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TELEVISION : Dude of the Year : Bart Simpson was TV's bitingly funny anti-hero in a year that saw both ambitious flameouts and eloquent triumphs

December 23, 1990|HOWARD ROSENBERG | Howard Rosenberg is The Times television critic. and

"We wish you God's blessing," he told viewers of his regular Christian television program.

Then, after praying, the fatherly televangelist with the silver hair broke into a smile and began chuckling, as if recalling a private joke. Someone on the set had just spoken the name of a famous TV character, and the mere mention of this name triggered an unexpected reaction from this renowned saver of souls.

"Bart Simpson," the man said, shaking his head as he chuckled again.

It's hardly news that Bart Simpson is widely discussed. But if the most popular and irreverent TV cartoon character of all time is now on the lips even of Pat Robertson--the thought of Robertson in a "Bartman" T-shirt is spiritually boggling--then "The Simpsons" does indeed preach to the multitudes and merits the title: Biggest TV Phenom of 1990.

Biggest, and the best.

Originating as filler between sketches during "The Tracy Ullman Show" on Fox, "The Simpsons" premiered as a prime-time series Jan. 14, and soared almost immediately, first on the screen and then on store shelves. In less than a year, incredibly, this animated series about a comically bumbling, blue-collar family with golf ball eyes, toothy overbites and yellow skin has become not only a national institution but almost a religion in some circles, more popular even than "The Flintstones" and "The Jetsons" of the 1960s.

With underachieving, misbehaving, wisecracking Bart leading the way, its celebrity overflowed into the marketplace, where shrewd product tie-ins--ranging from T-shirts to "Do the Bartman" audio and video cassettes to fast-food promotions--have given "The Simpsons" visibility out of proportion to the solid but unspectacular ratings it has earned this season, running a respectable second to NBC's "The Cosby Show" at 8 p.m. Thursdays.

Bill Cosby has himself been a national institution for years, achieving superstar longevity in a business where fame is usually about as lasting as a cup of coffee. As this is written, however, it's possible that Bart now equals Bill on the celebrity scale.

Just what's behind Simpsonmania is a mystery, and it remains to be seen whether Bart and his family will endure as a retail extravaganza much longer than the Hula Hoop.

As a TV series, though, the longevity of "The Simpsons" seems assured if its mutant characters continue to be bitingly funny while capturing so many essential truths of society and family life.

As a series whose commercial performance equaled its media hype in 1990, "The Simpsons" stands alone.

Even more than "The Simpsons," in fact, it was ABC's "Twin Peaks" and "Cop Rock" that caught fire with the media leading into the fall season, each flaming briefly in a volcanic blast of publicity before burning out.

Although given an illusion of mass popularity by media momentum carrying over from the previous season, "Twin Peaks" has always attracted a small audience by network standards and clearly benefited from a press captivated by its co-creator, movie director David Lynch, whose affinity for things surreal and bizarre on the screen clashed with TV's historic timidity. As it turned out, interest in the series seemed to diminish almost simultaneously with the rising demonism of its focal point of evil, the murderous Bob.

Today, "Twin Peaks" hangs on, but seems a poor bet to survive past this season. Perhaps things would have turned out differently had there been a "Do the Bobman" video.

When not "Twin Peaks," it was Steven Bochco's unevenly melodious "Cop Rock" that was heading the media's story list four months ago; the prospects of a "Hill Street Blues" partially set to music deeply massaged journalistic glands. The flash was fleeting, for wounded by miserable ratings, "Cop Rock" was canceled after a handful of episodes and now seems only a blurry memory.

Viewer appetites, especially in regards to innovation, are always the great unknown. There's no knowing just why "The Simpsons" flew commercially and "Twin Peaks" and "Cop Rock" did not, for example. What is known is that even highly publicized TV programs are usually not everlasting, and today's darling is often tomorrow's dud.

Meanwhile, 1990 found PBS joyously dancing "the Kenman" over ratings for "The Civil War," the remarkable nine-part documentary from Ken Burns whose surprising drawing power last September came close to matching its achievement in historical storytelling.

Artistically, "The Civil War" was surely TV's Big Event of the Year, a scintillating, symphonic archive of music, pictures and words, threaded from start to finish by the experiences of two soldiers on opposing sides, Elisha Hunt Rhodes of Rhode Island and Sam Watkins of Tennessee.

Supported by old photographs and soulful music, their words, along with the war diaries of many other participants and observers, resonated through this production, sometimes softly, other times becoming a crescendo of pain and suffering that captured the essence of the conflict.

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