[Sidebar] May 8 - 15, 1997
[10 reasons to watch TV]
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Eye pleasers

Here are 10 good reasons to be a couch critter

Award-winning author and cultural critic Harlan Ellison christened television "the Glass Teat" in 1968, when he began writing a series of Los Angeles Free Press columns on the one-eyed living-room monster. But Ellison's reservations about our electron-beamed version of soma didn't stop him from scripting episodes of Star Trek, The Outer Limits, and other TV shows that could only be described as pure entertainments. Vivid proof that man -- no matter how intelligent, cynical, righteous, or self-possessed (and Ellison is clearly all four) -- does not live by PBS alone.

Hell, we've got some of the snootiest critics around, and yet morning conversations at the Phoenix often revolve around the latest exploits of Bart Simpson, the Law & Order crew, or Larry Sanders's schmuck sidekick Hank. So in a conservative age when television is once again taking hits -- from MTV-hating Bible-thumpers, child psychologists bemoaning the death of the American attention span, teachers blaming the tube for low literacy levels . . . you name it -- we have the audacity to flout good taste (maybe even good sense) and give you 10 good reasons to watch television.

We believe the programs our editors and writers have tagged as worth watching offer a little more: an extra twist of creativity, a bit of charisma, personality, maybe fire. Some are purely playful, others serious; the best are often a mixture of both. All protests or defenses of the medium aside, television's best trait is its entertainment value. In these stressful times, there's nothing inherently sinful in the act of clicking the tube on and the brain just a little bit off. So if you've had a hard day at work or at play, just want to lighten the burdens of life a little but feel you need an excuse to kick off your shoes and become sofa broccoli . . . well, here are 10 good excuses -- a host of TV shows you can watch without feeling guilty. Why? Well, because we say so.

The X-Files

Truth, schmuth: even the most dogged X-phile has to admit that the Fox network's show's elaborate conspiracy theories -- which play to the wildest speculations of the far left, far right, and far Heaven's Gate -- are real only in creator Chris Carter's head. Still, X-Files is the smartest drama on TV, boasting the most diabolically ingenious horrors (unlike Carter's Millennium, whose scares are just gruesome), the cleverest, most literate writing, and the brainiest sex symbols in Gillian Anderson, David Duchovny, and even balding, bespectacled Mitch Pileggi. (Did you catch Skinner in his skivvies a couple weeks ago?)

Yet for all the program's grimness, it has a touching sense of faith and wonder that seems more workable than the glib homilies of Touched by an Angel. Here, paranoia is merely the thinking person's way of making sense of the universe. There is a God, even if He's as malevolent as Cancer Man, and there is meaning, even if it eludes the agents' grasp at the end of every episode. To paraphrase the motto in Mulder's office, you want to believe.

-- Gary Susman

The Food Network & Home and Garden Television

I was weaned on television back when our parents still believed Sesame Street was going to make geniuses of its young viewers (I was five when the first episode aired; my mother made me watch it), and long before anyone realized that The Electric Company would spawn MTV. So I can't help myself: good television must be educational.

And it doesn't get any better than the Food Network and Home and Garden Television. You just can't feel bad about sitting in front of the tube when you're learning how to concoct risotto with asparagus and stuffed calamari from Molto Mario, or deal with deck dry rot from the House Doctor. Where else can you see classic episodes of The French Chef from the early 1970s, when Julia Child still had brown hair (still had hair) and did half her show in French? The programming mix of -- let's face it -- brilliant PBS reruns of Victory Garden, This Old House, and The New Yankee Workshop interspersed with new shows like Cooking Live, At the Auction, and the Urban Gardener is mental masturbation at its best. Just imagine: growing tomatoes from seed, serving Gâteau in a Cage for dessert, and building your own jacuzzi. On the Food Network and HGTV, anything is possible. And isn't that what Big Bird promised us back in 1969?

-- Susan Ryan-Vollmar


A&E Biography

On paper, the Arts & Entertainment network's Biography series seems terribly proper and educational, presenting the live of famous and noteworthy people from Henry VIII to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jimmy Carter, Rosa Parks, Audrey Hepburn, and Eva Perón. But it's just too damn much fun. It's not just the crisp dialogue, interviews, and terrific old footage that are so amusing, but the concepts themselves. Okay, hosts Jack Perkins (is he related to Marlon? "Now Jim will leave the jeep to attempt to subdue General George Patton and tag his left ear . . . ") and Peter Graves are negligible personalities, but special programming blocks like "Dictators Week," "Gangster Week," and "Psychopath Week" made folks like Fidel Castro, Bugsy Siegel, and Lizzie Borden more fun than ever. The proof that people still need people can be found in the series's history; 1997 makes this its 10th year on the air.

-- Ted Drozdowski



Want to know what not to do when the cops bring you in for questioning? Watch NBC's hard-boiled Homicide on Friday nights. Looking for some insight into how the DA and the PD wheel and deal their way to a conviction? Check out the softer-focus Law & Order on Wednesdays at 10. But for the gritty goods on how detectives walk, talk, and play the game, NYPD Blue is still the best bet.

Sure, you get butt shots, usually one an episode toward the tail end (no pun intended) of the hour. But they're just a metaphor for the kind of behind-the-scenes dramas and candid snapshots that are NYPD Blue's specialty. Unlike most cop shows, the cases that Sipowicz, Simone, and the rest of the detective squadroom catch on Blue are rarely the focal point. Rather, it's the idiosyncratic lingo that glides off Bobby Simone's careful tongue when he's "reaching out" to keep an old buddy from "jamming himself up," the fleeting glimpses of Sipowicz's racism (not to mention the rare shots of his bare rear end), and the way this seemingly dysfunctional family manage to solve crimes, never mind co-exist in the same cramped station house, that fuel NYPD Blue. It might not be real, but it feels real. And that's the real trick of television.

-- Matt Ashare

Mystery Science Theater 3000

They just don't make horrible movies like they used to. In this age of demographically fine-tuned market research, it'd be damn near impossible to distribute something as intricately, psychotically, and uniquely awful as Ray Denis Steckler's The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, a horror rock-and-roll musical that pops up on MST3K's first season on the Sci-Fi Channel (eighth season overall). Incredibly Strange Creatures is the kind of artifact Mystery Science Theater thrives on -- exploitational vessels for the warped musings of some cantankerous megalomaniac, flawed in such an idiosyncratic way that you come away dazzled by the sheer hideous audacity of the thing. Forget that Steckler tries to rip off Freaks and Wild Guitar and completely misses the point; it's in the way he gets it all wrong and mixed up that's so funny and brilliant in its own twisted fashion.

And it's the celebration of countless such endeavors -- hundreds of pale knockoffs of better-known plots and characters -- that makes MST3K superior to American Movie Classics in the same way that on the right combination of substances some '60s garage band could outrock the very bands they were imitating. Which makes The Incredibly Strange Creatures sort of like "Wooly Bully" or "Wild Thing," and which I guess makes MST3K's hosts Tom Servo and Mike Nelson sort of like Lenny Kaye. Or something.

-- Carly Carioli


HBO Movies

It started a few years back with Citizen X, a compelling, based-in-fact movie about the decade-long search for a sick, sick, sick Soviet serial killer starring Stephen Rea and Donald Sutherland. Since then, the Home Box Office channel has taken to making many more movies that would hold up as big-screen entertainments. The most recent was the much-hyped Christopher Reeve-directed In the Gloaming. And like most hype, it didn't look believable -- until the April 20 debut of the wheelchair-bound director's story of a family's bittersweet reunion around the death of their son from AIDS. The fine cast (including Glenn Close and Bridget Fonda), deftly written script, and vivid setting are exemplary of what the best made-for-TV movies (which are usually HBO's) can be.

-- Ted Drozdowski


Law & Order

More personal details have been slipping into the characterizations on Law & Order lately. We've known for a few seasons that Detective Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) is an alcoholic on the wagon. And in a recent three-part special, we watched the nearly divorced Detective Rey Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) fend off an aggressive would-be paramour and Assistant District Attorney Jamie Ross (Carey Lowell) play dirty courtroom games with her defense lawyer ex-husband. But the personal lives of these characters rarely impinge on Law & Order's relentless, corkscrewing plot lines. This is not one of those TV series "families" (like the bunch on NYPD Blue) with all their cuddly "problems." Instead, the cops and DA's on Law & Order really are their work.

And that's the beauty of it: on Law & Order story is all. Every week the show sticks to its rigid formal bipartite structure: in the first half-hour the cops try to figure out who did it, and in the second half the DA's prosecute. In the meantime, the plot undergoes innumerable left turns and reversals. The cops and lawyers are wrong as often as they're right, and even when they win they don't often feel so good about themselves. Through multiple cast changes, Steven Hill's patriarchal DA Adam Schiff has been the only constant -- glum and skeptical, emblematic of the show's intellectual rigor, always appearing to be sucking a piece of pastrami from between his teeth as he issues his grim pronouncements. His reaction while watching a taped interview of a pre-teenage girl coming to grips with the growing awareness that her father murdered her mother? "Lousy witness."

-- Jon Garelick


The Larry Sanders Show

There will be dark clouds hanging over my TV set until March of '98, when the next new installments of HBO's The Larry Sanders Show are set to air. But that's the price you pay for the best half-hour of comedy on television. A faux late-night talk show that chronicles the hilarious yet seemingly accurate off-stage interactions of cast and crew, Larry Sanders stars comedian Gary Shandling as the Carson-like host of the title show, Rip Torn as his loyal and devious producer, Jeffrey Tambor as his bumbling sidekick Hank Kingsley, and, when you're lucky, Janeane Garofalo as the overwhelmed, Pavement-loving talent booker. What generally results is a grotesquely hilarious drama involving petty bickering, vainglorious power plays, phony flirtations, and tragicomic fucking up -- in short, everything you've ever imagined Hollywood to be about. None of the show's massive misplaced egos emerges unscathed, but they all just smile and go back to "work." It's the perfect comment on today's talk-show world, in which everyone thinks he or she has something to say and nobody really wants to listen.

-- Matt Ashare


Daria, The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Rocko's Modern Life, & Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist

Sometimes I think it's not becoming for a man in his 30s to love cartoons as much as I do, but can I help it when they're among the craftiest, wittiest, culturally informed things on the tube? Fox's The Simpsons -- simply the most irreverent and unapologetic show on the air, whether skewering middle-American mores (when Bart got a job in a burlesque house) or international relations (when Bart, again, single-handedly destroyed Australia's ecology). With Beavis and Butt-head reduced to self-parody of their self-parody, MTV's new Daria has taken up the torch. B&B's acerbic, sharp-witted classmate deserves her own show more than Jenny McCarthy, doing for high-school life what Mystery Science Theater 3000 does for bad movies. Comedy Central's Dr. Katz and Fox's King of the Hill have a better grasp of modern experience -- the former in the middle class, the latter in the utterly classless -- than any sit-coms with so-called real people. And Rocko's Modern Life, part of Nickelodeon's kid programming, packs more jovial excitement, good-hearted outrage, and humanity -- as well as pushy animated characterizations -- than anything has since the bloom faded on Ren & Stimpy. Stop listening to your parents -- or your spouses: cartoons and comic books are good for the mind.

-- Ted Drozdowski

ESPN Sportscenter

Before ESPN, American sports junkies had to get their news from the likes of Jim McKay, Chris Schenkel, and, yes, Howard Cosell. Dick Button's figure-skating analyses and golf coverage (golf has always been a sport unto itself) was as good as it got. Then television begat the Eastern Sports Network, whereupon jockism ("Now Los Angeles has the ball, and they're going on the, uh, attack") was out and repartee ("If you're scoring at home, or even if you're alone") was in. Sports like Formula One auto racing and the America's Cup suddenly had intelligent proponents. (Horse racing, on the other hand, remains a mystery to the ESPN crew.)

ESPN's finest achievement is SportsCenter, whose hip in-jokes and self-depreciating wit expose network platitudes on a daily basis. It's a team effort: they started out with the likes of Chris Berman, Keith Olbermann, Charley Steiner, Dan Patrick, Bob Ley, and Karl Ravech and moved on to newcomers like Stuart Scott and Gary Miller with hardly any loss of quality. The ladies -- Linda Cohn, Robin Roberts -- sound just as hip as the guys. Best of all are the SportsCenter commercials, whether it's Dan Patrick shooting driveway hoops while musing on his failure to land a slot on the new 24-hour ESPNews channel ("I guess I don't fit into their little strategy"), or the retired Cam Neely complaining about ESPN's timing ("Lot of good all those highlights will do my career now. You guys want to kick my dog while you're here?"). And who but ESPN would nominate a rabbit running down a football field as an Espy Award play of the year?

-- Jeffrey Gantz

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