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Sonja Sohn and Dominic West of HBO's "The Wire"
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The Best & Worst Television '04
From Jim Gandolfini to Jim Belushi, what we liked and what we spiked in 2004

By the MSN Entertainment staff

We could fall back on Dickensian paraphrase ("It was the best of seasons, it was the worst of seasons..."), or try to isolate a theme that summed up the torrent of good, bad and indifferent programming that coursed through our sets during the past year.  Fact is, there's so much TV of every kind that instead we've taken a highly unscientific and nakedly subjective straw vote among our team's usual gang of vidiots, splitting the difference.

Here are the shows we had to watch because they were so good (and a few because they weren't), as well as the shows that made us want to grab the remote and click elsewhere.  

BEST/WORST NEW SHOW

Best:  "Deadwood"
"Desperate Housewives" drew jaw-dropping Nielsen numbers, "Lost" tantalized with over-the-top plot twists, but the best new series of the year was "Deadwood," David Milch's evocatively reinvented Western.  With its rich (and baroquely profane) dialogue, a large cast of refugees, outlaws and grotesques, and towering performances by Ian McShane and Brad Dourif, this was not your father's horse opera. And by populating this lawless, rough-hewn new town with characters that didn't sort neatly into heroes and villains, Milch gave us a show we'll savor watching again on DVD.

Runners-up:
"Rescue Me" -- Denis Leary proves (again) that he's a riveting actor, not just a scabrous, darkly funny comic, as he imbues his firefighting saga with rage, sorrow and wit.

"Lost" -- The best series ever inspired by a paranoid network chief.  Sci-fi, satire, horror and soap opera all figure in the whiplash-inducing narrative, and a huge cast promises the water cooler buzz will continue.

"Veronica Mars" -- A smart, credible teen heroine (the wonderful Kristin Bell) makes this mystery series worth rooting for.  The ratings have been weak, but UPN's vote of confidence gives us hope.

"Desperate Housewives" -- We'd be sick of it already if the fizzy tone and solid cast didn't make it worth the hype.

Worst:  "Joey"
Matt LeBlanc is still a charming dummy, Drea de Matteo flexes serious comedy chops and Jennifer Coolidge is a reliable hoot.  Yet long shadow of "Friends" makes this spin-off less than the sum of its parts, and all the more disappointing because of it. The plastic surgery jokes at deMatteo's expense were tiresome by episode two.

Runners-up:
"LAX" -- Finally, a show that even Heather Locklear can't resuscitate.  If we already dread going to the airport, why would we want to tune in to visit one?

"Medical Investigation" -- Neal McCullough was riveting on "Boomtown," but this, sir, is no "Boomtown."  Given the bumper crop of new medical dramas, we'll take "House."

"Center of the Universe" -- A roomful of Emmy and Oscar winners does not guarantee success when the premise and scripts are lame.

"dr. vegas" -- We love Joe Pantoliano, and we appreciate Rob Lowe's capacity for self-parody.  But even as a guilty pleasure, this sawbones-in-the-casino dramedy was a bad bet.

BEST/WORST DRAMA

Best: "The Wire"
There may never have been more crime dramas on the airwaves, as the networks wage the war of the franchises.  But while "CSI" banks on gross-out FX and sullen heroes, and "Law & Order" continues cloning its binary cops/lawyers template, the most intelligent drama on TV relies on brilliant scripts, layered performances (especially by Dominic West) and intricate storytelling.  Under David Simon's supervision, "The Wire" reaches for the detail and nuance of a novel, not an episodic series, and it relies on a writing staff noteworthy for actual novelists to achieve that goal.

Runners-up:
"The Sopranos" -- A dispiriting fifth season, for all the right reasons.  David Chase dares to follow the chaotic consequences of his twin families' lousy choices.

"The O.C." -- It's soapy, it's hip, it's teen-driven, but it's also shrewder than that formula suggests.  Josh Schwartz has built a split-level soap that likes its grown-up characters as much as its telegenic younger set.

"Angel" -- The "Buffy" spin-off carved out its own, increasingly audacious and even whimsical universe before taking its final bow in season five.

"Without a Trace" -- If "CSI" embodies Jerry Bruckheimer's assembly line instincts, "Without a Trace" and "Cold Case" attest to his strengths in bringing big screen skill to the tube.  "Trace" boasts a solid cast, headed by the terrific Anthony LaPaglia.

Worst:  "CSI: Miami"
Call it Unreality TV.  The forensic crime empire's second entry gives us designer office spaces and a team that favors suits and even leather in the swelter of the Gold Coast. Only the décolletage enables cast members to cool off. David Caruso's over-the-top intensity makes us watch for the same reason we used to catch "Walker: Texas Ranger" -- it's caricature of cartoon dimensions.  Fit and finish may be polished to big screen standards, but the plots and characters don't fly.

Runners-up:
"Third Watch" -- The original triptych of police, firefighters and paramedics has been manhandled with lurching excursions into soap opera and can-you-top-this catastrophes.  Recent episodes are much improved, especially in production values, but can you un-jump the shark?

"NYPD Blue" -- In which that last question is almost answered in the affirmative.  In its final season, Dennis Franz is wonderful, but Jimmy Smits' return as the Ghost of Seasons Past was cynical, sweeps-pandering schmuck bait and a telling sign of the show's decline.

Next: The Best & Worst Comedy and Reality programming --->