The Boston Phoenix
December 25, 1997 - January 1, 1998

[1997 in Review]
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The tube was a teen-aged wasteland

The year in television

by Gary Susman

1. Diana: the mini-series. During the week-long funeral, as throughout her life, television used Diana to make itself the story. Commentators spanked themselves for their prurience; media-hating celebrities (notably George Clooney) claimed a kinship with the princess to get themselves media exposure. As the queen learned, even grief isn't real unless it's expressed on TV.

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2. Ellenmania. The greatest non-event in a TV year where many more interesting things happened off screen than on. While Ellen DeGeneres tango'd with girlfriend Anne Heche and supporter Al Gore tangled with the censors at ABC, something more subtle was happening to her character on her show: she finally came out as a comedian.

3. Animation grows up, sort of. Fox's King of the Hill, Comedy Central's South Park, HBO's Spawn and Spicy City, and even MTV's Daria were clearly not for the tots. With their gleefully gratuitous violence, scatology, profanity, and sexuality, they were meant for more mature viewers, like teenage boys.

4. Sound bites. Marv Albert and Mike Tyson updated Andy Warhol's adage: everyone gets 15 minutes of televised contrition.

5. TV is good. ABC's smily-face-yellow ad campaign was essentially an admission that We Suck And We Don't Care. More compelling dramas occurred behind the cameras at the network: the schadenfreude-filled deathwatch over tarnished wunderkind programming executive Jamie Tarses; Nothing Sacred (which stood up to protesting Catholics but knuckled under to Friends); and the forged Marilyn Monroe letters that had to be dropped from the JFK documentary.

6. Must-she TV. NBC's Monday-night sit-coms took to extremes the networks' new discovery (expressed in such shows as Jenny, Dharma and Greg, and Ally McBeal) that beautiful women in short skirts and high heels can be funny. Too bad few of the performers (and the writers behind them) were up to the task; dithering, tottering, and curvy figures alone do not make for well-rounded characters. The funniest new babe on TV was Sarah Michelle Gellar's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who could stomp a bloodsucker without losing her deadpan delivery or breaking a nail.

7. Trials and errors. It seemed like a trial of only local interest, but it riveted the nation: the heinous crime, the compassionate judge, and the soft-spoken but defiant English defendant who shockingly beat the rap. But Judge Judy's finding in favor of John Lydon (a/k/a Johnny Rotten) against a disgruntled drummer he'd fired was just one of many great disputes, on camera and off. These included Mackenzie v. Miller Brewing Co. (the beer executive who was fired for offending a female co-worker by recounting Seinfeld's Mulva episode), Pamela Lee testifying on Court TV that she refused to simulate sex on film (having real sex on video and transmitting it over the Internet is another matter, apparently), and the Seinfeld cast's salary renegotiations -- to be followed next year by an even bigger-budget sequel, the ER cast's salary renegotiations.

8. Pop and rock. MTV took it on the chin this year, floundering in its search for the next big postgrunge thing (electronica? preteen bubblegum?), losing Beavis and Butt-head and Unplugged, and being out-hipped by VH-1, thanks to Pop-Up Video's already much-imitated on-screen eruptions of irreverent factoids. The Real World cast were greeted by Bostonians with all the warmth and hospitality we customarily accord weird groups of outsiders, and they responded in kind with contempt and paranoia. At least the channel's Music Video Awards show provided a starmaking venue for comic Chris Rock.

9. Ratings codes. The industry fought congressmen and parents over them. The networks fought one another over them (NBC refused full compliance, seeing the dialogue or sexuality citations as creeping censorship). But most of us just ignored the boxes of Alpha-Bits in the upper left-hand corner of the screen. Next year, when our kids figure out how to program the new V-chip TVs, they can explain the ratings to us.

10. Pathfinder. TV programming was so lame this year that the greatest show on earth came from Mars.

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