It really was the year of reality TV: The best drama of the fall season starred two men no one really wanted to be president (give us Martin Sheen!), and it marked the return of Clarence Thomas, star of 1990's favorite daytime drama, Pubic Affairs. Turns out there was no truth to the rumor, suggested by Al Gore on November 19, that he and George W. Bush engage in a dung-beetle-eating contest to determine the winner of the election. Bush clearly had the advantage, as evidenced by his shit-eating grin. But it was telling that, during his presentation before the Supreme Court, Gore attorney Dexter Douglass kept asking Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor, "No, seriously, is that your final answer?" Should have locked the whole bunch, along with Bette Midler and Geena Davis and cute little Elian, in the Big Brother house and hired an arsonist.
And that was the year in television: dolled-up Regis, washed-up refugees, wound-up pundits, would-be presidents, failed movie stars slumming it on the small screen, and failed human beings stabbing each other in the back for a million bucks on a tropical island. Say, where's my radio? The beginning of the new millennium looks a lot like the end of civilization. If this was the best TV had to offer, you can keep your satellite dishes and HDTV sets and your TiVo; this year's product belongs on a three-inch black-and-white sitting on the kitchen counter.
This has been the worst television season since 1979-1980, when both B.J. and the Bear and The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo premiered, much to the delight of Dukes of Hazzard fans and people who could move their houses simply by turning the ignition. Exhibiting rare moments of clarity, the networks have already canceled some of this year's most egregious errors -- a nice change of pace from the wholesale slaughter of excellence that came earlier this year, when NBC axed Freaks and Geeks, Fox yanked Action and American High, ABC pulled Wonderland after a mere two episodes, and the Sci Fi Network quashed Good vs. Evil. All of those shows, save Wonderland, have received new homes on various cable and satellite outlets looking to kill time between tarot-card-reading infomercials featuring that woman with the fake Jamaican accent. And you thought DirecTV was good for nothing but sports, MTV's Jackass, 39 daily showings of Never Say Never Again, and hard-core pay-per porn.
NBC's already done away with The Michael Richards Show, the black-and-blue-collar Daddio, mother Tucker, Aaron Spelling's Titans -- and the president of the network's entertainment division, Garth Ancier, the man responsible for the aforementioned failures. Ancier, who came to NBC after a stint on the WB -- where success is judged by how many thousands of viewers you can draw, something NBC apparently failed to take into account when hiring him -- is being replaced by longtime Today show Executive Producer Jeff Zucker, a news guy with no experience in the so-called entertainment business. NBC's press release announcing Zucker's promotion insisted he "will last approximately 13 months, during which time he will oversee the creation of eight more Law & Order spin-offs and three reality-based programs, one of which will feature live ammunition."
Of NBC's new shows, only one -- the David Letterman-produced Ed, about a small-town lawyer and his bowling alley -- stuck, like crap on a wall. Unable to find Ed an audience -- perhaps because audiences figure they've already seen the show on Friday nights, when it's called Providence -- NBC has begun Ed on its death march, moving it around on the shaky schedule. And look for the cancellation of DAG (otherwise known as Guarding Miss Dixie) . . . any . . . moment. Even the laugh track sounds embarrassed.
Still, NBC keeps four slots on the weekly Top 10: ER, Friends, Just Shoot Me, and Will & Grace -- the success of which has somehow kept Steven Weber's Cursed around long after it started turning to cottage cheese. It's a far cry from the must-see Thursday of old, but it's just about the only night we can turn on the networks without wanting to Elvis the TV set into tiny pieces. Face it: Friends wasn't the same after the monkey walked, Just Shoot Me please, and Will & Grace is just the opposite of Frasier. Think about it: One's about the straightest gay man alive, while the other's about the gayest straight man alive -- though which is which differs on any given night. Will & Grace has its deceptive charms (it at least feels smart), but it also manages to be rather offensive, claiming to offer realistic portrayals of gay men who, in this case, do little more than call each other "homo" and "queer" while mincing about with Cher dolls in one hand and Judy Garland sheet music in the other. (They're here, they're queer, and gee, aren't they funny little fags?) If Jesse Helms showed up in the credits as one of the show's writers, it would come as little surprise; Will & Grace is enlightened in the loafers.
Somehow ER clings to the top spot in the ratings, despite the fact it now resembles Chicago Hope by way of General Hospital. Upon his departure from the show a couple of years ago, George Clooney said that, during ER's first season, a patient would walk into the emergency room with an arrow through his head and no one would comment; it was dealt with and forgotten. By the time Clooney made his escape, a doctor would not only mention how odd it was for someone to have an arrow through his head, he would also ask the arrow how it felt. This season, the whole cast seems to have an arrow through its head -- in the case of Anthony Edwards's Mark Green, almost literally. Mark's fighting a brain tumor, which comes a few seasons after he had the hell beaten out of him in the bathroom; dude's bad luck, but it turns out the tumor's operable after all. Hot damn, a Christmas miracle! ER, F.U.
So far this year, Abby's crazy mother (Sally Field) has shown up; Elizabeth has been sued for malpractice; Peter's nephew was killed by gang-bangers; Luka bashed in the brains of a would-be mugger; Carter's popping pills, only to vomit them up; and Kerry's kissing female doctors. Imagine what merriment's in store come spring sweeps; a Towering Inferno homage, one hopes. At least ER has birthed the most literate, fetishistic website about an ongoing show: Paula Graves and Dave Ragsdale's site (www.digiserve.com/er/episodes/) offers stunningly comprehensive plot summaries, plus detailed medical and legal commentary, for every single episode. John Wells would do well to hire the duo as consultants before his series flatlines forever.
ABC has canceled only one new show, The Trouble With Normal, which means Geena Davis and Gabriel Byrne are still trolling for laughs at the bottom of the comedic barrel. Davis's show might well be the worst show of the new season -- but seeing as how it's impossible to actually look at it longer than 23 seconds at a time, it's hard to pass judgment. ABC has also done a fine job of wasting Homicide's Andre Braugher by casting him as the head doc in Gideon's Crossing, which was better the first time around -- when it was called ER . . . or was that St. Elsewhere . . . or Marcus Welby, M.D.? Braugher does little more than stand in front of his medical students, all of whom sport a look fresh off the Krispy Kreme conveyor belt, and blather on like some acting student auditioning for a role in Inherit the Wind. As for ABC's other hour-long smash not named The Practice, they really ought to change the name of Once and Again to thirtysomething again, now that David Clennon has donned Miles Drentell's evil smirk once more.
As for CBS . . . uh, is CBS even still on the air before The Late Show With David Letterman? Bette not. And don't start on about how C.S.I. is groundbreaking television; the only time exec producer Jerry Bruckheimer broke ground was when he buried the movies six feet under. You know why everybody loves Raymond? No? Me neither.
That leaves Fox, UPN, and the WB to duke it out for people who still feel the need to watch the networks -- all 18 of 'em. About the best thing on those three networks is a little something called The Gilmore Girls, which smells a lot like that old show My Sister Sam, with only a slight change in relationship. Fox has a hit in Malcolm in the Middle, which might be a great show if only the writers would stop explaining every single joke by having Frankie Muniz talk to the camera in a tone of voice that suggests an impatient mother talking to her doltish child. At least the network axed Freakylinks before it spread like a virus. Now, if only Jessica Alba would stop reading off cue cards as though they're misspelled.
Other lowlights from the year in TV: The second season of The Sopranos, which took forever to get going -- from 60 to 0, just like that. Showtime's Americanized Queer as Folk, which is boring as hell. ABC's election-night coverage, around the time the set caught fire and emitted what Peter Jennings referred to as a "horrible smell"; no kidding, brutha. The oft-reported fact that more people than ever were receiving their political news from David Letterman and Jon Stewart. Comedy Central's The Man Show, which, if paired with E!, would amount to gay porn. The Summer Olympics -- speaking of which, when do they start? Tom Green's cancerous testicle. Oh, and that reminds me: Darva Conger.
Bright spot: The West Wing, a show so good it makes Allison "C.J. Cregg" Janney seem kinda . . . sexy.
But the biggest story this year has also been its most underreported. In January, Salon.com reported that, in 1998, Congress promised up to $25 million to the major networks if they included antidrug messages in their prime-time programs. It was the brainchild of Bill Clinton's drug czar, General Barry R. McCaffrey, who convinced such shows as ER, Chicago Hope, Beverly Hills 90210 (which has since ended its run, and not a decade too soon), and The Drew Carey Show to include just-say-no messages in their scripts. According to Salon's Daniel Forbes -- whose story was briefly picked up by a handful of major dailies, only to be dropped in the time it takes to change the channel -- Congress in 1997 approved a five-year, $1 billion ad buy for antidrug and antibooze advertising "as long as the networks sold ad time to the government at half-price -- a two-for-one deal that provided over $2 billion worth of ads for a $1 billion allocation." But the networks balked: The dot-com ads were pouring cash into the networks' coffers, and they weren't about to give away valuable ad space.
According to Salon, McCaffrey's office, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), presented the networks with a compromise: "The office," Forbes wrote, "would give up some of that precious ad time it had bought -- in return for getting antidrug motifs incorporated within specific prime-time shows." As a result, viewers were being bombarded with propaganda disguised as content -- and often it was barely disguised, at that.
Just two weeks ago, ABC broadcast an episode of The Drew Carey Show in which Carey and his fellow homunculi attempted to sell their homemade beer -- Buzz, so called because it contains caffeine and alcohol -- at a Cleveland beer festival. But their efforts were undermined by the booth set up next to theirs -- this one sponsored by an organization touting "ALCOHOL KILLS" placards and grotesque posters of diseased, desiccated livers. Watching that episode, it was impossible not to feel a little violated and nauseous: Here's a comedy about grease-guzzling alcoholics, with a government-approved script intended to stop the very thing The Drew Carey Show pretends to celebrate. It's like watching porn with celibacy slogans tattooed on someone's ass. Which, come to think of it, would be better than anything else on TV this year.