1991's best (and worst) TV
”It’s been a real sucky year,” said Roseanne Conner (Roseanne Arnold) in a recent episode. She was referring to the fact that the motorcycle shop that husband Dan (John Goodman) had bought was a no-customers victim of the recession, that her own job as a coffee-shop waitress was an exhausting drag, and that her previously chipper middle daughter, Darlene (Sara Gilbert), had turned into a depressed beatnik. But one person’s suckiness means pleasure for millions: In an increasingly rare validation of mass taste, Roseanne, the most popular show on television, is also the best. Tough-minded and devil-may-care risky, Roseanne hasn’t lost its sarcastic funniness (Laurie Metcalf’s Jackie: ”How would you feel if one of your kids was gay?” Roseanne: ”The only thing I want for my kids is that they’re happy and outta the house”). Write to the President and tell him that even though he didn’t like the way she sang the national anthem, he really ought to be watching Roseanne Arnold’s show to see how a great many Americans are living these days.
Going into this season, Seinfeld seemed like little more than a pleasant diversion. But over the past few months, Jerry Seinfeld and show cocreator Larry David have pursued their less-is-more sitcom philosophy with quietly spectacular results. Building each episode around the tiniest incidents — Jerry forgets where he parked his car; Kramer (Michael Richards) loses his coat; George (Jason Alexander) takes an IQ test — Seinfeld has liberated itself from the straitjacket of standard sitcom plotting. Seinfeld, Alexander, Richards, and the every-week-more-marvelous Julia Louis-Dreyfus have come to seem like (1) the best improvisational comedy team now working and (2) folks you’d like to hang out with. I can easily imagine an episode in which they come over to my house, eat popcorn, and watch TV. I’d even let Kramer give the baby her bottle. Mmmmmaybe.
As the ’91 fall season staggers on, this, the Yuppie Odyssey, is beginning to seem more and more like the Great Lost Television Series that will soon be enshrouded in myth. Just as Mel Harris’ Hope was showing some backbone; just as Ken Olin’s Michael was having a really interesting nervous breakdown; just as we were losing Timothy Busfield’s Elliot to El Lay; just as David Clennon’s Miles was revealing the true complexity of corporate evil…ABC canceled the damn thing! And everyone involved in the show seemed relieved! The nerve of all those people!
4. Law & Order
Every week, after Mike Post’s trademark funkless-funk theme music has faded away, I turn to my wife and say, ”Is this a great show or what?” (Every week. Drives her crazy.) I never expect Law & Order to pull off yet another assiduously low-key, effortlessly suspenseful episode; it’s like getting to read a first-rate Elmore Leonard thriller every Tuesday night. Paul Sorvino made an easy transition into his costarring role (replacing George Dzundza), and Chris Noth’s Logan has become the show’s most fascinating character — a smart, garrulous brooder whose notions of law and order are more complicated than that American-flag pin on his lapel would suggest. Plus, the creator, Dick Wolf, worked in a strong female character this season; in the year’s most artful cast addition, Carolyn McCormick has made several small but forceful appearances as tough police psychiatrist Elizabeth Olivet.
5. I’ll Fly Away
This show gives stateliness a good name. Each week, Sam Waterston’s portrayal of an ambitious attorney in the late-’50s South becomes more pleasingly complex; his acting is matched by that of Regina Taylor as Lilly, the attorney’s more discreetly ambitious housekeeper. The series is already peerless in its portrayal of the relationship between white male employer and black female employee — there hasn’t been a TV show or theatrical film before this that has captured its awkwardness and time-honored social expediency. The series could use a lot less of that tedious subplot about the Greek myth — spouting coach (Brad Sullivan), but other than that, I’ll Fly Away is a more subtle drama than anything else on TV.
6. Late Night With David Letterman
A red-Letter year: His reconciliation with Cher was deeply touching (”Okay, okay, you’ve had your chance to talk about important, serious subjects — now can we talk about your tattoos?”). He has been sharper, more political, a shade less cranky — in short, a beloved institution. Best recent decision: Cutting back on those Top 10 lists, which sounded increasingly like obligations to fulfill the next book contract. One warning: Dave, if you move to ABC, you’ll be at the mercy of Ted Koppel opting to go overtime with any old Defense Department analyst who catches his fancy — and those of us who tape Late Night instead of watching it in real time (what is that — 80, 90 percent of your audience?) will never be able to set our VCRs properly.
7. Brooklyn Bridge
This sentimental sitcom about life in ’50s Brooklyn could easily have degenerated into something cutesy and precious; instead, Bridge has become a plucky little comedy. Exhibiting a steadiness of tone rare on series TV, Bridge has pursued the strain of conducting Jewish-Catholic puppy love under the gaze of disapproving elders, and has suggested that our young hero, Alan (Danny Gerard), is not just Fred Savage with a Brooklyn Dodgers addiction — he’s his own little man, earnest and devious, noble and horny. And there’s no way on earth Marion Ross, as Alan’s grandmother, will be denied a Best Supporting Actress Emmy next year.
8. Northern Exposure
It figures that just as I surrendered to this series’ wistful whimsy, many of its most devout fans started saying the show had lost it — ”it” being some sort of edge I never thought it had. Sure, Exposure has gotten a little softer and self-satisfied, but what I really like about this season (aside from the fact that the excellent Janine Turner is sounding more saucily Southern with each episode) is the way most of the fine supporting characters now seem to view the show’s ostensible hero, Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow), as I do: as a selfish, petulant whiner best ignored. The show also inspired the best joke I’ve read in a TV review all year, from Tom Carson’s decidedly edgy piece in L.A. Weekly: ”If Woody Allen is butter, then Fleischman is margarine.”
9. The Simpsons
Despite a drop-off in the quality of this season’s writing (key to the problem: Homer has been made too stupid, even for Homer), The Simpsons remains the best smart-aleck show on TV, the one whose wisecracks carry the most weight. That’s because this is one of TV’s most believable clans; they suggest that a family consisting of mutually exclusive personalities (stupid Homer, wise Marge, wiser Lisa, wiseacre Bart, canny Maggie) develops a healthy sense of confidence and independence. A half hour of The Simpsons is probably more therapeutic than endless hours of PBS’ John Bradshaw nurturing your inner child.
10. Murphy Brown
Murphy’s crankiness over pregnancy has been enormously gratifying, and the emergence of Eldin as an impending nanny is the development we’d all been hoping for. The episode that bade farewell to Murphy’s mom (the late Colleen Dewhurst) was a small marvel: raucously funny and truly sad, with the writing (by creator Diane English) in its second half as strong as that in its first, something not often true about Murphy these days. And maybe it’s time for a little shake-up on the FYI team; both Faith Ford’s Corky and Joe Regalbuto’s Frank are vague, one-note characters this season.
1. The Adventures of Mark & Brian
It sank to the bottom of the ratings almost from the start, and one can only assume the few people tuned in were hoping these two exhaustingly wacky deejays would finally attempt a stunt that would leave them speechless and immobile. So far, no such luck.
I could have picked Charlie Hoover, which has basically the same premise (handsome sap — William Ragsdale in this case, Tim Matheson in Hoover — bedeviled by voices in his head), but chose Herman just because it debuted first and has therefore been terrible longer. Dumb, noisy, vulgar: empty-headed.
Singled out for its perversion of Dabney Coleman’s talent: Whereas in the past Coleman has been wittily snide (Buffalo Bill, 9 to 5), here he plays a teacher who’s just plain mean, crude, and insulting to his students, who don’t behave any better toward him. Education as hell.
4. Dear John
Remember when this was going to be the new Taxi? The next Cheers? The next classy ensemble sitcom? Instead, it turned into the manic-depressive’s —Night Court — a bunch of neurotics sitting around yelling punch lines at each other.
5. FBI: The Untold Stories
Chosen over other reality-based junk because of its inherent dishonesty: At this point, the untold stories we really want to hear are the ones about J. Edgar Hoover’s messianic domination of the bureau, not the tidy tales shown here, which reduce the true bravery of real FBI agents to mundane TV-drama fodder.
6. Quantum Leap
Winner of the Midnight Caller award for Most Pretentious Series. Ooh, Sam ”leaps” into the body of a date-rape victim — what a daring statement! Ooh, Sam ”leaps” into the body of a chimp to teach us about animal rights! Self-righteous condescension doesn’t get any more florid than this.
7. Palace Guard
Gone and pretty much forgotten, except for the radioactive smirk D.W. Moffett wore throughout every second on this dismal action-adventure-in-a-hotel series. No wonder Marcy Walker kept flicking her hair into her eyes — she didn’t want to look around at the mess she’d walked into.
8. Baby Talk
Or, The Sitcom That Will Not Die. Already working on the ruination of its third lead actress (Mary Page Keller, following Julia Duffy and Connie Sellecca), Talk minimized the talk of its infants, but that only made more time for lame grown-up jokes.
9. Empty Nest
Richard Mulligan is now so ostentatiously mannered that he’s working in a world of his own — his acting rhythms don’t match those of his costars. Which is what makes him the only bearable one: Dinah Manoff continues to be the most hostile person I’ve seen passing herself off as a comic actress; Kristy McNichol seems vaguely embarrassed; David Leisure is a McLean Stevenson for the ’90s.
10. Almost Anything in Syndication
Okay, so Star Trek: The Next Generation is good stuff — or at least I’ll take your word for it. But the new, environmentally correct Tarzan? (Jane: ”Tarzan, you think the river is poisoned?” Tarzan: ”Jane run tests.”) The new WKRP in Cincinnati? (Who’d have thought we’d ever miss Gary Sandy?) It’s high time we got some legislation passed prohibiting minors from being exposed to syndicated programming.
Maybe the Best TV Child Actor Ever
I’ll Fly Away‘s John Aaron Bennett
Best Theme Song Parody
Flaming Moe’s, The Simpsons‘ send-up of Cheers‘: “When the weight of the world has got you down and you want to end your life/Bills to pay, a dead-end job, and problems with your wife…”
Buried Treasure, Prime-Time Division
Connie Ray in The Torkelsons (NBC): Surrounded by cute kids and cute scripts, she is charming, earnest, and an all-too-convincingly weary mom
Hit Show Nobody You Know Watches
America’s Funniest People
Most Underrated TV Movie
Paris Trout (Showtime)
It got mixed reviews — critics wimped out in the face of the violence in Pete Dexter’s story — but this tale of small-town murder was a terrific shocker, and Dennis Hopper and Barbara Hershey were first-rate.