TV Gets Weird Again in 2002, and Thank Goodness

Wednesday, Dec. 18

Just think: A year ago, Rosie O’Donnell still had a TV show.

But then, Regis had two.

A year ago, everyone still loved The West Wing , even Rob Lowe.

Fear Factor felt weird, not gross.

And Greta Van Susteren had an old face.

Now look around: TV bodies in motion everywhere. Just take ABC. Sam and Cokie are gone and there’s George, the most handsome third-place finisher on television. Connie’s on CNN and Jimmy’s coming from Comedy Central and the poor man’s free-speech martyr, Bill Maher, is scampering to HBO. John Miller’s going back to being a cop, for goodness’ sake. They might merge the whole news operation with AOL Time Warner. Regis is strictly a morning mouth once more, and slap us silly-does John Ritter really have a hit sitcom?

Last year, we may have gotten too carried away: We felt television had triumphantly returned, had relocated a stride and permanence not seen since the days of The Huntley-Brinkley Report and Bonanza . Horrible news made the big boob relevant again, turned anchors once again into Anchors, silly shows into Family Television. America was alleged to want feel-good, stay-at-home entertainment. We were gripped with Carol Burnett fever. Television wasn’t a distraction-it was a destination!

But now, TV’s hibernating late-century turbulence is back and as wild as ever. Instability is the new stability! The gravitas has ebbed, and TV feels vapid again. Carol Burnett fever turned out to be a mild flu. Permanence, schmermanence! As for anchors being Anchors, most of us now sit and pray for more verbal boners from The Fox Report [FNC, 46, 7 p.m.] and Shepard (“B-jo”) Smith …

Thursday, Dec. 19

… and if we don’t get that, we can just hang on for the Man, Bill O’Reilly. Two thousand and two was the year Mr. O’Reilly ceased being an ego-charged, khaki-wearing, dented-Lexus-driving up-and-comer and became His Billness, and though instinct tells you that his ride is going to screeeech-ch-ch to a halt at some point like a cheap rental on the L.I.E., maybe not. Mr. O’Reilly’s show has proven to be guest-proof-people don’t care who’s on, they just want to see Bill bat ‘em around, like a kitty toying with a broken-legged mouse-and his network, Fox, is No. 1 with no slide in sight. What remains to be seen is whether Mr. O’Reilly and his network can act like champs. Fox was extremely good at being in third place, even better at being in second. Mr. O’Reilly has long laid claim to the TV elite’s outhouse. But front-runners can’t act like the world gives them no respect, and they can’t compare foes to, ahem, dead raccoons, either. Can Bill O’Reilly and The O’Reilly Factor [FNC, 46, 8 p.m.] develop gravitas? He’d surely claim that he couldn’t care less-” Gravitas ? Is that an appetizer at Le Cirque?”-but …

Friday, Dec. 20

… a little gravitas can do a TV star right, like David Letterman. It’s amazing: In the past couple of years, Mr. Letterman has gone from What’s Wrong With That Guy? status to Unquestioned Broadcasting Icon. First it was the seriousness of the heart business, then it was his must-see 2000 election couch, then that post–Sept. 11 episode, and in the past year Dave has picked up the Cronkite-ing a notch, what with his continued vigilance on booking news-related guests and heavyweights. (Who could forget that verbose Chappaqua resident Bill Clinton on the first anniversary of Sept. 11?) Of course, Dave himself provided some front-page drama of his own this year, when he nearly vamoosed to ABC, where executives were eager to explore life post–Ted Koppel. Dave and the Late Show [WCBS, 2, 11:35 p.m.] wound up staying, of course …

Saturday, Dec. 21

… and in his late-night place will come Jimmy Kimmel, who makes a post–Super Bowl debut on Jan. 26. The failed Nightline coup gave some new life to Mr. Koppel, who got to show the world his softer side (and his turtlenecks!) in a series called UpClose . But the friction continues at ABC News, where well-compensated newshounds continue to fret about the possibility of a merger with CNN-a partnership that would preserve international news-gathering operations for both, but would likely result in some cost-cutting, worse hotels on the road, and a reinvigorated fear within broadcast channels that they’re all going to wind up shopping at Target like their pals on basic cable (not you, Larry King!). Of course, turning World News Tonight [WABC, 7, 6:30 p.m.] into ABC/CNN World News Tonight Starring Peter Jennings and Aaron Brown is one thing; nothing does more to make broadcast networks anxious than that …

Sunday, Dec. 22

… little AOL Time Warner pseudo-boutique called HBO. Outside of The Mind of the Married Man, the pay-cable network appears to do no wrong. Though HBO has been getting to us with their over-the-top in-house promotions (enough with those five-minute-long commercials to the tacky shoe-shopping music, we’re already watching!), they do have the programming to back that $13-a-month bill. There’s the brilliant Curb Your Enthusiasm , which is part vicious social commentary and part lifestyle porn (who hasn’t secretly envied Larry David as he surfs, rich, spoiled and obligation-free, through a pampered life in Beverly Hills?). Sex and the City [HBO, 32, 8 p.m.] was a little dewy and off this year- SATC , like every show in the history of television before it, still hasn’t figure out how to properly use a baby-but that mild slack was more than made up by Six Feet Under , which dropped the silly network conventions (talking dead characters, loads of crying) that weighed down its first season, punched up the sick behavior (oh, that randy Brenda) and became the finest dysfunctu-drama on TV. Six Feet Under ‘s kind of become Ordinary People , the series-and no Judd Hirsch. We didn’t buy the carping about The Soprano s-we always thought the show’s ultraviolence, which some complained was missing this year, was sometimes so over top that it undermined the thing that made the show interesting in the first place, which was the character play (did anyone care to relive Ralphie’s punch-killing of that stripper from Season 3?). The Sopranos ‘ Season 4 may have been muted by comparison, but David Chase’s subtle chronicle of the dissolution of Tony and Carmela’s marriage proved to be far more dramatic (that fight!) than anything Paulie or Ralphie or Christopher ever riddled with bullets. Besides, if you did crave the old bloody stuff, you were probably more than fulfilled by Joey Pants’ headless termination-the look on James Gandolfini’s face as he worked that body-part-burying bulldozer that night will be tough to forget. One unsung Sopranos moment: the fantastic fart scene between Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Robert Iler in the second-to-last eppy. Rippp ! “Meeting’s over!” Bravissimo ! If only other programs were as capable of such creative staying power. As usual, TV in 2002 did its best to stomp out …

Monday, Dec. 23

… the few signs of life it showed, none stronger (or weirder, or more network-incongruous) than VH1′s late-night talk show Late World with Zach , hosted by the angry, bearded unknown comic named Zach Galifianakis-who, once he knew his doom was sealed, only got angrier, taunting the sputtering boomer music channel and reminding his 14 or so viewers why they liked watching TV in the first place. VH1 has since given the reins to MTV honcho Brian Graden and segued into less risky fare, like Alcatraz concerts [VH1, 19, 9 p.m.] with the Wallflowers (surely the biggest sissies to set foot inside the Rock) and Rock the House , an utterly dumb Trading Spaces ripoff in which mostly end-of-the-road pop acts like Weird Al Yankovic and Sammy Hagar show up in ranch houses and remake the entertainment rooms of superfans. ( Rock the House does make you wonder what those poor superfans are going to be thinking six years from now when they’re sitting at the den, drunk, staring at the dusty, sun-stained silver “U” that Usher nailed to the sheetrock.) Meanwhile, over on Big Poppa MTV …

Tuesday, Dec. 24

… it was all about another angry television arriviste, Ozzy Osbourne. MTV kills every one of its golden gooses-see Quinn, Martha; Shore, Pauly; Cortese, Dan; Beavis; Butthead-but The Osbournes appears to be the short-order network’s most acute example yet of the Spectacular Television Micro-Phenomenon: a hype comet that trends right to the top and then gets overexposed into oblivion in the space of six months. Yes, people still watch it in droves, and yes, it’s still pretty dang funny, but it’s over as a Cultural Moment-those ” Sharooon !” T-shirts and dolls look like Max Headroom –wear already. And as for that singing little Kelly Osbourne, we love ya, but shouldn’t you be in school, peachie? [MTV, 20, 5 p.m.] You got to put in a few miles before you can call yourself …

Wednesday, Dec. 25

… a real diva, like, like, like Cher, who-you may have missed it-showed up on the Billboard Music something-or-other a week or so ago and said of her many critics: “Fuck ‘em!” On national TV, on the same channel that shows reruns of Seinfeld [WNYW, 5, 7:30 p.m.] . No one flinched, no one even asked her to resign as Senate Majority Leader. They should offer her a job at …

Thursday, Dec. 26

… MSNBC, which had a worse makeover than Jocelyn Wildenstein and is fast becoming cable television’s ghost ship. Whatthahell happened? No one expected Fox numbers, but Donahue’s numbers are starting to make people pine for the days of The Mitch Albom Show . Not all of the shows are horrible-everyone we talk to, even the people at the competition, like some of their stuff, especially Jerry Nachman’s rumply Nachman [MSNBC, 43, 5 p.m.] . But the whole place has this just-before-the-movers-come aura to it, like everything that’s not bolted to the floor is going to be chucked out of there soon. Jesse Ventura is not the answer: Minnesotans figured out that guy was a big boob, and so will the rest of us. Bring back Headliners & Legends ! Brian Williams! Can’t you guys repurpose episodes of Friends ….

Friday, Dec. 27

… which, despite the fact that no one should be sharing apartments at this point, remains the Big Mac Truck on TV. Just to recap the 2002 Friends storyline thus far: Monica and Chandler remain married, but with separate bedrooms; Joey had a baby; Phoebe’s back with David Schwimmer’s old monkey; Sean Hannity from Hannity & Colmes is Rachel’s new boyfriend; the coffee shop is now a crack den and Sean Penn-yeah, that Sean Penn-was seen slumming around the apartment building at some point. Hey, Jeff Spicoli, get thine Actor Reputation over to Dateline NBC [WNBC, 4, 9 p.m] , where you can show Stone Phillips …

Saturday, Dec. 28

… a thing or too about loosening up. Elsewhere on NBC, Saturday Night Live [WNBC, 4, 11:30 p.m.] is going through a bit of a Muppet Babies phase right now, with all those cutesy comics with their fancy haircuts, but it’s still funny and can still-as evidenced by the Big Stiff Political Turns by Al Gore and John McCain-make news, as do …

Sunday, Dec. 29

… those tormented gunslingers at 60 Minutes [WCBS, 2, 7 p.m.] . Granted, she’s one of the young ones, but Lesley Stahl’s Al Gore coup was a badly needed shot in the arm for Don (“Die at My Desk”) Hewitt’s creaky stopwatch. Seeing 60 Minutes ‘ boffo rating for the Gore segment was like seeing a revitalized Michael Jordan come back against the Knicks and drop 55 at the Garden. Remember that? Of course, look what’s going on with Jordan these days …

Monday, Dec. 30

… it’s not pretty. If we’re going to dip into the locker room for a second, let’s just say the renovated Monday Night Football [WABC, 7, 9 p.m.] isn’t exactly the fantasy pairing everyone expected it to be. Al Michaels is his solid self, but John Madden’s limp BBQ-pit populism became cartoony cheese a long time ago. They should get a comic in there …

Tuesday, Dec. 31

… someone like, you know, that guy on 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter [WABC, 7, 8 p.m.] … John Ritter. Happy New Year!