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Somewhere in TV Land, show producers are asking what went wrong in 2000. And then there are the creative few who are basking in what went right. We look at those shows that made an indelible mark on the year - - and our lives.

January 01, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

It has been a very good year for a certain kind of reality television.

Recall the almost-naked body of Richard Hatch, the phenomenal success of the "Survivor" series in which he appeared, and the slew of failed sitcoms starring such big names as Michael Richards and John Goodman, and it might seem that 2000 was a television year too horrible to contemplate.

But look beyond the realms of staged reality and the sitcom and into the worlds of documentary and even docudrama, and the picture is far different. Baltimore was a major player in such critically acclaimed versions of it as ABC News' "Hopkins 24/7" and HBO's "The Corner."

Television is far too sprawling and messy a terrain to ever fit neatly into a simple good-bad model, but for every dreadful fictional miniseries last year, such as CBS' "Sally Hemings: An American Scandal," there was an outstanding documentary film like PBS' "Jefferson's Blood." While the former turned a master-slave relationship between Thomas Jefferson and one of his slaves into a soap-opera love story because the screenwriter "imagined" it that way, the latter sensitively explored the construction of racial identity and the impact of the liberties Jefferson took with his slave on their descendants today.

Here then are 10 shows and programming moments from the past year worth remembering. They matter because they are representative - for better or worse - of larger patterns in television. Taken together, they make for a state of the medium message - a sense of where we have just been and where we are about to go:

1. "Survivor." Like it or not, we have to start with CBS' "Survivor." No series had as large an impact on our culture, perhaps best measured by all the mindless media references since to being "voted off the island."

The effect of "Survivor" on network programming will be all too clearly seen this month as the first major wave of sequels and imitations washes across our television screens. From "Popstars" on the WB, which shows teen girls chasing the million-to-one dream of being the next Madonna, to "Temptation Island" on Fox, which offers us the chance to watch as four "committed" couples travel to an island where they will face sexual temptations aimed at shredding their relationships, this is not programming that speaks to our better angels.

Oh, yeah, and then there's "Survivor II" set in the Australian outback debuting after the Super Bowl Jan. 28. Voyeurism, back-stabbing, competition, public humiliation and a grand prize of a million dollars - perfect prime-time programming for a culture more in love with the market than at any time since the 1920s.

2. "Malcolm in the Middle." This Fox sitcom that debuted last January gives us hope, hope that the sitcom genre is not as exhausted as "The Michael Richards Show," "The Geena Davis Show" and "Normal, Ohio" might suggest.

Much of the energy of this series comes from its willingness to take on such hallowed concepts as those of motherhood, family and the innocence of childhood. Of course, the consistently fine performances of Frankie Muniz as Malcolm and Jane Kaczmarek as his mom also contributed to the series' success.

Something else is important about the show: It's one of the few sitcoms on television not co-owned and produced by the network that airs it. The consolidation of corporate power coupled with government deregulation that has allowed the networks to take over production of most shows is responsible for the dreadful new series in the last two years. "Malcolm" stands in opposition to the cookie-cutter, brain-dead television we get when unbridled commerce squeezes art from the sitcom equation.

3. "Hopkins 24/7." ABC's prime-time documentary taking viewers inside Baltimore's John Hopkins Medical Center was not without its flaws. It shaped the story of a great research institution to fit the more compelling blood-and-death narrative of prime-time network dramas such as "ER." The result, which also largely ignored the nurses at Hopkins, was not nearly as representative of the medical center as it could and should have been.

Still, through the use of new, smaller cameras and skilled cinematographers, it showed how far intelligent filmmakers could take us inside the culture of an institution whose inner workings had never been explored in such depth. The film also showed that such fare could win a large enough prime-time audience to make it commercially viable.

There's "reality" and then there's reality. It would be unrealistic to hope that we'll see more of the second type than the kind CBS is selling with shows such as "Survivor" and "Big Brother." But maybe "Hopkins 24/7" will mean we can get similar shows on network television.

4. "The Corner." In my April preview, I compared this HBO miniseries about one family's struggle to escape the drug world of Baltimore to James Agee's "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" and Edward R. Murrow's "Harvest of Shame." I have no stronger words with which to celebrate it.

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