1. Sept. 11 attack coverage (NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, and Fox News Channel)
Watching the second plane slice into the side of the World Trade Center live, seeing both towers collapse in quick succession, unzipping themselves as they vanished into a mushroom cloud of dust — that was the worst thing I've ever seen on television. But in that brief window of time, what had been just an ugly piece of furniture was transformed into a lifeline to the destiny of our nation. Can you think of an occasion when having access to a television was more vital, or when the limitations of other media were most evident? Would we have thrown our support behind the war on terrorism in such record numbers if we hadn't witnessed the attack on our country, and its impact, virtually firsthand? Before Sept. 11, television's biggest controversy was the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" network switch. Those were the days.
2. "The Sopranos" (HBO)
Because TV's most sublime and compulsively name-checked show thumbs its nose at small-screen conventions, fans may find their viewing experience to be provocative rather than satisfying (as anyone predicting that Dr. Melfi's rape would be avenged at all — much less in a timely fashion — can attest). What catapults the mob drama to the top of the series heap this year, however, was one haunting, unflinchingly graphic installment about the beating death of a Bada Bing stripper (part of a broader season-long story arc about violence against women) that I would count among the best, most artfully constructed single episodes in TV history.
3. "Six Feet Under" (HBO)
Good news for a vast majority of Americans: Dysfunctional families were all the rage in 2001 (see also cinema's The Royal Tenenbaums and literature's The Corrections). But "Six Feet Under" set the trend way back in June, when the offbeat dramedy (created by American Beauty scribe Alan Ball) about a family of neurotic morticians made its debut. Initially plagued by implausible gimmickry and a somewhat funereal pace (couldn't resist), things got lively about midway through 6FU's 13-episode season. That's when the Fishers — prodigal flake Nate (Peter Krause), iconoclastic high-schooler Claire (Lauren Ambrose), and reluctant gay and likely Virgo David (Michael Hall) — started to seem less like a passel of mordant wackos and more like family.
4. "CSI : Crime Scene Investigation" (CBS)
Sure, "CSI" is a crowd-pleaser. It regularly out-performs its lead-in, "Survivor: Africa", and one recent week the sophomore drama reigned as television's top-rated show. But unlike many high-concept dramas, this slick, inventively shot dazzler deserves its huge audience. Energetic and smart, "CSI" doesn't slow itself down by delving too deeply into the lives of its characters ("ER", anyone?), all Las Vegas-based forensic scientists (including wooden William Petersen and fiery Marg Helgenberger). With its exhaustive fretting over the minutiae of crime-scene splatter, you might learn something that you didn't know about police work — the phony kind they show on television, that is.
5. "The Simpsons" (Fox)
Although the last few seasons of what is currently television's longest-running prime-time sitcom have been kind of a washout, relatively speaking, "The Simpsons" is still the most consistently funny and observant show on the air. Season 13 finds the show on an upswing (Homer recovers a traumatic childhood memory and hollers uncontrollably through most of the episode; Lisa gets turned on to Buddhism after the Rev. Lovejoy makes worship a commercial enterprise) after a period of slight decline.
6. "TV Funhouse" (Comedy Central)
Even the most clever TV comedies get old fast, so a brief series run isn't always a bad thing (ask the Brits). Case in point: Comedy Central's "TV Funhouse", a short-lived send-up of traditional children's shows and the brainchild of "Saturday Night Live" and former "Late Show With Conan O'Brien" writer Robert Smigel. Featuring profane, vice-loving animal puppets and clever Gen X-era animation parodies, "Funhouse's" cheeky, explodes-on-impact novelty and outré appeal ceased to be at just the right moment — on a high note.
7. "The Bernie Mac Show" (Fox)
Smack-talking stand-up comedian Bernie Mac, the most uproariously abrasive personality pacing the stage in the 2000 film The Original Kings of Comedy, takes his rant in the film about his bullying style of child rearing and puts it into practice on his self-titled sitcom. Despite Mac's questionable parenting skills (after his 5-year-old niece introduces him to her dolls, he tells her that she's the most boring person he's ever met) and the show's old-news premise (boisterous tykes break in fish-out-of-water parent substitute), "The Bernie Mac Show" manages to be affectionate and hilarious.
8. "New York: A Documentary Film" (PBS)
This prescient documentary was in production long before the events of Sept. 11 — the first portion of the film by Ric Burns (brother of famed documentarian Ken Burns) premiered more than two years ago. The concluding episodes traced New York's colorful history from the Depression era to the year 2000, examining the events (the city's near bankruptcy in the 1970s), forces (the epic vision implemented by power-crazed urban planner Robert Moses), and personalities (notably colorful, beloved Mayor Fiorello La Guardia) that helped shape the city. New York portrays its subject as having a unique capacity for reinvention, renewal, and renaissance — good news indeed.
9. "When Billie Beat Bobby" (ABC)
The only good thing about the how the movie industry blows off aging (read: experienced) actresses is that some intrepid thespians make the leap to the small screen, injecting some pizzazz (or is that a last gasp?) into the fast-fading TV-movie genre. Holly Hunter's assured and spunky take on tennis champ Billie Jean King in the ABC movie When Billie Beat Bobby was just such a class act. The flick traced the theatrical rivalry between feminist King and needling foil and former champ Bobby Riggs (played by a convincingly goofy Ron Silver), resulting in a 1973 grudge match between the two, the infamous "Battle of the Sexes." With its canned nostalgia, sunny outlook, and campy humor, Billie/Bobby was one of TV's bright spots.
10. "Everybody Loves Raymond" (CBS)
Raymond is the perfect family sitcom, bringing comfort to couples who identify with Ray and Debra (Ray Romano and Patricia Heaton) and their struggles to achieve conjoined bliss despite the meddling influence of extended family and their own serious character flaws. For singles, the show simply confirms that marriage really is the fresh hell they suspect it might be. Bonus: Whenever acerbic in-law Peter Boyle opens his mouth, guts bust.