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Primetime's Top 10, 12.30.01 ...


In a year when Jason Alexander flopped as self-help guru Bob Patterson, Temptation Island titillated with tawdry tricks, and The X-Files crumbled without David Duchovny, it was reassuring that Carol Burnett could bowl over America with her zany shtick. The country loves a class act.

Burnett's November special, which drew nearly 30 million, reflected the country's craving for familiar entertainment after the terrorist attacks. Still, new series emerged to make it an above-average season.

The Top 10 list this year salutes vibrant old-timers and newcomers that deserve more viewers. These, the most entertaining programs of 2001, merit watching in the coming year.

1. Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS): No series had more winning episodes this fall. Three were classics: a child's story about "the angry family" sent the Barones to counseling; Marie shocked the family with a sculpture resembling part of the female anatomy; and a Thanksgiving visit by Debra's parents yielded surprises. The sitcom handles racy material with taste and tells touching stories without turning sticky. Patricia Heaton and Doris Roberts won well-deserved Emmys, and the sitcom should have, too (it outpaces victor Sex and the City). Another bonus: Raymond went into syndicated reruns this fall, so it can be sampled every weeknight, locally at 7 on WKCF-Channel 18.

2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (UPN): The supernatural series depicted its heroine's return from the dead with poignant eeriness. It established a steamy romantic relationship between Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Spike (James Marsters). It offered a musical episode that was remarkable and daring. Gellar astonished with her wide-ranging talent -- it's time Emmy voters acknowledged her.

3. 24 (Fox): The fall's best new series tells of a U.S. agent (Kiefer Sutherland) racing to save his missing daughter and stop an assassination attempt on a presidential candidate all in one day. This edge-of-the-couch entertainment serves splendid thrills week after week.

4. Gilmore Girls (WB): The comedy-drama continues to charm with fast-moving dialogue, an idyllic small-town setting and the enchanting mother-daughter team of Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel. It's the rare series that allows older characters to shine: Kelly Bishop and Edward Herrmann are outstanding as Graham's parents.

5. Smallville (WB): Anyone who misses The X-Files in its prime should try this new version of Superman, which explores the superhero's not-so-wonderful years as a teenager. Tom Welling plays Clark Kent with tender confusion, and Michael Rosenbaum brings quirky style to future foe Lex Luthor.

6. The Bernie Mac Show (Fox): The standup comedian proves himself a sitcom natural in a provocative new series loosely based on his life. He takes in his sister's three children, and his inept parenting inspires acid and politically incorrect comedy.

7. Malcolm in the Middle (Fox): The innovative comedy barrels along with energy and style. Jane Kaczmarek and Bryan Cranston are wonderfully wacky as the parents, and Frankie Muniz has lost none of his charm as Malcolm has grown. In the sharp Christmas episode, Cloris Leachman gave a bravura performance as the nasty grandmother.

8. Ed (NBC): This pleasant, offbeat comedy stands in the tradition of Northern Exposure and The Andy Griffith Show. The sexual tension between Ed (Tom Cavanagh) and Carol (Julie Bowen) remains potent, and John Slattery brings edge to the show as Dennis.

9. King of the Hill (Fox): The animated series is looking stronger than The Simpsons. The riotous season opener had Bobby taking a woman's self-defense course and learning the power of a well-aimed kick. In the Christmas episode, Jimmy Carter mediated a family conflict -- and Bobby mistook him for Jesus Christ.

10. Friends (NBC): The 8-year-old sitcom is enjoying a renaissance marked by sharp writing, excellent ensemble work and Brad Pitt's guest role.

The TV year will be remembered for major failures. The XFL self-destructed on NBC. The ABC schedule largely lost its luster in the fall.

The worst new fall series were UC: Undercover, Bob Patterson, Emeril, Inside Schwartz and Wolf Lake. Fox had the worst spring series in The Lone Gunmen, a spinoff of The X-Files.

The reality glut hurt the once-hot genre. Viewers didn't cotton to Love Cruise, Chains of Love and Temptation Island 2. ABC mishandled Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which faltered in tough time slots. Weakest Link was weak, all right, and Big Brother 2 was regrettable. CBS' superior Amazing Race couldn't draw the audience it deserved. Survivor was high-rated but no longer a phenomenon.

Over on HBO, The Sopranos, though powerfully acted, wasn't at its best. The new Six Feet Under was too smug for the widespread acclaim it generated.

Instead, HBO's true high points were movies: Conspiracy, a searing depiction of Hitler's plan to wipe out the Jews; 61*, a heartfelt salute to baseball slugger Roger Maris; and Boycott, a vibrant look at the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott and Martin Luther King Jr.'s rise.

ABC's finest moments also came on the movie front, with an audacious remake of Brian's Song, a fuller rendering of Anne Frank's life and a Judy Garland miniseries starring gutsy Judy Davis.

On PBS, Inspector Morse bowed out by dying in The Remorseful Day. John Thaw played Morse's decline with heart-rending believability and customary wit. He didn't record Burnett-size ratings, but he, too, was a class act.

Luckily for the TV industry, in a strange TV year overshadowed by real tragedy, many good series captivated the public. Others wait to be discovered.
Credit: Orlando Sentinel


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