Jan 12, 2004  •  Post A Comment

It takes a lot to make me cranky-like, say, a missing button or a bug on the wall or a drop of rain. A man can endure just so much. Years ago I got ticked off when Electronic Media, as TelevisionWeek was called then, published its occasional poll of TV critics and conspicuously excluded me. But then I’d get just as mad when they included me, because the list of best shows always contained two or three lemons that I loathed.
In fact, I never have been comfortable with this idea of a single-minded monolith called “The Critics” that goes about making decrees on what is fashionable viewing and what is too-too-tacky. The list would be published and the critics participating would be listed (in 3-point type) at the end, so you could find yourself implicitly endorsing some series that represented all you hated in television-in particular, those noble, self-righteous dramas with messages pasted on them like Post-It Notes on a refrigerator door.
In recent years “The West Wing” was a good example of that. But last week, when TelevisionWeek published another critics poll (yours truly excluded again), “West Wing” was way down in 20th place. And of all things, “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” scored as the second-best series on television, and I’m utterly baffled as to why.
I think journalists like the show because they see in it some glorification of their profession. It also rewards being “in the know,” lest you not get the lame jokes. Stewart just appeared on the cover of Newsweek (or Slow News Week, as that issue could have been called) with a blah story inside by Marc Peyser, who gushed and gushed about the program.
Several such stories appear every year, and they always quote lines from the show that the writer finds hilarious to prove how witty it is; but when you read the lines, they usually lie there like the proverbial dead carp-sophomorically smart-alecky and self-congratulatory for the most part. I’ve tried and tried to watch the show, which is merely “Saturday Night Live’s” Weekend Update segment imitated and stretched to half-hour length, but Stewart strikes me as precious and preening (he looks into the camera as if it’s his makeup mirror), and the material is most often uninspired.
“The Daily Show” hasn’t the guts or the heart of Bill Maher’s ballsy appearances on HBO; there’s a man who not only goes out on limbs but stands on his head when he gets there. Stewart is a creampuff by comparison. Maher could kick sand in his face on any comedy beach in the world. OK, so I’m mixing metaphors.
Look at the rest of the list: “Joan of Arcadia,” that sappy pap from CBS, in third place; “Nip/Tuck,” an FX comedy that depends heavily on gore, placed fifth; “24,” which even its fans admit is having a lousy year, ranks seventh; “The Office,” a smart but mild British comedy imported by BBC America is eighth (only a handful of Americans have seen it); and Bravo’s overhyped “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” a merchandise catalog masquerading as social progress, is No. 13.
If I never see those Fancy Lads again it will be too soon.
I’m certainly not picking on fellow critics here, many of whom are now in Los Angeles for the twice-annual “press tour,” long-ago referred to as a “junket” in the days when some newspapers cheerfully let the networks pay the tab for critics and columnists to attend. I got in hot water more than once by pooh-poohing the press tour, so I will never do that again. In fact, having been to one a couple years ago, my hat is off to anyone who can sit through it; it’s “Survivor” for scribes.
And its days, like those of the network sweeps and other archaic remnants of the three-network era, may be numbered. In a recent issue of Daily Variety, Josef Adalian offered a sweeping and sobering overview of changes due-or long overdue-in the way the whole industry operates. That curse that Robert F. Kennedy attributed to the Chinese, “May he live in interesting times,” could have a counterpart that’s just as nasty, really: “May he live in transitional times.” We’re going through so many transitions now, it’s hard to count them all-analog to digital, scripted shows to unscripted shows, regular TV to HDTV, VCRs to DVRs, broadcast dominance to cable dominance and on and on.

Transitional times are frustrating because they’re like intermissions. Truly great things are probably less likely to happen during such eras than in any others. That helps explain so many clinkers in the top 20 of the critics list and a viral malaise among TV critics generally. It’s not fun covering television when all the interesting stuff is happening off-screen, unless you spend half your time as a reporter and just half, or less, as a critic.
What we have now is worse than mediocrity. It’s a hazy sort of hesitancy born of chronic uncertainty. Everyone is waiting for the dust to settle and the mergers to end and Rupert Murdoch to stop buying things and the new rules to jell so we can see what kind of world it is, not just wonder que sera, sera.
The changeover to a new century and a new millennium didn’t bring the chaos and anarchy predicted (it did bring tragedy, of course, but that’s another and much more complicated story). What it brought in terms of telecommunications was a certain sodden, foggy lull. We’re “lost out here in the stars,” to quote a Kurt Weill musical. We’re the nomadic civilization that roamed the universe in the old “Battlestar Galactica” and dammit, we want to land and find out where we are.
Where the hell is Lorne Greene when we really need him?