The 1996-97 TeeVee Awards
And we just end up chuckling good naturedly at such queries. "Oh, you poor dumb schmoe," we say, clucking our tongues. "Don't you know McLean Stevenson has been dead for well over a year now?"
But we chuckle for another reason -- and no, it's not our naturally buoyant spirits and our unsurpressable joie de vivre. We chuckle because we don't know what the future of TV holds. After all, what do we look like, seers? Long-haired, wild-eyed prophets? A bunch of refugees from Dionne Warwick's Psychic Friends Network?
No, no, a thousand times no. We can't gaze into the future because we're so pre-occupied with the past. All we're good for is a couple of post-mortems about shows you've already seen, giving our seal of approval to the winners and kicking more sand into the face of the losers until they run home, crying to the their mammies.
And in this day and age, that will have to do.
Looking back on the past TV season that was, we can't help but feel it was the usual tedium, interrupted with a few moments of brilliance, but in the end, punctuated with all too much of the same old crap. For all the truly outstanding shows like Homicide, or consistently funny comedies like The Simpsons, there was the usual dross like The Naked Truth, Promised Land, Coach, Walker: Texas Ranger, Grace Under Fire, and whatever reality-based snuff film/variety show the Fox network tricked James Brown into hosting on Sunday nights. Truly, the devil's own six-pack of banality, insipidness and Evil.
Viewers seemed to realize this and continued to turn away from the networks in record numbers. That's the good news... the bad news is that the networks didn't realize this and continued to give us shows starring the likes of Lori Petty, Robbie Benson and -- ye gods -- Pauly Shore.
In the end, if TV seasons were U.S. Presidents, then the just-ended season would be the equivalent of Millard Fillmore. A nice enough guy who meant well and probably had more than his share of moments in the sun. But in the end, he signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, dealing a critical blow to the abolition movement. He was virulently anti-Irish. And his first name was Millard. In the end a double-dog Drag, with a capital "D."
A harsh comparison for this year's TV offerings? Perhaps... but then again, we're not the ones who gave Pauly Shore his own show.
Still, we've come to praise TV, not just to bury it... though we plan on doing plenty of that, too. And what better time to dole out awards to the best and worst of the past year then now... months before those pishers at the Emmy Awards get around to doing it. Oh, we may not have the glitz, the glamour and the accountants from Ernst & Young that the Emmys do. But we also don't have the annoying, epic-length musical numbers... and for that, a grateful nation should rejoice.
So without further ado, we proudly present...
The 1996-97 Best & Worst of TeeVee Awards...
Just making sure you're paying attention.
The point is, there are a lot of great dramatic actors on TV, and we really couldn't go wrong with any of them. So it says something -- what, we're not sure -- that we had no problem at all picking our best dramatic actor: Andre Braugher, Homicide: Life on the Street's coldly rational, supremely confident Frank Pembleton.
Out in places where people drink Starbucks coffee by the bucket, where women toke on cigars, and where everyone drives a Range Rover, it has become fashionable to say that Braugher is the best actor on TV. We here at the ol' TeeVee site would like the record to reflect that for once in our pathetic lives, we were out front setting the trends, and not in back perming our hair like the rest of you sheep. Because for some time now, we've been rattling the cage on Braugher's behalf.
What makes Braugher so good? Well, it's not just the fact that he's on opposite Sonny Crockett: The Late Years, though really, that alone could make a slab of ham look pretty decent.
The simple reality is that when Braugher's on screen, we can't turn away. Whether it's wandering through a crime scene, discoursing with Kyle Secor (also outstanding), or just sitting in for a marriage counseling session, Braugher is the rare actor who can take a scene and make it his. For just one measuring stick, consider some of Braugher's classic moments from the past few years. It reads like a list of TV's classic moments: the exchange in The Box with Steve Buscemi's illiterate white supremacist ("This is what the Jesuits taught me"), the interview of the serial killer with multiple personalities, the episode-long interrogation of Moses Gunn's "Peddler."
And yet this year may have been Braugher's best ever, because this was the year we saw a whole new side to the invincible Pembleton. We saw Pembleton struggle, painfully, to recover from a stroke. We saw his marriage fall to ruins. We saw his partnership with Bayliss come apart. That's a lot for one actor's plate, but Braugher handled it flawlessly. And he still found time to contribute maybe the year's most side-splitting scene, comedy or drama: Pembleton, Munch (the underused Richard Belzer), and Ed Danvers (Zeljko Ivanek) dancing around a suspect's Miranda rights, convincing him he needed his own attorney, not just his boss's. For criminal defense attorneys everywhere, it was an all-too-familiar scene played out at its comic best. For Homicide fans, it was one more affirmation of what they've always known: Andre Braugher is the best actor on television, Dennis Franz be damned.
But then it came time for us to pick the best dramatic actress on TV for the past year... and we came up blank.
Gillian Anderson? Somehow we don't think so. Anderson is fairly credible as Scully, and some of us think she's cute as a button, but "cute" ain't the same as "good actin'," Clem, and sadly, Gillian's open-mouthed, bug-eyed look is getting a bit tired.
Roma Downey? Try again. We can't even sit through 10 minutes of Touched by an Angel without going into insulin shock, and somehow, we suspect Downey's sugary, vacuous performance is to blame.
Christine Lahti? Good God, no. An argument could be made that Lahti is one of the worst scenery-chewers to befoul our Sony Trinatron. If overacting is a sin, then Lahti may one day find herself in the Ninth Circle of Hell, buried up to her neck in shit alongside a hoo-haaa-ing Al Pacino. More than anyone affiliated with Chicago Hope, she's to blame for making a once-great show unwatchable with week after week of insufferable performances.
Well, we soon became desperate, tear-assing through the latest issue of TV Guide and tossing out name after name. Teri Hatcher? Jane Seymour? Jane Pauley? Oh, wait... Dateline NBC is supposedly a news show.
That left some pretty slim pickings. Carey Lowell was good enough on Law & Order, but she didn't exactly make us forget the superb Jill Hennessy. Juliana Marguiles, Melissa Leo and Kim Delaney all put in yeomen's efforts on ER, Homicide, and NYPD Blue, respectively, but did their work really stand out on what are essentially ensemble shows? Not really. And as much as we'd like to bestow untold honors upon Sarah Michelle Gellar, TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that would require us to acknowledge that The WB was capable of airing something watchable -- and that's a sacrifice none of us are prepared to make.
What can you say when the most memorable performance by an actress on a drama this year was lodged by Sherry Stringfield... who abandoned ER mid-season and with her departure, took away our will to live? You say, "what time is that Dateline NBC on again?"
A dearth of good dramatic roles for women on the tube is not a new phenomena. Look at the people who've taken home best dramatic actress Emmys the past few years. Kathy Baker for Picket Fences, Sela Ward for Sisters, Dana Delaney for China Beach -- not exactly a cavalcade of talent. And the folks who dole out Emmys got it in their heads to give Tyne Daly a best supporting actress statue for what was basically a guest appearance in a show that nobody watched, so thin was the talent pool that year.
Well, we won't be party to this sham. To the actresses who ply their wares on TV dramas week after week, we can only quote Seinfeld's beloved Soup Nazi -- no soup for you!
So how did it come to pass that Grammer got his show, one of the best shows on TV, stolen out from under him?
The answer is that rat bastard David Hyde Pierce, a brilliant comic actor who manages to outdo Grammer at every turn. His hilarious Niles is the heart and soul of Frasier -- while Grammer chews the scenery and Frasier Crane's enormous ego lurches from one self-inflicted travesty to another, Hyde Pierce's Niles Crane balances his failing marriage to off-screen ice queen Maris with his lust for live-in physical therapist Daphne Moon (Jane Leeves).
Or to put it another way, after having spent more than ten years watching Frasier Crane, we still don't find him nearly as three-dimensional and appealing a character as the one David Hyde Pierce has created in a fraction of that time.
It's lucky for Kelsey Grammer that he got out of the Betty Ford Clinic as soon as he did. If Hyde Pierce had had more than two episodes as the star of the series, Kelsey would've returned to discover he was once again a supporting player on a series, this one called Niles.
But then came this year, and we didn't like what we saw. Oh, mind you, not with Helen Hunt, who did her usual bang-up job. Our beef laid elsewhere, with the rest of Mad About You. Paul Reiser, always the weak link in this two-link chain, went from mildly amusing to really annoying. The chemistry was lacking. And that infernal baby! It was like dumping sugar in the show's tank.
So we looked elsewhere, for other worthy candidates.
First we cast our eye towards Seinfeld heiress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who in addition to having really nice hair is now very, very rich. But like the rest of Seinfeld, we found the would-be Elaine a little too exaggerated, too hammy, too... over the top. And we've just never cottoned to over the top. Not in the past, not now, and not next year when it takes the literal form of Tim Curry. Brrrr....
Next we looked to NewsRadio's Maura Tierney, a fine actress who, if you needed any affirmation of her abilities, managed to share screen time earlier this year with Jim Carrey and not get chewed up. On NewsRadio, Tierney is part of television's best comedic ensemble... which is also her achilles' heel. To the extent NewsRadio has a straight man (or woman, as it were), it's Tierney. And while straight might get you a ticket to paradise anywhere except on the cast of Ellen, it's just not the stuff that best comedic actresses are made of.
After that, it was a pretty dry field. The Friends troika of Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, and Courteney Cox? Like the rest of the show, their best work was two years ago. Cybill Shepard? Brett Butler? C'mon. Candice Bergen? Even she doesn't think she's worth an award. Tea Leoni? If we need someone to play breathy, Tea's our gal. But best comic actress? No. Lea Thompson? Sure, she's okay, but no great shakes. Fran Drescher? It's actress; you don't get awards for playing yourself. Unhappily Ever After's Nikki Cox? Well, she's built like an X-rated fantasy, and she wears those inky-dink outfits, and she has that fantastic mane of red hair, and if there were one woman on TV we could....
Uh, we seem to have gotten off track.
So that's where we stood. The all-around brilliance of Helen Hunt even in a down year for Mad About You versus Unhappily Ever After's sarcastic, yet voluptuous vixen, Nikki Cox. Hunt versus Cox. NBC versus The WB. All-around brilliance versus sarcastic, yet voluptuous. Brilliance... voluptuous... brilliance... voluptuous...
It's Hunt. Even we can't stoop to that level.
As it turned out, that was the problem. We weren't lacking for candidates.
Bad comedies? NBC, alone, threatened to send us to the nuthouse, what with the dizzying number of choices it presented. Would it be the shit filling in Warren Littlefield's Thursday night oreo cookie: Suddenly Susan, The Single Guy, and Fired Up? Or maybe the Monday night dynamic duo of Foxworthy and Rhodes? How about Wings or Boston Common? And what about Men Behaving Badly?
We know, we know. What about Men Behaving Badly?
The options outside the peacock were equally mind-numbing. From Fox, we had Pauly, Lush Life, and the wheezing Married... With Children. From CBS, we had Dave's World and the wheezing Murphy Brown. And from ABC, we had the wheezing Coach, the wheezing Roseanne and Ellen, a show that wasn't wheezing but one which successfully answered the question, "Because she admitted what everybody knew, does that now make her funny?" Answer: no. Throw in the entire lineups from WB and UPN, and what do you have? A cauldron boiling over with stink, that's what.
Worst actress presented the same problem. Brooke Shields? That's quite some feat she pulled off, getting acted off the screen by Judd Nelson. Ally Walker? Sure. But then again, if it hadn't been for her crossed eyes and tilted head, someone might actually have made a bigger deal about her show being remarkably lame. ("I understand the criminal mind" -- Right. She understands the criminal mind like we understand hummus.) Christine Lahti? Under ordinary circumstances, a fine selection. Her high-strung, overwrought delivery made us want to rip our ears off. And, of course, we can't forget Lori Petty, who just by virtue of her existence is a candidate for eternal damnation.
But the more we surveyed the wreckage, the more one idea took root in our minds, the more one conviction seized hold of our necks and refused to let go. Like Darth Vader himself, it squeezed and squeezed and squeezed until we could no longer deny its force. It just seemed like the right thing to do.
So, for service way above and beyond the call of subtlety, we deem Sharon Lawrence and her sitcom, Fired Up, worst actress and worst comedy of the 1996-97 season.
How bad was Lawrence? There are any number of ways to describe her clown act, but the best way is simply this: since she debuted early this year as a newly-axed executive, we have yet to meet a person who can mention the ersatz Mrs. Sipowicz without mentioning the word "headache." And only once have they not also said the word "aspirin."
Lawrence kicked comedic nuance until it was black and blue, thumbed her nose at subtlety, and pissed on the corpse of funny. And those were her better moments. At her worst, with the bad throttle slammed wide open, Lawrence's hammy posturing and jackhammer delivery reawoke long-suppressed memories of MTV irritant Jenny McCarthy -- who coincidentally has also been knighted by the kingmaker Littlefield. If this isn't a warning beacon for NBC stockholders, we don't know what is.
As if parallels to a talentless game show hostess with the personality of a punch in the nose aren't bad enough, Lawrence multiplied her sins by transmitting her virus to the rest of the cast, a band of idiots that took one look at their leading lady barreling through the china and apparently decided, hell, we go too! Jonathan Banks, delightful as Wiseguy's dour Frank McPike, embarrassed himself, his family, and really, Ken Wahl -- not an easy thing to do -- with his growling, one-note letch. It was a performance that made one long for the nuanced work of, say, Shadoe Stevens. Special kudos too to Leah Remini (Saved By the Bell, Living Dolls, and the Ray Sharkey swan song, Man in the Family), who's making a career out of TV cow pies.
At the start of the TV season, wise people predicted it would take a whale of a performance -- a big, fat, stinky whale -- for someone to outdo the thrice-damned Lori Petty. To Sharon Lawrence, we have only one thing to say: congratulations. Now go away.
This person, this scar on the face of humanity, should have his Screen Actor's Guild card torn up in front of him. No, he should be given a hundred paper cuts with the card. Then we'll toss him in a swimming pool filled with lemon juice. Then we tear up the card. And burn it. And shoot it into orbit.
In the state of California, just committing murder isn't enough to merit receiving the death penalty. But if there are "special circumstances" -- that the murder was committed at the same time as other felonies were being committed, or that there were multiple murders -- then the death penalty can apply.
Pauly Shore starred in such execrable films as "Son-In-Law," "Bio-dome," and "Encino Man." He used to have a gag-inducing show on MTV.
We say, give him the chair.
And never let it be said we stood silent.
Huh, what? Oh yes, Chicago Hope.
To say that Chicago Hope is irritating is like saying that Michael Jordan can play ball. Hope is the Great Rash of irritation, a once-proud show that has been reduced to chaffing and gnawing at its audience to get attention. You want irritation? Try storylines that seem to revolve exclusively around the principle, "How stupid can we make our characters?" The main victim is Lahti's Dr. Kate Austin, a woman who has in the past kidnapped her child, killed a patient by sewing her up with a clamp inside, and thumbed her nose at transplant protocol, nearly killing a would-be donor. As incompetent as Austin usually is, it's a wonder how she could be chief of her neighborhood watch, let alone chief of surgery.
Or maybe you're the type who gets irritated seeing resources wasted. If so, you've come to the right place, because Chicago Hope's use of its cast is mind-boggling. The worst actor is the lead, the least able actors get the most screen time. Meanwhile, interesting thespians like Adam Arkin and Peter Berg wander aimlessly through the halls.
The pink jackass in this covey of white mice is Lahti, an Oscar winner, an Emmy nominee, and by all appearances, a proud graduate of the Shannen Doherty School of Acting. No line is too simple, no comment too banal, no scene too mundane for Lahti to act as though her character bears the weight of the world. Chris, babe, not every line must be delivered like you're begging for clemency.
Not quite as annoying as Lahti, but fairly annoying on their own, are the human blanks: Jayne Brook, Thomas Gibson, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Mark Harmon. Or, as you may know them, four actors who exist so the writers can plop them in one pile of goop after another. How little do their characters bring? Consider this: if they were all, say, tossed in a wood chipper and replaced next year, would anyone know the difference? Damn right they wouldn't. Which makes it all the more bewildering why they get so much screen time.
Or maybe you're the sort who gets irritated when others are blind to their own faults. In that case, Chicago Hope is Helen Keller. It has no idea how far it has fallen. As its repeated references indicate (almost every episode this year has included one mention of "County" -- as in "We can't compete in this market... I know, County has a 35 percent share"), Hope still thinks it's in ER's class, a competitor or an equal, if you will. At one point that may have been true. But that time ended when Peter MacNicol and Mandy Patinkin walked out the door. Nowadays, Chicago Hope is a competitor of E/R, all right -- Elliott Gould's E/R, for medical farce.
And who can argue with him? King of the Hill is one of the most disarmingly human shows on TV (which says a lot about TV) -- and it's also side-splittingly funny. What other show can you see a father punish his son for smoking by making the boy smoke a carton of cigarettes and then criticizing him for smoking like "Eurotrash"? Or an episode about a boy's perverse attraction to a mannequin head? Or a young woman's travials at beauty school? Or even an episode about a man's inability to defecate?
Any other show would turn those situations into something crass and mean-sprited, but creator Mike Judge has infused these cartoon characters with (dare we say it?) dignity. Which is a lot more than can be said for, say, The Nanny. Honorable Mention: We must admit, that most shows based on movies receive an instant kiss of death from us. So do most shows on The WB or UPN.
Imagine our surprise when out of the crappy film and the crappy network sprung the definitely un-crappy Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a clever, action-filled, and engaging show. (Not to mention that star Sarah Michelle Gellar is sure easy on the eyes.)
Our only problems with the show? First, uneven quality -- the best episodes have been ones in which creator and executive producer Joss Whedon has been involved with the writing. Second, they haven't used bitch-queen Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) nearly enough. But we nitpick.
We keep waiting for the inevitable drop-off, as a show's writers run out of ideas and start letting the show stagnate. But this show, even with its team of writers brought over from the final years of Cheers, remains solid as a rock.
Getting a solid group of supporting characters and a crack team of actors to play them is a crap shoot; some days, you get Cheers or even Friends, and other days you get Wings or The Single Guy.
The supporting cast on Frasier is as solid as they come, and that's probably why the show hasn't gotten stale. David Hyde Pierce steals the show as Frasier's brother Niles, who manages to be more neurotic than Frasier, but in strikingly different ways. Jane Leeves has managed to turn a laughable caricature (ditzy British live-in who thinks she's psychic) into a three-dimensional character who can carry a gag all by herself. And John Mahoney has taken the role of the grumpy old father and added the intelligence and dignity that the character logically should have.
Oh, and did we mention that the show is fall-down funny?
Honorable Mention: In a split ballot, NBC's NewsRadio was just beaten by Frasier as best comedy. A bit more of an acquired taste than Frasier, NewsRadio is less conventional and takes more risks. Sometimes it succeeds brilliantly, sometimes it doesn't, but it's always worth watching. Why NBC hasn't realized this and given it a proper launch on Tuesday night is beyond us; we can only hope its position this fall between Mad About You and Frasier will give it a chance to find the viewers it so richly deserves.
Not much on television is amazing. While most of the effluvia jetting out of the tube is content to distract or numb you for 48 minutes an hour -- and more often than not, it fails at that small goal -- NBC's Homicide uses the same time and the same tools to craft the most daring, original, creative drama on television today. Bland superlatives do not do the show justice.
Any of the elements that go into making a single hour of Homicide -- writing, acting, plotting, camera work, music -- could stand alone in any other drama and shine, but the combination produces something that rarely comes out of the Trinitron: something we look forward to.
Where else on television can you find a show that is willing to show children killed by a madman? A good man who has lost his faith in God? Sex in a coffin? A medical examiner piecing together a shotgunned skull? Mixing occasionally brutal reality with enough moral authority and real-life quirks to actually illustrate a point, Homicide's writing is subtle, clever and great.
Where else can you find characters not defined as characters, but as actual people? While superficially similar shows like NYPD Blue and Law & Order present us each week with well-acted archetypes, the stars of Homicide dig into the eccentricities and foibles of real life, to move even the failed shows and occasionally soapy plot twists into a world that we recognize.
Where else can you find Nine Inch Nails, Belly, and Soul Coughing not only used in the background, but integrated into the show as seamless appropriate soundtrack? Where else can you find grand, sweeping cinematography intercut with edgy, handheld camerawork?
Where else can you find anything even remotely approaching Homicide?
Nowhere. It's the best there is.
Given the unceremonious way CBS dumped it after two showings in the fall and then ran it into the ground in the new year (replacing its final episode with a rerun of Walker, Texas Ranger), we can guess that few other TV producers will dare to create the work of art that Paul Haggis shared with us, ever so briefly, this past year. It's back to the formula, back to the paycheck, back to what we've come to expect from TV -- mediocre junk.
So farewell, EZ Streets. We shall never see your like again.
THE YOU SHOULD HAVE STAYED WHERE EVERYBODY KNEW YOUR NAME AWARD: To Ted Danson and Rhea Pearlman, who saw their highly-touted shows Ink and Pearl come crashing down in a failure of Shelly Long-esque proportions.
Honorable Mention: To George Wendt, whose character could be written out of the lackluster mid-season replacement The Naked Truth by the time the show returns in the fall.
THE CURSE OF WINGS CONTINUES AWARD: To Thomas Haden Church of Ned & Stacey and Farrah Forke of Mr. Rhodes, who saw their desperate attempts to escape the smothering blandness of Wings meet with the cruel bitch goddess of cancellation in the same year that the sands of time finally ran out on the cast of human blanks that populated the lackluster NBC sitcom.
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