1 The war in Iraq: Although the postwar turned out to be more eventful. It seems so long ago — April? — that we waited the better part of a month for those “pockets of resistance” to empty themselves, and spent far too much time — way into the small hours, in some cases — with embeds in our heads and talking heads in our beds. What I remember best is the apocalyptic foreboding of New York Times correspondent John Burns’ nightly telephone chats from Baghdad on Charlie Rose. Happily, Burns’ Heart of Darkness prognostications were way off target.
2 Year of the Brit: 2003 was a triumphant year for BBC America, and for British television abroad. For Bush-haters, BBC World News, openly skeptical about the war, was the only game in town. Da Ali G Show (HBO) and The Office (BBC) were the year’s funniest shows, Faking It (BBC) was the most moving reality/makeover series, and MI-5 (A&E) one of the sharpest suspense series. But none of this alters the fact that BBC America is nowhere near as good as it ought to be, and that the absence of BBC International from cable and satellite listings is a crime.
3 Fox News: Love it or . . . Okay, you hated it. But nobody could stop talking about it. People ranted about it in Britain, where Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity are never seen. They probably did the same in Caracas, too, and in Dubrovnik and Moscow and Monrovia and in the depths of the Amazon jungle. How they felt about it on other planets, I don’t know, but I suspect they disliked it intensely.
4 Porn: As I watched Coupling, the smutty Friends rip-off on NBC, it occurred to me that we might as well just embrace pornography and watch our favorite television stars screw onscreen. If The Simple Life had only been available on the Internet, how many people would have bothered to download it in order to watch Paris Hilton cavort in the countryside? As opposed to the millions who would have eagerly tuned in to watch her pornographic home movie on Fox?
5 The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (Comedy Central): Slyly presenting himself as a man without an agenda — if Fox can claim to be in the center, why can’t he? — Jon Stewart attacked Republicans for being lying, war-mongering plutocrats, and scorned the Democrats for being wusses who wouldn’t stand up to them. His heart may be on the left, but that didn’t stop him from poking fun at a preening Democrat like Ambassador Joseph Wilson.
6 Terrorism: There was so much terrorism on television this year, it seemed odd that there wasn’t any in real life — at least not in America (touch wood).
But on shows such as 24, Threat Matrix, Navy NCIS and a dozen others I’ve forgotten, you couldn’t get away from it. Ironically, most of the shows were written by liberals who think the Bush administration’s war on terrorism is a gross overreaction. Look in the mirror, scribes.
7 Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (Bravo) and Angels in America (HBO): The former presented gay life at its most comic, and also provided some useful shaving tips. The latter was the most audacious meditation on AIDS ever attempted. There was no better scene on the box during the last 12 months than the one in which the dying Roy Cohn, brilliantly portrayed by Al Pacino, explained to his doctor exactly why he had liver cancer and not AIDS.
8 Miss Match: For some reason, this show always made me feel good. I think it was Alicia Silverstone’s smile.
9 Mismatch: Roger Federer’s sublime dismemberment of Andy Roddick at Wimbledon. In a year dominated by politics and bickering, sport seemed more of a refuge than ever. In dismantling Roddick’s crude power-game 7-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the Wimbledon semifinals, the elegant Swiss ace proved that graceful strokes, speed of thought and lightness of touch could still win championships.
10 TiVo: How to watch TV without actually watching it (“I TiVo’d it”). Before long, as many people will own TiVos or rival digital recorders as now have VCRs. The behavioral problems that arise from this will be worth studying. Veteran TiVo users know them well: A strange desire to say, “Excuse me, but would you mind if I ‘paused’ you?” in the middle of a conversation, and a gnawing disappointment that real life doesn’t come equipped with instant fast-forward and replay.