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Hits and duds

We've got a bit of Survivor in us, coming out alive after a TV season of conniving hits and big misses (oh, Brother).

There are times when watching TV can feel like being strapped to the world's largest seesaw.

For every step forward, you take a step back. For every 60 Minutes, Sopranos and Seinfeld, there's a Daddio, Falcone and Hard Copy eating up valuable air time.

What we know so far: 16 back-stabbing weasels trapped on a tropical island are way more interesting than 10 human hamsters stuck in a house. TV is better at making stars than recycling them.

And if you're going to marry two people who've never met on prime time TV, you'd better make sure one doesn't have a restraining order on record.

Here's a list of top TV trends and shows from 2000, in no particular order:

THE BEST

Survivor _ Yes, I howled about this exploitative, dangerous series when it was first announced more than a year ago. And yes, the tiki torches and bamboo filling its Tribal Council set looked like Luau Night at the local Holiday Inn. But watching 16 people play Lord of the Flies on an isolated tropical island for a $1-million jackpot proved more fun than any right-thinking person might admit. Sure, the ending _ where ejected castaway Greg Buis used a numbers game to hand victory to deliciously despicable manipulator Richard Hatch _ felt about as spontaneous as Al and Tipper's convention night smooch. Still, the combination of soap opera intrigue, boot-camp deprivations and game show competition proved an irresistible summertime attraction.

The West Wing _ Creator Aaron Sorkin has gotten a little preachy lately _ when Republican Ainsley Hayes gave her melodramatic speech about working in a Democratic White House, I wanted to throw a brick at the TV screen _ but it's still got the best acting ensemble and writing on network TV.

Bull _ TNT's Wall Street drama electrifies the business world while humanizing its denizens. Its only misstep: losing Stanley Tucci's slimy manipulator Hunter Lasky.

HBO _ The cable giant offers more quality shows than any TV outlet: The Chris Rock Show, The Sopranos, Sex and the City, The Corner miniseries and Oz, to name a few. Even its failures (Larry David's vaguely annoying Curb Your Enthusiasm) are interesting.

Once and Again _ Week after week, while showing two divorced parents in love, this series delivers subtle, complicated takes on everything from teen anorexia to adult sibling rivalry. So why aren't more people watching?

Felicity/The Gilmore Girls _ These WB dramas _ one about a young mother and her teen daughter, the other about an urban college kid and her friends _ have emerged as the network's best-written, most-engaging fare. Forget Dawson's Creek; this is proof positive that there's value in this teen-centered channel growing up a bit.

Gay themes in Hollywood _ Three years post- Ellen, Will & Grace anchors NBC's Thursday Must-See TV franchise, Showtime's Queer as Folk challenges straight viewers with in-your-face gay sex scenes and even burly John Goodman is switching teams onscreen. Here's hoping this trend, which includes gay relationships among characters on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ER, Dark Angel and Popular, brings a wider range of gay characters in the future.

Rejuvenated returning series _ From Terminator 2 co-star Robert Patrick's juicing up of The X-Files to a troubled Robert Downey Jr. boosting Ally McBeal, the success of this year's season has come from old shows finding fresh voices. Other returning shows with strong seasons: The Practice, Frasier (a healthy survivor despite getting booted off NBC's Must-See Thursdays), Malcolm in the Middle, The Simpsons, and Third Watch.

Election month coverage _ In the 36 days it took to decide the presidential election, TV news viewers got crash courses on the Electoral College and voting law, while peeking inside the Florida Supreme Court, Florida Legislature and vote counting sessions statewide. (So what if most of that coverage made us look like the world's biggest goons?) Along the way, MSNBC's Lester Holt and Ashleigh Banfield cemented their careers with quality work, along with NBC's Dan Abrams and Tim Russert, ABC's George Stephanopoulos, and CNN's Bill Hemmer and Greta Van Susteren.

The Daily Show _ Leno and Letterman were cool, and special props go out to Saturday Night Live's Will Ferrell and Darrell Hammond for their devastating send-ups of Al Gore and George W. Bush. Still, Jon Stewart's newscast parody The Daily Show truly nailed this election's weird mix of absurdity and incompetence _ was its Indecision 2000 campaign moniker prophetic or what? _ proving the best tonic for our collective election nightmare.

THE WORST

Big Brother _ How did CBS drop the ball with its other summer reality TV experiment, Big Brother? Let me count the ways: 1) 10 boring contestants mostly united in their lust for post-show fame. 2) European producers who forgot that, stripped of the nudity and sex that filled previous overseas versions, there's not much show left. 3) "Challenge" tasks for contestants _ like stacking dominoes and riding a stationary bike _ were more boring than the human hamsters performing them. My suggestion: move it to HBO, add automatic weapons and make sure host and Early Show newsreader Julie Chen gets caught in the crossfire.

Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? _ This show coralled two dishonest, publicity-hungry contestants, Darva Conger and Rick Rockwell, and prompted them to fake one of the most important decisions two people can make. That it all came crashing down amid news of Rockwell's restraining orders and Conger's insincere fame-chasing proves there is occasionally some justice in show biz.

The Michael Richards Show _ In a year where TV's most talented celebrities have been wasted in the worst shows of the year (Geena Davis, Bette Midler or John Goodman, anyone?), this was, hands down, the worst. Richard's clumsy private investigator parody was a bizzaro Seinfeld that made a Kramer-ish character the star and delivered zero laughs.

Dr. Laura _ Radio's brittle queen of screechy moralizing managed the neat trick of being both overbearing and pointlessly boring in her new syndicated show. This is why radio stars usually should be heard and not seen.

The Summer Olympics _ A 15-hour time difference, NBC's insistence on delaying important events until prime time (padded with ultra-sappy feature stories) and an embarrassingly jingoistic focus on American athletes made this the lamest summer games in a while.

Racial diversity problems continue _ It's bad enough that Chris Rock quit the funniest late night show on television, or that CBS finally clipped the black-centered, creatively challenged City of Angels. Now, despite months of agitation from minority groups, Hispanics and Asian Americans remain nearly invisible on TV. Thanks to City of Angels, skittish networks will likely conclude white audiences won't watch black dramas. (What Angels really proved is that white audiences won't watch bad dramas.) And with shows such as Andre Braugher's improving, multi-hued Gideon's Crossing and David Alan Grier's DAG still struggling, expect things to get worse before they get better.

Old series disease _ Characterized by moribund story lines and ludicrous stunts, this ailment has ravaged network TV's best shows. Exhibit A: ER's cartoonish melodrama. (One doctor has a brain tumor, another is giving up her newborn child for adoption, a third killed a mugger in self defense and a nurse struggles with a bipolar parent. Doesn't anybody here just work and go home?) Other symptoms: Law & Order's predictable plot lines, which feel like they were ripped from last month's headlines; Friends' listless redundancy (didn't these guys just get a record-setting pay raise?); and Jenna Elfman's forced cutesiness on Dharma and Greg, which makes you wonder when her head will explode.

Election night and after _ Turns out the bad calls on Election Night were just the beginning. Other problems: a disturbing lack of progressive voices and people of color among TV's pundit class; Fox News Channel's persistent courtship of right-wing viewers; the ineffectual performances of CNN stalwarts Larry King and Bernard Shaw; the growing irrelevance of network news in the age of 24-hour cable news; and the overbearing arrogance of gasbags Chris Matthews at MSNBC and Bill O'Reilly at Fox News Channel.

Yes, Dear and Spin City _ Both are mostly formulaic, ill-considered comedies. So why do viewers keep showing up, week after week? (In particular, the success of Charlie Sheen's glassy-eyed, expressionless Spin City performance remains a mystery.) It's evidence, yet again, that when it comes to bad network TV, sometimes we have only ourselves to blame.

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