The year in television was all about getting back to normal. Unfortunately, the medium succeeded.
By summertime, things were so normal, so far removed from the elevated future some had predicted in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, that "American Idol" and, briefly, "The Anna Nicole Show" were sensations.
Things were so normal that "The West Wing," a show about issues and governance, had lost viewers so that "The Bachelor," a show about a serial French-kisser from Missouri, could gain them.
They were so normal that newswomen were once again being celebrated for their babe-i-tude, or attempts to attain it. First, CNN promoted new morning woman Paula Zahn with a spot that called her "sexy" and featured the sound of a zipper opening. Then Greta Van Susteren, who had jumped from CNN to Fox News Channel, took advantage of the hiatus to have plastic surgery on at least her eyes.
Things were, in fact, so very, very normal that "Good Morning, Miami" was succeeding.
Perhaps all that ordinariness was just overwhelming, because there was also a whole lot of quitting going on.
Oprah quit her book club, more or less, offering the lame excuse that she was finding it too hard to come up with enough books worth recommending.
David Blaine quit sitting up on that stupid tower, which means he is, alas, available to do another "magic" special.
Rob Lowe made plans to quit "The West Wing," apparently unaware that David Caruso once quit a hit series a decade ago and is just now re-establishing a career, in the 2002 newcomer "CSI: Miami."
Rosie O'Donnell quit her talk show. And her magazine. And the closet.
VH1 quit on the idea of a reality show celebrating the heterosexual union of Liza Minnelli and David Gest, claiming the two didn't give them necessary access. Not to worry, channel that hasn't had a hit since "Behind the Music." Maybe Steve and Eydie are available?
ABC in March combined the concepts of normalcy and quitting. It made a very normal (i.e. stupid) decision for a network when it tried to quit Ted Koppel and "Nightline," offering the time slot to David Letterman.
The network's bid for Letterman failed, but it had managed to set the tone for a year of public humiliation -- low ratings, bad shows and then a form of rescue by, ugh, "The Bachelor" -- as profound as that endured by any reality-show participant.
As part of the normal comings and goings of television series, "Ally McBeal" went off the air in 2002, its great-to-goofy existence more proof that the hardest thing to do in television may well be to keep fresh an hourlong series that isn't about crime or death.
Also earning at least semi-tearful send-offs: "Felicity," "Once and Again," "The X-Files" and "Undecided."
Not dead yet, but apparently heading there, are the acting careers of all those stars who seem to think there's a special endorsement exemption that allows you to maintain dignity while hawking a product if the product is a cell phone.
Carrot Top is one thing: Dignity for him is not an issue. Even Joan Cusack had an excuse: Her sitcom didn't make it. But Catherine Zeta-Jones?
Indeed, with the exception of Kiefer Sutherland, who made the taut, innovative "24" seem to possess more depth than it really does, TV was hard on movie actors in 2002.
At roughly the same time that Ben Affleck was saying the necessary words to engage to become the third Mr. Jennifer Lopez, his TV series, the hollow "Twin Peaks" rip-off "Push, Nevada" was being rejected by viewers. It became one of the fall season's first cancellations.
But maybe we won't need so many actors anymore, anyway. The year saw reality TV, the genre that began with "The Real World" and exploded with "Survivor," settle in for the long run.
Yes, "CSI" surpassed "Friends" as TV's most popular series, even as the latter finally won the best comedy Emmy. ("West Wing" won again for drama, beating out newbie "Six Feet Under.")
But the TV sensation of the year was "The Osbournes," the MTV reality series that managed to make a lovable TV dad out of an addled rock star formerly known for eating birds and buddying up to Satan.
Some reality TV, of course, made a compelling civic contribution, from various "Frontline" episodes to the first half of the year's Sept. 11 documentaries shown by CBS ("9/11") and HBO ("In Memoriam").
People did watch and honor these fine tributes. But they also made room on their palates for the more run-of-the-mill reality fare.
"The Bachelor," of course, did its nasty manufactured-relationship thing, only slightly less skanky than that Christina Aguilera video. "Survivor" continued as the genre's genuine nationwide hit. And finding success in the demographic margins were shows like "Fear Factor" (eat bugs for money) and "American Idol" (sing bad pop for money).
In daytime TV, where people get slapped around for money, the genre had its first certifiable sensation pretty much since Oprah herself. The tough-love advice hour of Winfrey protege Dr. Phil McGraw debuted to monster ratings and held them, a distinction never known by Sally Jessy Raphael, whose show and signature kooky eyewear left the air.
No Bill O'Reilly
The nation's daytime talk host emeritus, meanwhile, Phil Donahue, chose cable as the venue for his comeback, although his hourlong prime-time issues show on MSNBC barely moved the ratings needle. He's no Bill O'Reilly, it seems, nor even a Connie Chung.
Indeed, despite being the real technological and format innovator among the newschannels, MSNBC continued in a distant third place that no prime-time Ashleigh Banfield hour was going to change.
Up at the top of the heap of stations concerned with sniper attacks, child abductions and whatever else might increase the public's pulse rate, Fox News Channel surpassed CNN in popularity, proving that ideologically based talk radio works just fine with pictures, too.
In local news, Joe Ahern, the former autocratic head at WLS-Ch. 7, became the latest captain to try to get the soggy ship that is WBBM-Ch. 2 at least above the waterline so that it would have a chance to move forward again.
Installed over the summer, Ahern fired people. He hired people. He finally was able to make CBS honchos see the economic sense of installing a new and better signal transmitter. And he changed the on-air colors to -- surprise! -- a blue very similar to the blue used by his old, market-leading station.
At that station in 2002, longtime ratings king John Drury retired, Ron Magers took his place, and enough viewers began looking around to push WMAQ-Ch. 5 to first place in the November 10 p.m. weekday news ratings for the first time in a decade.
WMAQ may have benefited from some audience sympathy. Anchor Warner Saunders battled cancer and returned to the airwaves in the first half of the year.
Sports anchor Darrian Chapman, who established an immediately winning presence in his brief Chicago tenure, was not so fortunate. He died of a heart attack in October.
Death also claimed in 2002 the first and undoubtedly the longest holder of the title "Mr. Television": Milton Berle passed away in March. And so, in December, did a later claimant to the title, ABC sports and news honcho Roone Arledge.
Arledge, of course, gave us Howard Cosell, "Wide World of Sports," Peter Jennings as an anchor, and the "Battle of the Network Stars," a legacy as wide ranging as the medium itself. This was a man who understood that, in television, whatever people want is what counts as normal.
Best and worst of 2002
1. "The Wire," HBO. Largely overlooked by the viewing public, David Simon's 13-week anatomy of a Baltimore drug sting, told from the perspective of both cops and dealers, was so good I used to get nervous watching each new episode, afraid that this would be the one where the greatness bubble burst. It never did. Simon ("The Corner") gave us, in the guise of a taut drug tale, a brilliantly observed novel about people's behavior in institutions. It gets the nod over a certain other great HBO series because of the laser-beam focus of its storytelling.
2. " The Sopranos," HBO. Despite some grumbling from some viewers about inadequate whackage, David Chase's fourth season of the mob hit continued as a wise and wonderfully well-acted exploration of an American family in crisis. It also regained its sense of humor, in scenes like the hilariously violent drug intervention with heir apparent Christopher. It falls a notch from last year because the Chase tendency to let his story sprawl, even if it does often pay dividends, can also get exasperating. Mostly, though, it falls because "The Wire" practically glowed.
3. "Scrubs," NBC. A comedy with heart, soul and, most of all, the kind of great, giddy humor that can arise from the perfect marriage of writers, actors and subject matter. Bill Lawrence's look at a doctor's on-the-job education manages to actually be about something -- maturing and finding your place as an adult, or pretending -- even as it employs a deft surrealism to bring the biggest laughs contemporary TV has to offer.
4. "In Memoriam: New York City, 9/11/01," HBO. It aired on Memorial Day, but by the end of the year, it was still the most poignant of the documentaries about that day. In just over an hour, using lots of home video footage, it reconstructs the horror, and especially the feeling of the horror, permanently, so that it cannot be forgotten.
5. "Curb Your Enthusiasm," HBO. Yep, network execs. It's another HBO show in the top 5. And it's not because they have an unfair competitive advantage but because they take risks. This deliberately grating comedy examines the life of ex-"Seinfeld" writer Larry David, playing an exaggerated version of himself, as his posh L.A. lifestyle is interrupted by annoyances he manages to escalate to the level of blood feuds. A network wouldn't even pay to make the pilot.
6. "The Simpsons," Fox. I will not ignore the still-great first-run episodes just because the reruns are so widely available. I will not ignore the still-great first-run episodes just because the reruns are so widely available. I will not ignore . . .
7. " Frontline," PBS. No current-affairs program does more detailed, more thoughtful or more meaningful work. Especially impressive this year was the series' focus on the fallout of Sept. 11.
8. "Friends," NBC. Who says success makes you lazy? Despite the fat salaries and the first-time Emmy win, the Thursday mainstay is managing to be as funny as it's ever been, whether exploring Chandler's sexual attraction to sharks or the social faux pas of Rachel's sister.
9. "The West Wing," NBC. Sorry, all you critics who suddenly find fault with Aaron Sorkin's White House series now that the ratings are down, but this remains the best drama on broadcast television. It makes, still, a realm we're all supposed to be cynical about seem exciting and even noble, it respects the intelligence of the viewer, and it holds interest without involving cops or doctors. That's the tallest of orders.
10. "Andy Richter Controls the Universe," Fox. This amazingly inventive voyage into the mind of a workaday shlub, played with perfect Midwestern dryness by the former Conan O'Brien sidekick, would be even higher on the list if it weren't so new. A recent episode in the just-begun second season (after a short first season) saw the firm having to undergo sensitivity training because Richter had insulted the Irish in front of an African-American co-worker. It's the closest thing out there to a live-action "Simpsons."
The next 10
(Alphabetically): "The American Experience," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," "Gilmore Girls," "The Late Show with David Letterman," "The Shield," "Six Feet Under," "South Park," "24," "Will & Grace."
The bottom 10
1. "Hidden Hills," "The In-Laws," "Good Morning, Miami." NBC's three new and stunningly leaden fall-season sitcoms prove that the network has lost its comic touch.
2. "The Bachelor," ABC. The behavior is appalling. The expectations are pathetic. But what's worst is that it is all so obviously a fraud, yet people are buying it.
3. "Mind of the Married Man"/ "Arliss." Take heart, network types. It's not all wit and wonder over at HBO.
4. TV hoops with Dick Vitale and/or Bill Walton. Zip it, blowhards. Or at least talk about the game for a change.
5. Expanded "Chicago Tonight," WTTW. Bold move and all, but pretty soon it will be time to admit that this shotgun marriage of two very different programs is just not working out. Give Phil Ponce his old half hour back and let Bob Sirott do a kind of Chicago magazine in the other half hour.
6. "Connie Chung Tonight," CNN. Her prime-time hour, blessedly no longer live, was so inept it deserves to take the fall for the worst excesses of cable news channels.
7. "Fear Factor"/ "Dog Eat Dog" / "The Anna Nicole Show." Reality TV moves into outright humiliation.
8. "Push, Nevada," ABC. Only history will be able to rank this on the list of stupid things Ben Affleck did in 2002.
9. "Beyond with James Van Praagh," syndicated. He talks to the dead. Every weekday. Right.
10. Jerry Springer/Maury Povich: There's a name, fellas, for people who do distasteful things for the money. You probably know that name because you've heard it on your stinking shows so frequently.
Steve Johnson is the Chicago Tribune television critic.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times