Not long ago I came across an article about one Mr. Newton Minow, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission who famously described television in the 1960’s as "a vast wasteland." Doubtless it would have surprised Mr. Minow that his phrase still sums up the current TV landscape. Television today seems to be equal parts wrestling, teen-angst dramas, trash talk shows, all-day newsfests and Martha Stewart. On the other hand, there are some bright spots, and gentle readers (and viewers) are gently encouraged to tune in to some of these offerings, which make television if not not a wasteland, then at least less vast.
The Sopranos (HBO, Sundays, 9 p.m. E.T.) "Every happy family is alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." So begins Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. This explains, I think, the astonishing appeal of "The Sopranos."
While everyone’s family has experienced a measure of emotional Sturm und Drang, rare is the family whose problems equal those of Tony and Carmela Soprano. Hence HBO viewers can enjoy this hit show for its often alarming verisimilitude and, at the same time, breathe a sigh of relief that at least their clan isn’t as bad as La Famiglia Soprano. After all, has your mother ever put out a hit on you? (If the answer is yes, it really is time to seek professional help.)
For the unhappy few who missed the last season, a brief précis: New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano, in the "waste management" business (much as Vito Corleone was in the olive oil business) collapses at a family barbecue. Stress, declares his doctor, who recommends a psychiatrist. Thus begin Mr. Soprano’s sessions with the ultra-professional Dr. Melfi. Tony’s sessions introduce viewers to a life that is indeed stressful, thanks in great part to Tony’s mother, Livia, played with fiendish relish by Nancy Marchand. Readers with good memories will remember Ms. Marchand as the imperious Mrs. Pinchon on "Lou Grant." Readers with very good memories will also recall that Livia was the name of the scheming, evil grandmother in PBS’s adaptationfrom many years backof Robert Graves’s I, Claudius. It was Livia who memorably hissed to her stammering grandson, the emperor Claudius, "When I die, make me a goddess!"
In another inspired bit of casting, Dr. Melfi is played by Lorraine Bracco, who starred as Ray Liotta’s big-haired wife in "Goodfellas." And "Goodfellas" is only one of the favorite movies of Tony and his pals. The number one movie, of course, is "The Godfather" (I and II, but not III), from which they quote liberally. When one of the wiseguys returns after a long absence, he begs one of his paisans, "Do it! Do it!" At which point the obliging mobster launches into a fairly lousy Al Pacino imitation from both "One" (as they call it simply) and "Two." This is perhaps the most enjoyable part of "The Sopranos"the seamless mixture of popular culture and organized crime. During the first show of this season, Tony visits a new psychiatrist, since Dr. Melfi has been forced to go "on the lam" because of her high-profile client. But the new psychiatrist declines to take on Tony as a client. When pressed for a reason, the doctor laments, "Hey, I saw Analyze This’." And when Martin Scorcese is spotted outside a tony nightclub in "The City," one of the starstruck mobsters calls out, "Martin! I loved Kundun’!"
But all of this rings true. For what American family does not speak about TV or movies or popular culture? In their happier moments, the Sopranos et al. are more like us than unlike us. Chalk up another one for Mr. Tolstoy.
The West Wing (NBC, Wednesdays, 9 p.m. E.T.) Even though I’m a sucker for all of those presidential movies, like "The American President" (starring President Michael Douglas) and "Air Force One" (starring President Harrison Ford), I had my doubts about "The West Wing." For one thing, the chief executive was, I read somewhere, named Josiah Bartlet and his wife named Abigail. Please. Just a little too Yankee for my blood. So I avoided a show that I feared might include Secretary of State Cotton Mather and chief of staff John Winthrop.
But my puritanical fears were unfounded. "The West Wing" is a superb drama, ably anchored by the incomparable Martin Sheen (himself chief of staff to President Michael Douglas) and a terrific ensemble cast. Standouts in the cast include Rob Lowe who, believe it or not, does a credible job as a George Stephanopoulos type, and Alison Janney (the taciturn mother in "American Beauty") as a complex and compelling press secretary.
The show stumbled a bit in the first few episodes. Representatives, for example, from the religious right who came to demand something from President Bartlet were revealed as...narrowminded! But this is too easy. The show is on firmer ground when it limns the complexities of the political world: the ethics of ordering a retaliatory missile strike on a foreign power, the art of dealing with political scandal and the behind-closed-doors dealmaking that characterizes politics. And recently, illness has intruded into the West Wing in the form of the president’s worsening multiple sclerosis. First Lady Abigail, who is also a doctor (played by the equally incomparable Stockard Channing) had kept the illness a secret, as had the chief executive. The episode was beautifully written and well played; and isn’t it nice to see some adult themes on TV once in a while?
Sports Night (ABC, Tuesdays, 9:30 p.m. E.T.). Aaron Sorkin, one of the creators of "The West Wing," is also executive producer of the delicious "Sports Night." (Mr. Sorkin is a talented screenwriter whose credits include "A Few Good Men," which can now be seen on TNT, it seems, every single solitary day.)
As with "The West Wing," we are once again behind the scenes, this time in a sort of ESPN-like network, where the nightly objective is to produce the eponymous sports show. There is, of course, the usual sports banter and the same sort of TV-station camaraderie (producers chat with techie types who chat with the on-air talent) that one found at WTM-TV in Minneapolis, home of Lou Grant and Mary Richards. The difference, however, is that the storylines here are quite a bit more serious than those Mary and Rhoda had to deal with. The brother of one of the show’s producers (Felicity Huffman), for example, is discovered in one episode to be part of a college football drug scandal. She must then determine not only how the story will be reported but whether or not she will support her brother. It’s difficult to give a quick summary of the show, so rich and varied are the episodes. The acting from the ensemble cast, which includes Josh Charles and Peter Krause as the two anchors, is fine and the writing and wordplay, as one would expect from Mr. Sorkin, is predictably zippy. But as I watch Mr. Charles and Mr. Krause in action, I sometimes wonder: Are TV anchors really that clever?
Freaks and Geeks (NBC, Mondays, 9 p.m. E.T.). If I had any lingering doubt that my childhoodor at least my adolescencenow justly qualifies as "nostalgia," such doubts were laid to rest by the terrific new (but ratings-challenged) "Freaks and Geeks," which offers an almost voyeuristic glimpse of high school life circa 1980.
Anyone who was roughly high-school age at the time will probably gasp with astonishment. It’s all here: velour shirts for boys (with V-necks of course), cowl-neck sweaters for girls (though the show is forgetting the ubiquitous "stickpins") and for both, the bad hair that characterized high school life at the beginning of the Age of Reagan.
Moreover, these kids actually look like high school students, rather than the Ricky Martin and Jennifer Love Hewitt lookalikes who pass for adolescents on shows like "Dawson’s Creek" and "Popular." Let me repeatthese actors really look like high school students: the tall, thin geeky guy who does a mean imitation of any number of "Welcome Back, Kotter" characters; the frizzy-haired best friend who declares that only some of the Muppets on "The Muppet Show" are cool; the overweight boy whose friends are afraid to tell him that he, um, smells; and our hero, a small, shy bucktoothed kid who joins the yearbook in order to spend more time with his inamorata, the lovely Cindy. (When he confesses to his older sister that Cindy only wants to be friends, the sister cuts to the chase: "Oh, that’s the worst," she says.)
Though the topics are rather predictablethe travails of young love, getting a decent lab partner and being forced to watch TV with your parentsthe writing is incisive and, above all, knowing; the cast is sublime. And besides the guilty pleasures of recognition there comes a measure of gratitude. For here is a series that treats even the geekiest kids with the same love that TV usually reserves for the beautiful people.
So a wasteland less vast? With "The Sopranos," "The West Wing," "Sports Night," and "Freaks and Geeks," I think so (not to mention "E.R." and the clever new "Malcolm in the Middle"). On the other hand, there is also "Shasta McNasty" and "Veronica’s Closet." And last week I happened to tune into "Chicago Hope" just in time to see Dr. Mandy Patinkin singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in Yiddish to a bedridden patient. Where’s Tony Soprano when you need him?