Maybe someday we’ll look back on 2003 as an annus horribilis for television. The year that reality shows spawned like tribbles and the president of NBC publicly admitted that his fall shows “sucked.” The year that Monica Lewinsky became a TV host, CBS bowed to right-wing pressure and canceled The Reagans, reporters got embedded, and Buffy was laid to rest. Maybe we’ll remember this year as a dud, but more likely we won’t recall much at all, since TV hardly ever leaves lasting scars. It asks nothing more of the viewers than that we sit and let it wash over us. Yet over the last year—my first as the Voice‘s television critic—I’ve been startled by people’s compulsive desire to talk to me about the tube, to find something good out there. (Hence the rise of TiVo, which theoretically finds the good stuff without sullying you with schedules or commercials.) Even the most avowed TV hater can’t resist asking: “What should I watch? What did I miss?” What follows is my ledger of televisual bliss and boredom for 2003.
The Comedy of Cringe: Although most of this year’s reality shows relied on ritual humiliation (Are You Hot?, American Idol, etc), it took a couple of comic geniuses to really make me wince. In the third season of Curb Your Enthusiasm (which I caught in its rerun afterlife on HBO), Larry David honed his misanthropic impulses into the most excruciatingly funny half-hour on TV. And then BBC America’s U.K. import The Office pushed the mockumentary-style humor even further, presenting a workplace supercharged with cruelty, thwarted longing, and tedium, presided over by one of the most self-deluding, inane bosses ever to invade prime time.
The O.C.: It came out of the gate looking like pure summer trash: a vacuous teen show crammed with rich kids basking in the California rays. And yet somehow Fox’s The O.C. transcended its superficial trappings with a seductive blend of winsome beauty, fine acting, and speedy dialogue that nearly rivals The Gilmore Girls, that other sweet-hearted teen series with serious brainiac adult appeal.
NOW With Bill Moyers: Moyers may be the oldest troublemaker in American television. His ongoing PBS series delivers all the bad news that Americans don’t want to hear: the grim truth about our failing schools, corrupt corporations, and political dirty dealing, always keeping his eye on how it will impact the average joe.
Arrested Development: The only good sitcom to emerge from that vast, arid wasteland otherwise known as the 2003 fall season, Fox’s Arrested Development boasts fizzy scripts, a cartoony sensibility, and a sharp cast led by the surprisingly endearing Jason Bateman as the only rational member of the wealthy Bluth clan.
The Joe Schmo Show: Bravo’s ethically dubious meta-reality series put a real guy named Matt in the center of a ludicrously fake show called The Lap of Luxury—his fellow “contestants” all actors improvising around scenarios scripted by a crew of screenwriters. (Each episode’s hilarious voting-off ceremony ended with the phrase: “You are dead to me now.”) Somehow Matt’s gentle manners, good sportsmanship, and genuine emotional involvement with his fraudulent co-stars saved him from embarrassment, instead making a mockery of the reality genre.
The Wire: Forget casual viewing—The Wire requires perseverance to penetrate its labyrinth of story lines. This HBO cop show follows an ensemble cast through one nuanced criminal case at a time, imbuing its gritty characters with a complexity and intensity that feel almost too novelistic for TV.
The Daily Show: Jon Stewart and his merry men continue to nail the news while making it all as enjoyable as a goof. They became must-see TV this year when they impishly ragged on Dubya’s Iraq policy and the Halliburton scams while the “straight” nightly news media patriotically skirted the issues.
Angels in America: It’s hard to remember the last time television produced anything this ambitious, not to mention ravishing. I approached it with a skeptic’s eye, since I’d become attached to my memory of the stage version, and besides, adaptations rarely make it to the screen with poetry intact. But I quickly swooned before Kushner’s rapturous language and sweeping intelligence, which gather into a powerful remembrance of times past as well as an enduring snapshot of the American psyche.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: She departed the airwaves with an apocalyptic flourish, but left behind her melancholy ex-paramour Angel on the WB to spar with our demons.
Six Feet Under: Although it lagged in the second half of last season, this series still hit just the right balance of soapy melodrama and genuine pathos, complemented by moody visuals and juicy female roles.
Dope Chic: Newlyweds‘ Jessica Simpson makes dumb blondes fair game again.
Lucky: John Corbett found his perfect role as a Las Vegas loser but FX canceled it anyway.
Kelly Osbourne on Punk’d: A spoiled brat, maybe, but she had the moxie to tell Ashton Kutcher’s minions to fuck off when they tried to make her over her as an Aguilera-style ‘ho.
Primetime Glick: Martin Short’s obese alter ego hosts the giddiest fake talk show in town on Comedy Central.
Christiane Amanpour: A fly in the ointment, Amanpour pissed off CNN execs by complaining that American coverage of Iraq might not be all that, uh, balanced.
The Reality Principle: For an instant this year, the networks figured out a way to recapture the days before cable smashed the American audience into hundreds of tiny niche markets. Thanks to lowest-common-denominator shows like Joe Millionaire and The Surreal Life, we remembered what it was like to have a nation unified in talking about the same shows—even if what joined us together was disbelief and disgust. Lowlights included Man vs. Beast (featuring a tug-of-war between a sumo wrestler and an orangutan) and Mr. Personality, hosted by Monica Lewinsky, in which a woman had to pick a boyfriend from a bevy of masked creeps.
Aaron Brown: Watching the Iraq war with CNN’s Aaron Brown as anchor was like being led through the desert by a pompous student-teacher with logorrhea and a few missing brain cells.
Trista and Ryan’s Wedding: Does anyone really feel the need to see this Bachelorette thing through to its bitter conclusion? What’s next in the franchise? Coming this spring: the divorce proceedings, broadcast live from their lawyers’ office.
Dennis Miller: Never hugely amusing on SNL, Miller has since become borderline incomprehensible, scattering opaque in-jokes and obscure, passé pop culture references like pellets of bird poop all over Bill Maher’s Real Time, then spouting even more testosterone-fueled political bluster on his own HBO special, The Raw Feed.
I Love the . . . : VH1 has always found entertaining ways to package nostalgia, such as their Behind the Music series and the VH1 Classics channel. But I Love the 80s Strikes Back (following on the heels of I Love the 70s and I Love the 80s) is glib and unsatisfying, its cast of random B-list celebs spouting arch quips and pointless commentary on everything from toys to video games to candy. Like Chris Farley’s hapless cable TV interviewer on SNL, they mostly just coo, “Ooh that was so cool, do you remember that time . . . ?” Worse still, they often reminisce by singing hit tunes out loud: “Jenny, I need your number 867-5309 . . . ”
Carnivàle and K Street: With Sex and the City and The Sopranos entering final seasons, I had hoped HBO had suitable replacements lined up. Despite the fetching star presence of Nick Stahl and former Maude sidekick Adrienne Barbeau, Carnivàle doesn’t meet those high standards. So far, this series is just a hodgepodge of cool images masquerading as something more profound. As for K Street, I’m relieved it’s been canceled—all those Dems scrambling to play themselves on TV would have given the Bush campaign an extra boost.