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TeeVee Awards 2001: Worst Half-Hour

One man's trash is another man's treasure. We're not sure which gray-haired sage came up with that particular hoary chestnut, but whoever it was probably had a pretty good idea about what your TeeVee pals do for a living. Each fall, you probably turn on the TV and groan at the sight of Geena Davis slumming it on the small screen or Michael Richards proving that Kramer without Jerry, George and Elaine is just some big doofus who falls down a lot. You see NBC's latest offering in the 8:30-p.m.-on-Thursdays time slot -- the Widowmaker of modern prime time scheduling -- and have to suppress your gag reflex. You catch a glimpse of Becker or Norm or 3rd Rock from the Sun without benefit of protective safety goggles, and you spend the rest of the evening clawing at your eye sockets and begging to God for a merciful death.

Us? We see the shit that passes for sitcoms these days and become positively giddy. Because we know that fishing season is on, we've got our rifles loaded and aimed, and somebody's just pried open the barrel.

Don't get us wrong -- heaping accolades upon praiseworthy shows is life-affirming and all. But raising aloft the arm of Futurama, giving a respectful nod in the direction of The Simpsons, laying an encouraging slap on the back of Malcolm in the Middle -- they just don't give us the same visceral thrill as watching some labored star-driven car wreck with a script from the bargain bin at Hacks 'R Us and the unmistakable stench of failure, unsheathing the long knives, and carving up the carcass before the body even cools. There's something unmistakably gratifying about loosing your venom on unfettered hackery, and the recent half-hour offerings from the major broadcast networks have given us plenty of opportunity to feel gratified.

It's almost like waking up Christmas morning and coming downstairs to a roomful of presents. Presents that are broken or require some assembly or don't fit quite right or make you break out in hives -- but presents, nevertheless.

But lately, the networks have been piling on the slop rather thickly, even for connoisseurs of crap such as ourselves. Too much of a good thing -- or a bad thing, in our case. We're also not sure which gray-haired sage thought up that turn of phrase. But it's a pretty good bet he or she was watching a lot of half-hour sitcoms during the 2000-01 TV season.

And that's a thorny problem if you ever find yourself assigned to the monumental task of picking out the Worst Half-Hour Show of the year. It should be a breeze -- thumb through a couple of back issues of TV Guide, pick the real clunkers from the prime time schedule and set phasers on eviscerate. In 15 minutes -- 20 if you're thorough and need to consult a thesaurus so that you don't wind up using the word "awful" in every paragraph -- you'll have a finished article and it's back to playing solitaire or hanging out in chat rooms or whatever it is you do when you're not tearing Tucker a new poop-chute.

Which is exactly what we started to do -- just compile a list of the worst 30-minute programs that TV had to offer this season. And when we were done, we had a list roughly the size of the Greater Baltimore yellow pages.

When all is said and done, the 2000-01 season could very well go down as the gurgling death rattle of the television sitcom. Situation comedies have been limping along for years, but this season in particular stands out as a beacon of banality on the shores of sameness. Try as we might, we can barely distinguish between the sitcoms that populate the airwaves. It's as if they came from the same malformed cookie-cutter, spouting the same insipid dialogue churned out by the same creatively bankrupt Harvard Lampoon alumns. It leads us to suspect that perhaps, as a cost-saving measure, there only is one sitcom. Same plot, same jokes, same unsatisfying denouement. They only change the casting to throw us off the scent.

What it'll be tonight, honey? Upscale Twentysomethings Sitcom on NBC? Obnoxious Twentysomethings Sitcom on Fox? Fish-Out-of-Water Twentysomethings Sitcom on CBS? Or, just for variety's sake, that new Bickering, Mismatched Twentysomethings Sitcom on ABC? Don't put too much thought into it -- it's all the same flavorless mush.

Which, again, is great if you're trying to lend some sort of historical perspective to the season just concluded. But we've got to pick the worst of the worst, the one ugly dog that stands out from all the other mutts and mongrels. Faced with a similar choice, even someone as wise as Solomon would have thrown himself upon the most jagged of rocks rather than render a verdict -- especially if he had to watch Bette and Welcome to New York back-to-back.

It's sort of like being the first paramedic on the scene of an accident, only to find that the entire population of Medford, Oregon has been felled by a nuclear blast. You're forced to confront some horrible, haunting questions -- How do you separate the living from the dead? What attention do you give the walking wounded versus the critically injured? Just how in the name of a merciful God did Yes, Dear live to see a second season? -- questions that make even the steeliest among us wake up at night in a cold, trembling sweat.

Who, then, to damn as the worst show of 2000-01?

Shall we loose our venom on those wretched star-driven sitcoms that infested the prime time schedule last fall like polyps in a cancer patient's colon? Michael Richards, Geena Davis, Bette Milder, David Alan Grier, Christine Baranski, Steven Weber, Gabriel Bryne and John Goodman all headlined sitcoms whose only justification for existence was the fame and public acclaim enjoyed by their titular stars. Not surprisingly, all eight shows went straight off the cliff -- with the efforts of Davis, Richards and Goodman bursting into particularly fiery explosions before crashing into terra firma.

Yes, any one of these shows -- and we choose not to repeat their names for fear that it will summon their ghosts -- would be a worthy candidate for Worst Half-Hour Show of the Year. Then again, since all eight have been unceremoniously canceled, whatever damage they did will be confined to the poor unfortunates who tuned in last fall. Future generations will be spared the sight of John Goodman as a mordantly obese gay man showing us all the lighter side of homophobia.

Then, there's Tucker, a big ball of suck that saw shamelessly aping Malcolm in the Middle as its formula for success. "People sure do love that smart-alecky Malcolm," Tucker's producers doubtlessly said to themselves. "Imagine how much they'll love Tucker when we make him ten times as smart alecky."

It's thinking like this, incidentally, which is why it's good that some people wind up programming TV shows as opposed to, say, crafting foreign policy.

Yes, Tucker had everything that Malcolm brought to the table last year -- with the notable exceptions of pacing, charm and wit. For being crass and derivative, it more than deserves the distinction of the Worst Half-Hour Show of the Year. Then again, NBC canceled the show in less than a month -- a humanitarian gesture so great that the network nearly captured this year's Nobel Peace Prize. That is, until the Nobel committee realized that NBC was also responsible for The Steven Weber Show, at which time Garth Ancier was hauled before the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.

He hasn't been seen since.

If only the same could be said of Yes, Dear, a sitcom that took the unconventional approach of not actually being funny. It paired Anthony Clarke with Mike O'Malley, who knows from bad sitcoms, and Jean Louisa Kelly, who once starred in a shampoo commercial.

Frankly, we long for the days when she was telling us about dry, itchy scalps.

Yes, Dear is tedium incarnate, a one-show recycling program for every tired parenting and mismatched buddy joke of the last millennium. That it will live to dull audiences into a slack-jawed stupor for a second season is testimony to the strength of two stellar shows it's wedged between, King of Queens and Everybody Loves Raymond. It's also proof that the lessons taught by Warren Littlefield -- if you serve 'em superior bread, they won't notice the shit in the middle of the sandwich -- have been well-learned by Les Moonves.

Still, Yes, Dear can't be the Worst Half-Hour Show of 2000-01. So long as Becker draws breath, it's not even the worst show on CBS's Monday night lineup.

Contractual obligations require us to mention the WB's failed sketch comedy show Hype. You probably didn't see it. You really shouldn't want to.

3rd Rock, Norm, and the what-in-the-name-of-Christ-is-this-still-doing-on-the-air Two Guys and a Girl always merit consideration in any of Worst Of... category. But this was the year the axe finally fell on all three shows. And frankly, that merits thanks, not condemnation.

Friends merits nothing. The one-time jewel of NBC's sitcom crown, the show has played every possible card in its hand, resorting to such blatant cries for help as stunt casting, sweeps month weddings and -- that most desperate of plot line contrivances -- a surprise pregnancy. The only reason to tune in to Friends now is if you're a scientist charting the precipitous decline in the cast's weight as part of your research on wasting diseases.

Well, that, and the hilarious antics of Joey.

There you have it -- the contenders for our Worst Half-Hour Show dishonors. You try to pick out the worst show from that pack. Chances are you'll wind up like us -- bleary-eyed and dry-mouthed with a pounding headache and a dull throb where your heart used to beat.

And we haven't even mentioned Arli$$.

How in the hell did this happen? In the world of television, sitcoms used be where the all the creative action was at. Catch a Cheers rerun. Pop an old Seinfeld tape into the VCR. Tune into A&E and watch NewsRadio. Even if you can recite the episode line by line, you'll still probably enjoy a chuckle or two. Your sides will hurt from laughter, not retching. You'll notice this strange thing forming across your face -- scientists tell us it's called a smile.

We experience none of that watching the live-action sitcoms of today. In addition to sharing the same premises, plot lines, and jokes, they also share an equal amount of dreadfulness.

We've looked far and wide to find a culprit, someone or something responsible for driving a stake into the heart of the live-action sitcom format. And we keep coming back to three simple letters -- N-B-C.

Think about it. All the troubles in all the shows listed above can be traced in some way to the doings of the Peacock network. You want to talk about bland sameness? The three powerhouse shows that make up NBC's Thursday night Must-See lineup -- Friends, Will & Grace and Just Shoot Me -- feature the same interchangeable premise: a group of beautiful young professionals who are hornier than a troop ship after three months at sea experience life and love in New York City. Really, we have no other way of distinguishing between the three shows except that one has a flamboyant gay supporting character. We think it's David Spade.

Bugged by lifeless, laughless star vehicles? NBC's responsible for three of them this season, including the runt of the litter, The Michael Richards Show. And this coming fall, it's building an entire sitcom around celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse for the sole reason that he's more recognizable than, say, the kid who served you an Egg McMuffin this morning.

Hate knockoffs with the fire of a thousand burning suns? Arguably, the most successful show on NBC, both in terms of ratings and creative achievement, is Frasier -- basically a spin-off of Cheers, After-M*A*S*H* with better writing. Then there's that whole Tucker atrocity NBC has to account for.

And -- just to put the sour icing on the rancid cake -- NBC pioneered the innovative good show-bad show-good show programming formula that will allow Yes, Dear to torment audiences well into 2002.

Add it all up, and it's an impressive record of achievement for the boys from Burbank, a trail of human misery and woe that the judges just simply couldn't overlook. For lifetime achievement in churning out one bad half-hour of programming after another, NBC takes the Worst Half-Hour prize this season. So Warren Littlefield and Garth Ancier -- from your remote mountain exiles, we salute you and offer you this dented trophy, this withered laurel and this lukewarm handshake. Thank you for all you've done for the once-proud tradition of the sitcom, for kicking comedy when it was down and for inspiring future generations to flee to animated series and cable for anything resembling entertainment.

May you never darken our TVs with this embarrassment of Bad Sitcom riches ever again.

Additional contributions to this article by: Philip Michaels.


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