End-of-the-millennium TV miracles and wonders abounded in 1999. Two genres
written off as dead -- the prime-time game show and the adult drama -- sprang
back to life. Network programming soothsayers gazed into a pile of entrails and
scheduled "sure things" like Chris Carter's "Harsh Realm," Kevin Williamson's
"Wasteland" and Jennifer Love Hewitt's "Time of Your Life." The entrails were wrong. And who needs apocalyptic prophecies and Y2K hysteria? You only have to watch "WWF Smackdown!" to know that the end is near.
Here is my very last year-in-TV wrap of the 20th century. I'm getting nostalgic already.
The 10 best shows of 1999
The Sopranos (HBO) A dark, wickedly funny and deeply felt portrait of middle-aged anxiety, ethnic identity, the suburban dream and the difficulties of
keeping families close in a depersonalized, acquisitive age. With the storytelling punch and cinematic verve of the best of Scorsese and Coppola, and a
superb cast that keeps finding astonishing new angles and shadings to what could have been stock bada-bing, bada-boom characters, "The Sopranos" emerged in its first season
as an instant Mafia-movie classic, and as premium cable's biggest phenom ever.
Created and co-written by David Chase, "The Sopranos" was nominated for 16 Emmys, but it was absurdly robbed of the three prizes it most deserved -- best drama series, best actor (James Gandolfini as the savage, sympathetic antihero, Tony Soprano)
and best supporting actress (Nancy Marchand as his monstrous mama, Livia). The show returns
Jan. 16 with new episodes. And this time, it's personal.
Now and Again (CBS) This is the series with "Again" in the title that does
not star Sela Ward. If you haven't been watching, the story goes like
this: A sadly underappreciated insurance exec and family man named Michael Wiseman (John Goodman) dies in a New York subway accident, only to be given a
second chance when his uninjured brain is secretly transplanted into the buff young body of a government-built $6 million man (Eric Close). Michael isn't supposed to contact his widow Lisa (Margaret Colin) or daughter Heather
(Heather Matarazzo), or they'll all be "terminated," but his longing for them prevails. He keeps finding ways to see them and be a part of their lives, even
though they don't know his real identity. His fidelity and determination impress even his aloof keeper, Dr. Theodore Morris (Dennis Haysbert, in a
spectacularly droll and inscrutable performance). Created by Glenn Gordon Caron, "Now and Again" is utterly unclassifiable. To call it a sci-fi fantasy would
shortchange both its whimsical humor and the gracefulness of Colin's performance
as a widow trying to pick up the pieces without letting go of the memories.
Angel (WB) Buffy the Vampire Slayer's ex-boyfriend -- and forever soul mate -- strikes out on his own in Los Angeles in this clever marriage of vintage
private-eye noir and goth attitude. Clad in a photogenic black overcoat that flaps behind him like a cape (a nod to "Batman," perhaps), atoning for his sins
in semi-isolation, David
Boreanaz's brooding vampire with a conscience makes a perfect damaged
superhero, all while keeping a deadpan sense of humor. Or is that "undeadpan"?
Freaks and Geeks (NBC) This remarkably acted, melancholy high school
comedy from "Larry Sanders" writers Judd Apatow and Paul Feig may be set in 1980,
but the schisms it depicts transcend decades -- freaks vs. geeks, popularity vs. good grades, living your parents' dreams vs. charting your own course. NBC barely
let us get to know the show, scheduling it on Saturday nights (the dead zone of programming), then preempting it for a month for baseball playoffs and sweeps
specials; it's no wonder the ratings were terrible. But "Freaks and Geeks" was spared the ax and moves to 8 p.m. Mondays next month. Watch it. I promise you will fall in love with Linda Cardellini's Lindsay, a math whiz in a ratty Army jacket searching for her identity among the Zep-head stoners, before the opening theme
song -- Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation," no less -- is even over.
Once and Again (ABC) This is the one with Sela Ward. I'm still not sure if "Once and Again" is truly one of the best new shows of the year, or just Ed Zwick
and Marshall Herskovitz's diabolical, demographically engineered sequel to their seminal work of middle-class boomer angst, "thirtysomething." I watch fascinated
as newly separated, 40-ish soccer mom Lily (Ward) and divorced 40-ish soccer dad Rick (Billy Campbell) torture themselves and their kids with a hot,
guilt-inducing affair. But it's not always a good kind of fascination. It's more like -- well, you know how cats like to watch other cats on TV? Lily is
maddeningly apologetic; Rick is a sensitive yet pushy lug. Their teenagers are manipulative brats. Their exes are always hanging around, moony-eyed and needy.
Everybody talks to the camera in annoying black-and-white confessional interludes -- as if they're the first people to lament the road not taken, or how they still
suffer the emotional scars of imperfect childhoods, or how their kids are growing up and they feel so old. "Once and Again" is all so suburban-white-person self-indulgent, I want to scream. But who am I kidding? I'll be back next week.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB) The fall season is taking a while to get going, with Buffy shakily negotiating college life, Angel and Cordelia out of the show and Willow morose after her breakup with Oz. But "Buffy" still makes the best-of list for last season's rockin' second-half episodes, in which Buffy fought bad-girl slayer Faith almost to the death, thwarted the snake-demon Mayor's plans to eat Sunnydale High's graduating class and brought Angel back from certain death by letting him sink his teeth into her neck and drink the curative blood of a slayer. Ah, good times.
Roswell (WB) Writer Jason Katims ("My So-Called Life") and director David Nutter ("The X-Files") collaborated on this "my boyfriend is a space alien" teen drama (based on the "Roswell High" young-adult book series). The dialogue is seeded with meaningful inarticulate pauses, the cross-species lovers Liz and Max
(Shiri Appleby and Jason Behr) are sweetly sympathetic, with expressive Dubba-Dubba/Keane-children eyes. And the plight of Max, his sister Isabel and buddy Michael -- they descended from ETs who died in that alleged crash of a spaceship in Roswell, N.M., and they just want to figure out who they are -- is a nice metaphor for the teenage search for identity (see "Freaks and Geeks," above).
Sex and the City (HBO) HBO's salty single-gal dish-a-thon earned
unexpected (but richly deserved) Emmy nominations for best comedy and best actress (Sarah Jessica Parker). In its second season, the dating pool yielded more inventively unmarriageable throwbacks, but the girls actually seemed to learn from their mistakes and heartbreaks. In the season's bittersweet final episode, Carrie hears the news that her supposedly commitment-phobic ex, Mr. Big (Chris Noth), is engaged to a young model. Carrie is devastated, until she realizes that she's like Barbra Streisand's Katie in "The Way We Were" -- too
complicated and wild a prize for an old stick-in-the-mud like Robert Redford's Hubbell. On the street outside the hotel where Big and "Natasha" are having their engagement party, Carrie reenacts the last scene of "The Way We Were," touching Big's cheek and telling him, "Your girl is lovely, Hubbell." "I don't get it," says the bewildered Big. Smiles Carrie, "And you never did." That goes for the critics (you know who you are) who dismiss "Sex and the City" as flimsy, dirty-girl trash, too.
The West Wing (NBC) Aaron "Sports Night" Sorkin and John "ER" Wells cooked up this drama about a fictional Democratic president and all his men and women, which explains why everybody talks real fast while they're sprinting down corridors with a camera at their heels. But some solid, intriguing characters have emerged from the tumult (notably, Richard Schiff's communications director, Bradley Whitford's deputy chief of staff and Allison Janney's press secretary) and Sorkin doesnt water down his liberalism for mass consumption. "The West Wing" is a workplace soap about people simultaneously held hostage by and devoted to their (extremely powerful and stimulating) jobs; it's the heir apparent to "ER" as NBC's drama flagship, President Martin Sheen's over-acting and all.
Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS) I've been trying to figure out why the best sitcom on network TV didn't win a single Emmy this year and there can only be one explanation: It's too funny.
For further study
Judging Amy (CBS) Amy Brenneman's pet project about a single mom/family court judge living with her prickly social-worker mother (Tyne Daly) has more intelligence and edge and less preciousness than its chick-show model, "Providence." But can it stay that way?
Popular (WB) The scariest depiction of high school since "Carrie." And it's a comedy. One to keep an eye on in 2000.
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (ABC) It's going permanent in January, three nights a week. Will the thrill be gone, now that it's no longer a country-unifying special TV event? Let me put it this way: Would you want to watch the Olympics every week, for the rest of your life? Is that your final answer?
Action (Fox) On second thought, maybe it was too inside-Hollywood.
On shaky ground
The X-Files (Fox) We've been waiting for an explanation all these years and what do we get? Cancer Man telling Mulder, "I'm your father, Fox; come over to the dark side." What's next? A guest appearance by Jar Jar?
NYPD Blue (ABC) Can we please get through a season without Sipowicz losing another loved one? He's turning into that knight in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" who keeps getting limbs lopped off in a sword battle but won't stop fighting. If I were the actor playing Andy's little boy, I'd be very, very worried. Not to rain on Dennis Franz's parade, but there are some other actors in the show. A few story lines for them might help.
ER (NBC) Alan
Alda turned in a heroic guest stint this fall, but when he exited the show, you could hear whatever life was left in the old gal being sucked out the door with him. The rumor is that George Clooney has been coaxed back for Julianna Margulies' last episodes next spring, ending with a wedding for their characters, Doug Ross and Carol Hathaway. Um, could they maybe move that wedding up a few months?
The five worst shows of 1999
Greed (Fox) Fox puts its inimitable spin on the game show resurgence. Coming soon: "Sloth," "Gluttony" and "Lust."
Snoops (ABC) Proof that the prolific David E. Kelley can write them in his sleep. Alas, not even Gina Gershon and Paula Marshall in leather pants and half-buttoned blouses could save this charmless private eye show from a swift and just cancellation.
Time of Your Life (Fox) Adorable Jennifer Love Hewitt takes her adorable Sarah character from "Party of Five" to adorable New York City in this half-witted spinoff. All cute and twinkly and gushy, Hewitt is like the 25-year-old version of the Olsen twins. She must be stopped.
Family Guy (Fox) Seth MacFarlane's depressingly cruddy TV and movie-parody-laden cartoon about a beer-swilling doofus, his long-suffering wife and their kids, one of whom is a little sociopath. Why Matt Groening doesn't sue MacFarlane for plagiarism is a mystery. Then again, "Family Guy" is so relentlessly sucky, he probably doesn't want to acknowledge inspiring it.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC) In the criminal justice system, there are two separate but unequal dramas from Dick Wolf. One of them is a crisply plotted "just the facts, ma'am" series without melodramatic overacting or pointless excursions into characters' personal lives. The other is -- this.
Madeline Kahn, George C. Scott, Mabel King ("What's Happening"), Gene Rayburn ("The Match Game"), Allen Funt ("Candid Camera"), David Strickland ("Suddenly Susan"), Gene Siskel, Richard Kiley, "Brady Bunch" theme composer Frank deVol, Dana Plato ("Diff'rent Strokes"), TV cook Jennifer Paterson ("Two Fat Ladies"), "South Park" voice actor Mary Kay Bergman, Harry Crane (co-creator of "The Honeymooners"), Buzz Kulik (director of "Brian's Song"), Sandra Gould ("Bewitched"), Gary Morton (Lucille Ball's second husband and vice president of Lucille Ball Productions), DeForest Kelley ("Star Trek"), "To Tell the Truth" panelist Peggy Cass, pioneering female TV comedy writer Lucille Kallen, Iron Eyes Cody, former "Letterman" announcer Bill Wendell, Jean Vander Pyl (the voice of Wilma Flintstone), Mary Jane Croft ("The Lucy Show"), Bobby Troup ("Emergency"), character actress Billye Ree Wallace (Jerry's nana on "Seinfeld"), Seqor Wences, TV newsman Martin Agronsky, wrestlers Gorilla Monsoon, Owen Hart and Rick Rude, BBC presenter Jill Dando, Ellen Corby ("The Waltons"), character actor Noam Pitlik (Mr. Gianelli on "The Bob Newhart Show"), "Fantasy Island" creator Gene Levitt, Clint Youle (TV's first weatherman), Shirley Hemphill ("What's Happening").