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HBO's `Angels' climbed highest this year

Yet crime dramas such as `CSI' are still arresting

You had to do some serious digging this year if you wanted to find the gold, or even the silver. Passive viewing only brought you night after night of TV's familiar fixations, from reality programming to the newsmagazine circuit. More than ever, readers contacted me for help in finding extraordinary TV, and more than ever I found that task difficult -- especially for those viewers without pay and digital cable. All the franchise crime shows continued to thrive, with the finest of them, "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," holding on to the No. 1 Nielsen slot and the others, including the "Law & Order" family, remaining remarkably popular. Apparently, all-knowing police detectives still satisfy our emotional hunger for a sense of safety, even when the crimes these forensic savants solve are presented with an increasingly gory realism. Eviscerated teens? Flesh-torn alligator maulings? Bring 'em on.

In its third year in the mainstream, reality TV also continued to draw masses of viewers, whether it was the staged ardor of "Average Joe" or the class of the field, "Survivor: Pearl Islands." Just when we think we're out, they keep pulling us back in, inspiring 17 million people to attend a plastic convention on ABC also known as "Trista and Ryan's Wedding." Makeover reality shows multiplied exponentially, the most notable new one being "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," a televised instruction manual for metrosexuality.

The most exceptional piece of television was, not surprisingly, on HBO. The six-hour miniseries "Angels in America" was a note-perfect TV version of Tony Kushner's play about AIDS, the Reagan era, self-realization, and angelic crises, fully exploiting the intimacy of the small screen without losing any of the story's epic scope. Director Mike Nichols didn't strain to make the 1980s relevant in his adaptation; he let the universality of Kushner's historical imagination and language speak for itself. The acting, too, was unforgettable, from Al Pacino's sputtering Roy Cohn and Mary-Louise Parker's despairing wife to Meryl Streep's take on three very different characters, including her mime-like Ethel Rosenberg.

Of course, it's hard to maintain an "Angels" level of greatness over the span of 22 episodes per season. Even promising series such as "24" have stretched painfully thin under the strain of weekly production schedules. And yet "Alias" has been a small miracle of consistency, quality, and fun. It's an action-adventure spy series, but it transcends its genre with rich character flourishes and fabulous plot twists that upend the show's very foundation. And Jennifer Garner is seriously likable as a wholesome yet sexy agent who can change fashions as swiftly as she can take down a roomful of bad guys. "Alias" is a bracing, colorful hour of comic-book escape for fans of both James Bond and Austin Powers.

There certainly is a dearth of distinctive comedy on TV right now, as stubbornly derivative and ordinary family sitcoms such as "According to Jim" continue to take over prime time. But "Scrubs" is a true original, a half-hour of MD madness that has developed a unique comic language. The actors have made their high-strung doctors indelible, particularly Sarah Chalke's Elliot and Donald Faison's Turk, and the show's surrealistic fantasy flashes continue to charm. But what always floors me about "Scrubs" is its ability to drift effortlessly into and out of drama. All the curious clowning around is never far from the pain of long hospital shifts, sick patients, and fiercely competitive colleagues.

Those who don't get BBC America missed both seasons of "The Office," a British black comedy about the grim banality of 9-to-5 life. Filmed as a mockumentary about a workplace outside of London, the show behaved unlike most American sitcoms, with overlapping dialogue, awkward silences, no punchlines, and the kind of embarrassing moments that make you cringe while you smile. As middle-manager David Brent, a hollow man desperate to be liked by his workers and his bosses, Ricky Gervais was painful and amazing. His verbal runs were brilliant, as he took glib office-speak and turned it into a bottomless pit of hypocrisy and self-contradiction. NBC is planning an American version of the series, but without Gervais, the endeavor is doomed.

Always worthy, "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" became essential and won special notice this year during the heat of the war in Iraq. With his outrage palpable but his humor fully intact, Stewart openly expressed his mystification about the Bush administration's actions at a time when other media outlets stood behind their objectivity, as well as their fear of alienating viewers. An accessible cynic, Stewart reveled in using a fake news show to present a very real side of the world.

"Sex and the City" leaves us next year, after a strong run that included this year's spate of episodes. The verbal play continued to be silly, dear, and clever; the characters continued to grow without losing their essential traits; and New York continued to assert itself as a fifth lead. In one classic episode about an expensive pair of stolen shoes, Sarah Jessica Parker's Carrie waged a rousing rebellion against the cultural prejudice toward unmarried and childless people. It was sly, funny, and real.

"Arrested Development" is the most promising of the new fall comedies, a whacked-out satire about a wealthy family in financial and emotional disarray. It establishes the kind of winningly offbeat world that can accommodate the sick brilliance of David Cross, a guest stint by Liza Minnelli, and the otherworldly timing of Jeffrey Tambor. Alas, with its highly competitive Sunday night perch, it may be doomed to join Fox's long list of prematurely canceled favorites such as "Action."

Showtime came through with "Soldier's Girl," a drama based on the true story of Private Barry Winchell, an airborne infantryman killed by his military buddies for dating a transgendered nightclub performer. Like the similarly tragic "Boys Don't Cry," the movie refused to simplify the characters, their sexual orientations, and the motives that lead confused young men to commit brutal murder. The performances were strong, particularly by Lee Pace as Winchell's lover, and the script, set against the backdrop of "don't ask, don't tell," was never preachy.

Showtime also delivered with a potent little miniseries called "Out of Order," about the faltering marriage of two Hollywood screenwriters. Eric Stoltz turned in some of his best work as the self-conscious narrator who shares his surrealist fantasies with us. But Felicity Huffman was the true revelation as a depressed woman sinking in a quicksand of substance abuse. Seen by some as a narcissistic soap about superficial people, it was really a character drama about people stuck in the superficial culture of LA.

It was great to watch Ellen DeGeneres find a sturdy vehicle this year with her syndicated daytime talk show, "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." Not a big fan of the genre, I nonetheless enjoyed watching DeGeneres watch her guests with sweet mischief in her eyes. She shares the 10th slot with the year's other highlights, which include "The Shield," "Karen Sisco," "Six Feet Under," and "The Wire," a series that made you work for its formidable rewards.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

MATTHEW GILBERT'S PICKS
Mary-Louise Parker and Jeffrey Wright in HBO's 'Angels in America,' a note-perfect TV version of Tony Kushner's play.
Mary-Louise Parker and Jeffrey Wright in HBO's "Angels in America," a note-perfect TV version of Tony Kushner's play.
  • "Angels in America," HBO
  • "Alias," ABC
  • "Scrubs," NBC
  • "The Office," BBC America
  • "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," Comedy Central
  • "Sex and the City," HBO
  • "Arrested Development," Fox
  • "Soldier's Girl," Showtime
  • "Out of Order," Showtime
  • "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," syndicated
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