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Heroes to a grateful nation of viewers

Don't look past the underdogs: The really good stuff may not be on network TV, and if it is, it may not look like you expect.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published December 29, 2006


Complain if you will about the annoying things on TV - Penn Jillette's idiotic new game show is my prime example - but 2006 was still one of the best years for the small screen in ages.

As proof, here's my list of the coolest things about TV this year.

10. Battlestar Galactica: Forget that it used to be a cheesy '70s TV show starring Bonanza dad Lorne Greene. The Sci Fi Channel's remake is a gritty, imaginative allegory, as space-faring humans flee the Cylon machine race determined to exterminate them. The two-hour debut, with a brutal Cylon occupation, suicide bombings and a turncoat human security force, echoed the war in Iraq and the Holocaust almost in the same moment.

9. FX as the new HBO: Rescue Me, Denis Leary's brilliant dramedy about a firefighter who screws up everything except his job is Exhibit A. At once realistic and outlandish - How does a guy sleep with his dead cousin's wife, and her son's teacher, in the same lifetime? - Rescue Me joins The Shield and Nip/Tuck as the three boldest shows on TV.

8. Heroes saves NBC: NBC thought Aaron Sorkin and Tina Fey would turn its fourth-place fortunes around. But it took a comic-book-fed mystery about people with talents such as mind-reading and teleportation to bring viewers back to the peacock network. Comic book nerds can hoist their pocket protectors in victory.

7. 24 comes into its own: Its success pitting hero Jack Bauer against a villainous U.S. president helped spawn a raft of new serialized shows. In Hollywood, ripping off innovation is the ultimate compliment.

6. YouTube rewrites the rules for TV: It started when three computer geeks saw how fast video clips of Jon Stewart berating the hosts of CNN's Crossfire flew across the Internet and created their own video-sharing Web site. Now, anything of consequence on video - from Michael Richards' n-word rant to Impressionists Week on David Letterman's Late Show - is available at the click of a mouse button.

5. The networks stream video online: When you can call up crystal-clear versions of Lost, Desperate Housewives, Heroes and CSI from the networks' own Web sites, the concept of appointment viewing goes out the window. These days, viewers force hit TV shows to find them.

4. Dexter supercharges Showtime: Six Feet Under alum Michael C. Hall seems born to play Dexter Morgan, a forensics expert for the Miami police who hides a passion for killing killers. This absorbing series helped Showtime escape its reputation as a dumping ground for shows too lame for HBO.

3. The Wire stays hot: Bent on humanizing criminals and demythologizing cops, HBO's urban drama outlined how failed institutions can turn kids into streetwise players and worse.

2. Ugly Betty scores beautiful ratings for ABC: This candy-coated fable about a plucky plain Jane at a Manhattan fashion magazine shines - mostly on the charisma of star America Ferrera and deliciously vampish Vanessa Williams.

1. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart keep media honest: Colbert The Colbert Report and Stewart (The Daily Show) understand and skewer the hypocrisies of modern media better than anyone. From the Stewart rant that got Crossfire canceled to Colbert's scathing satire at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, these guys fearlessly speak truth to the inanity of power.

Times TV/media critic Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.