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Writers Strike Plays Havoc With the New Offerings

Television critics appreciate the idea of not being lost forever.

In the wake of producers’ decision to set a 2010 end date for “Lost,” participants in TelevisionWeek’s Summer Critics Poll had nothing but praise for the refocused fourth season of ABC’s mystery-drama.

Coming in at No. 1 in the semiannual poll by a wide margin, “Lost” cracked the top five on nearly every critic’s submission.

“They said the show was probably past salvaging. ‘They,’ meaning critics (and I include myself), were wrong. What a comeback,” Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune wrote.

In truth, despite some grumblings, critics never completely gave up on “Lost.” In the summer 2007 Critics Poll, “Lost” placed second to “The Sopranos,” which ended its six-season run on HBO that year. “Lost” was on hiatus during the eligibility period for the winter 2008 poll.

“The most creatively recharged show of the season, ‘Lost’ thrillingly reclaimed its position this year as TV’s most adventurous and emotionally compelling action drama,” TV Guide’s Matt Roush wrote. “Playing with time and with our expectations, the show raised the bar in its fourth season by teasing us with glimpses of the Oceanic Six in their tortured post-island life while continuing to play out gripping intrigues on the island and with flashbacks.”

Critics cited the finalized end date for “Lost”—the 2009-10 season—as a big help to the show’s story. Many complaints about seasons two and three focused on the meandering story and filler episodes.

“The fixed end date and the new flash-forward structure gave new life to what used to be—and became again—one of the most thrilling, surprising, purely entertaining shows on television,” wrote Alan Sepinwall, critic at New Jersey’s Star-Ledger.

Taking the No. 2 spot is HBO’s “The Wire,” which recently completed its run. In winter 2007, the last time “The Wire” was eligible for TVWeek’s Critics Poll, the series took first place.

“The ax-grinding, somewhat anachronistic plot line about the Baltimore Sun still couldn’t detract from all the great characters and labyrinthine plots, and the series finale was one of the most elegantly handled finales in recent memory,” wrote Robert Philpot of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Universal Media Studios dominated the top 10, with spots three through seven filled by shows from the NBC Universal production arm, including Fox’s “House” and Sci Fi’s “Battlestar Galactica.” NBC’s Thursday night comedies “30 Rock” and “The Office” continued their consistent performance in the poll, with “Rock” improving slightly on its No. 4 finish in the winter 2008 poll to place third this time around, while “Office” climbed from No. 8 to No. 4.

“Rock” “surpassed ‘The Office,’ in a tight race, as the most creative and consistently funny show on TV. Tina Fey and her crew have pulled together a real gem. All that’s left is for more people to tune in,” wrote Victor Balta, who’s with Comcast.net.

Several critics bemoaned the lack of ratings success for “30 Rock,” a complaint that echoed critical support a few years ago for Fox’s “Arrested Development”—a show that received heaps of praise for its sharp wit but failed to find a consistent audience and consequently had a short run.

“America for some reason continues to resist one of the brightest comedies in years,” Tom Jicha of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel wrote about “30 Rock.”

On the cancellation bubble for what seems like its entire run, NBC’s “Friday Night Lights” made another appearance in the top 10, repeating its fifth-place finish from the winter poll. Critics weren’t as enthralled with the second season of “Lights” as with the first—the show placed third in the summer 2007 poll—but still gushed about what the show brings to the broadcast table.

“OK, season two wasn’t as good as this classy drama’s first,” wrote the San Jose, Calif., Mercury News’ Charlie McCollum. “But thanks to splendid acting and an evocative sense of time and place, it was still one of the finest things on network TV.”

Cable net AMC solidified its recently elevated critical status with eighth-place “Breaking Bad.” Critics appreciated AMC’s new brand of dramas so much that “Mad Men” scored enough votes to place 13th in the poll, even though it fell outside of the airdate parameters for the summer poll.

“Bryan Cranston’s turn in ‘Breaking Bad’ was TV’s most startling transformation since Michael Chiklis went from doughy dad to buff badass for the first season of ‘The Shield,’” wrote Christopher Lawrence of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Fox’s “24” and NBC’s “Heroes,” two shows that typically have a presence on the poll, were directly affected by the writers strike, as both series were on hiatus and ineligible this time around.

The rest of the top 10 is filled out by pay cable shows. HBO’s “John Adams” and Showtime’s “The Tudors” stirred the history buff in critics, while HBO’s “In Treatment” played on the DVR fanatic in all of us, running five days a week for nearly nine weeks.

“One of the few benefits of the strike was that I had enough time to watch all 43 episodes of [‘In Treatment’] and appreciate the wonderful, progressive writing and the amazing performances by Gabriel Byrne, Dianne Wiest, Mia Wasikowska and company,” wrote Mr. Sepinwall.