So this is the time of year when we're all supposed to spend time dwelling on the things we're thankful for. Given the state of the world -- with famine, disease, poverty, and war rampant -- probably the most arrogant, myopic thing I could possibly do is pen a Thanksgiving column focused entirely on television.
With that in mind, I'd like to devote this week's Thanksgiving column entirely to television.
Because, let's face it: with all that famine, disease, poverty, and war pounding on the door 24 hours a day, we could all use a little escapism. And for that, we turn to our old, reliable friend, the Idiot Box.
And so, I offer this, the First Annual TV Thanksgiving Extravaganza, wherein I count down a dozen TV-related items for which I am grateful. Because, damn it, I think the founding fathers would have wanted it that way.
HBO With THE SOPRANOS and SIX FEET UNDER, HBO tossed down the gauntlet and dared broadcast shows to try and meet their challenge. Shows like 24 owe a huge debt for their existence to HBO. And its programming has only become more interesting in the wake of prestige and shelves full of Emmys. Where else could you find a deliberately paced dark fantasy set in Dust Bowl America (CARNIVALE)? Or a foul-mouthed Western where the moral line between good and bad has long since been buried beneath layers of dirt and blood and compromise (DEADWOOD)? The sheer fact that these shows exist, much less that they will be coming back for second seasons next year, is cause for any TV geek to do cartwheels of joy.
THE TV-ON-DVD EXPLOSION As I look up at the shelves in my living room, I see complete or nearly complete collections of BABYLON 5, FARSCAPE, ANGEL, and BUFFY, multiyear sagas waiting to be revisited whenever I like. Three seasons of FAMILY GUY sit next to the full runs of FAWLTY TOWERS and BLACKADDER, awaiting the day I feel the need to laugh so hard I spray beverages out my nose. Once, cancellation meant you'd never see the show outside a bootlegger's table at a convention; now, between shows like FREAKS AND GEEKS, MY SO-CALLED LIFE, SPORTS NIGHT, FIREFLY, and THE TICK, I could practically fill an entire shelf just with shows that met premature deaths. No matter how obscure the show, it seems like every program in the studio vaults is finding reincarnation in the form of shiny disks.
FX Plenty of networks have tried to ape HBO's success at pushing the boundaries of both subject matter and storytelling; FX has come close more often than most. THE SHIELD is one of the best cop shows since HOMICIDE. NIP/TUCK is a delightfully wicked return to the gloriously over-the-top primetime soap antics of shows like MELROSE PLACE, except the writing staff can actually write. RESCUE ME has settled into an effortless mixture of drama and humor, and I don't think there could be a show more perfectly tailored for Dennis Leary. My only regret is that LUCKY never found an audience, but here's hoping it finds its way to DVD soon.
TRIO It gave us BRILLIANT BUT CANCELLED. It gave us PILOT SEASON. It gives us a steady flow of fascinating documentaries and specials about music, film, culture, politicsyou name it. It gives so much, and yet asks so little.
BBC AMERICA It introduced me to both COUPLING and THE OFFICE, and that alone would have been enough. But it also brought me MANCHILD, which managed to render me completely incapable of watching Giles in BUFFY without all manner of disturbing and inappropriate visions flitting through my brain. And that's...actually, I'm not particularly thankful for that, come to think of it.
A NEW DIRECTION FOR ENTERPRISE It's too soon to tell whether Manny Coto's navigation will steer this ship straight and true, but any movement out of the Sargasso sea of mediocrity in which TREK has been mired for the past decade is a good thing.
SCI-FI CHANNEL'S DEVELOPMENT SLATE It's taken them a while, but Sci-Fi seems to finally have hit its stride. STARGATE continues to do well for them, and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA holds the promise of being something truly special. EARTHSEA looks to continue the string of quality miniseries that DUNE and CHILDREN OF DUNE began, and more adaptations of classics are on the way, including Joe Haldeman's THE FOREVER WAR, Bradbury's THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, Niven's RINGWORLD, and Ursula Le Guin's LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. WONDERFALLS' Bryan Fuller is working on an adaptation of Mike Mignola's Eisner-winning comic AMAZING SCREW-ON HEAD. Ridley Scott has a remake of THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN. Richard Christian Matheson is turning Roger Zelazny's CHRONICLES OF AMBER into a miniseries, and Michael De Luca is doing the same with Greg Bear's DARWIN'S RADIO and DARWIN'S CHILDREN. TAKEN's Leslie Bohem is reteaming with Steven Spielberg on what's described as the "first true miniseries trilogy ever." Gale Anne Hurd is guiding Kim Stanley Robinson's RED MARS. Frank Darabont is digging up THE THING, and Dean Devlin and Bryan Singer are collaborating on a miniseries about the Bermuda Triangle. Hell, even Martin Scorsese has a project in the works at SFC. If that doesn't sound like progress, I don't know what does.
UNINTERRUPTED ALIAS AND 24 THIS SEASON No more shall we exclaim, "Hooray, Jack Bauer is back!" only to reach the end of the episode and hear "Three weeks from tonight, 24 returns..." If only all shows would switch to this straight-on-til-morning format. But in the meantime, these two should greatly benefit from uninterrupted runs, since they're so heavy on continuity and pacing.
ABRAMS NIGHT ON ABC And speaking of ALIAS, I couldn't be happier that Sydney and company are resettling on Wednesday nights, right after J.J. Abrams' other baby, LOST. Hopefully, it'll mean a boost in ratings for ALIAS, but if nothing else, it'll be reminiscent of the good old days of BUFFY and ANGEL back to back on Tuesday nights. Granted, that means Wednesday night, which was already my busiest TV night by far, has gone from "unmanageable" to "aneurysm inducing."
THE RETURN OF FAMILY GUY This show is like the freakin' TERMINATOR. Fox has killed it roughly 27 times now by my count. Then the DVD sets sold something on the order of 200 trillion copies and the reruns on Comedy Central became ratings hits, and suddenly Fox found itself with chicken ovum on its face. And thus, 2005 will find FAMILY GUY once again back on the air and tilting with the FCC. As it should be.
FARSCAPE FINALLY GETTING ITS PROPER ENDING It was long overdue, but that much the sweeter for the wait. And what an ending!
THE NEXT THING Because there's always something new just over the horizon to thrill and enchant us, inspire and entertain us. For all the crap that spews out over the airwaves on the daily basis, there are still gems to be found amongst the televisual dross, and that's definitely reason to give thanks.
Keep your head and hands inside the television, folks...
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 22
FEAR FACTOR (7 PM CST, NBC) Never ones to miss out on crassly exploiting a holiday, tonight the show serves contestants a Thanksgiving feast including maggoty mashed potatoes and sheep brain pie. Nummers.
SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (7 PM CST, AMC) I have no doubt that my good friend Bo would be Tivoing this, if he didn't already own it on DVD.
BEST IN SHOW (7 PM CST, Comedy Central) Mockumentary master Christopher Guest turns his eye toward competitive dog shows. Worth a watch for Fred Willard's daft commentator alone.
MURDER IN SUBURBIA (7 PM CST, BBC America) Series premiere. The American debut of this British drama that finds two female detectives investigating...well, murders in suburbia. Tonight, they dig into ties between a dead woman and a singles club.
INVISIBLE MAN (7 PM CST, Trio) Not the more recent Sci-Fi Channel version; this is the 1975 show co-created by Steven Bochco. It follows a scientist (David McCallum) who invents an invisibility formula, but then goes on the run when the government wants to use it for nefarious purposes (don't they always?).
WATERWORLD (8 PM CST, USA) Kevin Costner sinks $175 million to the bottom of the ocean. Oh, and Dennis Hopper has an eye patch.
CSI: MIAMI (9 PM CST, CBS) "Pirated." Horatio Caine investigates a string of murders that are believed to be the work of the ghostly crew of the Black Pearl. Not really, but that'd be a helluva show, wouldn't it?
INVESTIGATING HISTORY (9 PM CST, History) This look at the JFK assassination will no doubt uncover the conclusive and undeniable evidence that the previous 600,000 shows about the JFK assassination overlooked.
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 23
REBEL BILLIONAIRE: BRANSON'S QUEST FOR THE BEST (7 PM CST, Fox) With a special appearance by Nelson Mandela. I only wish I were kidding.
THE BIGGEST LOSER (7 PM CST, NBC) A John Doe copycat killer kidnaps the contestants, ties them down in front of a row of scales, and forces them to carve off 200 pounds of flesh each. Fox immediately greenlights a spin-off reality show starring the homicidal maniac.
SPACEBALLS (7 PM CST, WGN) Prepare for...ludicrous speed!
GIRLS BEHAVING BADLY (7 PM CST, Oxygen) If you tune in thinking this has something to do with GIRLS GONE WILD, prepare to be sorely disappointed.
THE EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE (7 PM CST, Disney) Watching this and other recent Disney fare, I'm sure they'll do just fine making TOY STORY 3 without Pixar. Ahem.
HOUSE (8 PM CST, Fox) "Paternity." House treats a 16-year-old boy suffering from nightmares after being hit on the head with a lacrosse ball.
AMAZING RACE 6 (8 PM CST, CBS) The second leg of the race sees the teams departing Iceland for Norway, and a second team gets the axe (metaphorically,
VERONICA MARS (8 PM CST, UPN) "Like a Virgin." Veronica helps out one of the popular kids when the false results of his "purity test" are posted online for all to see. Plus, it's off to meet Abel Koontz, the man who confessed to murdering Veronica's best friend.
CUBE 2: HYPERCUBE (8 PM CST, Sci-Fi) Doesn't live up to the claustrophobic thrills of the first movie, but provides a little more insight into the origin of the Cube, if you were looking for any. Also plays with some fascinating scientific concepts, but in the end, it's better in idea than in execution.
BURNING MAN: WHERE'S THE FIRE? (8 PM CST, Trio) If you don't know what Burning Man is, no explanation will suffice. But this look at the annual counterculture festival might come close.
NYPD BLUE (9 PM CST, ABC) "I Like Ike." Ike likes me. Ike and I fairly fully agree. (This concludes the "Obscure Christmas Movie Reference" portion of today's column.)
WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 24
ALEXANDER THE GREAT: MURDER UNSOLVED (7 PM CST, Discovery) Experts discuss what turned Alexander the Great into Alexander the Late.
THAT '70S SHOW (7 PM CST, Fox) "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Eric plans to bail on the family Thanksgiving in favor of a concert.
THE PUPPET MASTERS (7 PM CST, Mystery Channel) Hollywood has provided us with plenty of crappy Phillip K. Dick adaptations; for a change of pace, here's a crappy Robert Heinlein
THE WEST WING (8 PM CST, NBC) "The Dover Test." An American soldier is killed in the peacekeeping mission to Gaza, leading the father of the slain soldier to speak out against Bartlett.
THE WOOL CAP (8 PM CST, TNT) William H. Macy plays a mute janitor in this remake of Jackie Gleason's GIGOT. And nothing says "holiday cheer" like a mute janitor.
HUFF (8 PM CST, Showtime) "Lipstick on Your Panties." Showtime's latest original stars Hank Azaria as a neurotic shrink. Sort of like FRASIER, except with more nudity.
LAW & ORDER (9 PM CST, NBC) "All in the Family." Four people are killed in a shooting, and one turns out to have connections in the Russian mob. It's always the Russian mob these days...where's the equal time for, like, the Canadian mob? They're polite, but they're ruthless.
CSI: MIAMI (9 PM CST, CBS) "Three Generations Are Enough." A man goes missing, and the only clue to his disappearance is his briefcase, found abandoned on the floor of a mercantile exchange. The briefcase contains Marcellus Wallace's soul.
GOLDFINGER (9 PM CST, Spike) It's a good thing Auric Goldfinger became an evil genius and not a proctologist. Such a cold finger, as you recall.
FILMFAKERS (9 PM CST, AMC) "Song Island." Former AMERICAN IDOL loser and tragic-haircut-victim Justin Guarini is in on the joke, unlike the other actors, during tonight's fake musical. But is he in on the joke that he's such a joke?
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 25
BATMAN FOREVER (6:30 PM CST, WGN) Thinking of this first of Joel Schumacher's two bat-atrocities, I'm that much more thankful for the upcoming Christopher Nolan-helmed BATMAN BEGINS.
SPIDER-MAN (7 PM CST, Fox) Young
A THE CHARLIE BROWN THANKSGIVING (7 PM CST, ABC) It's a tradition, after all.
MORTAL KOMBAT (7:15 PM CST, Action Channel) Utter krap. But I bet that awful techno song is already stuck in your head. "MORTAL KOMBAAAAAT!"
DR. SEUSS' HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (7:30 PM CST, ABC) When comparing the classic cartoon version to this 105-minute live-action version, I'm reminded of the Mark Twain quote, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead."
CSI: CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION (8 PM CST, CBS) "Mea Culpa." The team is in hot water when Grissom discovers a fingerprint they missed on a key piece of evidence in a murder trial.
THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (8 PM CST, Spike) The script is not that good.
'SEINFELD' STORY (8:59 CST, NBC) Jerry hosts a look back at the hit show, which NBC execs are probably really missing right about now.
INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (9:30 PM CST, USA) I'm sure casting Kate Capshaw seemed like a good idea at the time.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 26
RUSHMORE (6:30 PM CST, Comedy Central) Wherein the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences establishes their tradition of stubbornly refusing to give Bill Murray an Oscar.
THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS (6:45 PM CST, Cinemax) If there is a more compelling proof of the old adage "Quit while you're ahead," I've yet to find it. Still, at least it's better than THE MATRIX RELOADED.
JOAN OF ARCADIA (7 PM CST, CBS) "The Book of Questions." Joan helps Grace prepare for her bat
STAR TREK: ENTERPRISE (7 PM CST, UPN) "Awakening." The second of three episodes focusing on Vulcan sees Archer on the receiving end of a forced mind-meld when the dissident Syrranites want the information about Surak that's been placed in his head.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (7 PM CST, TCM) The movie that forever changed the way we look at mashed potatoes.
BLOOD SIMPLE (7:15 PM CST, IFC) The commentary on this DVD is hysterical.
GALAXY QUEST (8 PM CST, TBS) A better STAR TREK movie than the last several actual STAR TREK movies combined.
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 27
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (7 PM CST, NBC) Every time this movie airs between November and January, an angel gets its wings.
FLATLINERS (7 PM CST, Mystery Channel) If only someone had flatlined Joel Schumacher before he got his mitts on the BATMAN franchise...
DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (7 PM CST, TCM) You will rarely find a more gorgeously shot film.
SPECIES III (8 PM CST, Sci-Fi) Since
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 28
SIX DAYS, SEVEN NIGHTS (6 PM CST, USA) It's funny, because that's exactly half as long as I'd be willing to go without food or water to avoid watching this movie.
MERLIN (6 PM CST, Sci-Fi) Sam Neill saves Camelot from genetically engineered dinosaurs, or something like that. It's really long, either way.
THE MATRIX (6:30 PM CST, Cinemax) If you're still twitching from sitting through THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS on Friday night, cleanse your mental palate with the far-superior original.
ICE AGE (7 PM CST, Fox) Not bad, but would have been better if it was just an hour and a half of that squirrel-rat critter.
SHREK (7 PM CST, NBC) Is it sad that Eddie Murphy is doing his best work in years as a computer-animated donkey? PLUTO NASH might have actually been watchable if it had starred a computer-animated donkey. No, you're right. Probably not.
CHARMED (7 PM CST, WB) "Witchness Protection." Hey kids, it's Charisma Carpenter, guest-starring as "the demonic Seer"! If her partner the demonic Roebuck shows up, our goose is cooked.
NOEL (7 PM CST, TNT) They made an entire movie about the mechanic from WINGS? Weird.
MY BIG FAT OBNOXIOUS BOSS (8 PM CST, Fox) The BFOB charges his young padawans with selling reusable toilet paper and other such delightful products.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL (8 PM CST, NBC) It's a brand new musical version of Dickens' classic tale, featuring such dynamic talents as Kelsey Grammar (with mutton chops!), Jason Alexander (probably also with mutton chops!), and Jennifer Love Hewitt (with...uh...I dunno. Breasts?).
DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES (8 PM CST, ABC) Somebody on Wisteria Lane is going down for the dirt nap tonight (that's not a sexual innuendo, for you American Family Association members out there).
BOSTON LEGAL (9 PM CST, ABC) "Loose Lips." Shore defends a gay, cross-dressing Santa who was fired from his department store. Featuring another appearance by the Reverend Al Sharpton, because this a David E. Kelley show, and he's got a "quirky quota" to fill.
This concludes our broadcast day. Happy Thanksgiving!