Identifying the 10 best dramatic episodes of the fiscal TV year proved a daunting task — and not just because the category eliminates the “Rex cries after he ejaculates” edition of self-described comedy “Desperate Housewives,” as well as the lesbian hot-tub screen test on the WB’s “The Starlet.”
Settling on which episodes to choose from among favorite series proved especially challenging, since no one would be galvanized by a list featuring four episodes of “Deadwood” or the entire Famke Janssen arc on “Nip/Tuck.”
As a consequence, this roster seeks to recognize a variety of programs, highlighting the depth and breadth of work accomplished over the last year.
10. “Battlestar Galactica” (Sci Fi, Jan. 14) This improbably good revival ended up being a few light-years better than its predecessor and launched on a riveting note, with a tautly paced installment where the colonial fleet must leap into hyperspace every 33 minutes to escape the pursuing Cylons. Along with “Smallville,” the series proved that sci-fi needn’t sit at the children’s table when the subject of quality arises.
9. “House” (Fox, April 19) Despite its share of flaws, Hugh Laurie’s characterization as a pill-popping, perpetually surly doctor gradually won me over, particularly with this hour involving a grim choice over the fate of a pregnant woman. The series could still use a stronger support staff and needed an injection from “American Idol” to gain commercial appeal, reminding us that in primetime, too, life can be a fragile proposition.
8. “24” (Fox, May 9) Although an up-and-down season overall, only “24” would be bold enough to end an episode with a nuclear missile launch, leaving the audience to sweat out what happens until the following week. The not-knowing-how-it’ll-end concept continues to intrigue.
7. “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (NBC, Nov. 23) In a year that saw the “Law & Order” umbrella unwisely stretched to encompass a fourth hour, No. 2 delivered a memorable “he said, she said” rape episode guest-starring Billy Campbell, left, that dared to leave the outcome for the audience to ponder. Given the emphasis on neatly resolved, black-and-white crime shows, it was a welcome breath of sobriety.
6. “NYPD Blue” (ABC, March 1) Frequently overlooked in its later seasons, this landmark crime series exited on a perfectly calibrated note, leaving the beleaguered Det. Andy Sipowicz (the incomparable Dennis Franz) in a settled place without a single forced note.
5. “The West Wing” (NBC, April 6) Credit producer John Wells for reinvigorating this much-honored political drama with this season’s buildup toward a season finale that saw Rep. Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) deliver a logjam-breaking speech at the Democratic National Convention. Not only was the year unpredictable, but in presenting two admirable candidates (the other played by Alan Alda), the show reclaimed its aspirational vision of public servants whom any civic-minded person could embrace.
4. “The Wire” (HBO, Dec. 12) This impossibly dense crime drama featured one of its most indelible moments as Omar (Michael K. Williams) and assassin-for-hire Brother Mouzone (Michael Potts) engaged in a Western-style showdown before teaming up to take out drug lord Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). David Simon’s depressing take on the intractable nature of the drug war remains TV’s most challenging (and often most rewarding) hour.
3. “Lost” (ABC, Oct. 13) A promising series became a great one with the jarring revelation that great white hunter John Locke (Terry O’Quinn) was actually in a wheelchair before arriving on the island. Around that time, it became clear (to me, anyway) that a premise that initially looked too confining to last was rife with possibilities in the flashback sequences that shed light on the survivors.
2. “Deadwood” (HBO, March 6) David Milch’s revisionist Western opened its second season on an operatic high, as the town’s two most formidable characters, Marshal Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and saloonkeeper Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), engaged in a brutal encounter that culminated with the latter announcing, “Welcome to fuckin’ Deadwood!” Beyond its blue streaks, the series remains one of TV’s most addictive programs.
1. “Nip/Tuck” (FX, Aug. 17) Somehow, an hour about conjoined twins and the strained relationship between the central characters played by Dylan Walsh and Julian McMahon resonated longer than any other I watched last year. The episode perfectly encapsulated the show’s mix of humor, poignancy and over-the-top moments (a three-way with a hooker?) that somehow never plummet over the edge.