Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Seasons of Love: 1999

In the past, I've alluded to (and espoused upon) the argument that 1999 was one of my favorite years of TV. The last year of the 20th century was a pop culture watershed; everything from cinema to literature seemed to benefit from Y2K paranoia and the encroaching sense that some kind of era was ending. (I wrote about 1999 in music a few years ago.) Network TV had a bumper crop of half-hour, multi-camera comedies, and following the success of "The Simpsons" and "South Park," a record number of prime-time animated series. It was also perhaps the last great year for network TV, before cable and premium channels lured aspiring show-runners and wannabe auteurs with creative freedom and implied accolades. Plus, you can binge-watch just about all of these shows online now, rather than set your VCR recorder and hope for the best.

NOTE: All of the following episodes mentioned aired during the 1998-99 and 1999-00 TV seasons; however, I chose only episodes that aired during the 1999 calendar year.

1. The Sopranos, HBO. Bada bing! The latest (last?) great era of television began in January '99, with the story of a New Jersey mob capo who discreetly goes into therapy. Almost overnight the show became a pop culture sensation, turned HBO (and premium cable) a beacon for "prestige" programming, and made beleaguered mobster Tony Soprano a household name. Memorable Episodes: "Pilot," "Nobody Knows Anything," "I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano"

2. Freaks and Geeks, NBC. The patron saint of one-year wonders and "brilliant but cancelled" discussions, Judd Apatow's most enduring creation was both a sweetly awkward look at teen angst in the early '80s and a farm team for cinematic comedy in the late 2000s. Memorable Episodes: "Pilot," "Kim Kelly is My Friend"

3. The West Wing, NBC. Following in the long, proud tradition of high-caliber, large ensamble cast dramas on The Peacock, TWW had the novel idea of turning political science into must-watch television. Though the White House staff was meant to be the core of the show, Aaron Sorkin and company found their heart in America's favorite fictional president, Josiah Bartlett. Memorable Episodes: "Five Votes Down," "In Excelsis Deo"

4. Will & Grace, NBC. Deemed the "feel-gay show of the year" by Entertainment Weekly, the show transcended its then-controversial premise (gay man and straight woman living as roommates) and wobbly start to become a charmingly campy, witty farce and NBC's next tentpole comedy. Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally won well-deserved Emmys in 2000 as the lead characters' sidekicks, swishy Jack and lush Karen. Memorable Episodes: "Grace, Replaced," "Das Boob," "Homo for the Holidays"

5. The Simpsons, Fox. While this wasn't the Springfield clan's finest year, the show had a creative rebound of sorts after a very uneven 9th season. It's staggering to think that at one time, even after a decade on the air, fans were worried the show was going to be cancelled. Even if the show got gag-heavy and reliant on celebrity cameos, it was still better than, say, "Dharma & Greg." Memorable Episodes: "Maximum Homerdrive," "Simpsons Bible Stories," "Hello Gutter, Hello Fadder"

Five Honorable Mentions (in no order): "King of the Hill," Fox (memorable episodes: "A Firefighting We Will Go," "Hank's Cowboy Movie," "Bills Are Made to Be Broken"); "South Park," Comedy Central (memorable episodes: "Spontaneous Combustion," "Chinpokomon," "Hooked on Monkey Phonics"); "Action," Fox (memorable episodes: "Pilot,"  "Blowhard"); "Futurama," Fox (memorable episodes: "The Series Has Landed," "Hell is Other Robots," "A Flight to Remember"); and "Sports Night," ABC (memorable episodes: "Dana and the Deep Blue Sea," "Eli's Coming," "Cliff Gardner").

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