Ever since Esquire killed its Dubious Achievement Awards a couple of years ago–probably just as well; the awards had become only dubiously amusing–I’ve been rounding up Dubious Media Moments. Here are my favorites from 2003.
JANUARY: A new slate of schlock reality shows is unleashed during the midseason winter doldrums. Even ABC Family Channel gets in on the fun with My Life Is a Sitcom, in which eight aspiring funny families compete to star in an actual sitcom based on their lives, scripted by actual sitcom writers. And boy, does this diverse group (“three menopausal sisters” sharing living quarters; a family of “hipsters” in ultra-boring La Canada; some aspiring Hollywood starlets, etc.) need actual sitcom writers. As Tolstoy might have said, funny families are all alike, but each unfunny family is unfunny in its own way.
FEBRUARY: The New York Times runs a surprisingly complimentary piece about Los Angeles magazine, with a memorable picture caption: “Kit Rachlis, editor of Los Angeles magazine, says that despite an anti-intellectual streak, the city is wide open to new ideas.” The city may be. But, as readers here know, Kit Rachlis isn’t.
Meanwhile, ABC resurrects a new, C.S.I.-inspired version of Dragnet (since cancelled), which I’d guess sets a record for the number of times the word “semen” is uttered on network television. Producer Dick Wolf tells me I’m imagining things when I ask about this, but I don’t think so. Sample dialogue about a corpse from the revived Dragnet (now with more bodily fluids!): “Semen on the outside of the vagina and anus and not on the inside?” Geez, I know; I hate it when that happens.
MARCH: Tim Robbins, who along with mate Susan Sarandon, is prominently against the war in Iraq, gives Lloyd Grove, then of the Washington Post, what-for at a post-Oscars party. The actor was angry that Grove had dared to interview Sarandon’s mother, who doesn’t agree politically with her daughter. “If you ever write about my family again I will [bleeping] hurt you!” Grove reported Robbins yelling. Hey, Tim, give peace a chance.
APRIL: The Saddam statue falls, and L.A. Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg (now thankfully retired) writes one of his in-my-day-by-crikey complaining columns: “When it came to history’s pantheon of epic-TV footage, nothing Wednesday matched [Prague, the dead Ceausescus, the Berlin Wall falling--insert preferred Rosenberg moment here].” Hmm, sounds like someone forgot to take his Metamucil. Makes you wonder how disappointed Rosenberg would have been by footage of Saddam’s capture a few months later.
MAY: Disgraced New York Times reporter Jayson Blair is discovered to have done most of his field reporting without straying far from his beloved office vending machines. He explains his self-destruction by saying that in order for Jayson Blair the human being to live, Jayson Blair the journalist had to die. For such an imaginative young man, that shows an odd lack of ability to think outside the box. Couldn’t both have died?
JUNE:New York Times feature writer Rick Bragg is then discovered to have relied on an uncredited stringer for one of his atmospheric Down South stories. He quits the Times in a huff after being reprimanded. Spring Streetologists may recall that Bragg had a short but memorable tenure in 1994 at the L.A. Times, which he quit in a huff after just 23 days because he didn’t like his story assignments. Still, he managed in that time to acquire a nickname–Commander McBragg–and be heard in the office comparing himself to Faulkner.
JULY: Bravo premieres a gay series, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which is great, but they also premiere the awful gay dating show Boy Meets Boy. How bad is it? Oh, Mary, don’t ask. The twist is that some of the contestants are actually straight, which the gay bachelor doesn’t know and isn’t supposed to be able to guess. So they could all (pretty much) pass for straight, and then everyone learns a lesson: “You can’t tell who’s gay and who isn’t, and it really doesn’t matter,” says one contestant. Well, it matters if you’re looking for a date, you idiot.
AUGUST:The O.C. premieres on Fox and the Washington Post’s Tom Shales just doesn’t get it, describing the pilot script as “breathtaking in its imbecilic banality.” So when the teen drama returns in October after hiatus, viewers are treated to a hospital scene between Seth and Summer, who, we learn, is an occasional candy striper, with a highbrow patient named Tom Shales.
Seth: “You’ve read Madame Bovary?” Summer: “Five times. It’s Tom Shales’s favorite book. Ooh–I should go check on him. He’s, like, incontinent!”
SEPTEMBER: The bulk of each season’s new sitcoms are usually bad, but this season’s feature dialogue is so inane you wonder why the writers even bothered. Take ABC’s It’s All Relative, a boy-meets-girl farce in which boy has an Archie Bunkerish dad and girl was raised by two gay guys. “I told you he was something out of a Bronte novel,” girl gushes to her two dads about her fiancé. “Nineteenth-century novels had sincere male characters.” Yes, like when Heathcliff dug up Cathy’s dead body to look at it. I guess that was sincere, but probably not what prospective dads-in-law want to hear.
OCTOBER: I’m so disgusted with the new sitcom crop that I become addicted to teen dramas. My friend Rob Long, sitcom writer and National Review columnist, takes me to task: “Why the resistance to my theory that the WB network is primarily for young women and men who have similar tastes?” he asks. “I mean, come on! This is a network that manages to turn a show about Superman into a show about interesting hair. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But let’s put it this way: If there’s a TV on in Barbie’s Malibu Beach House, it’s tuned to The Gilmore Girls. And yes, Ken is watching too.”
NOVEMBER: The New York Times’s anno horribilis continues when Slate discovers that Hollywood correspondent Bernard Weinraub had lifted, “nearly verbatim”–as the Times admitted later in an Editor’s Note–a paragraph in a story about shady private eye Anthony Pellicano from my friend Luke Ford, an L.A. blogger and porn-industry expert. Naturally, the blogosphere has a field day, and a Times editor calls Luke personally to apologize. “It sure beats the last time the Times called,” Luke tells me. “A reporter wanted to know about spam e-mails for bigger penises.”
DECEMBER:L.A. Times media columnist Tim Rutten calls up retired New York Times columnist Russell Baker and both scratch their chins together about the Problem With Newsrooms Today. Baker worries that today’s media folk “are part of a highly educated, upper-middle-class elite–they lack empathy for the rest of the country. If you’ve never lacked health insurance–and most reporters and editors never have–you don’t understand what it means for the 43 million Americans who are doing without it.” Most reporters and editors I know have at some point lacked health insurance, because my circle includes a lot of freelancers, a world that is evidently foreign to these two comfortably situated gents. I wish I understood what it means to live in such a cozy, insulated cocoon! Media New Year’s Resolution Number One: Start social climbing.
–Catherine Seipp is a writer in California. This piece first appeared in Los Angeles City Beat and is reprinted with the author’s permission.