The Year in Television 1997

Ellen Comes Out, Mike Tyson Flips Out, Fox Bottoms Out.

By Joyce Millman

Published December 24, 1997 12:07PM (EST)

THE HIGHS WERE VERY HIGH, the lows were bottomless. Here are 10
snaphots from the year in television:

1. Ellen
Sure, the weeks of hard-core hype preceding the April 30 coming out
episode of "Ellen" made it tempting to yawn and say, "Oh, she's only doing
it for the ratings." But listen: What would be the point of making the
biggest, loudest statement of your life if nobody showed up to hear it?
Yes, Ellen DeGeneres got the ratings -- the coming out episode was
Nielsen's No. 1 show of the week, watched in 36 million households.
But here's the really important thing: DeGeneres has held onto a large
number of those viewers. No, "Ellen" may not be seen in 36 million homes
every week, but it regularly wins its time slot, which it wasn't doing
before DeGeneres or Ellen Morgan came out. The first prime-time network
series with an openly gay star/leading character is a hit.

It's also a better show now. When DeGeneres and her alter ego took that
courageous step and said, "Yes, I am," "Ellen" was instantly transformed
from a show as meandering and evasive as its star's tongue-twisted comedy
style into a sitcom with a purpose and a punch line.

As fall-down funny as the show was this season (instant classic: the one
where Ellen persuades guest Emma Thompson to "come out"), it has also been
wonderfully, boldly gay. Ellen and her girlfriend Laurie (Lisa Darr)
kiss a lot, unself-consciously, like couples do. And the scene where Ellen
leads Laurie to the bedroom for the first time, pulling petals off a flower
and teasing, "She loves me, she loves me not," was sexier and sweeter than
any naked hetero hump on "NYPD Blue." The sly pro-gay editorializing that
the writers continue to slip into the show -- in one episode, Ellen
wakes up in the arms of Laurie on the couch in front of the TV, right at
the "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" speech from Laurie's
daughter's American Revolution video -- takes the piss out of ABC's
paranoid and idiotic pre-show content advisories (Warning! Warning!
Lesbians in love!). After the blizzard of publicity the show has gotten,
can there really be any viewer who would stumble innocently upon "Ellen"
and be shocked?

"Ellen" has also been poignant this season without descending into
sappiness. Ellen Morgan has been hurt since coming out. Her homophobic boss
banned her from contact with his children, her father had trouble accepting
the news, her straight best friend Paige feels betrayed. And now Ellen has
just split up with Laurie, her first love, because Laurie wanted a
commitment and Ellen wasn't ready. But never are we encouraged to feel
sorry for Ellen Morgan, as if she's some sort of misfit. The new Ellen is
proud and assertive, even as she remains the old Ellen in a lot of ways,
still klutzy and motor-mouthed and given to cover awkward situations with
jokes. She's the same as she always was, but different. And although her
life is more difficult, it's also richer, freer and better for her coming
out. So is prime time.

2. Comeback of the Year: The Drama Series
During the 1996-97 TV season, prime-time dramas were a vanishing breed
-- literally. If a series didn't click with viewers first time out of the
gate, it got yanked off the air. The ratings haven't been that much better
for dramas this TV season. Setting aside the two heavyweights, NBC's "ER"
and ABC's "NYPD Blue," most current dramas (ABC's "The Practice," "Nothing
Sacred" and "Cracker," NBC's "Homicide," CBS's "Michael Hayes" and
"Brooklyn South" ) linger in the lower reaches of the Nielsens. But for
some reason (the alignment of the planets, or perhaps El Niño), the
networks have suddenly decided that it's OK for a drama to get low ratings,
that it takes dramas years to build followings and maybe canceling them
after three episodes is one of the reasons viewers are drifting away from
the networks to cable and other alternatives.

Take all of the above shows, add "Law & Order" (which won the best drama
series Emmy this year after eight seasons on the air) and throw in cult
wonders like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "La Femme Nikita," "Xena" and the "Star
Trek" spinoffs, plus nightly syndicated reruns of "The X-Files" and "NYPD
Blue." The result: There haven't been this many interesting dramas since
that flukey period in the late '80s when "China Beach," "Miami Vice,"
"Wiseguy," "thirtysomething," "L.A. Law," "Beauty and the Beast" and "The
Equalizer" were on the schedule together. Not all of this year's dramas
were great week in and week out (or even ever), but they all had something
that stuck with you, something that kept you coming back: a wrinkle in a
character you thought you knew (Kellerman and Bayliss on "Homicide," Greene
on "ER," Scully on "The X-Files"), a fresh take on an old theme ("The
Practice," "Brooklyn
), good, old-fashioned pull-you-in writing ("Law & Order", "NYPD
Blue"). Maybe that last reason is the key. Why do viewers choose up sides
and stick with a drama series through ups and downs and cast changes and
time slot shuffles and rumors of cancellation? It's simple: To see how the
story ends.

3. Worst Sweeps Stunt
Backwards "Seinfeld"? Naked "Drew Carey"? Live "ER"? Musical "Chicago
Hope"? All worthy contenders, but for sheer opportunism and Very Special
Episode self-importance, the honor goes to ... "Murphy Brown Gets Cancer."

4. World's Scariest Programming Trend
Fox loaded up its sweeps schedules with a roster of "World's Scariest
Police Chases," "When Animals Attack" and other video snuff specials that
broke new ground for cheap thrills. However, a promised "World's Scariest
Prison Riots" special for November sweeps never materialized; Fox pulled
the show when the surveillance camera footage proved too "raw." The trend
spilled over to the other networks, too, with ABC and CBS slapping together
various disaster-cam specials. And, of course, there were PBS's shocking
"World's Scariest French Food" and "I Survived a Ken Burns Documentary" ...

5. Freak Show of the Year
An especially fertile category. Two years ago, if you told me that O.J.
The Civil Trial would be an also-ran for this weighty title, I'd
have thought you were crazy. But, behold, the freakish wonders that held
sway over the TV newsmagazines this year: The JonBenet Ramsey case. Michael
Jackson's baby. The Marine Corps paratroopers chest-pinning scandal. The
Bill Cosby extortion scandal. The Heaven's Gate mass suicide. Andrew
Cunanan. The Nanny Trial. Marv Albert. Tiny squirmy septuplets. But the
winner (by an ear) is obvious: "Feeding Time for Mike Tyson."

6. Distinguished Service Medal: The Simpsons
In its ninth season, "The Simpsons" continues to be the truest, nerviest
and most savage satire of American life ever to see the light of prime
time. This season, Homer learned that gays are people too, Lisa took on
sexism in the military and the whole family hosted an Osmonds-type variety
show in "The Simpsons Spinoff Showcase," an awe-inspiring send up of the
brain-sucking stupidity of formulaic TV. Most spectacular of all was the
episode where Lisa discovered the bones of a human with what looked like
vestigial wings and then was vilified for her skeptical scientific
rationalist stance by a town gone mad with "religion." This is what "The
Simpsons" does best: the recurring scenes of an angry, gullible mob
advancing upon a lone voice of reason with torches and pitchforks. Well,
that and throwaway moments like the one in this same episode when, thinking
the world is about to end, the long-suffering Smithers grabs Mr. Burns and
kisses him full on the mouth.

7. Most Bizarro Guest Appearance
The nominees are: Christopher Darden on "Pictionary"; Johnny Rotten on
"Judge Judy"; Elton John on "The Nanny"; Woody Allen's voice on "Just Shoot
Me"; and Oliver Stone on "Jeopardy!" And the winner is ... Jodie Foster as
the voice of a tattoo on "The X-Files"!

8. She's mental for Yentl!
When it comes to fawning over her idols, Rosie O'Donnell has no peer
among talk-show hosts, except for maybe "SCTV's" Sammy
But Rosie reached new heights of worshipfulness when she
finally landed a visit from her dream guest, Barbra Streisand. A week
before Streisand's arrival, Rosie rearranged the set to accommodate Babs'
decree that she be photographed only from her left side. When the big day
finally arrived, Rosie was ferklempt. Even before Barbra said a word, Rosie
wept. Then Barbra wept. Then they wept together. Then Rosie bellowed
"People" into Barbra's face. Then Barbra winced. Then Rosie invited her
over for dinner. Then a thought bubble appeared over Barbra's head
picturing Rosie as Rupert Pupkin in "The King of Comedy" ...

9. Happening: "Pop Up
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the clothes on "La Femme Nikita,"
Conan O'Brien, "NewsRadio," the TV Food Network, "King of the
Daria, MSNBC anchor John Gibson, Chris Rock, Seven of Nine,
Kathy Najimy, the three new cast members of "ER."

Not: "Road Rules," NBC's "House of Frankenstein 1997," the
clothes on "Veronica's Closet," Jay Leno, "Spin City," the Fox News Network, Lord
of the Dance, Dharma, Stone Phillips, Charles Grodin, Jenny McCarthy, Kathy
Kinney, the three new cast members of "Homicide."

10. Diana
She was born on television, when we watched her float up the aisle in
her marshmallow princess wedding dress. For the next 16 years, some of us
became Diana
junkies, buzzing just from the look of her. Why we needed her isn't
important. We just couldn't get enough. The dresses, the hats, the actressy
expressive blue eyes, the petulance, the giggles, the final triumphant
glow. For us, she was wholly concocted of little blue dots on a screen,
swirling together and dissolving and swirling together again in delicious
and scandalous and heart-tearing TV pictures.

The other night, I was channel surfing and there she was on one channel,
emerging from a limo in that black up-yours dress, and on another channel
posing with land-mine victims and then giggling down a water slide with
William and Harry. I could watch those visions of Diana over and over
forever, and probably will. I'm starting to feel like Ralph Fiennes in
"Strange Days," mainlining slices of pure memory, every sensation intact,
straight into his brain. Rewind the tape. I want her back.

Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

MORE FROM Joyce Millman

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