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The Best Television of 2020

A feature on the best television of 2020, as chosen by five TV critics.


The Ten Best Larry Sanders episodes

August 15 marks the 20th anniversary of the debut of "The Larry Sanders Show," episodes of which are available on Netflix Instant, Amazon Instant, iTunes, and DVD. This is the first part of Edward Copeland's extensive tribute to the show, including interviews with many of those involved in creating one of the best-loved comedies in television history.

by Edward Copeland

Over the course of my lifetime, I've watched a lot of movies -- an old computer contained a program with an editable database of titles and allowed for the addition of new films. Back when I used that PC, my total hovered in the thousands. "The Larry Sanders Show" produced a mere 89 episodes in its six season run from 1992-1998 that began 20 years ago tonight on HBO. "I know it sounds cliché but -- honest to God -- it seems like it was just about a week ago. It's so odd that it's 20 years," Jeffrey Tambor said in a telephone interview.

Despite the vast disparity between the quantity of films I've viewed and "Larry Sanders" episodes, when I recently took part in The House Next Door's "If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot" series, I found it far easier to prune those pictures down to my ten favorites than I did when I applied the same task to "Larry Sanders" episodes. (Picking a clip or two from each show proved even more difficult as inevitably I'd want to include the entire half-hour.) Three or four episodes I knew had to be on the list, but then it got tough. I considered making a list of the best episode for each character such as the best Brian episode ("Putting the 'Gay' Back in Litigation"), the best Beverly ("Would You Do Me a Favor?"), the best Phil ("Headwriter"), etc. With all the priceless episodes centering on Hank and Artie, I imagined those two characters conceivably filling all ten spots alone.

A series that broke as much ground as "The Larry Sanders Show" deserves a grander tribute to mark the two decades since its birth than just a recounting of a handful of episodes -- and I had that intention. Unfortunately, my physical limitations and time constraints thwarted my ambitions. Rest assured though, that salute shall be forthcoming (MESSAGE TO BOB ODENKIRK: YOU STILL CAN TAKE PART NOW). As with any list, I'm certain my fellow "Larry Sanders" fans shall express outrage at my omissions (I already hear the shouts of "Where is the one with Carol Burnett and the spiders?" "No 'Hank's Sex Tape!' Hey now!"). Believe me, I'm as livid as you are and may join in the comments to give myself the thorough tongue-lashing I so richly deserve for these unforgivable exclusions. First, though, I'm going to fix myself a Salty Dog, using Artie's recipe of course. I want to be able to grab those olives, not fish for them. So, for good or ill, I submit my selections for my ten favorite episodes of "The Larry Sanders Show." Since bestowing ranks only leads to more trouble, I present these ten in chronological order:


Fight Club at Ten: A Love Story

Ten years after its release, there are still plenty of people who will not get David Fincher's "Fight Club" because they refuse to see what is in front of their eyes. They think it's about a cult of men who get together to punch each other, which is like saying "Citizen Kane" is about a sled. Fundamentally, it's an uncannily accurate depiction of depression and delusion -- capturing a uniquely (post-?)modern strain of anomie to which perhaps older baby boomers and their seniors find it difficult to connect because it's beyond their frame of reference. (I don't know -- that's just a hunch.)

"People get scared, not just of violence and mortality, but viewers are terrified of how they can no longer relate to the evolving culture," "Fight Club" author Chuck Palahniuk told Dennis Lim recently in the New York Times:

Some older audiences prefer darker material in conventional forms; they "really truly want nothing more than to watch Hilary Swank strive and suffer and eventually die -- beaten to a pulp, riddled with cancer, or smashed in a plane crash."

In that Times piece, Lim dubbed "Fight Club" "the defining cult movie of our time."

Back in 1999, I described it as "a grim fairy tale for adults, a consumerist revenge fantasy, a portrait of a disintegrating personality, and, for all its hyper-active stylization, an astonishingly vivid portrait of the berserk materialist wasteland in which (like it or not) billions of city dwellers live today." (It can also be seen, in retrospect, as a prescient 9/11 nightmare.)


How do you solve a problem like the Oscars?

Academy Award-winning Cher in her "serious actress" Oscar ensemble.

Almost every year for the last 20 or so I've had to think seriously about that question. I mean, what is there to write about the Oscars that hasn't already been done? I had a great time with my recent piece for MSN Movies ("Your Oscar speech: How not to blow it"), but I was fully aware I wasn't the first (or even, probably, the 1,000th) to write something similar in approach.

So, let's recap the angles: We can look at it as a horserace [check] and place bets on the odds [check]; as an election or popularity contest [check]; as a poker game [check -- I did that for MSN one year, with each nominee holding a "hand" based on previous awards-season honors]; as the "Gay Super Bowl" [check]; as a fashion show [check]; as Hollywood's version of "American Idol" [check]...

Some people would probably like watching the Academy Awards broadcast better if all the nominees gave speeches and the winner was decided by who gave the best one. (Maybe Academy members could call 900 numbers to vote for their favorites or there could be an Academy-approved panel of judges: say, Halle Berry, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Roger Moore.) I find the speeches to be generally excruciating. (But, then, I thought the best Oscars ever was the Allan "Can't Stop the Music" Carr-produced one with Rob Lowe and Snow White because it was so astoundingly grotesque that I laughed so hard I cried. The Academy has tried to deep-six all evidence of that one, and Disney even threatened to sue over the use of Snow White. C'mon, YouTube!)

Here's another idea: A former resident of Mexico wrote to me with the following proposal: In Older Mexican Award Shows, the recipient of the award was not allowed to speak. Each nominee was presented along with a few seconds of their song (or movie clip) and then the winner was named. The winner would walk on stage, accept the award, wave or blow kisses at the audience and then walk off stage. It was fantastic. The newer Mexican award shows are becoming more “Americanized” now unfortunately. Most now allow the winners to speak which just makes me long for the good old days. So I say Don’t Let Them Speak. We don’t care who you have to thank, who allowed this moment to happen, how much you love God, or how inspiring your parents were. All we care about is that you won…. And what you’re wearing. But that’s it!I kinda like that. They could stretch out the Red Carpet Walk of Shame if they want, or even require that the major nominees do interviews afterwards, with Rosie O'Donnell or Dr. Phil or Chris Matthews. Sort of like the publicity clauses in actors' contracts that stipulate they must do a certain amount of promotion in exchange for their salary on a given film: If you want an award, you're going to have to submit to a sit-down with Brit Hume or someone similarly slimy and daft (and, preferably, as humorless).

And if they need to make the show itself longer (to sell commercial time), they could make "In Memoriam" last ten minutes or so (more clips!) and do even bigger, more vapid and elaborate musical numbers -- not for the best songs, but for ALL the top nominees!

The Oscars are about the show. It's entertainment, loosely defined. Nominees, it is not about you. It's about we, the millions (not billions) who watch the satellite-cast on TV and have parties with our friends and laugh and cry and sigh and gasp and ridicule. (If we don't have to work.) That's the only approach that matters.

Movie Answer Man

Movie Answer Man (10/08/2000)

Q. I'm someone who lived through the real story of "Remember The Titans." I was a teacher at T.C. Williams from 1967 to 1972, and was the football PA announcer. To answer the questions posed at the end of your review: There were actually three high schools in Alexandria before 1971. G.W. was the downtown school and had a 50/50 racial split, T.C. Williams had a 70/30 white/black ratio, and Hammond was pretty much all white. Herman Boone was actually the head coach at T.C. for two years before the schools merged. Yoast was the coach at Hammond. The G.W. coach was ready for retirement and did so. So while the decision to give Boone the head job was gutsy it wasn't that big a deal. The black players at T.C. weren't upset about the decision because they knew Boone knew them pretty well. The movie makes Alexandria look like Redneckville. It wasn't, although the coaching fraternity was a "Good Ole Boy Network". I cannot remember one racial incident or fight in the halls either before or after the three schools merged. I think Boone's job with the team helped make that happen. I watched the movie on Friday night with a friend who had been a junior at T.C. in 1972. We both agreed that what happened in Alexandria in 1971 wasn't that big a deal. but we loved the movie and in retrospect think that it was a hoot being a part of history. (Don Kubie, Westport, CT)

Festivals & Awards

Finding nirvana in a Calcutta theater

CALCUTTA, India This is the story of one afternoon at the Calcutta Film Festival. I meet my driver outside the hotel. Everyone in Calcutta who has a car has a driver. This is not because they are too lazy to drive themselves. It is because they are too frightened. Driving in Calcutta traffic is like living inside a dangerous and violent video game.


One-on-one with Spike

Walking into Spike Lee's "He Got Game," I expected a couple of things. I expected that the movie would be a docudrama, gritty and real, and I expected that, like just about all sports movies, it would end with a big game. I was wrong on both counts.

Movie Answer Man

Movie Answer Man (11/01/1994)

Q. The casting of the original "Gone With the Wind" created a world-wide frenzy among movie fans. Who should star in "Scarlett," the TV miniseries? A. I hope they choose a real actress, and not one of the transparent TV beauties with a high Q rating. True, most of the top movie actresses refuse to work in TV, but given the high profile of this project and the $8 million already paid for the rights, this should be the sort of project designed to change their minds.