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.
Also good: VH1's sketch-comedy series, Random Play; Downtown (MTV), animator Chris Prynoski's lower-Manhattan slacker romance; and The PJ's (Fox), developed by Will Vinton and Eddie Murphy, Downtown's way-way-uptown Claymation counterpart. It seems to have been the thing to do, in and out of the press, to bash Matt Groening's Futurama (Fox), which inevitably and unfortunately begs comparisons to The Simpsons, but I've liked what I've seen. Two grown-up-friendly cartoons for the small fry are the collage-style Angela Anaconda (Fox Family Channel), which tells droll tales of an 8-year-old girl, her odd friends, distracted parents and curly-haired nemesis; and The Wild Thornberries (Nickelodeon), relating the ecologically right-on adventures of a family of nature documentarians, featuring the voices of Lacey Chabert (Party of Five), Flea and Tim Curry. And speaking of sweet transvestites: a round of applause for Eddie Izzard and his HBO live-concert Dressed To Kill. I also very much liked CinderElmo (Fox), in which the little red Muppet replayed the fairy tale, with the human help of Kathy Najimy, Oliver Platt, French Stewart and, as the Princess, Felicity's Keri Russell, pre-bob.
SHOWTIME'S ORIGINAL SERIES ARE ON THE WHOLE A sorry lot, but it ran some good movies this year, some original, some picked up from that (across-the-49th) parallel universe known as Canada, the best of them made for kids: The Planet of Junior Brown, The Devil's Arithmetic and Restless Spirits were three of those, respectively concerning an enormous piano prodigy, a spoiled girl transported back in time to the Holocaust, and the ghosts of two French fliers trying to get to New York. HBO made too many biopics, did better with the fictional Earthly Possessions, a May-September Something Wildstyle road flick with Stephen Dorff and Susan Sarandon, and A Lesson Before Dying with Don Cheadle superb as a schoolteacher tutoring a condemned man. TNT delivered the superior You Know My Name, a Prohibition-era Western with Sam Neill and Arliss Howard; A Slight Case of Murder, sophisticated suspense with William H. Macy and Sports Night's Felicity Huffman; and Passing Glory, an inspirational tale of basketball and civil rights starring Andre Braugher and Rip Torn.
An American Love Story (PBS), Jennifer Fox's 10-hour study of an interracial family, was the year's big documentary event, in part because it was big, and in larger part because of the telegenic charm and articulate intelligence of its subjects. The Mississippi: River of Song (PBS) was another big doc, nothing fancy but full of good music. Plenty of fun is Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends, a Bravo British import about American subcultures that follows the gangly journalist through a series of get-involved, George Plimptonesque engagements with porn stars, professional wrestlers, born-again Christians, flying-saucer fanatics and New York actors. His willingness to adopt, even temporarily, his subjects' world-view, to follow them out on their limb, makes his reports, in spite of their comic intent, more informative than most and often oddly touching.
Finally, though I often rail against the commercial distortion of the medium, the year's most perfect minute of television was "The Morning After," a Nike spot directed by Spike Jonze, in which a jogger takes a nonchalant New Year'smorning run through a city in which all the worst Y2K predictions, and more, come true: Cars crash, ATMs go mad, missiles streak the sky, and wild animals roam the street. It's only a plot to sell you shoes (in the guise of an attitude), but certainly we may praise the enemy when he has fought cleverly and well.