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TeeVee Awards 2001: Best Half-Hour

If you've been following the TeeVee Awards closely this year -- no doubt to put the finishing touches on your unauthorized biography, Total Assholes: The TeeVee.org Story with special foreword by Dennis Boutsikaris -- you may have noticed we've had a little trouble coming up with decisive winners this year. In no less than four categories, we've thrown up our collective hands after hours of tedious debate and handed out accolades to multiple honorees. When the time came for definitive declarations, we wavered. When charged with heralding the best of the best, we hemmed and hawed. In the moment of truth, we kicked the point-after instead of trying to run it in the end zone for two, took the tie, and puckered up for a delightful afternoon of sister-kissing.

Well, except for the Worst Actress Award. It took us less than a minute to single out Emily Procter for her crown of thorns.

So in a year marked by indecision and second-guessing, we're pleased to end our annual awards with a category in which we honor one clear winner as the Best Half-Hour Show of the 2000-01 season. Even better, it's probably the easiest time we had picking a winner other than those glorious seconds watching Ms. Procter's nomination clip. And best of all, we managed to come up with a cut-and-dry winner in a field brimming with top contenders.

"What the deuce?" you've probably exclaimed, assuming you're the type of person who uses arcane late 19th century exclamations of amazement in lieu of profanity. "Didn't you guttersnipes just finish venting considerable spleen about how dreary and awful sitcoms have become when you dragged NBC's good name through the mud? Or have repeated blows to the head completely diminished your short-term memory?"

Possibly. But we assure you, we're on the level here.

Oh sure, the 30-minute live-action sitcom is well-nigh unwatchable these days, a joyless rehash of interchangeable premises and stale banter that wasn't all that funny when Ross and Rachel said it the first dozen or so times. Once the ruling elite of network television, the sitcom now finds itself as bloodied and toothless as a preppie who wanders into an Oakland biker bar and asks the assembled patrons if they could maybe move those scooters. As a genre, the sitcom's on life support -- and grieving relatives are beginning to eye the plug hanging out of that nearby electrical socket with alarming frequency. If you're watching a sitcom these days, it's likely out of inertia or force of habit or a misplaced sense of obligation. Or maybe you've just lost the remote -- we try not to judge here.

So what's a lazy TV watcher to do? Stuff the 30-minute sitcom into a cheap pine box, pay some day laborer a couple of bucks to dig an unmarked hole in a potter's field, and resolve yourself to a life of watching television programs in hour-long increments?

Nah. Things are bad right now, but they're not that bad. Although Bob Saget does return to prime time TV next month, so you might want to keep the gravedigger on speed dial.

Until then, there are still a few shows out there trying to squeeze some life out of the spent orange rind that is the half-hour sitcom format -- and they all seem to have a few things in common. Our favorite half-hour programs take chances. They eschew the "seemingly harmless misundertanding results in 26 minutes of hilarious consequences" rut in which so many other shows seem to find themselves. Instead, the best half-hour programs of today defy the sitcom conventions that have been carved in stone since Jack Tripper first ran afoul of the Ropers. They chart out new territory. Most important, they make us laugh.

It's probably a coincidence that most of them also happen to be animated.

That's not to say programming that features flesh-and-blood actors isn't worth the occasional look-see. Everybody Loves Raymond and King of Queens don't exactly have premises that split the atom or reinvent the wheel. What they do have is solid writing, great casts, and not a single one of the urbane hipsters NBC likes to stick in its sitcoms within a 500-yard radius of the cameras. If other sitcoms followed the lead set by Raymond and King of Queens, we'd be living in a golden age. That the two shows bookend Yes, Dear tells you that we are not.

Good Eats -- reason enough to call up your cable operator and threaten bodily harm if you don't get wired up for the Food Network -- doesn't purport to be a sitcom. And yet, there were few funnier moments on TV this past season than watching Good Eats host Alton Brown mimic the opening sequence of Mission Impossible 2 for an episode on the wonders of poaching. When Good Eats isn't making us laugh, it's teaching us important life lessons about canola oil's smoke point and the right bowl for whisking up a good batch of flan. And say all you want about the relative merits of Frasier or Friends, but when was the last time either of those shows taught you how to make a kick-ass chocolate mousse? We'll take our man Alton Brown over Kelsey Grammer, David Schwimmer and all the rest of their poseur pals any day of the week and twice on Sundays (when Good Eats episodes sometimes air commercial-free, as a matter of fact).

But if you want truly innovative programming these days, you'd best start favoring ink and paint over flesh and blood. For the best in half-hour programming -- in the 2000-01 season, at least -- cartoons reign supreme.

In a sense, it's almost unfair to compare animated sitcoms with their live-action counterparts. An animated show can tweak the rules and conventions of prime-time programming to the breaking point in a way that live-action productions can only imagine in their most liquor-besotted dreams. A cartoon -- be it of the after-school, Saturday morning, or prime time varieties -- can bend, mutilate and spindle its characters without any consequence. Try that with a live-action show, and you've got, well, Meego.

Try suggesting a couple of years ago that animation was the best thing going for prime time TV, and people would have looked at you like you just toasted the Queen's health in a Belfast pub. That was back in the days when network executives -- seduced by the success of The Simpsons and King of the Hill and always looking for ways to produce programming on the cheap -- flooded the airwaves with one terrible cartoon after another. But after a brief but thorough winnowing-out period -- goodbye, Dilbert; see you in hell, PJs -- the lackluster to just-plain-awful shows were sent off to the woodshed, leaving the solid to spectacular animated series to give live-action shows a run for their money.

What that leaves us with are shows like The Simpsons, a program praised so lavishly by so many people that entire thesauruses have been worn down to the nub as etymologists work feverishly to invent new superlatives. Yeah, the show can be uneven, and any Simpsons fan worth his or her salt can recount the litany of ways the series isn't as good as it used to be. But consider that there are probably fans of the show that weren't even alive when The Simpsons debuted -- and yet it still delivers the comedic goods at a more-than-respectable clip.

When Bob Saget can make that claim, we'll lay off.

Daria hasn't scaled the absurdist heights of The Simpsons. But it does provide a nicely skewed look at the world of high school, infusing its characters with more depth than all the standard-issue sitcoms in prime time put together. That it happens to provide a unique, intelligent brand of humor on MTV -- a channel whose programming increasingly feels like a continuous advertisement for something horrible, ugly and loud -- may be its most amazing accomplishment of all.

Malcolm in the Middle isn't an animated series -- but it might as well be. It has that same "Anything for a laugh and to hell with the time-space continuum" mentality that has been the bread and butter for shows like The Simpsons for years. No detail is too small to escape the notice of Malcolm's producers, no visual aside so insignificant that it doesn't make for a good throwaway joke. In fact, some of the best jokes on the series this season -- a choir of military school cadets practicing a swinging rendition of "The Candy Man," or any shot of Erik Per Sullivan staring wordlessly into space -- take place in the background while the main plot chugs ahead on center stage. Perhaps the best compliment we can pay Malcolm is that the show holds up under repeat viewings -- you get to see some the jokes you missed the first time around because you were laughing so much at the rest of the show.

But as good as all of those programs are, they're no match for our winner of the Best Half Hour Award. In just its third season, Futurama has long since dropped the distinction of being Matt Groening's other show to make its case for being the best program on network TV.

Futurama boasts some impressively rich and detailed animation -- you almost have to watch the show on freeze frame to catch the many textures and visual gags that comprise the background. But the richness of the Futurama palette extends to the writing as well. Few other shows have as many tricks in their repertoire, let alone pull them off as masterfully as Futurama does week after week.

You like a little pop culture-skewering with your programming? This season alone, Futurama featured shout-outs to M*A*S*H, "The Cider House Rules," "Fantastic Voyage," and "The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island." Big fan of silly comedy? In that Harlem Globetrotters episode, Futurama posits that the Trotters are extraterrestrials from a distant galaxy who travel the universe challenging planets to basketball contests in which nothing -- not even the fate of civilization -- is at stake. You want comedy that rises into the rarefied air of brilliance? Turns out the Globetrotters are also brilliant astrophysicists -- astrophysicists who dismiss rival scientists as "jive turkeys," but astrophysicists nevertheless.

It's also worth noting that while Futurama can deliver the funny in heaping doses, it can also be fairly touching when it tries. This season's "Luck of the Fryrish" episode dealt with estrangement, loss and reconciliation, without ever resorting to maudlin manipulation or overwrought pathos. Another show tries that, and it comes across as a transparent Emmy grab. Futurama pulls it off because the writers respect both the characters they created and the audience they're addressing.

But Futurama's greatest feat may have occurred in the episode in which Fry's girlfriend from the 20th Century shows up in Futurama's world of the distant future. A minor plot point in that episode involves Pauly Shore -- the wretched comic and past winner of Worst Actor honors here at TeeVee -- getting thawed out of hibernation for the 1,000th anniversary screening of one of his horrible movies. In the Futurama universe, however, Pauly reveals that he became so interested in biospheres and environmental studies during the filming of Bio-Dome that he pursued an advanced degree in that subject. He now goes by the name of Dr. Paul Shore.

For making us laugh at a Pauly Shore performance, Futurama deserves a MacArthur Genius grant, or maybe a share of the Nobel Prize. In the meantime, our silly Best Half-Hour Show award will have to do.

Additional contributions to this article by: Philip Michaels.


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