6. BEST MEGALOMANIACAL COUNTERSPY SINCE TIMOTHY HUTTON AS ALDRICH AMES
Michael Keaton as James Jesus Angleton
In TNT’s The Company, an otherwise disappointing inside-the-CIA mini-series, Keaton gave us a chain-smoking, orchid-growing, poetry-reading, paranoid chief of counterintelligence at Langley who was practically deliquescent, as if his ego boundaries had dissolved in booze and grandiosity. That the mini-series chose in its concluding half-hour to rehabilitate this man I take to be a tribute to Keaton’s artifice rather than a perversity or point of view.
7. BEST FREDERICK WISEMAN DOC (AND THEREFORE BETTER THAN MOST OF THE OTHER GUYS’)
Over twelve weeks, Wiseman watched the “citizen legislators” of Idaho deliberate to the best of their sincere abilities everything from teachers’ salaries and mad cow disease to illegal immigration and secondhand smoke. Wiseman, who never editorializes on what his cameras so skillfully record, signals his stealthy approval of this grassroots democracy by concluding this PBS documentary with a bagpipe version of “Amazing Grace” that makes you want to vote.
8. BEST DOC, DEPARTMENT OF WHO KNEW?
Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life
Robert Levi’s PBS documentary follows musical prodigy Billy Strayhorn from Pittsburgh to Harlem to Paris to Hollywood, while fellow musicians Gunther Schuller, Elvis Costello, Billy Taylor, and Chico Hamilton discuss his work. The result is something more than another celebration of big bands or visit to the civil-rights movement—it’s a moving account of a gay man’s troubles in the homophobic jazz world of the forties and fifties, and a remarkable case history of Oedipal struggle. Duke Ellington, Strayhorn’s mentor, collaborator, and surrogate father, never got around to crediting him even for such signature compositions as “Take the A Train,” and the surrogate son never quite managed to escape his surrogate home.
9. BEST DRESS REHEARSAL FOR A REAL-WORLD FLOP
Fred Thompson as Ulysses S. Grant
Although Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee took some liberties and shortcuts, HBO’s version of Dee Brown’s best seller still deserved more oomph from Fred in his brief appearance as the Great White Father. But his couch-potato performance wasn’t so much mailed in as it was negligent, like a picked nose or a spilled beer. During the last several seasons of Law & Order, as we watched him impersonate a D.A., what we perhaps imagined as masterful lassitude turned out instead to have been plain laziness. Fred the Ulysses was a premonition of Fred the Candidate.
10. BEST IDEAS THAT SOMEHOW WENT SOUTH
Mad Men and State of Mind
It should have been a slam dunk: a silvery boss, hotshot creative directors, lean and hungry account executives, and a new girl in the steno pool, all at a New York advertising agency eager to sell cigarettes and Richard Nixon. But despite the look, AMC’s Mad Men is Men in Black hugger-mugger; see George Clooney instead. Likewise, how wrong could State of Mind go, written by novelist-shrink Amy Bloom and starring indie misfit Lili Taylor as a family therapist in a psychiatric commune in Connecticut? Alas, the dreams and hallucinations were more interesting than the psychotic plotlines—predictable Lifetime cutesifying.