It would be difficult to discuss the past year of television without first addressing the effects of Sept. 11 on the medium. Initially, pundits foresaw a dramatically altered post-9/11 TV landscape. After all, the first days after the terrorist attacks saw television at its near-best: solid coverage of the events, as well as a surfeit of political, social and historical background designed for an audience desperate to make sense out of the tragedies in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Perhaps, some opined, the desire to understand the events of Sept. 11 would lead to a new kind of television, with an increased emphasis on foreign affairs, greater subtlety in political commentary and, in general, a more serious tone.
On March 10, audiences were shown what that new TV might look like. Six months after the terrorist attacks, CBS broadcast 9/11, the most compelling two hours of television in the past year. Two French filmmakers, Jules and Gideon Naudet, who were filming a documentary on New York firefighters, found themselves on Sept. 11 at a firehouse in Lower Manhattan. Over the next two days the brothers filmed what they saw: the first plane slamming into the World Trade Center, the collapse of the towers and the heroism of the rescue workers.
The final footage was both moving and disturbing. Viewers watched Mychal Judge, O.F.M., praying in the lobby of one of the towers shortly before his death, saw firefighters who would later perish in the collapse and heard the sickening sound of victims falling to their deaths. It was difficult not to think, as one watched the two brothers consistently avoiding death and consistently arriving at the right places for documenting the disaster, that they were somehow meant to be there: witnesses for the rest of the world, offering a glimpse of the valor of the rescue workers, the sorrow of those who died and the tragedy of terrorism.
Sadly, with the exception of 9/11 and a few other news programs, after Sept. 11 television quickly reverted to its old ways. In the last few months, besides the normal dross like Fear Factor, Survivor: Marquesas and The Bachelor, you could also catch Celebrity Boxing (starring, most memorably, Tanya Harding and Paula Jones) and The Glutton Bowl, which featured people eating Brobdignagian quantities of comestibles like piles of cow brains and 15-foot sushi rolls.
This last show, the gagworthy Glutton Bowl, refuted most soundly those who expected television to show greater appreciation of foreign affairs after 9/11. Following a raft of programs that showed us how poverty sometimes leads first to frustration and then to terrorism, it took us only a few months to air a program about Americans gorging themselves for sport, while around the world the poor starved. It is hard to say whether it was more physically disgusting or morally repellent.
Despite ratings successes like NBC’s Friends and The West Wing, as well as CBS’s C.S.I. (not to mention the improbable PBS hit Frontier House), the channel that pulled away from the rest of the pack this year was clearly HBO. Band of Brothers, for example, was just as compelling when the series was repeated in April and May as it had been when first aired last fall. The show boasted superlative performances (including a star-making one by Damian Lewis as the laconic Quaker hero Capt. Dick Winters), fine dialogue andthough I know these things only through books and filma seemingly realistic depiction of the pity of war.
Sex in the City, while certainly not what one would call a family show, also continued its winning streak on HBO, though its characters are, to some viewers’ alarm, becoming increasingly responsible. The surprising real-life pregnancy of Sarah Jessica Parker, however, may throw the show’s writers for a loop next season. Her character, Carrie, is famously unattached. (One writer suggested changing the title to Unprotected Sex in the City.)
Finally, Six Feet Under, a show initially billed as a sort of replacement for The Sopranos, and which took some time to catch on with viewers, offered many pleasant weeks about a most dysfunctional yet most fascinating family. Centering on two brothers (one a gay straight-arrow, the other a straight ne’er-do-well) who struggle to run a funeral business after their father’s death, the show provided not only some of the most bizarre characters on television but also some surprisingly touching moments of family drama. By the end of its run this year, the show had becomedare I say it?every bit as addictive and schedule-binding as The Sopranos. Overall, it’s difficult to dislike a show where moments of revelation come through events as average as unpacking a box of your daughter’s old artwork and as unusual as polishing a tarnished statue of Buddha for an upcoming Buddhist funeral.
Speaking of religion, for most Catholics the biggest show on television in the last few months has been, regrettably, the continuing drama of the church’s sexual abuse scandals, which at times seemed the only show on TV. Television coverage of the events was, in general, wretched. Of course this was to be expected. The scandal involves the two things that television handles with, respectively, the least nuance and an almost total lack of understanding: sex and religion. Perhaps the worst moment (quite a contest, by the way) of the coverage was The Alan Keyes Show an annoying gabfest that runs on Fox-TV, that included Mr. Keyes bellowing at the top of his lungs, Cardinal Law is a CRIMINAL!! A CRIMINAL!!
The most glaring fault in the television coverage of the sexual abuse scandals was that most shows aimed not at commentary but at controversy. Instead of presenting a variety of intelligent opinions, news producers, under the guise of providing both sides of the issue, typically served up someone from the far left and the far right, or, if they weren’t available, two people whose main qualifications were that they violently disagreed with each other. Instead of providing useful information about an important topic, this approach ended up informing few, alienating some and, probably, inflaming many.
Television coverage of the U.S. cardinals’ meeting at the Vatican in mid-April was especially bad. Despite endless warnings from bishops, informed laypersons and church scholars against unrealistic expectations, television newscasters treated the two-day meeting in Rome as if it were Vatican III. (One reporter called our offices to ask which decision would be announced first at the press conference: the ordination of women or the ordination of married men.) Likewise, the communiqué issued by the cardinals on their last day was parsed as if it were the last word on the crisis. With such high expectations, regardless of the actual results of the meetings, it was all but preordained that TV broadcasters would pronounce the event an abject failure.
Was there any good news about the reporting on the scandal? Actually, yes. Tim Russert, on NBC’s Meet the Press, provided viewers with a number of substantive discussions of the issues surrounding the sexual abuse scandals. On Easter Sunday, for example, he gathered the Revs. Donald Cozzens, Richard McBrien and C. John McCloskey for a conversation that was measured, provocative and informative. And on his CNBC show toward the end of April, Mr. Russert spoke deliberately and intelligently to Father McBrien and the Rev. Stephen Rossetti of the St. Luke Institute. Both programs afforded the topic the time it deserved and the participants the time they needed to make clear their views on the challenges facing the church. Mr. Russert and his producers provided a useful service to Catholic viewers by helping them understand the situation in its complexity with candid and intelligent questioning.
Unfortunately, unlike so many failed TV programs this year, the sexual abuse scandals in the church may be one of the very few new series to continue into the next television season.