The Boston Phoenix
December 28, 2000 - January 4, 2001


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Clean hits

by Robert David Sullivan

This wasn't the best year for television, but the little box did inspire more spirited debates than I can remember in a long time. And I'm not even going to get into the presidential election or any of the other stories that made the all-news channels seem livelier than WWF wrestling.

As usual, I've based my Top 10 list on entertainment series that offered something different this year, rather than on veterans that merely added more episodes for a future run on Nick at Nite. (The Simpsons may be a great show, but you don't need me to tell you that after 11 years.) This time, there are no sit-coms with laugh tracks because nothing measured up to the fifth, and far from best, season of Everybody Loves Raymond. Last year I included Friends and Will & Grace, but both have been spotty this fall. Will has great one-liners and some superlative acting, but the show stops dead when we're asked to see the characters as real human beings. There are no straight legal dramas, maybe because Ed makes them all seem shrill and formulaic (also, they are all shrill and formulaic). There are no crime dramas, though I did develop a fondness for UPN's The Beat during the six weeks it took to die from poor ratings. C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigator came close, but its cool cataloguing of forensic tricks was outweighed by its idiotic dialogue. As for science fiction, nothing overshadowed The X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, even if those shows are getting long in the tooth.

The best series of 2000:

Survivor (CBS). In a year of niche-market successes, Survivor was the one new TV program that captured the attention of the whole country. By the end of its 13-week run, the hype had reached an insane level, but this time the celebrity magazines were trying to keep up with their readers, who had discovered the show without the benefit of Grinch-type merchandising. The premise was simple. Sixteen "real people" were deposited on the proverbial desert island, and each week one of them was eliminated through athletic competitions, party games, and psychological warfare (in the form of a vote at the now-infamous "tribal council"). Survivor may not have been scripted (well, not completely), but it had one advantage over the fictional dramas on prime-time TV: irrevocable plot twists. When a person got booted off the island, he or she stayed off. Unlike a sit-com, there were no episodes in which a character announces that he's going to quit his job, then changes his mind before the closing credits. And desperate writers never brought back storylines that had already been resolved (as in Sex in the City's Mr. Big). Also, the concept of voting someone "off the island" is apt to have a much longer shelf life than Who Wants To Be a Millionaire's "Is that your final answer?" Like it or not, Survivor is the one series from 2000 that might be remembered 50 years from now.

The Sopranos (HBO). Some people were disappointed with the sophomore year of the series that topped my list in 1999. The comedy-drama about a mob boss on Prozac was, inevitably, not as bracing this year, but I think dropping the series to No. 2 is punishment enough. Like Survivor, The Sopranos was anchored by a strong storyline and a consistent tone. The characters seemed equally real during moments of comic relief, of which there were many (Christopher's attempts to become an actor, Tony's bout of food poisoning), and during acts of violence (most memorably the fate of Big Pussy). Producer David Chase introduced several vivid characters during the second season, but he was confident enough about the show's future not to drag any subplots any farther than they needed to go. I loved the character of Richie Aprile, for example, but I was also happy with the way he was written out of the show -- a clean hit, so to speak. Justice prevailed this year when star James Gandolfini won an Emmy for Best Actor, but The Sopranos lost again in the Best Series category, this time to The West Wing. I suggest that Gandolfini hire some of those lawyers from Florida to take another look at the votes.

The West Wing (NBC). Okay, I wasn't exactly outraged that The West Wing won the Best Drama Emmy. This idealized version of life at the White House has also been less surprising in its second year, but nobody beats producer and writer Aaron Sorkin at mixing sarcasm and sentiment, sometimes within a single line of dialogue. And almost all the regular characters are believable human beings even when they're being impossibly witty.

Once and Again (ABC). Here's proof that a great show can be crippled by a bland title. No matter how many times I recommend Once and Again, almost everyone is completely mystified when I bring it up. If people started saying "God, I hate that show," at least I'd know enough to give it a rest. To review: this drama stars Sela Ward, the woman in black from the Sprint commercials, but she's just part of a first-rate acting ensemble here. It's from the creators of thirtysomething, and it even has one of the same characters (creepy businessman Miles Drentell), but it's not as cute or self-absorbed as I remember that late-'80s program's being. The series began with two divorced parents falling in love and complicating the lives of their children and ex-spouses, but it isn't dominated by one character or place, and it doesn't rehash the same situation every week. Nothing about all that suggests a catchier name for the show. Since Queer As Folk hasn't had any trouble sticking in people's minds, maybe ABC should just retitle this show Meet the Breeders.

The Late Show with David Letterman (CBS). As one of Letterman's producers joked when picking up another Emmy, that heart-surgery "hoax" really paid off. Then again, ensuring the nomination of two overpackaged presidential candidates was a great way for Letterman to show off his cantankerous sense of humor.

Malcolm in the Middle (Fox). A worthy companion to The Simpsons on Fox's Sunday-night schedule, this well-paced comedy about a brilliant kid and his not-so-swift family is doing its part to kill off studio-bound sit-coms.

Ed (NBC). I get the feeling that the producers of this series don't quite know where they're going, but at least they're not in a rut. The title character is a New York City lawyer who returns to his tiny home town after losing his job and wife. He buys a bowling alley, sets up a practice there, and pursues a woman from high school who barely remembers him. There have been too many cute supporting characters and too many running jokes, but there have also been wonderful guest stars (such as Eddie Bracken and M. Emmet Walsh), plus the kind of loopy dialogue that would fit right into some of Hollywood's best screwball comedies. I'm looking forward to springtime in Stuckeyville -- assuming that Ed (Tom Cavanagh) evolves into something more than a lovable stalker.

Gideon's Crossing (ABC). This Boston-based medical drama is another rookie series with potential, with Andre Braugher going after cancer cells as aggressively as he grilled murder suspects on Homicide: Life on the Street. In contrast with what you see on ER, the sick people here are patients, not hospital staffers played by actors with million-dollar contracts, so you don't always know how the stories are going to play out.

Queer As Folk (Showtime). It seems that the only way to make a cool prime-time soap opera these days is to fill it with gay and lesbian characters. Queer is flamboyantly provocative, celebrating gay life (to tick off conservatives) but often making it seem rather shallow (to tick off the politically correct).

Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO). Coming in at the bottom of the top, this largely improvised comedy is basically Seinfeld without the sweeteners -- no laugh track, no catch phrases, and no cuddly Kramer. In each episode, stand-up comic Larry David (one of Seinfeld's creators), playing himself, gets more and more exasperated by unreasonable people (mostly women). And if the show itself wears on your nerves (and it can), just imagine less jaded viewers stumbling onto Enthusiasm and getting really upset. If that sounds like a perverse form of entertainment, then you probably didn't find much to like on television in 2000.

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