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The 1999-2000 TeeVee Awards: Not-So-Great Expectations

We live in an era of diminished expectations.

Jimmy Carter -- history's most overmatched president -- popularized that turn of phrase, much to the scorn of his critics and rivals. But as the Vidiots steeled themselves last fall for another tussle with Television's cruel and banal fates, we couldn't help but think, damn if that goofy-toothed peanut farmer wasn't on to something.

Consider the grim TV landscape we surveyed last year at this time. The networks harvested a whole crop of new shows, took one look at the fruits of their labors and tossed nearly all of them into the wheat thresher. That included some of our favorites, like the under-appreciated, unwatched Cupid. The new shows that did survive the slaughter -- we're looking in your direction, Jesse -- gave us the shivers. And some of our old favorites, such as NewsRadio and Homicide, left the airwaves, the latter in a vapor trail of declining quality and increasing Jon Seda quantity.

How bad had things gotten? The most-talked-about show as we entered the fall was Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. A hoot of a program, sure -- but not exactly the apex of Man's creativity. And, considering TV's mantra of "When in doubt, copy," the success of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire served as a chilling portent of things to come: a schedule jam-packed with second-rate prime-time game shows at the expense of sitcoms, dramas, and anything not remotely connected to Regis. We hadn't been this afraid since the Dateline NBC-inspired Great News Magazine Show Scare of '98.

So if last year marked the worst year of broadcast television in quite some time -- and we submit that any year featuring the talents of Bo Derek, Brooke Shields, Kirstie Alley, and Ally Walker all on one network certainly reaches the tournament finals -- then what hope could we have for semi-watchable TV in the 1999-2000 season?

That's when a funny thing happened: TV began to get a whole lot better.

It started with the rookie shows. Oh sure, there were the usual collection of programs featuring unknown stand-up comics (The Mike O'Malley Show), unwanted spinoffs (Time of Your Life), premises straight out of a Scriptwriting 101 class (take your pick), and about two too many David Kelley projects. Add to that network TV's alarming decision to greenlight no less than half-a-dozen shows that focused on attractive young people and their tedious relationships, and it's a miracle none of us had grabbed a pair of knitting needles and went Oedipus by Columbus Day.

That's because the shows that didn't suck wind were pretty good. Really good, actually. Freaks & Geeks conjured up memories of two things we hate more than the fires of hell -- high school and the 1980s -- and we couldn't get enough of it. The West Wing promised us an ample helping of something almost as bad as high school and the 1980s -- Aaron Sorkin's pedantic sermonizing -- but you'll find few shows that are more compelling. Malcolm in the Middle and Now & Again both challenged the conventions of their respective genres -- and we're still not even sure what Now & Again's genre was supposed to be -- and the result was outstanding TV, week after week. Action gave us a profane movie producer as the centerpiece of a show. Harsh Realm took place in a virtual reality world. Even WWF Smackdown! proved that there's nothing wrong with television that character development, backstage intrigue, and a few shots to the head with a folding chair can't fix.

Maybe some or all of these shows aren't quite your taste. But they're hardly the Friends-clones and Seinfeld knock-offs we've come to expect from the networks, at any rate.

Returning shows also got into the act. King of Queens and Futurama had uneven rookie years. This time around, both were as solid as any show you'll find. King of the Hill is back on Sundays, where it belongs. The Sopranos? Brilliant. Everybody Loves Raymond? At the top of its game. The Simpsons? A spotty year, yes, but even the weakest episode had more laughs per capita than the very best installment of Two Guys and a Girl.

Even Regis has grown on us. And we never thought we'd say that a year ago.

Consider some of the other life-affirming events that went down this year. Suddenly Susan and Veronica's Closet, two Bataan Death March-like shows, finally got their laughless tickets punched. All the Millionaire knockoffs came, saw and failed, from the lazy Twenty-One to the odious Greed. Monday Night Football rid itself of bubble-headed ex-jock Boomer Esiason. The ranks of David Kelley-produced shows grew thinner than the human skeletons in his casts, as Chicago Hope, Snoops, and the slimmed-down Ally were trimmed from the schedule. And a magical little box called TiVo changed the way we watched TV, making sure we saw more of the good stuff and confining random sightings of Christina Applegate to a few isolated incidents.

Yes, as the song goes, it was a very good year. So good, in fact, that the competition has been particularly heated for our annual TeeVee awards -- the accolade so prestigious that many of our honorees don't know if they've been nominated and don't show up when they win. Still, after the events of the past year, we can't help but feel as if our yearly celebration of TeeVee's winners and losers may finally be having the desired effect.

Could it be that our grumpy rants and incessant complaints are finally being heard from Burbank to Black Rock? After four years as a lonely voice in the online desert, have we finally gotten network suits to repent for their transgressions and to sin no more?

Sadly, no. Of the new shows we praised so lavishly five paragraphs ago, only West Wing and Malcolm in the Middle will make it back for Season No. 2. Two Guys and a Girl continues to draw breath, as does UPN. And just as the Millionaire bomb hit last summer and incinerated all in its blast zone, the success of the reality show Survivor threatens to unleash a horde of imitators. Already, CBS has saturated the airwaves with Big Brother, a show that makes MTV's faith-shattering Real World seem like Masterpiece Theatre.

But that's for a future generation to fret about. Our concern is the season past -- a pretty good one, even taking into account the phenomenon of diminished expectations. Great new shows. Continued excellence from returning favorites. It's almost enough to make us renounce our curmudgeonly ways and look forward to the coming fall season, just as Jimmy Carter looked forward to lifting America out of its malaise during his sure-to-be-a-hit second term.

Carter, you may remember, was stomped in his re-election bid. And there's less than 90 shopping days until Tony Danza returns to network TV.

Additional contributions to this article by: Philip Michaels.


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