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Must-see-ya TV
Goodbye to Friends, Frasier, and Angel

With the May 6 finale of Friends and the wrap of Frasier on May 13, it’s not only the end of two of TV’s longest-running sit-coms, it’s the end of "must-see TV" as we know it. Sure, NBC’s "must-see" hype has been pretty deceptive advertising ever since Seinfeld closed up shop six years ago; its successor, Will & Grace, is a perfectly fine comedy, but unlike Seinfeld, it’s hardly a show you’d rearrange your schedule for. Still, for those of us who can remember back to the mid 1980s and the coining of NBC’s "must-see TV" catch phrase by the late programming genius Brandon Tartikoff, the passing of Friends and Frasier is bittersweet.

Back then, Tartikoff had lifted NBC out of a prolonged stint in the ratings gutter by making a virtue out of certain shows’ low numbers. "Must-see TV" was originally used to tout "quality dramas" (another of Tartikoff’s phrases) like Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice, series that were cult and critical favorites but didn’t reside in the Nielsen Top 10. "Must-see TV" was designed to appeal to the TV snob inside all of us, to flatter viewers for having discerning tastes (and what a completely alien concept that has become). "Must-see TV" evolved into "must-see Thursday" when The Cosby Show became a monster hit in the 8 p.m. slot and elevated the ratings of the shows (most notably Cheers at 9 p.m.) that followed it. And "must-see Thursday" was an ingenious bit of hype in its own right, promoting the time slot as much as it promoted the individual shows. NBC needed only to schedule a show at 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. on Thursday to send audiences the message that the network considered these shows to be the most "must-see" of all. So Frasier was spun off from Cheers, which used to have the 9 p.m. Thursday slot, and Friends got the old Cosby slot, and, well, you can see the significance of NBC’s losing Friends and Frasier after all these years.

Anyway, there are many millions of Friends viewers who cared whether Rachel ended up with Ross but, I should confess here, I am not one of them. Friends, which ended its run after 10 seasons, was always a well-crafted but evanescent slice of pop entertainment. Although it mined the same "oddball yuppies in New York" territory as Seinfeld, it hardly approached the latter’s originality and etched-in-acid brilliance. Frasier, which has run for 11 seasons and holds the record for Emmys won with 31, is a legitimately classic sit-com — or maybe that should be "classical." There was a timeless comedic elegance to the show’s premise of a pompous, erudite toff always being forced down to street level. Frasier Crane could have been a one-note character if it were not for Kelsey Grammer’s impressive ability to convey exasperation, self-pity, and archly muttered bitchiness 37 different ways. As the years wore on, Grammer seemed to keep himself amused by playing Frasier Crane as a subtle homage to Bob Hope’s dandified movie personas.

The fraternal competition between Frasier and his equally snotty and fey little brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce) was consistently a joy to watch, even as Niles’s romantic entanglement with Eliza Doolittle–ish Daphne Moon (Jane Leeves) dragged on long after viewers ceased to care. The most interesting thing about Frasier, though, was that it was the gayest show on TV since The Odd Couple — the opera-loving, prissy Crane "brothers" could have been subtextual lovers. Yet a large slice of the show’s faithful viewers were probably not in on the joke.

Frasier paved the way for the overtly gay sensibilities of Will & Grace. But it was also NBC’s last link to the much-honored Cheers (remember, Dr. Crane first parked his posterior on a Cheers bar stool). When Cheers ended, NBC had Seinfeld waiting in the wings to take over the Thursday 9 p.m. slot. But now, the network is preparing to end its decades-long tradition of sit-coms at 9 and 9:30 on Thursdays. In March, NBC entertainment president Jeff Zucker told advertisers that, next season, the Thursday 9 p.m. time slot will go to the hour-long reality show The Apprentice, which stars Donald Trump. (NBC formally announces its 2004-2005 fall schedule on May 17.) Not exactly a vote of confidence for the future of broadcast sit-coms.

Then again, it’s not as if sit-coms had been flourishing lately. In the post-Seinfeld era, the most audacious, attention-grabbing comedies — Sex and the City, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office — have all originated on cable, and they all feature a sophisticated, tragic-comic humor that makes the set-ups and punch lines of a show like Will & Grace look as hoary as vaudeville. (NBC is working on an Americanized version of BBC America’s The Office, an idea that strikes fear in the hearts of those of us who worship the Golden Globe–winning comedy.)

The problem is, the whole idea of "must-see TV" has undergone a transformation. Broadcast TV has become "must-see" for entirely different reasons. In the past, you really did miss something if you missed an episode of Seinfeld or Hill Street Blues or Homicide: Life on the Street. Those shows, which wore NBC’s badge of "quality programming," pulled people into their orbits, got viewers talking. HBO has appropriated this meaning of "must-see TV" with its clever ad campaign featuring mock testimonials from the "water-cooler industry" lauding HBO for drawing people back to the office bubbler to talk about the cable channel’s programming. This is where broadcast TV’s discerning viewers of old have gone, asserts HBO — to cable. And that may be true.

On broadcast TV, reality shows like The Apprentice and Fox’s American Idol have become "must-see" events, pulling in big audiences. But their viewers are not really viewers, they’re spectators. And something is definitely lost when TV networks court spectators rather than viewers. Yes, the freaky pageantry of fools on parade is mesmerizing. But (warning, cranky middle-aged rant ahead) they do nothing to nurture in viewers an appreciation for storytelling, for a well-crafted punch line, for all the intangibles a good professional actor brings to the table. It’s a long way down the quality scale from the impeccable comic craftsmanship of Frasier and Friends to the reality-show preening of a shifty-eyed real-estate mogul in a bad rug.

AN ERA OF ANOTHER SORT comes to an end on May 19 when the WB pulls the plug on Angel (Wednesdays at 9 p.m.) after five seasons. Unless Joss Whedon has a TV movie or a feature film left in these characters, the official Buffy the Vampire Slayer saga is over (though devotees will probably keep it alive for years on the Internet with unofficial fan fiction).

Angel was the unlikeliest of Buffy spinoffs. How do you build a show around a taciturn, formerly evil hunk who can’t have sex because of an age-old Gypsy curse? But Whedon and Angel co-creator/executive producer David Greenwalt came up with a perfect hook: make Angel (David Boreanaz) a Dark Avenger protecting innocents from demonic mayhem, drench the story lines in themes of redemption and self-reinvention, and set it all in Los Angeles, the self-reinvention capital of the world. Like Buffy, Angel was a constantly evolving and adventurous series that tried on genres with dazzling bravado. It started as a pulpy comic-book noir, delved deep into sci-fi and fantasy, and this season became a vampire roadshow of Grumpy Old Men with the addition of Buffy refugee James Marsters as Angel’s eternal rival, the pesky Spike. And it spun some of the most deliciously creepy scenarios this side of Stephen King — be sure to catch the rerun of this season’s "Smile Time" episode, in which a demonic spell turns Angel into "a wee little puppet man," to paraphrase a gleeful Spike, and that’s "puppet" as in "Muppet."

The show was blessed with versatile, gifted actors who made you suspend disbelief with every twist and turn of personality and plot the Angel writers threw at them. At the height of Buffy and Angel glory, the story goes, Whedon would have his two casts over to his house for regular Shakespeare readings, and what I would have given to witness some of those. Angel was even more shamefully neglected than Buffy when it came to awards and industry recognition. So let me just say this: there was no more moving hour of drama on TV this season than the episode "A Hole in the World," where emotionally wrecked demon hunter Wesley (Alexis Denisof) sat vigil as the love of his life, sweet science genius Fred (the wide-eyed, luminous Amy Acker), died an agonizing death by demonic possession. Yeah, I know — you had to be there. And for the past five years, I’m glad I was.

Issue Date: May 7 - 13, 2004
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