1 The Wire
The drug invading Baltimore is called Pandemic, and the implication is apt: On HBO's The Wire, every limb of the American big city police, politics, schools, business, drugs is sick, and each infected part is horrifically linked. Cash-strapped mayoral hopeful Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) is told to ''hit your numbers or die in this room,'' while on the street, middle-management drug dealer Bodie (JD Williams) is also feeling the economic pinch: An encroaching gang seems ''like Wal-Mart coming to town.'' As dealers and politicos drum up business, the nominal good guys cops and teachers are defanged, forced to listen to consultants with catchy acronyms and no solutions.
Raucous, dying Tilghman Middle School is the heart of The Wire's fourth season, which follows four inner-city eighth graders as they stumble toward futures as gangsters, row-house losers, or, perhaps, survivors. The Wire is a wrenching, brilliant indictment of pragmatism and complacency, but it's never miserable to watch. The diverse, buoyant characters put up a good fight: drunken howls at the moon, quiet sketches in a junked-out textbook, tiny gestures of humanity, like trying to salvage at least one kid from the heartbreaking wreckage. The actors are flawless; the writing is lined with empathy, insight, and quick, shocking slaps. Never has a good gutting been more appreciated.
2 Friday Night Lights NBC
With its broad skies and bendy accents, its glittery pageantry and jumpy pathos, Friday Night Lights looks like a drama about a Texas high school football team. It's also a perfect capture of small-town life: the car salesman with too much power, the shady ''town elder'' meetings held at Applebee's. Many TV series take on gender politics with winky dialogue and claptrap speeches. Lights with its rally girls and pancake breakfasts, its wary young men breathing steam—shows rather than tells, and feels completely true to its world. As the new coach and his wife, Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton display a genuine, broken-in affection rarely seen on TV. Their stray, unimportant moments of marital conversation give this adaptation of the popular book and film its heart.
3 Battlestar Galactica Sci Fi
Gods, what a year. The sci-fi series about the last fragments of humankind trying to survive the robot beings they've created jabbed at very earthly issues: birth rights, justice, religion, prejudice, genocide, suicide bombing, and the nature of humanity. Battlestar is wonderfully acted Katee Sackhoff's Starbuck is TV's most charismatic and infuriating hero and smartly written, with searching conversations that never devolve into lecture. It's part family drama, with worthy President Roslin (Mary McDonnell) and fair-minded Admiral Adama (Edward James Olmos) as parents to a bunch of boisterous spacekids. But, thankfully, Battlestar is also an old-fashioned, Errol Flynn-worthy bit of swashbuckling with vipers and raptors and fiery orange blast against a blue-black horizon.
4 30 Rock NBC
How utterly satisfying to watch a new series shoot from pretty good to really, really great. In her Saturday Night Live-inspired comedy, former SNL head writer Tina Fey has created a sitcom that's both sly and wacky. Along the way, she's become a dandy straight man to some perfectly outsize performers. Perched nimbly on the peak of Mount O'er the Top, onetime SNL-er Tracy Morgan as a comedian with a case of the crazies proves almost as much of a scene swiper as purry Alec Baldwin. Almost. As GE executive Jack Donaghy, Baldwin is megalomaniacal yet humble, sweet but scary and the guy can nail a Ziggy joke. And a wig joke. And a gag involving two oddly slack arms. When so many comedies are either hambone obvious or wincingly dry, 30 Rock hews to an old-school idea: Just be funny.
5 Bleak House PBS
Gillian Anderson, carrying herself like an ornate, decrepit angel, drops the temperature 20 degrees each time she appears on screen in this Dickens adaptation. As the mournful lady of Bleak House, she has a secret just like everyone trapped in the famously never-ending lawsuit of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. The seven-hour miniseries gives the tale room to sprawl, as it must past the crackling bones of bitter Smallweed (Phil Davis), around and around the courts and dance halls of Victorian London, and into the whispery, moaning homes where smallpox lives. Big, bawdy, mucky, stinky, full of false courtesy and genuine spite, Bleak House is absolutely, thrillingly Dickensian.