WHAT'S ON TV.

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SUMMER RERUNS JUST ILLUSTRATE HOW LOW THE ONCE-MIGHTY HAVE FALLEN
[posted 07.19.2001]

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I LOVE TELEVISION THE most when my favorite shows are all reruns, when I can come home after too many hours at a job I used to love and now can barely tolerate and still watch my characters fight the good fight. I want to believe that Doug and Carol never stopped giving rapid-detox to little kids on crack. I want to remember when Scully could always figure out what killed the body of the week. With a crashing economy and a broken heart, I want to depend on my old standbys with a clear conscience.

Don’t get me wrong: I love new episodes. I love TV, period, and not just for escape. But it’s my favorite season, the summer hiatus. Pilots have been picked up, the fall schedule has been released and strikes have been averted. My must-see shows have been in rerun rotation long enough that I’ve almost forgiven the confounding cliffhangers. I’m rarin’ to find out how Buffy’s gonna get back from the dead and how Bartlet’s gonna avoid being impeached.

But in these dog days of summer, too many of my long-loved actors are going back to work on shows I now can barely stand to watch.NYPD Blue ought to go down in a hail of bullets.ER deserves a DNR.The X-Files should be permanently closed. Maybe then I could enjoy syndication without a constant reminder that what once was great now sucks harder than a Mexican goat. How did I get from die-hard appointment viewer to death penalty advocate?

THE WAY THEY WERE

Let’s skip over the best shows we never watched and go straight for the worst shows we ever loved:

ER upped the necessary dosage of medical mise-en-scene to the point where anything without a flurry of incomprehensibly shouted requests — STAT! — seems like a ’60s-era episode of General Hospital. ER was in the right place at the right time — Clinton was trying to pass health care reform and the true nastiness of HMOs had become harder to ignore in the name of free markets. It was about good doctors and bad hospital policies. Bad doctors and good friendships. Bad lives saved and good ones lost. And shooting another crappy season in widescreen ain’t gonna fix a damn thing.

NYPD Blue made Hill Street look like Sesame Street, all grit and gumption and viewer warnings. Not even the departure of David Caruso could break its stride, and for a while there we loved Sipowicz not in spite of his being a bigot with a heart of gold but actually because of it.NYPD Blue got to say “prick” and “that task force asshole” and flash some T and A, but really it worked because everyone was in so much damn pain — ennui everywhere. Find me a more searing moment than Andy pulling back the sheet to find Andy Jr.‘s body; I dare you. All this was before Abner Louima, before the days when racial profiling was a presidential platform. Before half the characters died.

And The X-Files, my poor, beloved X-Files, what was probably the most influential show of the ’90s…. In 1993, Mulder and Scully were shocked — shocked! — to find that they were being bugged. Surveillance was still the domain of private dicks, not multinational corporations; Area 51 might easily be mistaken for that undeveloped lot behind your grandma’s farm; and you were still buying cover-up from L’Oreal. For five fabulous seasons, X-Files took fears you never even knew you had and turned them into global conspiracies — and convinced legions of us that something smart could come from FOX.

And Mulder and Scully, my poor beloved Mulder and Scully…it was the two of them against the world, sometimes literally, and whether they were fucking or just friends, they made you want a partnership like that of your own. Someone who had your back, someone whose “It’s me” over the phone you recognized instantly. At the very least, someone to come home to and cuddle up with on the couch for a viewer’s choice marathon, someone who got all the jokes and knew to laugh when Mulder lost his gun, AGAIN.

All of those series were once solidly good and sometimes great. Now, however…. For my money, The Sopranos mafiosos can kick Rick Schroeder’s ass from here to Staten Island.The West Wing‘s got all the walking and talking of ER with the fate of a nation on its shoulders. And Buffy, back at the top of its game after a year of post-graduation floundering (see www.jumpingtheshark.com for a comprehensive list of how to know the show’s got to go), made me realize that, yes, Chris Carter, there is such a thing as continuity — you’re just too lazy to make things make sense. Gillian Anderson still mines depth from The X-Files’ wooden scripts, but I’ve stopped watching with the lights off or paying attention to how the aliens can be killed.

ET TU, DAVID CHASE?

If that were the extent of the trend, I’d just cry and change the channel. But it’s summer, I’ve had too much time on my hands to contemplate my own employment dramas — should I stay or should I go? — and I’m getting cranky. Especially since hearing that David Chase, don of The Sopranos, is going back on his word.

Once upon a time — oh, say, in March — Chase won what I expected to be my undying admiration when he told Rolling Stone that he’d cap the show after four seasons. “That’s the problem of television: the curse of the familiar,” he said. “It’s the repetition. And yet that’s what people like.” At this point in the interview, Chase did his impression of Kramer falling into Seinfeld’s apartment for the thousandth time, the studio audience going wild. He’d mapped out The Sopranos’ major themes and story arcs for four seasons, he said, nothing more, nothing less. Creative goals shall trump the bottom line.

And then…. This week a $20 million deal for a fifth season was announced, meaning the show will likely go into syndication, with a redubbed, “as clean as they wanna be” soundtrack to boot. Provided somebody takes a chance that we’ll watch the show minus the swearing and the Bada Bing breasts, there will be reruns. Creative goals thrown out with the baby and the bathwater.

That’s not my kind of rerun.

But, then again, it hasn’t been my kind of world for a while now. However it happened, whatever we call it — layoff, shrinkage, “reorganization” — we find ourselves in a time without an American dream, and it’s not just in workplace TV dramas that workplaces don’t make so much sense any more. We’re post-post-dotcom, re-employed if we’re lucky; e-commerce may not have been Radio Free Europe, but it still seemed like it was something bigger than we were. It makes sense to take a moment and mourn its passage as we try to figure out what’s next on our own fall slates. It’d be nice if we had a Network Exec in the sky to tell us when to move on, when to say, This is it, we’ve done our best, we should leave it alone now.

As it turns out, the curse of the familiar numbs the people who make great television, too, and not just those of us on the other side of the idiot box. But I’ll make David Chase a deal: I’ll look for my new dream job if he’ll really, really stop after five years. I’ll move on if he will.

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shana naomi krochmal lives in new york city, but not for long. she’s looking for dream job no. 2 on the other coast.