We have a winner.
It happened at year’s end – New Year’s Eve, to be specific. CNN was ushering in 2013 as it is wont to do with gigglepuss Anderson Cooper standing next to Kathy Griffin, the OMG queen of the airwaves. Griffin’s most famous attempt to celebrate the new year by dynamiting Cooper’s always tenuous unflappability was to strip down past her skivvies on camera.
This time, a poor CNN feature reporter wanted to tell the world about “kissing the sardine,” a custom in Maine whereby natives kiss a giant sardine for luck at year’s end. It was a moment of pseudo-anthropological feature journalism that any journalistic professional would recognize. In other words, something a little peculiar that someone somewhere thought perfect for well-behaved folks at home shaking their heads in hypocritical wonderment and saying, “My my, what a strange place the world is. How varied and peculiar we are.”
Griffin wasn’t having any.
As the sardine feature report ended, Griffin did her own version of it. She kissed Cooper’s “sardine,” i.e. his crotch, for luck. Cooper, to his eternal credit, didn’t dissolve into the sort of uncontrolled giggle fits that he’s known for.
I missed it in “real time.” But in our world, no one ever has to miss any television moment ever, least of all those of legendary ignominy. We’ve got YouTube, Hulu, all manner of different ways to turn passing fancies into viral favorites wherever sophisticated connoisseurs of absurdity congregate or privately pour each other another Johnny Walker. So, as I watched the brave new world that CNN is heading into, I thought that it’s possible no contemporary American understands television better than Kathy Griffin.
Well, part of it anyway.
Television, as a subject, has gone way beyond all the worst old ideas of how to cover it. Much of it is so much better than the stupider commentators are equipped to deal with that it’s almost tragic. In a second Golden Age, they can’t even keep up with the brass.
On the other hand, the vast expanse of cable – and now Internet – TV has meant that there is never a moment of any day that a Honey Boo Boo or a crazed Kathy Griffin might not commandeer to do God knows what.
We live in a world where some of our fellow citizens actually seem to care about the marital and reproductive lives of TV’s Snookis and Kardashians.
In between the magnificent heights of TV and its mind-boggling depths, there is still a vast middle – parts that are brain- and soul-numbing, but much of it diverting and even profound, in its way, if only one looks at it hard enough.
I’ve been writing professionally about television off and on from the era B.A.B. – Before Archie Bunker (“Gunsmoke,” “Ed Sullivan” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” were still on the air) – when it was just a vast, flattened-out piece of ultra-bland dough that was sliced onto three network channels, one independent one and one public one.
It is now another universe – a vast, teeming cosmos where time present and time past coexist and carry us into time future.
I’ve always thought television, in its way, to be the biggest and most important subject in American culture. In the 21st century, it is bigger than ever, stretching from the haunting weekly imaginative wealth of “Homeland” (where the audience’s moral affections are routinely set adrift) to Griffin improvising her own tradition of sardine anarchy as satire of TV news.
This 2013 tribute to 2012 television is mostly about modern TV’s Golden Age, with only tiny sideswipes at the Snooki/ Honey Boo Boo/ Kathy Griffin contingent.
Most creative new network drama: Tough call. To me it was genius to turn Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mega-genius Sherlock Holmes into a drug addict with a live-in rehab counselor named Watson, who is not only female but played on CBS’s “Elementary” with dead-on deadpan skepticism by Lucy Liu. Compared with the juvenile and pathetically noisy action hoo-ha in the Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law Holmes movies, it was a quantum leap in invention. Jonny Lee Miller’s raving neurotic performance as Holmes almost instantly made viewers forget about the asperities of TV’s previous Holmes-incarnation, Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House (the medical version of Holmes).
Aaron Sorkin unchained: “The Newsroom” was bound to disturb people, especially stodgy journalists. What a joy to hear such dialogue handled so very well.
Classic rock unchained: The Sandy Relief Concert showed America why it was once so successfully invaded by Brit rockers, especially the Who. And then on CBS’s Kennedy Center Honors, the sight of Robert Plant tearing up as he watched Ann Wilson sing “Stairway to Heaven” in a way he’ll never do again, was beyond what any synthetic drama a TV wizard could create.
Yet another way some 2012 TV was better than the movies: HBO’s “The Girl,” about Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren, was creepier and more memorable in every way than the major motion picture “Hitchcock.”
Women won the comedy wars: No, not on “Two Broke Girls,” but certainly Lena Dunham won on “Girls,” as did Julia Louis-Dreyfus on “Veep.”
The People vs. Oliver Stone: Showtime’s broadcast of Stone’s “The Untold History of the United States” was a singular gesture in historic revisionism.
Hollywood vs. Kelsey Grammer: Starz’s “Boss” was almost as good, in its way, as “Homeland.” But Grammer publicly complained that his Republicanism kept him out of award consideration. The show’s use of Daniel Travanti as an almost medieval hook-nosed caricature of evil wealth was a stereotype that couldn’t have pleased many of Grammer’s colleagues much.
ABC vs. “The Last Resort”: The idea for the show – a rogue nuclear sub creating a new global reality – was creative and fascinating. Unfortunately, not enough people thought so to keep the network metric folks happy.
At peace at Last: Keith Olbermann, wherever he is now.
A challenge to the gods: David Milch’s “Luck” ran out of the stuff when horses on the show lost their lives. By then, sadly, it just wasn’t good enough to save.
Under the bus: Ann Curry, former host of “The Today Show.”
TV commercial of the year: Bruno Avellian’s three-and-a-half minute commercial for Cartier ended its classic high-gloss surrealism with, among other things, a Taj Mahal situated on the back of a giant elephant.
The jury has spoken: Lindsay Lohan as Liz Taylor tanked in the ratings, a rare and heartening efflorescence of public wisdom.
Local TV news arrival of the year: Ch. 4’s Diana Fairbanks, arguably the best thing to happen to the station since the heyday of Carol Jasen.
Local TV news departures of the year: Most of its stalwart middle class, but including such audience favorites as Jodi Johnston, John Murphy and Victoria Hong.
Broadcast moment of the year that involved neither Kathy Griffin nor sardines: Megyn Kelly’s glamorous Election Night stroll into the bowels of Fox News’ studios to challenge Karl Rove’s idiotic assertion that, contrary to the opinion of the network’s hard-working actual journalists, it was too early to call Ohio, and the election itself, for Barack Obama. No, Kelly learned from those in charge of doing so, it wasn’t too early at all, merely too late for anyone to give a flying fig what Rove thought.
Fox News lost viewers in 2012. Sometimes the count goes your way, sometimes it doesn’t.
Maybe it helps to kiss a sardine for luck.