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

TeeVee Awards 2001: Best New Shows

When awards time rolls around, things at TeeVee get heated. This is mainly because the COO won't allow us to run the air conditioners lest we end up like Salon, begging our readers for spare change from under the sofa cushions. It is also because this is when all of us Vidiots start lobbying for our favorite shows and actors for various Best awards. This usually results in brain-bending arguments, lifelong hatreds, and a motley collection of weird fringe series -- many no longer on the air -- and offbeat (read: funny-looking) talent.

This year was no exception (names being bandied about variously were Gideon's Crossing, Michael Ian Black, Alyson Hanigan, and Peter Boyle) but for one category: The Best New Show of the 2000-01 Season. For that coveted award, the field was split only between four shows, each clearly a stand-out such that none could deny them. And CSI, which we're pretty sure only made it that far because Schmeiser gets two votes (you can guess why).*

And yet we had to choose only one show. Except we couldn't. So we chose two.

All of the Best New Show nominees had this in common: They tapped the mallet a few more times on that stake through the heart of the traditional sitcom. But none of them as much as Ed and The Job, both of which, ten years ago, would have been imagined as standard three-room set, three-camera, shoulder-height, laugh-track, filmed-before-a-live-studio-audience, grade triple-Z crap.

Not today. Not in this world with The Sopranos eating away at that prime-time network audience. Today, the ascending TV series form is the dramedy (a portmanteau term that'd make us gag if we didn't recall that "sitcom" wasn't exactly handed down to us from Cicero).

Ed is the dramedy defined and refined. Fourteen years ago thirtysomething was called a dramedy, but what it was really was melodrama with mumbling and the occasional joke. Ed perfectly mixes humor ranging from sitcom-level contrivance (as when Phil tries to drum up demand for his so-called Fine Corinthian Turkeys) to detailed character-based observations (during most of the scenes between Coach Kerwin and Ed as the coach was being sued for giving a D to a college-bound student). The show manages to swing between near-slapstick and deep, strong emotions. It contains the stuff of life: Love, death, friendship, family.

Better yet, Ed, unlike so many shows, doesn't just pat the heads of these as plot points on its way to wrapping up the storyline. These are the storyline, more often than not. Perhaps there's some silly courtroom thing going on, but who cares? Most times the show is at its best when it forgets about the silly lawyer-who-owns-a-bowling-alley premise, and gets up to eye-level with its characters. Maybe the only excuse for Ed to meet Molly's grandfather, Charlie, was that Ed was a lawyer and Charlie needed a will written up. But what we remember is when Charlie talks about discovering he was gay -- after his wife of 35 years died -- and he says, "Isn't that the damnedest thing?" "Yes sir," says Ed. "That is the damnedest thing."

That's what Ed is about: The damnedest thing.

We're not here to tell you the show is perfect. It's certainly been uneven during this, its first season. In addition to love, death, friendship, and family, there is also Justin Long's Warren Cheswick, whose ejection from the show and subsequent hounding into monastic obscurity was ordered by the Vidiots in a 4-3 vote.

Never mind him, though, or the other sags in the show's line. When Ed worked -- and that was most of the time -- Ed worked. Whether you tuned in for Mike and Ed's running ten dollar gags, for Michael Ian Black's riveting portrayal of a character actor on the edge, or to find out the answer to that age-old question "Will they or won't they?" -- Ed and Molly, that is, not Ed and Carol -- you found something wonderful. And if you didn't tune in, shame on you.

The Job, meanwhile, chose to deconstruct the sitcom from the other direction, and, while it was at it, take apart the hour-long cop drama, too. This would be an impossible case for any but the strongest talents in TV -- and apparently The Job got them. Denis Leary we know is a great, great man. Peter Tolan, Leary's co-writer on the show, hasn't exactly shown great promise in some of his previous writing gigs ("My Fellow Americans," "What Planet Are You From?"), but maybe he's here to write the jokes. The rest of the crew -- ye gods, none of them have done anything worthwhile.

Okay, so The Job is almost entirely Denis Leary's fault. We can live with that.

What Leary has done here is nothing short of amazing: His show could be a sitcom, if it weren't for the fact that it tossed out all the defining sitcom features, like limited sets, stagey blocking, unrealistic lighting, stupid non-plots, poor acting, weak scripts, and the laugh track. In the ritualized Noh play world of the prime time situation comedy, Denis Leary has produced "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." Not just different from what went before, but exposing and exploding what went before.

Also, his show could be a cop drama, if it weren't for the fact that it satirizes cop dramas almost from Act I, Scene I, Shot I. Jettisoned are the portentious plots where noble officers of the law selflessly track down vicious serial killers while schtupping each other in the locker room and hiding all manner of personal mental afflictions. They are replaced by practical jokes involving cadaver feet and the certain knowledge that, whatever happens, tomorrow is just another day on the job.

Leary deserves even more points for his portrayal of a character few actors would attempt, especially on the small screen: A drug-abusing, hard-drinking, womanizing, profane and profligate fuck-up. Can't you just see Michael J. Fox in this role, or maybe Steven Weber? Other actors take chances by playing against type -- usually by aiming for Conflicted Hero or Evil Villain. Leary takes a chance by playing to type, inflating his media persona, adding embellishments, and somehow making this likeable.

So Leary's baby is another fine dramedy mixing humor and reality while demolishing the tottering old ideas of what TV could be. One thing the Vidiots can all agree on: Ed and The Job are showing us how truly excellent television can be, and they are the Best New Shows of 2000-01.

* Because Phil always votes the way she tells him to.**

** We're kidding, of course. Not even Lisa could bring herself or Phil to vote for CSI.

Additional contributions to this article by: Chris Rywalt.


TeeVee - About Us - Archive - Where We Are Now

Got a comment? Mail us at teevee@teevee.org.

* * *