My pulse races just thinking about this Fox hit's fifth and finest season, with its scarily high body count (President Palmer! Michelle! Tony! EDGAR!), its evil president, its ferocious First Lady and its hero, Jack Bauer, once again saving the day — with Kiefer Sutherland finally winning his Emmy. No wonder everyone wants to copy this serial-thriller format. But nothing else even comes close. 24
is 24-carat brilliance.
2) The Wire
HBO's devastating urban epic of Baltimore is the opposite of a standard TV crime drama (of which there are too many). More like literature in its realism, depth and honesty, The Wire reveals breathtaking flaws in city politics, law enforcement and, this year, the school system, where four eighth-grade boys face a violent, uncertain future.
3) Friday Night Lights
This show breaks, and lifts, my heart. A ratings underdog about a high-school football team in a vividly authentic Texas town, NBC's beautifully crafted drama scores one emotional touchdown after another. A tremendous young cast is guided by Kyle Chandler's career-high performance as the Panthers' stalwart coach.
4) Grey's Anatomy
The libidinous temperature's always on the rise in this fantastically entertaining romantic medical drama's breakthrough year. Grey's soared in the explosive post-Super Bowl episode, shocked us with Denny's death in the season finale and triumphed in the risky move to Thursdays. We'd follow Grey's anywhere.
5) Battlestar Galactica
Sci Fi Channel's bracingly adult fantasy adventure is less about outer space than inner space, as it looks deep into humanity's heart of darkness. This electrifying saga of survival took on disturbing new colors as it became a provocative war allegory. Subplots involving terrorism and genocide asked us to reconsider the very notion of heroism.
6) NBC's Thursday comedies return
When the network was still No. 1, I could only dream of a two-hour block of consecutive winners this smart, funny and innovative. (No The Single Guy or Jesse here.) And these winners are all so blissfully different: the sweetly wacky My Name Is Earl, the painfully satirical The Office (the year's most improved comedy), the hilariously manic and eternally underrated Scrubs and Tina Fey's uproarious 30 Rock, with Alec Baldwin's sly send-up of a network suit the breakthrough comedy performance of the year. Though Thursday's ratings no longer shout "Must-see!," these gems shouldn't be missed.
7) Ugly Betty
Simply adorable and adorably simple, ABC's fairy-tale charmer about a gawky princess from Queens (America Ferrera's irresistibly lovable Betty) crackles with the garish colors and exaggerated stylings of a telenovela — but with much more heart. Paired with Grey's and Men in Trees on Thursdays, Betty is a romantic's dream come true.
8) The Shield
There's always a place for FX's bold dramas on my list. In 2006, this scorching police drama was the most consistently riveting, dominated by the cat-and-mouse dynamic of Michael Chiklis' dirty cop sparring with Internal Affairs snoop Forest Whitaker. The climactic tragedy of Shane killing his buddy Lem has left us nervously anticipating what is bound to be a vicious aftermath.
My top pick the last two years barely made the cut this time, after the fall's frustrating six-week curtain-raiser that kept the tribe apart and forced us to watch favorite characters caged and beaten. (Free Sawyer!) With its gorgeous look and provocative character-based mysteries, Lost still dazzles. But lately I also want better. Still, I'm not giving up yet.
In a banner year for Showtime (Brotherhood, Weeds, Sleeper Cell: American Terror), this twisted spin on the crime procedural stands out. Michael C. Hall is a revelation as serial-killer Dexter, an emotionally numb sociopath who slaughters bad guys by night and works crime scenes for Miami cops by day. Macabre and mesmerizing.