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The start of fall TV season is a bit like a new school year: You get the chance to reunite with people you haven't heard from all summer. Here, Slate writers and editors offer love letters to the TV personalities they're looking forward to seeing again.
Tiki Barber, Football Night in America; The Today Show (NBC) In February, Tiki Barber, the New York Giants' three-time Pro Bowl running back, signed a multimillion dollar contract with NBC. This fall, he can be seen flashing his megawatt smile on the network's Sunday evening football flagship, Football Night in America, and on The Today Show. Just a couple of weeks into the football pundit job, Barber already stands out: Next to his fellow ex-jock analysts Cris Collinsworth * and Jerome Bettis, Barber is practically Noel Coward-esque—sleek, witty, disdainful of the frat boy bluster that flies around pregame show studios. But it is in his capacity as Today's "national correspondent" and occasional fourth-hour co-host that Barber is really riveting. Watch Today's main man, Matt Lauer, delivering his chipper banter with the hollow eyes of a zombie, and it's clear the rot has set in: After all these years, Lauer knows that this is a silly gig. But Tiki has a rookie's eager-beaver effervescence. He loves breakfast television; he believes in it. It's a strange spectacle. A man who has already achieved more than Matt Lauer ever will—who on the football field displayed valor and a kind of genius—has been reduced to doing puff pieces and cooking segments, and he thinks: Finally, I've arrived. Of course, he may not be wrong. Barber is rumored to have political aspirations, and why wouldn't a bright, beautiful gridiron-hero-turned-TV-star be a seductive candidate? In the meantime, Tiki is a network executive's dream: O.J. Simpson without the sociopathy.
—Jody Rosen, music critic
Nancy Botwin, Weeds (Showtime) Much has been made of the gnarled heart and sour visage of Dr. Gregory House, the physician played by Hugh Laurie on Fox's hit medical drama. What a feat to build a show around a lead character so off-putting! Some feat. No matter how much House glowers in the elevator, it's a breeze to root for him: He's forever saving lives, with competence, wit, and science on his side.
It's easy to root for Nancy Botwin, too. But Nancy—a suburban widow with two kids and a fledgling pot dealership—is forever putting lives at risk. Mary-Louise Parker is magnetic in the role, capable of extracting favors with a bitten lower lip and an expectant smile. She's also gutsy: If business demands it, she'll commit insurance fraud or double-cross her supplier. At first glance this chutzpah seemed admirable, part of a whatever-it-takes effort to support a grieving family. But Nancy's bravery has its roots in her deep sense of entitlement. She's rich and white and pretty, and she's used to solving problems with a "Gee, officer …" and wide eyes. By the end of last season, Nancy's bad decisions had led to the disappearance of one son, the impending arrest of another, a death, and a host of other problems too big to flirt your way out of. I'm still rooting for Nancy—that smile works on me, too. But I don't feel good about it.
—Julia Turner, culture editor
State Sen. Clay Davis, The Wire (HBO)
You would think that after last year, when Slate did everything short of David Simon's laundry to prove our infatuation with The Wire, I'd be embarrassed about slobbering over it again. You would be wrong. The Wire's fifth and final season doesn't air until January—so it's not even fall TV—but it's the only show I'm looking forward to. In particular, I eagerly await the return of state Sen. Clay Davis (and, of course, Omar, Snoop, Cutty, Bunny, Herc … and, oh, did I mention Omar?). Sen. Davis embodies none of the moral complexity that The Wire does so well. Davis is unapologetically and delightfully corrupt, happy to rake in his bucks from developers or drug dealers, and to double-cross them, too. His amorality is irrepressible. You can't keep a bad man down! And then, of course, there is Davis' favorite word. Has any actor ever wrung so much emotion—disgust, amazement, glee, rage—from a single expletive as Isiah Whitlock Jr. does from the barnyard epithet? "Sheeeeee-it"—it must be heard to be believed. Watch Whitlock as Davis here, and watch a tribute to his shit-speaking here.
—David Plotz, Deputy Editor
Kelly Kapoor, The Office (NBC)
M E M O R A N D U M
TO: Kelly Kapoor
FROM: Dahlia Lithwick
DATE: Sept. 20, 2007
RE: YOUR SUMMER!!!!!
O My God, I totally cannot wait to see u on The Office and catch up on your summer!! Are you and Ryan okay??? That was SOOOO INTENSE when he broke up with you? I spent the whole summer texting him to ask if he was serious.
He never wrote me back.
So wait. Let me tell you all about MY summer, Kelly! It was a-mazing: Britney Spears is totally going to lose custody of Sean Preston and Jayden James unless she takes parenting classes. And Nancy Grace is totally having twins!! OMG. I hope she doesn't steal the name you and Ryan picked out for your first—Usher Jennifer Hudson Kapoor.
Kelly. I hope you already know why you are my favorite TV friend. You are always totally happy, just like me. And you totally love your family. And you kind of can't see what's going on around you because the TV shows that play in your head are always so much louder and more awesome. Which is just like me.
I hope you write back to me soon, Kelly. I know you have to be a real person because your Wikipedia entry is totally as long as Ruth Bader Ginsburg's.
—Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor
Kevin Malone, The Office (NBC)
My favorite TV moment last year came when Kevin Malone (Brian Baumgartner), The Office's portly bean counter, made a salad with a paper shredder. For couch-bound males, the network sitcom has long been aspirational: The only reason the fat guys don't get all the babes is so a couple will be left over for the nerds. The Office, though, is one of the few shows that doesn't condescend to the boob tube's longest-standing consumer, the fat dude. OK, it's not Italian neorealism or even Freaks and Geeks, but The Office doesn't pretty up the way life really is. The good-looking, smirky guy gets the girl. The obese, bald, anal-fissure-having accountant sits in the corner shredding stuff, and deleting his computer porn stash before his fiancee's daughter sees it. Baumgartner's monotone line deliveries and cat-that-ate-the-large-pizza grin evoke the joy of life's small victories and the sadness that the victories aren't bigger. Sure, it's thrilling to cut lettuce with an office appliance. It'd be a whole lot more thrilling to run off with the receptionist.
—Josh Levin, associate editor
Kenneth Ellen Parcell, 30 Rock (NBC)
The NBC page program is surpassed as a show-business launch pad only by the mailroom at William Morris, the film school at USC, and the couch in Darryl F. Zanuck's office. As pages, figures as various as Michael Eisner, Regis Philbin, Chuck Barris, and Captain Kangaroo served as gofers and tour guides at the network; 30 Rock, magnificently loony, holds out the possibility that Kenneth Ellen Parcell—a pallid manboy and brilliant moron—will outshine them all. As Kenneth's boss, Jack Donaghy, has ventured, "In five years, we'll all be either working for him … or dead by his hand."
As played by the nimble Jack McBrayer, Kenneth wears the toothiest smile prime time has seen since Julia Roberts' cameo on Friends. Behind the grin are a bottomless love of television, a gleeful approach to servility, an unquantifiable level of dementia, a blissed-out ignorance of urban sophistication, and good Southern manners. (Kenneth majored in "TV Theory" at Kentucky Mountain Bible College.) What an underling! What a foil for Donaghy's alpha-male ego and Tracy Jordan's swagger and Liz Lemon's sourness! What would 30 Rock be without Kenneth's overeager assistance?
—Troy Patterson, television critic
Marc St. James, Justin Suarez, and Alexis Meade; Ugly Betty (ABC)
Ugly Betty, a soapy, color-saturated, camp-fest, is an unlikely venue for subtlety. And yet the show's portrayal of gay and transgendered characters is the most nuanced on network television. (That hedge is necessary because HBO's The Wire can't be beat for its population of complicated, self-actualized homosexuals.) At first glance, personal assistant Marc is a stereotypical bitchy queen—a back-biting, perpetually partnerless dandy. But the episode last season in which he dropped a years-long charade and finally told his mother he liked boys was heart-breaking; her rejection demonstrated the pain familial homophobia inflicts and the damage it causes. Betty's 12-year-old nephew Justin is too young to be gay, but he's certainly not too young to be tormented—and worse—for his love of fashion, musical theater, and whatever else it is that TV homosexuals like. Justin's family struggles with his nancy-ness. They know his life would be easier if he were a little more closeted about his passions, but they love and support him as he is. It's a fantasy scenario, but a lovely one. Alexis, the rich male publishing heir who, last season, came back from the dead in a female body, is gorgeous and sexually active, two things usually denied to TV and movie transsexuals. Of course, the show desperately needs a lesbian character—it's a well-known fact that Sapphists control the media. May I suggest, nay, implore, that Wilhelmina Slater, played so marvelously by Vanessa Williams, come out in Season 2?
—June Thomas, foreign editor
Starbuck, Battlestar Galactica (Sci-Fi) In the closing sequence of last season's finale, Captain Lee Adama finds himself flying side by side with his old pal Starbuck: the Sci-Fi community's favorite blond-haired, saucy-mouthed, alcoholic fighter pilot who, in my opinion, is one of television's great feminists. That's well and good, until you stop to consider that Starbuck's supposed to be dead. In an earlier episode her Viper exploded, with her inside it, and there was no last-second parachute-escape shot. So, the character I'm most eager to reacquaint myself with is Starbuck—because Battlestar's artistic integrity rests upon her fate.
If she's alive, then that's just lame. I saw her Viper blow up! With my very own eyes! If she's dead, there's a strong chance she'll make occasional appearances in dream sequences, and I loathe dream sequences. There's only one way to save the show: The writers must make clear that Starbuck's actually a Cylon, a member of the robotic race that's out to destroy humanity. Then it's easy to explain away the whole explosion thing, because when Cylons "die" they can transfer their memories to another Cylon that looks exactly the same. It'll be hard for me, emotionally speaking, if my favorite human character turns out to be an evil robot, but in the name of art, I'll accept the hardship.
—Juliet Lapidos, editorial assistant
Tami Taylor,Friday Night Lights (NBC)
Fans of Friday Night Lights, the praised-by-all, watched-by-few drama returning to NBC Oct. 5, are fond of pointing out that it's not really a show about football. It's a portrait of a community, one with its fair share of sinners: absentee fathers, drug-addled mothers, philandering car dealers. All that sinning might be a bit much were it not for the intact nuclear family at the show's center, that of coach Eric Taylor, daughter Julie, and wife Tami—or, as she's known to the Dillon Panthers, Mrs. Coach.
With her husband in constant demand by his players, to say nothing of their obsessive, meddling fans, it falls to Tami (the stunning Connie Britton) to call the plays for the Taylor family. If you want to see some of the best acting on television last year, watch the scene when Tami confronts Julie after learning she's planning to have sex with Panther Matt Saracen. Coach Taylor's instinct is to get his 15-year-old daughter to "a nunnery in Rome" and relieve his quarterback of his scalp. Tami also wants to put the fear of God into her daughter, but she does nothing to disguise how afraid she is, too. It's the kind of talk no teenager wants to have with a parent; you can't just shrug off making your mother quiver like that. Tami Taylor would never put it this way—she's far too much her own woman—but she takes the motto of her husband's team and applies it to her family: Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose.
— John Swansburg, associate editor
The wives, Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO) Larry David's outrageous shenanigans would not be nearly as funny without the genius, deadpan reactions that Cheryl Hines offers as his wife, Cheryl David. Her quiet exasperation with Larry, her genuine awe as he stoops to new lows, her improbable sanity in the face of his insanity—all of her responses provide the perfect foil for his antics. Susie Essman, playing Susie Greene (the wife of Larry's manager, Jeff), is a wonderful counterpart to Hines. While her portrayal has gotten a bit over-the-top in the season's first episodes, Essman's loud-mouthed, abrasive, and abusive tirades as she reprimands Larry generally serve as an ideal complement to Hines' subdued disappointment. Completely different strategies to keep Larry in line, but both brilliant, and incredibly entertaining.
—Jill Hunter Pellettieri, managing editor