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.
Gilmore Girls (WB) is my favorite new show, with ex-Townie Lauren Graham as the young mother of a teenage daughter in a quirky, but not too quirky, small town; all the characters get to be right some of the time and have to be wrong some of the time. The dialogue is sharp without being unbelievably clever, the tone well-modulated, the acting uniformly life-size.
The Corner (HBO). Directed by Charles S. Dutton and written by David Simon (Homicide: Life on the Street) and David Mills, this fact-based heroin version of The Days of Wine and Roses set on the streets of West Baltimore was, at six hours, not a minute too long. T.K. Carter, Khandi Alexander and Sean Nelson caught the people inside characters TV usually treats as freaks, when it treats them at all.
That‘s Life (CBS). Less interesting in its premise (30-year-old bartender goes back to school) than for its funky milieu and charming cast; the stories can run to the corny and predictable, but are redeemed by small bits of real-life business, and if some of the cast go consistently over the top, others — especially lead Heather Paige Kent and especially especially Debi Mazar, who fills a small role to the very brim — are doing some of the most believable work on television.
Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO). Seinfeld co-creator Larry David steps into Garry Shandling’s shoes as this year‘s HBO antihero, mixing his old series’ Greek-tragical obsessive-compulsiveness with Larry Sanders‘ semidocumentary style to paint a portrait of a man at war with life on many levels. My critical regards to Cheryl Hines as his long-suffering wife and to Richard Lewis as the long-suffering Richard Lewis.
Brutally Normal (WB). I didn’t realize how much I liked this show, another celebration of high school misfits, until it was taken away. Stylistically broad, but with the operatic, balletic elegance of a Hong Kong martial-arts film. Mike Damus, Eddie Kaye Thomas and Lea Moreno were the goofy yet graceful leads.
Malcolm in the Middle (Fox). Yet another series that stands up for the freaks: a kind of Addams Family without the Halloween gear, or a live-action Simpsons, concerning a peculiar clan that functions, even thrives, on its own unwholesome terms. The show seems to be surviving Frankie Muniz‘s growth spurt quite handily.
Grosse Pointe (WB). Darren Star’s parody of the substance and production of his own Beverly Hills 90210 is a kinder, gentler Action, with an unusually assured tone and lovely, funny performances by Lindsay Sloane, Irene Molloy, Kohl Sudduth and Al Santos.
Belfast, Maine (PBS). Frederick Wiseman‘s four-hour cinema-verite look at a small (but surprisingly diverse) New England town made beautiful music out of the rhythms of ordinary life. Presented, like all his films, without narration, says Wiseman, ”because I don’t like to be told what to think.“
Big Brother (CBS). Survivor‘s less successful cousin, in which contestants were locked in a ”house“ in the Valley for 88 days, didn’t matter to me all that much — I can‘t even remember who won, if I ever knew — except when it seemed as if the inmates were about to pre-emptively end the series by refusing to sell one another out. If in the end they continued to play the Man’s game, because that‘s where the money was, for one brief, shining moment revolution was in the air. And at the very least, the show demonstrated that it was possible to live three months without television — a radical notion, and soon forgotten.