Last week saw the passing of a passel of distinctive series that showed network television at its best: Malcolm in the Middle, Bernie Mac, Arrested Development, Will & Grace, The West Wing, Alias and That '70s Show. While most were past their respective creative primes, we mist up just a tad as they leave the prime time grid. We'll do the same for The WB's Everwood, which the new CW passed on last week. It will be gone in a few weeks.
All of these series buoyed the industry and gave us ammunition for the argument we often make: that television is the most creative form of mass entertainment. Producing a great movie is an achievement, but producing a long-running TV series demands a wizard's brew of great writing and acting, smart promotion, and the right scheduling. Making popular television isn't easy. Creating popular, quality television that also has staying power borders on the miraculous.
One link between several of the shows no longer with us is that each, in their own unique voice, was about family dynamics. Fox's Malcom in the Middle, Bernie Mac and That '70s Show worked because they got to the humor and heart (and maybe the futility) of the relationship between parents, kids, family friends and neighbors. Other comedies we will miss include the groundbreaking Will & Grace, which, with its top ensemble cast featuring two gay characters and its own kind of family, made its brand of urbane humor mainstream. Arrested Development, sadly, never found that mass audience for its hilarious off-kilter humor.
Among the dramas exiting, we will miss West Wing, which proved a series about politics could work if the writing and cast sparkled. West Wing found its own voice during a tumultuous period for this nation. It premiered seven months after President Clinton's impeachment hearings in 1999, and then continued through Bush's contested election, the horror of 9/11, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Most of those events were somehow reflected in the series.)
Alias, gone after five years, was action-packed, sexy, sometimes wildly complicated, and a messy blast to watch. It turned Jennifer Garner into a star and gave ABC buzz back in its dark days before Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy.
Each of the programs that recently entered the exit lane are examples of the viewer appetite for superior programming from the broadcast networks, which just a few years ago were considered too mass-oriented to be critically compelling fare. Wrong. There is still the possibility in this fragmented world to create programs that can grab an audience and do it with grace and intelligence. Our hats are off to the showrunners, stars and network and advertising executives who make it happen. Don't stop.