Photo by Ron TomIn spite of the overall enervating conservatism of the 1998 network fall season, and the near-complete failure of last winter/spring's midseason, it was a fairly good year for television, if only in that the lengthening cracks in the palace walls are letting in much new light and fresh air. In not-so-olden times, when the CBS-NBC-ABC hegemony was so absolute as to seem divinely ordained, it was difficult to even imagine a fourth network; Fox, which debuted in 1986, seemed a vulgar joke for a long while, but nevertheless managed to produce, amid the tabloidal, tittified dross, It's Garry Shandling's Show, The Ben Stiller Show, In Living Color, The Simpsons, The X-Files, The Tracey Ullman Show, Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, Party of Five, King of the Hill and Ally McBeal — a run of programs that, with a few signal exceptions like Seinfeld and Friends, arguably have engaged and defined the homestretch to 2000 more actively (and created more stars) than anything offered this decade by the Big Three. Last year belonged to the WB, which, with Dawson's Creek and Felicity added to the still-ass-kicking Buffy the Vampire Slayer and teen-friendly heartwarmer Seventh Heaven, recognized and harnessed the culture's largely untapped deposits of young-girl power. (The network's next venture in this wise, Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane — an NYC-based high school comedy with an exceptionally charming cast and an opening guest shot by Felicity's Scott Foley — premieres anon.) And cable, broadcast's shy cousin for years — most of the major cable nets date back to the '70s and '80s — is suddenly busting out all over with original series and films, many of which actually do justice to the word original.
Which is not quite to say that there is nothing to watch on big-league broadcast TV — continuing faves like Everybody Loves Raymond, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Spin City, Friends, Law & Order, Homicide: Life on the Street and The Practice are all good for a smile, a tear, a shot of high dudgeon — or that the new season is an utter washout. Will & Grace, Becker, Brother's Keeper, The King of Queens — there is nothing especially wrong and much right with these and other professionally assembled, generally intelligent and attractively peopled series. But they are only minor variations on what you have been watching since Lucy manned the candy machine. For every genuine auteurist oddity like Twin Peaks or Picket Fences, or castoff gem like EZ Streets or the recently axed Buddy Faro — a visually bright, postmodern detective show that at once parodied and celebrated its genre — there are dozens of programs circumscribed by commercially mandated low common denominators and five decades of accreted television convention. In the premium-cable environment, meanwhile, where narrative structure is not governed by ad breaks nor art swayed by sponsors, and among the smaller networks that compete by innovation and which do not strive to be all things to all people, new forms are evolving, from real-life soap operas to cartoon-hosted talk shows — forms the ever-less-cocky majors will eventually be constrained to copy. (The most stylistically interesting of the season's big-network new series, ABC's Sports Night, is cable at heart, much in the structural spirit of The Larry Sanders Show.) If television seemed dull to you this year, it may be in part because of the glimpse of something brighter, or at any rate different, ahead.
But we are here to look back. I don't know if it says more about the state of the medium or of my own mind that so many of the new shows I liked in '98 were cartoons, puppet shows or otherwise made for the very young. As a rule, though, children's programming does tend to be more formally venturesome than what's made for grown-ups, and contentwise emphasizes fun, amazement, beauty and uplift — good qualities with which most adult television does not overly concern itself. I was sufficiently entranced by Teletubbies (PBS) to have bought a little stuffed Po to sit on my TV; stunning in its playful lassitude, revolutionary in its preference for sensation over storytelling, the show offers a world of real skies and plastic flowers, synthetic custard and actual bunnies that pulsates, under a gurgling baby-faced sun, almost psychedelically with life. Also impressively numinous is the computer-animated Rolie Polie Olie (Disney Channel), which manifests a standard nuclear family of extraterrestrial robots, their dog Spot and extremely helpful furniture, all designed by kiddie-book illustrator William Joyce. And while the rank South Park was undeniably the cartoon of the year, I prefer Craig McCracken's crimefighting kindergartners The Powerpuff Girls (Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup), a product of Cartoon Network's encouraging encouragement of young talent. And I have nothing but admiration for MTV's talking-sock Sifl & Olly Show, a DIY delight that recalls the great puppets of television history as well as the surreal olios of Ernie Kovacs, Steve Allen, and Bob and Ray without getting in your face about it.
In a more mature vein, I like HBO's witty Sex and the City, with Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon and Kristin Davis, which has ripened fruitlike into a persuasive portrait of female bonding and intergender fumbling. New old-school sitcom Maggie Winters (CBS) likewise gets a shout-out for its gynocentric POV and crackerjack cast, led by Faith Ford. Just as good, if not better, are Lifetime's Oh Baby, with Cynthia Stevenson tracking her artificially inseminated partnerless pregnancy, and Maggie, with Ann Cusack in the grip of a midlife crisis; these series are not wholly distinct from network sitcomedy — indeed, they were meant to demonstrate that the cable net could make “real TV” — but they have their own speed and spin, are soft and thoughtful in a way that their big-time relations, which oft expend more energy than they create in a desperate bid for attention, can no longer afford to be. The aforementioned Sports Night (ABC) is intelligent, even serious, fun, remarkably fast-paced but never frantic; Cupid (ABC) is a big box of nuts and chews; That '70s Show (Fox), a bag of jellybeans. The WB college soap, Felicity, has to my surprise come out the season's all-around blue-ribbon winner; the writers seem to be letting the chemistry of the players dictate the course of the show, and to have cast their lot on the side of emotional truth and logical consistency rather than Dawson-esque sensational effect. And they're game for some tricky stuff: An episode staged mostly in a library during final exams was a little masterpiece of contrasting speeds and volumes (with whispering sequences cleverly subtitled). I turn my thumb up as well for Two Fat Ladies (Food Channel), those motorbiking queens of cuisine; and Rock of Ages (VH-1), in which ordinary folks deconstruct music videos — the first series in history (not counting Beavis and Butt-head) dedicated to watching people watch TV. Oh brave new world!
Additionally, I loudly applaud these five fine documentaries: 4 Little Girls (HBO), Spike Lee's film about the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church; Bug Juice, in which the Disney Channel applied the principles of The Real World to summer camp; 14 Up in America (Showtime), installment two in the stateside version of Michael Apted's pop-sociological study of hope and circumstance; The Farmer's Wife (PBS), David Sutherland's six-and-a-half-hour condensation of a couple of years in the hard life of a Nebraska farm family; and at the other end of the durational spectrum, Cuba 15 (PBS), a brief but exhilarating portrait of Latina adolescence. And I shower with flowers the following TV movies and miniseries: From the Earth to the Moon (HBO), Tom Hanks' boyish salute to the Apollo program; Evidence of Blood (The Movie Channel), a beautifully measured mystery with David Strathairn and Mary McDonnell; When Trumpets Fade (HBO), WWII made life-size in the big-screen year of Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line; the Vietnam fairy tale A Soldier's Sweetheart (Showtime); Gia (HBO), for Angelina Jolie's full-bodied impersonation of a doomed supermodel; John Leguizamo: Freak (HBO), for Leguizamo's full-bodied impersonation of his entire family; Everything That Rises (TNT), Dennis Quaid's left-of-sappy tribute to home and true grit; and Tom Jones (A&E), a lot of rollicking jollity from Britain.
An early bet for 1999: HBO's The Sopranos, a 13-episode limited series concerning the unraveling life of a New Jersey upper-middle-management mobster and family man, debuting Sunday, January 10, at 9 p.m.; we will speak more of it when next we meet, but it's worth your getting in at the start.