We watch... so you don't have to.

The 2000-2001 TeeVee Awards: Cable Ready

Your TeeVee pals are old, decaying fogies. Most of us are on the unhappy side of 30, and those who aren't will be watching the numbers on the ol' odometer speed past 29 in short order. Any physical exertion that entails more than going to the icebox and getting another beer leaves us sore for more than a week. Parts of us are breaking and spraining with alarming frequency. We find ourselves complaining about "those damned kids and their crazy music" on an almost daily basis.

Hope I die before I get old... Roger Daltrey once sang that. And the fact that The Who are still out there performing "Talking 'Bout My Generation" at the cumulative age of 1,086 years just serves as proof that God does not take requests.

But the truly unsettling thing about getting on in years -- more alarming than the gray hairs and the wrinkles and the shattered hips -- is the fact that we have crystal-clear memories of a world that no longer exists. We can vividly recall a time when if you wanted music, you got it in vinyl form, when National League and American League teams only played each other in October, when 64K was RAM enough for us and 128K -- well, that was simply decadent.

But most of all, we remember a world without cable TV.

Yes, children -- we did not always have 60-plus channels of programming to choose from. Once upon a time, when monstrous thunder lizards roamed the planet and Jimmy Carter was elected head of our tribe, we could get only 5, maybe 6 channels -- and that was if Dad made Uncle Fred go stand out on the patio wearing a tin foil hat. You wanted high-quality dramas and laugh-out-loud sitcoms? You had three networks to pick from. Other than that, your choices ran the gamut from PBS to maybe an edited Clint Eastwood movie on one of the local channels to whatever rerun the UHF outlet had lined up that night.

We remember when cable made its triumphant debut on the scene, ushering in the promise of round-the-clock Mayberry R.F.D reruns and all-access coverage of America's Team, your Atlanta Braves. We yawned, we admit it. Because if you've seen George "Goober" Lindsey's antics, you've seen them enough, superstation or no.

Cable eventually began beefing up its offerings -- restored classic movies, baseball games featuring franchises other than those owned by Ted Turner, the tasteful, not-at-all gratuitous nudity of Cinemax. But if you wanted high-quality original programming, and not something that looked like it was shot on super-8 in some would-be Fellini's garage, you were pretty much stuck scouring the three networks. Cable TV need not apply.

That started changing as the 1980s began fading in the rear view mirror. Suddenly, cable TV began to shrug its shoulders, roll its eyes and shoot everyone a "Why the hell not?" kind of look. A laugh track-free comedy about an unlikable late night talk show host? Run that sucker. A show about a guy who watches really terrible movies with a pair of wisecracking puppets? Well... we gotta stick something in between the Saturday Night Live reruns. Cable channels seemed to come to the delirious conclusion that not that many people were watching; those hardy souls brave enough to tune in at least deserved to have something worth watching.

While cable was taking chances, the networks were playing it safe, churning out third-generation copies of shows that weren't all that original in the first place. After several dozen Seinfeld knockoffs and a slew of interchangeable workplace dramas (he's a cop/lawyer/cop-lawyer who doesn't play by the rules -- this week on Bochco! The Series), we find ABC, CBS and NBC in their current sorry state. Tired and wheezing as an asthmatic forced to sprint up twelve flights of stairs, the networks find themselves plumb out of ideas and coasting on inertia. Cable TV, on the other hand -- that's the place to be.

It's been that way for several years, of course, and we can't pretend that it's a development we're entirely happy about. The best shows on TV are on channels we have to pay to watch? It sounds like something out of a horrible communist dystopia, a sinister world where your viewing choices are at the mercy of some faceless cable monolith that's decided no, you don't really need Turner Classic Movies or the Food Network... but three different home shopping channels? Sign 'em up for that, Clem.

Still, if it gives us something to watch other than The Weber Show, then horrible dystopias and faceless cable monoliths it is.

Ah, cable -- sweet, delicious, chocolatey cable. Never before have we felt so warmly toward those wires snaking their way through our wall than this year when it came time to hand out our annual TeeVee Awards. Scanning the dial for the best TV had to offer, we found ourselves gravitating toward the channels far away from the stultifying world of network TV. Just a quick scan of a partial list of our favorite shows -- The Sopranos, Good Eats, Junkyard Wars, Daria, ESPN's SportsCentury series -- and you'll find yourself watching cable, cable and more of the same.

And that just burns the collective asses of the folks who head the major broadcast networks. Robert Wright, the president of NBC, was so incensed that cable was getting all the critical laurels while his channel was left with the raspberries that he wrote a letter decrying the treacherous tactics of those sneaks at HBO. Well, of course, The Sopranos is a critical darling, Wright cried -- it gets to use violence and nudity and foul language. The most obscene thing NBC can get away with is giving Michael Richards his own show.

Which misses the point entirely. The Sopranos is an eminently watchable program because it takes risks and defies conventions -- something an NBC executive wouldn't do for a closet full of Armani. NBC is the network home of a never-ending army of Friends clones, tape-delayed Olympics telecasts and The Weakest Link -- a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire carbon copy that arrived on the scene only a year after the game show craze peaked.

Compare that to what cable's been doing. The cable shows we like are successful because they offer us something different, 30 to 60 minutes of programming we won't find elsewhere instead of another evening of the same ol' same old.

After all, can you imagine a show like Junkyard Wars -- in essence a game show where contestants have to draw on their knowledge of physics and basic engineering to cobble together a contraption out of refuse and scrap metal -- ever appearing on NBC? Maybe if there was less physics and engineering. And if the contestants all were pretty. And if, instead of building things, they just spent the entire show talking about sex. Then you'd have something.

Ah, but Bob Wright shouldn't feel too badly. When it came time to find the worst TV shows, the foulest performances, and the most awful ideas that TV had to offer, the networks came through like champions. And NBC had more than its share of mutts to enter into this particular dog show.

This wasn't the worst TV season in a good, long while -- that honor goes to the 1998-99 class, which made us question the existence of a loving God (as would you if you had to watch Bo Derek act). But 2000-01 yielded a bumper crop of crap, a cornucopia of tired premises, wooden acting and woeful shows.

How bad was the worst of this season? Maybe you remember Big Brother, the CBS reality show that redefined tedium. Taking 10 of the most boring, least worthwhile human beings that could be found in the English-speaking world, sticking them in a house and flicking on the camera, Big Brother was a soul-crushing exercise in tedium. If this is the future of TV -- and the fact that there's now a Big Brother 2 suggests that it is -- then best just to pull the plug and move on to another medium.

And yet, as bad as Big Brother was, it didn't win any of our "Worst Of" awards. Not even a sniff. Then again, in a season that gave us a surplus of star-driven sitcoms, an overdose of quirky David E. Kelley plots and Tony Danza, that isn't hard to figure.

Of the twoscore or so shows that debuted this past season, we can only think of four -- Ed, Gilmore Girls, CSI, and The Job -- that deserve your full and complete attention. Most of the freshman shows were snuffed out within weeks of their premieres. At this point, lolling about in the midsummer sun, we would be hard-pressed to name hardly any of the clunkers that appeared with great fanfare last fall only to vanish without a trace before the Thanksgiving turkey was in the oven.

Our psychiatrist says it's better that we don't try and remember, anyway.

That's not to say the entire season was a loss. There's all that great cable programming we mentioned. And even the networks pitched in with some stellar shows -- Futurama, Malcolm in the Middle and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are all programs that represent network TV at the top of its game.

But look where you'll find those shows -- not on any of the Big Three networks, but on the upstart Fox and WB. And with "Buffy" changing networks next season, that means one of the best shows on television will now be on -- gulp -- UPN, whose only claims to fame up until now have been professional wrestling, Seven of Nine, and the late, lamented Homeboys in Outer Space.

And that's where we stand as the last dying ember of the 2000-01 season burns away. The traditional powerhouse networks are relying on a steady diet of reality shows and retreads to keep from hemorrhaging more viewers. The cable channels, despite their small audiences, are sitting in the catbird seat. And UPN boasts one of the higher-quality programs on the ol' boob tube.

It's crazy. It's backward. It's nothing we could have imagined back in the days of 5 channels and a lot of static.

And that just makes us feel really, really old.

Additional contributions to this article by: Philip Michaels.


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