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Downing

The ads aside, network TV offers pleasurable viewing options

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Some time ago, in response to a column in which I said that two HBO series were the best thing since sliced bread, a reader asked whether I could give equal time to "TV for poor people." (BTW, I take strong exception to the implication that I am a rich person. For antiquity and ugliness, my Honda rules.) I lost the message (sorry!), so here's my response:

Currently, my favorite show on network TV is 24, which we missed last year because I thought it was Tom Clancy with a gimmick. But then some critic said that the gimmick--every hour-long episode is a real-time hour in one very bad day--was sort of cool, and that instead of being the reactionary hardware fantasy I had imagined, the show was actually subversive. Turns out it is, and it's terrific.

Most of the subversion is in the characterizations. We've got a weasel of a president, an upstanding Secretary of Defense who allows his son to be tortured on the off-chance he knows something (you'll be relieved to hear that the guy's much nicer to his D.C.-princess daughter), a deliciously nasty bitch-boss and, above all, our expressionless, comically omnicompetent hero, Kiefer Sutherland.

Terrorist attacks and workplace warfare are just a peg to hang the action on; at heart, 24 is a bravura experiment in sustained narrative. The real suspense is about whether the show can keep our adrenalin pumping for another 11 weeks. (I mean, we've already had a nuclear meltdown with the loss of tens of thousands of lives. 24 is mean.) This meta-plot gives the thing its juice.

The makers of 24 cook. Every week, the Global Crisis gets ratcheted up a notch, and two or three smaller crises and several startling events make the atmosphere in the nifty situation room of the Central Terrorism Unit even tenser--were that possible. Plus, we get at least three big explosions, two stunning feats of technological know-how, a shootout and a car chase every week. You know this isn't ripped from the headlines but mapped out on a spreadsheet, but it's too much fun to care.

Let's see. Next would come Law & Order: Criminal Intent, our favorite Law & Order at the moment. (We are loyal consumers of Law & Order products.) L&O: SVU is pretty good, but Vincent D'Onofrio and Samantha Buck are the best weird platonic TV couple since Mulder and Scully. Criminal Intent is one of the few American crime shows to develop subtle, BBC-style relationships among the characters. Personally, I like that sort of thing.

I also like Medium, which has an offbeat sweetness that's like nothing else I've seen on television. This blessing seems to emanate from Patricia Arquette, who's wonderful in the title role. Everything about the set-up is wildly improbable--oh right, a district attorney would trust a psychic housewife enough to send out the squad cars every time she has a creepy dream--but the tone is so matter-of-fact that I, at least, happily suspend disbelief. (And is a working police medium really harder to swallow than coroners and prosecutors showing deep cleavage at work?) Medium also explores the mystery of evil with surprising thoughtfulness: A scene in a recent episode in which the medium confronts and threatens a potential serial murderer was pretty darn stunning, by my lights.

My husband will not say what he thinks of Medium, but will nod his head when I say good things about it. In return for all the many, many hours the TV spews sports, I get my psychic mom detective show mockery-free. He draws the line, however, at Nanny 911, no matter how nice I am about the Super Bowl. (I asked about the score this year. Several times.) He finds the nerve-shredding awfulness of the "before" families unbearable, and their synthetic "after" perfection disgusting. But, I cry, in between, there's the nanny whipping everyone into shape!

The show does overdo the happy ending thing. Its satisfying demonstrations of sane child-raising always give way to the plastic happy ending demanded by "reality" TV. The kids don't need to be perfect at the end of the hour; a reasonable noise level and no knives would be great, given where they started. Besides, there's usually one kid with that coyote look in his eyes, even while the little demon is getting a big teary hug from Mom or Dad. You want to warn them.

The downside to network TV, no matter how good, is the commercials. Once you're used to cable and DVDs, the ads drive you nuts. (Here's hoping Casino of the Sun sinks into the desert sands.) So TiVo is probably in our future, but in the meantime, we're really fast with the mute button. Because there is no free TV.

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