TV PROVIDED HORRIFIC INFORMATION, COMFORT.
We've heard a lot of hyperbole about how the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks changed everything, but much was actually affected in the world of television.
The networks lost a reported $188 million in dedicating themselves to commercial-free, round-the-clock coverage of the tragedy, further contributing to what had already emerged as a depressed TV economy. This led to highly recompensed network executives bleating anew about budget cuts; television production and development has been even more depressed than a lull anticipating a strike that didn't happen that began before September.
Such woe-is-me braying, however, didn't prevent NBC from giving a budget-busting $65 million contract to Katie Couric. (What does one do in that situation? Allow a valuable draw to set up shop with the competition? Or cough up the money, only to eventually lay off lots of people who could be writing and helping prepare the material that makes Couric look so good on the air?)
Other effects were felt, as well. Reality programming, a trend that showed no signs of abating as recently as this spring, collapsed. Viewers turned to such tried-and-true shows as ``Everybody Loves Raymond'' and ``Friends'' for entertainment (fortunately, those shows have responded with strong episodes). This has forced networks, hastily rescheduling their fall season premieres, to be slower than usual in yanking underperforming new series. For example, ``The Ellen Show'' has been renewed for the entire season despite failing to click with viewers in a handful of different time slots, and the grease fire of a sitcom ``Emeril'' still managed to find its way to the airwaves long after that souffle collapsed. (The development slowdown may also explain the networks sticking with middling product.)
There was, believe it or not, a little good news in TV this past year, though most of it was on cable, as this Best-of-2001 list suggests.
1. Television steps up in the wake of Sept. 11.
A: ABC's and CNN's coverage of the terrorist attacks and the aftermath. While it was my job to survey all unfolding coverage on Sept. 11, whenever I wanted solid facts or a sense of controlled perspective, I invariably returned to ABC and Peter Jennings, who maintained a level head under unthinkable circumstances. Since then, CNN, which began 2001 in a major funk, has rebounded, doing what it does best: Seizing breaking news stories like troops storming Kandahar, and with none of Geraldo Rivera's reprehensible showmanship.
B: David Letterman's Sept. 17 return, CBS. Given an impossible challenge - generate entertainment a mere six days after the nation had been (by some early misguided estimations, permanently) stunned beyond the ability to laugh - Letterman opened with a heartfelt soliloquy, soothed Dan Rather and, finally, mocked Regis Philbin as usual. He operated from pure instinct - you couldn't teach or test-market this performance.
C: Great shows hurt by Sept. 11 soldier on: ``24,'' Fox; ``The Daily Show,'' Comedy Central. Despite rave reviews, viewers aren't ready to join in the terrorist intrigue of ``24,'' a dense, atmospheric and gripping thriller about a government agent attempting to prevent the assassination of an African-American presidential candidate. Earlier in the year, Comedy Central's ``The Daily Show'' with Jon Stewart won a Peabody Award for its incisive skewering of the 2000 election. After Sept. 11, its favorite target was a sacred cow none dared milk, let alone slaughter, for humor. Online outlet ``The Onion'' led the way through the darkness, finding the best darkly comic tone for dealing with the attacks, not Stewart and company.
2. ``Jazz,'' PBS. Ken Burns did it, again, with a resonant and swinging 18 hours of Americana and art, focusing on both the greatest artists and stories in the music's history. Critics who didn't like it were miffed that they had to watch so much TV for just one review.
3 through 9. HBO programming. The pay-cable network can no longer really be considered a luxury for the true fan of quality TV. Here's why:
``The Sopranos.'' Season three regained whatever was relinquished in season two, even with the crippling loss of Nancy Marchand as Tony's insidious mother, by getting, if anything, even more brutal in its depiction of life, in the mob and otherwise.
``Six Feet Under.'' Alan Ball's smart, nuanced comedy-drama set in a funeral home boasted smart character comedy, issues-oriented drama, jaw-dropping revelations and, of course, poignant depictions of how we cope with grief.
``Band of Brothers.'' America, in need of a new band of heroes, sort of abandoned this World War II miniseries, missing a classic alternately subtle in its quiet moments and startlingly brain-rattling in its battle sequences.
``Curb Your Enthusiasm.'' Larry David's gleefully misanthropic misadventures got deliriously twisted over the course of the season, suggesting in a very back-handed way that maybe creating ``Seinfeld'' was the worse thing that ever happened to him.
``On the Record With Bob Costas.'' One can almost forget that talk shows can in fact be intelligent until finding Costas' sports-issues series. Costas' measured, artful evisceration of Vince McMahon of the World Wrestling Federation and, briefly, the XFL was water-cooler TV at its best.
``Wit.'' Emma Thompson's performance as a brittle English professor humanized by her terminal illness was one of the year's most affecting.
``61*.'' Only white males could find not getting quite enough credit for one's accomplishments the stuff of epic tragedy, but this baseball yarn about Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and the quest to best the Babe's home run record was nonetheless grand, all-American entertainment.
10) ``People Like Us,'' BBC America. Roy Mallard is an earnest, borderline-inept documentarian given to spasms of klutziness and tongue- twisting malapropisms. His subjects, ordinary folks trying to get through the day, are, if anything, even more confused and miserable. When they collide, utterly inspired comedy results. The show looks precisely like what you might see on any number of dutifully drearily educational cable channels, except that it's intentionally funny.
(1) Louis Armstrong
(2) Peter Jennings
(3) Freddy Rodriguez, left, Michael C. Hall and Frances Conroy star in HBO's ``Six Feet Under.''
(4) Dan Rather, left, with David Letterman
(5) Emma Thompson in ``Wit.''