Normally, these year-in-TV columns are a breezy, easy write -- a plea for good shows buried somewhere in an embittered litany of bad ones. In recent years, it has felt as though the proliferation of channels and choices has given us only more of the wretched and less of the watchable; satellite television proves it's possible to have access to 150 channels of nothing but 1980s sitcoms and 1970s movies that air endlessly on so-called premium channels, which aren't. But of course, this was The Year TV Regained Its Relevancy, when all of us stopped what we were doing for two, three, four days and stared, through damp and unblinking eyes, at the carnage and wreckage that lie in Manhattan and Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania field.
America Under Attack -- that was the name given most programming on September 11, as though it were the first new show of the fall season, starring Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings. It also served to introduce America to its newest ingenue, MSNBC's Ashleigh Banfield, who changed looks like a network Madonna. And for a little while, at least, television did its job without fail or fault: Anchors and reporters were calm, somber, connected at last to those of us on the other side of the screen. Every now and then, we would see too much -- bodies falling from the World Trade Center, copious replays of the planes smashing into the towers -- but for the most part, the networks held up their end of the bargain: They spoke but never shouted; they informed but never inflamed.
But soon after its premiere on September 11, America Under Attack gave way to its inevitable spin-offs: America Strikes Back, America Under Alert, Operation Enduring Freedom, and so forth. Like most spin-offs, they just disappointed: The graphic had given way to the grainy, as bombs were dropped on Afghanistan behind Don Rumsfeld's scrim of secrecy. And, as networks are wont to do, they resurrected has-beens and gave them top billing long after their expiration dates had passed. Geraldo Rivera showed up on Fox, wearing Kevlar and a sidearm while lying about where he was when U.S. soldiers were killed and when he was (or, actually, wasn't) there. In the end, everything went back to normal, just as our president ordered: Insight wrought hysteria, news anchors started sporting Old Glory lapel pins as though we doubted their patriotism, and all we were left with at month's end were those endless bottom-of-the-screen news scrolls bereft of actual news.
As well as TV handled the events of September 11 and the days after, its post-attack coverage was often clumsy -- especially in prime-time programming: NYPD Blue retooled its season premiere with hollow, dashed-off references to the attacks; stoner Aaron Sorkin turned The West Wing into a junior-high lecture series; even Billy Ray Cyrus got touchy-feely on PAX, where every utterance is a thinly veiled, softly whispered Godblessyou. Indeed, the most touching and resonant moments dealing with the attacks and their fallout were to be found on comedies: Saturday Night Live, The Late Show With David Letterman, The Daily Show -- even South Park, which returned on November 7 with the Looney Tunes-inspired episode "Osama bin Laden Has Farty Pants" (allegedly the original name for Operation Enduring Freedom).
It's hardly surprising that comedy would come to the rescue. TV's hour-long dramas are too much in love with their sense of self-importance; they want to make us wallow in the suffering, turning even the mundane and clichéd into A Very Special Episode. The attacks soon enough became fair game for writers unable to cope or create with any intelligence or sensitivity. And so we found comfort in the funny stuff, perhaps because humor's far better at letting an audience unleash emotion. Comedy doesn't work without the real-life shit getting in the way; it's there to make sense of chaos, to make tangible the inexplicable.
Maybe the best way to express anger and confusion and grief and all the attendant emotions we can't even identify is through the sob that gives way to the chuckle, or vice versa. Look only at David Letterman, who comforted a weary, distraught Dan Rather days after the attacks, then provoked us weeks later by calling bin Laden "an asshole" during a Top 10 list. Those who inexplicably find Jay Leno funnier surely can't find him more human or relevant, not anymore. Only Jon Stewart -- who wondered during the days after the attacks if he could even continue with The Daily Show, since a fake news show seemed horribly inappropriate -- was equal to the task. At once self-deprecating and sincere, he mocked the by-then familiar weepy opening speech and then delivered his own, with bile and tears doled out in equal measure. When he closed his remarks by mentioning that his apartment's view of the World Trade Center had given way to one of the Statue of Liberty, good Christ, you just wanted to give the man a hug.
Lost in the September shuffle has been much talk of the new fall season, which began sometime in . . . what . . . November? It's appropriate that, months after network execs promised the rebirth of the hour-long drama, the best new shows are half-hour comedies, among them NBC's Scrubs and the Fox holy trinity of The Bernie Mac Show, The Tick, and Undeclared. (The worst was Jason Alexander's Bob Patterson for ABC, which, had it been allowed to remain on the air, would have been proof the terrorists had won after all.) But the latter two are failing: The Tick, starring Patrick Warburton as the world's dimmest superhero, garners fewer than 3 million viewers a week, and Undeclared tied in last week's Nielsen ratings with Fox's Cops II: New Jersey. On Christmas Eve, Undeclared creator Judd Apatow hinted in an e-mail, posted to the website of comic book author Brian Michael Bendis, that his show was unlikely to make it to next fall. This happened to Apatow only last year, when NBC axed the wondrous Freaks and Geeks, which he co-produced. Maybe everything's back to normal after all.
Surely, there were a dozen or a hundred or a thousand defining TV moments this year, but the one I keep coming back to aired just a few weeks ago on Saturday Night Live, another show galvanized in recent months. (As has often been said, never did the phrase "Live from New York . . . it's Saturday Night!" sound as sweet as it did when uttered by Rudy Giuliani on September 29, as the New York City mayor stood on the SNL stage surrounded by two dozen N.Y.C. cops and firemen.) On December 15 -- almost three months after Lorne Michaels asked Giuliani if it was OK to be funny, to which the mayor responded, "Why start now?" -- SNL aired during its "TV Funhouse" segment a cartoon by Robert Smigel that eloquently encapsulated our post-September 11 hangover: our frustration at our inability to do something, our worry over how we're supposed to act now, our disgust with celebrities who whine about feeling helpless, and our desire to get back to normal without forgetting what happened.
At first, it looked like a brilliant homage to such Rankin-Bass Christmas cartoons as Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, a merciless parody cobbled together using old, familiar images and new, dubbed-over dialogue. But it was something more. Standing in his familiar spot was Sam the Snowman, the Rudolph narrator Burl Ives voiced in 1964; he even sounded like Ives, his voice full of cranky good cheer. Sam started telling the fetid, familiar story of the snowstorm, the North Pole, the Abominable Snowman, Christmas Town. But his goodwill suddenly, instantly turned into self-righteous rage. "We're still in Afghanistan, the country's under siege, we're getting warnings every week," he groused. "Come on, folks, you watch CNN. I'm holding three months of Cipro up my butthole. And I'm supposed to pick up a freakin' banjo and sing? Screw it, I can't do this."
Sam -- "The Narrator That Ruined Christmas," per the cartoon's title -- then took a little boy and girl and Rudolph to Manhattan and forced them to stare at the smoldering hole that was once the World Trade Center. ("I don't like Ground Zero," whined the reindeer.) Sam was unshaken, insisting it was his responsibility "as someone in the public eye" to show up and let his famous face shine its healing light on the workers. But Sam was unwelcome; Jerry Stiller and Santa are passed through the barrier instead. "It's not about you, douchebag," Santa told Sam. "Don't be so self-imposing. Don't you see? You showbiz types are just trying to shift the focus away from the crisis and onto yourselves. You're an entertainer. It's a simple job, OK? Do a dance, show us your boobs, and make us happy, monkey."
Smigel, who writes all the "TV Funhouse" cartoons, says "The Narrator That Ruined Christmas" was the idea over which he agonized the most during his career, which includes such creations as "The Ambiguously Gay Duo" and Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog for Late Night With Conan O'Brien. He fretted over the subject matter: "the delicate subject of celebrity sanctimony in the aftermath of this horrible event," Smigel wrote me in an e-mail last week, "some of which I saw from my building's rooftop." He passed the sketch around to his friends, including O'Brien, writer Louis C.K., The Daily Show's Stephen Colbert, and longtime Late Night writer Michael Gordon, who contributed the bit's ending that has Tom Brokaw interrupting the cartoon with breaking news of an FBI-issued 45-minute warning, during which citizens were warned "to panic and not to enjoy themselves." They all added a few jokes, earning a co-writing credit.
"After a few weeks, I felt my role was to give people a cathartic laugh," Smigel says, and "Any voices insisting on diverting from that role, like the Emmys dressingdown, frustrated me." With SNL head writer and Weekend Update co-anchor Tina Fey, he wrote an Emmy sketch that was ditched. Also discarded was a cartoon in which celebrities crowd a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving and wind up fighting with each other when told some should come back on another, less visible day. It featured a Ground Zero reference that felt "too raw," Smigel says.
"Then I had the narrator/Snowman idea, and I think what made it work best was that I wasn't parodying a real sanctimonious person, but someone who could symbolize them," he says. "Like I said, it's a delicate subject -- especially because I believe that many of these people likely had the best of intentions." Almost everything he's penned since September 11 has dealt with the attacks, including a George W. Bush-Al Gore sketch; a Triumph bit for Late Night, in which the dog tries, in vain, to be a "nice New Yorker"; and a forthcoming "X-Presidents" cartoon for SNL.
"It's been a very strange few months," Smigel says. "For me, it's been very hard to be funny about everyday life."
And when the man who invented the phrase "for me to poop on" finds it hard to be funny, maybe everything has changed after all.