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Televisual Treats

December 10, 1997|By Jason Myers

Televisual Treats

Because no new films were released this week, I've select my favorite TV shows from 1997. Note that there are only nine works cited; I realize the conventional number is 10, but I could not think of another program to pick.

I also have forgone picking "The Worst" because I couldn't narrow down all the hideous programs which are a large portion of (not my) daily viewing.

1) "The Simpsons" - This show has gone beyond mere self-serving wit and brilliantly funny characters - which always has been more than enough. But over the past two seasons, it has become a no-guts, no-glory satire of all facets of American life. The show embraces all the follies and foibles of our nation and makes us laugh at ourselves. It packs more one-liners and cultural references into 30 minutes than most satirical novels. It is the most smart, clever, daring, innovative show of our time - and by far the most fun.

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2) "In the Gloaming" - Even the best made-for-TV movies have a Hallmark sentimentality, but this spare, haunting elegy managed to be both austere and supremely moving. Christopher Reeves' first-time direction is simple, smart and confident. But it is Glenn Close, the best she's ever been, who completes the alchemy, with a marvelous turn as a woman who must deal with her son's dying, her daughter's iciness and her husband's remoteness. This trinity of grievances attains dramatic grace in the quiet, lived-in performances of the actors.

3) "Homicide: Life on the Street" - Where most television dramas eschew specifics for melodramatic generalities, this sparkling Baltimore-set police show is filled with striking details. The jargon of the precinct, the drink of favor of a certain character, the semantics of detective work all make for an extremely dense world. What makes it complicated are the sensitive portrayals of multidimensional characters. Michelle Forbes is intoxicating as the alcoholic medical examiner Julia Cox, while Andre Braugher continues to dazzle as hotshot detective Frank Pembleton. This striking show has yet to settle into a conventional television format, most pleasingly.

4) "King of the Hill" - Who would have guessed that the creator of "Beavis and Butthead" would have the most witty, culturally rich sitcom since "The Simpsons" (yes, it's animated to boot.) Its humor is more homegrown, miniature and engaging than its groundbreaking predecessor, but the travails of the Hill family in Arlen, Texas, are just as universal. Patriarch Hank's Boggle-champion wife Peggy, his mannequin-cassanova son Bobby, his beauty salon buffoon niece Luanne, and his oddball friends - the paranoid Dale, the pathetic Bill, the gibberish-spewing Boomhauer - comprise the most eccentric entertaining cast of characters on television.

5) "Newsradio" - This show might just be the best workplace sitcom ever - no offense to Mary Tyler Moore fans. It combines The Far Side's witty observation of life's quirks with Dilbert's glib take on corporate America. It has the unique ability to make slapstick seem highly intelligent and workplace schemata appear downright silly. WNYX is also graced by the best ensemble of any comedy on television.

6) "NYPD Blue" - Somehow this edgy, raw program has found an artistic medium between rich emotion and melodrama. The characters - especially Detectives Simone (Jimmy Smits) and Sipowicz (genius Dennis Franz) - are so lucidly realized that every action in their police and private lives attains the weight and furrow of human experience. Every episode is a carefully observed, wonderfully written, tremendously acted tragedy rooted in the distinct personalities of those who solve crimes but cannot quite figure out their own lives.

7) "Seinfeld" - It has apparently become arguable as to whether this program, once deemed the American sitcom, remains funny. While it cannot be debated that the writing remains more intelligent, original and textured than most shows, I have found this season to be deliciously hilarious. While it no longer dissects with piquant precision the follies of a quartet of New York losers, it continues to skewer some of life's more absurd moments.

8) "Frasier" - The closest thing American television ever will come to high British farce is this erudite, ebullient show. The Crane family - Doctors Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and dad Martin (John Mahoney) - is probably the most realistic and humane on any sitcom, and their witty repartee seems all the more believable.

9) "ER" - In a rare case of artistic vindication, the country's most-watched program also happens to be one of its best. This season the show has taken some gutsy moves, complicating its characters and alternating its rhythms (as opposed to the first few seasons' black-and-white caricatures and pure adrenaline-rush pacing) and found itself better than ever.

Jason is a senior at North Hagerstown High School.

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