TV used to be the most dependable thing in our American lives. Series debuted in the fall, summer meant reruns, old ladies could set the clock by “their shows,” a comforting cast of daddy-anchors led us through the nightly news, and families all over the country settled in for prime-time servings of harmless sitcom happiness. All that reassuring predictability is now dissolving—2005 may soon be looked on as the year when TV went topsy-turvy.
The industry is scrambling to figure out how it’ll spin a profit in a world where new distribution methods (iPod, DVR, DVD, and on demand, to name a few) challenge the status quo. Pending congressional legislation would have cable companies sell channels à la carte or offer “family friendly” packages to subscribers—a move that could decimate the more artsy or niche channels (or else force them to shill for mainstream customers). Meanwhile, the television news landscape literally changed face this year, as a whole generation—Rather, Brokaw, Jennings, and Koppel—fell from their paternalistic perches, leaving behind a gap most likely to be filled by, well, filler passing for hard news. Yet in some ways TV was the same as it ever was in 2005—a garbage heap with just enough hidden gems to make sifting worth the effort.
BEST SHOWS THAT NO ONE WATCHED:
The exploding number of cable channels and industry confusion makes it ever harder to find the good stuff, which is often tucked away on lesser-known cable channels or thwarted by shifting scheduling. WEEDS and ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT are two of the best shows around, but hardly anyone I know watches them. Weeds boasts deliciously prickly comedy writing and a superb cast headed by the wonderfully deadpan Mary-Louise Parker as a widowed soccer mom dealing pot to maintain her family’s lifestyle. A wry slice of suburban anomie and hypocrisy, Weeds is the potential critical-and-audience smash Showtime has been searching for. But it’s yet to reach the tipping point, since viewers are hesitant to shell out the extra bucks for another premium channel. That might change if, as rumored, Showtime picks up Arrested Development, that other critically lauded comedy about a twisted family business. Finally dropped by Fox, it’s been on deathwatch for all three of its seasons, partly because of time-slot adjustments as inept as Gob Bluth’s magic tricks, but also because its peculiar blend of dark kookiness is an acquired taste.
THE NITTY AND THE GRITTY:
I originally pegged FX’s THE SHIELD as a second-rate version of The Wire but eventually grew to love it. Which is an incongruously cuddly thing to say, considering the brutal, ragged nature of the show. A rogue cop now trying to play by the rules, Michael Chiklis maintains his focal role as a clot of malevolent energy at the heart of the LAPD, but this season he found a perfect foil in a female captain played by Glenn Close. Denis Leary brought his own special brand of pent-up fury to RESCUE ME (also on FX), playing a recovering alcoholic firefighter. Nearly every episode this season had some homophobic subplot, but in some ways this just makes Leary’s portrait of embattled blue-collar masculinity all the more intriguing. The corrosively funny scripts and splendid supporting cast don’t hurt either.
If American audiences weren’t so insular, they’d notice that the best international TV shows outclass the middling homegrown programming we settle for. Take KATH AND KIM, a campy Australian sitcom—imagine Absolutely Fabulous with a dash of The Office thrown in for good measure—currently being aired on Sundance. There’s something lovably grotesque about this mother and daughter who speak thick (but, once you get the hang of it, deliriously crude) slang. Watching them and their hapless spouses pursue spiritually depleted, taste-free, consumerism-crazed lives has been one of the year’s highlights, along with the BBC America miniseries GREEN WING. Set in a British hospital, it uses innovative camerawork (lots of speeding up and slowing down) to lend a hallucinatory, cartoon-surreal feel to its workplace comedy of rivalry and romance, bureaucracy and bad attitude.
So few recent shows retained their initial momentum that it’s a relief two of last year’s brightest, VERONICA MARS and LOST, have swerved past second-season slumps and kept their quirky spark. Both work loosely with genres, loosening corset-strap constraints by having wicked fun with expectations and mixing up moods. Veronica Mars keeps its teen-noir plots tight but doesn’t settle for, or into, detective shtick; Lost continues to experiment with narrative, slyly teasing us with clues as it slips between time frames, characters, and maybe even dimensions.
HBO kept its reputation as TV’s edgiest channel not by looking forward but by looking back. Unfortunately, teachers can’t use DEADWOOD or ROME as classroom material, since their unstinting attention to historical realism means characters spout the most lewd swearwords on the small screen (“he is fucking cunt-struck,” “now close the arse flaps”). Despite fine-tuned acting and labyrinthine plots of intrigue and revenge, Rome never quite scales the dizzy altitudes of Deadwood, where even the most repellent characters engage your sympathy and the language has a rapturous ripeness verging on the Shakespearean. This is TV that haunts your memory long after you’ve clicked the “off” button.