Top Ten Television Shows
Here's the gist of all the Best of TV lists that are available in Time, People, and TV Guide: 24, Alias, The West Wing, and, of course, The Sopranos. All of these shows are worthy of praise, and their critical acclaim is no secret.
Since just about anyone can come up with a Best Of list built on some of the low-risk choices above, I'll look a little differently, a little more widely. For all the attention heaped on esteemed hour-long dramas, TV offers a variety of programming, and the shows cited below can be evaluated, understood, and appreciated on their own terms. What follows is my ten "best" list, some of the best I've seen (or re-seen), and I'll bet you anything that you won't see some of these listed in People.
The People's Court
Judge Wapner is gone (to Animal Planet) but the petty legal cases persist. Like previous judges Ed Koch and Judge Judy's husband, Marilyn Milian ordains small financial settlements, but the participants' egos are as big as their mouths. In this incarnation of the granddaddy of all court shows, former Floridian Judge Milian holds court brilliantly. She's less snippy and intolerant than Judge Judy, and funny, too, applying the law with refreshing wit. When a longwinded plaintiff said she would try to make a long story short, Judge Milian interjected, "How about making a long story relevant?" Hey, can I get that on a T-shirt?
There's a reason these rock and roll transplants (from England, or maybe Mars?) have become America's new first family. In all the discussion about the series and the family, from their embodiment of "family values" to their likeness to The Addams Family, to their fast-flying foul language, most observers miss the obvious: the Osbournes are four stand-up-worthy comedians, not a straight man in the bunch. Sharon, Kelly, Jack, and even dotty, stumbling, often bumbling father Ozzy have wicked senses of humor and aren't afraid to use them as often as they use the "F" word. Whether facing down cancer or pissing off the neighbors, this is a family that just wants to have fun, and knows how to have it. Even better, they always exude -- to the camera and to each other -- an underlying sweetness... even as they flip each other off.
Everybody Loves Raymond
Forget Seinfeld. The only classic 'com of the past few years is Raymond, perhaps because its producers and writers have found something more universal than "nothing" on which to build its warped reality: family. Each episode is well crafted, precisely thought out in terms of ever-escalating comedy. And is there any better cast currently on the air? Ray Romano, Patricia Heaton, Brad Garrett, Doris Roberts, and Peter Boyle know how to underplay, laying the groundwork for plots that are often so true to life it almost hurts to laugh. (And, by the way, if Ray's parents get any more like mine, I'm going to demand a producing credit!)
The $10,000/$25,000/$100,000 Pyramid
Monday-Friday, 6pm, Game Show Network
The Dick Clark classic, now in daily reruns on the Game Show Network, holds up remarkably well. For one thing, it's mostly embarrassment- and kitsch-free, something that can't be said about other Game Show net staples like Let's Make a Deal and The Match Game. Furthermore, the game (premised on similes and vocab lists) is smart and challenging enough to be fun, not so Jeopardy-esque as to make you feel really, really dumb. Its quick pace immediately reminds us what a big snooze Regis's Millionaire so often was. And the vintage '80s version certainly shows up this year's revamped Pyramid, hosted by Donny Osmond. He has yet to find his groove and the program's set is too technically busy. It doesn't help that most of this version's celebrity guests don't have a firm grasp on the game. For god's sake, someone call Betty White, so these contestants can finally win some money.
The USA Network's surprise breakout hit about an obsessive-compulsive detective and his much put-upon sidekick is a welcome throwback to a kinder, simpler time of TV crime-fighting. While series like NYPD Blue and The Shield are self-consciously (perhaps desperately) pushing the envelope in the name of "realism" and ratings, the makers of Monk have crafted a highly entertaining hour by looking back to the merry days of Murder, Show Wrote. Tony Shalhoub shines as the well-meaning, mentally ill main character and Bitty Schram is every bit his equal as his friend/babysitter/partner. She's both understanding and exasperated by her boss's non-ending neurosis. Besides the fine acting and some good mysteries (I loved the one about the marathon racer who thought he pulled off the perfect crime), Monk frequently but not annoyingly, humorously but compassionately, explores OCD and the way one man attempts to live with it.
The Lucy Show
Last year, when Iyanla was cancelled, my local station pulled out reruns of Lucille Ball's first post-Ricardo sitcom for temporary airing in early mornings. Granted, this subsequent Ball vehicle (and the others that would follow) never acheived the genius of I Love Lucy -- but then again, what series ever did? The misadventures of Lucy and Viv and Mr. Mooney provide laughs and good times. While Lucy is (rightfully) celebrated for her peerless physical comedy skills, she's no slouch when it comes to wisecracks or double takes. Re-watching these shows reminds us why Ball was never out of the Top 20 during her long TV career.
Big Brother 3
I once called Big Brother CBS's "other" reality show, the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. I hated myself for every second I watched this low-rent house party-cum-freak show -- and I didn't miss a single episode! This season, thanks to a set of crafty houseguests, BB3 gave us more cliffhangers, plot twists, and radical upsets than any episode of 24 or The Sopranos. It was Dangerous Liaisons in a hot tub. And, by the way, Danielle, the African-American wife and mom from California, should have won: she played the game beautifully, and in so doing, forever changed the way the game will be played from here on: no more open alliances. But, her opponents proved petty and hypocritical (what? hypocrisy on a reality show?), and in the end, voted her down, giving the big cash prize to Lisa, who played well, but showed none of Danielle's grand master wizardry.
Saturdays, 10pm, FOX
Like most sketch comedy shows (notably, SNL), Fox's Mad TV can be hit-and-miss. But, for several seasons now, every episode of Mad includes more laughs than winces. The writers fearlessly go after the sacred cows of popular culture and that the cast manages terrific transformations, doing everyone from Jenny Jones to Gary Condit. As it is not aired live, the show benefits from editing after the performances, and incorporates special effects, as well as makeup that obviously takes time to apply. Big kudos to FOX for sticking with Mad TV as it found its audience.
The Jamie Kennedy Experiment
Thursdays, 9pm, The WB
After several unsuccessful attempts to revive the Candid Camera concept -- the resurrection of the original with Allan Funt's son, NBC's Spy TV, MTV's Buzzkill -- The Jamie Kennedy Experiment makes it work, using the very talented Mr. Kennedy as a unifying factor. Whether playing a loony judge or a "hardcore" white rapper from the 'hood of Malibu, Kennedy keeps the pace moving and atmosphere light. And he keeps stunts, for the most part, less crude than those on Buzzkill, The Tom Green Show, and Jackass. As each ruse is played out, it's refreshing to see just how understanding, patient, and decent people can be: most of these "victims" caught on tape take it in stride. How nice to know that some people can still take a joke.
Canceled by Fox so that they can make more room for shows like Glutton Bowl and the forthcoming Joe Millionaire, comic Christopher Titus's autobiographical sitcom was an oasis of demented but gut-busting humor. Despite a couple of years on the air and considerable critical buzz, Titus (which focused on a working class guy stuck in a family even more messed up than yours) never soared in the ratings. Perhaps its skewed view -- monster dad, legally insane and murderous mom -- was just too dark even for the network that brought us Married... with Children and The X-Files. Whatever the reason for its passing, it will be missed.