By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Somehow ER clings to the top spot in the ratings, despite the fact that it now resembles Chicago Hopeby way of General Hospital. Upon his departure from the show a couple of years ago, George Clooney said that during ER's first season, a patient would walk into the emergency room with an arrow through his head and no one would comment; it was dealt with and forgotten. By the time Clooney made his escape, a doctor would not only mention how odd it was for someone to have an arrow through his head, he would also ask the arrow how itfelt. This season, the whole cast seems to have an arrow through its head--in the case of Anthony Edwards' Mark Green, almost literally. Mark's fighting a brain tumor, which comes a few seasons after he had the hell beaten out of him in the bathroom; dude's bad luck, but it turns out the tumor's operable after all. Hot damn, a Christmas miracle! ER,F.U.
So far this year, Abby's crazy mother (Sally Field) has shown up; Elizabeth has been sued for malpractice; Peter's nephew was killed by gang-bangers; Luka bashed in the brains of a would-be mugger; Carter's popping pills, only to vomit them up; and Kerry's kissing female doctors. Imagine what merriment's in store come spring sweeps--a Towering Infernohomage, one hopes. At least ERhas birthed the most literate, fetishistic Web site about an ongoing show: Paula Graves and Dave Ragsdale's site (www.digiserve.com/er/episodes/) offers stunningly comprehensive plot summaries and thoughtful criticism, plus detailed medical and legal commentary, for every single episode. John Wells would do well to hire the duo as consultants before his series flatlines forever.
ABC has canceled only one new show, The Trouble With Normal, which means Geena Davis and Gabriel Byrne are still trolling for laughs at the bottom of the comedic barrel. Davis' show might well be the worst show of the new season--but seeing as how it's impossible to actually look at it for longer than 23 seconds at a time, it's hard to pass judgment. ABC has also done a fine job of wasting Homicide's Andre Braugher by casting him as the head doc in Gideon's Crossing, which was better the first time around, when it was called ER...or was that St. Elsewhere...or Marcus Welby, M.D.? Braugher does little more than stand in front of his medical students, all of whom sport a look fresh off the Krispy Kreme conveyor belt, and talktalktalk like some acting student auditioning for a role in Inherit the Wind. As for ABC's other hour-long smash not named The Practice, they really ought to change the name of Once and Againto thirtysomething again, now that David Clennon has donned Miles Drentell's evil smirk once more.
As for CBS...uh, is CBS even on the air before The Late Show With David Letterman? Bette not. And don't start on about how C.S.I.is groundbreaking television; the only time exec producer Jerry Bruckheimer broke ground was when he buried the movies six feet under. You know why everybody loves Raymond? No? Me neither.
That leaves Fox, UPN, and the WB to duke it out for people who still feel the need to watch the networks--all 18 of you. About the best thing on those three networks is a little something called The Gilmore Girls, which smells a lot like that old show My Sister Sam with only a slight change in relationship. Fox has a hit in Malcolm in the Middle, which might be a great show if only the writers would stop explaining every single joke by having Frankie Muniz talk to the camera in a tone of voice that suggests an impatient mother talking to her doltish child. At least the network axed Freakylinksbefore it spread like a virus, and one hopes The Simpsons will be soon enough put out of their (and our) misery. Now, if only Jessica Alba would stop reading off cuecards as though they're misspelled.
Other lowlights from the year in TV: the second season of The Sopranos, which took forever to get going--from 60 to zero, just like that. Showtime's Americanized Queer as Folk, which is boring as hell. ABC's election-night coverage, around the time the set caught on fire and emitted what Peter Jennings referred to as a "horrible smell"; no kidding, brutha. The oft-reported fact that more people than ever are receiving their political news from David Letterman and Jon Stewart. Comedy Central's The Man Show, which, if paired with E!, would amount to gay porn. The Summer Olympics--speaking of which, when do they start? Tom Green's cancerous testicle. Oh, and that reminds me: Darva Conger.
But the biggest story this year has also been its most underreported. In January, Salon.com reported that in 1998, Congress promised up to $25 million to the major networks if they included anti-drug messages in their prime-time programs. It was the brainchild of Bill Clinton's drug czar, Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, who convinced such shows as ER, Chicago Hope, Beverly Hills 90210(which has since ended its run, and not a decade too soon), and The Drew Carey Show to include just-say-no messages in their scripts. According to Salon's Daniel Forbes--whose story was briefly picked up by a handful of major dailies, only to be dropped in the time it takes to change the channel--Congress in 1997 approved a five-year, $1 billion ad buy for anti-drug and anti-booze advertising "as long as the networks sold ad time to the government at half price--a two-for-one deal that provided over $2 billion worth of ads for a $1 billion allocation." But the networks balked: The dot-com ads were pouring cash into the networks' coffers, and they weren't about to give away valuable ad space.