We wrap up our end of the decade feature here at CJS this week with television. We’ve got an excellent guest columnist lined up for Thursday, but as always, Hart and I will get you started.
As I approached this one, I thought it necessary to make two important statements before you digest my 5 Favorite TV Shows 0f the ‘00s. 1) My rampant immaturity and whole being-in-college from 2000-2006 means I didn’t have a lot of time for dramas. So you won’t see but one on this list. Besides, I generally don’t give a crap about procedural crime dramas and relate to the world better from a comedic standpoint anyway. So there’s that. 2) For the vast majority of this decade I didn’t have HBO, so if you’re wondering why none of those excellent shows appear here, there you go. With that out of the way, here are E Dagger’s 5 Favorite TV Shows 0f the ‘00s.
Coming off the outstanding The 40 Year Old Virgin, damn near stealing Anchorman as hilariously clueless weatherman Brick Tamland, having the best scenes in the obnoxious Bruce Almighty, and a brilliant stint as a “Daily Show” correspondent, I was ready for more Steve Carell in my life. A lot more. So when he was announced as the lead in the American version of lauded British sitcom “The Office,” I was in from the get-go.
Things started rough, though. That first season of “The Office” was borderline unwatchable for me as the humor consistently sat on the wrong side of the uncomfortable/funny line and none of the other characters had found their footing yet. By the second season, things had turned around remarkably as the show carved out an identity different from its British counterpart and jumped back authoritatively to the funny side. What drew me in again and again were Jim’s sidelong glances at the camera and knowing smirk. Jim understood these people, and we in the audience felt secure that we weren’t alone in sitting aghast at the bizarre behavior of those in the office.
What was truly remarkable in the evolution of the show was the deep yet simple character notes the writers gifted the performers that added depth to everyone. True, a lot of what happens on “The Office” is farce and played broad exclusively for laughs, but all of these people feel like real people. No one is unilaterally bad or exclusively good, and no one fits neat and tidy into one little character type. Michael may be child-like in his innocence and occasional bouts of petulance, but he can sell paper like some sort of savant cross of Don Draper and Ron Popeil. Dwight’s a weird dork who farms beets, obsesses over bear attacks and watches “Battlestar Galactica,” but he has game like Hitch. Even someone like Creed who has about 4 lines per show is someone we know a ton about – he sells fake IDs, sleeps under his desk three days per week and then commutes to Toronto to mooch off Canada’s welfare state, and faked his own death for tax purposes.
I could tell you intimate details about each of the characters’ lives on this show, and when you consider this show is only 22 minutes and has over 15 regular people in its universe, that’s remarkable. “The Office” is the most tightly written and consistently funny show on network television right now. And if that’s too hard to think about for you, don’t even come at me. (That’s what she said.)
When you think back over “Chappelle’s Show,” what do you think would be the ideal place to experience it? Now ponder what would be the worst place. The answer is the same for both questions: A college campus.
When Chappelle’s Show vaulted into pop culture ubiquity with skits featuring the insane antics of Rick James, Lil’ Jon, and Samuel L. Jackson, you couldn’t swing a dead cat on a college campus without hearing “I’m Rick James, bitch!” or “No I’m not yellin’! This is how I talk! Did you see Deep Blue Sea?! A motherf***in’ shark ate me!!!” Dave Chappelle was nothing short of “the balls” for all of 2003-2006. He produced the funniest sketches, had the most instantly quotable repertoire of lines of anyone (Case in point: CJS Regular Keithage had “I’m rich, biotch!” as his text message signature for 3 months), and made the whole thing unassailably cool. He was a comedy rock star and became so famous, he lost his mind, bolted to South Africa, and has since largely disappeared from the public eye altogether.
After recently finishing Steve Martin’s book Born Standing Up, it’s not hard to understand why Chappelle went nuts. Chappelle, like Martin in the late 1970s, had become so famous, he could no longer gauge if what he did was actually funny. Everyone adored everything he did because he had built up such a profound well of hilarious credibility, we’d all become trained to laugh at everything he did. And when tackling complex issues like race with the insight of a month’s worth of op-ed columns, simply gaining an unearned laugh wasn’t good enough for Chappelle. He could no longer effectively judge if he commented on racial issues or became a clown for them.
But for those 3+ seasons of “Chappelle’s Show” we got brilliant satire in the blind, black KKK grand wizard, the racial draft, and “If George W. Bush were black.” And we got pants-pissing hilarity in the form of those insane Lil’ Jon impressions, Sam Jackson beer, and Tyrone Biggums. A show like the one Dave Chappelle crafted only comes along every so often, and never lasts. So soak it in while you can, because you never know when you’ll see something as shockingly hilarious as “Is Wayne Brady gonna have to choke a bitch?” again.
I’ve written twice about Dexter before (here and here), but I could write about this show every week for a year if I had to. We’ve seen anti-heroes (and killer protagonists) before in the form of Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey, but Dexter is an honest-to-goodness serial killer. I realize there’s a whole batnuts crazy subculture of people who worship serial killers, but for the rest of us, rooting for one feels downright icky.
So it’s with remarkable tact that the writers allow us to be at once repulsed by what Dexter does and oddly endeared by it. I repeat: This is a man that kills people for fun. And he’s the one we’re supposed to (and do) empathize with. Reading that abstractly on the page now, I’m still taken aback by it. But really, what choice do we have? The main weakness of “Dexter” is the mostly comparatively dull supporting cast around our title character. LaGuerta vacillates between shrill and incompetent. Deb gets entangled in laborious romantic trysts. And each season gives us an interesting foil for Dexter that almost always ends up dead by the season finale.
But the real draw of “Dexter” is the supremely crafted cat and mouse game that punctuates each story arc. We wonder how Dexter will wriggle out of his latest predicament and agonize over whether he’ll get caught satisfying his “dark passenger.” I’ve alluded to getting panic attacks here before, and never have I enjoyed a panic attack, but the vein of suspense that runs through each episode of “Dexter” puts me on the cusp of one each and every time. I feel exhausted at the end of each episode, and like watching a Tarantino film, that deserves a hearty hat tip to damn fine storytelling and craftsmanship.
I do hope “Dexter” wraps up soon because many more seasons, and the show either retreads ground it’s covered thoroughly already, or jumps the shark into complete farce. Every story has a good beginning, middle, and end, and I hope the producers of “Dexter” realize they need a compelling end to match its already outstanding beginning and middle parts.
Had “Family Guy” wrapped up its network run in 2002 and lived on only in reruns on Adult Swim, I wouldn’t include it in this list. But due to its absurd popularity during television’s graveyard shift, Fox brought it back in 2005 for another run that continues today making Seth MacFarlane truckloads of money and spawning both “American Dad” and “The Cleveland Show” along with a direct-to-DVD movie. “Family Guy” went from cult classic that many felt got jerked off the air too soon, to cultural force.
The reason I’m attached to it is because I was one of the people who watched its midnight showings religiously during college. As Hart used to say at 11:55 each night when we lived together, “Alright, time to stop playing video games and watch cartoons.” And each night we’d gather in front of the TV to watch “Futurama” and “Family Guy” at midnight. It was always the perfect way to cap off a college weeknight with its easy quotability, off-kilter sight gags, and redonkulous pop culture references. No one covered more pop culture ground than “Family Guy.” And for a bunch of college media nerds, this show was like crack.
I’ll admit that I’m not the fan I used to be, and while you can make a case for simply growing up, the show has definitely slipped since its early season heyday. Plots are basically non-existent, plausibility has gone right out the window in favor of ever-weirder gags, and many of the pop culture references are shoehorned into jokes with the force of an angry German.
Yet I still continue to watch. Brian, Stewie, and oddly enough, Chris, still bring the comic goods consistently and I laugh heartily usually at least three times per episode. And I’ll always remember the only appointment viewing we had in college. “Futurama” and “Family Guy” were virtually the only shows we made time for. There’s something to be said for that.
The Daily Show
In an increasingly discordant world where we’ve seemed to lose the ability to rationally debate with one another, finding a sane voice has proved increasingly difficult. Sure, we have more access to information than we ever have, but lacking a unifying voice we all read, and therefore debate about, has isolated us from one another. People seek out information with which they agree, and given the ease of finding sympathetic viewpoints via the Internet, we’re less exposed to those we disagree with, and therefore have lost the capability to respectfully disagree.
Comedy is easily dismissed in larger discussions of cultural discourse, but given the state of our society, I argue that now it’s all we have. Jon Stewart can skewer the decisions and actions of politicians because it’s presented with a comedic smirk and a healthy accompaniment of jokes. But Stewart has a remarkable knack for breaking down political action into its most basic elements, examining it, and calling shenanigans when he sees it. Glenn Beck manufactures tears over even the most pedestrian Democratic maneuverings. Keith Olbermann is outraged EVERY DAMN DAY about something and pontificates about it in the most patronizing, smug way possible.
The point? Political commentators have ruined earnestness in the political arena. By virtue of overplaying every reaction to every minor event in the public realm, with aid from a relentless 24-hour news cycle, we can no longer believe anything any of these people say. Beck and Olbermann aren’t alone as CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC employ a whole army of outraged blowhards ready to didactically disembowel any on the other side of the political spectrum from them. This isn’t politics; it’s a sideshow.
And this is why “The Daily Show” is so important. Jon Stewart is the last one asking actual tough questions. He gets away with it because he has the cover of working on a comedy network under the guise of a fake news show. But if you watch the thorough hide peeling he gave CNN freakshow “Crossfire” or the way he put Jim Cramer in a clown suit during the financial meltdown, you can only thank heavens we have someone as incisive and hard-working as Jon Stewart and his merciless staff paying attention and watching our backs.
The days of Edward R. Murrow are over. Jon Stewart’s it. You may think he leans liberal (he does), but he knows a line of crap when he sees it. He blasted through hopeless putz Howard Dean like Jerome Bettis destroying the Cleveland Browns defensive line. He’s adept enough to toss Ralph Nader a metaphorical gun on the air, which Nader then uses to turn around and blast himself in the face with. He doesn’t play favorites – he lives by the code of comedy which, as explained by Buddy Young Jr. is, “When a comic sees bulls***, he calls bulls***.”
Jon Stewart is our protector, and “The Daily Show” his home base. You can quibble with me over his politics, but I think you’re reading into him what you want to justify a previously held position. And even when I don’t agree with Jon Stewart, I’m glad he’s here.
Tomorrow: Lee S. Hart’s 5 Favorite TV Shows 0f the ‘00s.
15 Dec 2009 E Dagger