Charlie Sheen. The Arab Spring. The arrival of Sun News Network. The CBC under attack and diving for cover. Don Cherry putting both feet in his big mouth. Don Cherry apologizing. Kevin O’Leary putting his foot in his big mouth. Kevin O’Leary apologizing. A federal election fought with vicious TV advertising.
It was a year of weird, of too much news, another year in which television-related stories became big, all-encompassing stories, and vice versa. We look to television first as it engages immediately with unfolding events, imploding societies and the constancy of change. And so this was a year when everything was a television story.
And the above is only the shorthand version of 2011 in the TV world. There’s more – Toronto Mayor Rob Ford fleeing Mary Walsh from This Hour Has 22 Minutes and calling 911, the Kardashian marriage that was and then wasn’t. The Academy Awards hosted by youth-appeal actors James Franco and Anne Hathaway – dull and duller. Eerie, frightening coverage of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan followed by a nuclear disaster. A royal wedding. A royal visit. MTV’s series Skins demonized as “porn” and advertisers pulling out. The miniseries The Kennedys demonized as “character assassination” and the U.S. History Channel declining to air it. History Television, in Canada, then airing it, and it was just dull.
Let’s start with Charlie Sheen, the iconic figure of 2011. Remember this – in January of 2010, the big story in the TV racket was Conan O’Brien’s bitter dispute with NBC and raucous departure from The Tonight Show. In January of this year, the story was Charlie Sheen and his increasingly outlandish behaviour, which led to a bitter dispute with CBS and bizarre departure from Two and Half Men.
Now consider the difference between the O’Brien mess and the Sheen meltdown. So much attention has been paid to Sheen; the world has shifted. This was the year that things got weirder than ever.
In January, when the TV critics met the U.S. network bosses for the mid-season powwow in Los Angeles, CBS boss Nina Tassler was asked about Sheen. “We have a high level of concern. How could we not?” she said, adding, “Charlie is a professional. He comes to work and he does his job extremely well.” And she ended her remarks by noting, “The show is a hit.” Weeks later, the world was agog as Sheen disintegrated over and over on TV, railing against CBS, the producers of Two and a Half Men and anyone who suggested he sober up.
Meanwhile, one night on Fox News, Geraldo Rivera declared, “Autocratic regimes give me the willies.” Then he shouted, “Mubarak, get out.” And announced, “That's my editorial.” The Arab Spring brought out the best and worst of TV news. Coverage was chaotic. Sometimes CNN anchors were talking on the phone to American tourists in Cairo who peered out the window and described what they saw. It was the footage of mass protests that mattered, though. No one who saw the multitudes in Cairo’s Tahrir Square or on the streets of Benghazi in Libya would be in doubt that change was happening. And Al-Jazeera, demonized in the United States after 9/11, provided the best, most informed coverage.
It took a while before the true horror of the situation in Japan became evident. And for a while, weirdness reigned. On CNBC, the financial news channel, host Larry Kudlow jawed about what it meant in business terms. A co-host said, “The markets are taking this in stride.” Kudlow jabbered, “The human toll here looks to be much worse than the economic toll, and we can be grateful for that.” Later, he apologized. The TV footage from Japan was formidably disquieting.
On a Friday in April, the royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton took place. It was a mind-boggling interlude in a year of revolution, disaster and anger. Little wonder all the broadcasters overdid their coverage. In July, the newlyweds came to Canada. CBC-TV went a bit berserk in minute-by-minute coverage. What does anyone remember now? “He looks relaxed.” Constantly we were told the Prince was, well, relaxed. He was the only one in the world so relaxed.
By then a federal election had been fought and won by the Conservatives. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff had, in truth, been beaten already by years of relentless TV ad attacks that undermined his integrity as a Canadian leader. Blame TV, really. Jack Layton was the election’s most vital figure, plowing back and forth across the country while clearly not in the best of health. The impact of the visual narrative of his journey was profound, resulting not only in the NDP’s surge in support but, mere months later, in the extraordinary outpouring of affection at his televised funeral.
Sun News arrived during the election campaign and underscored the inaccuracy of the tag “Fox News North,” as it unleashed tinpot news and political coverage that made Fox News look slick and substantial. Ezra Levant ranted and displayed a gift for buffoonery that made Sun News a sterling example of unintended comedy.
Don Cherry kicked off the new NHL season with a bewildering assault on people he called “pukes” and “turncoats.” It was weirder than his late 2010 rant about “pinkos” and cyclists. This time, though, he did apologize. Almost simultaneously Rob Ford – whose election had occasioned the “pinkos” rant – fled in terror from Mary Walsh and called the cops. Does it get any stranger?
Yes – as the Occupy Wall Street movement grew in strength and garnered massive media attention, the CBC’s Kevin O’Leary took his right-wing ranting up another notch and launched a boorish attack on Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was on The Lang & O’Leary Exchange to explain the issues behind the Occupy movement: “Listen, don't take this the wrong way but you sound like a left-wing nutbar.” O’Leary appeared to be under the impression he was talking to an Occupy spokesman. This happened after O’Leary was obliged to apologize for using the term “Indian giver” in an earlier rant.
As the year ended, a Conservative MP was demanding to know the salaries of CBC personalities – a matter of national importance, apparently. In the United States, the year ended as it began – with controversy over a TV show and pressure on advertisers to withdraw support. The Florida Family Association, a conservative Christian group, called for advertisers to boycott the TLC reality show All-American Muslim, claiming the show “hid an Islamic agenda that endangered the United States.” And everyone thought the Charlie Sheen story was strange. It was merely a mild blip in a year of the abnormal. So much news, so much fuss, so much footage of the strange.
Charlie’s Angels (ABC). That jiggle just couldn’t keep giving any more.
New Girl (Fox, CITY-TV). The Zooey Deschanel vehicle had a superb pilot and then wobbled. Bizarrely, often the male characters are more interesting that Deschanel’s wacky-adorable Jess character.
WEIRDEST LOVE STORIES
Jake Doyle (Alan Hawco) and Leslie Bennett (Krystin Pellerin) on Republic of Doyle. They’re so right for each other and so wrong. How can love in St. John’s be so cruel?
Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) and Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik) on The Big Bang Theory. Look up the term “yeah, right” in the dictionary and you’ll see a photo of this couple.