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.