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1999 on TV

The Sopranos
[Photo: HBO]

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By ERIC DEGGANS, Times Television Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 24, 1999

Television in 1999 showed some greening of the wasteland.


Think about it. Can you ever remember a time when there was so much good television on television? Was there ever a year with more channel choices, better program variety, bigger stars or better production values?

When is the last time you heard of an actor winning an Oscar and then coming back to her TV day job, as Helen Hunt did last season on NBC's Mad About You?

TVForget about movie snobbery. Filmmakers like Glenn Gordon Caron (Clean and Sober), Ed Zwick (Shakespeare in Love), Aaron Sorkin (The American President) and Barry Levinson (Rain Man) are beating down the networks' doors to create some of the most challenging small screen stuff ever seen -- including, respectively, Now and Again, Once and Again, The West Wing and Homicide, Life on the Street.

Consider exhibit No. 1: HBO.

This pay cable channel fired the first shot in the quality wars last January, with the debut of a little-anticipated mob drama, The Sopranos.

Creator David Chase's impossibly complex scripts sealed the deal for me, showing tortured mob boss Tony Soprano -- caught between his analyst, upper middle-class neighbors, a demanding home life, his Mob family, persistent anxiety attacks and a mother secretly plotting to get him killed.

Given a charismatic, layered life by character actor supreme James Gandolfini, Soprano was a guy who could trash his analyst's office one moment and collapse in his wife's arms the next -- driven to a drunken stupor after conquering the urge to kill a child molester coaching his daughter's soccer team.

A few months later, Sex and the City came back for its wonderfully uninhibited second season -- with an appealing Sarah Jessica Parker at her ditzy best in a charming, funny look at four beautiful, self-obsessed yuppie women looking for love in Manhattan.

It wasn't long before network TV got the message. Things were already on an upswing, thanks to steadily improving veterans such as The Practice, Friends, Law & Order and Frasier.

It's true, some shows are still inconsistent -- Sports Night veers between appealing drama and talky irrelevance every week, while the spicy characters fueling Will & Grace come off as gut-busting funny one moment, stereotypically irritating the next.

But, as a measure of how good things have gotten, consider how tough it is to plan a night of viewing these days.

On Mondays at 9 p.m., do you check out Everybody Loves Raymond's side-splitting family comedy, Ally McBeal's sexy, absurdist humor or Law & Order: Special Victims Unit's gritty, sex-based crime drama?

Once and Again
[Photo: ABC]
Tougher choices await on Tuesday, where ABC offers Spin City, Sports Night and Sela Ward's sexy fortysomething mom in Once and Again. But Buffy, The Vampire Slayer and its surprisingly nimble spinoff, Angel await on the WB. CBS also has a solid trio of performers in JAG, 60 Minutes II and the surprise drama hit of the season, Judging Amy.

Amy joins NBC's Providence and CBS' Family Law as TV's unlikeliest success stories; sometimes sappy dramas anchored by strong casts that reach out to female and older viewers left hanging by more in-your-face fare.

Don't forget about covert cable hits, such as Lifetime's Any Day Now, Comedy Central's The Daily Show, HBO's The Chris Rock Show and VH1's Behind the Music.

All this quality wouldn't be nearly as much fun without another, welcome trend: the death of obvious trends.

When the WB emerged as the only profitable network last season, every other major broadcaster tried to rip off its formula for shows featuring attractive, young, white, middle-class characters.

Top Picks

On the pop beat
Better later than never, hip-hop jams its way into our nation's frontal lobe.

On Stage
Rediscovering the creative genius that is Arthur Miller proves most satisfying -- here and on Broadway.

In pop culture
Perhaps when we can watch Ricky Martin featured on VHI's Behind the Music, we'll know it was a year well spent. Until then, catch us on eBay.

On the art beat
A vocal group of art supporters, combined with vigorous growth in galleries, puts St. Petersburg in the spotlight.

On the restaurant beat
Like a microchip off the old block, SideBern's guarantees foodies a bright future in dining.

On film
Filmmakers are redefining their craft. That means moviegoers found 1999 a challenging and sometimes a troubling experience.

This year's list of the Best Things on TV in 1999 can be summed up in a single word.

Guess what? The bulk of the networks' audiences -- even young people -- hated those new shows. So Fox's Mission Hill and Ryan Caulfield: Year One, ABC's Wasteland and NBC's Cold Feet bit the dust quickly.

Other trends have taken a beating, too. Aside from the success of WWF Smackdown! in reviving UPN, mediocre guy-oriented shows such as Harsh Realm, Oh Grow Up, The Mike O'Malley Show, The Strip and Action have quickly passed away.

Empty-headed sitcoms also took a tumble this year, as networks looked to more ambitious dramas such as Now and Again, Once and Again and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Expect next year's flood of game shows, inspired by ABC's blockbuster Who Wants to be a Millionaire, to find similar fates.

To be sure, everything's not perfect in TV land.

There are still far too many Datelines and World's Scariest Police Chases clogging the airwaves for my taste. Daytime programming remains a wasteland, with fights and sex-charged topics migrating from talk shows to cartoonish legal series such as Judge Judy and Divorce Court.

And lots of questions remain.

Why aren't there any East Indian and Asian doctors on ER or Chicago Hope? (I know, Chinese actor Ming-Na is expected to join ER's cast later this season, but her inclusion is too little and way too late.)

When will The West Wing present a regular cast member of color who isn't pouring coffee, taking meeting notes or holding someone's dry cleaning?

Can NYPD Blue feature a female cop as dumpy-looking as most guys on that show?

Will there ever be a black, Hispanic or Asian pal on Friends? (I know, Ross had an Asian girlfriend for a while. But how long did she last? Five episodes?)

Otherwise, this year in TV resembled that joke about 1,000 lawyers chained to the bottom of the sea: a good start.

Let's hope the next millennium finds broadcasters making good on the promise of quality they've extended in 1999.

Here's a list of stuff I liked in 1999, in no particular order.

THE SOPRANOS: Who knew HBO's textured, sophisticated dark comedy on a Mob boss' inner conflicts would redefine the boundaries of conventional TV?

SEX AND THE CITY: Uninhibited and intoxicating, this HBO comedy shows what happens when four beautiful, self-obsessed female yuppies let it all hang out while searching for love and lust in Manhattan. Should earn its own Emmy for the special effects used in simulating you-know-what.

THE WEST WING: A quality drama from NBC centered on the kind of caring, principled White House you find only in fiction. Who cares if conservatives are demonized -- the president actually kicks people out of his office!

THE CHRIS ROCK SHOW: Yeah, this late-night HBO talk series is as bawdy as H-E-double hockey sticks, but Rock has created a knowing, anything-goes forum where racial attitudes and society's foibles are twisted into high comedy.

THE PRACTICE: ABC's whipcrack legal drama, spiced by creator David E. Kelley's penchant for bizarre plot twists. Extra points for casting Henry "The Fonz" Winkler as a dentist and murder suspect who finds pretty girls stepping on cockroaches sexy.

LAW & ORDER: Thank you, NBC, for the best just-the-facts police drama since Dragnet went the way of all things. As an extra bonus, you get the lawyer stuff, too.

NOW AND AGAIN: Inexpensively made and subversive in tone, this CBS drama about an ordinary guy's brain stuck in a superhuman, synthetic body almost makes TV science fiction cool.

BEHIND THE MUSIC: Leave it to VH1 to find the fun in history's great parade of rock 'n' roll losers.

OZ: This gritty, explicit HBO prison drama seals creator Tom Fontana's reputation as a mastermind of amazing TV that's difficult to watch.

60 MINUTES: Still the best TV newsmagazine on the air after more than 30 years in the game; the surest antidote for Dateline NBC's calamity of the week and 20/20's muddled focus.

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