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The year’s 10 best TV shows

Viewers got ‘Lost’ in ‘House,’ ‘Runway,’ more
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Viewers could argue for hours about which shows on TV are the 10 best of the year. Every viewer's list is different, as are the reasons for choosing the shows.

Should "American Idol" be on there simply for being a massive reality-show phenomenon, or should reality shows be banned on principle?

Should "Desperate Housewives" make the list simply because it scores high in the Nielsens and is ripe for online discussion and debate, or should it be left off since the second season has disappointed?

America loves crime and doctor shows, still, the ratings show that. But how many are too many on a list that just has 10 slots?

We discussed and debated, and came close to duking it out, and here's the list that we ended up with.

Not all who wander are ‘Lost’Some shows are enjoyable on first viewing, but not much for rewatching. "Lost" (Wednesdays, 9 p.m. ET, ABC), by contrast, is the kind of show that begs for repeat viewings, for slo-mo'ing and freeze framing. Fans are so insane for clues to the mysterious island full of plane-crash survivors that they'll play audio of young Walt backwards just to determine that the mysterious kid said "the button is bad." Or did he say "no button is bad"? The creators of the show are smart enough to know the fans will do this, so they plant clues left and right. During a recent flashback, Kate visits her dad in an army office, and for a quick second, the character Sayid is shown on an office TV screen, in apparent war footage. "Lost" fans don't know yet if every little dropped breadcrumb will fit together in the end (rumor has it that there's really no main plan for Hurley's mysterious numbers), but they sure love collecting them.

Some expected "Lost" to drop off after a phenomenal first season, like ABC's other sophomore hit, "Desperate Housewives," which lost steam after the Zach-Dana plot was explained. And some were frustrated by a May season finale that did open the mysterious hatch, but didn't answer many other questions. But a brilliant plotstroke was waiting in the fall, when viewers were introduced to the "tailies," the surviving passengers from the tail-end of the plane, which was last seen breaking off and crashing somewhere over the ocean. Are these new characters meant to parallel the others, with Eko a man of faith comparable to Locke, and Ana-Lucia a take-charge leader, much like Jack? One wouldn't think it would be easy to expand a cast of characters trapped on an island, but "Lost" found a way, and viewers, like the castaways, aren't going anywhere.    —Gael Fashingbauer Cooper

NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 2: Jon Stewart speaks during live Election Night coverage of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart November 2, 2004 in New York City. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)Frank Micelotta / Getty Images North America

But Stewart is the real genius here. His intonations and facial expressions are priceless, and he makes no attempt to be objective (his hilariously feeble impersonation of President Bush is a prime example). And while the show’s “wake up, America!” take on politics is genius, it’s the merciless barbs at the media that really hit the target. It’s a stinging indictment of the state of mainstream media that a fake news program can strike to the heart of the real story better than “real” news, and call us on our buffoonery in the process.   —Denise Hazlick

Back to the ‘Runway’
Sure, it never earned the mega-viewership numbers of "American Idol," or the guilty-pleasure status of "America's Next Top Model." But "Project Runway" (Wednesdays, 10 p.m. ET, Bravo) was a reality show that transcended the bad reputation of its genre. Oh sure, there was bitchiness and backstabbing  -- Wendy Pepper, a crafty mom from Virginia, made a perfect season-one villain. But there was also a fascinating competition between wannabe clothing designers that slowly hooked in even watchers who don't know a seam-ripper from a Singer. Supermodel host Heidi Klum doesn't contribute much more than a goofy accent ("Ow you in oh ow you ouh?" for "Are you in or are you out?"), but Parsons School of Design-supplied Tim Gunn is perhaps the best mentor in the reality biz, and casting and challenges have been repeatedly brilliant. (Recently, contestants had to use the clothing they wore to a party and turn it into a completely new outfit.) Now if only the second season will end with as deserving and thoroughly entertaining a winner as Jay McCarroll.    —G.F.C.

‘House’ partySo much has been written about Hugh Laurie’s bitter anti-hero at the center of “House” (Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET, FOX), that the hospital drama’s success is in danger of being attributed to him alone. There’s no question Laurie deserves every accolade he gets: as good as he is at the verbal dexterity the physically crippled Dr. House uses to shield himself from the outside world, he is even better at wordlessly conveying emotion on those rare occasions when House does let someone in. That someone is usually House’s best (only) friend, Dr. Wilson, played by the equally brilliant Robert Sean Leonard, and watching Laurie and Leonard together is like watching a master class in acting. Add in Lisa Edelstein as the head of the hospital and Omar Epps as one of House’s disciples and you have one of the best ensembles of acting talent on screen today.

Fortunately, the writing team behind “House” is up to this challenge. Creator David Shore won an Emmy for last season’s timeline-twisting “Three Stories,” although other episodes, with a constant parade of mysterious illnesses of the week, were formulaic. This season, it’s as if the writers have stopped pretending to be sketching a typical hospital show. The result is a series of awesomely heretical takes on medicine and office politics, with so many little in-jokes tossed to the audience that it’s a wonder the fourth wall is standing at all. "House" isn't a perfect show: When you toss so many balls in the air, a few of them (the Vogler and Stacy storylines come to mind) are bound to fall flat. But much like the deeply flawed Dr. House himself, it’s a terrific amount of fun to watch.    —Lori Smith

Still time to get ‘Arrested’

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT:  Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman, C) is still doing his best to pick up the pieces and keep his offbeat family from falling apart as ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT rolls into its third season premiering Monday, Sept. 19 (8:00-8:30 PM ET/PT) on FOX.  Pictured L-R in museum frame:  Alia Shawkat, David Cross, Michael Cera, Portia de Rossi, Jason Bateman, Jeffrey Tambor, Jessica Walter, Tony Hale and Will Arnett.  ™©2005 Fox Broadcasting Co.  Cr:  Art Streiber/FOX.

Any discussion of “Arrested Development” (Mondays, 8 p.m. ET, FOX) is impossible without mentioning its precarious prognosis for survival: Fox cut its second-season order last spring, and then announced late this year that the current third season would last only 13 episodes. Though this caused many fans to fear that the bell was finally tolling for the Bluths, cancellation still isn’t certain —possibly because, even though TV ratings can’t be discounted when programming decisions are at issue, Fox isn’t thrilled at the prospect of being the network that ditched a series earning multiple industry awards while sticking with “American Idol,” a glorified talent show. (Also, there's a rumor that, if Fox does cancel the show, Showtime, ABC, or another network might pick it up.)

“AD” isn’t as simple to start watching as “How I Met Your Mother.” Each episode is thick with callbacks to previous installments; the core cast is huge, to say nothing of the show’s extended family of frequent guest stars, from senior-citizen/Bluth-boy seductress Lucille 2 (Liza Minnelli) to assiduously professional attorney Wayne Jarvis (John Michael Higgins) to acting coach/stew enthusiast Carl Weathers (himself); America still may not be ready for a show that has made running jokes out of the pursuit of inter-cousin incest and betrothal to a mentally challenged Englishwoman. But watching just a few episodes will not only convince you that “Arrested Development” is worth the viewer’s commitment to continuity, it will make it clear why everyone who watches it becomes a wild-eyed Bluth evangelist: it’s smart and mean and heartwarming (oh, how your heart will break for underrated young comic genius Michael Cera), all in the same episode. Find this out for yourself, while you still can.    —Tara Ariano

‘CSI’ spells ‘hit’When a show steamrolls its way to number one in the Nielsens nearly every week, there’s a reason. Unlike crime shows that spew out variations on the same episode, “CSI” (Thursdays, 9 p.m. E.T., CBS) isn’t afraid to take chances, allow side characters to take center stage and rely on humor and intelligence rather than cheap thrills. Last season closed with what was probably one of the finest season finales ever — the Quentin Tarantino-directed “Grave Danger,” in which Nick Stokes (George Eads) was buried alive by a crazy bomber. The finale felt more like a feature film than an episode of network television. And it was a reawakening for a show that had frankly grown a little complacent.      

This season, show creator Anthony E. Zuiker has more than followed up on the finale’s promise. With shows like “Gum Drops” and the two-parter “Bullet Runs Thru It,” creators gave actors Eads and Paul Guilfoyle (who plays Capt. Jim Brass) a chance to turn in Emmy-worthy performances. There’s more definitely more to “CSI” than grisly crimes and the sexy Las Vegas strip — though those are there, too, thank goodness. Gil Grissom (William Peterson) remains the heart and soul of the show. And with the team reunited this season, he's been teamed again with Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger)  — making the duo this year’s version of Mulder and Scully. This show continues to surprise, not only with innovative investigation techniques, but also with heart. It’s no mystery what draws people to “CSI” every week: characters viewers care about and root for.      —Paige Newman

‘SVU’ just keeps on motoring

LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT -- "Juvenile" -- Pictured: (l-r) Judith Light as SVU Bureau Cheif Elizabeth Donnelly, Illeana Douglas as Gina Bernardo -- Universal photo Friday, November 22 on NBC (10-11 p.m. ET)

The greatest pleasure in every "Law & Order: SVU" episode (Tuesdays, 10 p.m. ET, NBC), even the cheesy ones, is in guessing which member of the Unit will get to Take! It! Personally! Woman pregnant by rape? Olivia (Mariska Hargitay) will take that one. Angry dad? Stabler (Christopher Meloni) territory. Recently, the series has amped up the stunt factor by casting well-known B-listers in key parts — Matthew Modine as a notorious child molester, Martin Short as a psychic (or is he?), Dean Cain as a rapist and murderer.

Generally speaking, “SVU” doesn’t trade in ripped from the headlines storylines as often as Famous Original “Law & Order” does, which is a good thing: certainly, we’re all interested in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the need for reporters to keep their anonymous sources secret, and anthrax … but cramming all three topics into the recent “Storm” was a bit much. The high point of the current season, by contrast, is “Raw,” in which Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden played an undercover FBI agent we didn’t realize had infiltrated the episode’s white supremacist group until after a defendant’s brainwashed son caused a courtroom shootout in which Stabler took a bullet! AWESOME!    —T.A.

‘Anatomy’ lesson
Sunday night used to be all about “Desperate Housewives.” Not anymore. More and more viewers are discovering that a richer, more satisfying dramedy lies just one hour beyond Wisteria Lane on “Grey’s Anatomy” (Sundays, 10 p.m. ET, ABC).  Shondra Rhimes makes up for writing Britney Spears’ film “Crossroads” with this medical show that examines the way interns juggle work, romance and friendship. If the show sounds like “ER,” it’s not. “Grey’s” emphasizes humor over pathos and the daily grind over miracle surgeries.

The cast really makes this show, with Ellen Pompeo (this year’s Calista Flockhart) as Meredith Grey, an intern who is in love with the very married Dr. Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey). Sandra Oh is a cast standout as Dr. Cristina Yang, who finds sex easy but fears love, and has embarked on a messy romance with fastidious supervisor Dr. Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington). Chandra Wilson’s Dr. Miranda Bailey could have been a one-note drill sergeant type, but Wilson creates nuance in the character, so that she’s protective of her interns while torturing them. This season, "Grey's" has continued to grow with the introduction of Dempsey’s challenging wife, Dr. Addison Sheppard (Kate Walsh), which makes the Dempsey and Pompeo relationship more complicated. Yes, it's soapy, but whether you’re rooting for Izzie (Katherine Heigl) and Alex (Justin Chambers) to get together, or for George to make it through an open heart surgery — the combination of romance and medicine is the perfect antidote to ordinary television.     —Paige Newman

Life on ‘Mars’Last season, the titular character of “Veronica Mars” (Wednesday, 9 p.m., UPN) was haunted by the murder of her best friend, her break-up with her boyfriend (the best friend’s brother), her mother walking out and the memory of being date-raped at a high school party. With all those mysteries neatly and brilliantly wrapped up by season’s end, fans couldn’t help wondering what creator Rob Thomas could do for an encore. This season, in a Möbius strip of a season opener, he showed us: Yet another Neptune High student is murdered, class warfare becomes fairly literal, Veronica starts the summer with one boyfriend and ends it with another and oh yeah, in the last few minutes of the episode, a busload of Neptune High students goes over a cliff.

In addition, each episode contains its own mini-mystery, solved by Veronica with the help of her friends and her private investigator Dad. If that sounds too twee for words, it’s not — this show’s sensibility is much more “Rockford Files” than “Nancy Drew.” And for all the soap-opera-like drama, it’s the wit and humor of the characters that makes you care about them. Don’t worry about coming in late: While “Veronica Mars” is one of the best shows out there when it comes to continuity, new viewers will catch on pretty fast. You know how you never watched “Sports Night” or “Buffy” even when your friends kept telling you to? This is that show.   —L.S.

‘Galactica’ is out of this world
Why does the new “Battlestar Galactica” (Fridays, returning in 2006, SciFi) work so extraordinarily well? Because it’s more than the sum of its parts: more Beckett than sci-fi, and far more than just a great reconsideration of the beloved (but cheesy) ‘70s original. Quite simply, there’s nothing like it on TV. That said, the revisions are brilliant.  Fans balked when Starbuck was recast as a woman (Katee Sackhoff, with her sexy mix of swagger and lost-little-girl), but “Galactica” works far better with the women in charge — the good (Mary McDonnell’s President Roslin), the bad (Tricia Helfer’s Number Six) and the conflicted (Grace Park’s Boomer, a Cylon with a heart of gold). That the robotic Cylons look human and harbor far more piety than their flesh-and-blood counterparts allows the show to adopt a “Twilight Zone”-like philosophical edge.

There’s more. Ron Moore and writers craft flawed characters and terse dialogue that give Aaron Sorkin (“West Wing”) a run for his money.  The humans-hunting-for-home theme resonates with its chilling post-9/11 sensibility – as does the endless military-civilian tension, which never descends into the obvious. Tack on a flawless cast (Edward James Olmos’ Adama has a cranky gravitas that eclipses Lorne Greene’s original, I must admit), quietly dazzling special effects and a deliberately outmoded production design — right down to those old-fashioned phone handsets—and you have the makings of a show almost too good for television. Thank the gods someone had the guts to make “Galactica” fly again.    —Jon Bonné