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TeeVee Awards '04: The Year of Living Blandly

We blame it on the boob.

That’s a simplification, perhaps. After all, the 2003-2004 television season was off to a lackluster enough start long before Janet Jackson — aided and abetted by slack-jawed goon Justin Timberlake — decided to give the Western hemisphere some up-close-and-personal time with one of her mammaries. By the time the Super Bowl rolled around, the vast majority of an uninspiring crop of new fall shows had careened into the gutter, while an equally uninspiring crop of midseason replacements waited in the wings for their turn to fail miserably. Nearly 12 months after these shows debuted, we’d be hard-pressed to recall a single detail about any one of them — wait a minute, someone tried to Americanize Coupling? — and not because they were terrible (well… the Americanized Coupling was), but because they were so aggressively forgettable.

But who can blame the creators of such transitory pap like Happy Family and The Handler and whatever mediocrities ABC unleashed upon the world this year? After all, these days, “pedestrian” and “workman-like” are the hallmarks of successful network programming. The No. 1 show in the country last season (C.S.I.) was a by-the-numbers crime drama where the storytelling has become so predictable, it wouldn’t surprise us if the authors of the For Dummies series of books were trying their hand at episodic television. The most-watched comedy (Friends) officially celebrated a half-decade of being past its prime; its long-overdue departure from the airwaves leaves a handful of aging sitcoms (chief among them Everybody Loves Raymond and the wheezing Will & Grace) fighting for the abandoned title of Best Show to Overstay Its Welcome. Even the top-rated reality program (Survivor) wrapped up its season with an ill-considered All-Star edition, assailing us with that most hateful of reality-programming side-effects — the over-exposed contestant (the thrice-damned Rupert) who won’t get off our TV. Ever.

That was the climate in the TV world, just as Janet Jackson’s wardrobe was planning to malfunction — a landscape fraught with creative cowardice and focus-group-spawned compromise, where show-runners ran from risk like five-year-old-boys fleeing from cooties. So you can imagine that once Jackson’s nipple made its cameo appearance to a secretly-titilated-though-publicly-aghast-for-the-children’s-sake world, any chance we had of seeing anything remotely provocative or risky on television for the remainder of the season disappeared faster than the halftime show participants’ dignity. And things only figure to get even more tepid and watered-down for years to come.

Thanks, Janet and Justin. Thanks a lot. We’ll think of you every time we see John Goodman firing off stilted punchlines to the laff-track’s canned delight from now until the ending of time.

Not that the here-and-now is much of a paradise for your TeeVee pals. This is about the time of year when we dole out some virtual hardware to the both the very best and very worst of the past 12 months as part of our annual TV awards. And as we scoured the airwaves for programs that either scaled the heights or plumbed the depths of what this medium has to offer, what we discovered was an industry content to ride a wave of non-threatening mediocrity. Forget about aiming high and missing — most network shows aren’t even bothering to aim at all. In our search for television’s superlatives, all we found was sameness. And that’s not very good for those of us in the business of handing out fake awards.

Maybe you noticed this, too. And maybe you’ve noticed a few more tumbleweeds than usual rolling by TeeVee during these sleepy summer months, with the site being updated with all the frequency of an L.A. weather report (sunny… 72 degrees… how’s about that UPN…. Zzzzzzzzzz…..). There are a number of perfectly reasonable explanations for this — we’re not as young and spry as we were back when we started this online punditry gig in 1996. Some of us are raising kids now, others of us have more responsibilities at the day jobs, and still others are beginning to realize that writing online articles about television when the only rewards are no pay and the occasional e-mail from complete strangers complaining about your spelling errors may not be as rewarding a way to spend your free time as it seemed eight years ago. Plus, Michaels drinks a lot.

But the main reason for the precipitous drop-off in TeeVee content over the past few months? Television is really, really uninteresting nowadays. Obviously, great shows are always welcome on our TiVo hard drives. And memorably bad shows — the Single Guys, the assorted Fox Network train wrecks, anything from the Tim Curry or Tony Danza canons — they don’t faze us as much as you think. What we just can’t deal with ‘round these parts, however, is pure, unadulterated, utterly undistinguishable blandness. There’s just so much we can do when the programs we’re supposed to write about are so interchangeably subpar.

We tried. Oh man, how we tried. Last fall, we were filled with ambitious plans about the 2003-2004 season. We were going to review every new show and revisit every returning show and have insightful and original things to say about every last one of them.

Then we actually sat down to watch some of these shows. And it wasn’t long before that plan fell by the wayside.

Take this one show, Happy Family — perfect example. It was about… um… well, we don’t remember exactly and it’s not really germane to the point. Let’s just say it was about this family who bickered and fought and got themselves into situations from which there arose comedy (or so was the plan). You’ve seen that show a thousand times in one form or another. You’ve seen it so much you could probably write such a show yourself. Hell, maybe you even wrote this particular show and have just blotted the experience from your mind. We can’t say we blame you, but again, this isn’t that germane to the point.

That point is this: Happy Family wasn’t all that good, but it wasn’t what you would call rotten — sort of on the bad side of average. The actors were vaguely competent, if laboring under the impression that they had each been cast in different shows. The writing wasn’t particularly inspired, but it gave the impression that it at least came from the laptops of tool-using humans instead of monkeys conscripted to a lifetime of servitude in the basement of the Kaufman-Bright-Crane production offices.

After watching three installments of Happy Family, the above paragraph was the assessment we were prepared to write, give or take a rambling introductory paragraph or three. And then we made the mistake of watching some of the other new fall shows — and damn if our reaction wasn’t exactly the same.

Well, there’s only so many times you can write 500-to-1,000-word reviews that all basically say, “Meh,” while making that wavy “not-so hotso” hand gesture people use when they’re describing a so-so meal at a middling restaurant. So you wind up doing what we did — toss the review in the trash, flip on American Idol and reach for another handful of Cheetos.

That’s our explanation for how things got away from us during the 2003-2004 television season. But it’s not an excuse for putting the annual TeeVee Awards on permanent hiatus. The show must go on, after all, even if that show is an NBC sitcom/vanity project for Whoopi Goldberg in which the former comedienne celebrates an entire decade of being painfully unfunny.

Besides, things may be grim on the TV front right now, but it’s not like we’re another Jason Alexander sitcom away from urging the television networks to just drop all pretense and run test patterns. (We’re two Jason Alexander sitcoms away from doing that. Three tops.) We found more than a few programs worthy of our completely made-up honors. And, while this may come as a complete shock to readers accustomed to our kind and generous natures, we even found a few woeful programs, actors and actresses to gripe and complain about.

Television isn’t completely dead — not as long as we can still find fantastic programs like Scrubs, Without A Trace, The Amazing Race and Arrested Development somewhere on the dial. And so the TeeVee awards aren’t either.

But don’t be surprised if halfway through these things, one of us whips out our boob to spice things up, OK?


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