While the Miss America pageant has lost its luster as a TV happening of anything more than kitsch value, it's not hard to remember when it was still one of the most highly rated events of any TV season.
The story of how the pageant evolved over eight decades from a promotional gimmick to a national icon, and how its recent identity crises reflect changing ideals of women in modern society, makes for a fascinating chapter in the histories of popular culture and sexual politics. In short, it's perfect fodder for PBS's ever-eclectic American Experience series (Sundays at 9 pm/ET, check TV Guide listings).
Capping a month that included a terrific two-part Woodrow Wilson biography and a look at the building of Mount Rushmore, American Experience takes the crown with producer Lisa Ades's masterful Miss America documentary (national airdate, January 27).
Breezily anecdotal and pungently opinionated, though rarely patronizing despit
As haunted manors go, Rose Red is a mighty cool fun house, with hallways that defy perspective and gnarled ghouls that lurk around every corner. Unfortunately, the house is the best thing about ABC's lavish horror miniseries Stephen King's Rose Red, which is hampered by a slow start, bad casting (especially Nancy Travis as a perky paranormal scientist) and a repetitive structure of one "boo" after another reducing the cumulative impact. Early on, Travis quotes from Shirley Jackson, and my advice is to rent the author's 1963 classic The Haunting, based on her unsurpassed The Haunting of Hill House.
As Josh (Hank Azaria) lapses into yet another fantasy, his wife (Jayne Brook) asks, "What are you thinking?" What was Azaria thinking, you might wonder when watching Imagine That (NBC, Tuesdays, 8 pm/ET). The Emmy-winning Azaria (The Simpsons, Tuesdays with Morrie) has earned his credentials as a versatile and charming entertainer. But the fantasy-dream gimmick, in which he adopts bizarre disguises and voices to escape life as a sex-starved husband and frustrated TV comedy writer, is no more effective than on Inside Schwartz. Azaria's admirable range is wasted on trite surroundings at work and at home.
So there I was, left hanging through Christmas. And New Year's. What a great feeling, I've gotta say.
On Alias, captured double agent Jack Bristow (Victor Garber) had just been ordered to shoot and kill fellow spy Sydney (Jennifer Garner), who happens to be his daughter. On 24, Teri Bauer (Leslie Hope), wife of counterterrorist leader Jack (Kiefer Sutherland), had just learned the man helping her find her kidnapped daughter is not another concerned parent. He's an impostor, a killer.
To be continued... and I wouldn't miss it.
Suspense has long been my favorite snack food, and what a feast some (though not enough) of us have been devouring in this season's new gourmet treats, ABC's Alias (Sundays, 9 pm/ET) and Fox's 24 (Tuesdays, 9 pm/ET). These outrageously enjoyable adventures are devilishly resourceful in dev
Filmmaker Ken Burns adds yet another valuable chapter to his visual and oral history of the American character with an enthralling two-part biography of Mark Twain (PBS, January 14-15, check TV Guide listings). "A wise guy who's wise," says author Russell Banks of the celebrated writer, wit and fearless social critic described by a contemporary as "the Lincoln of our literature." As in many Burns films, the issue of race looms large, especially in the first night's climactic segments on Twain's masterwork, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. How often can you say TV makes you want to pick up a book immediately?
Having watched HBO's Emmy-winning (don't ask me how) Sex and the City from the beginning, learning to appreciate if not always celebrate its proudly bawdy style of raunchy romanticism, I thought I'd heard it all. I was wrong.
With the show returning for a six-week winter run (Sundays, 9 pm/ET), here's Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) on desiring sex while pregnant: "Is it tacky? And beyond tacky, is it safe?" Since when did these women start worrying about being tacky? In another episode, rapacious man killer Samantha (Kim Cattrall) calls her new lover "tacky and immature."
Look who's talking or, rather, shrieking.
Sex frequently relies on shrill vulgarity not because it must, but because it can. The result is cheap, lazy shock, like Miranda uttering an unprintable variation on Dead Man Walking.
In keeping with this issue's "jeers" theme, I top my own worst-of-the-year list with NBC's degrading, pandering Fear Factor. It's a reluctant choice, because calling any attention to this pathetic nadir of "reality" TV tends to give it the sort of notoriety that, sad to say, will only boost its ratings.
The other low point in the reality genre: CBS choosing to play out its voyeuristic exercise in claustrophobic exhibitionism, Big Brother, even after Sept. 11, then airing the egregiously inane finale immediately after President Bush's address to Congress.
Worst game-show trend: endless and tiresome "celebrity" editions of ABC's overexposed Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and NBC's overhyped Weakest Link.
Worst news trend: onscreen clutter of graphics, crawling type and distracting logos, most notably on CNN's amped-up Headline News channel.
Worst news obsession: the
Lately I've been drawing parallels between Ed Stevens's (Tom Cavanagh) crush on Carol Vessey (Julie Bowen) on NBC's charming Ed and the torch that young Clark Kent (Tom Welling) carries for Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk) on the WB's smashing Smallville. These great guys may always save the day in their baroque backwaters, but rarely do they get the girl.
Don't you just love a good TV romance?
If so, I hope you've been watching WB's Felicity, which goes on winter hiatus after this week (December 19, 9 pm/ET), leaving us basking in the afterglow of one of TV's most intimate, moody and tangled love stories.
The torrid triangle of well-meaning Felicity (Keri Russell) and the men in her life, earnest Noel (Scott Foley) and pensive Ben (Scott Speedman), has propelled this addict
"A fiasco from start to finish" is how Julia Louis-Dreyfus's disapproving agent (played by Jane Carr) described Larry David's grouchy fall from grace, as the triumphant second season of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm came to an end all too soon. (The only off note: a cameo appearance by Mike Binder, whose repellent The Mind of the Married Man was the network's real fiasco on recent Sundays.) Watching David become a pariah to all of Hollywood, alienating himself from every conceivable network through a series of public mishaps most of his own making made for the season's most uproarious, scabrous farce.
Far be it from me to stand in the way of romance, but I can't imagine a TV couple any ickier than Boston Public's pathetically lovelorn vice principal Scott Guber (Anthony Heald) and "hook lady" Kathy Baker. The domineering mother of a psycho son, she was mysteriously maimed, and her prosthetic metal hand is being used for grotesque comic effect. Almost as unappealing is the forced courtship on ER between doctors Carter (Noah Wyle) and Lewis (Sherry Stringfield), who make googly eyes at each other in between crises. It seems like a long time ago since we were swooning over Doug and Carol, doesn't it?