(Throwback Thursday: A version of the following first appeared in INsite Boston in 2006. Forgive the dated references — including the very notion of sweeps overall, which is all but dead thanks to year-round programming and the diminishing importance of live ratings. The overall content here is still relevant! In fact, it’s interesting that many of the new shows I discussed became TV behemoths that are still discussed to this day. This is sort of a fun look back at a moment in time that may or may not have been a milestone.)
Life for a person with high-quality tastes can be hard. Because high quality isn’t always available! With the silver screen tarnished by an abnormally high suck factor this year, I recently found myself in need of an alternative to the late-summer doldrums of September and the horror schlock of October. I turned to television — that handy box that plays my DVDs for me, and is rumored to show live programming.
It had been a good long while since I caught up with TV. Perhaps the biggest losers and extreme makeovers of reality television scared me off… but never mind. All it took was one primetime gander and I was back like the skinny black pant — though in my absence, things have changed. Whereas TV was once a simple, even mindless medium, the stakes have been raised thanks to TiVo, iTunes, the rise of original cable programming, and possibly the lunar cycle. How else to explain the state of chaos on the tube these days?
Take a tally of the madness this season alone:
ABC scheduled The Nine at 10. NBC shows Friday Night Lights on Tuesday. CBS placed The Amazing Race, Cold Case, and Without A Trace on the same night and begat Must Rhyme TV. The WB and UPN birthed their lovechild The CW, which resuscitated 7th Heaven in spite of last May’s series finale. (I guess Somebody up there likes it!) And hark! What’s that sound o’er yonder? Why, it’s the good people at Fox drumming their fingers on their desks, killing time until the next American Idol. (Some things haven’t changed.) Now the networks gear up for November sweeps — luring viewers with stunts, guest stars, long-awaited couplings, and perhaps the demise of a beloved supporting player or two — all to woo advertisers, as if there were any shortage of commercials as is. (Is anyone else about to throttle poor, exploited Audrey Hepburn?) Yet I have to wonder how networks plan to top themselves in a season that has already held so many pleasant surprises.
The season’s champ in Best New Content Overall comes as a partial revelation — NBC has been in desperate need of buzz that rivals ABC’s (which itself was flailing just a few seasons back). The overbearing, pretentious promotion of Heroes would almost surely herald a belly-flop — so self-gratifying, you’d think the network had assembled an actual clan of superhumans — but the enthralling, exhilarating Heroes actually lives up to the hype. Kudos! Everybody’s watching your show! Now please shut up about it.
Perhaps to counterbalance the pomposity of Heroes, the Peacock mocked itself outright by gobbling up not one, but two heaping helpings of humble pie. I once thought The West Wing was so frenzied ‘cause it took place at the White House. Now, I’m pretty sure Aaron Sorkin would make shoe shopping look as stressful as imminent nuclear attack. For comedians, the folks at Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip are curiously gallant and tightly wound, marching in and out of scenes. Never before has “the huff” been such a popular mode of transportation. Even the skits center around controversies in politics and religion! As good as he is with drama, poor Sorkin is incapable of dumbing himself down enough to write what passes for sketch comedy these days.Happily, Tina Fey isn’t. Thus, 30 Rock feels more at peace with its SNL-inspired roots. The show is wildly uneven but certainly funny, making 30 Rock a perfect network-skewering supplement to Studio 60. And lest you forget which is the sitcom and which is the drama, remember each show contains its running time in the title. (Like I said — madness!)
On the off chance I find myself at a water cooler, I deemed it best to check out the ABC shows everyone’s nattering on about. Desperate Housewives remains an amusing trifle, but I found mega-hit Grey’s Anatomy overwrought and uninspired. At this point, I think shows are set in hospitals just to save on the wardrobe budget. I must also confess that, despite my best efforts, I don’t get Lost, which ironically puts me on an island with about thirteen other people in the world in terms of my pop culture relevance. The unlikely breakout hit Ugly Betty, on the other hand, managed to charm me even though it is often as awkward and mismatched as the Latina fea herself.
But nothing could have prepared me for the jolt I got upon viewing CBS’ Monday night sitcoms. I found them disturbingly watchable… funny, even. How I Met Your Mother pairs witty one-liners with quasi-believable characters worth investing in — no small feat in the same genre that produces Two And A Half Men (a CBS comedy I don’t recommend). The same can’t be said for The Class, which is as staged as they come. Maybe the producers are trapped in a hatch somewhere, forced to push the laugh track button every ten seconds whether the gags are funny or not. That said, approximately one in three jokes amuses, resulting in a respectable two chuckles per minute, or roughly 44 titters per half-hour episode.
Of course, TV’s biggest bombshells are too outrageous to find anywhere but cable. After an over-the-top third season, Nip/Tuck has undergone a much-needed facelift, retaining its trademark shock value while ensuring that this year, everyone who should have genitals does have genitals. (Presumably.) And if that doesn’t quite blow you away, would you believe a show called Battlestar Galactica on the Sci Fi network is brilliantly written, superbly acted, and one of TV’s finest?
You may not. But in this day and age, when even the exhumed corpse of Audrey Hepburn can be called upon to siren the return of 50s fashion… isn’t anything possible?