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Not the Real World

Photo by Jay Maidment/HBO

Though in no sense “best,” the television event of the year was certainly the destruction of the World Trade Center, which annihilated regular programming on broadcast and cable networks alike; swept commercials from the screen (it was an event impossible to sponsor, unlike, say, the bombing of Afghanistan); delayed the start of the fall season; and postponed the Emmy Awards. The coverage was necessary, yet (I thought) unnecessarily sensational. The constant replaying of the Moment of Impact, sprung at the unlikeliest and least appropriate times, constituted in itself a kind of endless surprise attack; the computer graphics, zippy titles and human-interest stories were uncomfortably reminiscent of coverage of the Olympic Games; and the desperate scraping for facts and factoids, eyewitness reports and official reaction guaranteed that the air would be filled with bad information and unreasoned response. Eventually, I stopped watching TV altogether and got my war news from print (the inky and electronic kinds).

Before distributing the laurels, my two by-now-traditional caveats: First, television is a big place, and no one who values his sanity can watch enough of it to make any TV Top 10 truly authoritative. And second, regardless of its content, which is at times excellent and even enlightening, television is as a medium pernicious, a black hole that draws your attention away from the real world of real things, which is not long yours to enjoy. You could always be doing something better than watching it.

Nevertheless: Here, in mostly alphabetical order, are some good things from the land of TV 2001.

Adult Swim (Cartoon Network). CN’s new programming block for grown-ups is as close as television ever gets to the prankish spirit of good indie rock. Fresh episodes of Space Ghost Coast to Coast, the best show on television, are the big draw, but I also make time for SG spinoffs The Brak Show and Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, revel in the ’70s detective-show/superhero pastiche Aqua Teen Hunger Force (featuring a crime-fighting meatball, milk shake and carton of fries), and salute the return of the post-Peanuts Home Movies, in Squigglevision.

Alias (ABC) / Smallville (WB) / Thieves (ABC) / The Tick (Fox). Comic-book television — and why not? The first and third involve spy stuff, with Alias the more “serious” and ass-kicking, and Thieves the funnier and friendlier. The warmhearted Smallville bathes the Boy of Steel in the waters of Dawson’s Creek and, Buffy-style, metaphorically inflates high school life into a supernatural battlefield, while The Tick (a live-action version of an animated version of a comic-book parody of caped-crimefighting comics) riffs upon what might be called “the banality of good.”

Band of Brothers (HBO). Although suspect in many ways — despite its veneer of realism, Tom Hanks’ and Steven Spielberg’s slog through the European campaign is as sentimental and propagandistic as films actually made during World War II — this was certainly the most impressively mounted production of the year, successfully scaling a big-screen aesthetic to a television economy. Nail-chewing action, scenes of weird beauty, unshowy performances.

Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO). Larry David’s semi-improvisational, profoundly antiheroic, gloves-off sequel to Seinfeld, with himself as the main obsessive personality, is in its inevitable humiliation of the protagonist a most extreme incarnation of a sitcomical strain that runs all the way back to I Love Lucy. (But minus the Love.)

Invader Zim (Nickelodeon) / Samurai Jack (Cartoon Network). Beautifully rendered sci-fi cartoons, with outside points of view. Zim, created by comic-book artist Jhonen Vasquez, is the more intellectually acute and funny; Jack, from Dexter’s Laboratory creator Genndy Tartakovsky, makes up in picture what it lacks in plot.

The Chris Isaak Show (Showtime). Spinal Tap as workplace comedy. With a little sex.

The Merchant of Venice (PBS). A more or less straightforward videotaping of a Royal National Theatre production, this modern reading of the Shakespeare “comedy,” dressed in the weeds of proto-fascist early-20th-century Italy, was deep, dark and moving, and in no sense easy. The ancient promise of television to open a window on the world in every living room, to enlighten and bring art to the masses, is occasionally met.

Philly (ABC). Too well-made to call a guilty pleasure, but it feels like one all the same. My Philadelphia lawyer friend assures me that Steven Bochco’s Philadelphia lawyer series is hooey, but by television standards of authenticity the show feels “realistic.” I’ve yet to see anyone browbeaten or trapped into a confession on the witness stand, and there is something convincingly harried about Kim Delaney, notwithstanding that she always looks like a TV star.

Scrubs (NBC). While there is nothing particularly novel about this black-humorous hospital comedy, except perhaps in the context of a half-hour network sitcom, it does have attractive leads, and a nicely serrated edge to the humor: “Officially, doctors, if there’s a mistake, don’t admit it to the patient. Of course, if the patient is deceased — and you’re sure — you can feel free to tell him . . . anything, ha ha.”

Undeclared (Fox). A college comedy very much in the college-comedy tradition, producer Judd Apatow’s less subversive but very funny follow-up to Freaks and Geeks is still scads smarter, more complex and true-to-pain than it needs to be. Extra credit for extra effort is ever the standard around here.

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