"You will not get my vote. My vote will go to Richard ..."

From "Survivor" and "The West Wing" to Robert Downey Jr.'s bad career move and the election that would not die: The best and worst of TV 2000.

Published December 26, 2000 8:10PM (EST)

The TV year started with that endless telenovela, the Elián González story. Then we had a jaw-dropping marriage beauty pageant, an addictive survival-of-the-fittest saga and an inane three months of housebound psychodrama from a stripper, a virgin, a mad housewife and a one-legged flasher. And, then, just when we thought we'd seen it all, America went to the polls to choose a president. Um, sort of. Here's a look back at some of the best and worst of TV 2000.

The best TV of the year:

1) "The West Wing" (NBC) The classiest adult series on network TV won a ton of Emmys in 2000 -- a mandate for bookish yet straight-shooting President Jed Bartlet and his great honkin' liberal Democratic visionary White House. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to live inside my TV for the next four years.

2) "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (WB) The 1999-00 season started sluggishly, with Buffy and her pals adrift after high school. Then came "Hush," gay Willow, the Initiative, Buffy asserting her independence from pseudo-dad Giles, Giles falling into a midlife funk and Spike with a V-chip in his head. The 2000-01 season started oddly, with the arrival of Dawn, the little sis we never knew Buffy had. Then came the revelation that Dawn is a humankind-saving energy force made flesh and wrapped in an ancient "veiling" spell that makes everyone blind to who -- or what -- she really is. Of course Buffy doesn't really have a sister whom we never saw or heard about for the past three years! Now we get it! Brilliant!

There were also juicy plot turns like Buffy's mom's brain tumor, Buffy getting heavily in touch with her kick-ass maternal side, goody-goody Riley walking on the wild side, Giles finally getting out of the house and Spike wandering around in a lovesick funk over Buffy. I will never question Joss Whedon's storytelling sense again. He knows where he wants "Buffy" to go; we just have to shut up and enjoy the ride.

3) "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (HBO) Remember back when "Seinfeld" ended and I said there'd never be another show like it? OK, so I was wrong. "Seinfeld" co-creator (and inspiration for George Costanza) Larry David took the irony-laden, intertwining plot structure of his old show and put his unlovable self at the center. The result was a screamingly funny (improvised) black comedy about a disagreeable, peevish man who courts disaster with every ill-chosen remark and self-serving action.

Whenever Larry does someone a bad turn, he gets screwed over. Whenever Larry tries to make things right, he gets screwed over. Whenever Larry's just walking down the street, minding his own business, he gets screwed over. As he did on "Seinfeld," David makes you a firm believer in instant karma. Set in suburban Los Angeles, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" takes the nastiness, neuroses and pettiness of "Seinfeld" to new levels of absurdity, demonstrating how little it takes these days for seemingly normal people to blow up and melt down. This was the best new show of the season. And the scariest.

4) "The Sopranos" (HBO) OK, so it didn't have the giddy, ba-da-bing momentum of Season 1, but it did have James Gandolfini grinning like a grizzly bear as he presided over two executions, showing us the cold darkness of Tony Soprano's heart. And Edie Falco's Carmela shedding her last illusion about the "sanctity" of her marriage, subtly making the decision to stop trying to save Tony's soul. And the Janice and Richie Show. And Big Pussy sleeping with the fishes -- literally. "The Sopranos" is still a feast for viewers who like their dramas spicy, raw and marinated in dread. Mangia!

5) Freaks and Geeks (NBC, Fox Family Channel) NBC canceled this sharp and lyrical coming-of-age comedy/drama in the spring, but fans got a chance to watch the series unfold -- something NBC never gave us, thanks to endless preemptions -- when the Fox Family Channel picked up the series in September. In the reruns and "lost" episodes that aired on Fox Family, the theme of "Freaks and Geeks" emerged clearer than ever; this was a show about people of all ages -- teens, adults -- finding themselves, mustering the courage to accept who they are and to follow their hearts.

The lost episodes that aired post-cancellation were filled with beautifully fleshed-out scenes of characters surprising themselves (and viewers) with new discoveries about where they fit into the world around them. Neal finds out that his mother knew all about his father's philandering -- they have an "arrangement" -- and that marriage is a lot more complicated than he could have imagined. Bill wins "seven minutes of heaven" in the laundry closet with a snippy cheerleader at a make-out party; when she can't hide her revulsion, he delivers a ringing speech about how looks aren't everything and actually manages to get her to kiss him.

In the last episode, Lindsay discovers the Grateful Dead's "American Beauty" album, then, unbeknown to her parents, ditches a mathlete weekend at the college to go off and see her first Dead show. The final, indelible image of the smart, restless, searching Lindsay standing at the crossroads of her future and choosing the Dead was reminiscent of the last episode of that other beloved, prematurely canceled high school show, "My So-Called Life," where Angela chose bad boy Jordan over the geek who really loved her. These are the kinds of detours we all needed to make in order to become the people we are. We'll just have to imagine how Lindsay's weekend with the Dead -- and the rest of her life -- turned out.

6) "Survivor" (CBS) "You will not get my vote. My vote will go to Richard. And I hope that it is the one vote that makes you lose the money. If it's not, so be it. I'll shake your hand, and I'll go on from here. But if I were to ever pass you along in life again and you were layin' there, dyin' of thirst, I would not give you a drink of water. I would let the vultures take you and do whatever they want with you, with no ill regrets. I plead to the jury tonight to think a little bit about the island that we have been on. This island is pretty much full of only two things -- snakes and rats. And in the end, in the Mother Nature, we have Richard the snake, who knowingly went after prey, and Kelly, who turned into the rat that ran around like the rats do on this island, tryin' to run from the snake. I feel we owe it to the island's spirits that we have learned to come to know, to let it be, in the end, the way Mother Nature intended it to be -- for the snake to eat the rat."

I think that just about says it all.

7) "Will & Grace" (NBC) Will, Grace, Jack and Karen are the most in-sync sitcom foursome since Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer (whose time slot they inherited this fall). Sure, it's disappointing that Will and Jack can't be shown getting down like the guys on Showtime's "Queer as Folk." But then the guys on "Queer as Folk" would probably kill to utter the spit-shined, showstopping putdowns that "Willma," Jack, Grace and Karen nonchalantly toss off a dozen times an episode. The friskiest, most verbally sophisticated sitcom on network TV, "Will & Grace" never ceases to amaze you with what it manages to get past the censors.

8) "The X-Files": The Robert Patrick Era (Fox) David Duchovny's decision to cut back on his participation may have been the jump-start Fox's venerable spook show needed to get back on the road to greatness. It's been a kick watching Gillian Anderson reconfigure Scully into a stone skeptic who trusts no one. And Robert Patrick's flinty, determined special agent John Doggett (or is that "dogged"?) is just the sort of partner mom-to-be Scully needs right now. Doggett is loyal, dependable and not likely to flinch when it's time for him to help her give birth in a cave or something, as foreshadowed in the harrowing episode a few weeks ago when a crazy cult impregnated Scully's spine with a giant slug and she screamed at Doggett like a woman in labor, "Cut it out of me! Cut it out of me now!

9) "The 1900 House" (PBS) In which the thoroughly modern Bowler family of surburban London agreed to live for three months in a turn-of-the-century Victorian house stripped of all modern conveniences and rigged with cameras and microphones. As reality entertainment, "The 1900 House" was as addictive as "Survivor," with the added horrors of whalebone corsets, coal stoves, chamber pots and homemade sanitary napkins. "It's not romantic! It's dirty, hard work!" observed the plucky Mrs. Bowler during a break between beating the dust out of the carpets and wringing out the wash by chapped hand. "We take so much for granted these days, we don't actually realize how much has happened in the last 100 years." Who would have thought voyeurism could be so educational?

10) "Making the Band" (ABC) In which the thoroughly wussy boy band O-Town of Orlando, Fla., struggled for stardom in an existence rigged with cameras and microphones. As reality entertainment, "Making the Band" (which has been renewed for a second season) was as addictive as "Survivor," as educational as "The 1900 House" and as funny as "This Is Spinal Tap" (although it wasn't meant to be), with the added horrors of break dancing, group hugs, drama queen meltdowns and pear-shaped music industry impresario and "father figure" Lou Pearlman. Who would have thought voyeurism could be so deliciously campy?

Honorable mentions:

"CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" (CBS) A crisp, techno-whizzy whodunit about Las Vegas forensics geeks, "CSI" is reminiscent of "Law & Order," with a dash of "Homicide"-style morbid humor. This new drama grows on you like maggots on a week-old corpse. I mean that as a compliment.

"Welcome to New York" (CBS) Produced by David Letterman's Worldwide Pants, this sitcom about a dorky Indiana weatherman (Jim Gaffigan) who relocates to New York to work on a local morning TV show has a pleasingly weird rhythm and a killer cast. Christine Baranski, Sara Gilbert, Rocky Carroll and Eartha Kitt are a hoot as Jim's sardonic co-workers and acquaintances, who view his Midwestern normalcy with the time-honored suspicion of native New Yorkers. The supermarket episode was almost "Seinfeld"-ian -- watch for the rerun.

"Gilmore Girls" (WB) Love the daughter! The mom needs to grow up, though.

"Queer as Folk" (Showtime) A landmark comedy-drama about a group of gay friends who have actual sex lives. Oh, my, do they have sex lives! As May-December couple Justin and Brian, Randy Harrison and Gale Harold generate the kind of heat not seen on the tube since the early days of Carrie and Big on "Sex and the City."

"Sex and the City" (HBO) And speaking of ... This season, the guys were studlier (Chris Noth! Kyle MacLachlan! John Corbett!) and the sex was sexier (Did you hear the one about Samantha and the fireman?), but the lessons were harder. In the bittersweet season finale, the girls were man-free again, but at least they still had one another. The only sour note: Carrie, honey, lose the big fabric flower accessories. They're so 1975 -- and not in a good way.

The worst TV of the year:

Decision 2000 (all networks) Coverage of the presidential election of 2000 gave us a fascinating, stomach-churning look at the sausage factory that is the American political process. And this is what we learned:

  • Every vote counts, unless you live in Florida.
  • The Founding Fathers desperately feared "the will of the people."
  • The Supreme Court is rotten with conservative Republican partisanship.
  • Hey, what's the big deal -- there are "ballot irregularities" and undercounted votes all the time!
  • TV exit polls can be wrong.
  • You don't actually have to get more votes than the other guy to become president ... especially if your daddy has a lot of favors to call in and your brother is governor of Florida.

    But I digress. You would have needed a crystal ball to predict the twists and turns of this tainted election, and nobody has one of those. But just because the media didn't see it coming doesn't let it off the hook for its appallingly bush-league (no pun intended) campaign coverage. Imagine how much more informed American voters might have been if the long pre-election months had been filled with substantive information about the very real differences between the candidates and their ideologies, about the type of people the candidates were likely to hire, if elected, to fill crucial policymaking positions, about the implications those hirings would have on reproductive rights, Social Security and affirmative action (among other issues). On Nov. 7, some voters might have thought twice about whom they were giving their vote to. Some nonvoters might have actually gotten up off the couch and hauled ass down to the polling place. The "tie" result might have been averted.

    But, instead, the political talk and news shows gave us nothing except partisan windbags smearing each other's politics (and, by extension, ours) and idiot pundits vying to find the snappiest way to assure us that the candidates were exactly the same (Gush and Bore, har har har!). And let's not forget all the endless airtime given over to the sainted "undecided" voters, who weighed all the meaningless info-bits the media was feeding them and finally based their decision on, like, which candidate seemed, you know, nicer.

    Dishonorable mentions: "Big Brother" (CBS); "Confessions" (Court TV); "The Geena Davis Show" (ABC); "The Michael Richards Show" (NBC); "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" (Fox)

    Hey, watch out or your face will freeze like that! Tom Cavanagh's relentless "I'm so adorable, you can't resist me" grin on NBC's already-wearing-thin "Ed"; Jamie's relentless "I'm so nice, you'd never want to banish me!" happy look on "Big Brother."

    Worst career move of the year: Kathie Lee Gifford quits "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee." Regis continues without her. The show gets its highest ratings ever.

    Second-worst career move of the year: Robert Downey Jr. takes a break from "Ally McBeal" for a little R&R in Palm Springs.

    Multitasker of the year: CBS's Julie Chen. She read the news by day and shilled for "Big Brother" by night. And she had perfect posture. With skills like that, there's bound to be a beauty-pageant-hosting job in her future!

    The Dr. Evil award for uncontrollable e-vil laughter goes to ...: The loathsome Chris Matthews of MSNBC's "Hardball," who doubled over in hysterics every time he mentioned the several thousand elderly Jews in West Palm Beach who went to the polls to cast their votes for Al Gore and his Jewish running mate Joseph Lieberman, but voted for Pat "Der Führer" Buchanan by mistake. Funny, funny stuff.

    R.I.P. Broadcast journalism pioneer Robert Trout; producer Douglas Benton ("Columbo," "Ironside"); "One Step Beyond" host John Newland; character actress Fran Ryan; character actor Jester Hairston ("Amos 'n' Andy," "Amen"); actor Jim Varney; character actor Alan North ("Police Squad!"); producer Al Simon ("I Love Lucy," "The Beverly Hillbillies"); magician Doug Henning; actor David Dukes ("The Winds of War," "Dawson's Creek"); actor Rick Jason ("Combat"); actress-singer Julie London (nurse Dixie McCall on "Emergency!"); actress Beah Richards ("Roots: The Next Generation," "The Practice"); actor Richard Mulligan ("Soap," "Empty Nest"); Alec Guinness ("Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," "Smiley's People"); actress Loretta Young.

    Actress Meredith MacRae (Billie Jo on "Petticoat Junction"); ABC and CNN correspondent Judd Rose; actress Nancy Marchand ("The Sopranos," "Lou Grant"); actor Craig Stevens ("Peter Gunn"); Sir John Gielgud ("Brideshead Revisited," "War and Remembrance"); actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; "Peanuts" creator Charles M. Schulz; actress-dancer Gwen Verdon; actor Larry Linville (Major Frank Burns on "M*A*S*H"); actor Walter Matthau; artist Edward Gorey (credit sequence for PBS's "Mystery"); actor John Colicos ("Battlestar Galactica," "General Hospital"); "Candid Camera" co-host Durward Kirby; producer Stanley Ralph Ross ("The Electric Company," "Wonder Woman"); actor Anthony Dwain Lee (killed by an LAPD officer at a Halloween party); character actress Helen Martin ("227"); late-night TV pioneer Steve Allen; actor Werner Klemperer (Colonel Klink on "Hogan's Heroes").

  • By Joyce Millman

    Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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