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The 2001-2002 TeeVee Awards: Split Decisions

Sit through the last 12 months of television programming that the nation's ever-swelling media conglomerates have beamed our way, and you'd be foolish to reach any other conclusion: The 2001-2002 TV season wasn't all that bad. Stack it up against the Jonathan Silverman-heavy and Kirstie Alley-infused offerings of past seasons, and you might decide that the age we're living in, if not exactly golden, would certainly qualify as one of the other precious metals. Bronze, perhaps, or even electro-plated silver. In the past year alone, we've witnessed the single-camera, shot-on-film sitcom take a tired genre in new directions, the doings on cable TV continue to push its broadcast counterparts to bigger and better things, and the welcome success of a handful of producers who apparently think that television should be more than shows like My Precocious Kids! or TV Police Drama Template No. 73. It's almost enough for those of us who ply our wares in the TV criticism game to stop making up elaborate stories about what we do for a living so that we can avoid the disdainful glances of friends and family.

Then again, sit through the last 12 months of programming swill that the networks have forced down our throats, and only a dullard, nitwit or other member of UPN's core demographic would conclude anything but the following: The 2001-2002 TV season wasn't all that good. Compare it to the swill we've had to watch the past few seasons -- and suddenly the likes of Jonathan Silverman and Kirstie Alley don't sound so bad. Forget the Golden Age of TV -- we're living in the Cubic Zirconium Era. Or maybe you haven't been paying attention to the past 12 months, which have seen the reality TV genre linger and spread like a rash no topical ointment can contain, the cancellation of a handful of promising to brilliant new shows while vanilla-flavored pablum like My Wife and Kids and Yes Dear lives to see another day, and the continued employment of David E. Kelley. Taken all together, it's enough to make us keep telling our next-door neighbors, ex-girlfriends and spinster aunts that this Web site we work for traffics strictly in puppet porn. Anything's better than admitting we sat through Emeril last fall.

It's a funny thing about the 2001-2002 season -- neither of the above paragraphs is technically incorrect. You could stack them together, one right after the other, and while most of the time, you'd give the impression that the author is confused or contradicting himself or not taking his meds in strict accordance with the schedule prescribed by his medical team, this time you'd be spot on. The past year in television offered a decidedly mixed bag -- Scrubs and a musical Buffy episode and the return of Judd Apatow to network TV on the one hand; Bob Patterson and B-list celebrity boxing matches and the return of Jon Seda on the other. You try coming up with a definitive way of summing up a season that served up equal helpings of good and awful. Us, we'll stick with bipolar opening paragraphs, thank you very much.

Or we could turn to the words of a man born 190 years before Bachelorettes in Alaska would darken our airwaves. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness... it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair." Charles Dickens was probably nowhere near a TV set when he wrote that, but he sounds exactly like a fellow who just got done watching The Tick only to learn it's being pre-empted next week for Temptation Island II. Then again, Chuck also wrote "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done," which is exactly the sort of thing NBC's Jeff Zucker would say before announcing that Inside Schwartz gets the 8:30 p.m. on Thursdays time slot behind Friends.

It's easy to dwell on the negative -- especially when it could be so easily found in NBC's Thursdays at 8:30 time slot. Each year, we have to endure a parade of new programs, which -- with a little bit of luck and a modest amount of effort -- rise to the level of mediocre and forgettable. UC: Undercover, Philly, That '80s Show -- honestly, does anybody remember a thing about any of these shows, other than we didn't watch them? The Agency -- did anybody watch a minute of that last year? What? It's still on the air? Good Christ. Where the hell have we been the last 12 months?

Sorting the middling from the bland -- trying to tell Judging Amy apart from Crossing Jordan, say, without resorting to hairstyles -- is a walk in the park compared to dealing with the truly wretched programs that come our way each season. The best we hope for is that as soon as the shows arrive with a thud, they fade quickly from the memory without leaving lasting psychological scars before more pablum rises to take their place. And if not -- well, enjoy season number two of Reba, folks. This fall on the WB!

Someone kick us in the head now, please.

Of course, it's not all sackcloth-and-ashes-time here in TeeVee Land. A handful of developments, cancellations and all-out failures have given us... well, not optimism. We haven't had any of that since we found out that Baby Bob is returning to network television next season. But less despair. Decidedly less despair.

With the exception of Survivor -- really, the only well-executed reality TV show -- the Temptation Islands and Moles and Elimidate Deluxes of the world have withered up and died before securing themselves barnacle-like onto the prime-time lineup. The triumphant return of a Bob Saget-led family sitcom to network TV was mercifully short-lived. Fox sent the used-up and played-out Ally McBeal to the boneyard. And ER, while still retaining an inexplicably large viewing audience, has lost its grip on the top-rated-drama perch -- a sign that perhaps the populace at large is catching on to the notion that the show hasn't been all that compelling since long before George Clooney was assumed bodily into big-screen stardom.

There's other reasons to feel good about the past year in television, beyond the bad-things-happening-to-bad-shows schadenfreude that's become our stock-in-trade. Good things. Positive things. Things deserving of compliments -- and very few of the left-handed variety, too.

Turn on cable these days, and you're just as likely to stumble across honest-to-goodness outstanding original programming as you are Miami Vice reruns and continuously looping "Pearl Harbor" screenings. No Sopranos this year? Not to worry -- HBO can offer up any one of a number of top-flight shows in its stead: Six Feet Under, Oz, Band of Brothers... Arli$$.

Just checking to see if you're still paying attention.

About this time last year, we were ready to head on down to the local mortuary to start pricing funeral arrangements for the weak and sickly sitcom genre. We've still the priest, florist and gravedigger on speed-dial, but we're pleased to see that a number of half-hour comedies are eschewing the live-before-a-studio-audience tedium in favor of putting their own distinctive stamp on the format. Malcolm in the Middle was joined this year by Scrubs, Andy Richter Controls the Universe and The Bernie Mac Show as the shows doing their best to save the sitcom genre from an eternity of kooky misunderstandings, wacky next-door neighbors and Tony Danza as a single parent with a house full of smart-mouthed kids.

Speaking of Scrubs, Andy Richter and Bernie Mac, those three happen to be among the strongest crop of rookie shows to come along in recent memory. Along with that trio, include Alias, 24, Undeclared, Thieves, and The Tick, and you've got a lineup of shows strong enough to make us wonder why we ever got so grumpy about this state-of-TV business in the first place. Of course, considering that the last three shows we mentioned wound up cancelled, we can remember why pretty quickly.

Still, that hasn't stopped us from having to sort through a rather strong and eclectic field of nominees for the annual TeeVee Awards -- and not just for the Worst Of categories, where the competition is usually three or four shows deep. The competition for Best Show, Best Actor, Best Actress -- all spirited and lively debates with nary a winner-by-default or a weary Vidiot sighing, "Oh, let's just give the award to Sarah Michelle Gellar again... maybe this is the year she shows up in person to accept the trophy." Things turned out to be so competitive, in fact, that we wound up having to invent awards, just so worthy contenders like The Job and Home Movies wouldn't get hosed out of taking home one of our meaningless trinkets.

So sit back, kick up your feet and spend the next week sorting through our awards for the Best and Worst of the 2001-2002 television season. Maybe you'll agree with our choices, maybe you won't. Maybe these honors will stand the test of time, or maybe, they'll look as silly in retrospect as when we hailed Jenna Elfman as the best comedic actress of 1997-1998. Our only excuse is that those first six episodes of Dharma and Greg were really good stuff. That, and we used to drink quite heavily.

But whatever your thoughts on the awards in particular or the 2001-2002 television season in general, we suggest you keep them to yourself. There's nobody here but us puppet pornographers, remember?

Additional contributions to this article by: Philip Michaels.


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