Oz (HBO, Wednesday, summer series)
Ever since I saw my first episode of "Oz" two summers ago, I haven't been able to figure out if it's one of the best television shows I've ever seen or one of the worst. I think it's both. I've never seen a more graphic, horrific show than this one, from the creators of NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street." And from a moralistic standpoint, there's never been a worse series: every sin imaginable is shown in explicit detail. But that's exactly the strength of this show. It's a true shock to the system. I've never been more confronted with the brutal reality of sin and its consequences than I have been through this show. No fictional television program has made me lie in my bed thinking about issues of justice before. I cannot recommend the show. In fact, I strongly recommend against watching it. All I can say is that it's the most powerful hour of television I've ever seen.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB, Tuesday)
Plenty of caveats for this one, too. Yes, the show has shown increasing deference to Wicca this year. And yes, it sometimes speaks out of both sides of its mouth on the violence issue. But for adult viewers, the show's strengths surpass its surface weaknesses. Taken as a whole, the writing is simply brilliant, mastering metaphor, parable, and actual drama more deftly than any film I saw this year. And, in a striking difference between "Buffy" and most other shows, the characters actually change over time. Good characters succumb to temptation and are forever changed. Evil characters experience redemption (usually through sacrifice). All characters learn from their experiences.
The Simpsons (Fox, Sunday)
Ten years old and it's still funny week after week. In 1992, George Bush (the one who was president) told the National Religious Broadcasters, "We need a nation closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons." Maybe so, but on television, we need social commentary closer to "The Simpsons" than the syrupy, "everyone be nice" sentimentalism of shows that seem to permeate the CBS network.
King of the Hill (Fox, Sunday)
The Simpsons' animated neighbors, this show was once hard to figure out. Just how much were the series' creators mocking Hank Hill and his family? The answer is "Plenty," but it's become obvious that Hank is a human hero, noble yet fallen. The show seems to be written with an unlikely but successful mix of irony and respect that I imagine can only come from writers who have a Hillish past.
The Sopranos (HBO, Sunday)
It's a requirement of writing these lists that you praise "The Sopranos." Actually, you're supposed to list it first—show of the year and all that—but I thought I'd go out on a limb and put it down here. All the other TV writers will probably hurt me terribly now. Seriously, though, HBO's overpraised and overhyped series does an amazing job of presenting the futility of trying to live a completely self-pleasing life and expecting it to be peaceful.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (ended)
The darker, scarier, Byzantine sister series of those other Star Trek series finished its run this summer, and I'm sorry to see it go. By doing away with Gene Roddenberry's ridiculous utopian vision of the future (no poverty, no colds, no racial strife), DS9 had a much more realistic view of the human condition. And, unlike the other series, it rarely offered good-vs-evil plots. Kai Winn's slow, reluctant turn to evil through her own conceit was one of television's most nuanced looks at pride.
Friends (NBC, Thursdays)
I admit it. Despite the ridiculous plots, farcical morality, and horribly hackneyed characters (nerdy scientist, stupid actor, ditzy blond), I've always got a giant grin on my face by 7:29. I can think of a dozen reasons why the show shouldn't be funny. But it is.
The X-Files (Fox, Sundays)
In the year and a half since Rodney Clapp called "The X-Files" television's sharpest and most consistently rewarding exploration of epistemology" in the pages of (CT sister publication) Books & Culture [May/June 1997 issue, page 11, print only], the show has only gotten more epistemological. Between Mulder's and Scully's wavering between wanting to believe, not believing, and believing with all his might in alien conspiracy (and Scully's doing much the same thing with her religious faith), the show could be terribly tiresome by now. Instead, it's more exciting and better written than ever.
Frontline (PBS, Tuesdays)
There's a lot of reruns of PBS's documentary series. But there's a lot that's worth rerunning. Between the haunting "The Execution," the enlightening "The Terrorist and the Superpower," and the jaw-dropping "The Lost Children of Rockdale County" (which could have been as lascivious as a Jerry Springer show but was instead truly informative), "Frontline" is evidence that the television can be more than entertainment. Though networks crowd their schedules with "investigative journalism" shows like "Dateline NBC" and "20/20," this is the only one worth watching week after week.
Felicity (WB, Sundays)
Like "Ally McBeal" (this show has been "Ally Goes to College" since its pilot), I can only stomach "Felicity" for about a year. The pure self-absorbed everything-is-about-me-and-every-issue-is-life-or-death attitude is truly exciting for a while. I was totally sucked in during the 1998-99 season. Then the summer came. And like a bad habit that's been kicked, Felicity's antics (and those of the other characters on the show) seemed disturbing and sick when the new season started. Oh well. It was fun while it lasted.
It's far too hard to choose the worst show. I have cable. There's entirely too much to choose from. "The Knife Collector's Show?" "The Blame Game?" "Family Guy?" There comes a limit at which unwatchable is simply unwatchable—and literally hundreds of current TV shows fit that description.
Most disappointing, however, was "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." It had amazing actors (including two from "Oz" and Richard Belzer from "Homicide") and a great pedigree. "Law & Order" is one of the most consistently satisfying hours on television. So why does this spinoff feel less authentic than, say, "Ryan Caufield: Year One?"
Ted Olsen is Online Editor of Christianity Today.
For a second opinion, read today's other article on the top television shows of 1999, by Ted Olsen
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