Blow Up the Box

Thank God for old Jews with shaky hands and the inability to tell this word (G-O-R-E) from this one (B-U-C-H-A-N-A-N). Without them--and Survivor Richard Hatch, that self-proclaimed "fat naked fag" who, as is turns out, is just a really concerned parent and not at all, uh, abusive--it would have been damned near impossible to turn on the TV during much of 2000. It really was the year of reality TV: The best drama of the fall season starred two men no one really wanted to be president (give us Martin Sheen!), and it marked the return of Clarence Thomas, star of 1990's favorite daytime drama, Pubic Affairs. Turns out there was no truth to the rumor that Al Gore suggested on November 19 that he and George W. Bush engage in a dung-beetle-eating contest to determine the winner of the election. Bush clearly had the advantage, as evidenced by his shit-eating grin. But it was telling that during his presentation before the Supreme Court, Gore attorney Dexter Douglass kept asking Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor, "No, seriously, is that your final answer?" Should have locked the whole bunch, along with Bette Midler and Geena Davis and cute little Elian, in the Big Brother house and hired an arsonist.

And that was the year in television: dolled-up Regis, washed-up refugees, wound-up pundits, would-be presidents, failed movie stars slumming it on the small screen, and failed human beings stabbing each other in the back on a tropical island for a million bucks. Say, where's my radio? The beginning of the new millennium looks a lot like the end of civilization. If this was the best TV had to offer, you can keep your satellite dishes and HDTV sets and your TiVo; this year's product belongs on a 3-inch black-and-white sitting on the kitchen counter.

This has been the worst television season since 1979-1980, when both B.J. and the Bear and The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo premiered, much to the delight of Dukes of Hazzard fans and people who could move their houses simply by starting the ignition. Exhibiting rare moments of clarity, the networks have already canceled some of this year's most egregious errors--a nice change of pace from the wholesale slaughter of excellence that came earlier this year, when NBC axed Freaks and Geeks, Fox yanked Action and American High, ABC pulled Wonderland after a mere two episodes, and the Sci Fi Network quashed good vs. evil. All of those shows, save Wonderland, have received new homes on various cable and satellite outlets looking to kill time between tarot-card-reading infomercials featuring that woman with the fake Jamaican accent. And you thought DirecTV was good for nothing but sports, MTV's Jackass, 39 daily showings of Never Say Never Again, and hardcore pay-per-porn.

NBC's already done away with The Michael Richards Show, the black-and-blue-collar Daddio, mother Tucker, Aaron Spelling's Titans--and the president of the network's entertainment division, Garth Ancier, the man responsible for the aforementioned failures. Ancier, who came to NBC after a stint on the WB--where success is judged by how many thousands of viewers you can draw, something NBC apparently failed to take into account when hiring him--is being replaced by longtime Today show executive producer Jeff Zucker, a news guy with no experience in the so-called entertainment business. NBC's press release announcing Zucker's promotion insisted he "will last approximately 13 months, during which time he will oversee the creation of eight more Law & Order spin-offs and three reality-based programs, one of which will feature live ammunition."

Of NBC's new shows, only one--the David Letterman-produced Ed, about a small-town lawyer and his bowling alley--stuck, like crap on a wall. Unable to find Ed an audience--perhaps because audiences figure they've already seen the show on Friday nights, when it's called Providence--NBC has begun Ed on its death march, moving it around on the shaky schedule. And look for the cancellation of DAG (otherwise known as Guarding Miss Dixie)...any...moment. Even the laugh track sounds embarrassed.

Still, NBC keeps four slots on the weekly Top 10: ER, Friends, Just Shoot Me, and Will & Grace--the success of which has somehow kept Steven Weber's Cursed around long after it started turning to cottage cheese. It's a far cry from the must-see Thursday of old, but it's just about the only night we can turn on the networks without wanting to Elvis the TV set into tiny pieces. Face it: Friends wasn't the same after the monkey walked, Just Shoot Me please, and Will & Grace is just the opposite of Frasier. Think about it: One's about the straightest gay man alive, while the other's about the gayest straight man alive--though which is which differs on any given night. Will & Grace has its deceptive charms (it at least feels smart), but it also manages to be rather offensive, claiming to offer realistic portrayals of gay men who, in this case, do little more than call each other "homo" and "queer" while mincing about with Cher dolls in one hand and Judy Garland sheet music in the other. (They're here, they're queer, and, gee, aren't they funny little fags?) If Jesse Helms showed up in the credits as one of the show's writers, it would come as little surprise; Will & Grace is enlightened in the loafers.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky