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TV's Best, Worst for 2002, 01.07.03 ...

Impending war? Economic uncertainty? Forget about it!

Apparently, what Americans wanted to watch in 2002 was a glorified talent contest (American Idol) and that perversion of romance, The Bachelor. Shows like this breed like cockroaches, so expect to see plenty more like them coming to a TV screen near you.

But that doesn't mean there wasn't TV worth watching. Here's a list of my top picks, in no particular order:

The Shield, FX -- Underdog Michael Chiklis won a surprise Emmy for his role as a brutal cop in Los Angeles. The one-time lovable pudge of The Commish and Daddio lost a bunch of weight, hit the gym, shaved his head, and emerged as the intense, scary Vic Mackey, a man with a formidable capacity for both good and evil.

The Wire, HBO -- This one slipped under the radar compared to some HBO efforts, but it may well have been better than any of them. A look at both sides of the drug war in Baltimore, showing the devious motivations and sad results for both the drug dealers and the cops who chase them.

24, Fox -- Sure, in order to stay with the show you've got to suspend a certain amount of disbelief -- could daughter Kim Bauer be any dumber? -- but the show keeps working anyway thanks to Kiefer Sutherland's dark, driven performance as counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer, and the show's constant suspense.

David Letterman, CBS -- Two episodes stand out. One was when Letterman invited the entire village of Schoharie, N.Y., onto the show. About half of them showed up. (The citizenry responded by naming the road to their sewer plant after Dave.) The second was a poignant show in which Letterman devoted an entire hour to musician Warren Zevon, who is dying of lung cancer. Jay Leno might win in the ratings, but Letterman has the smarts -- and the heart.

The Sopranos, HBO -- Well, let's get the complaints out of the way first. A lot of fans wanted more blood this season. I wanted tighter plotting. Too many story lines -- Adriana and the FBI, for example -- plodded along at a snail's pace. (And what about that Russian in the Pine Barrens?) That being said, there were some fabulous moments this season, among them Christopher's drug intervention and the not-unexpected murder of Ralph Cifaretto. Who can forget Ralph's head in a bowling bag? The season finale was a harrowing look at a marriage in ruins. Edie Falco, as Carmela Soprano, should be a shoo-in for an Emmy.

The Gilmore Girls, WB -- Sweet, smart escapism. How nice to visit quirky Star's Hollow and listen in while Lorelei and Rory play verbal ping-pong with all that sharp dialog. No one really talks that fast; no one really slings that many clever pop-culture references through their sentences. But wouldn't it be nice if we could?

Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, HBO -- Of all the zillions of TV hours devoted to Sept. 11, this show, focused on the religious faith of those affected by the attacks, stayed with me longest. Some of its subjects maintained, even strengthened, their beliefs. Some lost their cherished ability to commune with God. Others had their concept of God altered -- the Creator was transformed into someone darker and more capricious. Genuine and deep feelings were explored, and you don't see much of that on TV.

The Amazing Race, CBS -- Rhode Islanders continue to thrive on Survivor, but our family favorite was The Amazing Race, in which various couples (roomates, fiances, friends, sibling, spouses, parent and child) race around the world, performing various tasks as they go. Great scenery, lots of action and a chance to see relationships under stress.

Boomtown, NBC -- Here's a crime show that actually feels fresh, thanks to its multiple perspectives and fluid attitude towards time. Acting standout is Neal McDonough as a slick, ambitious DA who doesn't always like what he sees in the mirror.

Six Feet Under, HBO -- The gimmickry of talking corpses has gotten old, although Trinity vet Richard Jenkins does a fine job as the deceased patriarch of the Fisher family. But there's superb acting throughout, including Rachel Griffiths as the dark, troubled Brenda Chenowith, Lauren Ambrose as the perpetually put-upon teenage daughter, and Michael C. Hall as the buttoned-down brother who has to bear the twin burdens (for him) of responsibility and homosexuality.

As usual, there's plenty to choose from in this category. Some of these shows barely made a dent in the TV consciousness -- David E. Kelley's abysmal girl's club, for example, lasted all of two episodes on Fox.

But I'm not going to go into a long list of ill-advised sitcoms (Bram & Alice, Good Morning, Miami) or failed dramas (Birds of Prey, Dinotopia).

Three little words will sum up TV's worst in 2002: Anna Nicole Smith.

As Smith slurred and staggered her way through another meaningless day, I was actually embarrassed for her, her dog, her lawyer and everybody else concerned with this piece of tripe.

The good news is that the proposed Liza Minnelli/ David Gest "reality" show never made it onto the air. Thank God for small favors.

A dishonorable mention goes to 60 Minutes for their shoddy job with former Providence Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr.

If 60 Minutes wanted to portray Cianci as a lovable rogue victimized by overzealous prosecutors, that's their privilege. But they needed someone with far more credibility than Mike Barnacle, the former Boston Globe columnist fired for plagarism.

Now that we've seen how 60 Minutes dealt with Cianci -- a story we know something about -- how can we trust them to accurately cover stories in, say, Indianapolis or San Diego?
Credit: The Providence Journal

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