Blow Up the Box

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Other lowlights from the year in TV: the second season of The Sopranos, which took forever to get going -- from 60 to zero, just like that. Showtime's Americanized Queer As Folk, which is boring as hell. ABC's election-night coverage, around the time the set caught on fire and emitted what Peter Jennings referred to as a "horrible smell"; no kidding, brutha. The oft-reported fact that more people than ever were receiving their political news from David Letterman and Jon Stewart. Comedy Central's The Man Show, which, if paired with E!, would amount to gay porn. The Summer Olympics -- speaking of which, when do they start? Tom Green's cancerous testicle. Oh, and that reminds me: Darva Conger.

Bright spots: Curb Your Enthusiasm, otherwise known as Costanza with curse words. And The West Wing, a show so good it makes Allison "C.J. Cregg" Janney seem kinda . . . sexy.

But the biggest story this year has also been its most underreported. In January, Salon.com reported that in 1998, Congress promised up to $25 million to the major networks if they included anti-drug messages in their prime-time programs. It was the brain child of Bill Clinton's drug czar, General Barry R. McCaffrey, who convinced such shows as ER, Chicago Hope, Beverly Hills, 90210 (which has since ended its run, and not a decade too soon) and The Drew Carey Show to include just-say-no messages in their scripts. According to Salon's Daniel Forbes -- whose story was briefly picked up by a handful of major dailies, only to be dropped in the time it takes to change the channel -- Congress in 1997 approved a five-year, $1 billion ad buy for anti-drug and anti-booze advertising "as long as the networks sold ad time to the government at half price -- a two-for-one deal that provided over $2 billion worth of ads for a $1 billion allocation." But the networks balked: The dot-com ads were pouring cash into the networks' coffers, and they weren't about to give away valuable ad space.

According to Salon, McCaffrey's office, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), presented the networks with a compromise: "The office," Forbes wrote, "would give up some of that precious ad time it had bought -- in return for getting anti-drug motifs incorporated within specific prime-time shows." As a result, viewers were being bombarded with propaganda disguised as content -- and often it was barely disguised at that.

Just two weeks ago, ABC broadcast an episode of The Drew Carey Show in which Carey and his fellow homunculi attempted to sell their homemade beer -- Buzz, so called because it contains caffeine and alcohol -- at a Cleveland beer festival. But their efforts were undermined by the booth set up next to theirs -- this one sponsored by an organization touting "ALCOHOL KILLS" placards and grotesque posters of diseased, desiccated livers. Watching that episode, it was impossible not to feel a little violated and nauseous: Here's a comedy about grease-guzzling alcoholics with a government-approved script intended to stop the very thing The Drew Carey Show pretends to celebrate. It's like watching porn with celibacy slogans tattooed on someone's ass. Which, come to think of it, would be better than anything else on TV this year.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky