Fear Factor

2002 proved that TV has no shame at any hour

Television has no shame at any hour: 2002 was the year Katie Couric and Todaywoke up extra early to play hardball with their competitors in order to land an exclusive interview with Jacqueline Marris and Tamara Brooks, the two California girls kidnapped and assaulted in June who went on TV not 24 hours after their rescue to share their story. It was the year ABC threatened to dump Nightlineand replace it with The Late Show With David Letterman, whose audience is more likely to buy cars and movie tickets and beer than Ted Koppel's. It was the year NBC gave Carson Daly his own late-night talk show, which is like giving an infant a chemistry set. It was the year Connie Chung and Phil Donahue returned to television and discovered audiences hadn't returned to them. It was the year Bill O'Reilly proved they didsave Hitler's brain, and it was the year Barbara and Diane duked it out to interview Jennifer Lopez, Sharon Osbourne and Whitney Houston, the very brand of banal celebrity we were supposed to stop giving a damn about after September 11. And I'm pretty sure CNN is still replaying footage of Michael Jackson dangling his son from a hotel-room balcony.

It's appalling, but not at all shocking, that most year-in-TV pieces appearing in Your Local Daily Newspaper have cited as their top or most important TV moment of 2002 The Osbournesand The Anna Nicole Show, both of which star "people" who clearly aren't speaking in their native tongues. Anna Nicole Smith wasn't even worth labeling a has-been by the time the geniuses at E! wrangled the drug-damaged plus-plus-plus-sized ex-Guess! model, yet the freak show gets major play in the midway nonetheless. As for Ozzy, the success of the MTV show about his pitiable life and pitiful family does indeed prove he's made a pact with the devil, whose name apparently rhymes with "Sharon Osbourne." Oh, and that constant beep-beep-beepyou're hearing isn't the sound of curse words being edited out; it's the sound Anna Nicole makes when she backs up.

Jules and Gedeon Naudet's documentary 9/11, about the terror attacks on the World Trade Center, was the only bit of reality television that mattered in 2002. It made tangible those stories you heard about from a distance; it put you inside the belly of the beast, a place of business rendered towering inferno in a matter of moments. A story originally about the life of a young firefighter in an instant became the tale of a nation, and it made everything else on television this season a moot point.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the year's biggest surprise film, will be next year's TV series. Yeah, big surprise.
Sophie Giraud
My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the year's biggest surprise film, will be next year's TV series. Yeah, big surprise.

Cable rendered the networks positively obsolete, stealing away viewers at an astonishing rate; stats released this year revealed that more than half the people with their sets on from 7-10 p.m. were looking off-network for their diversions. Tony Soprano and Larry David (two men who know a thing or two about losing their heads) provided the year's best prime-time punch, Michael Keaton's career was recovered from the lost-and-found on HBO's Live from Baghdad, Jon Stewart was referring to White House spokesman Ari Fleischer as a "douche bag" on Comedy Central's The Daily Show, lost gems such as Larry Gelbart's United Statesand Robert Altman's Gunwere being rediscovered on the Trio network, South Parkwas dropping bombs over Baghdad, The Proud Familyand Kim Possiblewere impossible to stop watching on the Disney Channel, VH1 was reminding a generation why I Love the '80s and Trent Lott was lynching himself on C-SPAN. Who says there's nothing on?

"There's plenty of room for good stuff -- especially on cable, where there are hundreds of specialized stations willing to run the gamut from brilliance to abject crap," says Robert Smigel, the voice of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. "But the networks seem to be retreating from even attempting the 'great/risky' stuff. I sense a move back toward traditional sitcoms and drama amid a growing rationalization that 'This is what people turn to us for.' The thinking is, the specialized channels are for the specialized tastes; our job, more than ever, is to find the middle ground that pleases the masses. It's a shame.

"In general, it's true that there are a lot of cool shows that won't work on a network and belong on Trio or Animal Planet or whatever, but ... I hope it's still possible for a show like Seinfeld to get a real shot on a network. I hope they don't forget that the biggest hits are often the product of the biggest risks."

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