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At Last, a Stand-Up Year for Television

January 04, 2002|DAVID ZURAWIK | BALTIMORE SUN

It was a very good year for television viewers.

There, I said it. I can't believe it either. After years of looking back and grousing about the medium, I have to acknowledge that television gave us one of the best years of our viewing lives on a variety of programming fronts in 2001. And that's saying something for a year that included the premieres of "Temptation Island" and "Chains of Love."

Here are 10 primary programming categories or genres and the shows within them that brightened the television year.

1. Drama. It was a somewhat uneven season for HBO's "The Sopranos," but the highs were still sublime. Any year with "The Sopranos" is a good year.

Many of my colleagues are picking the "Pine Barrens" episode as the best of the year. The hour featured Christopher (Michael Imperioli) and Paulie (Tony Sirico) taking a Russian mobster for a long walk deep into the New Jersey woods and then bungling their attempt to kill him.

Part "Fargo" and part "Waiting for Godot," it was a brilliant hour of television, but my pick as the best episode is "University," which took us inside the awful life of a young dancer at the Club Bada-Bing. Her brutal death at the hands of one of Tony's (James Gandolfini) lieutenants is one of the most powerful moments of television ever seen. This is "Death of a Salesman" for the small screen.

2. New series. HBO struck gold again in Sunday-night drama with "Six Feet Under," an exquisitely offbeat series about the Fishers, a family of Los Angeles undertakers. Richly multidimensional and culturally provocative, it breathes the same rarefied dramatic air as "The Sopranos."

Created by Academy Award winner Alan Ball ("American Beauty"), the series dares to look death cold in the eye, and, in so doing, brings a new kind of existential energy and sense of postmodern edge to prime time. As with "The Sopranos," you have to go beyond television to find an apt comparison. This is Joseph Heller doing the family drama, a study in dysfunction.

There were several other signs of new and intelligent life that deserve mention: "Smallville" (WB), "Undeclared" (Fox), "The Bernie Mac Show" (Fox), "Alias" (ABC), "24" (Fox) and "The Education of Max Bickford" (CBS). None is a breakout hit. In fact, "Alias," "24" and "Undeclared" are struggling to find an audience. But "24" and "Alias" still deserve praise for taking the big risk of trying to do network drama in new ways. As for "Max Bickford," I'm not quite ready to renounce my less-than-enthusiastic review of the pilot, but I have to admit I find myself returning to the show almost every week.

3. Documentary. Last January, after seeing Ken Burns' "Jazz," I was wondering whether we were living in a golden age of documentaries. By the time "People Like Us: Social Class in America" aired in October, I was convinced we are.

Think back to the first syrupy notes of Louis Armstrong playing "Stardust"--the opening of "Jazz"--and then try to recall some of your favorite documentary moments of the year. There have been a lot, ranging from "Living Dolls," the HBO films about the grotesque world of child beauty pageants, to Rob Gardner's "Islam: Empire of Faith," which made its debut to critical acclaim in May on PBS and became a must-see after Sept. 11.

4. Made-for-TV movies. Take your pick of excellence: HBO's "Wit," with Emma Thompson as a terminal cancer patient; ABC's "Life With Judy Garland--Me and My Shadows," which provided Emmys for Tammy Blanchard as the young Judy and Judy Davis as the older Judy; or ABC's "Anne Frank," with Ben Kingsley and Hannah Taylor Gordon. Or how about HBO's "Conspiracy," with Kenneth Branagh?

They were all fabulous, but I'll take "Anne Frank" because it broke new ground in taking us beyond the normal ending of the story--with the Germans discovering the family--and dared to show what happened to this child in the horror of the Nazi concentration camps.

5. Miniseries. HBO's "Band of Brothers." No argument, case closed. Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg created one of the greatest and most illuminating war narratives in American history. The Battle of the Bulge episode was as intense as anything ever produced by an American novelist writing about war.

6. Sitcoms. You've probably noticed a trend to these picks so far: Every category has at least one finalist from HBO. Sorry to those of you who don't have HBO, but my pick for the best sitcom, Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," also comes from the premium cable channel. "Seinfeld's" gone, but David, its co-creator, brings the same wry-dark-acidic comic sensibility to this series, in which he stars as himself. The episode in which David visits Jason Alexander and the former "Seinfeld" sidekick whines about not being able to escape his George Costanza persona was superb.

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