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Picks and Pans Main: Tube

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FORGET SEINFELD AND THE SUPER Bowl—my must-see TV this winter is the weather report. Who needs sex and violence when you have Alberta clippers and chinook winds? I even bought that tornado video, The Chase, from the Weather Channel. Not that I’m a weather junkie, you understand; just a little weather-involved. When the windchill’s sinking and the river’s rising, I want a father figure like Al Roker to get me through the night.

I’m not alone. According to David Laskin’s new book, Braving the Elements: The Stormy History of American Weather, the nightly forecast is an American ritual, “our national lullaby.” TV weather brings magic and reassurance, as well as accuracy and convenience, and it’s come a long way since a cute girl flipped a smiley sun up on the board. Now we have round-the-clock meteorologists, with their radar light shows and local heroes like Miami weatherman Bryan Norcross, who stayed on the air at WTVJ for almost two days in 1992 during Hurricane Andrew. As for the 13-year-old Weather Channel—now available to 63 million households—it has done for geography what Sesame Street did for the alphabet, teaching us how to locate Buffalo and Cape Hatteras, and how to pronounce Kissimmee. From sea to stormy sea, we are all small-screen, jet-stream neighbors.

Since the Blizzard of ’96, I’ve even been paying attention to the weather on prime-time series. NYPD Blue has slush and potholes. On ER, Dr. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) jogs grimly through those cold Chicago streets. But my favorite TV winter’s tale comes from seasons past, when thirtysomething did a spin on the classic James Joyce short story “The Dead.” At Christmas, Hope hears that a high school boyfriend has been killed and mourns the loss of youthful dreams, while outside the snow, as Joyce wrote, “fell faintly through the universe…upon all the living and the dead.” Dramatically speaking, TV winter deals with loss and survival. Only automobile commercials laugh at snow with skidding penguins and four-wheel drive getting the kids to school.

Call me escapist, but Baywatch is looking better with every snow emergency. I’m waiting for the Oscars—our national rite of spring.