Over the past few years, leaning and loafing at your ease, as Walt Whitman would say, when you pondered the coming of the year 2001, what came to mind? Did you imagine yourself strapping on your personal jet pack, à la George Jetson, and zooming off to a high-tech job in some space pad? Or did you picture yourself telecommuting with abandon, e-mailing, cell phoning and laptopping at will, never again to set foot in something as mundane as an office? Or did you perhaps envision a Brave New World where television shows were well written, network execs cared more about quality than advertising dollars, and producers refused to pander to the lowest common denominator?
Well, if you imagined that last possibility, you have already been proven wrong. Welcome to the first TV season of the new millennium, in which only a few good shows stood out in a sea of perfectly awful ones. Herewith some highlights.
Most Annoying New Character. Apparently, the network suits who predicted high ratings for Weakest Link, an English export, surmised that Americans would be delighted by Anne Robinson, a woman who seems to have successfully convinced all journalists to refer to her as tart-tongued. But in fact, Ms. Robinson’s snotty comments and snide manner made the show nearly unwatchable.
One commentator opined that perhaps the English are more accustomed to that type of verbal putdown, a skill learned in tony public schools, than are the more self-esteem-driven Americans. But if you’ve spent any time in an American public high school or, for that matter, on public transportation you know that we are equally adept at the putdown.
Among most Americans, however, Ms. Robinson’s largely scripted and overly rehearsed snubs came off as more cruel than clever. (Speaking of things English, Ms. Robinson puts one in mind of any number of villains in the Harry Potter series: Rita Skeeter, for example.) After just a few minutes of watching the first episode of Weakest Link, I started wondering how soon she would be voted off the island, until I realized I was getting my shows mixed up.
Best Reason for Watching E.R. As a result of artful writing and terrific acting, Maura Tierney’s character, Abby, quickly became the series’ most interesting character. (This must have been especially sweet for Ms. Tierney, who only recently starred in the sadly departed Newsradio.) On the other hand, the arc featuring Sally Field as her bipolar mother was among the lamest of the season. With Sally Fields emoting and overacting all over County General, it was hard not to wish for a gurney to run her over. An E.R. to cherish, said the ad for the episode that promised Ms. Fields’s final appearance, which did in fact make it a show to cherish.
Worst Star Vehicles. (Four-way tie) Normal, Ohio with John Goodman, Madigan Men with Gabriel Byrne, The Geena Davis Show and finally The Fighting Fitzgeralds. Watching that last offering, I kept imagining poor Brian Dennehy thinking, I gave up Death of a Salesman’ for this?
Most Annoying New Trends. First place: the ever-decreasing number of new episodes. Was it my imagination or was almost every prime-time drama or sitcom a rerun this season? (Hey, President Bartlet’s been shot again!) One NBC teaser boasted: The last two new E.R. shows this season. That is, two out of three. Second place: Magicians doing stupid things on TV. Doubtless you’ll remember David Blaine encased in a block of ice and David Copperfield standing in the middle of his tornado of fire. And doubtless you watched neither show. Didn’t magicians used to do magic tricks?
Best New Slang for Harried Parents. During one episode of The Simpsons, Homer decides to start a day-care center in his house after learning how easy it was to babysit his neighbor’s kids. In other words, Homer sits on the couch while his young charges do whatever they please. (Can we have more jelly-and-candy sandwiches, Mr. Simpson?) After Uncle Homer’s Day Care opens for business, in walks Apu, owner of the local Kwiki-Mart, with his 10 children in tow. Asks Apu cheerfully: Is this the new baby prison?
Worst Reality Show. Quite a contest! Was it Boot Camp, where contestants seemed shocked to discover that boot camp would actually be physically challenging? (Hadn’t any of them seen An Officer and a Gentleman?) Was it the wretched Blind Date, where contestants seemed pleased to be revealed as not only shallow and immoral, but boring as well? Was it Temptation Island, where contestants Ytossi and Taheed were revealed to have had a child, and in response, the show’s producer who had concocted a series explicitly designed to break up relationships informed viewers on air that he would never do anything to undermine a couple’s relationship? (His solemnly hypocritical statements called to mind a Bette Midler quote. I have my standards, she once said. They may be low, but they’re standards.) Or was it Chains of Love, where contestants were chained to one another in order to...well, who can remember?
No, my nominee for the worst reality show was Survivor 2, largely on the strength of producer Mark Burnett’s revelation in early May that on the first Survivor he had staged some of the scenes, added body doubles (in the swimming scenes) and coached the participants. In other words, a reality series with somewhat less reality than advertised.
Saddest Exit. The untimely, and rather violent, death of the charming Mrs. Landingham, the president’s secretary on The West Wing, and one of the most enjoyable characters on television. And just when we had gotten over Big Pussy on The Sopranos.
Best TV Series. (Tie) Surprisingly, The Sopranos started off the season with a whimper: a draggy episode about F.B.I. wiretapping that did not bode well for the rest of the season. Happily, though, the show’s writers remembered what had made it popular in the first place and offered enough adultery, murder and foul language to make it the heartwarming family show viewers know and love.
In the midst of the mayhem were a number of inspired moments, including a Fargo-esque scene in which a Russian assassin is thought to be pursuing mobsters Christopher Molisante and Paulie Walnuts through the snowy New Jersey Pine Barrens. Calling the pair by cell phone, mob boss Tony Soprano informs them that while working for the Russian interior ministry, said assassin had killed 16 Chechen soldiers. Paulie to Christopher: He killed 16 Czechoslovakians! And he’s an interior decorator! Christopher responds, with a pithy (and unprintable) epithet that the guy’s house wasn’t even well decorated.
The West Wing, on the other hand, turned in a strong year from start to finish, capping off the season with President Bartlet’s emotional rant against God in the National Cathedral. (See Saddest Exit.) After that episode ended, a friend of mine telephoned and said, The president’s self-righteous speech came early this week! (And in Latin, no less.) But despite President Bartlet’s occasional grandstanding, it was a terrific year for the executive branch, at least on TV.
Best Religious Program. I have a confession. When our office received advance copies of The Face: Jesus in Art, a program sponsored by the Catholic Communications Campaign that was scheduled to air around Easter, I set it aside. First of all, it sounded like a dreary two hours: I imagined endless shots of the face of Jesus. And besides, since this is a confession, you should know a few things in my defense: There were so many other shows to watch! And March was a really busy time!
But on Easter Sunday I had a chance to see the show on public television and was astonished. It was sublime: a beautiful program with a lovely contemplative feel, a show that, unlike anything else I watched this season, could easily serve as a basis for prayer. (You can order copies from the C.C.C. at (800) 235-8722.)
So forgive me, Catholic Communications Campaign, for my sin of omission. For my penance I will watch three episodes of Normal, Ohio, two episodes of Chains of Love and one episode of Weakest Link. Amen.