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Guilty Pleasures on Television in 2003

by dan heaton

This year's television landscape was once again dominated by insulting reality shows (Are You Hot?, American Idol, etc.), unbearable sitcoms (too many to name), and overly conventional dramas (especially CSI) mistaken for unique creations. My viewing habits included fewer regular shows, but certain series continued to draw me in each week without mercy. I even tape some of these shows, which is embarrassing considering a few of the ones listed. The entries described below involve shows that have hooked me during the past year. This list in no way represents a ranking of the top candidates for "guilty pleasures." Instead, it simply describes the shows that have personally grabbed me this year. I welcome responses (hateful and praiseworthy) concerning these choices via e-mail at Enjoy.

Engaging, Ridiculous Drama (Alias)

Hold it right there, you say. Alias is a highly regarded drama that should not be mentioned within an article about guilty pleasures. Jennifer Garner has won several best acting awards, and the supporting cast includes such accomplished actors as Ron Rifkin, Victor Garber, and Carl Lumbly. While these points are accurate, this series still deserves this title due to its outlandish premise, science-fiction aspects, and soap-opera moments. Plus, I can't deny the physical appeal of Garner, especially as she wears crazier and more attractive outfits every week.

Sydney Bristow (Garner) begins the show as a young genius studying to be a teacher at graduate school in Los Angeles. But her central job is working for SD-6, a very covert branch of the CIA. During its pilot episode, she learns that her employer actually is an enemy of the United States and has no affiliation with the CIA. Following this stunning news and some tragic circumstances, Sydney becomes a double agent for the government and continues to work for SD-6. Meanwhile, she also learns that her supposedly straight-arrow father (Garber) also is a double agent there, and they have barely spoken for years. Sydney's CIA handler is Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan), and they slowly develop a friendship that turns to love during the second season. Along with deceiving the bosses, she also battles the enemies of nefarious groups like FTL, K-Directorate, and The Covenant, who mostly hail from European nations.

Are you confused yet? I haven't even mentioned the continuing story line concerning the artifacts of philosopher Milo Rambaldi, which often threatens to stretch the series into fantasy territory. Yet everything remains grounded by the series' human elements, which include Sydney's friendship with her co-workers like the noble Dixon (Lumbly) and the silly Marshall (Kevin Weisman). Even the often-evil SD-6 boss Arven Sloane delivers some sympathetic moments, with great work from Rifkin. The acting often moves well beyond the material, and the guest stars keep the show interesting from week to week. When Quentin Tarantino can be believable as a former spy, you know the writers are doing an exceptional job.

Alias remains compelling during each week by constantly raising the ante and filling the shows with plot twists. Almost every conclusion provides either a shock or a deadly cliffhanger, and it leaves viewers counting down the days until the next episode. Following the demise of SD-6 during the second season, the writers continued to provide intriguing stories. They took another major chance this season and jumped the events forward two years, with Sydney remembering virtually nothing from that time period. In the meantime, Vaughn has gotten married, and other characters have tackled different roles. A new enemy has arisen in the Covenant, and threats within from CIA superiors could also lead to her demise. Recently a new mole has been revealed, which could place the lives of everyone in jeopardy. This third season may lack the inventiveness of its predecessors, but it remains one of my "must-see" shows every Sunday.

Science Fiction for Smart Kids (Stargate SG-1)

Yes, I am a big dork for loving this show. If you give it a chance, however, you would be surprised by its depth and originality. Stargate SG-1 faces numerous obstacles in trying to draw casual viewers not obsessed with science fiction. The first challenge is its star Richard Dean Anderson, who is widely known as MacGyver and given far too little credit for his acting skills. Secondly, it stems from a muddled feature film that earned impressive money but is generally reviled by discerning viewers. Finally, it currently airs on the Sci-Fi Network, which doesn't always find its way onto everyone's list of favorite channels.

Despite the barriers, this intriguing series delivers a consistently high quality show nearly every week and rarely falls flat. Colonel Jack O'Nell (Anderson), Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks), Major Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping), and Teal'c (Christopher Judge) spend each week journeying to distant worlds through the Stargate device and must battle an array of alien enemies. Additionally, they assist societies on other planets and make groundbreaking discoveries about their species' origins. The team functions under the orders of the stern General Hammond (Don S. Davis), who fairly assesses the merits of each new situation. Dr. Frasier (Teryl Rothery) often appears to provide medical treatment and study unknown organisms.

Now airing in its seventh full season, Stargate SG-1 has evolved considerably over the years and continues to stretch the boundaries of its format. So presenting a short description of the key players is virtually impossible. However, I will provide a few notable details below to explain its basic elements:

Earth's primary enemy throughout the seasons has been the Goa'uld, a parasitic alien race who use humans as hosts and impersonate gods. Numerous System Lords have become serious enemies over the years, most notably the vicious Apophis, devil-like Sokar, and currently the eerie villain Anubis. Another major threat comes from the Replicators, spider-like robotic creatures that multiply and manipulate technology for their own ends. Luckily, our heroes also have strong allies in the highly intelligent Asgard and the Tok'ra, the rebel faction of the Goa'uld. One of these rebels is Carter's own father Jacob, who plays a pivotal role in many episodes. Numerous other enemies and friends have appeared over the years, but it would take a novel to list them all. For additional information, you can refer to, which is a wonderful and in-depth web resource.

Stargate SG-1 improves on popular science-fiction series like Star Trek: The Next Generation by making the story ongoing and having fewer one-off episodes. The characters here actually remember past experiences and are affected by these events. Jean-Luc Picard may act brilliantly one week, but seems to fall prey to the same mistakes repeatedly during that show, which is frustrating for smart audiences. Numerous story arcs cross the seasons and rarely seem designed just to generate ratings. Instead, the writers consistently respect the audience and search for innovative avenues for each character. This format works very well and is especially worthwhile to the solid work from the talented cast.

Few viewers unfamiliar with the series will recognize the names of Michael Shanks, Amanda Tapping, and Christopher Judge, but all three play emotionally complex roles on a weekly basis. Don S. Davis is known to some as Major Briggs from Twin Peaks, but he dwarfs that silly performance here and creates a solid base for the series. Their chemistry raises the show to impressive heights and keeps me returning each week. The seventh season has been one of the weakest yet, but it still has delivered several gems, including the recently aired "Grace." This episode used a familiar science-fiction premise to explore the conflicting emotions in Carter's psyche. Tapping once again delivers a top-notch performance, and the result is a riveting hour of television.

Wonderful Reality TV (The Amazing Race)

I generally am skeptical of reality series and feel that the constant rush of new shows has become overly ridiculous. However, certain series have lured me and continue to generate intriguing drama. The most prominent one is easily The Amazing Race, which uses the competitive reality format and cranks it to a compelling level. Twelve teams of two begin in the United States and undertake a race around the world for one million dollars. Instead of staying in one place like Survivor or Big Brother, these contestants visit places across the globe and compete in challenges specific to that area. The duos each possess a unique relationship that could be as simple as sisters or a husband-and-wife team. The connections have also included dating virgins, NFL wives, circus clowns, and a gay married couple. The format remains fascinating after four seasons as the challenges become more difficult and inventive.

The Amazing Race draws many viewers who dislike the typical cutthroat reality model and enjoy its fast-paced entertainment. The contestants do bicker and discuss their lives, but everything remains secondary to the goal of winning the race. With the exception of a few non-elimination rounds, the last team to arrive at the "pit stop" is eliminated, which often leads to a mad dash during an episode's waning seconds. The producers often use creative editing to heighten the tension even when teams aren't very close. While many shows encourage backstabbing and lying to succeed, this format does reward the most talented teams. There are some minor line-cuttings and false statements, but in general the teams play fairly.

During this past season, contestants traveled from Los Angeles to sites ranging from Venice to Amsterdam, Mumbai, Seoul, and Ellis Beach (Australia). The challenges included both dangerous aerial jumps and mind-numbing puzzles. The teams range between determined, athletic young people and older, wise adults. The obvious frontrunners don't always succeed and could be curtailed by simply getting the wrong cab driver. The chaos is moderated in straightforward fashion by host Phil Keoghan, who appears to explain the rules and greet teams at the end of each leg. Unlike Jeff Probst, he remains in the background and allows the race to commence without interfering. The overall result is one of the most entertaining shows on television. Hopefully the series will return this summer and showcase another 24 players battling for the rich prize.

Terrible, Addictive Reality Shows (Survivor and the Real World/Road Rules Challenge)

Thus far, my descriptions have included shows that I stand behind as solid viewing material. That changes dramatically with the remaining series. Survivor pales in comparison to The Amazing Race in nearly every aspect and follows a very generic formula, but it continues to attract me each season. The producers try to inject new twists and keep the game fresh, but everything has a similar feeling each year. Why do I watch this show? As numerous viewers have learned, it's extremely addictive. Watching smart contestants backstab each other is somewhat insulting, but remains an interesting weekly activity.

This past year, team leaders like Rupert and Andrew took charge and seemed poised to gain control, but they became targets and fell well short at the end. One of the finalists was boy-scout troop leader Lil, who had no business even making it past the early rounds. In fact, she was voted out early in the game, but a new twist brought her back and moved her to the final two spots. The winner this year was Sandra, a fierce competitor but far from the most accomplished player in the game. Yet no one even cast one vote against her in the entire competition. This type of intrigue still works surprisingly well and leads to the show's continued popularity. Premiering after the Super Bowl, the next season brings back 18 of the most memorable survivors from past years. This version will obviously garner huge ratings, and sadly I'm extremely curious to watch previous winners battle once again for the million dollars.

Back in the early '90s, MTV premiered a series called The Real World that actually represented a significant difference from the current offerings on television. Following its abundant success, the next step was Road Rules, which took this format onto the road for a series of difficult "missions." Both shows have continued for many years and included numerous entertaining (and equally annoying) characters. Utilizing the Survivor format, the producers crafted the Real World/Road Rules Challenge, an awful reality series that brings veterans from each series onto a team for an all-out battle. The teams compete in oddball challenges for prizes (with obvious product placement) and eventually reach the final showdown for the big money. Teams begin in large groups and must each vote a member off at the end of each challenge. Players may be voted out due to poor individual performance or for more trivial matters like hatred from another teammate. In the moments apart from the challenges, the crazy kids party, hook up, and bicker amongst themselves constantly.

I am embarrassed to regularly watch this train wreck, but its silly drama somehow manages to be addictive. Years after their original MTV appearances, some characters have drastically changed, while others remain their self-absorbed selves. Most of them readily admit they only returned for the money, but I think the need for short-term celebrity still remains for many. This season is entitled "The Gauntlet", with possible eliminated contestants given a chance to battle an opposing player there for a chance to remain on board. These contests contain virtually zero tension, yet I still care about who's eliminated. The show's host is the annoying Johnny Mosely, a dude who actually has an accomplished skiing career. Unfortunately, he has absolutely no personality of any kind, which makes his continued inclusion even more intriguing. The entire sloppy nature of this whole production actually enhances the interest, as viewers wonder how certain moments could make it on the air. This format must be generating ratings; MTV is starting yet another season in a few weeks. Do these people have real jobs?

Guilty As Charged (The O.C.)

While reading this article, you might wonder what shows I watch that aren't considered guilty pleasures. Well, eliminating sports and news, there aren't too many other series to mention. I do enjoy 24 and The Shield, but they fall into a similar category as Alias, and this piece must eventually end. The last show discussed here falls into a viewing segment rife with clichés and obvious moments: the teen drama. Mastered in the past by annoying shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and perfected by the WB in numerous incarnations, this genre has no shortage of options. This past summer, Fox debuted a new series called The OC that actually featured a worthwhile premise. Troubled teen Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie) steals a car and ends up in jail, where he meets lawyer Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), who decides to help the boy and brings him home. It takes a few episodes, but Ryan eventually ends up living with the very rich Cohens in Orange County. How will he respond to a completely new life within this insular, affluent community? The result works much better than its premise might suggest, mostly due to the efforts of a well-cast group of actors.

McKenzie seems to resemble the typical teenage hunk, but he actually makes Ryan a believable guy. His character speaks rarely in the early episodes and is actually a well-meaning individual placed into a difficult situation. Gallagher is surprisingly charming as the quirky, well-meaning father, and his scenes usually crackle with enjoyment. The obligatory love interest is Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton), who initially was interesting but has lately fallen into a dull trap. Much of the show's energy comes from Seth Cohen (Adam Brody), who plays a supposedly dorky guy who's actually more interesting than the lead characters. Brody sells the guy's awkwardness with mannerisms and an oddball vocal delivery, but he eventually does well with several attractive ladies. Other solid actors also appear weekly, including Tate Donovan as Marissa's father who has isn't the town's favorite soul right now for losing their money.

The summer episodes of The O.C. were surprisingly effective and reflected the touch of Doug Liman (Go, Swingers), who has a knack for making even dull situations interesting. The characters were all just starting to understand each other, and a fresh tone permeated the material. Unfortunately, the first full season has been a hit-or-miss affair with several nearly mind-numbing episodes. This show was never a dramatic masterpiece, but it moved very quickly and covered the hour without a problem. New characters are less interesting, especially a possibly suicidal foil for Ryan whose obvious bad intentions somehow elude certain people. The plots have veered more towards generic soap-opera fare, and it seems that the writers aren't sure what to do with their characters. It seems that this guilty pleasure may be exiting my list of must-see television. What frustrating, addictive show will take its place? I'm sure the networks will continue to find transparent ways to trap me in 2004, which isn't really a bad thing. I could be hooked on American Idol. Now that would be frightening.

(Alias airs Sundays on ABC at 8:00 p.m. Stargate SG-1 airs Fridays on the Sci-Fi Network at 8:00 p.m, with reruns throughout the week. The Amazing Race is currently not airing, but plans are in the works for another season on CBS. Survivor returns on CBS following the Super Bowl and airs regularly on Thursdays at 7:00 p.m. Real World/Road Rules Challenge airs Mondays at 9:00 p.m. on MTV, with countless reruns. The OC airs Wednesdays on Fox at 8:00 p.m. All times listed reflect the Central Time Zone.)

Note: To read the "What We Loved Most in 2003" feature straight through, click here to go directly to the next article.

Issue 19, January 2004

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