In 2002 America put the trauma of Sept. 11 behind it and got back to the business of watching television. Many of us thought America would never be the same after that terrible day in 2001. I ask anyone who still believes that to consider the fact that the CBS sitcom "The King of Queens" remains a popular show and get back to me.
No, America is snoozing soundly once again. Would Dick Cheney dare to foist Henry Kissinger, who can't go out for coffee without getting arrested by foreign authorities, and John Poindexter, who's lucky he's still able to vote, upon anything but a safely somnolent American public? I didn't think so.
But I'm too cruel to my comrade with the big glowing screen. Television is our friend. It is what we watch while pretending to listen to our loved ones. It is where the 30 percent of us who vote go to get information from trusted news professionals, until we remember that they're a bunch of jabbering idiots and turn it off in disgust. Yes, truly was it written over and over on a haunted hotel's walls by the patriarch of "The Simpsons": "No TV and no beer make Homer go crazy."
Television is so thoroughly ingrained in our daily lives it's hard to get a handle on it in any objective way. The growth of TV has changed the way we think and perceive events. Many young writers' styles are influenced by the medium, specifically the attention span and information processing habits it induces. At a recent literary event in San Francisco, Zadie Smith, author of the acclaimed novel "White Teeth," joked that she instinctively incorporates ad breaks into her prose.
However, while TV certainly has a profound effect on our culture, let's not get carried away. Upon winning the Emmy this fall for best supporting actor, John Spencer of "The West Wing" called series creator Aaron Sorkin "one of the great writers of all time." So where would that put him, John? After Joyce and before Dostoevski?
Speaking of Dostoevski, did you see Jennifer Lopez reveal her engagement to "Sexiest Man Alive" Ben Affleck in an interview with Diane Sawyer on a November installment of ABC's "Primetime Thursday"?
Unfortunately for America, Sawyer did not inquire into the scuttlebutt that J.Lo had a male assistant on the set of her recent music video, "Jenny From the Block," squeeze her nipples so that television viewers would be able to see her aureolae more clearly through her mesh top while she grabbed her crotch.
We did learn this, however: J.Lo is no diva. She said so. And she seems to really, really like all this money she's making.
One of the more interesting things in the land of television this holiday season was something that didn't happen. Namely, gangsta-pimp rapper and XXX video producer Snoop Dogg's appearance on the Muppets' Christmas special. In the end NBC edited Snoop out of "It's a Very Merry Muppets Christmas Movie." Even though Snoop professes to have given up smoking dope. The marriage of children's puppet shows and West Coast gangsta rap may be inevitable, but the world will have to wait at least another year.
In other end-of-year television news, Al Gore appeared on "Saturday Night Live," an event that was designed to be the final phase of his mission to reinvent his image prior to declaring his intentions with respect to the 2004 presidential election. As it turned out, Gore had already decided not to run by the time the show went to air.
It's too bad, because the new Al Gore was pretty appealing. He acquitted himself well on "SNL" (which so far has failed to plug the hole left by Will Ferrell's departure). Gore was particularly effective as Willy Wonka's brother Glenn, a fastidious accountant exasperated with Willy's childish schemes: "I put up with a lot working here: Riding that insane psychedelic boat to my office every day! Having to step around piles and piles of Oompah Loompah dung!"
But we're talking about the end of the year here. Let's go back to the beginning.
The year of television 2002 began with the second thrilling Super Bowl in three years, in which the underdog New England Patriots kicked a field goal as time expired to defeat the St. Louis Rams. (In 2000 the Rams denied the Tennessee Titans a game-tying touchdown on the final play.)
That game also reminded us that television is the best medium for disseminating propaganda, as it served as the premiere for the Bush administration's ad campaign claiming that anyone who purchases marijuana may be financing terrorists. I humbly submit that, rather than shifting blame for mass killing and a national security fiasco onto recreational pot smokers, the administration should maybe shut the fuck up and think about tracking down Osama bin Laden.
Disney/ABC/ESPN took over the National Basketball Association from NBC, which means we are finally rid of John Tesh's aggravating theme song and gnatlike sideline reporter Jim Gray. Unfortunately, ABC has decided the hoops-watching public still needs to be poked with the long wooden stick of annoyance that is announcer Bill Walton.
Here's what I'm concerned about heading into this year's edition of the Masters golf tournament. And it's not whether Augusta National Golf Club should admit women members. It's whether these tournaments will hire crack teams of security guards to apprehend and savagely beat every cretin who bellows "Get in the hole!" every time a putt is struck.
In 2002 we bid adieu to "Ally McBeal" and agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully of "The X-Files." Both these shows broke new ground before their creators ran them into it. (The ground.) I hadn't seen "Ally" in eons when I witnessed a promo last year in which Ally gets caught bending down and sniffing the blue jeans-encased buttocks of a construction worker played by Jon Bon Jovi, because apparently she has a compulsion to smell men's asses. I knew then I'd made the right decision.
While we're talking about televised drama, "The Sopranos" just wrapped up a disappointing season of mostly boring episodes with a redeeming finale that contained a riveting portrayal of an exploding marriage. The acting remains superb. James Gandolfini eating pasta as Tony Soprano -- head lowered like an ox, shoulders slouched -- is as gloriously nuanced as Al Pacino dabbing his face with a towel as Michael Corleone. "The West Wing" is a well-written drama, featuring superb acting, that I never watch.
"Six Feet Under," yet another feather in HBO's cap, continues to raise the bar in the field of TV drama. "24", the hit from last year that unfolds in "real time," is into a second season. I'm not saying the plot is Byzantine, but this year Nina will turn out to be a quintuple agent.
When does the plug get pulled on "NYPD Blue"? And do its producers have some agenda about rescuing former child and teen actors? First it was Rick Schroder and now it's Zach from "Saved by the Bell."
A winner has yet to emerge in the war of spinoffs between "Law & Order" and "CSI," the two highest-rated crime dramas on television. I don't think they've gone far enough. America needs more. I predict the top three shows in the 2003 Nielsen ratings will look like this:
1) "Law & Order: A Very Special Victim's Unit"
2) "CSI: Boise"
3) "Law & Order: Jury Duty"
In the world of comedy, the unfunny "Everybody Loves Raymond" continues to draw inexplicably huge ratings and rake in Emmy awards. People are still watching "Friends," apparently. "Will and Grace" has its moments. "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" has won critical acclaim, though not ratings, for eschewing formula in favor of the inventive, wacky humor he helped establish on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien."
HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" has emerged as the best comedy on television. Larry David, the creator of "Seinfeld," stomps on every last shred of the predictable sentimentality one finds on network sitcoms. David, who plays himself, borrows aspects from the characters of both Jerry Seinfeld and Jerry's pal George Costanza, who was originally based on Larry, according to legend. He's as smoothly capable and in control as Jerry and as painfully antisocial as George.
Even when "Curb" isn't funny, it gets your attention by being flat-out wrong. Witness this year's "The Special Section,' a subpar episode in terms of laughs, in which Larry's sole reaction to the death of his mother is anger over having not been invited to the funeral. Thereafter he uses his mother's death to get out of the most trivial social obligations. Then he hatches a scheme to dig up her body and move it to a better part of the cemetery. With humor that beyond the pale of mainstream morality, David risks alienating his audience if the jokes fall flat. He's got cojones of steel, a condition largely absent in network comedy and one of the reasons for the show's popularity.
Late-night talk shows in 2002 remained the place where Americans go to have the discomfiting and scary news of the day digested for them into harmless jokes. David Letterman, still self-hating, remains smarter and edgier but slightly less popular than the sugary Jay Leno, who gets along and goes along.
When Al Gore played Trent Lott on last week's "Saturday Night Live," it brought to mind a very creepy moment from the 2000 presidential race, when George W. Bush, appearing on Leno's "Tonight," donned a paper Al Gore mask while Leno wore Bush's likeness. The message from Bush to America was clear: The gap between televised illusion -- what you see -- and reality is unbridgeable, there's no real difference between the two candidates, so vote for me because I'm more likable than he is.
I wonder if Trent Lott called anyone a "nigra" while departing the TV studio in his limo after his apology and interview this week on Black Entertainment Television.
In the 12:30 a.m. time slot, the 6-foot-5 redhead on NBC (Conan O'Brien) is still funnier than the 6-foot-5 redhead on CBS (Craig Kilborn). O'Brien is the best comic mind on television, but his show airs too late for most people to see him.
In 2002 large numbers of confused human beings continued to line up to participate in reality television shows, where they immolate themselves for our distraction before they are jettisoned back to the fallow fields of untelevised reality.
"American Idol" was the big summer phenomenon. It was great at the beginning, during open casting calls in various U.S. cities, when the audience got to luxuriate in the absolutely horrible performances of the aspiring superstars. As the insane and tone-deaf were gradually weeded out -- those in deep denial about their lack of talent; those who verbally abused judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson; those who stalked the show across the country -- "AI" got less interesting until, by the end, when only eventual winner Kelly Clarkson and the guy who looks like Sideshow Bob were left, I had completely forgotten it had ever existed.
The Fox television network has added a new and malicious twist to the reality dating genre for 2003 with a show called "Joe Millionaire," in which 20 lovelorn women are flown to France in order to compete for the affection of a construction worker they have been told is a multimillionaire.
What happens when the truth is revealed? The major flaw in this premise, of course, is that by the end of the show, through potential endorsements, Joe the laborer will be worth considerably more than the $19,000 per annum he made coming in. And his worth will be enhanced by his newfound celebrity status, which will probably count for a lot in the eyes of a woman who is willing to risk public humiliation for a few minutes on TV.
In 2002 prudish commentators continued to get it wrong regarding "The Osbournes," MTV's reality show that follows the lives of heavy metal rocker Ozzy, his wife Sharon and kids Jack and Kelly. "The Osbournes," which is in fact a funny and entertaining show, does not signify the end of Western civilization. No, that distinction goes to "ElimiDATE," whose preening, libidinous contestants are seemingly as innumerable as the young starlets of cinema and television who are willing to grasp their bare breasts and pout at the camera on the covers of Maxim, Stuff and FHM. "ElimiDATE" makes me wonder whether we ought to just let al-Qaida win.
What initially made "The Osbournes" such a breath of fresh air was its inversion of the standard put-regular-people-on-TV formula. Here we see the normal lives of a stupendously abnormal family. And truth be told, Ozzy and Sharon -- who is his manager; one shudders to think what would have befallen the hapless Ozzy without her -- are decent, loving parents. Though his neurological pathways have been devastated by years of narcotic artillery fire, which results in much mumbling and doddering and confusion, the Oz communicates ably with his offspring, warning them not to do drugs and have unprotected sex. Hypocritical? Sure. But all parents are hypocrites; it's part of the job.
And though Sharon is by all accounts a ruthless ass-kicker as a businesswoman, we don't see her bring that world home into her interactions with her children. She's goofy. She owns approximately 6,000 dogs that she talks to as if she were a crazy person. She appears to be her daughter's best friend. Jack and Kelly, though spoiled, are both pretty well-adjusted kids. (Better adjusted, I dare say, than the Bush twins appear to be.)
And then there's Anna Nicole Smith, whose "Osbournes" knockoff on the E! television network documents her struggle to negotiate the basic aspects of reality. What can one say about this former model, now addled, obese and manifestly substance-addicted? She's just about hit bottom, it would seem, whatever money she still possesses being the only thing holding her above the abyss. How could it get worse in a second season? I guess she could wind up sucking dick for prescription painkillers.
In 2002, local, network and cable news programs continued to titillate and, in the words of Susan Sontag, "infantilize" the American public with gross misapplications of words like "terror" and "evil" and "news." It seems the new television news paradigm consists of: 1) Fear. 2) Fear. 3) Mindless escape from the fear that's just been promulgated.
And, as ever, "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" provided us with the antidote. "The Daily Show" remains one of the most important shows on television because it's smarter than everything else and it doesn't have ulterior motives. (For regular news broadcasts, those motives boil down to ratings and corporate ownership.)
To paraphrase Trent Lott: If more people watched "The Daily Show," this country wouldn't have all these problems. Here's hoping that in 2003 we see the emergence of more television shows that pierce through the layers of lies and obfuscation and bring us the truth. Or at least something really, really funny.