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Enjoy the Show

Almost every time I tell somebody that I write for a Web site about television, I'm asked: "So, what's your favorite TV show?"

That's a tougher question than you might think.

See, there's a lot of pressure put on TV critics, even amateur ones. Televison is thought of as an artless wasteland without any hope of redemption by lots of folks, especially the ones who ask me what my favorite TV show is. (Even worse, when I tell them I write for a Web site about television, they grimace and try to run away from me. "No... PBS! Pledge breaks and all that!" I yell at their backs as they scoot away from the Video Leper. "And I listen to NPR, too!" Terry Gross my ass.)

As a result, I often find myself trying to justify television's existence to these people by pointing out shows that might fit into their warped, TV-barren lifestyle. "That ER, it's a fascinating look into health care and emergency medicine -- you know, it won a Peabody award." I rave about the groundbreaking cinematography and well-drawn characters of Homicide. I suggest that we should appreciate Seinfeld in much the same was as we appreciate the form-bound approach taken by classical Greek drama. ("Oedipus," "Medea," yadda yadda yadda...) I rave about the high-class comedy of Frasier.

A lot of times, they buy it--though it's hard to tell if these people take my comments to heart and give the idiot box another shot, or if they go home after a hard day at work, put their feet up, tune into the soothing sounds of NPR, and laugh at the memory of a brainwashed chimpanzee trying to convince the more highly-evolved primates that the television is anything more than a technological replacement for mother's teat.

But when I recommend shows like ER, Homicide, Seinfeld, and Frasier, I feel like a fraud. Don't get me wrong -- those are all good shows, and I recommend them highly. But are those the shows I enjoy the most? No way.

The new fall TV season has done a great job at reminding me the difference between appreciating a show's quality and liking it so much that I look forward to it during the week and sit, enthralled, not noticing what's going on around me, as the latest episode unfolds before me. During the long summer, I forgot the impact that new episodes of those shows have on me, and I begin to almost believe what I told my video-bereft inquisitors. I watch the Emmy awards, and almost believe that the 10 shows nominated for best comedy and drama really are among the best on television. (Well, except for Chicago Hope -- the summer's not that long.)

So, those of you who might consider me a brain-addled vidiot, cover your ears. I'm going to be honest. As far as I'm concerned, there is no hourlong show on television today that's as enjoyable as The WB's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy doesn't even attempt to address the issues of the day, doesn't disguise itself as anything but pure entertainment, and doesn't try really hard to win Emmy awards.

But Buffy succeeds on levels that few other shows can touch. I can't think of one other hourlong series on television that's as consistently funny as Buffy -- in fact, I can think of few comedies that can pack as many laughs into an episode as Buffy does. And lest the show's vampire-hunting subject matter convince you that I'm talking about so-bad-it's-funny laughs, let me be clear here: this show is funny because it has strong characters and because it has a lot of fun playing with the conventions of horror stories. It's not funny because it's bad, because it's not bad.

As unbelievable as it sounds, I can think of few other portrayals of 17-year-olds on television today that are as well-drawn and three-dimensional as Buffy, Zander, and Willow, the show's three main characters. And in the face of horrific vampires and gruesome grave-robbers, none of them are reduced to the screaming hysterics we'd expect from horror-movie kids. (That job's saved for Charisma Carpenter's Cordelia, an over-the-top cheerleader type who is slowly becoming less of a stereotype and more of a fully realized character in her own right.) Instead, the characters in Buffy react rationally, find a way to solve the puzzle in the episode's plot, and have a good time along the way.

Take the character Willow, Buffy's female sidekick. Willow's a brainy computer geek -- in other words, a negative stereotype, and one usually attached to boys, to boot. But in the world of Buffy, Willow is a person with unique talents who is usually essential in helping Buffy defeat the forces of evil. The character starts as a caricature, but ends up far, far afield from there.

Should I admit that Sarah Michelle Gellar, the actress who plays Buffy, is also a fabulous babe? Why not? I'd watch the show if she wasn't, but it doesn't hurt that she is. But Buffy's not just a pretty face -- she's a superhero who fights off the worst of the undead without needing help from any guy. That's a refreshing change, even if you don't have a young daughter who could stand to see a good female role model on the TV sometimes.

So hats off to Joss Whedon, Buffy's creator, executive producer, and sometime writer and director. Though he's becoming a hot Hollywood screenwriter (he penned the screenplay for the upcoming "Alien Resurrection," among others), Whedon's first love seems to be the wonderful television series he's created. It appears that, unlike how the movie industry works, Whedon has been allowed to create a show that reflects his vision, and hasn't been watered down.

When it comes to comedy, I don't have as much trouble. After all, entertainment snobs can turn up their noses at just about anything that's not serious. But if I am to pick a favorite comedy that satisfies their tastes, I'll need to look in the direction of Emmy. In past years, I might pick a relatively laughless political satire like Murphy Brown, and now I'd probably pick the we-wish-we-were-serious Mad About You, a show I like despite its snob-pleasing pretentions.

I really wish I could stick it in the faces of the snobs and declare my unabashed love for that wacky Urkel, whose show is just as godawful now on CBS as it ever was on ABC. I could pick the genuinely funny (and here I'm in the minority of the Vidiots) Third Rock from the Sun, which features a boatload of crude physical comedy and silly language gags, but the snobs would probably just nod and point out what a decorated actor John Lithgow is.

So I'll fess up. The show I enjoy the most is the blatantly ridiculous NewsRadio. Andy Dick's incredibly clumsy Matthew falls down and hurts himself in ways that top both Chevy Chase and Wile E. Coyote. Characters behave as grotesque caricatures of other sitcom characters. Stories make no sense, with plots that trail off into nothingness after providing me with a hearty serving of laughter.

NewsRadio is not highbrow. NewsRadio probably won't be analyzed in a UCLA doctoral thesis anytime soon. But it's a show with great chemistry, a fantastic cast (led by Dave Foley as the calm eye in the center of the insane storm that is radio station WNYX), and more laughs than any other comedy on TV. And when it comes right down to it, what do I look for in a comedy? The ability to inform as well as entertain? To appreciate the cleverness of the application of the comedic form?

No. I just want a comedy to make me laugh. And NewsRadio does that better than any other comedy on the air.

So TV skeptics, if you're out there, here's your one chance to get it from me straight. Just this one time, I won't lie to you.

I watch NewsRadio because it makes me laugh so hard that, every week, I risk blowing milk out my nose during one of Andy Dick's pratfalls or Phil Hartman's megalomaniacal power trips. I watch Buffy because it provides me with a group of smart, funny, likeable characters placed in interesting situations by well-written scripts.

Should we mark down a show just because it's about a girl who kills the undead instead of about another angst-ridden police officer or doctor? If you're comparing Buffy to the likes of the we've-seen-it-all-before dramas Michael Hayes and Brooklyn South, the answer really is no.

Of course, if I admitted that on the air during a PBS pledge break, I'd finally give Mike Wallace that televised execution he's been angling for. But we'll keep the truth just between us. Right?


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