Survivor -ing Television 2000 … Letterman Rises, Millionaire Slips, Russert (Finally) Sleeps … Everyone Loves Sopranos , But

dnesday, December 20

There was a lot to like about television in 2000. Like The Sopranos . And Battlebots . That’s two things right there.

You couldn’t help but like May 1, 2000, either. That was the day when Time Warner, in a playground-style hissy fit, yanked ABC off its cable carriers in New York and several other big cities. Deprived of their right to watch “celebrity” Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? , a nation turned to literature, to family, to personal contemplation–or, at least, to the UPN.

And what about Survivor ? Boy, that was something, wasn’t it? No time misspent there, burning 16 hours of your summer watching a bunch of whiny coconuts try and kick each other off an island. That Richard Hatch–what a mastermind.

There was more to celebrate, like Gabriel Byrne’s much-anticipated American television debut in a sitcom entitled Madigan Men . Or the plucky Oliver Platt leading an ensemble cast of fine actors in Deadline, a show that plumbed the depths of the fascinating newspaper industry. And there was other stuff like The Michael Richards Show, Tucker, Daddio, Normal, Ohio and Titans . (All of these shows have been canceled because no one watched them, but at least you stockpiled them on videocassette.)

By and large, this was a year of mixed television blessings. There was a Summer Olympiad, but it was shown on tape delay. There was a Subway Series, but it was broadcast by Fox. There was a Geena Davis Show , but it had Geena Davis in it. For every Ed [WNBC, 4, 8 p.m.] or TV Funhouse , there were 47 The Trouble with Normal s. The good came with lots of bad. Lots.

And if that wasn’t enough ….

Thursday, December 20

…you had the whole election mess. You know, that thing about how Al Gore won and then George W. Bush won and then George W. Bush won again and then George W. Bush won again after that, except that it took, like, 184 days and Tim Russert moved into your living room and your Dad started leaving loud messages on the answering machine telling you to turn on Hardball, pronto.

The election was a certifiable big TV deal. At first, it was kind of embarrassing, since the networks had all those goofs on election night and Dan Rather and Bob Schieffer stayed up until 8 a.m. By the end, they looked as if they had sniffed Special K in a closet at Twilo. Doris Kearns Goodwin yammered on like a set of plastic chattering teeth, George Stephanopolous sweated quietly under his black mane and, making matters worse, the Fox News Channel hired George W. Bush’s cousin to rig the entire national election. Or something like that. It wasn’t pretty.

But after election night, things got truly strange, since no one knew who was president but there was still all this air time to fill, so people had to go on the air talk about something . A guy named Lester Holt at MSNBC became popular because he talked a lot and had nice eyes. Jeff Greenfield was on CNN 24 hours a day. Fox’s Bill O’Reilly penetrated Larry King’s nightmares. Mike Barnicle began speaking in tongues. Wise minds simply blocked it all out and tuned nightly to The Edge with Paula Zahn . [FNC, 46, 10 p.m.]

Thankfully, in the middle of it all, David Blaine decided to live in an ice chunk for a few days, so our attention was diverted…

Friday, December 22

…at least for a while. The creepy Mr. Blaine’s stunt, broadcast on ABC, allowed us to reprioritize. There was no sense haggling over dimples and pimples in Palm Beach when there was an actual life on the line in the Good Morning America studio.

The mid-recount fuss over Mr. Blaine recalled Fox’s decision this fall to show the premiere of Dark Angel instead of the first presidential debate. Why carry the inaugural skirmish between two would-be world leaders when Jessica Alba awaited us in a leather catsuit? Or how about NBC’s decision to delay live coverage of Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush’s reaction to a Supreme Court decision in favor of Titanic –a movie that, if nothing else, the vast majority of Americans have already seen?

That’s because Television 2000 was about giving the people what they want, from a drowning DiCaprio to millionaire castaways to extreme football to a newly svelte Matthew Perry on Friends .

The one thing Americans didn’t want, it turned out, was four nights a week of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? ABC’s decision to up the Millionaire ante–the best, purest kind of corporate greed–may have not slain the golden goose yet, but it surely will. Yes, Millionaire still finishes in the top 10, but its average viewer is now in Depends. And therein was the inherent risk of Regis. Regis minus hipster caché = really old person sitting in a chair.

It didn’t help that Survivor came along and made Millionaire an instant relic. Survivor was a true television phenomenon. It was original, albeit in a dopey, why-didn’t-I-think-of-inventing-mustard-packets kind of way. And it was absurdly successful, lifting CBS’ prime-time schedule out of its decrepit doldrums, for once giving the Metamucil network an energized, youthful sheen.

Still, Survivor proved to have short coattails. Big Brother , CBS’ other reality entry, was an endless, painful chore, and Pulau Tiga fever didn’t advance the network’s fall schedule much, either. Yeah, sure, CBS renewed orders of Bette, Welcome to New York, CSI, Fugitive and a whole bunch of passable yet unmemorable shows that have given the network a glimmer of hope. But just try saying, “Hey, did you catch last night’s episode of Bette ?” in the office sometime.

Survivor II sits in the bullpen now, awaiting a Super Bowl launch, and will be positioned against Friends (Imagine- Friends versus Enemies). And CBS still has the expanding Don Johnson in Nash Bridges [WCBS, 2, 10 p.m.] to rely on. But there is no evidence that the reality-TV phenomenon is…

Saturday, December 23

…much of a phenomenon beyond Survivor (and The Real World –let’s not forget our horny, self-involved friends over on MTV). Right now, the reality-TV landscape is limited to a lot of hope and cheesy ideas. ABC has something called The Mole debuting next month, in which a group of contestants attempt to deal with a network-planted saboteur who tries to ruin their “mission.” UPN has the classy Chains of Love , in which a contestant is chained to four members of the opposite sex. Fox, the home of the still-compelling Cops [FOX, 5, 8 p.m.], will launch Temptation Island , in which a handful of real-life couples travel to a vacation paradise full of pretty people who try to seduce them. But NBC completely punted on reality TV, an inaction that led in part to the dismissal of entertainment president Garth Ancier, who was replaced…

Sunday, December 24

…by Today Show executive producer Jeff Zucker. Mr. Zucker, quite the precocious network star, now flees Manhattan for Hollywood and a prime-time lineup that has lost a considerable amount of luster.

But at least NBC has Tim Russert! The indefatigable former Moynihan aide emerged as the true winner of the post-election sweepstakes, from his scrubby magic-marker wipeboard to his synergized appearances on NBC, MSNBC and MSNBC.COM to his touchy Meet the Press [WNBC, 4, 10:30 p.m.] meltdown with David Boies. Mr. Russert left Sam and Cokie choking on his dust this year, and his only true threat may be if…

Monday, December 25

…President Clinton gets his own television show, like the one he apparently pitched to NBC through Harry Thomason, his Hollywood Sancho Panza. Mr. Clinton, who is reportedly interested in a “David Frost-style” interview show (read: softball batting practice), is a TV force to be reckoned with, after all. His High Noon walk through the corridors of the Staples Center at the Democratic National Convention in August was the finest political television moment of the year–a brilliantly choreographed Jumbotron F.U. to his legions of detractors, Goreamaniacs included.

It is well established that neither Mr. Gore nor Mr. Bush possess a tenth of Mr. Clinton’s television skill; nevertheless, each had TV moments this year, too. For Mr. Bush, it was “subliminable,” the RATS ad and, of course, “major-league asshole.” For Mr. Gore, it was deeds unspoken–most significantly, his performance in the first presidential debate, when his eye-rolling and sighing during Mr. Bush’s remarks established him as the race’s unlikable snot.

But unlikable snots had their day this year, too–namely Dennis Miller, who was asked to join the booth at Monday Night Football [WABC, 7, 9 p.m.]. Mr. Miller’s surprise selection was a relief for no other reason than the fact that he was not Rush Limbaugh, who was also up for the job. Mr. Miller has been relatively restrained in the booth, careful not to step on Al Michael’s toes (suicide, as Boomer Esaison can tell you) and sparing with the obscure comic references. If anything is surprising about Mr. Miller’s performance, it’s the fact that’s he’s proven himself to be something of a softie, quick…

Tuesday, December 26

…to praise the mediocre and toe the NFL party line. Perhaps his sharpened wit would have been put to better use on BattleBots [COM, 45, 10 p.m.], a quirky offering from Comedy Central in which radio-controlled robots go mano-a-mano, trying to rip each other’s guts out in a glass-enclosed, wrestling-style cage.

BattleBots , which proves the oldest rule of entertainment kinetics (watching stuff smash together is lots of fun), is pure geek porn. But the show is also a brilliant satire of hypish sports culture, lampooning everything from screaming announcers to breathless sideline announcers to the behind-the-scenes montages that accompany the profiles of pro athletes. (In this case, the montages profile the brainiacs behind the vicious ‘bots.) The show has become Comedy Central’s second biggest hit, after South Park , solidifying the network’s place as America’s destination for…

Wednesday, December 27

…knowing, ironic lowbrow humor. For unironic highbrow humor, the place to go this year was NBC’s The West Wing [WNBC, 4, 9 p.m.], Aaron Sorkin’s paean to American liberalism and its contents. Forests have been felled by columnists trying to explain the show’s allure (the general spiel is that it’s some kind of antidote to the disappointing Clinton era), but in truth, The West Wing is just thirtysomething set in the White House, with dewy, handsome characters who have the kind of jobs, friends and vocabularies that other people want. No one on The West Wing , after all, is saddled with diapers, place-settings or coupon-cutting; they’re too busy snuffing out some Middle East tempest. In the end, domestic and foreign policy details are almost incidental to the show’s appeal; people watch The West Wing because everyone’s insecure fantasy is to lead a relevant life.

It is uncertain what impact the George W. Bush presidency will have…

Thursday, December 28

…upon the politics of The West Wing . But one program that clearly stands to benefit from Mr. Bush’s election is The Late Show with David Letterman [WCBS, 2, 11:35 p.m.]. The host’s obsession with the President-elect goes beyond the dumb-boy punch lines; it’s obvious that Mr. Letterman also harbors a deep, personal loathing for Mr. Bush, some of it rooted in generational competitiveness, no doubt (they’re about the same age), but most of it motivated by a genuine chagrin that someone so affable and clueless got such an important job. (To Mr. Letterman, seeing Dubya get the White House must be like watching Jay Leno get the Tonight Show all over again.) Indeed, Mr. Letterman’s interview of Dubya on the election’s eve was surprisingly confrontational, even uncomfortable in spots, as the aging Indianan grilled the Texas governor on a number of issues, in particular the death penalty.

Dave, of course, is back, and watching him whipsaw through his vastly improved monologues these days, it’s almost hard to believe we came close to losing the guy early in the year. The Late Show episode marking Mr. Letterman’s return from heart surgery was one of the few honest moments in the 2000 television calendar; through eyes that no one had ever seen moistened, the host thanked his cadre of doctors and nurses and, for once, seemed genuinely touched. Dave’s on-air convalescence was anything but subdued; the life-threatening experience renewed his energy, bolstered his fan base and provided the host with important perspective. Post-surgery Dave has been Dave unbound; why worry about carrying a network on your shoulders when you almost went belly-up yourself? (Or for that matter, why worry about sucking up to Dubya or Gabriel Byrne or anyone?) The end result of a sewn-up Dave is a show that kicks harder and suffers no fools. Finally, people are afraid to go on Letterman again–which means, of course, they all want to be on it.

A more curious phenomenon was the 2000 rise of…

Friday, December 29

…Mr. Letterman’s Viacom colleague, Carson Daly at MTV. First of all, here’s hoping that Mr. Daly put something special in his publicist’s stocking this Christmas, since the host of Total Request Live ‘s [MTV, 20, TK p.m.] charcoal-eyebrowed, chipmunk-cheeked mug has been omnipresent in magazines for the better part of a year. But it is not an exaggeration to say that Mr. Daly is the most important young person on television today; TRL is easily the biggest thing on MTV these days, and Mr. Daly has become a generational face for millions of people under the age of 21. His appeal can be traced to an old-time entertainment formula: He’s mastered the art of calculated, guy-next-door harmlessness. He’s a hybrid of Ricky Nelson and Dick Clark with a pinch of lab-partner dork appeal, but at the same time, utterly unironic. (Seeing Carson Daly chill with Snoop Dogg, for example, is not the same thing as seeing Snoop chill with Tom Jones–which is to say that Mr. Daly’s incongruous palling around with rock stars is not some tacky, forced form of camp…they actually kind of like the guy.)

There’s word that Mr. Daly is trying to wriggle out of the career snakepit that is MTV (calling Martha Quinn! Pauly Shore!) by assembling a development deal with CBS that will put him into a vehicle a little more dignified than pimping ‘N Sync videos. How Mr. Daly will translate to a prime-time broadcast audience is unclear. The race to lure young viewers is one of network television’s constants; each year, every network tries to spin itself toward…

Saturday, December 30

…cultural relevance by trying to lure demographically important eyeballs. Some do it with old-fashioned pandering ( Charmed, Dawson’s Creek ), some do it with innovation ( Survivor ) and then some do it with old-fashioned getting better, as in the case of Saturday Night Live . Propelled by an election year and some well-timed help by the candidates themselves (Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush actually appeared on the program the weekend before Election Day), the SNL franchise found firmer ground this year, even if some of the hosts are still inexcusable clunkers (ladies and gentlemen… Val Kilmer !).

But there’s no doubt that this year’s smugly satisfying TV treat was…

Sunday, December 31

…those New Jersey Sopranos [HBO, 32, 8 p.m.]. Besides being a totem of financial solvency (“Oh, you don’t have premium cable?”), fluency in all things Sopranos was this year’s most desired pop-culture currency. The show has the best characters on television today; still, aren’t we getting a little bit carried away here? The Sopranos is good, sometimes really good, but it’s no BattleBots . Worse, its writers started believing their own press and the show’s mythical intellectual heft, resulting in a vain season finale (talking fish?) that contradicted its understated, straightforward appeal.

And who would have thought that Robert Downey Jr., of all people, would be giving James Gandolfini a run for his money as…

Monday, January 1

…the most valuable actor to a television series? This season, Mr. Downey joined the cast of Ally McBeal [FOX, 5, 9 p.m.]–easily the most annoying show on television last year–and instantly gave it new life. (A sure sign that Ally McBeal is making a comeback is that people aren’t embarrassed to mention that they’re watching it again, and the people who never stopped watching it are strutting around like peacocks.) Now only if they can work out some kind of arrangement with police, who should be spending less time kicking in the doors at the Merv Griffin Resort and more time prosecuting people like…

Tuesday, January 2

…the creators of Daddio, who, unlike methamphetamine users, did not commit a victimless crime.

In sum, 2000 will be seen as a year in which television began to fundamentally change, and not just because America decided that Michael Richards wasn’t funny anymore. Major developments are afoot. The merger of Time Warner with AOL not only means that you’ll be able to watch ER on your PalmPilot one day, it also means that the traditionally delivery system is well on its way to being outmoded. That transition has already begun with devices such as TiVo and Replay TV, new systems that allow you junk your VCR, tape your favorite shows without commercials and pause Ricki Lake to take a shower.

Television is still a cruel, at times mysterious business, and no one can rationally explain why a show like Titus succeeds and a show like Freaks and Geeks [in repeats on FAM, 14, 8 p.m.] does not. Each year brings new winners and losers; for every hit, there are dozens of dreams crushed by a cold Nielsen report. The good moments are few and far between. (Don’t forget, there are major actors and writers strikes looming; if those occur, you might end up longing wistfully for the days of Tucker , Titans and Normal, Ohio .)

And one other thing about 2000: Kathie Lee finally quit. That was good, too.