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TV is not all bad

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People love to tell me how bad TV is. In what's become a patented response, I agree and disagree at the same time.

Because there's so much television nowadays (networks, cable, digital cable, premium cable), plenty of it is "bad." But in the same breath, I disagree and defend all the quality scripted programs on TV; it's just a matter of knowing where to find them.

Even if you only watched the series below, that's 8 1/2 hours of outstanding TV each week. As far as I'm concerned, that's more than enough.

1. The Sopranos (HBO) Whining about this season's batch of "Sopranos" episodes reached a fever pitch, but it was complaining for naught. With the exception of the odious Columbus Day parade episode, this Mob drama remained the most psychologically complex, intelligently written series on TV. From Tony's increasingly animalistic behavior — the murder of Ralphie, his eating habits and his tears for a horse and anger over Christopher's killing of a dog — to the shocking, tense and dramatic season finale dissolution of his marriage, "The Sopranos" remains TV's best. Edie Falco can clear space in her display case now for another Emmy for the painful-to-watch fight scenes in the season ender.

2. 24 (Fox) Admittedly, this new season requires a greater suspension of disbelief than Jack Bauer's first bad day. How did Sherry Palmer find out what was happening in Los Angeles? Why would her husband be stupid enough to let her back into his inner circle? Could the Kim Bauer story be more annoying? Is Fox trying to sabotage the series with its promos that give too much away? Still, no other series moves at such a breakneck pace or leaves me begging for more. Believability be damned, just give me another hour of "24."

3. The Guardian (CBS) Last season, I watched this show out of professional obligation as a TV critic in Pittsburgh. But as it's improved and as creator David Hollander has found ways to better integrate supporting characters, "The Guardian" has blossomed into a series I look forward to seeing every week. From the subtlest of details in its emotionally closed lead character to surprise plot twists, "The Guardian" has matured and deepened, becoming a compelling, can't-miss series.

4. Scrubs (NBC) A 50-50 mix of humor and heart, TV's best comedy suffered no sophomore slump this fall. Instead, it continued to spin believable tales about the relationships of its core characters, expanding on their established traits.

John C. McGinley's Dr. Cox remains the unsentimental crazy glue that binds this genial ensemble together.

5. The Shield (FX) Not a series for the squeamish or those offended by realistic use of profanity, this cop drama shocks both with its violence and plot twists and the steady development of its characters. Michael Chiklis won an Emmy, but "The Shield" boasts one of the strongest, most talented ensembles of any drama series.

6. Smallville(The WB) At moments, it's the corniest show on TV, but darn if that isn't part of the appeal of this Superman series. After years of disaffected teens, it's a relief to see one who respects his parents and benefits from their wisdom, even if he is an alien. Producers have begun building a deliciously intricate mythology, especially the intermingling of the Kent family and the Luthors. We know those relationships are bound to go bad, but it's the paths that lead us to the inevitable that make "Smallville" a super treat.

7. American Dreams (NBC) Sweet without sending viewers into sugar shock, this '60s-era drama is television's best family show since the early, long-since-past winning days of "7th Heaven." Without wallowing in an abundance of baby boomer nostalgia, "Dreams" re-creates the era's social turmoil, its music and the values learned when families ate together at the dinner table.

8. Andy Richter Controls the Universe (Fox) They're the most self-absorbed, oddball group of friends since the "Seinfeld" gang, and their zany, surreal antics are a welcome respite from the same-old, same-old sitcoms that litter prime time. Richter is effortlessly funny, but it's the writing and supporting cast — especially Paget Brewster and Jonathan Slavin — who send the series spinning into a rare, uproarious comedy orbit.

9. Friends (NBC) After a rocky start, "Friends" has begun sprinting through the season. Celebrity cameos, rather than detracting, have added to the fun, particularly — and I never thought I'd type these words — Freddie Prinze Jr. as an overly sensitive nanny. NBC has touted this as the show's final season, but don't be surprised if the cast, studio and network decide to go for an even 10 years, keeping the airwaves "Friend"ly through 2004.

10. The West Wing (NBC) Young viewers abandoned this drama for "The Bachelor" and I suspect some conservatives got tired of the lefty rhetoric during the Bartlet campaign. Too bad for the faithless, "Wing" is having a stronger run than last year with better stories and an infusion of new blood (Joshua Malina and recurring guest star Christian Slater).