1998 TV In Review
Tuning in, and tuning out
By Robert David Sullivan
DECEMBER 28, 1998:
Unless you're really into home runs and blow jobs, you'll probably agree that
1998 was not a good year for television. The good news is that the major
networks are paying a price for their lack of innovation, with audiences
sinking to record lows. Let's hope they look to the 10 series below in planning
next season -- and not the giant tumors and speeding police cars that have
earned big ratings for Fox.
In selecting the top series of the year, I've excluded long-running programs
that have pretty much stuck with their old formulas. Even though
Frasier, The Simpsons, Law & Order, and ER,
were, on average, as good as some of the shows listed below, they did not
improve on their earlier seasons (which we can watch in reruns several times a
day). One reason TV sucks right now is that the networks keep trying to prop up
shows like Mad About You long after everyone has gotten sick of them,
and I don't want to do anything to encourage that behavior. In fact, I'd be
happy if the networks cancelled everything except the following shows.
1. Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS). Okay, there's a
bit of a backlash against this show. We defenders became so accustomed to
calling it an "overlooked" gem that it was tough to stop when it finally became
a genuine hit this fall (it's ranked 13th so far this season). But it's still
the most smartly written and acted sit-com on TV; in fact, it was the only
traditional sit-com I even considered for this list. Raymond reached a
high point at the end of last season with a sweet flashback to Ray and Debra's
wedding, but there have been a couple of classics this fall, including an
episode about the deteriorating driving skills of Ray's father. And brother
Robert's overdue decision to move out of his parents' house is a welcome
example of a comedy changing its "sit" to remain fresh.
2. The Practice (ABC). Another third-year series that
found its audience this year, The Practice is a refreshing alternative
to Law & Order in several ways. Approaching the law from the
defendant's view, it shows us that prosecutors can be just as amoral as defense
attorneys in trying to win cases. And in stretching cases over several
episodes, it gives us a better sense of how unpredictable and erratic the
criminal-justice system can be. In one great scene this fall, two attorneys
squabble over legal tactics in front of their client -- who's about to be
sentenced for murder -- until the client's wife finally screams in frustration,
"They don't know what they're doing!" The law is never tidy on The
Practice, and that keeps us watching.
3. NYPD Blue (ABC). Who would have guessed that NYPD
Blue would become TV's best medical drama in 1998? Like The
Practice, this sixth-year drama put the weekly series format to its best
possible use, taking its time to tell the richly detailed story of Bobby
Simone's (Jimmy Smits) slow death from heart failure. Smits was great, but the
rest of the cast were equally compelling in the way they reacted to an
agonizing string of false hopes (including a heart transplant) and cruel
setbacks. The supporting cast suddenly seem fresh again, which is a nice way to
welcome Rick Schroder (not Schroeder, as we claimed last week -- sorry, Rick)
to the show.
4. Homicide: Life on the Street (NBC). I wanted to strangle
every member of the Emmy nominating committee when Homicide failed to
get a best-series nomination after this spring brought us episodes in which
Bayliss comes out as gay (maybe); guest star Steve Allen accidentally fires a
gun through his high-rise apartment window -- and hits someone on his way down
from a suicide jump; guest star Charles Durning helps to solve a murder from
1922; and Andre Braugher makes a powerful exit from the series. Add to that
list the repackaging of last year's "Subway" episode within a new "behind the
scenes" PBS documentary and this has been a banner year for homicides in
5. Ally McBeal (Fox). Yes, Peter MacNichol's pet
frog was as annoying as the dancing baby from last season, but every once in a
while this celebration of idiosyncrasy hits the mark -- as when Ally's law firm
felt a surprising sense of grief following the death of a senile judge. As for
my dismissal of Ally McBeal last year, let me just say: "Bygones."
6. Sports Night.* The most promising new show
of the season is this behind-the-camera comedy set at a cable network that
resembles ESPN. The characters are (mercifully) more articulate than most of us
are in real life, but their fears and insecurities ring true for any
- I can't give credit to the network that airs Sports Night because
it has vandalized the show with a hideously inappropriate laugh track. FYI, it
airs on Channel 5 in Boston.
7. Oz (HBO). This prison drama almost qualifies as science
fiction in the way it depicts a society set apart from every code of behavior
most of us take for granted in our daily lives. The show's nudity, violence,
and coarse language are jolting but not gratuitous. Oz reminds you that
cable really can be an alternative to both the pabulum of broadcast TV and the
mindless mayhem of Hollywood films.
8. Upright Citizens Brigade (Comedy Central). South
Park gets all the ink, but this new sketch comedy series is more inventive
and more obsessed with sex (another cheer for cable!). Each episode interweaves
three or four bizarre storylines (e.g., a sleazy guy claiming to have a
time machine in his bedroom; an Orthodox Jew who thinks he's figured out a
loophole in his religious restrictions; a portrait of Albert Einstein as an
obsessive masturbator) and ties them all together by the end of the half-hour.
It's an acquired taste, but so was Monty Python.
9. Maximum Bob (ABC). This summer replacement was a rarity
on network TV: a series that vividly depicted a place in the United States
other than New York and Los Angeles. Based on the books of Elmore Leonard,
Maximum Bob starred Beau Bridges as a hanging judge in the Florida
Everglades who was surrounded by one of the finest set of eccentrics since
Twin Peaks. Viewers were probably turned off by the lame supernatural
element in the short-run series (it involved channeling), but the series
deserves another chance next year.
10. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB). It's one of the wittier
supernatural series, plus it's got a strong female character (Sarah Michelle
Gellar) in the lead -- a rarity in a medium where Kirstie Alley and Jenna
Elfman are foisted off as symbols of liberation.