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TeeVee Awards 2000: Best Half-Hour Show

The half-hour TV world is a world full of strife. Old favorites lie strewn across the fields, dead either by the cruel hand of their of networks, by mere fate, or -- most often -- by their own hand.

But in this terrible world, there are glimmers of hope -- new half-hour series that threaten to overtake the old standards and start a new age of comedy on network TV.

Frasier, already feeling a bit run-down last year, lapsed into a coma this past season and now lingers, waiting for the plug to be pulled. Friends came down with prostate cancer -- it's slow-growing and the show may die before the disease actually proves fatal, but it's a bad sign nonetheless. 3rd Rock from the Sun? We can't find the body, but we're thinking there are some signs of foul play.

But in the meantime, there are series at the top of their game. Everybody Loves Raymond, a favorite around the TeeVee compound, put in another solid year -- and nobody's more surprised than we are that there's a sitcom on CBS that we admire. The last time that happened, we were laughing at characters named B.J. and Hawkeye. That '70s Show proved that Fox can do a live-action sitcom with equal measures of sweetness and sly humor, rather than the usual formula of crass, classless humor. Sports Night put in one last, fitful year, a brilliant and brilliantly flawed masterpiece crumbling under the strain of its creative force, Aaron Sorkin.

Then there was the longest-running comedy on the air, The Simpsons, which continues to impress a decade after its debut. Sure, the show goes through waves of quality followed by waves of mediocrity -- this season was on the mediocre side, but only because the show has set the bar so high -- but in the end, when you consider just how much comedy Matt Groening's creations have given to us, you've got to stand in awe. Many of us can not hold a conversation for more than 10 minutes without making at least one reference to The Simpsons. Forget your Seinfeld, your Cheers, and all the rest. The king of comedy in this corner of mankind's history is, without a doubt, The Simpsons.

And yet this year, The Simpsons was outclassed by its cousin. In its second year, the Groening-created cartoon Futurama got running on all cylinders. With new areas of comedy to explore -- plumbing science fiction clichés, toying with how we view history, and generally being even less rooted in reality than The Simpsons, Futurama has done its creator proud.

Futurama is populated by a great collection of lead characters: the lovably misanthropic robot Bender is a favorite. But let's not forget the growth of several hilarious members of the supporting cast, including a peculiar lobster alien named Dr. Zoidberg. And we'd be remiss without referring to the best one-two punch in space exploration since Kirk and Spock, namely incompetent boob space captain Zapp Brannigan and his perpetually fed-up sidekick, Kif.

Featuring sight gags galore, solid premises, an endless stream of creative (and silly) plot ideas, and a shocking grasp of the lore (and the foibles) of sci-fi, Futurama knocked us dead this year. And that's why it earns half of our Best Half-hour Series Award.

The other half of the award goes to the best new half-hour of the year... a show that was clearly among the best on television after it had only aired a handful of episodes. Why the Fox network chose to wait nearly half a season before finally airing the first installment of Malcolm in the Middle is beyond us, but at least they finally got it on the air -- and the audience responded to the quality they found there.

The story of a strangely functional dysfunctional family, Malcolm is three different (but equally brilliant) sitcoms in one. It's a show about three young boys growing up together, with genius Malcolm in the middle between Reese ("This will send a signal to our enemies," he tells an incredulous Malcolm) and Dewey (whose behavior is explained to us by allowing us to see the world, briefly, though the eyes of a young child). It's about the parents in the house -- the hairy-backed, roller-skatin', easygoing dad (Bryan Cranston) and the tough, loud, don't-take-any-crap mom (Jane Kaczmarek, who took home this year's TeeVee award for Best Actress in a Half-hour Series). And it's a show about the oldest brother, who's been shipped off to a bizarre military school run by a one-armed, one-eyed, one-legged veteran who has never seen any actual combat.

With no laugh track and shot with one camera (as opposed to the flat, phony effect you get when you shoot a sitcom on a stage with a bunch of different cameras rolling simultaneously), Malcolm is exactly what we look for in a half-hour show. It's a unique vision, it doesn't insult our intelligence, and it's genuinely funny. Frankie Muniz puts himself in the running for all-time best kid actor as Malcolm, and we've already sung the praises of Jane Kaczmarek.

Last year at this time, it looked like the sitcom was dead. But with Fox's two successes on Sunday night, we'd say that the genre has been revived again. But don't worry, Malcolm and Futurama -- we won't blame you for the avalanche of lousy sitcoms that's heading our way. This year, you reign supreme.

Additional contributions to this article by: Jason Snell.


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