Fairplay. And consider the way broadcast networks have bolstered their prime-time news-magazine programming with hourlong reported minidramas about twisty real-life criminal cases, effectively replacing the traditional movie of the week with a string of true-story “Murder in the Heartland”s. The year’s most attention-getting show, Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, has been hailed as a cultural breakthrough, but a big part of its appeal lies in that moment at each episode’s peak where the inevitably accepting straight guy gets all misty about the way his queer brethren have changed his life; it’s a gooey Valuable Lesson moment right out of Quality Drama 101.
But then again, it is television, which means that it is most concerned with getting you to pay attention, period. What seems new for 2003 is the epidemic proliferation of Made You Look: flimsy, limited-purpose electronic doodoo designed to capitalize shamelessly on people's desperation to get on TV and on our desperation to find something to watch. And make no mistake, shame--or the lack thereof--has a lot to do with it. After all, if you actually had to make an effort and show your face in public to see Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie slum it with normal, non-monied Americans in The Simple Life, inertia and embarrassment would spawn a flop. Same with the Living With Michael Jackson special. But since you can sit on your couch and no one, except perhaps your Nielsen box, will have to know what you're up to, programmers can count on us watching almost anything, even if it's bad and unsavory. Especially if it's bad and unsavory.
Regardless, our staff tubeheads did find a lot of things to like about television in 2003, the cream of which we have collected in the list below. We also included a few sloughs of scum too, 'cause when it comes right down to it, we are what we watch, whatever that says about us. (Lee Gardner)
The Wire (HBO) Mark it down to hometown pride if you like, but name another current drama series that has introduced as many indelible characters, given them such interesting paths to follow and such ring-true things to say, and kept as many plot and thematic plates spinning. In addition, The Wire has done something truly unique for television in providing an anthropological cross section of urban life and malaise and the bureaucracies that affect them. While newcomers sometimes complain that David Simon's brainchild is hard to follow, regulars find the complexity addicting--series TV rarely asks you to grasp a fictional milieu as fully you might a real one, but The Wire makes the effort pay off. Toss in one of the better, and better directed, casts on the tube and you have a clear winner. (LG)
Living With Michael Jackson (ABC) The year's foremost guilty pleasure, although pleasure is not quite the word. British journalist Martin Bashir's extended audience with the King of Pop was stranger than anything any Writers Guild pro could dream up, stranger still because in an ostensible attempt to humanize Jackson, the two-hour special made him seem more alien than ever. And by exposing and capitalizing on Jackson's naked need to be in the spotlight--to the point where he unwittingly overexposed himself, leading indirectly to his current legal troubles--this fascinating gawk imparted the unsettling feeling that whatever happens to Jackson now, we, his de facto audience, are somehow complicit in how he got there. (LG)
America's Top Models (UPN) Top 10 reasons we loved America's Top Models: 1) The mostly platonic love affair between Elyse, an intellectual indie-rock goddess who hated everything about modeling, and Adrianne, the blue-collar heavy-metal tomboy who desperately wanted to break in. 2) The resurrection of Janice Dickinson. 3) Lots of pretty girls crying. 4) Unlike Survivor, which is committed to faking out its audience, ATM made clear exactly why each girl failed. 5) Religious zealot models lambasting homosexuals while being taught to walk the runway by a sashaying man in high heels. 6) Elyse is a bitch. 7) Adrianne won. 8) They got the above two girls to pose naked. 9) Host Tyra Banks demonstrated the difference between "cat eye" and "dead eye" with the utmost seriousness. 10) Eating disorders! (Wendy Ward)
The Shield (FX) Yes, The Shield dishes out more cop clichés between its commercial breaks than the career of Steven Bochco. And oh yes, it is the most violent show on TV. But underneath the excess is an old-fashioned good-vs.-evil battle as seen through the life of strike-force leader Det. Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), a walking moral question mark with a badge. And what elevates The Shield above the usual cop-show semantics is its unflinching insistence that its clichés are such for a reason, that the rich exploit the poor, that the strong prey on the weak, that the powerful cannibalize the powerless, and, for once, TV doesn't sugarcoat that despicable reality. (Bret McCabe)
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (Bravo) Though the Fab Five, like all gay people on basic cable, remain sexually inert on camera, it is a mark of some kind of progress that America loves a show where a cadre of gay men strip straight men down to their underwear while making dick jokes and no one is threatened. Gender-orientation-bending aside, the show works for two reasons. First, it trades subtly in the kind of sentimental transformation tropes that have been a TV staple since (ahem) Queen for a Day. Second, all good feelings and affirmation aside, the much-needed commodity that Carson, Kyan, Ted, Thom, and Jai bring to the straight airwaves isn't style--it's bitchiness. (LG)
The Gilmore Girls (WB) With Aaron Sorkin jumping the sinking The West Wing ship, this WB Tuesday-night estrogenfest is the last bastion of rapid-fire TV-dialogue repartee. Though Season 4 has followed Rory's (Alexis Bledel) frosh Yale misadventures a bit too exclusively--the show's charms are its colorfully eclectic characters, and there is no such thing as too much Mojo music-mag-reading Lane (Keiko Agena) or aspiring world conqueror Paris (Liza Weil)--with new addition Jason "Digger" Stiles (Whit Stillman regular Chris Eigeman), Gilmore finally has an actor who can match Lorelei's (Lauren Graham) verbal volleys, making for a weekly wallop of screwball comedy. (BM)
Angels in America (HBO) Adapting his own play, Tony Kushner translates his multinarrative examination of AIDS during the Reaganite 1980s to the small screen with its hokey humor, harrowing intimacy, visceral anger, and pursed-lipped optimism intact. Kudos to director Mike Nichols for his subtle handling, but the real laurels go to the agile cast, especially the chameleonlike Jeffrey Wright, reprising his Tony-winning Broadway role, as a critical-care nurse butting heads with and gently overseeing the passing of AIDS-afflicted Roy Cohn (Al Pacino). Six hours rarely flows so smoothly. (BM)
Karen Sisco (ABC) Poor, poor Karen Sisco. With this TV adaptation of Elmore Leonard's Miami-based tough-gal federal marshal Sisco (Carla Gugino), ABC had a witty, unconventional cop dramedy with a complex female lead and an impeccable supporting cast--Bill Duke as Sisco's no-BS boss and Robert Forster as her ex-cop-turned P.I. father. And where does the network put it? Opposite TV's weekly comfort food, NBC's Law and Order. Shelved mid-November, it gets another shot this spring, but chances are this slice of droll wit and one smart broad won't be around next fall. (BM)
Reno 911! (Comedy Central) ABC might barely have been able to ad-lib their way around John Ritter dropping dead, but Reno 911! showed up this year to prove that improv is alive and well on the airwaves. In a slick ripoff of Christopher Guest's mock-documentary trip, a half-dozen comics--many of them veterans of MTV's The State--team up to play the self-involved deputies of Washoe County, Nev. What little script there is trades in predictable cop-joke scenarios--Reno's finest driving around with their scanners off, getting duped by drunks in trailer parks, burning keys of confiscated pot "to destroy the evidence"--but the genius is in the players' freewheeling willingness to offend. Nowhere else are stereotypes so thinly veiled--the closeted lieutenant in ball-crunchingly tight shorts (Thomas Lennon), the titsy former stripper (Wendy McLendon-Covey), the smack-talkin hoochie mama (Niecy Nash), to name just half. (Blake de Pastino)
Angel (WB) Ever the darker sibling to its source, the best thing to happen to this spin-off was the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Creator Joss Whedon and writer David Fury, freed from juggling two shows, have born Angel again hard, with phantasmagoric baddies Wolfram and Hart handing over their Los Angeles law firm to Angel and his crew to run, shuffling Buffy mainstay Spike (James Marsters) over at his meanspirited, cocky best, and bringing the funny more consistently without softening the show's sinister undertow. (BM)
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