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For TV quality, the eye network

It wasn't the best of times, and it wasn't the worst of times. In the final analysis, the 2000-2001 television season was just kind of there. Sure, it had its moments, but when mere moments stand out as major creative accomplishments, something clearly is wrong.

Of my top five shows of last season, only one has constantly improved: CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond" continues to mine the intricacies of family life, recalling the days of "Playhouse 90" when writers and actors together knew how to make every moment of every scene count. Patricia Heaton, Doris Roberts, Brad Garrett and Peter Boyle all deserve Emmys for their top-notch work.

"Becker," the show following "Raymond," follows a similar play-like structure, though this clever comedy - featuring Ted Danson topping his "Cheers" work as a curmudgeonly doctor - plays out in three acts instead of two. The trend is catching: NBC's "Just Shoot Me," desperate to revive itself, adopted the same format this season.

CBS also corners the market for dramatic family programming with "Judging Amy," which admittedly breaks little new storytelling ground, yet still represents the most consistent group of characters on network TV, largely due to Amy Brenneman, Dan Futterman and the incomparable Tyne Daly.

Good performances have saved "The West Wing" and "Once and Again," my two best of last year. Aaron Sorkin, "Wing's" creator, gave less material to John Spencer and Rob Lowe, the show's original two leads, and beefed up the characters of Alison Janney, Richard Schiff and most notably, Bradley Whitford. Sorkin erred in creating catastrophes to be resolved on a weekly basis. A president doesn't have to save the world to be liked, he just has to show signs of life; luckily, in Martin Sheen, we find that. Sorkin's choice to finally explore the plot involving the president's multiple sclerosis is a step in the right direction.

"Again" also verged on melodrama, but never actually crossed the line with its occasional after-school special story ideas (eating disorders, runaway teens). The show also went out on a limb by humanizing its leads, particularly Sela Ward's Lily, whose self-absorption had no end. The show, still a poetic sentiment about the ties that bind, lost some steam but still has great potential to rebound next season - if ABC opts to pick it up.

"Again's" greatest strength is its female characters. No fewer than four - Marin Hinkle, Susanna Thompson, Julia Whelan and Evan Rachel Wood - gave glowing, and at times, heartbreaking performances. On the other end of the spectrum, "The Sopranos" horribly neglected its female regulars. Edie Falco and Lorraine Bracco each served as mere backdrop except for one episode each written to be used as a clip for Emmy consideration, no doubt.

Additionally, "Sopranos" seems to be laying the groundwork for its fourth and purportedly final season. As a result, this season has seen many new characters and plot lines introduced, only to be marginally developed and certainly not resolved, leaving much of the burden to fall on James Gandolfini's immensely capable shoulders. An extra plus was the work of Steven Schirripa and Annabella Sciorra in two minor roles.

Older shows also showed serious decline of life: "The Practice" has become far from perfect, with contrived yet uncompelling stories; "Frasier" walks a tightrope as it prolongs the Daphne-Niles romance; "Will and Grace" has become a derivative "Seinfeld" knock-off with increasingly off-putting characters; "Ally McBeal" and "NYPD Blue" have both run out of new stories to tell, as has "ER" (though stars Laura Innes and Maura Tierney are revelations); and "Friends" has nowhere to go but down once Chandler and Monica marry.

That leaves only one new show with any promise at all: "Ed," on NBC. A wickedly clever and usually realistic slice of small-town life and love, "Ed" is just the shot of irreverence the increasingly stale NBC needs.

With the writers' strike looming ahead, don't expect much progress in the way of creativity. Might I suggest changing the channel to FX, where four hours a day one can discover the glory of "Beverly Hills, 90210?"

But I'd need another column to get into that.