Wednesday, December 15, 2004

There are two kinds of TV critics.

The old-school kind despises TV, considering it a "vast wasteland" only occasionally interrupted by an oasis of quality. These critics tend to be a bit older, like Tom Shales; if they grew up with TV, they were no doubt taught it was one step down from comic books.

The new breed loves TV - its reach, its promise, its vitality as a popular art - and feels betrayed when corporations or mercenary hacks conspire to deny its possibilities. They tend to be younger and were weaned on TV - if not on "Sesame Street," then on classic cartoons and sitcom reruns.

Ten years into my tenure as the Daily Herald's TV/radio columnist - which makes me, unapologetically, dean of Chicago TV critics - it should come as no surprise to anyone that I consider myself securely among the latter group. Even after a decade of reviewing oftentimes reprehensible shows under the motto, "I watch so you don't have to," I love television and love this job.

In what other gig can you go from presidential politics to symphony orchestras, from the corrupting influence of global conglomerates to the liberating power of the individual viewer, from a single mother raising a daughter to a mob boss beheading an arch rival, from the evening news to cartoons, and from the reality of Sept. 11 to the ridiculously profound idea that the government is protecting a vast alien conspiracy?
And that's space aliens, not itinerant farm workers.

I grew up with Ray Rayner, "Bozo's Circus" and Bill Jackson, "Out of the Inkwell," Warner Bros. shorts and reruns of "I Love Lucy." I grew to love "Laugh-In" and "All in the Family," "Harry-O" and "Hill Street Blues," "Saturday Night Live" and "SCTV." So when I suggest that the last decade has been the best in TV history, I hope it means something.

Trust me, it's not a sunny, optimistic disposition that prompts me to insist that TV has been better than ever over the last 10 years. To be sure, while I can point to "The Sopranos," "Homicide: Life on the Street" and, yes, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" as among the best TV dramas ever, joined by "Seinfeld" and "The Simpsons" on the comedy side, the last 10 years have seen plenty of bad TV too: Jerry Springer, both as talk-show host and news commentator; people eating bugs and selling each other out for money; desperate singles in search of their "soul mates"; not to mention"Teletubbies."

Yet, as TV has sometimes gotten far worse than anything Newton Minow saw in his "vast wasteland," it's also gotten far better. Pushed by premium cable, the dramas have become more realistic and, therefore, more believable and better, while the comedies, at their best, have pushed formula beyond its logical conclusion to find new laughs where no one suspected them.

Yes, the last few years have been more difficult with the rise of so-called reality TV. If push came to shove, I might have to point to the '90s as the best decade in TV history. That way, I can add "Northern Exposure" and "Twin Peaks" while ignoring reality TV entirely.

Yet I can't complain about the last 10 years - and neither can any viewer. In the words of Michael Moore on "The Awful Truth": I control TV; TV doesn't control me. It's never been easier to tune out the dreck and find something good on the dial. Just look at my 10 best shows of the last decade:

1) "The Simpsons"
2) "The Sopranos"
3) "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"
4) "Seinfeld"
5) "Homicide: Life on the Street"
6) "Frasier"
7) "Beavis and Butt-head"
7a) "South Park"
8) "The Wire"
9) "The X-Files"
10) "Everybody Loves Raymond"

Consider that's just the obvious major-network prime-time series. It doesn't take into account fringe shows like "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," "The Late Show With David Letterman," "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" or "The Awful Truth." It overlooks miniseries like "From the Earth to the Moon," "The Corner" and "Angels in America," British imports like "Cracker" and "Prime Suspect," and the Canadian "The Newsroom" and "More Tears."

Even with the inclusion of "B&B" and "South Park," it slights cartoons like "The Maxx" on MTV and "Samurai Jack" on the Cartoon Network, along with "The Powerpuff Girls," "The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius" and "Dexter's Laboratory." It has no room for local favorites like "JBTV," "Wild Chicago," "Chicago Stories," "Image Union" and "Check, Please!"

It mourns the evanescent existence of "Wonderfalls," "Andy Richter Controls the Universe," "Undeclared," "Pasadena," "The Tick" and "Tarzan."
Yet what my list does suggest is that - for all the sameness and conformity - prime-time TV can still shock, can still be revolutionary. Let's look at the shows one by one.

"The Simpsons" did more than any other program to satirize and criticize the very consumer culture that created it. It also packed more laughs into more episodes - 300 and counting - than any comedy in TV history. It is now producing writers who grew up on its lampoon sensibility, so it may well live forever.

"The Sopranos" took TV where only feature films had gone before, into a tangled Mafia family rife with sex, violence and psychiatric dysfunction. From that material it drew emotionally powerful stories.

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" produced the best single show of the decade on teenage sexuality (Angel beds Buffy and instantly turns into someone else), the best shows on Columbine ("Earshot" and "Graduation Day," both filmed with prescience beforehand), the best show on feminist free speech ("Hush") and the best Sept. 11 allegory ("Grave"). In dealing with vampires and demons, it never got so ridiculous it didn't comment in some pointed way on the real world.

"Seinfeld," the "show about nothing," deconstructed the situation comedy and used unlikable but indelible characters to put it back together. The season when Jerry and George resolved to be "men" and leave their sitcom selves behind - ending with the death of George's fiancee in a letter-licking mishap - was a primer on the sitcom form.

"Homicide" brought new realism to the police procedural, especially with the interrogations in "the box." At the same time, the season when Pembleton and Bayliss debated the existence of God all year long - ending with a meditation on vengeance starring Bruno Kirby - was TV's best handling of that taboo topic.

"Frasier" proved that TV could do a comedy with sophistication - a bold premise in the era of Pauly Shore and Adam Sandler. On the other hand, both "Beavis and Butt-head" and "South Park" went the other way into stupidity so profound they indicted the entire culture. (Both made expressive use of animation, too.)

"The Wire" went even beyond "Homicide" into cop-show realism. TV for the DVD generation, it had to be seen and reseen - the way a great novel needs to be reread - just to be understood.

"The X-Files" is the most erratic series on this list, but its eerie conspiracy theories and prevailing paranoia did more than any other program to cut through the comfortable assurance TV uses to sell commercial goods. Darin Morgan's "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" and "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" were among the best writing done for television.

"Everybody Loves Raymond" took the family sitcom places it had never been before - into pure hatred and bedroom manipulation - yet somehow kept it funny. "Marie's Sculpture" and "Bad Moon Rising" found new laughs in sexuality.
And that only begins to suggest what was out there, such as the even more caustic comedy of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and the sweet if less-than-wholesome "Gilmore Girls."

Notice how many of these series were responses to those that had come before, the way "Homicide" and "The Wire" tear the cover off "Hill Street Blues," or how "Raymond" undoes every family sitcom from "Father Knows Best" to "The Cosby Show." So how do they stack up side by side with the titans of TV? On the occasion of my 10th anniversary, here are my 10 best shows of all time.

1) "The Simpsons"
2) "The Honeymooners"
3) "The Sopranos"
4) "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"
5) "Homicide"
6) "The Twilight Zone"
7) "The Dick Van Dyke Show"
8) "Seinfeld"
9) "I Love Lucy"
10) "Northern Exposure"

As a critic, I've always boasted I have classic tastes. That's why I favor the refined perfection of "Dick Van Dyke" over the anarchic comic theory of "Seinfeld" (if just barely). At the same time, I've always maintained that TV does comedy better than drama - it's better suited to reruns and, not coincidentally, to advertising - which is why the top two spots both go to comedies.

Yet at some point the sheer scope of "The Simpsons" comes to overwhelm the one-season brilliance of the original 39 episodes of "The Honeymooners." And if "The Sopranos," "Buffy" and "Homicide" are the very best TV drama has to offer, that's not to say they won't soon be topped - especially the way TV drama is going.

As good as they are, I think there will soon be even better TV dramas to pick from, shows that take the impact of HBO's "Wit" and "Angels in America" and sustain it over seasons. Who knows, "The Sopranos" may yet reach that peak itself when it concludes in 2006.
What seems undeniable to me is that TV is, yes, better than ever - maybe not in the last year or so, but certainly over the last 10 or 15 years. Of my all-time list, half are from the last 10 years; add the rest of the '90s and it becomes a majority of six. There are two from the '50s, two from the '60s and none from the '70s and '80s - decades when, relatively speaking, the networks dominated and settled into formula entertainment before cable challenged the status quo.

But hey, I'll be the first to admit I'm not an objective observer. What can I say? Even after 10 years on the job, I love TV as much as ever.

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