WHENEVER ANYONE SAYS there are so many television channels but nothing to watch, that individual usually is someone who does not watch much TV at all. What they do not know is that a good case can be made that we are living in a new golden age of television. David Chase's "The Sopranos" set the present-day standard for TV drama, eclipsing all other dramatic entertainment in the last 30 years. With HBO, Showtime, and other cable channels leading the way, we have had a cornucopia of high definition digital images spewing out of the TV screen--and most of the programs are available on DVD for uninterrupted viewing.
For those who are not put off by bizarre premises, "Dexter" and "Breaking Bad" offer extraordinary acting and well-written scripts that rival the best programs of any year. Jeff Lindsay's "Dexter" involves a serial killer and that uncomfortable idea alone stopped many people from watching, but the first three seasons were done masterfully, with sharp finales that did not disappoint. Michael C. Hall in the title role has refashioned himself completely from his character in another well-done series, "Six Feet Under." He invites the viewer into the mind of a serial killer, providing insight into what a normal-looking man, who is anything but normal, is thinking. The appallingly original interior narrative adds depth and interest to almost every scene, no matter how banal it may at first appear. The concept works because Dexter has a code of honor given to him by his father: he only will dispose of bad people who have done bad things. The audience can root for an unlikely avenging angel.
Bryan Cranston is Walter White in Vince Gilligan's "Breaking Bad," and he is a revelation as a high school chemistry teacher who learns he has inoperable lung cancer and begins making crystal meth to ensure his family's financial future without him. Cranston plays a character radically different from his previous role as the father in "Malcolm in the Middle." He gives a nuanced and emotionally naked performance. It is impossible to stop watching him, and the producers do not seem to be afraid of a rare TV commodity--silence. Hall and Cranston deserve Emmys, but the premises of their programs have chased enough viewers to deny them any awards.
Other one-hour dramas also offer superb lead performances, unique ensembles, and solid writing. You should sample James Duff's "The Closer" with Kyra Sedgwick as a police investigator-interrogator who can be tough as nails in the office while moaning about the loss of her pet cat at home; Nancy Miller's "Saving Grace" with Holly Hunter as an Oklahoma City police detective who, after a brush with death, is friends with her personal angel, Earl; Andy Breckman's "Monk" with Tony Shalhoub as the detective with enough phobias to fill a medical textbook; Matt Nix's "Burn Notice" with Jeffrey Donovan as a covert operator who is fired and dumped in Miami to fend for himself by relying mostly on guts and charm; Shawn Ryan's "The Shield" with Michael Chiklis as a corrupt police detective heading an anti-gang unit whose riveting performance reached an unexpected climax in the superb final program; Peter Tolan-Denis Leary's "Rescue Me" with Leary as a fireman chasing demons and booze while trying to do the right thing; Matthew Weiner's "Mad Men" with Jon Harem as an advertising executive in a Madison Avenue firm in the sexist 1960s; Daniel Zelman-Todd A. …