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TV Top Ten

Who triumphed and who tanked in 1996.

by JOYCE MILLMAN

looking back at the year in television brings to mind that old Woody Allen joke: the food was terrible — and the portions were so small!

"Why is O.J. Simpson still all over the TV? Nobody cares anymore!," people whined. But whenever a Simpson case figure like Mark Fuhrman or Bob Kardashian appeared on a prime-time newsmagazine in 1996, the ratings soared. And then there was NBC's coverage of the Atlanta Olympic Games. All of us complained about how U.S.-centric, commercial-laden and mislabeled-as-live it was, and we knew what we were talking about, because we watched all 170 hours of it.

People and their TV habits — go figure. Anyway, the following is my Top 10 list of the best and worst TV of 1996. Yes, it's another Salon year-end list. And so short!

1. Guilty Pleasure of the Year: ESPN SportsCenter with Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick

I have a confession to make: I like ESPN. I like the fact that you can plop down and watch genuine time-wasters like women's pro bowling and make-believe ice skating "championships" almost every night of the week. I like the ESPN house ads, where Robert Goulet sings swingin' nursery rhymes and decathlete Dan O'Brien uses his vaulting pole to deliver the sportscasters' dry cleaning. I especially like the one where Billy the Marlin (the Florida Marlins' perpetually delighted-looking mascot) walks in on his wife with another man. And I like that "SportsCenter" show with Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick, whom I find rather amusing. Oh, who am I kidding? I find them more than amusing; I find them hilarious. They make me laugh, they make me cry, they make me kiss "Must See TV" goodbye. I can't get enough of these guys. Does this make me a traitor to my gender?

It's so easy to fall under the spell of Keith and Dan. Their dry, puckish wit (no pun intended) and obvious intelligence elevates them above the helmet-haired frat-boy howler monkeys that pass for TV sportsguys these days. Granted, Keith (the one with Groucho's eyebrows) and Dan (the one who looks like Joe Isuzu) are still sportsguys, and they get silly the way guys do when they're around sports too much. You may not be able to stand this, especially when Keith makes his cheering-crowd noises off-camera while Dan is trying to talk. And, be warned, Keith and Dan are best approached with at least a rudimentary knowledge of sports terms and/or locker room interview clichés, otherwise the subtle parody inherent in Dan's signature phrase, "You can't stop him, you can only hope to contain him," will sail right over your head.

But, look, I'm woman enough to admit a weakness for jock humor. And I refuse to apologize for my need to regularly hear the sweet music of an Olbermannism ("He pulled a groin — his own, we hope") or the soothing logic of Patrick at his most philosophical ("He's listed as day to day, but then again, aren't we all?"). Keith and Dan are more than sportsguys, they're a comedy team, and a great one. Somebody once called them a live-action "Beavis and Butt-head" but that's so wrong it borders on blasphemy. Bob and Ray is more like it.

Keith and Dan are goofy and profound at the same time. They call them as they see them (Keith's angry anti-hockey-fighting rant was a classic) and still have a lot left over to devote to the pursuit of the perfect sports catch phrase (Keith's "He puts the biscuit in the basket!" is a strong contender) and to tweak (sometimes, bash) the reverence with which most ESPN junkies regard professional sports. Keith and Dan's message comes through loud and clear: Hey, it's only a game. These guys are en fuego, as they would say, and if you don't catch them on The Big Show now, you will someday (cue another Olbermannism) drool the drool of regret into the pillow of remorse.

There were nine more, but they can't top SportsCenter!

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