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A television season about … nothing

May 28, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Season Zero. Or, more accurately, Season Zero Zero. It ended in 2001, just last week in fact, but it started in 2000 and so Season Zero Zero is as good a thing to call it as any. Maybe even Season Zero Zero Zero, since there’s three zeros in 2000. Or, uh-Season-Less-Than-Zero? Season Nothing? Well, you get the idea, if it can qualify as an idea: This is was not a TV season rife with the major and the memorable.
We were all just worried sick about the Writers Strike, as we hadn’t perhaps worried about anything since the terrifying Y2K Crisis, and then when it didn’t happen, it was almost a letdown. People were curious to see how the networks would function-or if they could-with the computers all quiet and the specter of writerless television programs looming. A lot of us poor, confused TV critics conjured prime-time schedules made up of nothing but mind-sapping reality shows, a huge step down, of course, from those far superior mind-sapping fantasy shows. And then again, it you’re going to have your mind sapped, does it really matter which format actually does the sapping?
As the season ends, the degree to which “reality” shows are real is being called into question just about everywhere you look. What’s also open to question is how wildly out of hand this trend is really going to get. Yes, CBS scored huge numbers with the second “Survivor” and huger still when the second “Survivor” had its inevitable finale in which the winner was revealed. But for all the advertisers shelling out big bucks and clamoring to get on board, and for all the generous hype given the show even by competing networks such as NBC, “Survivor II” didn’t go out with anywhere near the bang of “Survivor I.” Indeed, if you listened carefully, the dawn of a yawn could be heard in the land.
Trends get shorter
Every trend burns out when the excess becomes just too excessive. We are constantly told television is shortening our attention spans. Put those two facts together and you can come to the conclusion, if you want to, that even trends will be shorter in the new Millennium (or the New Melennium, as Mr. Karmazin of CBS would probably like us to call it). If fame is 15 minutes long now, maybe trends are only 20 minutes long. Maybe instead of people saying derisively, “Oh that is so 20th century” or “Oh that is so 1990s,” maybe they are saying-virtually if not literally- “Oh that is so Monday night.” Or “Oh that is so 51/2 hours ago.” Trends will be coming and going faster than weekly magazines will even be able to write about them. Yes, yes, no doubt about it: The trend today is toward shorter trends.
In the ’50s, the dominant TV ratings measurement service was called Trendex. Maybe it’s time to bring that back. But it could be a trend measurement service, and it could be called Extrend. It would be handy for people who don’t like a certain trend because they’d check the schedule and discover they need only wait a week or two for it to be over. And then, on to the next fleeting, fantastic, earthshaking sensation.
It’s the chad
Above and beyond the fake reality television, real reality television provided the season’s most riveting moments, and yet many of these had a comic-operetta wackiness about them: those endlessly repeated shots of vote counters in Florida holding up ballots to see if their chads were dangling. It sounds indecent. In a way it was. How frustrating-and how symbolic-that in these stubbornly inconclusive times, we couldn’t even get a clear fix on who won the race for president. For days and then for weeks we didn’t know who our president was or would be. And it took so long to find out, a lot of people probably stopped caring. They said to themselves, “Well, it serves me right for voting!” And, depending on how badly George W. Bush screws things up, they may think twice before voting next time.
When the results were in, David Letterman summarized them on his “Late Show” in a joke that, when you think about it, is shockingly cynical and grim for mainstream network television. Mr. Letterman said there really was little change in the presidency, that we had merely gone “from a pervert to a pinhead.” The audience laughed and applauded. Wow.
George W. Bush’s first 100 days seemed to make little impact as viewed on television and, indeed, for a president of the United States, Bush generated surprisingly little news himself. He really seemed not so much president as chairman of the board. He was way, way up there in a cold corporate hierarchy so emphatically beyond our control that we had little real interest in it one way or another. George W. Bush seemed to be making the presidency an irrelevancy. Viewers felt far more involved with and had a greater emotional stake in the faux White House of “The West Wing.” Truly.
Scandal fatigue
It’ll take U.S. involvement in a war or a great big Washington scandal to get people interested in the White House again. And in a way, the lack of interest may not be a discouraging sign. Bill Clinton wore everybody out. He made too much damn news. Every day we had to worry about the White House and this over-sexed goof’s latest fiasco. And since he served two terms, he had plenty of time to establish this notion that it’s normal and reasonable for the White House to be big in the news every single day with never ever a break. This is one appealing thing about Bush. He just kind of hides out for long stretches at a time. Maybe he’s napping or playing with his PlayStation 2-or maybe he’s presiding over his brain trust and coming up with startlingly innovative solutions to the problems facing our tremor-stricken technocracy. Well now, don’t laugh-he might have a brain trust! He might be king of his own think tank! But whatever he’s doing, we haven’t heard much about it, and it’s been kinda nice.
The Society of the Perpetually Furrowed Brow would find it alarming that Americans were more interested in who would prove the winner of “Survivor II” than care about the national crisis du jour, foreign or domestic. But Americans are just all newsed out. They’re taking some time off from being overinformed. They can’t be blamed for needing some respite from the scandals, the accusations, the denials, the lies, the cover-ups, the embarrassments and the humiliations.
From Divine to ridiculous
Right now we seem to want a president who can just make his way to the Oval Office without walking into a wall or tripping over the furniture-or stopping for a quickie in the coatroom. Of course, it’s still not entirely clear that George W. Bush is that man. But bless him for the low profile.
As for prime-time television, there wasn’t a lot of breathless excitement there either. Yours truly pronounced “Bette,” with Bette Midler, the best new sitcom of the season when it premiered last fall on CBS, but as the weeks went quickly by, the show appeared to
lack even a token reason for existence beyond bolstering Bette’s bank account. Every episode seemed to be about how much trouble it is to be a big wonderful superstar (albeit one who lived in a ludicrously average-looking house), and America had every right not to give a darn. Some members of the supporting cast were creepy. Midler had obviously exerted her influence to have a chubby guy cast as her husband so she would look even trimmer and fitter than she already did.
The Lucylike slapstick was fun to a point, but then it began to seem like extraneous exertion. Midler was working way too hard for far too little return. She’ll survive though, just fine, and can console herself with the knowledge that such superstars of the past as James Stewart, Bing Crosby and even Much-Loved-Lucy suffered the tiny trauma of having starred in flop television shows.
I chose “Ed” as the best new drama even though it has a strong comic element. The show was lighter than air when it started and then appeared to get lighter still as the weeks went by. If it gets any lighter it will simply float away, following the opposite trajectory of Forrest Gump’s famous feather. But for now, it’s encouraging that such a kind-hearted television ser
ies has found an audience and been renewed by NBC for next season.
Do you ever remember these unsavory failures: “The Street.” “Freakylinks” and “Normal, Ohio” on Fox? “Tucker,” “Cursed” (so aptly titled, but later “The Weber Show”), “Titans,” “Deadline” and “The Michael Richards Show” on NBC? “The Trouble With Normal” and “Madigan Men” on ABC? “That’s Life” on CBS? Oh wait a minute. “That’s Life” appears to be on next season’s CBS schedule. Ah well. That’s-life?
Finally, the failure that had to cheer all right-thinking Americans, all decent-minded humans, perhaps even all forgiving and beneficent eavesdropping extraterrestrials: The XFL setting new records for low ratings in prime time before finally biting the bullet and being shot in the head-the neatest trick it ever managed to pull off. Of course, its head was its least vulnerable spot. But honey, that show is dead.
You have to look hard for hopeful signs in television these days, but this was different. The failure of the XFL was magnificently, stupendously and ecstatically conspicuous.