Usually the hardest part of writing a year-end "best" list is figuring out what to exclude. This year, ranking the shows was tougher. Too many of television's best series - "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Gilmore Girls," "The West Wing" - had lackluster starts to their seasons.
- "Buffy" was in a funk after her resurrection, before the superior musical episode and again afterwards.
- Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) acted like a space cadet before she broke off her engagement on "Gilmore Girls."
- Despite outstanding episodes surrounding the death of Mrs. Landingham at the end of last season, this fall "The West Wing" has been confusing (too much hopping around the time continuum), boring (another meeting?) and annoying (the president's wife is a cold fish and his quirky love of history is getting tiresome).
As a result, several newcomers vault into the Top 10 list, but figuring out the order was trying as always.
1. "24" (Fox) Smart, serialized TV dramas are often compared to great novels that unfold chapter by chapter, but no series has unspooled with the urgency of this innovative thriller. Kiefer Sutherland makes an easy transition to television in the lead role as counter-terrorism expert Jack Bauer, but he's just one cog in an increasingly complex wheel. Last week's episode in particular confounded viewers by revealing a new enemy for Bauer and deceit within the family of David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), the presidential candidate Bauer is sworn to protect. "24" is not as psychologically deep as "The Sopranos," it doesn't have characters that grow as honestly as those on "Buffy," but it is a twisty-turny thrill ride that gives new life to the old one-hour drama format.
2. "The Sopranos" (HBO) Some viewers thought this was the show's weakest season yet, but I appreciated the attention paid to the psychological impact of Tony's "career" on his family. Some have complained about the dangling plot strands, but isn't that more life-like than wrapping everything up? Any other show would have had Tony (James Gandolfini) tracking down the rapist of Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). Only "The Sopranos" would dare to have Melfi restrain herself from telling Tony what happened. And the "Pine Barrens" episode, featuring a hilarious chase through a snow-covered New Jersey forest, was one of the best episodes ever.
3. "Friends" (NBC) Reinvigorated by both storyline (Rachel's pregnancy) and its value post-9/11 as TV comfort food, the sitcom has won back fans. Ross (David Schwimmer) is funnier than before, though still pathetic. And the potentially gimmicky guest spot by Mr. Jennifer Aniston (Brad Pitt) turned out well. Now the question becomes, should the cast re-sign for another season or would we be better off saying goodbye to our "Friends"? Better to quit while they're ahead, I think.
4. "Six Feet Under" (HBO) I wasn't wild about this funeral home family soap when it began, but the more I watched, the more I got hooked. It doesn't revolutionize the genre, but it does offer a satisfying dollop of black humor as the Fisher family lives with death and copes with life. Frances Conroy is especially good as befuddled matriarch Ruth, Rachel Griffiths makes Brenda sexy, mysterious and a little creepy all at the same time and Michael C. Hall depicts clenched teeth frustration better than anyone as closeted gay son David.
5. "Scrubs" (NBC) These weekly stories of hospital interns mix wild humor, dream sequences and sound effects with sincere soul-searching. Zach Braff leads the cast as John "Bambi" Dorian, who narrates the bittersweet stories "Wonder Years" style. John C. McGinley adds bite as acerbic Dr. Cox and Ken Jenkins trades on his kindly-ol'-doctor looks that hide a soulless penny pincher underneath.
6. "Band of Brothers" (HBO) Though it was often difficult to tell who was who, this epic World War II miniseries taught a history lesson through compelling scenes of battlefield drama and the personal growth of Easy Company leader Dick Winters (the soulful Damian Lewis). Grim and realistic, the 10-part series showed the horror, the humor and the human bonding created by war.
7. "The Tick" (Fox) A supremely sly superhero parody, "The Tick" has one of the best ensemble casts on television. Patrick Warburton conveys the Tick's naievete with dim-bulb innocence, Nestor Carbonell is clearly having fun as the over-sexed Bat Manuel and Liz Vassey charms and entices as Capt. Liberty. Too bad Fox gave the show an unwinnable time slot, all but ensuring its failure.
8. "Farscape" (Sci Fi Channel) Though "Enterprise" has begun the process of cleansing the "Star Trek" franchise of the putrid stink left by "Voyager," "Farscape" remains the genre's brightest beacon. No other series takes the chances or confounds viewer expectations the way "Farscape" does. Experimentation yielded surprising, heart-wrenching results this year when human astronaut John Crichton (Ben Browder) got duplicated. Not cloned, but duplicated, meaning the eventual demise of one of the two Johns was both believably sad and confusing for the other characters. Good stuff.
9. "The Amazing Race" (CBS) With "Survivor" barely surviving qualitatively, it fell to "The Amazing Race" to fill the reality show vacuum. It did so with unpredictable adventure and fun. Inspired casting - loved the bald buddies and the mom and daughter, hated "Team Guido" - made this race worth tracking.
10. "The Bernie Mac Show" (Fox) Outrageous and grudgingly heartfelt, Mac plays a variation of himself. He takes in his drug-addicted sister's kids, but has no idea how to handle the disruptions they bring to his life. Mac is well-meaning, but frequently flubs his role as a father figure. "Bernie Mac" is smart and plays off universal parenting themes. Most importantly, it's incredibly funny.
Honorable mentions: "Angel" (The WB), "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (UPN), "Ed" (NBC), "Enterprise" (UPN), "Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS), "Gilmore Girls" (The WB), "The Guardian" (CBS), "Judging Amy" (CBS), "Malcolm in the Middle" (Fox), "Pasadena" (Fox), "Smallville" (The WB), "Son of the Beach" (FX), "South Park" (Comedy Central), "The West Wing" (NBC) and "Will & Grace" (NBC).