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Jonathan Storm: 22 years of TV good and bad

The retiring critic has seen a lot of industry history, but prefers to sum up the high points.

'How can anyone retire from the 'job' of watching and writing about TV?" you might ask, as you see that this is my farewell column as The Inquirer's TV critic.

Not easily. I've been doing it for more than 22 years, and it has generally been a joy, but the pressure of change in television and in the newspaper business was getting intense.

Maybe not for an air traffic controller or a crime-beat reporter, but for a person whose primary work garb is plaid pajamas, the pressure gauge is set a little lower. After writing roughly 1.7 million words on the subject, I think it's time to take a breather.

I eased into the TV critic's role in the late '80s when I was TV editor, and for a few halcyon years had the joy of being my own editor. Future occupants of that slot would cajole me, and sometimes just plain kick me, to a higher level of newspaper work. I have toiled beside some of the smartest and most culturally savvy people anywhere, and I will miss them.

I owe a special debt to the copy editors who put snappy headlines on my articles, almost always made my writing better and, more frequently than I would like to admit, saved me from really, really stupid errors.

When I started, there were three viable broadcast networks and PBS, and real controversy about the survival of baby Fox. Its biggest hit was probably America's Most Wanted, part of a nascent genre that I and a few others called "reality" shows, 12 years before Survivor and four years before MTV's Real World, now widely credited as the granddaddy of a new branch of television that could make a star out of just about anybody.

Two or three often newsy "reality" shows would show up each year. John Cosgrove, executive producer of a popular one, Unsolved Mysteries, told me: "There are so many hours to fill that if something works, people tend to duplicate it until the audience says, 'We're tired of it.' "

They haven't gotten tired of it yet, but, for the most part, I have.

The quaint idea then was that most TV shows needed writers and actors. So Fox, in 1992, premiered Down the Shore, a sitcom about six twentysomethings who rented a summer place in Belmar, N.J. That's about 15 miles and an equal number of light years from the Seaside Heights home of MTV's current Jersey Shore phenomenon. Anna Gunn, star of the Fox show, will never garner Snooki's fame, but she's still working 20 years later, playing Bryan Cranston's wife in AMC's Breaking Bad.

It might be one of the 10 best shows in my tenure as Inquirer TV critic, along with several other current series: Justified, The Good Wife, Boardwalk Empire, Dexter, Mad Men, and, not quite as challenging but strong on longevity points, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Survivor.

This farewell column started out as a 10-best list, but when it was already up to six by 1992, I had to try something else.

The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Northern Exposure, Law & Order, Twin Peaks, and In Living Color all premiered in my first two years on the job. Seinfeld was the best sitcom of the last 20 years. Two of the shows petered out. One was so consistently better than average, it tied the all-time record for drama longevity, and another sets the record for scripted TV every time its three-fingered characters scoot through a new episode.

You may not have heard of In Living Color, a raucously hilarious comedy skit show with a bunch of newcomers. I raved about Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier, but didn't mention a weird guy named Jim Carrey. The show had a dancing troupe identified only as the Fly Girls, and nobody off the set knew that one of them was named Jennifer Lopez.

Reese Witherspoon, 15, played a tomboy in a Lifetime movie, but at that time, the concept of original scripted cable series had yet to be tested extensively. Now, they account for most of the best shows on TV. Cable also provides us with the worst shows on TV, exploitative garbage that gradually replaced, on so many networks, reruns of broadcast shows.

It's impossible to hit all the high points in 20-plus years. Some of them: HBO's The Sopranos, The Wire, and The Larry Sanders Show; Homicide: Life on the Street, which introduced us to the scintillating Andre Braugher; NYPD Blue and Dennis Franz's remarkable character, Andy Sipowicz; Roseanne, Designing Women, and Frasier; Philadelphia's own American Dreams, a precursor to today's period-piece fascination; My So-Called Life, so far ahead of its time, which introduced Claire Danes; The X-Files and Lost, which demonstrated that fantasy done well could attract large audiences; and, on the little WB, which came and went on my watch, the sweet and poignant Gilmore Girls and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of the most important and entertaining series of the last 20 years, whose title and channel doomed it to a fringe audience.

I will miss writing about the new TV art that comes along, but I will continue to watch it avidly. I won't miss watching or writing about mindless reality shows, politics, or cable news, whose shrill, unconsidered staccato enervates the culture.

The first Gulf War, in January 1991, inspired these thoughts, long before the Internet gained traction:

"Given our technical capabilities, network competition, and the public appetite for drama, it seems likely that instant news will continue to replace accurate journalism on television. And viewers who really want to know what is going on . . . as opposed to being entertained or emotionally manipulated, may start to learn simply to go on with their lives and wait for the newspaper."

Lots and lots of you did, and it was a tremendous pleasure serving you.