TV Thoughts

April 15, 2004
A thought by James Berardinelli

There's a reason I don't review television shows - because I don't watch much TV. Part of it has to do with time constraints. I spend enough time sitting in movie theaters, traveling to and fro, and writing reviews that taking an hour off here and there often seems like a luxury I can't afford. Nevertheless, if I like something, I'll watch it. This isn't the pre-VCR/DVR Dark Ages, when the only way to watch a program was to be sitting on the couch when it was broadcast. But the main reason I spend so little time in front of the boob tube is the lack of compelling material. On average, I probably watch six hours of non-sports programming per week, at least half of which is on (of all things) the Food Channel (I'll admit it - I'm an Alton Brown junkie). The networks have so little to offer that it's almost depressing to consider their schedules.

Hands down, the best thing on TV is "24." It's "Appointment TV," worth watching every week (or at least every week it's on). I'm somewhat amazed the show has made it to a third season, and, although the writing isn't where it was two years ago, it's still significantly better than anything else available over the airwaves. One has to wonder, however, about the lunacy exhibited by programmers when a series that relies upon momentum is taken off for a month so that double-length episodes of the ghastly "American Idol" can be shown. The argument is that since "24" has only 24 episodes to fit into a 30-week season, there need to be breaks. But why not start it in mid-December instead, or, if that's not feasible, at least parcel out two-week breaks throughout the season? Taking the show off for four weeks results in casual viewers losing interest and perhaps forgetting that the program is on at all.

The other network TV show that I watch is "NYPD Blue," but that's because I have gotten comfortable with it over the years. It's not as edgy or as well-written as it used to be, but Dennis Franz is still on the job, having outlasted David Caruso, Jimmy Smits, and Rick Schroeder. "NYPD Blue" is due to leave the airwaves in mid-2005. I'll be sad to see it go, but the time has probably come.

I do not watch any of the umpteen "Law and Orders" or "CSIs." There will probably come time in the not too distant future when 50% of prime time programming is comprised of these two franchises. Overkill will eventually make them extinct, but that could take a while. There's nothing terribly remarkable about either show. The writing is mediocre and the acting, while good for television, isn't memorable. If I'm really bored, I might watch a piece of an episode, but the program is rarely compelling enough to hold me through a commercial break.

I don't watch any sit-coms, because that's the genre wherein stupidity reigns. Well-written comedy shows are a rarity. In my lifetime, there have been "All in the Family," "Taxi," "The Cosby Show," "Cheers," and "Seinfeld." And, although I may have a soft spot for programs like "I Dream of Jeannie," "Happy Days," and "Three's Company," I am forced to acknowledge that elevating any of these to a higher pinnacle than that of the guilty pleasure is to commit an injustice.

The average sit-com in 2004 exists somewhere between inane and putrid, with godawful representing the mean and median. So the next time I refer to a motion picture as having a "sit-com feel," recognize that this is not a compliment. After seeing a preview of an episode of "Will and Grace" featuring John Cleese, I decided to give it a try. Good thing I have a strong stomach. There wasn't a single amusing moment in the 22-odd minute running length. I was acutely embarrassed for Cleese; his participation in "Will and Grace" is surely the low point of a fruitful career. As for "Friends," the less said, the better. Once, it might have been clever, but those days are long past. Now, it's just an overhyped program with a cast populated by stars who have an inflated sense of their own importance. It should have ended at least a season or two ago.

A reflection upon my TV viewing habits would not be complete without a few comments about "The Sopranos." Once, this was the best show to be found on television, but time has led to an erosion of the series' creative base. Originally, way back in season #1, creator David Chase stated that "The Sopranos" was a three-year project. Then, when HBO started waving around stacks of money, it became four years, then five, then six. At the same time, it grew clear that Chase didn't know what to do with 35 extra episodes. So, after two brilliant seasons, "The Sopranos" began a slid towards mediocrity in year #3. By the mid-point of year #4, it was a glorified soap opera, with a silly sub-plot that had viewers wondering if Tony was going to become a card-carrying member of PETA. Season #5 has started off stronger, but it remains to be seen whether "The Sopranos" can come close to regaining its previous form. (And we'll have to wait two years to find out whether Chase has the guts to end "The Sopranos" the way it should be concluded - with Tony's death.)

Once, people used to justify the limited quality of TV by arguing something along the lines of, "What do you expect for free?" But, unless you're a cable/satellite holdout, television is no longer free, nor is it even cheap. A $100 per month bill is common. And for that, what do we get? Every time I sit down to write a check to the cable company, I'm reminded of the phrase commonly attributed to P.T. Barnum about there being a sucker born every minute. And, when it comes to television, there are millions of us.