The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly 'Swan' By Robert Bianco, USA Today December 31, 2004 Suddenly, the state of scripted television looks a lot less desperate. All it took to banish a few years' worth of TV despair was the arrival of two big hits, "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost." Now the attention is back on what TV has always done best: create characters and tell extended stories. As always, the news is not all positive. No movie this year matched last December's "Angels in America" or even came close. And although a handful of sitcoms are worth watching -- "Arrested Development," "Two and a Half Men," "Scrubs," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Less Than Perfect" and "Entourage" among them -- the genre as a whole remains depressed. So as we reach the end of a surprisingly good year, let's celebrate the best of TV, brush away the worst and hope for even better from 2005. The very best: 'Lost' (ABC) How do you stretch a plane-crash castaway story into a weekly series? You do it by structuring the show so that the compelling mystery isn't where these people are, but who they are. And so, under the guidance of "Alias" ' supremely creative J.J. Abrams, "Lost" offers the intense pleasures of two shows in one: an exciting, grand-scale adventure married to a smart, intimate drama. Each week, 48 people face the trauma of forming a new society and each week, a happily committed fan cult joyfully gets lost in their stories. The very worst: 'The Swan' (Fox) Leave it to Fox's Gollum-like reality division, which has sold whatever soul it had in pursuit of the next big hit, to confuse "Frankenstein" with "Cinderella." What is more revolting: the assumption that there is some single standard of beauty we all can or should attain; or the idea that it's OK to carve people up like turkeys and throw them into some bogus beauty contest, just so you can tell all but one of them they still haven't made the grade? Besides, if you're going to pass judgment on the work that was done, shouldn't the show be called "The Surgeon" instead of "The Swan"? More of the good 2. "Desperate Housewives" (ABC) Like "Lost," the season's biggest new hit is a hybrid, part twist-a-minute mystery, part fast-moving soap, part ribald sex comedy. Marc Cherry has used the comic gifts he honed on "The Golden Girls" to create an hour-long version of a friends-in-need sitcom. Underneath the romps, the pratfalls and the hopping from bed to bed is the story -- perfectly cast and played -- of four women bonding together to face the difficulties of life: the death of a friend, the collapse of a marriage, the realization that parenting is hard and sometimes unrewarding work. "Housewives" is great fun, but it's the poignancy behind the desperation that hooks you in. 3. "Arrested Development" (Fox) Don't look for poignancy here. TV's best sitcom plays family dysfunction strictly and reliably for laughs. Where other shot-like-a-movie sitcoms have used the absence of a studio audience as an excuse not to be funny, "Arrested Development" uses it to crowd the screen with jokes it couldn't otherwise tell. The show gleefully bounces from elaborate sight gags (including one involving a bathtub, a camera phone and weapons of mass destruction that defies explanation here), to subtle, almost whispered insults, many of them sotto voce responses by the invaluable Jason Bateman to the fabulous Jessica Walter. ("The doctor said I couldn't be a mother now if I tried. And that was without interviewing me.") In a medium that tends to pound every joke home, you have to love a show that's confident enough to throw a few away. 4. "The Wire" (HBO) By returning to its drug-war roots, this hard-hitting, far-reaching, one-of-a-kind examination of urban decay produced its most accessible and yet least watched season. What can we say? You can, if you choose, criticize HBO for moving this extremely fragile piece of TV art to the fall, where it was crushed by the competition. Or, since it's the holidays, you can praise HBO for putting "The Wire" on the air for three years, even though there was never any sign of widespread public interest. If this is how it ends, "The Wire" can go out knowing it was the only show telling this kind of story about these kinds of people and telling it almost unimaginably well. 5. "Rescue Me" (FX) The still-lamented cancellation of "The Job" freed Denis Leary and Peter Tolan to do this even better version. Set in a firehouse rather than a police station, it brings out every one of Leary's strengths, including some we didn't know he had. With its empathy for blue-collar public servants, its mix of humor and drama and its engaging yet damaged central character, "Rescue Me" is the "NYPD Blue" heir-apparent. More of the bad 2. "Growing Up Gotti" (A&E) "Growing up Gotti"? That's not a title; it's a threat. The most repulsive of the hidden-camera shows, "Gotti" stars yet another reality-show mother who should be struggling to change her children's bad behavior rather than offering it up as entertainment fodder for an increasingly less grateful nation. Please, people. Seek help, before society forces it upon you. 3. "The Benefactor" (ABC) The only show that did a worse job of copying "The Apprentice" than "The Apprentice 2" was Mark Cuban's "The Benefactor." This game show was one of the many reality mistakes that the networks had to rush to an early conclusion, like nervous hostesses herding misbehaving guests toward the door. It was apparently Cuban's belief that America would enjoy watching people toady up to him for cash. Apparently not. 4. "BMOC" (WB) How do you make the networks-as-panderers dating format even smarmier? Move it to a college campus, so we can see teenagers throw themselves at some would-be stud for the privilege of being named Campus Queen. I'm assuming WB used "BMOC" as a title because "Coed Call Girl" was already taken. 5. "The Mountain" (WB) In a neck-and-neck race, the winner of Worst Scripted Show of 2004 goes to "The Mountain." Granted, "Center of the Universe" was a more egregious waste of talent, "Listen Up" more grating, "Method and Red" more inept, and "Father of the Pride" more ill conceived. Yet "The Mountain" wins because it was just so completely superfluous. And because you know, deep down, WB knew it was never going to make even a speed bump out of this molehill, let alone a mountain. Note from AA: In your opinion, what was the best and worst show on TV during 2004?