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CRITIC ENJOYS SURPRISE VISIT TO THE MAINSTREAM

Hallelujah, I say. It's my time to celebrate. It's finally happened. I've finally joined the mainstream.

Not that I was trying, mind you. I was perfectly content sitting on the dock with a fishing pole and dipping my tootsies into the mainstream every now and then when the water looked inviting. It was peaceful over there, suitable for a contemplative and analytical sort.

But now, it seems, I'm sluicing through the mainstream whether I like it or not.

Here's what happened: After checking out the Nielsen rankings for the Top Five shows of the week of Oct. 4-10, I discovered that, for the first time in my entire life, I regularly watch all five of them.

Here they are, in order: 1. "CSI"; 2. "Without a Trace"; 3. "CSI: Miami"; 4. "Desperate Housewives"; and 5. "Survivor: Vanuatu."

That's not all. Out of the next 10 shows, I try to watch five of them as often as I can: "CSI: NY" (8), "Lost" (9), "Cold Case" (13), "NCIS" (15) and "CSI: Miami" (16) with "Monday Night Football" an occasional drop-in when I like the teams playing.

This is a very peculiar experience for me. I'm not sure I like it yet. I know for certain that I don't dislike it.

What has made this strange development virtually impossible for the entire life of television up to now is that, with a handful of exceptions (from "The Life of Riley" to "Arrested Development"), I've always hated sitcoms.

I don't love Lucy and never did. I watched "All in the Family" sometimes because of the performing mastery of Carroll O'Connor and, especially, Jean Stapleton but the "meathead" lines and "terlet" jokes made me cringe. And "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" seemed to make others in the house happy so I learned, quickly, to enjoy it - a lot.

But I wouldn't watch "Joey" and "Will and Grace" now on a bet. I don't regularly watch "Everybody Loves Raymond" or "Two and a Half Men" either even though I've seen them often enough to know that they're actually funny sometimes.

The trouble is that late-night television has been making me laugh since Steve Allen. And compared to late-night comedy, the prime time stuff is like watery Kool-Aid compared to a good martini.

I haven't liked medical shows since Richard Boone in "Medic" which means the entire history of "ER" has passed me by (in my family, hospitals were very real and scary places, not TV fantasy destinations).

The idea of an hour-long television show devoted to Donald Trump as a paragon of achievement and an idol to emulate is enough to chill me to the bone. The way I look at it, a good reality show would be one where the loser has to work for the Donald and the winner gets a vacation in Scranton and a year's supply of Turtle Wax.

"Survivor," on the other hand, is such an ingenious mixture of Hell and Paradise that it's one of the great junk visions in TV history. Mark Burnett is an authentic TV genius - maybe not one you'd bring home to meet your mother or, for that matter, even your weird Uncle Sid but a TV genius for sure.

Two wonderful things have happened to TV, though, which have suddenly sucked me into the mainstream when I wasn't looking - cable and the Internet.

Because of the influence of both, it is no longer certain that dumbing down is the smart and natural thing for a TV network executive to do. Nor is the two-handed, 400-hp. youth pander always a winning tactic. When your competition is a "CSI" show or some giddy cable outrage like "Nip/Tuck," you may actually have to give smartening up a try.

In the meantime, I have no intention of getting used to my little ride on the mainstream. I know that any minute now some sitcom or Trump or Raymond will burst into the Top 5 leaving me back over there contemplating the middle with the usual affection and curiosity.

For the moment, though, the novelty, as the kids say, is kind of sweet.

E-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com