Not a great year for television when the highlights are Soul Patrol and Snow Patrol, but here are 10 preferences.
10. Rock Star Supernova, CBS. Where to begin? Tommy Lee's bi-curiosity? Gilby Clarke's hair? Jason Newsted's nonsensical advice? That a decision was made weeks before the finale? Or the consensus that the "supergroup" won't last a year? No matter. It was the only thing worth watching in a lean summer.
9. Two and a Half Men, CBS. I know the sitcom format is much maligned, but I will never understand why critics dismiss this show just because it's successful. Truth be told, it's the most subversive show on television, a reliably funny dismantling of marriage, family, and personal sanity. I'm absolutely stunned that something so mean-spirited is this popular. My only nitpick? Not enough Rose, played by the divine Melanie Lynskey.
8. Grey's Anatomy, ABC. Despite the soft-rock soundtrack of The Fray and the aforementioned Snow Patrol, this show put together a terrific Super Bowl episode and didn't really let up for the rest of the season. This fall, however, has been a mild drag, as its two best characters -- Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl) and Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington) aren't at full speed.
7. 30 Rock, NBC. Look, it brings the funny every week, and creator Tina Fey doesn't seem to care if it's highbrow or not. Alec Baldwin's bizarro performance leads an otherwise unphotogenic and underdog cast. More importantly, it keeps getting better with each episode. A worthy addition to that Thursday night comedy lineup.
6. The Colbert Report, Comedy Central. I'm beginning to see how the act may begin to wear thin, but until then, it's still damn entertaining. The host's tireless effort to franchise his popularity seems to be working: Colbert Nation is a lot more than a website.
5. House, FOX. I don't love the current developments that threaten to shake up the best civil union on TV, played by Hugh Laurie and Robert Sean Leonard. But something had to be done to separate the show from the cold procedural format. And all 6 characters are much more interesting this season.
4. Men in Trees, ABC. Yes, it's Sex and the City meets Northern Exposure, with Anne Heche as the allegedly hetero lead. I cannot explain why this show works. Maybe it's because the quirks in the girl and the town are actually turned down for a change. Or maybe it's the inn manager/radio DJ who sounds like Owen Wilson.
3. How I Met Your Mother, CBS. One of the more underrated ensembles on TV plays around with romance and time some more, slowly feeding us tidbits about these characters' lives. The lack of critical or audience attention gives the showrunners the initiative to attempt some very bizarre comedy. (Watch the episode that reveals why Robin won't go to the mall anymore, and you'll agree.)
2. Heroes, NBC. This season introduced a bunch of serialized shows with complicated plots that required audience attention and retention (like The Nine, Kidnapped, and Vanished). The problem? I don't think the average viewer can tolerate keeping up with more than 2 of these kinds of shows, and they already watch Lost and/or 24. So why did this show succeed? Because it was fun. And never underestimate the power of a show that begins in India.
1. Prison Break, FOX. I hope the rumors of a third season are untrue, because this show will sputter by then. For now, however, it remains the best show on TV for the second straight year. At one point I thought I'd figured out how the story would play out to form a lawful if uneasy resolution. Then the show killed off the one person who could make that resolution happen. Serves me right for trying to think things through. Ludicrous and compelling, it's the ultimate in escapism.
Honorable mention: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, NBC. This show could be great if its creators emulated the idealism of The West Wing rather than its red state/blue state politics. The Bartlet White House worked (at least the first few seasons) because it was a fantasy of what a presidency should be. Studio 60 should spend more time trying to convey an idealized Saturday Night Live, where the sketches are always funny and the hosts are fresh and perfect. (The Lauren Graham/Sting pairing was inspired, even though they wasted that opportunity.) One thing the show gets right: strong, breakout female performances (from Sarah Paulson and Amanda Peet), which almost never happened on SNL.
Dishonorable mention: The Class, CBS. I've already lamented its racist casting of 8 white leads here, ridiculous and irresponsible for a series set in Philadelphia. There may be worse shows, but I watch this one because it's wedged between #3 and #9 on my list. Sadly, I can count on one decent laugh each time. So it's worse than bad: it's watchably bad.