The Year in TV

Over the Memorial Day weekend I visited a friend who lives with his large family and who owns, improbably, a horse--a retired police horse, to be exact. As we ambled through the stables, my friend’s 13-year-old daughter said, "Do you like Taylor Hicks?" Somehow the look on her face told me there was only one right answer to this question about the new American Idol. Somehow I also knew that I would get it wrong.

"Well, I don’t really watch American Idol," I admitted sheepishly.


"What?" she said, astounded by my confession. Even the horses seemed surprised.

I may be the only American who doesn’t understand the appeal of the monster hit American Idol, which Entertainment Weekly recently described as the biggest show on the planet. Certainly it is a good gauge of the popularity of reality shows, of the American desire to believe that anyone can make it, and of the widespread obsession with fame, but frankly, it has always seemed to me to be a kind of Gong Show with better lighting. But this is far from the only hit show that I fail to appreciate. Take the largely frivolous but still popular Desperate Housewives. Even if I did like the Sunday night program, I would have a tough time explaining to readers why I favored a series about suburban women whose primary pasttimes are bedhopping and gossiping. At least its most recent progenitor, Sex and the City included moments of genuine pathos and feeling.

So the servings on what a friend calls my television plate have grown pretty meager. That goes for both breakfast and dinner. The morning news shows have become near-parodies of themselves, serving up less hard news about important issues and more features on The Da Vinci Code, American Idol, Survivor and their favorite fare: Blonde Women in Danger. Perhaps if the people in Darfur bleached their hair, they would get more attention from the media.

One series that looked promising was God or the Girl, which ran for five episodes on A&E beginning in early April. Examining the lives of four young men interested in entering a Catholic seminary seemed an intriguing concept, but the surprisingly dull reality series focused almost entirely on (surprise!) celibacy. In the midst of the tedium came moments when Catholic viewers had to wonder if anyone in the chancery was watching. One 20-something candidate working as a parish youth minister lived in the rectory in a bedroom next to the pastor’s. In the words of my friend’s daughter: What?

There have been, however, a few appetizing courses on the TV menu this year. On The Sopranos we saw Tony shot by his crazy (or is he?) Uncle Junior, Carmela moved by the artistic splendor of Paris and the recently outed sub-capo Vito brutally murdered. All of this, spiced up with frequent goomba malapropisms, made for compulsively watchable drama. And while Tony’s near-death experience seems to have affected him, it hasn’t changed the mobster completely. While Tony now takes time out to smell the roses, he is not above ordering a murdered rival’s body cut up and distributed around New Jersey and New York like hunks of salami. Conversion, for Tony, goes only so far.

What will happen to Tony in the show’s final episodes, scheduled to air early next year? Will he (a) get whacked, (b) be arrested or (c) enter the witness-protection program? My mother favors (c). He’ll sing, she says. That’s why it’s called The Sopranos. Maybe she knows: she’s Sicilian, after all.

Watching the final episode of The West Wing reminded me that there were few programs on television that could match this once-popular show on a bad night. Unable to compete against the treacly appeal of Extreme Makeover, the show’s ratings dropped off steadily, and the competition between presidential candidates Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda, both superb actors, failed to reignite interest in the series. Perhaps too many Americans were upset about the current real political scene to evince much interest in fake politics. On the other hand, how many times could we watch President Bartlet confront troops massing on the border of some fictional country? Still, I will miss Josiah and Abigail Bartlet, Toby, Josh and Donna, and, especially, C. J. Cregg. May they all find high-paying lobbying jobs on another series.

It took me some time to join the Lost and 24 crowd. Tuning into both shows in mid-season proved exercises in frustration, since their fiendishly complex plots make them difficult to watch in a desultory manner: Lost and 24 aren’t just TV series; they’re commitments. And watching can raise more questions than answers. The response to So what happened on the show tonight? is usually I have no idea. Even careful viewers may wonder whether Jack Bauer is ultimately a good guy (out to save the world) or a bad guy (out to torture and kill his enemies).

But you avoid these shows at peril of being left out of water-cooler conversations. The New Republic worked itself into a lather trying to prove that the popular 24 does not, as many have argued, evince a conservative agenda (its hero supports torture) but rather a liberal one (our government officials are sometimes untrustworthy). Complex as they are, both shows are riveting, even if you occasionally have no idea what’s going on. So what is the Dharma Initiative anyway?

Finally, here’s one helping that you might want to add to your own TV plate: Deadliest Catch, currently airing on Discovery. (Don’t worry if you missed it: like most shows on The History Channel and Discovery, it is scheduled to repeat until the eschaton.)

The Discovery show falls under the category of You Think Your Job Is Tough? The filmmakers track the daily lives of crews of four fishing boats off the coast of Alaska as they ply their trade in the frigid waters of the Bering Sea searching for crabs, crab bait and, in the end, a living. There are moments of both high adventure and high drama, and the backstories of the hardworking men are affecting. The artfully edited show moves quickly from an old salt admitting that his captain gave him a second chance in life to a shot of a bedraggled fisherman clambering atop a 30-foot-high tower of steel traps caked with ice in the midst of a howling blizzard. You’ve never seen ice like this before; you’ve never seen storms like this; and you may never have seen a job as physically demanding.

At the very least, the next time you glance at a restaurant menu, thinking not about your television plate but your dinner plate, you’ll understand why those Alaskan King Crab legs are quite so expensive.

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