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TV Gal Narrows Down Her Top 10 Shows, 12.17.01 ...

I've made my list. I've checked it twice. Here are my picks for the ten best shows on television. All my picks are on network television (my column, my rules, baby).

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer": A sixth season and a switch to another network hasn't stopped this show. "Buffy" continues to build on years of mythology and character development -- all things have consequences, actions reverberate throughout the seasons, and everything a character does is inherently believable. Joss Whedon and company have created a fiduciary trust with the viewer that is never broken. In 2001, "Buffy" offered up two of television's best hours -- "The Body," which dealt with the death of Buffy's mom and "Once More With Feeling," the musical episode. The gravity of Buffy's death and the repercussions of her subsequent resurrection will haunt the Scoobies throughout this season and for years to come. At this point, there's no way to explain "Buffy" to the uninitiated without sounding silly. ("That's Spike. He's a vampire with a chip in his head that prevents him from hurting humans. But now he can hurt Buffy, because when her friends brought her back from the dead she didn't come back right and she may be part demon, but I'm not sure." ) So despite critical praise, the show remains television's best-kept secret. I will continue to feel sorry for those not in the know.

"Everybody Loves Raymond": Readers ask me all the time why I don't talk more about "Raymond." I would only have these four words to say every week -- it is really funny. There's not a lot to process and there's no ongoing story line (like Ross and Rachel on "Friends"). "Raymond" effortlessly makes every day family life hysterical. Robert's romantic woes, Deborah and Marie's tenuous relationship, Frank's belligerent disposition, and Ray's need to please consistently lay the ground for television's funniest moments.

"The West Wing": What could come across as corny melodrama is inspirational in the cast's perpetually stellar performances. What could seem preachy is entertaining in Aaron Sorkin's delicate scripts. The insular world of the Oval Office and the behind-the-scenes political machinations are fascinating, but it's also the minute details of the characters' lives that make the show so remarkable. Sorkin even uses his own struggles to make his show profound. Last week, Leo's version of the sound of the scotch hitting the ice cubes explained addiction better than any other show on television ("I don't understand people who have one drink." ). The dialogue is quick, the pace dizzying, the story lines gripping, and the situation never as it first appears. Now, we need to find the President's staff a little love.

"Once and Again": This is one of those amazing shows where the minutiae of every day life becomes fodder for great drama. Family dramas are the most difficult to do -- there are no crimes to solve, patients to save, cases to litigate, or, even, vampires to slay. There's just the family and their interactions and no one does it better than "Once and Again." They have television's most believable teenagers (and four of the best young actors around), two of the best female characters on television (Judy and Karen), and they've managed to make a married couple one of television's sexiest. "Once and Again's" brilliance lies in its ability to get all of life's little things right -- whether it's Lily covering herself with yellow post it notes on Thanksgiving so she doesn't forget anything or Jesse and Grace fluctuating comfortably between friends and quasi-enemies. Each character is so fully defined that even when they appear briefly in an episode, the weight of their appearance, their connection to the family, their history can be revealed with the slightest of gestures. No one seems to be watching this show on Friday nights, let's hope the new year brings it a better time slot.

"Alias": Okay, so I don't always completely understand Sydney's missions and counter-missions -- but one thing is certain, Sydney Bristow kicks butt. "Alias" is a throwback to, but a completely modern version of, a different era of television. Each week Sydney dons a new costume and hair color while outsmarting that week's criminal with the latest fun gadget (courtesy of my new favorite character Marshall). While we may never doubt that Sydney will save herself (she is after all the star of the show), "Alias" still manages to throw many twist and turns our way (who knew Jack would set up another man to die?). There's no way to play predict-a-plot with this show. Each episode also subtlety drops hints of story lines to come. Was Sydney's mother a spy? Is Sloane more than a mere father figure to her (emphasis on the word "father" ) I don't know the answers to all these questions, but I can't wait to find out.

"Gilmore Girls": No show gets to the heart of the always complicated mother/daughter relationship like "Gilmore Girls." Sure, there are no Lorelais and Rorys in real life. Every teenager must wish she had a mom as hip as Lorelai and every mother must wish she had a daughter as great as Rory. This magical relationship sets the stage for future drama -- what will Lorelai do when Rory rebels a little bit? But "Gilmore Girls" brilliantly juxtaposes the fantasy of Rory and Lorelai's relationship with the painfully grounded in reality relationship of Emily and Lorelai. There are no easy answers to the years of pain and hurt that echo during Emily and Lorelai's every interaction. There's also some great romantic melodrama (Luke and Lorelai, the developing triangle of Jess, Dean and Rory), some hysterical supporting characters (Yanic Truesdale's Michel) and TV's best representation of a long and healthy marriage (Emily and Richard.) It also has the most clever pop-culture quips on television ("My mom is a model. Maybe now you'll get to date Leonardo DiCaprio." ) You definitely have to read People magazine to keep up.

"NYPD Blue": Yes, I'm still dealing with my Danny's departure anger issues (we were robbed of closure, they've treated criminals on that show better). But this season Charlotte Ross' Connie has been allowed to shine and I've begun to really appreciate John Irvin as the squad's reactionary mirror. As I said a couple weeks ago, Dennis Franz has created one of television's best and most memorable characters. Even when he does a good thing (like giving Eddie credit for solving his case), he's still his pelicularly ill-tempered self. The way the squad works a case (even if they do solve it almost every time) makes for great drama week after week.

"Malcolm in the Middle": There hasn't been a dysfunctional family comedy this fun since "Roseanne." Lois and Hal fiercely love each other and their children, but they are not model parents. A point emphasized this season when Lois went to a book club and Hal, fearful that the kids would misbehave under his watch, wildly vacillated between loving father and lock-down security guard ("At least with mom, you get a little consistency," Reese lamented.) The show and the performers know exactly how far to go without alienating viewers. This is a family that cares about each other and we care about them.

"24": Even if this show wasn't a fascinating thrill to watch, it should be rewarded for its innovative story telling. Every episode spans exactly one hour in real time and divides the screen so that the viewer can follow each character's intricate story line. As Special Agent Jack Bauer, Kiefer Sutherland takes us along for the ride -- we're also confused, trying to figure out what's going on, and we feel the time pressure. All the action so far has taken place in the dark of night, can you imagine how much more complicated things will become in the light of day.

"Undeclared": It's everything we ever remembered about college -- the guys who sit around drinking all day, the campus stud who goes through a girl a week, the small town girl who arrives devoted to her hometown boyfriend only to dump him once her eyes have been opened. I can give the show no bigger compliment than it gets better and more funny every week

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