Nobody said it would be pretty. Why should it be?
Still, it didn't take long this season for HBO's The Sopranos (Sundays, 9 pm/ET) to see its reputation shift from ultrahip water-cooler fave to lightning rod for controversy.
Some are repulsed by the show's recent violence toward women: the rape of Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) and the fatal beating of a young, pregnant stripper by hotheaded (and hopheaded) Ralphie (Joe Pantoliano). In a more familiar complaint, Italian-American organizations object to what they see as a slur against their ethnic dignity, prompting one Chicago group to file a lawsuit. I keep wondering what the show's detractors expect. Yes, the world of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is brutal and ugly, often claiming as its victims the weak and defenseless. That's what criminals do, including the punk who assaulted Melfi in a parking garage and was freed on a technicality.
Much more effective than the muddled resurrection of The X-Files's Fox Mulder was the non-resurrection of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Joyce Summers on April 17, the first new episode in a near-eternity. After weeks of buzz that Buffy's mom might be brought back to life, the show delivered an inspired variation on "The Monkey's Paw," the classic horror tale warning against disrupting the natural order of things. Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) used witchcraft to revive Joyce but reversed her decision in the nick of time, leading to a tearful catharsis. As usual, Buffy cast a spell as emotional as it was frightening.
A Jewish giant from the Bronx. A swaggering superstar from Oklahoma. A lad from North Dakota who never wanted to be "bigger than the game."
Halls of fame were invented for the likes of Hank Greenberg, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, whose stories are well told in two appealingly nostalgic films destined for long lives on video shelves, right next to Ken Burns's Baseball.
Director Billy Crystal's emotionally evocative 61* (HBO, April 28, 9 pm/ET) is a memorable character study told between the headlines of a media obsessed with seeing which Yankee would top Babe Ruth's home-run record: uptight upstart Maris or his more charismatic teammate, Mantle.
The petulant press dubbing MVP Maris the game's "most vacant personality" because of his ineptitude at locker-room banter concoct and promote a feud between the sluggers. The movie depicts a more complicated fri
Among traditional family comedies, few have done it better than CBS's Everybody Loves Raymond (Mondays, 9 pm/ET), which scored another classic in the April 9 episode, "The Canister." The situation couldn't have been more mundane an argument between Marie (Doris Roberts) and Debra (Patricia Heaton) about an heirloom canister Debra insists she returned, forcing an apology from the domineering Marie ("There's your Easter miracle," says Ray). But when Debra is proved wrong, it escalates into a brilliantly observed farce about family dynamics and the balance of power between the women. The men? They don't stand a chance.
There's no such thing as a normal family on Fox, from the long-running animated hits to the newer breed of live-action wackiness epitomized by Malcolm in the Middle. You probably wouldn't want to live in these homes, but visiting can be a scream.
Fox's savagely funny Titus (Tuesdays, 8:30 pm/ET), hitting its bitter stride in its second year, acknowledges its dysfunction up front. "In a normal family, a surprise means presents, cake and a party. In my family, doing something nice is seen as an attack," says star Christopher Titus in one of his signature self-lacerating monologues, shot in black and white in what looks like a prison cell.
You can't blame him for feeling primed for failure, given a womanizing, alcoholic dad (a ferocious Stacy Keach) who "has swallowed the soul of everyone he's ever loved," and a
If not for bad taste, much of today's TV comedy would lack any flavor at all.
The sly subversiveness that distinguishes The Simpsons is being dumbed down into an anything-goes, gross-out mentality that confuses crudeness with cleverness. Case in point: WB's lame animated creep show The Oblongs (Sundays, 8:30 pm/ET), which tries but fails to achieve an Addams Family quality of macabre humor in depicting a clan of supposedly lovable mutants the chipper dad lacks arms and legs who live in a toxic wasteland.
In live action, no one panders more desperately than the groin-obsessed star of MTV's The Andy Dick Show (Tuesdays, 10:30 pm/ET). Dick settles for vulgar toilet humor as he shills for MTV by spoofing its franchise shows. Low point: his Tom Green impersonation, a case of a creepy guy who thinks he's funny acting like a creepy guy who thinks he's funny.
How ironic for "Get Over Yourself" to be the title of the first single from Popstars's Eden's Crush, the made-for-WB girl group that can't stop whining tearfully about the grueling price of fame. A more self-absorbed gaggle of media creatures you couldn't hope to find ? although just as Popstars wrapped its first season, ABC resurrected its boy-band docu-soap Making the Band (Fridays, 8:30 pm/ET) for a second year. As newly dreadlocked Band member Jacob Underwood admits, "We were on TV, and we were famous before we were even a band. And we have to prove that we're for real." Good luck with that.
The Sopranos isn't HBO's only notable achievement on Sunday nights. With the scheduling of weekly installments of its America Undercover documentary series (following each Sopranos premiere, at 10 pm/ET), the network's eclectic franchise now joins PBS's Frontline and ABC's Nightline as TV's most consistently provocative purveyors of nonfiction programming. Recent topics have included suicide, the anti-abortion movement and this week's typically offbeat but surprisingly nonlurid Naked States, about a photographer's nationwide trek to shoot nudes in public settings.
Forget all notions of New York City as a concrete jungle. The Manhattan of CBS's complex crime drama Big Apple appears to be built on quicksand. In this impenetrable urban swamp of shifting loyalties and bureaucratic betrayals, cops, crooks and federal agents coexist about as happily as the current cast of Survivor.
Big Apple (Thursdays, 10 pm/ET) is the type of show critics typically drool over. It's dark, ambitious and impossible to pigeonhole, with a sterling cast delivering mouthfuls of pungent dialogue.
And yet, to quote the show's most colorful character, pugnacious detective Mike Mooney (Ed O'Neill), "None of this is a first for me so far."
While the multi-tiered narrative can be tough to follow, the details are naggingly familiar from scores of like-minded series and movies: the polyglot brew of Italian, Russian and Irish usual suspects; the friction between NYPD and FBI; the use of a strip bar as a front (i
Out with Geena, in with Joan. Sounds like a fair trade in my TV playbook. Trading up, actually, in terms of enjoying genuine comedy.
It appears the networks can't kick their fixation on building new shows around established stars, despite this season's brutal treatment of brand-name celebrities from Bette Midler to Michael Richards. At least this spring's star crop is of a more offbeat variety, especially at ABC.
Among those testing the comedy waters: Denis Leary (as an acerbic cop in the terrific The Job), Damon Wayans (as a Cosby-like dad in My Wife and Kids) and now that gawky gamine Joan Cusack.
Giving an overdue rest to The Geena Davis Show, one of TV's most painfully ordinary star vehicles, What About Joan (Tuesdays at 9:30 pm/ET) is, in its best moments, a hyperventilating hoot, with a tone of neurotic hysteria set by the