Some years, the best get better and the bad get worse.
Certainly, the gulf between TV's best and worst shows has seldom been wider than it was in 2002, and the contrast between the achievements and disappointments has seldom been as stark. On the top, you have four closely bunched dramas, Boomtown, 24, Alias and The Wire, that told rich stories while expanding TV's story-telling vocabulary. And on the bottom, you have Anna Nicole Smith and Crime & Punishment, that didn't just weaken the medium, they attacked the bonds that unite society.
In between those dramatic heights and reality depths, the embarrassment of riches and the richly embarrassed, is a vast middle ground. For comedy fans, it was another less than stellar year, though there were bright spots: You can find promise in Life With Bonnie, Less than Perfect and Andy Richter Controls the Universe, though each has yet to find an audience.
Movies and miniseries had a weaker year, as well. But viewers were treated to a fabulous real-life miniseries, The Winter Olympics.
All in all, not a bad 12 months. Here's a catalog of the best and worst of it.
1. Boomtown (NBC). This latest addition to TV's collection of great crime dramas has been praised justifiably for its stylistic flourishes: the differing points of view, the cuts between time and space, the puzzlelike structure that slowly reveals the truth. But no TV show prospers without great writing and acting, and Boomtown has both. Like any series, and particularly any new series, the show has had some uneven installments, but its best episodes, from the sad collapse of a former TV star to the unraveling of a district attorney — have been as good as any you'll see.
2. 24 (Fox). If 24 isn't TV's best show, it's as close to it as one second is to the next on that tension-building clock that defines the series. In May, this crackling spy drama produced one of the year's most indelible scenes: Jack cradling the body of his dead wife. Now in its second season, 24 may be even better, thanks to the developing dynamic between Jack and Nina, so exquisitely played by Kiefer Sutherland and Sarah Clarke. Pulling off this time-trick of a show once was nearly miraculous; twice may count as divine.
3. Alias (ABC). Mother, please! With the addition of a delicious Lena Olin as Sydney's mom, this cleverly complex spy fantasy has morphed into a bitterly funny commentary on the problems of dealing with estranged parents, though I doubt many families have ever attempted to reconnect over a trio of machine guns. Like all great series, Alias offers the thrill of constant surprise, as it gets its characters out of jams they can't escape, and back into jams you couldn't foresee. What it also offers is an unexpected emotional hook, and, in Jennifer Garner, the joy of seeing a young actress turn into a genuine TV star.
4.The Wire (HBO): Though it was the least watched and discussed of HBO's big dramas, The Wire was by far the best. This painfully realistic series about cops and pushers in Baltimore's inner city treated the drug war as a battle of entrenched bureaucracies: he dealers on one side, the cops and politicians on the other, with neither serving society's best interest. Terrifically written and acted, The Wire cast a bright, searing light on corners most of us would rather leave out of sight.
5. Friends (NBC): What a year this has been for Friends, starting with a Joey/Rachel/ Ross romantic triangle that brought new maturity to the characters, and ending with a new deal that will keep those characters maturing longer than we anticipated. And why not, when the characters and actors have lost none of their appeal? We always knew friends were important. In the current sitcom climate, Friends seems indispensable.
6.The Sopranos (HBO): Rebounding from a disappointing season, Sopranos returned with a solid run that focused on the deteriorating marriage of Tony and Carmela. There were low points along the way (Tony moping over an ex-lover's suicide, for one), but the closing string of episodes more than made up for them. Sopranos may no longer be TV's best series, but it set the standard against which those series are judged.
7. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (UPN): Another series on the rebound and back in form. It turns out what was missing last season was not so much a sense of humor as a sense of purpose. No such problem this season, as Buffy once again fights to save the world, and to keep her former high school intact. Along with its spin-off Angel, which is having an exceptional season of its own, Buffy remains TV's best developed and most entertaining fantasy.
8. Gilmore Girls (WB): Few TV series have ever been more entranced by the sheer joy of words, or more adept at exposing its heroine's habit of hiding behind them. As on The West Wing, that unquenchable flow of dialogue can become a bit much (the teenagers, in particular, are beginning to sound too much alike). Still, the glow provided by stars Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel has not faded, and the show's open-hearted embrace of the exaggerated eccentricities of small-town life can still warm a winter's night.
9. American Idol (Fox): The year's biggest surprise hit was a standard-issue talent show with two clever twists: one supremely nasty judge in the studio, and millions of phone-in judges at home. Still, neither gimmick would have mattered if the "talent" part of the talent show hadn't delivered. Did it create idols? Probably not. But it may very well have produced a few stars with staying power.
10.Monk (USA): Innovation isn't everything. Monk is an old-fashioned (and under-budgeted) detective show, with Monk little more than an American Hercule Poirot, ratcheted up from fussy to obsessive-compulsive. Still, there's comfort to be found in old fashions. Add in some witty scripts and a wonderful partnership between Emmy-worthy stars Tony Shalhoub and Bitty Schram, and you get one of the year's most enjoyable hours.
The 10 Worst
1. Anna Nicole Smith (E!): The noxious muck under the bottom of the reality barrel, this loathsome exposure of a life of sloth disgraced all involved. At least Smith can fall back on her detachment from reason as an excuse, but what excuse can there be for E!'s executives? And if this marginal success is the best they can do, how do they remain executives?
2. Crime & Punishment (NBC): A show only a fascist dictator could love. Callously slanted toward the prosecution, this supposed salute to the justice system was actually an attack on its very foundations: Our insistence that people are innocent of crimes until proven guilty, and that punishment is not a form of public entertainment. Thank goodness it was so dull. Imagine the damage it might have done had people felt more inclined to watch.
3. Hidden Hills (NBC): And now, from the network responsible for such recent heights of hilarity as Inside Schwartz and Watching Ellie, comes this suburban sitcom that is just like your life! Assuming, that is, that you and all your friends are repulsive sex addicts. If NBC needs more money for Friends, I can think of an easy cost-saving measure: Find the people who thought Hidden Hills, In-Laws and Good Morning, Miami were funny, and fire them.
4. Dinotopia (ABC): Here's a TV maxim so simple, even a dinosaur could grasp it. Turn a terrible mini-series into a series, and you're almost certain to get a terrible series. And one that is now, thankfully, extinct.
5. Girls Club (Fox): Still, in the long run, it's probably better to have a bad idea than no idea at all, the flaw that doomed this fast-folding legal drama from David E. Kelley. Badly cast and not even minimally conceived, this Club should be used to beat the next executive who agrees to schedule a show without seeing a script.
6. Atomic Twister (TBS): Some movies you love for the title alone. This enchantingly terrible marriage of Twister and The China Syndrome starred a crazed, computer-generated tornado that for some reason seemed to be stalking a nuclear engineer. It's an ill wind, you know.
7. Law & Order (NBC): There's a special place in TV purgatory for producers who destroy once-entertaining shows out of sheer arrogance. Apparently, L&O's ability to withstand the departure of good actors has led producer Dick Wolf to believe his show is impervious to bad ones. It isn't, as anyone who has tried to sit through a scene involving Elisabeth Rohm and Fred Thompson can attest.
8. Presidio Med (CBS): Then there's Presidio Med, which proves once again that though good actors are necessary, they are not sufficient. Indeed, you wouldn't think it was possible for a show starring Dana Delany and Blythe Danner to be so completely devoid of interest, and yet there you have it, a TV hour so mind-numbing, it could be used as an anesthetic.
9. That '80s Show (Fox): This faded copy of That '70s Show was the most ridiculous example of TV's rush to franchise. Yes, one can successfully clone a format, as witness Law & Order and CSI. You can't, however, clone a mere title, nor can you build an entire series around the perceived hilarity of '80s trends and fashions.
10. The Mind of the Married Man (HBO): More like The Mind of HBO, which has become so used to success, it's unable to admit to failure. This terrible show shouldn't have lasted one season, let alone two. If the goal was to test the limit of subscribers' patience, let's hope HBO has found it.
Credit: USA Today
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