Being a television writer is an increasingly hard gig these days. As TV leans increasingly towards game and reality shows, opportunities diminish. Sure, many of these game and reality shows employ writers; you don’t think that the sparkling banter between Tom Bergeron and Samantha Harris on Dancing with the Stars writes itself, do you? Still, the chances to develop plots and characters are decreasing.
This is sad news for the multitude of actors who rely on television for a paycheck. Some just go with it, like Harry Hamlin, who went from leading stud on L.A. Law to supporting psycho-killer on Veronica Mars to slinging around a diva with more make-up than a Mary Kay convention on Dancing with the Stars. Others, like Brad Garrett (Till Death) and John Lithgow (Twenty Good Years), nearly give themselves aneurysms trying to eke laughs out of unfunny material.
So we should be particularly grateful for those actors who rose above weak material or got good material and knew what to do with it. Kyra Sedgwick is a nice example. Her reading of The Closer‘s Brenda Johnson reveals both brilliance and clumsiness, strength and compassion. Plus, she has the most curt “Thenk you” since Suzanne Sugarbaker. Kyra gets my nod as the most consistently watchable performer on TV this year.
Colin Ferguson on Eureka
An equally fun law enforcement agent to watch is Colin Ferguson’s Jack Carter on Eureka. Ferguson spent as much time looking befuddled as Sedgwick did this season, although for a much different reason: he’s wound up as sheriff in a top secret town of eccentric scientific geniuses. And speaking of geniuses, Vincent D’Onofrio’s Robert Goren on Law & Order: Criminal Intent initially rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. But the addition of Chris Noth, Annabella Sciorra, and Julianne Nicholson to the series showed the depth of D’Onofrio’s performance and the playful relationship he has with his on-screen partner, the equally talented Kathryn Erbe (as Alexandria Eames).
A cast change highlighted another strong performer. David Tennant is good as the Tenth Doctor on Doctor Who, but he lacks the wide-eyed impishness of the previous Doctor, Christopher Eccleston. A change in character allowed Joseph R. Gannascoli, Vito on The Sopranos, to take center stage. After the tough guy developed a softer, Queer Eye persona, he was whacked for developing that softer, Queer Eye persona. The storyline, which Gannascoli suggested to writers, sent one of the season’s most pointed messages: murder, rape, drug dealing and extortion are okay, but homosexuality… well, some things are just unforgivable.
On a lighter note, this season’s comedies were best served by strong ensembles. April Bowlby (Kandi) blended in well with the lunacy of Two and a Half Men, while it was nice to see Conchata Ferrell’s role as Berta expanded. Conchata still spends too much of her time serving as a caustic Greek chorus, though. Another CBS Monday sitcom, The Class, benefited from a good cast, but Andrea Anders (Nicolle) stood out most as a young, conflicted wife whose ex-boyfriend is suddenly a part of her life again. Jesse Tyler Ferguson (sad-sack Richie) and Heather Goldenhersh (mousy Lina) became the couple I most rooted for this year. Imagine: a moving love story about two average people on prime time. It’s as common an occurrence on TV as a Real World episode in which everyone stays sober.
Also common on TV this year: big name guest stars, including Liza Minnelli, Selma Hayek, and Jerry Lewis. Still, the best turns came from those without household names, like Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who had two recurring roles this year, as a love-struck heart patient on Grey’s Anatomy and as a tyrannical demon hunter with no patience on Supernatural. Jeannette Brox was tragically convincing as a teen outcast whose personal anguish allows her to become mixed up in a Columbine-style mall shooting on Cold Case. Still, the most impressive guest performance of the past year belonged to Viola Davis, as a black mother who can’t comprehend why the disappearance of her son isn’t getting the attention afforded the disappearance of a pretty blond female on Without a Trace. (This same episode, “White Balance”, also wins the award for the most frustrating cliffhanger.)
Not all of this year’s best performances occurred on fiction shows. Dane Cook may fill a stadium, but the funniest stand-up performance of the year was ventriloquist Jeffrey Dunham’s Comedy Central special. Not since Wayland Flowers has a man with his arm up a doll’s ass been so raunchy and hilarious. Runner-up for stand-up of the year would be Paula Poundstone, whose Bravo comeback, Look What the Cat Dragged In, proved she hasn’t lost any of her droll playfulness. Also playful is the host of Talkshow, Spike Feresten, whose campaign against his “crappy neighbor” touched a chord with me. Finally, recognition must be given to the first woman to solo as a prime-time anchorwoman—Elizabeth Vargas. She did an exceptional job after co-anchor Bob Woodruff’s near-fatal experience in Iraq.
In the spirit of yin-yang, I include a list of TV choices that irked me this past year. TV-One showed The Wiz so many times in a row that you would have thought Diana Ross was their program director. I would also like to know who writes the promo tags for TNT. For instance, “Next on Judging Amy, Amy deals with turmoil in the courtroom.” Has no one at TNT watched this show? Doesn’t Amy have turmoil in the courtroom in every episode? Farfetched plots also bother me. The resolutions for cases on the several CSI series are such a stretch that any decent defense attorney could get 90% of the accused off, if the “perps” would just keep their mouths shut and quit confessing.
The Burger King King needs to choke to death, political ads succeed only in establishing that nobody is worthy of being elected, watching people makes fools of themselves auditioning for reality contests is old, and the “results” shows of said contests need to give up the dramatic pauses before announcing winners and losers. Hey, I sat through 53 minutes of crap. Just freakin’ tell me who’s going home.
I will continue to spend my time looking for the good on TV. Until networks start courting talented writers, though, that’s going to be increasingly difficult.