By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Photo by Anthony NesteIN THE TECHNO-EVOLUTIONARY HISTORICAL PARADE, WE are the people who look at screens: Homo potato. The old Flash Gordon dream of sending pictures through space, a practical reality for more than half a century now -- one-20th of a millennium -- has brought us to this pass. This is the legacy of television and the gift of the 20th century to the 21st: the man-monitor paradigm. (I'm soaking up cathode rays as I write, and at a proximity my mother used to tell me, back when it was a question of Huckleberry Hound and not personal computing, would "ruin my eyes." But who speaks for the eyes of the professional screenwatcher? The data processor? The proofreader? The tortured scribe?) In this closed system, one's gaze is directed not toward the world of real people, solid things and physical sensation but toward an ephemeral electric simulacrum in which community is defined as looking at the same pictures. To be sure, there will come a time when such screencentricity will seem as primitive and mysterious as painting the walls of caves, but this will not happen until science invents a better way of selling you things.
WE CERTAINLY SEEM TO BE AT THE END OF SOMETHING: That network television sucks as a system if not in every particular of its product is now pretty much taken for granted; and everyone's hip to the hypocrisy of the sweeps, though the charade frantically continues. Some of the old forms, especially the situation comedy with its aura of forced, faked hilarity, seem terminally worn, and in general it's been a rather dispiriting Last Fall Season of the Century, what with the CBS-Viacom merger, the surrender of large tracts of prime time to big-money game shows (with more coming in 2000), the continuing constant schedule shifts and quick cancellations, the perhaps overly defensive industrial response to the NAACP's call for better minority representation on both sides of the camera.
And yet there are reasons to be cheerful, keeping in mind that there is nearly always something better to do with your time -- though not necessarily as therapeutically hypnotic -- than watch television: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Law & Order, The Practice, Sports Night, Felicity, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Everybody Loves Raymond are still there and all still good; Cartoon Network's The Powerpuff Girls and Space Ghost Coast to Coast (the funniest show going) continue to rock my world. Among the models new for '99, The Sopranos, HBO's witty drama of mob family dysfunction, established itself in a mere 13 episodes as the show of the year (a second season finally begins January 16), and was quickly taken up by press, public and profession as a standard of creative freedom and the advantages of premium cable (in case The Larry Sanders Show and Oz hadn't already made the point clear), where one has not only the license to curse and get naked -- freedoms of which The Sopranos heartily avails itself -- but more important, to treat morally ambiguous or unpalatable characters in an interested and essentially nonjudgmental way. That provides good grist for actors, too, and the cast of The Sopranos, including James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Nancy Marchand and Lorraine Bracco, make star turns of it. Meanwhile, the staunchly antiheroic Hollywood satire Action, with Jay Mohr, Illeana Douglas and Buddy Hackett -- created originally for pay cable and broadcast with bleeped dialogue -- failed on Fox, which ultimately could not content itself with rave reviews and cable-size ratings, and made a game show appear in its place.
Best of breed in the broadcast-network class is Freaks and Geeks(NBC), Paul Feig and Judd Apatow's funny, affectionate and now and again heartbreaking portrayal of life on the fringes of high school society in 1980 Michigan, which takes the almost un-American position that people actually are limited by their limitations. I have a major soft spot -- nearly a sinkhole! -- for its more-or-less star Linda Cardellini, one of the season's several deep, troubled and less-than-perky young women, along with Heather Matarazzo (Now and Again), Julia Whelan (Once and Again), Anne Hathaway (Get Real) and Shiri Appleby (Roswell) -- all decent series, by the way, and worth a look. Runner-up The West Wing(NBC), Aaron Sorkin's workaday fantasy of life inside the White House, is the first soap for wonks and is appropriately habit-forming; it gets a special citation for making stars out of character actors: All hail Richard Schiff, Allison Janney, John Spencer. Judging Amy (CBS) can be a little sappy/soppy, but Amy Brenneman, Tyne Daly, Dan Futterman and Richard T. Jones are excellent company, and there have been welcome guest shots from Homicide's Reed Diamond and Law & Order's Richard Brooks. Brooks has also been co-starring in GvsE(USA), an engaging bit of supernatural nonsense that mixes Brimstone and Buddy Faro and serves up such choice lines of dialogue as "I don't want to see the WWF get corrupted by the minions of Satan." (I thought it already was.) Buffy spinoff Angel(WB) blows hot and cold from week to week, according to whether the scripts lean to or away from humor, but I'm there for it.