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TeeVee Awards '04: Most Disappointing Show

If we could, we’d take the trophy for most disappointing show, chop it into dozens of pieces, and mail each one off to nearly every show that reached the airwaves last year. That may be the only way to completely and accurately recognize just how lackluster the 2003-2004 TV season was. Shows that aimed high fell flat — assuming they even bothered to have any ambition at all outside of padding their episode total to bolster their syndication value.

Take the top-rated program in the land, CSI. (Believe us, we are as shocked typing that sentence as you are reading it.) CSI’s narrative abilities will never make anyone forget Tolstoy, but in the show’s early years at least, it managed to blend an interesting storytelling style with just enough geekery to freshen up the tried-and-true crime-stopping genre. Sadly, for reasons known only to Anthony Zuiker’s accountant, the show got away from that this season, instead favoring plotlines that involved increasingly lurid sex crimes and ill-conceived personal revelations about CSI’s cast of ciphers. But why worry about petty details like writing when you’ve got to knock out pilots for CSI: Portland, CSI: Phoenix-Scottsdale and CSI: Tri-State Area so that Les Moonves can fulfill his dream of an all-CSI prime-time lineup by 2008?

Or, take The West Wing, finally freed from tyrannical rule of Aaron Sorkin (motto: who needs continuity when you can have characters spouting off arcana about jai alai and the Missouri Compromise?). Who would have guessed that the price of coherent plotlines from week-to-week would wind up being an infusion of ER-style soapiness? Probably anyone paying attention to what’s become of ER over the years, actually… but still, a disappointing turn of events, nonetheless.

Even Scrubs — a show we happen to enjoy, by the by — disappointed us this season by going to the romantic tension well once too often. Yes, we know, Scrubs producers… will-they-or-won’t-they romances are the hallmark of post-Cheers sitcoms, and Mr. Zucker was probably most insistent that you go back to having J.D. and Elliot making goo-goo eyes at one another. But that didn’t make the decision any less disastrous. Fortunately, you seem to have realized the error of your ways, though not soon enough to salvage the last couple of episodes from last season. We only hope that you continue to keep these two characters far apart from each other — make like a junior-high dance chaperone and use a yardstick to separate them if you have to — because we don’t want to be repeating this conversation at this time next year.

We could go on in this vein for some time, flipping randomly through TV Guide and detailing how the shows listed on each page have wronged us over the past 12 months. But you probably get the point — last season was a double-dog drag for nearly everybody concerned. Besides, while we’re famous for our crippling indecision with the TeeVee Awards, we do like to avoid the embarrassment of 128-way ties. And all this kvetching about the rotten state of television in this, the 2,004th year of our Lord, is not getting us any closer to uncovering the one program that disappointed us more than all the rest.

Because, for all the uninspired mediocrity to be found up and down the dial this past season, there was one show whose return we anticipated and whose subsequent performance left us scratching our heads and wondering what the hell happened. Only it didn’t originate from this side of the Atlantic.

We’ve had nothing but nice things to say about Coupling over the years — largely because the first three season’s worth of episodes provide some of the best laughs you’ll ever enjoy courtesy of a television program. Great writing, a terrific cast, an ever-changing arsenal of narrative tricks — you can understand while we were waiting for the fourth season of Coupling to make its way over to BBC America with the same giddy anticipation that kids wait for Christmas.

Only this was the Christmas when Santa brought socks. And really itchy socks at that.

To be fair, at least one episode from this season — the brilliant “Night Lines” — deserves instant induction in the TV Comedy Hall of Fame for wringing laughs out an unending, episode-long phone conversation involving the entire six-person cast. But the other episodes ranged from middling to “Did somebody accidentally swap in a tape of the NBC version of Coupling by mistake?”

And here’s the funny thing: we have no idea why. It’s not like we have any special insight into the inner workings of Coupling. (Really. We don’t. We can’t emphasize this enough. Please don’t write.) But if we might be allowed to just spitball for a moment here…

  • Maybe it was the predictability. For all its narrative acrobatics — flashbacks, nonlinear narration, the same scene shot from different points of view — Coupling can be a little formulaic. (Unusual narrative device! Sexual frank catchphrase of the week! Ever-escalating series of misunderstandings! Steve’s episode-concluding exasperated monologue on the differences between men and women!) Most of the time, we hardly even notice Coupling’s assorted tics and idiosyncrasies; this year, for whatever reason, the wires were more visible.
  • Maybe it was the change in cast members. We have no idea why Richard Coyle left the show. (Again, no letters!). All we do know is that he left, and his absence was badly felt. Richard Mylan is a probably a nice guy and a fine actor, but his character was a little too much like Coyle’s Jeff in some aspects (sexually frustrated to the point of madness) and a little too unlike him in others (being funny). It’s not a very fair comparison, stacking up the character who’s been written off the show with the one who replaced him, but it’s a comparison that, fair or not, is going to be made. And, for this season at any rate, Mylan’s Oliver came up on the short end.
  • Maybe it was the baby. Pregnancy plotlines have doomed more shows on this side of the pond than pinkslip-happy Fox executives. Why should British shows be immune from the ravages that adding a baby (or even the possibility of a baby) can wreak upon a comedy?

Or maybe it was a combination of all three things. Whatever the reason, we didn’t care for what we saw, certainly not in the ecstatic way we cared for the 22 episodes that preceded this year’s run.

Not that we’re about to write this show off. According to our friend, the Internet, a fifth season of Coupling is in the works. Since the people involved with the show are the same folks who turned in such memorable work before, we have every bit of confidence that our disappointment with the last round of Coupling is just a momentarily blip. Our disappointment with television as a whole? Not so temporary. But Coupling, we’re willing to give another chance along with our dubious award.

Additional contributions to this article by: Philip Michaels.


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