Let’s just call it the year of viewing dangerously.

You could lose a lot of brain cells in 2003 just by inadvertently gazing upon such disturbing things as “Joe Millionaire,” Britney kissing Madonna, “Coupling,” Trista and Ryan’s wedding, or the feeding frenzy of cable news coverage of Kobe, Laci Peterson and Wacko Jacko.

And let’s not forget the bizarro world of President George W. Bush landing on that aircraft carrier. Schlock and guffaw.

Meanwhile, the real carnage, death and anguish of the war in Iraq was initially lost last spring amid the gee whiz, techno-dazzle immediacy of embedded reporters and boom-boom video game visuals from the combat zone. The very genuine human suffering on both sides was too often shoved to the background as news anchors with flag pins in their lapels made like home team sports announcers. Appalling.

Back in the prime-time entertainment combat zone, the commercial networks continued to flounder as more nimble, adventurous cable channels like FX (“Nip/Tuck,” “The Shield”), Bravo (“Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”) and HBO (“Angels in America”) refused to play it safe. Cable took chances, generated buzz, got viewers excited.

And the major networks? They remain infatuated with cheap, largely cheesy reality programs, stale dramatic formulas and exceedingly trite laugh-track sitcoms. Same old, same mold. The latest fall season produced zero new breakout hits. And ratings for popular old series from “Friends” to “NYPD Blue” fell off as mass viewer apathy increased. The Big Ho-Hum.

The amazing thing? It could be worse.

Challenging, imaginative television still gets made. Amazing but true. Let’s just hope there’s more in 2004.

2003 TV top 10:

• “Angels in America” (HBO). Al Pacino and Meryl Streep brought their unforgettable “A” games to this mesmerizing adaptation of Tony Kushner’s epic Pulitzer Prize-winning play. A thrilling, uncompromising work of television artistry. Quite simply a classic.

• “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” (Comedy Central). From the Iraq War to Wacko Jacko, the wickedly inspired newscast satire delivered a smart, hilarious weeknightly shout of comic sanity.

• “Joan of Arcadia” (CBS). The fall season’s most interesting new network drama is a minor miracle – a refreshingly witty, emotionally absorbing and blessedly non-sanctimonious contemplation of faith and spirituality.

• “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (HBO). Larry David’s outlandishly entertaining odyssey of curdled Hollywood manners remains an improvisational comic masterpiece.

• “24” (Fox). The amazing thrill ride hasn’t blown a gasket yet as Kiefer Sutherland races to save the world for a third time in the supercharged, cliffhanger-crazy suspense drama.

• “Boomtown” (NBC). An innovative crime drama, blessed with fine writing and a riveting performance by Neal McDonough as tormented District Attorney David McNorris, was unceremoniously shot dead this fall by NBC after only two episodes of its second season. That’s a real crime.

• “The Office” (BBC America). A British comic tour de force of passive-aggressive workplace behavior, punctuated by writer-creator Ricky Gervais’ smarmily outrageous performance as insufferable middle manager David Brent.

• “Alias” (ABC). Fabulous spy girl fun. Series creator J.J. Jacobs has concocted television’s most enticingly stylish and entertaining espionage caper. Biff, bam, pow! Jennifer Garner rocks!

• “Everwood” (WB). Television’s most underrated and overlooked drama series weaves a sly, heartfelt and charmingly witty portrait of family life in a small Colorado mountain community. Touching, terrific.

• “Six Feet Under” (HBO). A dark, smart, funny and compelling soap opera about death, love, neuroses and complicated life in the Fisher family funeral home. Drop dead entertaining.

Honorable mentions:

“Arrested Development” (Fox)

“The Shield” (FX)

“Without a Trace” (CBS)

“The O.C.” (Fox)

“Ed” (NBC)

“Sex and the City” (HBO)

“Monk” (USA Network)

“Cold Case” (CBS)

“Lucky” (FX)

“Karen Sisco” (ABC)

“The Guardian” (CBS)

“The West Wing” (NBC)

“Angel” (WB)

“Chappelle’s Show” (Comedy Central)

“Da Ali G Show” (HBO)

“The Mullets” (UPN)

“Primetime Glick” (Comedy Central)

“Kingpin” (NBC)

“Line of Fire” (ABC)

“Playmakers” (ESPN)

“The Wire” (HBO).

OTHER NOTABLES:

Saddest Farewells: John Ritter, Fred Rogers.

Best Reality TV: “The Joe Schmo Show” (Spike TV), “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” (Bravo), “The Simple Life” (Fox).

Perennial High Quality Hall of Fame: “The Simpsons” (Fox).

Motor City Rock “N’ Roll Paradise: The White Stripes ripping it up four straight nights in April on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.”

Coolest Acting Addition To An Old Show: James Spader, “The Practice.”

Really Bad TV Jive Five: “Coupling” (NBC), “K Street” (HBO), “Fear Factor” (NBC), “Joe Millionaire” (Fox), “Hope & Faith” (ABC).

Much Ado About Nothing: “The Reagans” (CBS/Showtime).

Best Good/Bad Guilty Pleasure: “Nip/Tuck” (FX).



(c) 2003, Detroit Free Press.

Visit the Freep, the World Wide Web site of the Detroit Free Press, at http://www.freep.com.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-12-29-03 1616EST



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