The best and worst TV

Jul 9, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The next time NBC Television Network Chairman and CEO Robert Wright sends out a memo seeking to probe the popularity of HBO’s dark dramedy “The Sopranos,” he should consider addressing it to the nation’s TV critics.
The critics responding to Electronic Media’s spring 2001 critics poll handed “Sopranos,” the perversely funny Mafioso sendup, a narrow 1-point win–443 to 442–over NBC’s high-minded drama “The West Wing” (see chart, Page 18), voting to give the 3-year-old HBO show the best-series laurel. In what has grown to become perhaps the most intense rivalry ever between two dramas, “West Wing” won best series in EM’s winter 2000 and 1999 polls, with “The Sopranos” topping the polls for spring 2000 and spring 1999 in EM’s twice-yearly canvassing.
Meanwhile, Fox’s off-kilter family sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle” won for best comedy for the third consecutive time (dating back to its premiere in EM’s spring 2000 poll) and ranked as third-best TV series overall. The WB’s promising new dramedy “Gilmore Girls” held on to the fourth-best series rank it earned last winter but grabbed honors as the highest-voted freshman series for the season after NBC’s equally quirky “Ed” dropped seven notches to rank as the 10th-best series overall. In a bittersweet note for The WB, 6-year-old drama “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” moved up a notch to the fifth-best series–just as it prepares to make its controversial move to UPN’s 8 p.m. (ET) Tuesday time slot next fall.
Broadcasting’s boundaries
On the heels of writing a memo to 50 network and studio executives that was leaked to the media last May, Mr. Wright’s opening of the debate on whether a cable program like “Sopranos” could ever be done for broadcast TV may have heightened awareness of the lack of boundaries curtailing pay TV services such as HBO. At the same time, Mr. Wright’s memo sparked internal and external debates over whether the broadcast networks could produce shows like “The Sopranos” or HBO’s “Sex and the City” within the content guidelines that apply to the advertiser-supported broadcast networks.
“Bob’s intentions should be taken at his word about creating a dialog for what is appropriate for pay television and broadcast television,” said Brad Grey, who executive-produces “The Sopranos” (with David Chase) for HBO and “Just Shoot Me” for NBC. “I do know in talking to Bob that he was trying to instigate creativity, which also presupposes that [“The Sopranos”] is creative, and we take that as a great compliment.”
“I think that the idea that you can produce with less restrictions is self-evident,” added Mr. Grey, whose production company Brad Grey Television was also behind HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show.” “But that does not suggest there aren’t enormous advantages to producing in other ways to much larger audiences and the broader promotional and ratings platforms broadcast networks offer.”
What might have touched off HBO executives, though, was Mr. Wright sending out the episode of “The Sopranos” in which Tony Soprano’s wacko capo Ralph Cifaretto (played by Joe Pantoliano) beats his mistress to death in a very graphic scene.
“All [Mr. Wright] seemed to be saying was that `Sopranos’ could not air on broadcast TV because of the violence and profanity, which, in tackling the subject about the underbelly of the criminal underworld, is something that the cable networks can only do,” said HBO’s president of original programming, Chris Albrecht, adding, “Then it is something we’d like to admit we have the guts to do. He did not say [`Sopranos’] was good, and it sounded like sour grapes more than anything else.”
It appears that the nation’s TV critics have interpreted it that way as well. Seventy percent (31 of 44 respondents) of those polled said a show such as “The Sopranos” could not work on broadcast television. Critics appeared to be in consensus that a broadcast version of “The Sopranos” would lead to a severely watered-down and censored variation on the gritty mobster premise.
“No way could `The Sopranos’ air on a commercial broadcast network–nor should it,” said Mike Duffy, TV critic for the Detroit Free Press. “Any broadcast network beholden to advertisers would have to eliminate the graphic profanity, violence and sexual scenes. And they would force David Chase to turn brilliance into banality, dumbing down the show with more conventional and cliched stories and more `likable’ characters. Only a pay cable channel like HBO can boldly program such a bodaciously original adult series. So tell Bob Wright to quit kvetching and start putting a little more thought into the Peacock Network’s abysmal development of new comedy series.”
“[Broadcast] networks are too simply focused on pleasing to challenge TV formulas. Every cliche that `The Sopranos’ has resisted in casting, music, storytelling and dialogue would be shoehorned into the [broadcast version],” said Eric Deggans of the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times. “Network television already did that gangster series–it was `Falcone,’ and it lasted about four weeks on CBS last year.”
“It’s not likely `The Sopranos’ could survive [broadcast] network development,” said Rick Kushman of The Sacramento Bee. “The problem would not be the loss of sex, language or violence [but] the removal of nuance and uncertainty. The series’ brilliance comes through in its subtext and complexity–networks hate complexity. The irony is probably the only `cable-style feature’ that would survive would be the violence, and that’s the least necessary.”
`Sopranos’ lite
Yet there are a handful of critics who think the broadcast networks could produce a “Sopranos”-like drama, but it would take a major change in heart from the standards and practices censors monitoring violence and other explicit content.
“`The Sopranos’ could work on network television if creator and executive producer David Chase was given the freedom, with no interference from skittish network programming minions,” suggested a somewhat guarded Monica Collins of The Boston Herald.
“Yes, I think it could,” said Heather Svokos of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Examiner, adding, “Although it would face its challenges, since the language and violence give `The Sopranos’ a sense of reality, there’s no reason a network show can’t be that well-written, that cinematic and have characters who are that complex.”
Some critics also suggested “The Sopranos”’ delayed season premiere in March (compared to a December 2000 start previously) kept the show fresher in the minds of critics, who seemed torn between the guilty pleasures of the Mafioso family drama and the lofty ideals of “West Wing.”
“It might have been … in the top of critics’ minds because we still had new episodes of `The Sopranos’ past May as `West Wing’ was going into repeats. But my No. 1 vote was with the latter,” said The Cincinnati Enquirer’s John Kiesewetter, who also serves as president of the Television Critics Association. “ `West Wing,’ even when it vividly illustrates the flaws of its characters, also seeks to instill America’s political leaders with a sense of nobility in doing public service.”
Given the seesaw battle for best series over the past four polls, Aaron Sorkin, creator and executive producer of “The West Wing,” did not seem surprised that “The Sopranos” won by its narrowest margin ever. “We keep switching places, but it is our understanding that some of the critics in Florida may have had flawed butterfly and hanging-chad ballots,” he joked.
Moreover, Mr. Sorkin said that as different in tone and intent as “The West Wing” is to “The Sopranos,” the competition is “healthy” for television.
“Bob was not coming down on `The Sopranos’ but rather was asking how [broadcast] network television can keep with the cable networks’ continuous testing of the creative boundaries,” Mr. Sorkin said. “`Sopranos,’ the way it is now, could not work on [broadcast] network television. David Chase is a brilliant producer, but he is not the type of person who would ever modify his creative vision for the show to f
all within the prism of content constraints placed on the broadcast networks.”
“West Wing” is coming off a record nine Emmy awards for the last season, the most ever for a single drama (let alone for a freshman series), but Mr. Sorkin demurred from predicting whether the show would repeat with an outstanding-drama Emmy for its sophomore season. For “The Sopranos,” which has not been able to convert a nomination for outstanding drama into an Emmy statuette, Mr. Albrecht acknowledged the series may still have an uphill battle this season.
“These are two such dissimilar shows, and `West Wing’ had such an incredible buzz and had a record Emmy haul for a first-year series, so we’re not about to entertain the thought of a sophomore jinx,” Mr. Albrecht said.
`Malcolm’ in the win column
There is little debate among critics, however, about Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle” owning the comedy category for 21/2 seasons running. It just seems critics and viewers can’t get enough of Malcolm, who is played by Frankie Muniz, especially as he starts to enter the awkward pre-adolescence stage in addition to having a dysfunctional family.
“`Malcolm in the Middle’ [has] a terrific cast [and] great writing and direction, making this show the funniest on television,” said Jay Handelsman of the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune. “Even Frankie Muniz’s growth spurt has been wonderfully factored into the story line.”
“We can’t deny it, because Malcolm and his brothers are growing and their hormones–like any other older kids and teens–are shooting around like pinballs,” said Linwood Boomer, executive producer and creator of the hit 8:30 p.m. Sunday Fox series. “But, I don’t want to do a hot-pants–type show, because we still want to keep it a family show and not turn it into a teen sex romp. All I can promise is that the kids try to get involved [in dating], where we find they aren’t having a good time because they’re miserable at it.”
More than a few critics also cited other cast members, such as Jane Kaczmarek and Bryan Cranston, who play Malcolm’s parents, for bringing an added comedic dimension to the show.
Specifically, the critics lauding “Malcolm” also throw their best-series votes behind multigenerational family shows, including “Gilmore Girls,” CBS’s “Everybody Loves Raymond” (ranked sixth), ABC’s “Once and Again” (ninth) and Fox’s “The Simpsons” (11th).
“It might not be entirely evident at 8 p.m., but the family show is still somewhat of a thriving genre,” said Warner Bros. Television President Peter Roth, whose studio produces “Gilmore Girls” and “West Wing.” “No matter what the genre is, though, what makes these shows work is having a relatable, well-executed series that uses humor as an added dimension to their storytelling.”
Airing in arguably the toughest time period in television, 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, The WB’s “Gilmore Girls” still found a significant female audience while also drawing broad critical praise for its portrayal of a single mother (Lauren Graham) building a strong bond with her 16-year-old daughter (Alexis Bledel).
“More than any other show, I think most of the critics would say they have been pleasantly surprised by wide audience embrace for `Gilmore Girls,”’ Mr. Kiesewetter said. “There are so many parents who write or tell me that they watch it with their teens and use it as a springboard to a talk about their relationship and any problems their kids might be having.”
Although much of the hype this past season went to the ballyhooed matchup between CBS’s “Survivor: The Australian Outback” (voted seventh-best show) and NBC’s “Friends” (tied at 18th), it was the upstart “Gilmore Girls” that won most of the critical praise.
“The show was a surprise gem that kept getting better, funnier and more hypnotic” as the season progressed, Mr. Kushman said. “The writing is a joy of rhythm and wit.”
“It is so bizarre and wonderful that the critics and audience found us, because we just as easily could have disappeared in that `Survivor’/’Friends’ vortex,” said a somewhat bemused Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator and executive producer of “Gilmore Girls.”
As the first show to get initial script funding from the Family Friendly Program Forum, a consortium made up of 40 major advertisers, the dark horse that was “Gilmore Girls” is now being promoted by The WB into its 8 p.m.-to-9 p.m. Tuesday time slot next season–taking over for the UPN-bound “Buffy.” Ms. Sherman-Palladino feels “Gilmore Girls” has a better shot to broaden its audience (beyond females) and thinks it could give UPN’s competitive 8 p.m. Tuesday slotting of “Buffy” a run for its money, despite her self-professed “fanaticism” for the latter.
“The people who watch `Buffy’ won’t leave their show, but hopefully we’re going to pick up on some viewers who haven’t seen it yet,” Ms. Sherman-Palladino said. “I’ve been a `Buffy’ fanatic for years as well as a huge fan of [series creator] Joss Whedon’s writing, so I think there could be some viewers time-shift recording on their VCRs, but I do think there is big enough pieces of the overall pie for both of us to survive.”
Nevertheless, about 72 percent of the critics polled said they thought that “Buffy’s” move from The WB to UPN set a bad precedent for the network-TV business and placed the popular series on a weaker distribution, programming and ratings platform.
“It simply brings into the open TV’s worst-kept secret–that big media conglomerates often shuttle important properties throughout their organization to benefit the various companies with little or no regard to how it may impact that property or TV in general,” Mr. Deggans said. He was referring to “Buffy’ series producer 20th Century Fox’s Television’s parent company News Corp.’s pending $5.4 billion acquisition of eight UPN affiliates from Chris-Craft Industries.
“All involved can spin the positives of this deal to their heart’s content, but the fact remains that networks now have even less incentive to develop series coming from production companies they don’t control,” he added. “Why build up a hit series with the knowledge that your competitor can steal it away from you at some future date.”
Giving `Buffy’ her props
However, there are some critics who feel The WB should have seen the $2.3 million-per-episode license fee 20th Century Fox Television commanded from UPN as recognition of “Buffy’s” contribution to the growth of the Frog Network–and for how it could bolster the reputation and viewership at UPN.
Alex Strachan, a critic for the Vancouver (British Columbia) Sun, said that although UPN is not considered a “must-see destination,” 20th Century Fox and Mr. Whedon were entitled to some reward for establishing a signature series for The WB. “I don’t buy WB’s argument for a second that they couldn’t afford `Buffy,” he said. “This is a free-market economy; if you can’t afford the show, don’t expect to pay bottom dollar for the simple reason you `stood by it’ all these years. I believe Joss Whedon is entitled to get as much for his show as the market will bear. I think he has earned that right.”
Still, some critics think that UPN’s programming environment, which gets its best ratings from the male-oriented “WWF Smackdown!” will have a negative effect on “Buffy.”
“It only sets a bad precedent for `Buffy,’ which will be surrounded by a sea of lowest-common-denominator schlock on UPN,” proclaimed the Detroit Free Press’ Mr. Duffy.
Another critic, who requested anonymity, joked that UPN “finally has a series that it can claim to be within the top 20 of the EM critics poll.”
Other critics’ darlings
Among the other surprises in the critics poll, freshman series “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” (CBS) and midseason cop dramedy “The Job” (ABC) tied with “Sex and the City” as the 12th best series. “Boston Public” (Fox), creator David Kelley’s look at high school life, moved up two notches to a 15th ranking in the poll. Comedy Central’s topical “Daily Show With John Stewart” made a surprising first-tim
e appearance within the top 20 at a 16th ranking. Making one of the biggest drops–from a 9th ranking position in last winter’s poll–was Emmy Award-winning comedy “Will & Grace” (NBC) to a 21st ranked tie with “The Practice.”
Taking the dubious honor as the top-ranked “worst” series in both of this year’s polls was NBC’s long-departed freshman effort “The Michael Richards Show.” Most notable, though, in the spring’s worst poll was the addition of five alternative/ game show series–“Temptation Island” (Fox), “Chains of Love” (UPN), “Jackass” (MTV) and “The Weakest Link” (NBC)–listed among the 10 biggest stinkers identified by the critics during the spring season (see story, Page 20 ).