AngelAngel is one of the best TV shows of 2003
By Gene Ely
Wednesday 16 July 2003, by Webmaster
Whereupon we honor the publishers, editors, magazines and newspapers, producers, shows and web sites that we think have made a difference
Media Life recently celebrated its fourth birthday, making us genuinely old folks on the internet, and as the anniversary approached, we had cause to ponder how much we have learned, and more important, by whom we have been most inspired. Magazines, Media Life included, may pretend to follow their own star — it would be heresy to admit otherwise — but the truth is that each day we see things that impress us and inspire us. They inspire us to try harder and to do better, to be more innovative, to see a greater vision than the one sitting at the end of our nose at the moment. In recognition, we’ve created our first awards, the Best of the Best, spanning all forms of ad-supported media. Over the past few weeks, since our official birthday of May 17, we’ve periodically published our initial Best-Ofs, which included Salon, the online magazine, The New York Daily News, the TV show "This Old House," the magazine Budget Living and in a nod to a person, Martha Stewart, for her influence and the influence of her magazine on other titles. Today, we’re publishing the rest of our Best-Ofs for 2003, another seven, and that list includes the magazines The Economist, Blender and ReadyMade, radio’s "Marketplace" from Public Radio International and three TV shows, "Alias," "Six Feet Under" and "Angel." Our tributes include, in some cases, the suggestions of our readers, whom we polled for guidance on our first Best of the Best awards. But more they represent the eclectic tastes of the Media Life staff, rather than simply what’s most popular or critically acclaimed. At the top of the list are our newest Best-Ofs. Below we’ve reprinted our earlier tributes to Salon, "This Old House," Budget Living, the New York Daily News and Martha Stewart.
RADIO ’Marketplace’ Producer: Minnesota Public Radio
Unlike many of its stodgier counterparts on public radio and public TV, "Marketplace" covers business and commerce as they ought to be covered: not as egg-headed balance-sheet wrapups, but as human interaction. For a half-hour each weekday on 355 public radio stations nationwide, "Marketplace" stays on top of the important stuff, but also seeks out the idiosyncratic as well: underground economies, the precarious financial state of America’s zoos or a profile of an erotica writer. Meanwhile, it uses sound and voices to transport the listener to a Baghdad gas station, a Mexican factory or a ranch home in South Dakota. With 5.85 million listeners each week, "Marketplace" has a larger audience than CNN’s "Moneyline" or CNBC’s "Market Wrap." PRI has fashioned itself into a formidable rival to the larger and better-known National Public Radio. And where NPR’s audience has been steadily aging (as has its sound), PRI is helping turn on a new generation of listeners with young-skewing shows like "This American Life" and "Studio 360." Most people, if they have heard of public radio at all, assume that everything on it is NPR, from Bach to "Car Talk" to Garrison Keillor. But the competition between NPR and PRI is fierce, if largely unseen. And as programs like "Marketplace" show, that competition is good for listeners.
TELEVISION ’Alias’ Network: ABC Creator: J.J. Abrams
"Alias" creator J.J. Abrams is like a heavyweight fighter. Just when you’ve got your breath back, he delivers another blow. He leaves you staggering, gasping and, quite unlike a heavyweight fighter, eager for more. At midseason, Abrams had the gall to completely reconfigure his show, neatly tying up the first season and a half’s plot while starting another one in motion that, believe it or not, involved an evil double. "Alias" fans believed it. They almost always do. Abrams keeps feeding them bigger and bigger twists, and though they might sway, they continue to want more. Abrams has shown that he’s not afraid to take chances that might alienate viewers. Perhaps that’s why the audience isn’t quite what ABC would like, though the show did pick up some steam among younger viewers after the special post-Super Bowl episode. It’s tempting to dumb down smart shows in order to gain audience. But by keeping Syd and her family (wonderfully portrayed by Victor Garber and Lena Olin) on constantly uneven ground, Abrams keeps the rest of us just as nervous, always waiting for that knockout punch.
’Six Feet Under’ Network: HBO Creator: Alan Ball
It is a measure of "Six Feet Under’s" brutal realness that, during the course of every episode, there are at least five moments that make you severely uncomfortable. As you watch the characters make a bad personal choice, suffer right along with the customers of their family-owned funeral parlor or wait uneasily for Nate or Claire or Ruth to come to their senses, you prickle. And you know that, while occurring in situations more extreme than most of our lives, the feelings these characters endure are quite real. There may have been more uncomfortableness this season than in any other, as members of HBO’s Fisher family seemed determined to bring about their own emotional destruction through self-punishing behavior. That kind of thing can make the show difficult to watch at times, but the characters are too compelling to simply abandon to their fates. As much of an ordeal as the past season of "Six Feet Under" has been for its fans, we can’t wait to start cringing for the next one.
’Angel’ Network: The WB Creators: Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt
In its first three seasons, the WB’s "Angel" managed moments of humor, tenderness, pathos, shock and drama. What was so special about this past season, the show’s fourth, is not that it achieved them all once again, but that it achieved all of them in every episode. That, plus the fact that "Angel" had the midseason’s very best plot twist, with a longtime character going inexplicably, deliciously bad, made this show one of Media Life’s favorites. The spinoff of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" began unevenly, with cast changes and, before this season, the departure of showrunner David Greenwalt. That understandably led to worries that this year would be even more clouded. Instead, "Angel" finally found a direction. For the first time, the show followed a season-long plotline in the same way sister "Buffy" always has. Rather than episodic good-versus-bad fights, "Angel" fought off an apocalypse. And the best thing about it was that the whole good and evil thing went murky once the show’s big baddie showed up. The gorgeous and mysterious Gina Torres, a castoff from "Angel" co-creator Joss Whedon’s failed "Firefly," portrayed a character who had to do a little bad to realize some greater good. Our "Angel" goody-goods, so used to black and white battle lines, were understandably confused. The audience got to draw its own conclusions. And the show was richer for it.
MAGAZINES The Economist Publisher: David Hanger Editor: Bill Emmott
Few would describe The Economist - that hyperintelligent paragon of sober British rationalism and dry British wit - as radical. But against the willingness of other news outlets to reinvent themselves according to shifting tastes, be they the tastes of readers or advertisers, The Economist’s unswerving confidence in its own mission and methods seems radical indeed. In an age when news organizations are increasingly relying on celebrity journalists to give the news a face, The Economist doesn’t even give its writers bylines, much less head shots. At a time when American networks and newsweeklies have been closing foreign bureaus, The Economist continues to follow week-to-week developments in forlorn places like Zimbabwe and Venezuela. (After Sept. 11, 2001, Economist readers didn’t have to ask "What’s a Taliban?") In an era when flashy graphics and sound effects have widely replaced careful analysis, The Economist, which didn’t add color to its editorial pages until two years ago, retains a no-nonsense appearance. It has yet to offer readers its take on who killed Laci Peterson, the digital wizardry behind "The Matrix" or the healing powers of yoga. In its politics, The Economist may have its biases, but more often than not it succeeds in making them look like principles. You can disagree with its arguments - the editors would be disappointed if you didn’t, sometimes - but you have to respect the strenuous reasoning behind them. As for the writing, it can occasionally be a bit antiseptic. It can also be howlingly funny-and, unlike other publications, The Economist trusts its readers to get the joke.
Blender Publishing company: Dennis Publishing Publisher: Malcolm Campbell Editor in chief: Andy Pemberton
If there’s one thing music snobs love to do, it’s complain about how bad American music magazines are. Blender’s not likely to put an end to that. It’s far too egalitarian in its tastes to please the hipster set. But for the rest of us, Dennis Publishing’s two-year-old, 410,000-circulation music title offers a welcome alternative to the ossified conventions of Rolling Stone and Spin - above all, the fiction that if the music is interesting, the people who made it must be interesting, too. Blender’s premise is simplicity itself: A magazine that covers a vast amount of music, every type of music and nothing but music — no sitcom stars, no campus politics, no special reports about the hidden dangers of this or that club drug. (Okay, there are a few pages of movie and video game reviews, but that’s it.) If it’s popular, you will find it in Blender, regardless of whether it’s death metal, alt-country or acid jazz. If it’s not popular, you will still find it in Blender, albeit with less space devoted to it. If it’s truly indie … well, there’s always Pitchfork Media. Blender’s intelligence lies chiefly in two epiphanies. The first is that there’s way more music out there than any one listener can hope to keep track of without some kind of cheat sheet. Blender’s massive reviews guide is that cheat sheet. This month’s issue contains 149 CD reviews, including a "Back Catalog" section with write-ups of every Joni Mitchell release. Note that Rolling Stone has already recognized the merit of this approach, upping the number of reviews it prints in response. The second epiphany is that rock stars - and long profiles of rock stars — usually aren’t all that interesting, so a music magazine that wants to keep readers’ attention must work extra hard to compensate. Blender’s hard work takes the form of regular features like "Dear Superstar," in which a rock god answers readers’ inane and invasive questions, and "Spend Our Cash," in which a band is given $848 to blow in one day and instructed to photograph the mayhem that ensues. (For this month’s installment, the Flaming Lips rented two strippers, put them in a kiddie pool and doused them with $242.07 worth of Pepto-Bismol.) In fact, Blender probably tries a little too hard. In particular, the jokey, Maxim-style captions seem out of place here and are more often lame than funny. Moreover, Blender’s omnivorous appetite inevitably ensures that most of the magazine will be devoted to bands the typical reader couldn’t care less about. Then again, that’s true of any mainstream music magazine. At least Blender, with its bounteous offerings and skim-friendly organization, seems willing to acknowledge that reality.
ReadyMade Publisher: Grace Hawthorne Editor in chief: Shoshana Berger
Toward the back of the new issue of ReadyMade are instructions for making a funky, see-through shower curtain out of bits of vinyl and spray adhesive. The page is headed "Post-Martha." That pretty much sums up this year-old Berkeley-based arts-and-crafts magazine. It’s Martha Stewart for today’s slacker-bohemian. Part do-it-yourself design bible, part post-consumerist lifestyle manifesto, ReadyMade is a great read even if you’ve never picked up a glue gun. If you’re a handy type who’d rather make the things you need than buy them, it’s indispensable. At the core of the magazine are the "Make It" features, simple guides to making everything from a toothbrush holder to a solar-powered outdoor shower from inexpensive or recycled materials. In many cases, the effort required is zero; it’s simply a matter of recognizing how, say, a Japanese sake bottle can serve as a stylish flower vase. The most interesting parts of the magazine, however, are devoted to less practical explorations. The current issue reexamines birth and death from a design and marketing perspective, imagining an ad campaign for reincarnation and looking at the growing popularity of do-it-yourself burials. It is this mix of the utilitarian and the intellectual — along with a wonderfully offbeat sense of humor — that makes ReadyMade one of the most fun and original magazines around.
Previous Best of the Bests
Editor in chief: David Talbot CEO/President: Michael O’Donnell
Too often these days when we come across a news item about Salon it is either a dire alert that the news and cultural site is once again short of funds and threatened with extinction, or it’s a piece on its attempts, not always appreciated, to raise revenues by charging for access to the site, with less and less of it open for casual readers. The thinking: Salon is so wonderful, it should be a free service to the public. We think Salon is wonderful too, a publication wired into America like no other, online or off, and accordingly Media Life bestows on it its first Best of the Best Award. Salon did not invent the literate internet, but it was certainly there at the beginning. It was and is everything good anyone has ever said in its praise: witty, intelligent, elegant, irreverent, timely, on-target, thoughtful and unencumbered by pretense or pedantry. It is a fine read. Salon’s journey since its founding in 1995 has been a heroic one. It has survived, separating it from an ocean of far larger, far better-funded web enterprises with far less fire driving them. It shares with all great publications through time a singular vision. That is this: We’ll create a great magazine, or a great newspaper, or a great whatever, and from that greatness a business model will evolve, or we’ll find one, that supports our great thing and allows us to grow it even more. For all the rough times Salon has gone through, it has never lost sight of its founding vision. In holding to that vision, Salon is an inspiration to all who believe in the internet’s true promise as a literate place. Budget Living
Publishing company: Budget Living Media Editor in chief: Sarah Gray Miller Chairman/publisher: Donald E. Welsh
Once upon a time, spending scads of money was cool, and letting people know how much you’d spent was even cooler. Then suddenly it wasn’t so cool, becoming almost anti-cool. We, along with many of our readers, credit Budget Living with sensing that trend early, if not first, and creating a magazine that drove head on into this change in American values. For that, we award Budget Living our Best of the Best Award for a magazine launch. Launched last October by Don Welsh, co-founder of Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel, Budget Living is a sometimes brilliantly executed guide on how to skimp knowledgeably on everything from fine wines to toilet paper, under the manifesto, "Cheap is not a dirty word." When Budget Living is not brilliant, it is professional; when it is not original, it borrows deftly. In sum, Budget Living not only works from a unique vision, it also delivers that vision to readers through skilled hands.
The New York Daily News
President/COO: Les Goodstein Editor in chief: Ed Kosner
The newspaper business is hidebound in tradition, much of it best forgotten, but there are certain enduring qualities about great newspapers. One is an ability to burrow deeply into communities and their cities, becoming the voice and ears of its readers, over time becoming one in the same with their communities. It is an incredibly difficult task, this being an era when most papers are receding further from their communities, their voices becoming hollower. It’s also difficult because cities themselves have changed so much. To its great credit, the New York Daily News has changed with its city as New York went through dramatic changes in its makeup. Forty years ago, the Daily News could claim, rather quaintly for that time, that it was New York’s hometown newspaper, in a time when the city and its readers were largely white and of the working middle class. It was smart and deftly written to precisely this readership, down to snappy headlines and editorial railing against all manner of liberal causes. Today, the News is a very different newspaper in a very different city, one of many hues and languages. The News is far better written and reported than before — still with the snappy headlines but with more substance beneath. Editorially it is now as embracing of its very changed city as it was once intolerant of all change. But most importantly, the New York Daily News has worked to stay rooted in its communities through the city’s worst times and through dramatic change, swimming against the tide of flight. In doing so it has fully earned that moniker New York’s hometown newspaper, giving it real meaning. And that’s why Media Life is giving the News its Best of the Best Award.
’This Old House’ Network: PBS Creator: Russell Morash
There have been fix-up shows on television forever, and now they are all the rage, but the true inventor of the genre remains the best, and therefore one of Media Life’s Best of the Best. It is the PBS show "This Old House." The show is now 24 years old, and its two stars, Steve Thomas and Norm Abrams, have risen to the status of senior carpenters to anyone in America who knocks down walls and puts up additions or punches through a ceiling to install a skylight. Steve and Norm are very good, and all these years later the show still seems fresh and always in its prime. Though "This Old House" is gorgeously done, there is not an ounce of pretence. It’s all about craft. Homeowners watch it, many of them women, and so do professional carpenters, though they may be reluctant to admit it. The show works because it informs. It engages. It doesn’t talk down. It also speaks to a wonderfully American sensibility about taking charge of things, doing it all on one’s own, pushing through until the job is done. When a "This Old House" project is completed, there’s a real sense of accomplishment, and as viewers we partake. Something got done right, making our weekends seem all that more fulfilling. It is hard not to celebrate, which is why the show works so wonderfully.
Martha Stewart Her stock is in the toilet, she looks haggard, if not downright beat up, and one must wonder who comes anymore when Martha Stewart hosts a party, judging by all the terrible things that have been said about her since the feds began investigating her for insider trading. Further, in fairness, they were saying terrible things about Martha before then, terrible, terrible things. To her critics, she symbolizes a most regrettable materialism of American culture. Never mind the stern, controlling manner, never mind the face of every mother who ever said, no, you cannot date my daughter. But we must not forget that Martha is still Martha Stewart, amid the flying dingbats, and still one of the great innovators in American magazines, which is why Media Life is awarding Stewart our Best of the Best Award. Martha Stewart Living has had more influence on more magazines than any other title. Martha changed women’s magazines forever with the launch of Martha Stewart Living, inspiring a new generation of titles in its likeness, along with countless makeovers to capture one thing or another about Martha Stewart Living. Hardly an editor of any new women’s title fails to credit Stewart for her influence — and for changing the genre of women’s titles forever. It would be nice to imagine a Martha Stewart who was a pleasanter sort, but she would not be Martha Stewart, and that Martha would not have had nearly the influence on American magazines. Stewart is a driven, brilliant woman who has never apologized for pursuing her unique vision, and that makes her a woman we all must admire.