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Best & Worst TV

Jan 6, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Like Tony Soprano with his beefy hands around Ralphie’s throat, the Jersey mob drama “The Sopranos” has tightened its grip on television critics across the country. The series, which broke HBO ratings records with its Sept. 4 season premiere, has strong-armed its way back to the top of Electronic Media’s semiannual Critics Poll.

The HBO drama was MIA from the two previous polls only because there had been no new episodes on the air.

Before the season launched, showrunners and executives at the cable network said the series would have a slower, slightly less violent, more internal-than-external-struggle kind of year. Critics have taken note of the change–the bloody beheading of Tony’s onetime confidante Ralphie notwithstanding–and some ranked it lower on their top 10 lists than in the past.

But enthusiasm for the show has not subsided. “Not every episode was a home run, but who swings the bat more adventurously than David Chase?” said TV Guide’s Matt Roush. “All of those who think the show lacks something by not having a higher body count should take note of how wrenchingly this show portrays murder. … It’s still a classic.”

The months-long absence of the show made critics’ hearts grow fonder overall.

“There was a built-up demand, and a built-up level of expectation,” said Carolyn Strauss, HBO’s executive VP of original programming. “Those are two things that can ultimately work against each other. If it had come back and been crappy, then it would’ve burned out quickly with critics and viewers. We’re gratified to see it come back in form and for people to respond to it.”

Some surprises

It’s no real surprise that critics continue to fawn over the Emmy-winning “Sopranos,” but there were some unexpected choices in their top 20 list.

HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” took a giant leap from No. 19 in last summer’s poll to No. 3, becoming the highest-ranked comedy on a drama-heavy list. NBC’s “Boomtown,” from feature film mavens Jon Avnet and Graham Yost, is the highest-ranked new series at No. 4. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which has been as high as No. 4 in previous polls, has now been stuck at No. 20 for the past two tallies.

Critics were asked to rate the best and worst programs of those that aired during the summer or fall of 2002 on network, basic or pay cable. Canceled shows also were eligible.

Fare from basic cable is drawing more critical attention these days, with MTV’s “The Osbournes” and Comedy Central’s “Daily Show With Jon Stewart” both making the best list, and Sci-Fi Channel’s mega-budget epic miniseries “Steven Spielberg Presents Taken” singled out as the top vote-getter in its category. It’s the first time any Sci-Fi project has garnered such a ranking.

Among regular series, Fox’s “24” has been supplanted in the No. 1 spot, where it appeared in the previous two polls, but comes in a strong second.

NBC’s “The West Wing” slipped to No. 6, its lowest-ever ranking among the dozens of newspaper and magazine critics who participate in the tally. The White House drama had been ensconced in one of the top three spots since its premiere.

Five new series rank

Most critics said they found little that was innovative or groundbreaking among new prime-time offerings. But they still placed five new series, including “Boomtown,” in the top 20. Reviewers responded to a mixed bag of gritty, wacky and wholesome, from HBO’s “The Wire” to NBC’s “American Dreams” to Fox’s “Andy Richter Controls the Universe.”

NBC executives said they knew “Boomtown’s” format, in which situations are shown from the perspective of each of the main players, would challenge the audience. “You always wonder if people will like something new, but we don’t ever want to talk down to the viewer,” said Mitch Metcalf, the network’s senior VP of program planning and scheduling. “To us, this show screamed creative and well-done. That’s why we wanted it.”

The show creators, who between them have worked on such projects as “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Band of Brothers,” said they wanted to delve deep into their characters’ lives in “Boomtown” and felt the multiple-point-of-view approach would allow that. The structure came first, and then the crime setting was laid on top.

“We’re not trying to be highfalutin,” said Mr. Yost, the show’s executive producer. “We’re trying to be entertaining and tell a compelling story. And, `Oh by the way, it’s a different format.”’

“Robbery Homicide Division,” a taut crime story that has been called “unique and riveting” by critics, recently was canceled by CBS. Before the cancellation, Philadelphia News reviewer Jonathan Storm presciently said, “I hate that the best shows are hard to follow, which means that nobody watches them, which means they go off the air.”

Often as surprising as the shows making the best list are the shows that do not. Fox’s single-camera family sitcom and longtime critical darling “Malcolm in the Middle” fell off, as did HBO’s lauded “Sex and the City.” And for the first time in years, there’s no Dick Wolf show in the top 20; “Law & Order” had been among the critics’ favorites since it debuted.

`Sopranos’ still beloved

Even when “The Sopranos” isn’t on the air, critics write effusively about it. Though it’s difficult to know how much sway that has on viewers, the ratings for the pay cable show were never better than this past season.

Some 13.4 million people watched the season opener, making it the most-watched prime-time entertainment show of the week in all of television. Those numbers are made more significant considering HBO is available in 31 million homes, compared with 100 million for the major networks.

Rick Kushman of The Sacramento Bee says the show is “as layered and complex as ever. Then Ralphie lost his head. That’ll teach people about complaining too soon.”

Critics continue to point out the series’ top-notch acting and thought-provoking story twists. “Does it play by the rules in terms of delivering what viewers expect?” said Charlie McCollum of the San Jose Mercury News. “No, and that’s the best thing about it.”

As for some grumbling about the show being off its game, Bill Goodykoontz of The Arizona Republic said, “Slipping? Hardly. The season finale confirmed that this is the best drama on TV–now or ever.”

Several critics said that even though they love the show, they want next season to be its last, addicted fans notwithstanding. “The story is just paces away from reaching a natural conclusion,” Mr. Roush said. “I don’t want to find myself starting to agree with the show’s more knee-jerk detractors.”

More story to tell?

Ms. Strauss said the decision on whether to do a sixth season hasn’t been made yet, but will hinge largely on series creator David Chase. “If David feels there’s more story to tell, then maybe we’ll go another season,” she said. “We trust him creatively, and he has the highest standards of anyone for the show.”

It’s not for everyone, but top-ranked comedy “Curb Your Enthusiasm” has certainly found a home in the hearts of critics, especially men. Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle calls it “the funniest show on television–period. As the sitcom clings to its deathbed, only a handful of shows have come to its aid, none more than this one.” He describes the show as “audacious and brilliant.”

The Arizona Republic’s Mr. Goodykoontz is a fan, but still acknowledges the squirm factor. “It’s funny mostly because Larry David makes you so uncomfortable that anything approaching a punch line is a relief valve,” he said. “TV’s equivalent of hitting yourself in the head with a hammer, because it feels so good when you stop.”

Ms. Strauss said “Curb” is coming into its own in its second season because Larry David is “becoming more and more adept at knowing what his regulars can do and knowing what he can do. It gets sweeter with time.”

Many people in the industry closely watched No. 2-ranked “24” in its debut season to see whether the real-time format would catch on with viewers. Critics were drawn to it from their first exposure
and rewarded it with the top slot in EM’s previous two critics polls.

“It’s worth the effort to keep up with the demands of the real-time format,” said Mark McGuire of the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union. It was important, critics said, that the drama come back for season two in the same form. Fox executives agreed, and the show’s producers said the commitment seems to be firm to keep it that way. “We believe it’s absolutely protected,” said producer Michael Loceff. “It has everything to do with the nail-biting, tense feeling we try to create.”

The San Jose Mercury News’ Mr. McCollum thinks the second season is more charged than the first. He describes it as “television’s No. 1 adrenaline rush and the best show on TV that doesn’t feature the Soprano family.”

Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman said she discussed a format change with “24’s” creative team and asked them to write a season two script as a traditional closed-ended show. After looking at it, she quickly decided, “It didn’t feel like the `24′ we knew and loved,” she said. “It felt like a different show. And we wanted the show we’d been doing.” Decision made.

Comedy brigade

On the lighter side of Fox, critics chose “Andy Richter Controls the Universe” as one of their favorites. As with a number of critical darlings, “Richter” is struggling in the ratings. Fox executives are experimenting with double-airings in different time slots during the week to pump up its exposure. Reviewers have scratched their heads wondering why the show hasn’t caught on with a wider audience.

“Dramas have never been better on television, but sometimes it takes an extremely ridiculous series like this, where you literally laugh out loud, to remind you how great–and necessary–sitcoms are,” said the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mr. Goodman.

To pump the show, Ms. Berman and other executives decided to air it twice a week, in original episodes, in hopes of drawing more eyeballs. It has been added to the powerful Sunday night lineup in addition to its regular Tuesday slot.

“Scrubs,” which has been flourishing in the post-“Friends” time slot, has had a place in the top 20 since it premiered last year. It dropped slightly to No. 14 from its previous ranking of No. 10, but that doesn’t bother its creator and executive producer Bill Lawrence, who says critical support has been a vital part of the show’s success.

“In the modern world of TV, where you have such a short window to get people to notice you and have the network stay behind you, critical response is very important,” Mr. Lawrence said. “I think it got us our new time slot. It made NBC pick us as one of their flagship shows for promotion. It’s meant so much to us.”

“The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” which has appeared on the list for the past two summers, comes in at No. 20, in a tie with “Buffy.” Ratings for the Emmy- and Peabody- winning series on Comedy Central have jumped 30 percent this season. “It’s an alternative way for the 18 to 34 demo to get information,” said Rich Korson, the network’s director of East Coast development. “We take being a fake news show very seriously.” “The Daily Show,” which has made its mark with tweaked and insightful political coverage, might head to New Hampshire to cover the primary for the first time, Mr. Korson said.

`Taken’ is tops

In movies, miniseries and specials, Sci-Fi Channel’s “Taken” was most often cited as the best in the genre, with HBO’s “Live From Baghdad” and CBS’s “Martin and Lewis” voted No. 2 and No. 3, respectively. “We took a risk,” said Sci-Fi President Bonnie Hammer. “We wanted to resurrect the big event, like `Roots’ and `Winds of War.”’ “Taken,” from Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks production company, ran 20 hours over 10 consecutive nights and pulled in the best ratings in Sci-Fi’s decade on the air. “It was a behemoth,” Ms. Hammer said.

TV Guide’s Mr. Roush called it “a bold experiment” with a “beautiful payoff.”

The bottom feeders

Critics saved some of their most vitriolic comments for “The Anna Nicole Show,” E!’s attempt to cash in on the unscripted genre and generate some Osbournes-like buzz. Asked to pick the five worst shows on TV, the San Jose Mercury News’ Mr. McCollum said, “I’m sorely tempted to award her all five slots.”

Mr. Kushman was even more biting. “Yes, it was supposed to be awful, but no one could imagine it would be this spectacularly awful,” he said. “It was painful, humiliating and degrading, and that’s just for the viewers.”

Reviewers called the show’s star, Anna Nicole Smith, “pathetic without being the least bit funny.”

A lone critic, Terry Morrow of The Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel, was willing to defend this train wreck TV. Mr. Morrow listed the show as the 10th best on the air, calling it “the year’s best guilty pleasure, filled with flamboyancy and juvenile charm that hasn’t been seen since the days of Beavis and Butt-head. It works for all the reasons we embrace the brazenness of Roseanne or the gaudiness of John Waters. Why fight it? It’s just silly and empty-headed, not the end of civilization.”

NBC’s new comedies also got the thumbs-down, with “Good Morning, Miami,” in the plum berth between “Will & Grace” and “ER,” drawing the most scorn. “Try to imagine anyone watching this show if it were in any other time slot,” said Ellen Gray of The Philadelphia Daily News. “Go ahead, I dare you.”

Nor did reviewers like CBS’s sitcom “Bram & Alice,” with Mr. McGuire from the Albany Times Union calling it “the lighter side of incest.” “What a waste of bandwidth,” Mr. McCollum said. CBS lost again with its Victoria’s Secret undie special–it was listed in many critics’ polls as one of the worst hours of TV. A number of critics hated Fox’s “The Grubbs” so much that they listed it in the “worst” category, even though it never made it onto the network’s schedule. “Can you include a show that never even aired?” Mr. Goodykoontz asked. “Sure you can. That’s how bad it was.”

Ms. Berman takes the feedback in stride. “We certainly strive to do excellent shows, and when we get that critical acclaim, we’re so grateful for it,” she said. “We also have to have a broad-based schedule, and some shows will not be critical favorites. We understand that.”