By Dave McCoy
"Challenging television" used to be an oxymoron: Most shows were made for formula and comfort. Sure, you had your "All in the Family," your "Prisoner," your "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." But networks wanted viewers to feel familiar with the characters and plots beamed into their homes every week; the last thing they aimed for is stimulation. Why do you think soap operas have been so popular for so long?
However, the recent successes of cable -- starting with HBO and "The Sopranos" -- created a mini-revolution. The huge following of the morally ambiguous mob family showed that Americans were ready for something a bit more daring. And after FX, Bravo, Comedy Central and other cable networks found audiences for their original content, even the major networks have started to rethink their strategy.
So in honor of this trend, we list the top 10 shows that kept us engrossed in 2003. Did they rule the Nielsen ratings, among shows like "Friends," "Will & Grace" and "C.S.I."? Well, with one exception, no. But did they keep us guessing, break the rules and treat us like we had a brain? Without a doubt.
10. "24" (FOX)
Just when you think things can't get any worse for agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), "24"'s creators go and make a character who is already the most flawed, tortured soul on network TV into a heroin junkie. Season three's single day will feature angry Mexican drug lords, a deadly virus and (worst of all) the discovery that his annoying daughter is sleeping with his Justin Timberlake look-a-like partner -- and Jack already is screwed. The drug habit is just another example of how this cliffhanger keeps you on your toes. Yes, the format, with all its improbable twists, has maybe reached its breaking point in terms of plausibility. But it still springs surprises that you never see coming (Jack going back undercover with the Salazars?), it never lets you figure out who is on which side of the law, and most importantly, it's got Sutherland, chewing up scenery (with the DTs!) better than anyone.
9. "Alias" (ABC)
Creator J.J. Abrams isn't one to play it safe, so last season he imploded two seasons' worth of plotlines by destroying SD-6, the evil organization in which butt-kicking spy Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) was a double agent for the CIA. He also finally gave fans the long-anticipated hook-up between Sydney and her hunky "handler," Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan). How to top that? How about have Syd disappear for two years, only to return with no memory of where she's been? It was a bold move that could have alienated viewers, and while some recent episodes have been uneven, there have been enough inspired moments (e.g. casting David Cronenberg as an eccentric, vegan scientist) to keep us tuning in as Syd tries desperately to unravel her missing years while dealing with the emotional implications of the new Mrs. Vaughn, the no-longer-evil (or is he?) Arvin Sloane (the terrific Ron Rifkin), and the shadowy new uber-evil organization the Covenant.
8. "Survivor: Pearl Islands" (CBS)
We know what you're thinking: How can you call a seven-year-old reality show with a cut-and-dried formula challenging? Well, apparently creator Mark Burnett also felt the show was getting stale, because with this edition, he pulled some surprises. For example. he brought back the first six booted castaways into a tribe called the Outcasts and then let two lucky losers back in the game (one made it to the final two). But the biggest jolt of energy came before the cameras even started rolling, in the casting room. Two castaways alone made this show worth watching: the lovable, physically powerful yet mentally fragile hippie Rupert, and Johnny Fairplay, the diabolical scumbag whose lie about his grandmother's death had an entire nation wanting to string him up by his bleach-blonde mop-top. Challenging? Yeah, the challenge was not to throw something at your TV when Jon opened his mouth or made it through another three days. That said, he was a blast to watch and, along with Rupert, made "Pearl Islands" the most exciting, enjoyable edition of "Survivor" since its debut.
7. "The Shield" (FX)
"The Shield" is a gut-punch of a cop show. It's not pretty: There is tons of blood, intense violence and language, and cases that investigate sick behavior that I can't even discuss here. But it's real, and the second season maintained the fever-pitch emotional level of the first impressively. In the center of it all is Detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), who outside of Tony Soprano is the most fascinating alpha-male on television. Mackey is a complete opportunist. He does have a decent, moral side that occasionally surfaces, but he'll manipulate anyone -- including his wife and partners -- to get what he wants. Watching "The Shield" puts viewers in a strange position of pulling for a protagonist who is in fact a complete anti-hero. How refreshing it is to see the kind of tortured character from, say, '70s American cinema make his way to the small screen. We're counting down his return for season three.
6. "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (HBO)
The best thing about "Seinfeld" was that it understood the anger and meanness that lurks beneath the best humor. The best thing about "Curb Your Enthusiasm" -- created by and starring Larry David, the man behind "Seinfeld" -- is it's even angrier and waaaay meaner. Working on HBO has allowed David's twisted psyche to run free. Season 3 -- which featured Larry and friends trying to open a restaurant -- was the finest by far. We're witnessing a comedy in its peak as Season 4 is set to start in January 2004. The humor is candid, blistering and downright uncomfortable (the episode, "The Special Section," where Larry's mother dies while he's away on business, and his father neglects to tell him is jaw-dropping genius). Plus, its meticulous examination and send-up of trivial day-to-day events, ones that always lead to Larry's own personal hell, build beautifully in each episode.