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A Season For All Men

Nine years ago, in a rather cowardly attempt to get around my college's calculus requirements, I enrolled in an introductory logic class. And one of the first things they taught us -- right after mocking our childlike fear of derivatives and integrals -- was all about logical fallacies. Circular arguments. False appeals to authority. Those logical brain cramps which can take a perfectly good argument and leave it as limp as an intern-free chief executive.

Chief among the mortal sins of logical fallacies is the ignoble ad hominem attack. Rather than direct your efforts at meticulously picking apart your opponent's position, you assault his character, motives, parentage and, if there's enough time, his grooming habits. You attack him like you're a poorly fed wolverine and he's wearing salmon-flavored jockey shorts.

Ad hominem attacks are disgraceful things -- rhetorical grandstanding best left to vulgar spectacles like professional wrestling, daytime talks shows and presidential debates. They have no place in serious discussions.

So when my good friend Ben Boychuk writes that the recent fall season has been a disgrace, that network television has nothing to offer urbane sophisticates like him, I will not cheapen the debate with pointless ad hominem attacks. In rebutting his argument, I will stick to the facts at hand. Because Ben Boychuk is a good man, a smart man, a bright man. It serves no purpose to point out his apparent inability to derive the least bit of pleasure out of anything. It wastes your time and mine to go into the unsavory details of his unhappy home life. And while I have no proof of Boychuk's all-consuming lust for the sauce, it bolsters no one's case to talk about his habit of drinking his lunch. Glug glug.

Hmmm? Sticking to the facts at hand? Oh. Right.

The multi-tiered premise that TV is in a wretched state, that the new season has been a disaster and that there's precious little worth watching on the networks anymore would be a fine one, except for a new nagging concern. Namely, Boychuk's argument flies in the face of all evidence, ignores recent history and is just plain dumb wrong.

Oh, don't misunderstand me: When it comes to the new crop of shows, there's plenty to gripe about. For the most part, the networks trotted out the same garbage they have in years past, and a lot of it has already met a quick, inevitable and not at all lamentable death.

But bad shows will be with us always, especially in an industry where Tony Danza and Sharon Lawrence keep finding gainful employment. Perhaps Boychuk's forgotten about Bo Derek's portrayal of a recently widowed Hawaiian rancher. Or a cuddly alien nanny played by the inimitable Bronson Pinchot. Or the weekly spectacle of watching Tim Curry piss all over himself. Yet it wasn't too long ago that Wind on Water, Meego and Over the Top all were on network television, and they certainly gagged as badly as anything that came down the pike this year.

The difference between then and now? This year, we actually got a few truly good programs thrown into the mix.

* Freaks & Geeks: Boychuk may have been too busy venting his spleen about those damned kids and their equally damnable high school shows to notice this gem. But few shows have ever captured high school's awkwardness, misery and impending sense of doom the way Freaks & Geeks does every week. And no show about high school has ever been so poignant, cringe-inducing and funny all at the same time.

Unlike the cardboard phony kids on Dawson's Creek, the Freaks & Geeks characters don't turn each episode into an adolescent installment of Man and Superman. And unlike Popular and other such drek, the kids on Freaks & Geeks don't look like they just stepped off the pages of Tiger Beat. They resemble actual people. Instead of serving up another teen-oriented offering of angst and artifice, all that creators Paul Feig and Judd Apatow have done is give us a show that's a dead-on look at the teenage years.

Given Freaks & Geeks' killer time slot -- Saturdays at 8 p.m. -- maybe social butterflies like Boychuk have missed the program. Next month, they'll have no excuse. The show moves to Monday nights, displacing Suddenly Susan from the schedule -- another reason why Feig and Apatow deserve our thanks.

* Now & Again: Boychuk says this "supposedly good" show has failed to capture his attention. His loss. Because people who grouse that TV is a little more than a formulaic rehash of the same ol' same old should give this convention-spinning program their undivided attention.

Now & Again's an action show. But it's not. It's a family drama. But it's not that, either. It's a romance... and so on.

More important, Now & Again is the most unique show on television since David Lynch went off his nut and Twin Peaks turned to swill. It's an often touching, always engaging story of a man with superhuman powers, a new lease on life and the weight of the free world on his shoulders who'd just as soon be back home in his old body kissing his wife goodnight. Throw in a cunning turn by Dennis Haysbert as a government scientist who may be evil -- or not -- and you have a show that, week after week, is just a pleasure to watch.

* The West Wing: Aaron Sorkin is probably the most irritating writer on television. I can't make it through an episode of either one of his shows -- this one or Sports Night -- without coming across a scene, a moment, a bit of dialogue that induces severe eye-rolling. One day, I'm afraid, I'm going to strain a retina or something. Some writers are uneven. Aaron Sorkin is the Colorado Rockies.

Still, when Sorkin gets it right -- and he often does -- he gets it very right. Like Sports Night before it, West Wing spins a good yarn and employs some well-crafted dialogue while doing it. The what-did-we-learn homilies can be grating, but even at its worst, the show deserves a look.

That's three new programs right there which, by any standard, don't suck. I'm not including Judging Amy, Angel and Once & Again because, frankly, they just aren't my bag. But the folks who those shows are targeted at -- aging boomers, silly-sci-fi-loving kids and the rest of the aging boomer demographic -- seem to be pleased with the way those programs are shaking out.

Include shows that debuted last year, and the pool of entertaining network programming gets a little bit deeper. There's Sports Night, hitting its stride more consistently this season. Family Guy adds an always welcome bit of subversiveness to the mix. And It's Like... You Know, having overcome the burden of having the worst title since Prince decided to change his name, has grown into a superb little sitcom.

We won't even delve into shows that have been on the air awhile like Everybody Loves Raymond, which, pound for pound, could hold its own against any of the great comedies from any era.

Does that make this a golden age for TV? Not by a longshot. But could it mean that the quality of programming on the networks has improved since, oh, say last year? Absolutely. And it certainly suggests that the prime time landscape is hardly the barren wasteland of ennui that Boychuk describes.

Boychuk asks whether we should care about television and provides the obvious answer himself: of course not. Certainly, the creative noodlings of the Hollywood crowd carry little importance when compared to my family or the life of the mind or the fortunes of the Detroit Red Wings. Or, as Boychuk himself puts it, "There are so many better things to do -- books to read, sights to see, love to make."

Yeah. He wishes.

But Boychuk poses another, less obvious question: Why even bother with television? For me, the answer's pretty clear. I watch because there are shows that continue to entertain me. The fact that I can name a solid half-dozen on network TV alone suggests that things aren't as bad with the Idiot Box as some grumpuses might have you believe.

But here's the thing -- of the shows I've named above, only a few are guaranteed a life beyond June. Family Guy's been off Fox's schedule since October. Sports Night and It's Like... You Know could be gone once Regis Philbin returns to dole out more millions. Freaks & Geeks is hanging on by a thread.

Why? Low ratings. Why the low ratings? Because folks aren't watching. Why aren't folks watching? Maybe they're too busy complaining about how now is the winter of our discontent, TV-wise. Not to name names.

We take a lot of potshots at the networks, and for good reason. They make a lot of bad decisions. But every now and again, the planets align and the dice come up seven and the groundhog doesn't see his shadow, and those same networks do something right. If we're going to call them on the carpet for the Meegos and the Wind on Waters, then it seem only fair to mention the good stuff, too.


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