TV-related highlights of 1999

It’s hard to say how and when tv goes wrong, but it does seem to do so inevitably and every year. 1999 was no exception. And yet, there remain moments, images, performers, and series that stand out. Here are some, in alphabetical order:

Action. While the Fox network gave it a feeble shot by way of initial promotion, the series was then disappeared by repeated rescheduling and canceling. Jay Mohr and Ileana Douglass are great, the scripts are mostly sharp, and the outright shots at industry hypocrisy and anxiety are funny.

Fiona Apple’s “Fast As You Can” video (off her second album, When the Pawn, and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson). The performer acts on her concern that she and other entertainers-artists-industry-insiders not be perceived as sexual or financial objects of desire, and turns out a visually arresting accompaniment to her warning potential suitors and friends (of all kinds) that she and her work are, indeed, emotionally complex.

BET’s continuing efforts to transform itself from dregs to contender. The shows — including “Live From LA,” the revamped “Rap City: Tha Bassment,” “Out the Box,” and “Hits from the Street” — are slickly promoted (even if Tigger needs to get out of that cheesy basement set), and the network is actually developing a profile, however inconsistent. Consider, for example, the Top 100 Videos Countdown‘s conclusion with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” Risking accusations of corniness, the gesture worked because: first, as the network advertised repeatedly, the Number 1 video was not “Thriller” (this was, admittedly, Number 2); and second, it’s a civic-minded effort to make the case that music and politics and history and tv/movies are all of a piece. Unfortunately, this obvious point doesn’t get made often enough.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The girl and her series continue to kick ass, even now that she’s gone to college. While it might look like the major result of the (also very good) Angel spinning off is that Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has had to invest her girlish lustings elsewhere than in a hunky 2000-year-old vampire, really, it’s made for some novel, clever, fresh story lines. See especially the Thanksgiving episode, where Buffy and Company must (briefly) deal with their whiteness when they meet with a righteously vengeful Indian spirit; and the lost voice episode, where none of the principals could talk for most of the hour. As well, note that Spike’s (James Marsters) transformation into grumpy comrade has allowed him more screen time, definitely a good thing.

Mos Def and Talib Kweli (with Common)’s “Respiration” and Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty,” two of the most relentlessly intelligent and gorgeous videos ever made, both in one year, inspired by the genius we know as Mos Def. The videos show how much can be communicated with serious meditation and without champagne and shiny suits. The first is a love song to NYC shot in fabulous black and white, and the second is a tale of love going wrong, shot through with graf-script, scratchy home-movie effects, and nods to the digital world we’re inhabiting as we think.

The NAACP’s and La Raza’s almost-showdown with the networks. Okay, the NAACP blinked, and Kwiesi Mfume resorted to discussions and “concessions” (characters of color slotted into white series) instead of boycotts and picket lines. But the point was made, and it’s unlikely that future network tv will be quite so pale as it has been in the past.

The Chris Rock Show. Any show that makes Grandmaster Flash its in-house “band” is fine from square one. Rock is apparently born to host — as his stints on the MTV Music Video Awards have also demonstrated — and with his own tiny half-hour-long bit of HBO space, he makes that seemingly dead TV genre, the talk show, fucking interesting.

The Sopranos. Despite the fact that this is the most beloved-by-all-mainstream-critics series, it features consistently superb work by actors James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Jamie Lynn Sigler (as Meadow), Nancy Marchand, and Lorraine Bracco as Dr. Melfi, as well as excellent scripting, makes the show nearly as sharp as its hype makes it sound.

Will Smith dissing curse-words in rap: okay, it’s a lowlight, not a highlight. Clearly, he believes that this song-and-dance works, as he took it on the road, from the MTV Music Video Awards to his visits to TRL and any talk show that would have him. Most likely, he’s testing waters for his threatened run for President of the U.S. Really, we don’t hate him: it’s great that he’s rich and famous and married to Jada. But his rhymes are corny, and no amount of dissing anyone else will change that.

Britney Spears. No matter what else you think about the girl, her music, her performances “as herself” on Disney’s The Famous Jett Jackson and with Melissa Joan Hart on ABC’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch, her Rolling Stone pose with Tinky Winky, or her belly button (which, she now says, will no longer be on display in 2000), it’s clear that the Britney Spears has changed the way that girls think about themselves in relation to pop. And fast behind her come the clones (Mandy Moore, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson) as well as girl performers who know enough to innovate with a good idea (Eve, whose incisive use of pop girl conventions has made hiphop a viable white girl product).

Total Request Live, or, the Meaning of the Backstreet Boys, or, how is it that Juvenile’s “Back That Thang Up” and Mandy Moore’s “Candy” can show up on the same countdown? However short-lived this phenomenon may turn out to be, for this year, it was revealed that kids casting votes on their favorite videos can have real market effects. While most critics complain loudly about the series’ “crass commercialization” of pop music and exploitation of young pop consumers, there’s no dismissing the sublime combination of absurd elements: the countdown concept, VJ Carson (“Awesome!”) Daly, the screaming-meemie live audiences, giddy live and lip-synching performers, and the video/e-mail combo commentaries on videos.

Hype Williams, or, the ascendence of mini-hiphop-movies. If his theatrical directorial debut, Belly, was last year generally dismissed by establishment critics, the result has been a complete embrace of his signature wildstyle by another establishment, hiphop. You can hardly turn on MTV or BET these days without seeing “Hype Williams Presents” looming, an outrageous small-screen love-you-fuck-you to Hollywood conventions. He was hardly the inventor of hips-gyrating, hard-working, shiny-bodied dance-lines, and really, all that wide-angle, hugely expensive imagery is getting a little too familiar (you’ll see Hype’s magic working for artists ranging from Missy Elliot and Busta Rhymes to Sisqo and Kelis, and his influence on videos featuring Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys). While it’s undeniable that Hype has changed music videos forever, it’s also worth noting that — for all the repetition — his sense of grace and confidence seem real.

The X-Files. Definitely losing its new-kid scripting brilliance, but still the best-looking series on tv, even after incurring untold production expenses when moving to LA from Vancouver.