Survivor was, I am sorry to say, the television event of the year, and it is not done with us yet: Survivor: Outback debuts January 28, at the top of a sweeps period. I’m not sure why I think the course and outcome of the presidential election should have been predictable from that show‘s ”storyline“ and success, but I can’t quite shake the feeling they‘re somehow related -- that creepy winner-guy Richard Hatch was some sort of herald for George W., that Survivor’s greed-is-good, just-playing-the-game ethos, its bogus air of seriousness and cultural import, were replayed in the latest edition of Who Wants To Be a President. In any case, both contests demonstrably made for ”good TV“ without actually being good; the People like a messy fight. I understood Survivor‘s appeal without finding anything to admire in it, past the half-naked women, and you can find them everywhere these days. One feels something of a spoilsport hating something so many found compelling, but a spoilsport must I be.
I feel a bit of a sham myself, to tell the truth, summing up the Year in TV after having just spent six weeks ignoring it almost entirely -- apart from CNN and the Weather Channel -- in the very heart of the new fall season. (I was moving around a lot, and never near a set during prime time.) There are series I have not yet seen -- The Michael Richards Show, John Goodman’s Normal, Ohio -- that have already been canceled, and other, healthier ones of which I‘ve seen only the first episode or two, like Gideon’s Crossing with Andre Braugher and David Kelly‘s Boston Public, both of which seemed promising if a little hyperbolic, and notwithstanding that Kelly’s formula (sexy people with ethical dilemmas) becomes more apparent with each passing project. But even when I‘m home and on the job and pushing the threshold of my video tolerance, there is simply too much TV to watch. It’s not like when I was a kid and there were only three real networks (and even in L.A., only a dozen or so channels) and you could stay on top of the collective slate and still get your homework done and find time to bike down to the 7-Eleven for a Slurpee and a Big Hunk. I have recently gotten digital cable, which, in addition to the exciting new feature of the picture occasionally freezing and depixilating to black, means there is even more TV I don‘t have time to watch. On the basis of the normal curve, most of it may be predicted to be mediocre, yet there is at the same time, on all those unambitious niche networks, much useful stuff, good without being in any large sense great. In the new age epitomized by TiVo, the wise viewer will pick and choose and not necessarily care what’s going on over at CBS or NBC; even now we are becoming a nation of Food Network people, or History Channel people, or Animal Planet people, who get whatever we need from the medium -- our guilty pleasures, our psychic medicine, our deep or shallow news, our household hints. And, as ever, the really wise viewer is the one who knows when to walk away.
This is some of what I liked. My list, which is briefer and yet took more effort to compile than in years past, is obviously more a testament to my own prejudices and viewing habits than any absolute statement of quality, though within my prejudices I will defend the quality of my choices. Certain themes emerge as I look them over: I like comedies. I like shows about kids and young people and women, and combinations thereof. I like emotional realism, but have some affection for the clever distortion of the surface image. All the series named below are distinguished by their casts; living in a town full of people who want to be stars, it‘s easy to knock actors, but the best of them do us a great, almost priestly service (they amplify our desires), and of course, and not least, many of them are just nice to look at.
Freaks and Geeks (NBC). It’s been my year-end best-of custom to consider series only in the year of their debut, but this beautifully written, subtly directed and naturally acted laugh-track-less comedy about life on the high school fringes in 1980 hardly aired in the year of its debut, having been pre-empted repeatedly for sports and sweeps; this year it aired its best episodes, was twice honored at the Museum of Television and Radio, won an Emmy for casting, and was picked up for repeats by Fox Family Channel, including shows still unaired when NBC pulled the plug. (The last 20 seconds of ”Noshing and Moshing,“ when Busy Philipps‘ Kim takes in James Franco’s Daniel after his ill-fated night of punk rock, was my favorite TV of the whole year 2000.) Still-disgruntled fans may take some consolation in the fact that NBC programming chief Garth Ancier, the plug puller, has had his own plug pulled, though I advise them not to dwell upon the seven-figure buyout of his contract.