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The Boston Phoenix 1998 TV In Review

Tuning in, and tuning out

By Robert David Sullivan

DECEMBER 28, 1998:  Unless you're really into home runs and blow jobs, you'll probably agree that 1998 was not a good year for television. The good news is that the major networks are paying a price for their lack of innovation, with audiences sinking to record lows. Let's hope they look to the 10 series below in planning next season -- and not the giant tumors and speeding police cars that have earned big ratings for Fox.

In selecting the top series of the year, I've excluded long-running programs that have pretty much stuck with their old formulas. Even though Frasier, The Simpsons, Law & Order, and ER, were, on average, as good as some of the shows listed below, they did not improve on their earlier seasons (which we can watch in reruns several times a day). One reason TV sucks right now is that the networks keep trying to prop up shows like Mad About You long after everyone has gotten sick of them, and I don't want to do anything to encourage that behavior. In fact, I'd be happy if the networks cancelled everything except the following shows.

1. Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS). Okay, there's a bit of a backlash against this show. We defenders became so accustomed to calling it an "overlooked" gem that it was tough to stop when it finally became a genuine hit this fall (it's ranked 13th so far this season). But it's still the most smartly written and acted sit-com on TV; in fact, it was the only traditional sit-com I even considered for this list. Raymond reached a high point at the end of last season with a sweet flashback to Ray and Debra's wedding, but there have been a couple of classics this fall, including an episode about the deteriorating driving skills of Ray's father. And brother Robert's overdue decision to move out of his parents' house is a welcome example of a comedy changing its "sit" to remain fresh.

2. The Practice (ABC). Another third-year series that found its audience this year, The Practice is a refreshing alternative to Law & Order in several ways. Approaching the law from the defendant's view, it shows us that prosecutors can be just as amoral as defense attorneys in trying to win cases. And in stretching cases over several episodes, it gives us a better sense of how unpredictable and erratic the criminal-justice system can be. In one great scene this fall, two attorneys squabble over legal tactics in front of their client -- who's about to be sentenced for murder -- until the client's wife finally screams in frustration, "They don't know what they're doing!" The law is never tidy on The Practice, and that keeps us watching.

3. NYPD Blue (ABC). Who would have guessed that NYPD Blue would become TV's best medical drama in 1998? Like The Practice, this sixth-year drama put the weekly series format to its best possible use, taking its time to tell the richly detailed story of Bobby Simone's (Jimmy Smits) slow death from heart failure. Smits was great, but the rest of the cast were equally compelling in the way they reacted to an agonizing string of false hopes (including a heart transplant) and cruel setbacks. The supporting cast suddenly seem fresh again, which is a nice way to welcome Rick Schroder (not Schroeder, as we claimed last week -- sorry, Rick) to the show.

4. Homicide: Life on the Street (NBC). I wanted to strangle every member of the Emmy nominating committee when Homicide failed to get a best-series nomination after this spring brought us episodes in which Bayliss comes out as gay (maybe); guest star Steve Allen accidentally fires a gun through his high-rise apartment window -- and hits someone on his way down from a suicide jump; guest star Charles Durning helps to solve a murder from 1922; and Andre Braugher makes a powerful exit from the series. Add to that list the repackaging of last year's "Subway" episode within a new "behind the scenes" PBS documentary and this has been a banner year for homicides in Baltimore.

5. Ally McBeal (Fox). Yes, Peter MacNichol's pet frog was as annoying as the dancing baby from last season, but every once in a while this celebration of idiosyncrasy hits the mark -- as when Ally's law firm felt a surprising sense of grief following the death of a senile judge. As for my dismissal of Ally McBeal last year, let me just say: "Bygones."

6. Sports Night.* The most promising new show of the season is this behind-the-camera comedy set at a cable network that resembles ESPN. The characters are (mercifully) more articulate than most of us are in real life, but their fears and insecurities ring true for any profession.

  • I can't give credit to the network that airs Sports Night because it has vandalized the show with a hideously inappropriate laugh track. FYI, it airs on Channel 5 in Boston.

7. Oz (HBO). This prison drama almost qualifies as science fiction in the way it depicts a society set apart from every code of behavior most of us take for granted in our daily lives. The show's nudity, violence, and coarse language are jolting but not gratuitous. Oz reminds you that cable really can be an alternative to both the pabulum of broadcast TV and the mindless mayhem of Hollywood films.

8. Upright Citizens Brigade (Comedy Central). South Park gets all the ink, but this new sketch comedy series is more inventive and more obsessed with sex (another cheer for cable!). Each episode interweaves three or four bizarre storylines (e.g., a sleazy guy claiming to have a time machine in his bedroom; an Orthodox Jew who thinks he's figured out a loophole in his religious restrictions; a portrait of Albert Einstein as an obsessive masturbator) and ties them all together by the end of the half-hour. It's an acquired taste, but so was Monty Python.

9. Maximum Bob (ABC). This summer replacement was a rarity on network TV: a series that vividly depicted a place in the United States other than New York and Los Angeles. Based on the books of Elmore Leonard, Maximum Bob starred Beau Bridges as a hanging judge in the Florida Everglades who was surrounded by one of the finest set of eccentrics since Twin Peaks. Viewers were probably turned off by the lame supernatural element in the short-run series (it involved channeling), but the series deserves another chance next year.

10. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB). It's one of the wittier supernatural series, plus it's got a strong female character (Sarah Michelle Gellar) in the lead -- a rarity in a medium where Kirstie Alley and Jenna Elfman are foisted off as symbols of liberation.

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