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Television: It's not business - it's personal

Here's to the personalities that make watching TV worthwhile or worthless.

Published December 25, 2003

Whoever said politics is the art of the personal never picked up a TV remote.

Why else would legions of young men sit through the dopey antics of "cele-butante" and reality TV joke Paris Hilton on Fox's The Simple Life, while countless female fans wait breathlessly for a shirtless Ty Pennington to surface on Trading Spaces?

In the 21st century, it's television that turns personal charisma into dollar signs and power.

So that's why this year-end wrap focuses on the people of the industry: the personalities who keep you tuning in, or make you want to toss a brick through your big-screen TV.

TV PEOPLE WE LOVE (or at least LIKE) . . .

Benjamin McKenzie/Amber Tamblyn - Call them the It Boy and Girl of the new TV season. He's Ryan Atwood, the tough kid with a heart of gold brought to live in a wealthy Southern California enclave in Fox's hit teen soap The O.C. She's Joan Girardi, the unassuming high school kid who discovers she can talk to God in CBS's surprise Friday success Joan of Arcadia. McKenzie comes off like Russell Crowe's younger, more sensitive brother playing an unexpectedly smart and emotional street kid; Tamblyn brings a wide-eyed wonder to her conversations with the almighty, tempered with a typical teen's offhand cynicism. Together, they almost make this mediocre TV season worthwhile.

Les Moonves - As the last of the old-school network TV chiefs, he's full of bluster and ego. But CBS president Moonves also understands how to run a TV schedule and develop new shows. It's no accident that Moonves, who helped shepherd ER when he was head of Warner Bros. Television, now has Survivor, the CSI franchise and Everybody Loves Raymond under his belt. This fall, he made the smartest scheduling moves, finding a solid leadout for Raymond in Two and Half Men, taking back Fridays with Joan of Arcadia, getting a foothold on Wednesday with King of Queens and plugging a hole on Sundays with Jerry Bruckheimer's latest cop drama hit Cold Case. Once rival NBC's hits Friends and Frasier are gone, expect Moonves to reign as heavyweight champ of TV.

Jon Stewart - At a time when some serious news outlets let ratings and public sentiment blunt their critical edge, Stewart used Comedy Central's newscast parody The Daily Show to smart-aleck his way through the Iraq war. (His take on a meeting with potential allies that lasted less than a hour: "A war that could destroy the global order and cast a region of the Earth into chaos was discussed for about as much time as it take Lenscrafters to make a pair of bifocals.") Then he refused to get all egotistical when the praise, and two Emmy awards, flowed in. (Craig Kilborn, are you watching?)

The Fab Five - Who knew five gay men could rewrite the rules for reality TV makeovers while bringing new pride to the image of homosexuals on the small screen? As the makeover team at the heart of Bravo's hit Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, these five guys have helped both women (who dream of seeing their men gifted with their hip, gay pals' style and sensitivity) and straight men (who realize gay men can help them win over the women in their lives). One small step forward for gay culture, one giant leap ahead for heterosexual relationships.

Dylan Walsh/Julian McMahon/Joely Richardson - This trio at the heart of FX's compelling Nip/Tuck plumbs the depths of a truly contemporary relationship. Walsh is driven Miami plastic surgeon Sean McNamara, who is stuck in a midlife crisis and growing distant from his wife and kids. McMahon is his partner Christian Troy, a womanizing narcissist who is at his best when caring for McNamara's teen son and wife. Richardson is McNamara's wife Julia, whose smouldering attraction to Troy is fed by a growing contempt for her husband. (Wild card: the teen son looks a lot more like Troy than McNamara!) Watching McNamara's crushing grief over the suicide of a patient he'd slept with - leading Julia to discover his infidelity - was pure TV gold.

Ellen Muth/Mandy Patinkin - You've probably never seen this series, but Showtime's Dead Like Me was a gem, fueled mostly by Muth's captivating performance as Georgia Lass, a self-obsessed teen who dies young. Death brings new life for Lass, who begins working as a "reaper," teaming with other dead souls to harvest the spirits of those about to die. Sure, it sounds all Touched By an Angel, but the show is cynical and absurdist to an extreme (for example, Lass dies when a toilet from Space Station Mir falls on her head). Muth's Lass is mentored by Patinkin's menschy, quirkily paternal boss, Rube, in a spicy partnership. Death, it seems, can be quite the wakeup call.

Adrienne Barbeau - Yeah, it was slow-moving, obtuse and often incomprehensible. But HBO's Carnivale was also a grand biblical allegory set in a 1930s-era carnival, with the added benefit of letting '70s-era sex symbol Barbeau strut her stuff again. Thank you HBO, for allowing the 50-something Barbeau to make the idea of getting an AARP card a little easier to take.

Jeffrey Wright (and Patrick Wilson) - Critics focused on the first-ever pairing of film legends Al Pacino and Meryl Streep, but Wright's magnetic performance as drag queen nurse Belize is part of the glue that makes HBO's six-hour Angels in America such a grand television construct. Local boy made good Patrick Wilson, son of WTVT-Ch. 13 anchor John, also is amazing as closeted gay Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt, embodying the play's message of an insistent truth in the face of the AIDS crisis and the Reagan Revolution.

. . . AND TV PEOPLE WE LOATHE (or just find disagreeable)

Jeff Zucker - As head of entertainment for NBC, he's yet to develop an out-of-the-park hit, instead endlessly cloning Law & Order, supersizing Friends, unpredictably shuffling schedules and inflicting new reality TV shows on us all. (Average Joe: Hawaii?) Recently given authority over NBC's news and cable outlets (including MSNBC, CNBC and Bravo, along with Telemundo's prime time), Zucker needs a plan for when Frasier and Friends leave prime time, because supersizing Whoopi and Good Morning Miami won't have the same effect.

Self-loathing media types - Enough with the TV producers, newspaper columnists and magazine editors who wring their hands about spending too much time covering the endangered white girl of the month (Jessica Lynch, Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson, Dru Sjodin, et al.), only to do it again next time. If it's wrong to focus on one type of crime victim while ignoring the less telegenic, then stop it, already.

Whoopi Goldberg - Once a blindingly talented comic actor, Whoopi has been reduced to playing the center square and cracking jokes about post-9/11 anxiety. Doesn't she realize she's become the kind of performer she used to make fun of?

Michael Powell - Colin Powell's son tried to sneak through a massive relaxation of media ownership rules as head of the Federal Communications Commission before getting the smackdown from Congress and an enraged public. Despite a likely compromise that will raise the ownership cap 4 percent (instead of 10), Powell remains damaged by the explosive controversy. Hard to believe the son of such a consummate politician could be so clueless about public perception.

Ashton Kutcher - Why is this guy famous? For playing third banana on a Fox show few people watch? For parlaying his small screen fame into a mean-spirited MTV show where he humiliates and pranks much more talented and famous people? (At least he had to good sense to quit Punk'd this month.) For being Demi Moore's boy toy and her children's playmate all at once? Dude, where's your self-respect?

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