The problem with being a television critic is that you have to watch so much television you don't have time to watch television.
So when people ask, as they often do, what's good, I have a tendency to reel off the last few debuts or premieres that left an impression on me. But recently a friend asked, "Well, what would you watch if you weren't getting paid to do it?" A good question, and one easily answered, as it turns out, by a brief glance at my DVR list.
I was rather surprised to note that four of the 16 shows are brand-new. Conventional wisdom has it that network television is dead, and we've all grown accustomed to that sinking feeling when the hoopla surrounding a new season begins -- oh, the bitter disappointment when the shows finally air. This season, however, everyone's gaze was firmly pinned on the new Jay Leno show (which you will notice is not on this list). The rest of the fall entered on little cat's feet and delivered a slew of pretty terrific shows -- comedies, dramas and even a musical -- that might actually stick around.
So here are the shows I try to watch regularly, the shows I watch for fun, not out of duty.
With the kids
"Glee" (Fox) -- "Glee" has received so many critical mash notes the backlash seems inevitable, but it won't start here. Singin', dancin', high school as you actually experienced it and a cast that can bring life to even the worn-out cheerleader versus geek trope -- what more could you ask for?
"Fringe" (Fox) -- Aliens, time travel, regeneration, Blair Brown with a bionic hand -- this is one crazy show. John Noble's performance as mad scientist Walter Bishop was instantly mesmerizing and over time the rest of the show has caught up with him.
"Modern Family" (ABC) -- The resurrection of the family comedy follows the disparate, and occasionally desperate, branches of a creaky but solid family tree. And it's flat-out hilarious.
"Bones" (Fox) -- Love the gruesome corpses, love all the geek-tech stuff, love the twisted family dynamics of the forensic anthropology lab, but mostly love the perfect chemistry of Emily Deschanel's Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan and David Boreanaz's Agent Seeley Booth.
"The Office" (NBC) -- I heart Steve Carell. There, I've said it, and though the show has had its ups and downs, it is one of the few places you can go to hear what so many people around you are thinking.
"White Collar" (USA) -- OK, as I write this, I've only seen the pilot, but the allure of two sophisticated men, one a thief (Matt Bomer), one a fed (Tim DeKay), solving heists and cons is too good to resist.
Without the kids
"House" (Fox) -- The medical drama is so afraid of becoming static that it occasionally has attempted suicide by reinvention, but consistently great writing, a solid cast and the indefatigable Hugh Laurie have kept me hooked since Day One.
"The Good Wife" (CBS) -- Julianna Margulies and Chris Noth -- why did no one think of this sooner! As the survivor of her husband's political/sex scandal, newly rebooted lawyer Alicia Florrick (Margulies) is killer in the courtroom and out of it.
"Dexter" (Showtime) -- When it debuted, it was hard to imagine watching a show in which the hero was an emotionally damaged serial killer. Now it's impossible to imagine not watching.
"Castle" (ABC) -- A good, solid murder mystery serial is the bread and butter of television. With the clever conceit of mystery writer Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion) tagging along with detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic), "Castle" is this generation's "McMillan and Wife." And who didn't like "McMillan and Wife"?
"The Mentalist" (CBS) -- OK, shoot me, I think Simon Baker is adorable, and his twinkly take on the broken but brilliant detective, in this case one Patrick Jane, makes "The Mentalist" a quick fix of a show. Yes, I preferred the darker and more complex "Life," but NBC canceled it because, you know, it just had to air such dazzlers as "Trauma" and "Mercy" and turn 10 o'clock over to Leno. Not that I'm bitter.
"30 Rock" (NBC) -- I'm a sucker for a good retainer joke, especially when juxtaposed with the "glamorous" world of television. Plus Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin are Mary and Lou meets Ozzie and Harriet.
Can't wait till they're back
"Weeds" (Showtime) -- Got a little out hand this season with the Andy (Justin Kirk) and Nancy (Mary-Louise Parker) story line, but I will follow those two, and Jenji Kohan's whacked-out take on whatever portion of America she's looking at now, to the ends of the earth.
"Lost" (ABC) -- I'm in too far to let go, and last season was absolutely nuts! Time travel! The young Ben shot by Sayid! Fionnula Flanagan and her pendulums! But I'll miss Juliet. If she's really gone.
"Big Love" (HBO) -- Sex, love, religion, family, politics, freaky prairie dresses; all things we're told not to discuss in public are front, center and polygamous in "Big Love," a show with perhaps the best ensemble cast ever seen on television.
"Damages" (FX) -- I have to admit that I often watch episodes of "Damages" in groups of three; otherwise I probably would get lost. But how great is it to have a show that is not only emotionally captivating -- how bad is Patty Hewes? -- but intellectually challenging? Pretty great.
Show I keep thinking I watch regularly but I actually don't
"Mad Men" (AMC) -- I loved the season premiere, I still admire the depth and texture of each episode and everyone says this is a great season, but I don't feel the emotional connection I once did. It's probably just me; sometimes you and a show just grow apart. No doubt I'll do a marathon viewing and reconnect over the holidays.
Show I keep saying I will never watch again but then I do (though only on the Web)
"Grey's Anatomy" (ABC) -- I swore I was done when Izzie came back from the dead, but I keep feeling compelled to check in. It's a sickness, at this point, a sickness.