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Television 2001: The quest for quality

TV reality got you down? If you pay attention, you can find fresh ideas and fine viewing on the dial.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 23, 2001

It's hard to believe that, just a few months ago, people were predicting the death of irony, the end of facile entertainment and a revolution in what Americans would demand from pop culture.
Bernie Mac
[Photo: Fox]
Bernie Mac has his hands full with Dee Dee Davis and Jeremy Suarez on The Bernie Mac Show.

Now, we're more than 90 days P.A. -- post attacks -- and after watching Coolio stick his face in a plastic cube filled with scorpions and learning that ABC has given busty crusader Erin Brockovich a "reality TV" show in which she completes an impossible task with help from average New Yorkers, one lesson looms large.

TV hasn't changed nearly as much as we might have expected. Or hoped.

Six Feet Under
[Photo: HBO]
Michael C. Hall, center, undertakes the part of the gay brother in Six Feet Under. At left is Jacob Vargas; at right, Freddy Rodriguez.
With that in mind, here's one critic's list of what worked on TV this year. Like so much year-end stuff you'll read this month, much of my list is influenced by September's attacks and the war in Afghanistan. For example, I've ditched my usual "worst of" list, mostly because I'm tired of focusing on the negative.

Still, 2001 brought some of the most challenging, interesting and rewarding TV in years to those who were paying attention. If you weren't, here's what you missed:


NEW ADVENTURES IN TELEVISION: Fox's 24 gives us a real-time adventure in which a CIA agent lives the most exciting 24 hours anyone could imagine (with no bathroom breaks!). As a followup, the network slapped us with its side-splitting comedy The Bernie Mac Show, a black-focused series that found crossover gold in borrowing equally from MTV's The Real World and French New Wave cinema. The WB's Smallville tries reimagining the Superboy myth, without the cape and tights. NBC's Scrubs brings a machine gun pace to TV sitcoms. And UPN's Enterprise actually managed to re-energize the three-decade-old Star Trek franchise.

EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND: The best conventional sitcom on television. Period. Show biz vets Doris Roberts and Peter Boyle are comic gold as the intrusive mom and caustic dad; Brad Garrett's petulant older brother shtick never grows old; and Patricia Heaton's put-upon wife/mom is so spot-on she's earned two Emmy Awards. Just try to watch the episode where Roberts' Marie Barone takes up sculpting -- she creates a piece that resembles a certain part of the female anatomy -- with a straight face.

SIX FEET UNDER: Imagine the pitch meeting: "I've got this series about a dysfunctional family that owns a funeral parlor in Los Angeles. One brother is a closeted gay man, another is an aimless post-yuppie dating a beautiful genius with a manic-depressive sibling. The sister leaves a dead man's foot in her boyfriend's locker at high school. It all starts when the patriarch of the family, a tough guy with lots of secrets, is killed." Not exactly My Two Dads. HBO's groundbreaking drama expertly outlined the lives of a family separated by pain and a crushing inability to communicate, slowly coming to know each other while dealing with the death of its most significant member.

BAND OF BROTHERS: Yes, many of the characters were so similar, it was tough to tell them apart. And it repeated many themes that Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan said in better and shorter form in 1998. Still, HBO's miniseries about the adventures of the 101st Airborne Division's Easy Company -- paratroopers who fought in World War II, advancing from France to Hitler's Eagles Nest in Germany -- was an ambitious, well-crafted epic. Briton Damian Lewis was particularly compelling as American Capt. Dick Winters, an average joe whose composure under fire made him a born soldier. The amazing level of detail demanded by executive producers Spielberg and Tom Hanks helped make a visceral, realistic drama that avoided the obvious war cliches.

FRIENDS: Who wouldn't hate a show about six impossibly good-looking young people in apartments they couldn't possibly afford in the coolest city on earth? It's a tribute to all involved with NBC's blockbuster comedy that we still mostly love nebbishy Ross, airheaded Rachel, acerbic Chandler, detail-obsessed Monica, flighty Phoebe and thickheaded Joey -- even after seven years. The story of Rachel's pregnancy and Ross' impending fatherhood has juiced a series that still feels fresh, even as similarly tenured programs such as Spin City, The Drew Carey Show and The X-Files struggle with Old Series Disease.

AMERICA: A TRIBUTE TO HEROES: Ever since Live Aid and Farm Aid turned the superstar charity concert into a career move, most cause concerts have felt a little forced. But this Sept. 21 collection of musical performances, video tributes and spoken word vignettes, mounted to help victims of the terrorist attacks, couldn't have been presented better. No artists were introduced, reducing the chance for career-building showboating. And the focus wasn't on new CD releases, but material suitable for the moment -- hence, Neil Young's version of Imagine, The Goo Goo Dolls' version of Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here and Bruce Springsteen's My City of Ruins. Carried on more than 30 TV channels, it was almost cool enough to make you forget Willie Nelson's off-key closer, America, the Beautiful.

PETER JENNINGS: You can keep Ashleigh Banfield's glasses, Geraldo Rivera's bravura and Dan Rather's brittle patriotism: My favorite TV news presence during recent crises has been cool-school ABC News anchor Jennings. Compassionate when needed, cautious, incisive and a veteran of Middle Eastern affairs, he proved a reassuring, focused voice in a sea of tension -- even when inexplicably attacked by Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales and right wing activists for being pro-Palestinian or anti-Bush.

*61: Crafted by baseball nut Billy Crystal as a loving tribute to Roger Maris' and Mickey Mantle's efforts to break Babe Ruth's home run record, this movie transcends its made-for-TV status. Yes, the extra millions HBO can spend to make such a project helps (including transforming Detroit's Tiger Stadium into '60s-era Yankee Stadium), but it was really about the performances. Barry Pepper should have earned an Emmy for his buttoned-down portrayal of Maris, and Thomas Jane's vulgar, charismatic Mantle was almost good enough to make up for his beefcake turn in Deep Blue Sea.

NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: I know, it's not TV. But it provided some of the most incisive war reporting I've experienced, talking to women who operated a secret school for females in Afghanistan, examining possible repercussions of U.S. military tribunals for Americans living abroad, and outlining how working class people will cope with losing their jobs in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Ignore the right wing activists who confuse incisive coverage with sedition; this is the best reason to own a radio these days.

TODAY'S WAR CORRESPONDENTS: In a war where more journalists than U.S. soldiers were killed early on (a Dec. 9 story in London's Guardian newspaper noted eight journalists and seven U.S. soldiers killed), it's time to thank those who step in harm's way to make sure we know what's what in Afghanistan. Some of the dangers: marauding former Taliban members turned armed bandits; a reported Taliban bounty of up to $100,000 for the corpse of a Western journalist; an armed Geraldo Rivera (don't laugh -- experienced war correspondents say too many reporters carrying weapons could eliminate whatever noncombatant status they now enjoy). Perhaps as a tribute, the Pentagon could give them better access to U.S. forces fighting there.

KEN BURNS' JAZZ: -- Like most of Burns' documentaries, it was too long. And condensing jazz's final 40 years to 90 minutes in a 19-hour opus was a crime many couldn't forgive. But this 10-part exploration of jazz history -- from slaves beating drums in New Orleans' Congo Square to Duke Ellington's death in 1974 -- still stood as a singular achievement. Weaving rare video clips of Louis Armstrong, Ellington and others with expert commentary from trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, critic Gary Giddins and others, this documentary made a potent case for anointing jazz America's classical music.

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