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Ten for 2001

If it's the end of one year and the beginning of another, it must be time for the endless supply of best-of-the-year retrospectives. Last year I revived a ritual that dates back to the founding of TeeVee -- namely, the year-end top 10 list. Unlike our annual Teevee Awards, which are chosen by the entire group of Vidiots and represent the best shows and performances of the season, this list -- and any that may follow -- are one person's opinion about good TV from the past calendar year.

Rather than present a list of my 10 current favorite TV shows, this is a list of 10 shows that weren't on my 2000 list. Some are new, while a few have either returned to prominence lately or just barely missed last year's list. In any event, if you're not watching these shows, you owe it to yourself to give 'em a try.

10. Adult Swim, Cartoon Network. Following in the footsteps of perhaps the most bizarre comedy show on television, Space Ghost Coast to Coast, is this collection of cartoons for adults. At its heart are a handful of new and even-more-wacky Space Ghost episodes, as well as a spin-off called The Brak Show, featuring dimwitted supervillain Brak and Space Ghost bandleader Zorak in a series modeled after a '50s family sitcom. They must be seen to be believed. Several other shows with various levels of quality appear in Adult Swim, my other favorite being Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, in which lame Hanna-Barbera superhero Birdman serves as a defense attorney for cartoon characters in need of legal representation.

9. Undeclared, Fox. From the showrunner of Freaks and Geeks, Judd Apatow, comes this single-camera sitcom about a bunch of freshman in a college dorm. Not as real, as deep, or as searingly painful as Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared is half as long as its predecessor, but is just as funny. For a while it appeared that Apatow finally had a hit on his hands, but Fox has since cut the series' order and it may not make it to next fall. Which would be a shame, because the kids at the extremely fictional University of North Eastern California (where's that? Redding? Shasta? Truckee?) are all right.

8. Gilmore Girls, The WB. A near-miss from last year's list, Gilmore Girls was one of last year's best new series and hasn't fallen into the sophomore slump of its NBC counterpart, Ed. Though this season's introduction of a ne'er-do-well rival for young Rory's affections smells like a shameless plot complication, it can't sour the small town sweetness of Stars Hollow, Connecticut, or the complicated and appealing web of relationships between the show's grandmother, grandfather, mother, and daughter. This is a family show, there's no denying it -- but unlike other "family programming," it's not a treacly confection. It's the real thing.

7. The Chris Isaak Show, Showtime. Talk about a series I had no expectations for. You mean, it's like Seinfeld or Larry Sanders, only it stars the guy who sings "Wicked Game" and acts in movies like "Fire Walk With Me"? Really, does rockabilly star Chris Isaak expect to become a serious actor just because he had a bit part in "Silence of the Lambs?

No, no he doesn't. Instead, he stars in a quirky comedy that bears more than a striking resemblance to Northern Exposure in tone, mostly because the show's executive producers are Exposure veterans Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider. Mixing behind-the-scenes rock-and-roll action, neurotic musicians, and fun musical numbers, Isaak is the biggest surprise of the year. It's a series so goofy, its most rational character spends all her screen time naked and doing fish pantomime. Mona the mermaid's got it all together compared to Chris's keyboard player and manager, two of the most dysfunctional characters this side of Larry David. The show's second season has just started on Showtime, and you can catch first-season reruns on VH-1 -- minus the nudity and swearing, of course.

6. Junkyard Wars, The Learning Channel. Since Gregg Wrenn first introduced us to this series last year, it's become mandatory viewing in our household. What other show could combine science and engineering education with Iron Chef? Featuring a collection of British and American teams battling to create crazy contraptions from junkyard scrap over the course of 10 hours, Junkyard Wars is both engrossing and educational. If I were a high school science teacher, Junkyard Wars would be assigned viewing.

Now, there's a little problem with the hosts. Apparently American network TLC has decided that the funny accents of British hosts Robert Llewellyn and Cathy Rogers and their British contestants are a bit too much for the sensitive American ear, so it ordered up a couple batches of all-American episodes. The first shows, which teamed Rogers with the lame George Gray -- now starring in the syndicated Weakest Link! -- were a shock to see. But the second set, with pleasant Canadian Tyler Harcott replacing Gray, were more palatable. Still, the American teams seem to take Junkyard Wars much too seriously compared to their fun-loving UK counterparts.

Fortunately, TLC has seen fit to alternate the UK Junkyard Wars episodes with the U.S. editions, giving us a full dose of Llewellyn and more fun-loving Brits when the Harcott-hosted show is off the air. That means we get that many more episodes of this excellent series -- and keep 'em coming.

5. 24, Fox. Every time I see Keifer Sutherland I can't help seeing him as the wheezing mad scientist in "Dark City." Every time I see Dennis Haysbert, I lament the loss of Now and Again. But I'm still hopelessly addicted to Fox's 24-episode experiment, a show that's much more about ratcheting up the tension than about plot or character developments. Do I care that Keifer's daughter is in mortal danger? A little, I guess. Do I care that her best friend got her arm broken, was shot up with heroin, then run over by a car, and finally smothered to death? Well, that's a real bummer, to be sure -- but she was kind of annoying.

No, 24 succeeds because it's an injection of adrenaline, a paranoid chain of events that can't be handled in any fashion other than the seat-of-your-pants variety. It's about snap decisions, all of which could potentially be life threatening. It's a horror show. It's a thrill ride. I love it.

4. Alias, ABC. A James Bond-style action-adventure series that's essentially one long chain of cliffhangers, Alias does Bond one better by making the hero a double agent, one with a complicated personal life, and -- oh yeah -- a girl.

It's a ridiculous premise that gets more ridiculous by the week, and I do hope that eventually Alias scrambles things up even further by dropping the whole double-agent motif. This is a show that would be just as entertaining if its complexity was cut in half. But still, Jennifer Garner sparkles -- especially when she's wearing a sparkly party dress -- as agent Sydney Bristow, feisty operative for evil spy agency SD-6 who's actually a CIA agent trying to sabotage her employers from the inside.

Like 24, Alias is more about style than about substance. And why should that make it any less of a pleasure?

3. Late Show With David Letterman, CBS. After September 11, Dave showed America just why it is that he's the heavyweight in the late night hour, not Jay Leno. Letterman may not get Leno's ratings, but then, there's lots of popular crap out there getting better ratings than good shows in the same time slot. Letterman plays dumb a lot, and tries to avoid politics as much as he can, but after September 11 he was forced to be real, emotional, downright angry -- and to interpret those feelings through his comedy.

Also, terrible as it is to say, September 11 also gave people a chance to notice that the past year or two has brought Letterman back up to top form, after a late-'90s slide. The people who tuned in after the terrorist attacks, to see what Dave had to say about it all, got a taste of the re-emergent brilliance that's been going on late at night for a little while now. As we rapidly approach David Letterman's 20th anniversary in late-night, it's important to realize just how good he is and how much we take him for granted.

2. Farscape, Sci-Fi. This mind-bending sci-fi puppet show has been growing on me for the past couple of years, but this season Farscape really came into its own, with one of the most high-stakes season-ending cliffhangers I've ever seen (hero John Crichton lies on an operating table, brain open, brain surgeon murdered, the secret information in his brain removed by his archenemy -- and meanwhile, his girlfriend and the series' female lead lies dead and buried). Since then, the show has actually gotten better, highlighted by a tour de force series of alternating episodes that split the cast -- and Crichton -- in two.

Yeah, Farscape is the show with the space puppets -- I mean, space muppets. But it's also one of the best sci-fi series on the air. It's complicated, quirky, and unlike any series that has ever come before it.

1. The Tick, Fox. As with many unique, brilliant shows, The Tick couldn't live on the air for very long. Fox has already cancelled it, in fact; its last episodes will be airing this month. I expected a lot from this series in the year since it was announced; I got something even better than I had expected. It was a cross between Seinfeld and Superman, and it worked brilliantly. And now it's gone. Hey, two years in a row with a cancelled show at number one on my list! Talk about the kiss of death.

Finally, my annual top ten: 10. Late Show With David Letterman; 9. Junkyard Wars; 8. 24; 7. Alias; 6. Futurama; 5. Farscape; 4. Buffy the Vampire Slayer; 3. Angel; 2. Stargate SG-1; 1. The Tick.


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