From the decapitated head of a mobster on The Sopranos to the angelic voice of a waitress-turned-pop princess on American Idol, television spiralled through another weird and wonderful year in 2002.
Herewith, a look at some of the more important trends and stories from the passing year:
THE HEAVYWEIGHT RETURNS: When The Sopranos finally returned this fall — after an excruciating 16-month hiatus — fans had absorbed more than a year of cultural mythologizing. So entering Season 4, the biggest challenge facing The Sopranos was simply torqued expectations. Not surprisingly, reaction to the season was mixed. Some called it brilliant, some called it uneven and a few even called it boring. But creator David Chase is not painting-by-conventional-numbers. If, as he has indicated, next season will be the last, the narrative blood on this year's canvas should be seen as transitional. The storylines — Adriana's forced deal with the Feds, Tony's break from therapy with Dr. Melfi, Christopher's tortured battle with smack, the threat of a family war, Carmela's final epiphany, her raw emotional implosion and atomic separation from Tony — are all harbingers of a looming Greek-cum-Shakespearean tragedy that promises to make Season 5 one of the most significant events in television history.
THE UPSTART: The biggest surprise during the 2002 Emmy Awards was Michael Chiklis's victory in the Best Actor category. Well, maybe it wasn't a surprise to fans of The Shield, the gritty cop drama in which Chiklis plays rogue detective Vic Mackey. By turns savage, endearing, ruthless and nurturing, Mackey is the most nuanced, complex and compelling anti-hero television has seen in years. On the entire other side of TV cop spectrum, let's hear it for Monk, Tony Shaloub's role of a lifetime as the obsessive-compulsive Sherlockian sleuth of the Toronto-shot cop dramedy.
THE MOST INTERESTING MOTHER-DAUGHTER RELATIONSHIP ON TV: Gilmore Girls — both Lorelai's with Rory and, in its own twisted way, Emily's with Lorelai. Not to mention Carole King and daughter Louise Goffin's harmonizing on the remake theme song, "Where You Lead." Most Interesting Father-Son Relationship: Treat Williams and Toronto-born Gregory Smith on Everwood.
THE NEW JESTERS: The sitcom, according to conventional wisdom, is nearly dead. And while there is some truth to this, a more penetrating gaze at 2002 yields another, less obvious truth: The conventional sitcom is mutating. When Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond eventually cease breathing and assume immortality in syndication heaven, the age of the "Great 20th-Century Sitcom" will also come to a close. But relatively new series such as Curb Your Enthusiasm, Life With Bonnie, Andy Richter Controls The Universe, The Bernie Mac Show and Scrubs are rewriting the old rules. Curb Your Enthusiasm — starring kvetching Seinfeld co-creator Larry David as himself — uses no formal scripts. Yet it's one of the most caustic, hilarious shows of 2002. Life With Bonnie similarly employs both improvisation and cameos by famous friends. Andy Richter Controls The Universe almost didn't return for its sophomore season, yet its delicate mixture of sight gags, solipsistic fantasy sequences and quirky, spot-on workplace observation make it one of television's smartest, most subversive shows. Bernie Mac is the anti-Cosby. And Scrubs is consistently clever and time-worthy. Together, these shows are tapping into, and pumping out, the irony that never did vanish after 9/11.
THE STUMBLING GIANT: The West Wing, which moved into its fourth season this year, serves as the biggest disappointment in 2002. Creator Aaron Sorkin remains one of the medium's top writers, but at times this season The West Wing has buckled under his preachy, self-righteous and sanctimonious tone. It has been swallowed by its own self-indulgent sermons and, as a result, the slide in ratings has been more dramatic than the actual storylines.
BEST COMEBACKS AFTER A SLUMP: Friends and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. And David Caruso in CSI: Miami.
THE ACTION/ADVENTURE THROWBACKS: To those who complained about the non-closure on The Sopranos, maybe you should be watching 24 and Alias. Both of these dramas started promising second seasons in 2002. The real-time gimmick on 24 has become seamless this season, giving way to the fast-paced narrative that has counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer in the midst of another harrowing day. The threat of a nuclear bomb planted in Los Angeles is this season's broad arc. But each frenetic hour is crammed with unsuspecting twists and edge-of-your-seat turns, each tick-tock minute serving as a shot of undiluted adrenaline. In an Age of Distraction, intensity is tough to sustain, yet 24 never disappoints. Less intense, but equally compelling, is Alias, featuring television's most riveting female lead: Jennifer Garner as double-agent Sydney Bristow. This year, Sydney's treacherous mother surfaced and the plot deepened while retaining all the cool kick of its stiletto-heeled origins.
THE INNOVATOR: Boomtown seems lost amid the cacophony of new and existing crime dramas. Which is unfortunate, given the fresh narrative techniques deployed by creator Graham (son of Elwy) Yost. Deconstructing a crime through multiple points of view, slicing across time and space, is no easy feat, especially when each show features sharp writing, inspired direction and cohesive performances from a top-tier cast.
EVERYBODY'S 15 MINUTES ARE UP: Sadly, 2002 proved that "reality television" is here to stay. Sure, Survivor: Thailand may have been the worst instalment yet for the franchise, but two other shows filled the "reality" void. The undisputed hit of the summer was American Idol, which started in June with hundreds of starry-eyed, tone-deaf teens warbling and competing for a $1 million U.S. recording contract and zap of ephemeral fame. As the show whittled down contestants, it developed organically, attracting increases in viewers each week, while generally dominating the 18-49 demo and, thus, the zeitgeist. Acid-tongued judge Simon Cowell was a refreshing and ongoing cultural talking point. And winner Kelly Clarkson immediately shot up the charts with her aptly titled single, "A Moment Like This." Meanwhile, The Bachelor aired two solid, if critically maligned, series in 2002. First bachelor, Alex Michel, winked his way through 25 prospective brides and ended up with giggly Amanda Marsh. On the second instalment, bachelor Aaron Buerge proposed to Helene Eksterowicz. The fact that neither couple has yet to actually get married just proves that, for the participants, like the viewers, the real fun is in the chase.
THE BEST OVERALL CAST: Six Feet Under.
THE FIRST FAMILY OF DYSFUNCTION: Ozzy, Sharon, Jack, and Kelly. In 2002, the show that was talked about more than it was actually watched was The Osbournes. MTV's hit has now invaded most of the free world, where viewers often watch with open-mouth, full-faced smirks as cameras follow the former shock-rocker and his brooding brood. To dismiss The Osbournes as an inane, profanity-laced visual exercise in schadenfreude is to miss the point entirely. Most celebrities remain ensconced within their glossy, impenetrable fortresses. But week after week, the Osbourne family (less eldest daughter Aimee) is laid bare, the trappings of its peculiar celebrity unmasked. And the result is as disturbing as it is darkly mesmerizing.
THE MOST MEMORABLE MURDER SCENE: Made-man Ralphie Cifaretto gets his skull pounded into the floor by an enraged Tony on The Sopranos and is later dismembered in a bathtub before his toupee-less head is hastily shoved into a bowling bag. That, and Adriana's puppy. And that crucifixion on CSI: Miami.
THE BEST NEW CANADIAN SHOW: Menon: The Eleventh Hour. Salem: Puppets Who Kill.
FOND FAREWELLS: This is the year we said goodbye to The X-Files, Once And Again, Ally McBeal, Felicity, Providence (maybe) and Rosie O'Donnell. On a more personal level, there was the final death of South Park's Kenny (although he is apparently coming back), Will Ferrell and Anna Gasteyer bailing Saturday Night Live, Rob Lowe leaving The West Wing, Gil Bellows quitting The Agency, Terry Farrell being bounced off Becker and Kim Delaney announcing her departure from CSI: Miami. Cancelled almost right out of box: That Was Then, Bram & Alice, Girls Club, MDs, Push Nevada, Robbery Homicide Division, Haunted and The Grubbs, which was actually cancelled while it was still in the box. Also ...
UP, DOWN AND AWAY: Apparently, every TV superhero shares a common arch-foe — the network executive. In a year where comics-inspired movies have enjoyed a major renaissance, the TV hero can't seem to get off the ground. Fox's super-spoof The Tick never really had a prayer, while The WB grounded the Birds Of Prey before they spread their wings. Only the Vancouver-shot Smallville has avoided cancellation kryptonite. In other genre news, Joss Whedon's sci-fi western, Firefly, has been dry-docked, and the Dinotopia spin-off series was almost immediately blasted back to the Stone Age.
TOP TEN REASONS TO LOOK FORWARD TO 2003:
The Sean Cullen Show: Pee-Wee's Playhouse meets It's Garry Shandling's Show.
An American In Canada: The pilot won a Gemini, and we hear the actual series is even better.
Keen Eddie: An American-in- London cop comedy that combines elements of The Guardian, Hack and Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels.
Kingpin: The Latino Sopranos.
A new season of Six Feet Under: We're pretty sure that Nate will pull through. But then what?
More unedited Osbournes and Sopranos on free TV: Only in Canada, eh? Pity.
Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore reunited in The Gin Game on PBS.
The remake of The Music Man with Matthew Broderick and Kristin Chenoweth.
Queens Supreme: Oliver Platt's back and on the bench in snappy new courtroom dramedy, backed by an all-star ensemble including Kristen Johnson, Robert Loggia and Sopranos grads Anabella Sciorra and Vincent "Big Pussy" Pastore.
Steve Martin returning to host the Oscars: Billy Crystal is tired of doing it — almost as tired as we were of watching him — and no matter how many costume changes she goes through, Whoopi Goldberg is still Whoopi Goldberg.
Credit: Toronto Star
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