Everything you've read about this Emmy Award-winning drama created by David Chase is true. Exceptional writing, exceptional performances, all in an epic tale of an organized crime boss capable of hair-raising violence, yet emotionally summoned to personal introspection by the appearance of a flock of ducks in his suburban swimming pool. The first season of 13 stunning episodes stands alone as a glorious paean to the possibilities of the small screen. The second season begins January 16, after a re-broadcast of the first season to be aired December 26 to January 2.
2. West Wing (NBC)
It took me an episode or two to warm up to this Aaron Sorkin drama, but once I did, I was hooked. This one takes the familiar work-place drama -- in this case, backstage at the White House -- and artfully infuses it with the high tension you would expect, while revealing the respect, affection, and disdain the co-workers have for one another under the bluster and organized chaos. Wondrously, Sorkin's fine work also manages to reawaken the tarnished idea of American citizenship without breast-beating or the swell of violins in the background. West Wing gets my vote for the best of the new dramas.
3. Sex and the City (HBO)
Lewd? Raunchy? Titillating? Give me a break! Guess what? Women over 30 have sex (gasp!), we enjoy it (horrors!), and we talk about it, too (now you should be scared). That critics whisper behind their hands at this bright comedy irritates me to no end. But this show is not just about "naughty" women "doing it," it's about the devout allegiance this quartet of woman have for one another. Sure, the issue of lifelong companionship appears, but it's not remotely as tedious and sophomoric as it appears in the free network's primetime fare. Excuse number two to sign up for cable.
4. Angel (WB)
I didn't have much hope for this Buffy, the Vampire Slayer spin-off, but what a pleasant surprise. David Boreanaz (Angel) has shown he can do more than brood and look good in black leather in this clever horror dramedy about the quest for atonement by assisting lost souls in the City of Angels. Charisma Carpenter is a doll as Angel's unlikely Girl Friday, and though the puckish Doyle (Glenn Quinn), who served as Angel's medium to the powers that be, was killed off recently, I have hopes that a resurrection is in store for him. The Angel-Doyle-Cordelia trio was just too tight to break up. Keep your wooden stakes crossed.
5. Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (WB)
What can I say about the Buffster that I haven't gone on and on about before? Well, there is one thing: I'm glad she's detached from Angel and gotten on with her life -- though that steamy crossover episode in which Buffy and Angel had their last taste of forbidden love was enough to make me and a visiting friend from out of town blush. Still, the split has been made, and it's time to move on with two different story lines. Just when it looked like Buffy was beginning to lose its edge, it veered to reveal the key players in the secret militia of high-tech demon fighters. There's too much to explain. Suffice it to say, Buffy still kicks ass.
6. The X-Files (Fox)
Scully and Mulder: Will they? Won't they? Who cares?! Sure, the sexual tension propelled the show for a good long time, until that chaste New Year's Eve kiss. But it's Mulder's obsessions with alien life and Scully's tests of faith that really drive this show. There's nothing else like this smart, out-of-this-world series.
7. Will & Grace (NBC)
Although the show turned its ankle early in the season with that unfortunate ethnic slur uttered by Karen (Megan Mullally), W&G quickly recovered and continues with a bang. Sometimes it's easy to forget that sidekicks Jack (Sean Hayes) and Karen are not the stars of the show, but that's no slam to Eric McCormack (Will) or Debra Messing (Grace). They more than hold their own as best pals who can be counted on to get each other in and out of jams -- like the episode in which Grace desperately sets Will up with an obnoxious client, or Will, trying to spare Grace the embarrassment of a faulty augmentation device, finds himself grabbing her breasts to keep them from spraying water like a nymph in a fountain. Shades of Ricky and Lucy? Sure, if you can accept that Ricky is gay and Lucy has a job.
8. ER (NBC)
No, it's not the same since George Clooney left, but bringing in new blood seems to have pepped up the show this season. A welcome shot in the arm was recently delivered by Alan Alda, as a brilliant but fading surgeon and by Rebecca De Morney as a breast cancer survivor. The addition of Maura Tierney from News Radio promises to fill the pending void when the lovely Juliana Margulies leaves at the end of this season. Maybe it gotten a little sudsy, but I sense a return to its earlier luster.
9. Freaks and Geeks (NBC) and That 70s Show (Fox)
Of all the teen-centered shows, I like these two the best. Thankfully, F&G is getting a new time slot and should easily hold its own against the frothy Time of Your Life (Fox) in the 7-8pm time slot on Mondays. That 70s Show could use some help with scheduling too. Led in by Ally (does anyone watch that show?) and competing with 3rd Rock From the Sun (NBC) and Buffy (WB), it still manages to hold on, which says something.
10. Iron Chef (Food Network )
Laugh if you will, but afterward, start tuning in (Fridays, 9pm and midnight, Saturday at 9pm). The word is out that this wacky, one-of-a-kind Japanese import will stop production this year. The gladiator cooking show is too expensive to produce. The good news is that there are about 200 episodes that have not been seen in the States yet, so the end is not coming too soon for the uninitiated. The final shows may feature the ultimate battle: Iron Chef against Iron Chef.
2. Return of Norman Lear to network television. Would like to see what he'd do with the medium today (in fact, we may have a chance if rumors are correct that he has a new sitcom in the works).
3. Recognition of Nancy Marchand's work on The Sopranos. Something to make up for the oversight by the Emmys.
4. Creation of the Ally McBeal Channel. All Ally, all the time, for those who want to tune in. Open up the time for something new and different.
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