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Television -- the year in review

By Robert David Sullivan

JANUARY 3, 2000:  It was a pretty good year for TV series, and a good harbinger for 2000, since the only thing that inspires innovative television is panic that the other networks are getting ahead of you. True, the biggest hit of the year was Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. But that says more about the fading popularity of sit-coms and mini-series than about the game-show genre. ABC programmed the show shrewdly -- it never faced blue-chip dramas such as Law & Order and ER -- and its low production costs guarantee that will be a glut of imitators by springtime. Millionaire also tends to attract older viewers, which isn't so great for ABC in the long run. It's really the network's long-overdue replacement for its megahit of 1990: America's Funniest Home Videos.

The bigger story of 1999 was that audience sizes for the broadcast networks (except Fox) leveled out after years of losses to cable TV. Millionaire and UPN's wrestling matches helped, but so did several new dramas aimed at adult viewers. The first, though hardly the best, was NBC's Providence, which premiered in January, during the same month as one of cable TV's greatest triumphs (see The Sopranos, below). To commemorate this improved TV landscape, I made a Top 10 list without any of the shows I cited last year. Some of those were still good in 1999, but they didn't do much that was new or unexpected. Everybody Loves Raymond had a great swing-dancing episode and a sweet flashback to Ray and Debra's first date, but there was also too many episodes where Ray complained about not getting enough sex. Oz is still addictive, but its bleakness is getting wearying. (Redemption is apparently impossible in this prison.) Homicide: Life on the Street reached its finish line with honor, but Andre Braugher's absence was sorely felt. As for The Practice, Ally McBeal, and NYPD Blue, they just fell apart.

The best series of 1999:

1. The Sopranos (HBO). There's no need for an off-the-wall choice at the top of the list this year. David Chase's mob drama is so good that no TV critic is trying to make a name for himself by arguing that it's overrated. The worst anyone can say is that The Sopranos may not be a totally accurate portrayal of the psychiatric profession. Big whup. It's got the strongest narrative drive of any TV series in recent memory -- a nice alternative to the bob-and-weave plotting of ER -- and it built up to a season finale in April with two of the most indelible images of the year: Tony's mom (Nancy Marchand) flashing him an evil grin from beneath her oxygen mask, and the Soprano clan gathered around a table at an Italian restaurant, looking as benign as the Bradys. Of course, fans know that nothing is as simple as it looks on this series.

2. The West Wing (NBC). The most accomplished among several worthy new shows this fall, Aaron Sorkin's peek inside the White House is funny, intelligent, and surprisingly popular. TV-industry pundits were skeptical about this series, which features such plot devices as a Supreme Court nominee with a terrible secret: he once wrote a paper expressing doubts about the constitutional right to privacy! The pundits were wrong, and maybe they're just as misguided in claiming that American voters will settle for George W. Bush. Cast standouts include Richard Schiff (as Rob Lowe's dour, impatient boss) and Allison Janney (as a press secretary with one of the most endearing sarcastic deliveries on television). Biggest flaw: the melodramatic music, which kills any sense of realism. The producers should take a cue from Homicide: pick a distinctive phone ring and you don't need an orchestra.

3. Freaks and Geeks (NBC). I may be biased on this one: I was in high school in 1980, and this show's re-creation of the late-Zeppelin-era zeitgeist seems deadly accurate to me. I can also identify with the geeks -- including a walking Star Trek encyclopedia, a budding Jewish comedian, and a pencil-limbed freshman who goes to ridiculous lengths to avoid taking a shower after gym class. They constantly suffer at the hands of the jocks and cool kids, but we know they'll never show up at class with a shotgun; unlike the kids at Columbine, they know that life after high school will be all downhill for most of their tormentors. Maybe that awful truth is why the show hasn't caught on among teen viewers. But for people who have survived and prospered after high school, this can be a very funny show.

4. Sex and the City (HBO). Think of this risqué sit-com as a Consumer Reports for the turn of the century. Sarah Jessica Parker and her three gal pals slut around the most fascinating island in the world, all to provide the home viewer with a catalogue of kinks, pick-up techniques, and sexual dysfunctions. You'll envy the characters in one scene and pity them in the next -- which makes for a highly satisfying half-hour in front of the tube.

5. Once and Again (ABC). This drama about two families coping with the aftermath of divorce moves slowly, but Sela Ward gives it a good anchor: her character is likable but annoying just enough of the time to keep things interesting. The Thanksgiving episode, the best so far, proved the wisdom of keeping aspects of the characters' lives secret until the right moment.

6. Now and Again (CBS). It's a similar name to Once and Again, and this series also features an attractive-but-insecure woman in her 40s dealing with a sulky daughter and a persistent suitor. But in this case, the hunky guy following her around town has been endowed with the brain of her dead husband, so we're not exactly in the realm of cinéma-vérité. The premise may sound stupid, but this is sci-fi at its most graceful. Think of it as The Six Million Dollar Man as if it had been written for Robert Redford and Debra Winger.

7. Linc's (Showtime). This DC-based sit-com is one of the few intelligently written programs with a mostly black cast, and one of the few series of any genre to give us a strong sense of a city outside of New York. It's produced by Tim Reid and mostly takes place at a neighborhood bar -- which makes Linc's a sequel of sorts to one of the great short-lived shows of the 1980s, Frank's Place.

8. Friends (NBC). A mediocre show for most of its run, Friends has been redeemed by the evolving romance between Chandler and Monica. Frasier, which airs an hour later, is still more intelligently written, but it's no longer fun watching the cast go through some very familiar moves.

9. Will & Grace (NBC). Credibility is flying out the window, and this second-year sit-com is so much the better for it. Highlights this fall included Grace's leaky booster bra and Jack coming out to his mother a couple of decades late. ("Has your mother met you?," Grace asks.) The greatest comic creation, however, is Megan Mullally's irresistibly self-centered Karen, who squeezes the most out of every bitchy line. Her version of a prayer for Thanksgiving: "I'm thankful that I found a pharmacologist as dumb as a box of hair."

10. Law & Order (NBC). Mea culpa! Several readers chewed me out for saying that the new Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is "on a par" with its parent series. I'll admit that the "sex crimes" angle of the spinoff is wearing thin quickly. L&O often makes you wonder, "Would I consider killing someone under similar circumstances?", but the SVU crimes are too disgusting to prompt philosophical discussions. About one in five episodes of Law & Order senior is terrible, following the show's formula so closely that it becomes self-parody, but it held up a lot better than The Practice this year. And I'm beginning to like new cast member Jesse L. Martin, who has been rattling the cage of his veteran partner, Lenny Briscoe (Jerry Orbach, king of the one-liners). When Briscoe was a little slow on the uptake in one episode, Martin's character zinged him with "Guess Old Spice forgot to take his ginkgo pill this morning." Benjamin Bratt was great eye candy, but he always let Orbach get away with murder.

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