There was a time when television was called the "boob tube." No, not because of pay-per-view porn. It was called that because TV was for dummies.

That was before "The Sopranos." Before "The Wire." Before serialized TV shows like those two masterpieces started kicking ass and making the movie industry look like the stupid one.

Now it's January. If you like high-quality TV, you know that January means it's ass-kicking time again. It's time for television's second round of season premieres. And as the winter chill continues to push us back inside, there's no better time to tap into your TV fix. I'd bet my left eyeball that midseason heavy hitters such as "Lost," "24" and "Damages" would stack up against anything Hollywood is churning out right now. Speaking of Hollywood, this year finds even more big-name actors defecting to television, such as Tim Roth ("Lie to Me"), Laurence Fishburne ("CSI"), Jeff Goldblum ("Law & Order: Criminal Intent") and Michael J. Fox ("Rescue Me").

For this tribute to TV's best midseason shows, we've stuck up our noses at any cheeseball reality TV (away with you, "Bachelor," "Celebrity Apprentice" and "American Idol").

That's not the kind of TV we're talking about. The following are shows you have to commit to, like a new relationship. To help you figure out which ones are worth the effort, we offer this guide.

Lost

Season premiere 7 p.m. Wednesday 01/21

Network: ABC

For fans of: "The Twilight Zone," "Gilligan's Island" and "Alias" rolled into one.

Need to know: TV mastermind J.J. Abrams and crew rework the classic deserted-island motif with amazing results. After crash-landing onto an island in the middle of the Pacific, the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 are terrorized by an assortment of assailants -- including polar bears, a mechanical monster and the "Others." Twists galore.

This season: With its game-changing twist, the third season proved to be the series' best. Instead of peppering each episode with the show's routine flashbacks, the writers switched to flash-forwards, in which some survivors have made it off the island. But they couldn't stay away long: Now they're heading back to the mysterious island to save their friends.

 

24

8 p.m. Mondays

Network: Fox

For fans of: Guantanamo Bay prisoner abuse.

Need to know: In each season, counterterrorist hero Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) saves the United States in a single day, even if it means torturing people. With each episode depicting one hour in real time, it's like attention-deficit disorder timed to a stopwatch.

This season: The show is often criticized for depicting torture as a means to an end. It also has taken heat for furthering stereotypes about Middle Easterners. But "24" did present the idea of a black president long before Barack Obama came along. Now in its seventh season, the show welcomes a woman (Cherry Jones) as new commander-in-chief.


Damages

9 p.m. Wednesdays

Network: FX

For fans of: "Boston Legal" on crack.

Need to know: A hard-core legal drama that feels nothing like a legal drama. Last year's debut season starred Glenn Close as a high-profile lawyer willing to cheat, steal and even kill to win a class-action lawsuit against a CEO (played beautifully by a charming, squirrelly Ted Danson). In a fight, "Damages" would rip "Boston Legal's" heart out, mash it up in a grinder and eat it for a mid-afternoon snack. It's that hard-core.

This season: Thinking her top attorney betrayed her, Close's character tried to murder the young woman last season. She failed and now Close's protégé is working with the FBI to take her down. William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden join the cast.

 

Battlestar Galactica

Season resumes 9 p.m. Friday 01/16

Network: Sci-Fi Channel

For fans of: Sci-fi that doesn't suck.

Need to know: This is what "Star Trek" would look like if it grew a pair of balls. The highly acclaimed update of "Battlestar Galactica" takes place far in the future, where the last of humankind (in a fleet of ships) seeks safety in deep space from a genocidal cyborg race called the Cylons. Political allegories abound, with references to the war on terror, prisoner torture and the abuse of civil liberties.

This season: The second half of the fourth and final season begins Friday, with the fleet finally reaching the fabled planet it's been searching for all this time -- Earth. Surprise: not what they expected.


Nip/Tuck

9 p.m. Tuesdays

Network: FX

For fans of: Sex and plastic surgery.

Need to know: Saying "Nip/Tuck" is over the top doesn't do it justice. In each season, the show's two high-living plastic surgeons continually find themselves in a tangled web of sex, murder and mayhem, often depicted with gruesome visuals. They gave a man breasts. They removed a woman's 17-year-old petrified fetus. And they fought off a serial-killer/rapist. It's totally absurd -- and addictive.

This season: The second half of the fifth season opened with self-obsessed ladykiller Christian (Julian McMahon) discovering that he has breast cancer. And his buddy Sean (Dylan Walsh) -- now in a wheelchair after being stabbed -- has a graphic sex scene while in said wheelchair. In other words: Everything's back to normal.

 

The United States of Tara

Series premiere 9 p.m. Sunday 01/18

Network: Showtime

For fans of: Hipster icon Diablo Cody.

Need to know: The show brings together the strange pairing of executive producer Steven Spielberg and ex-Minnesotan Cody, who won an Oscar for writing "Juno." The pedigree continues with the always reliable Toni Collette starring as a woman with four personalities.

This season: Tara's multiple personalities are a lot to handle, especially when one is a biker dude named Buck.


The Beast

Series premiere 9 p.m. Thursday 01/15

Network: A&E

For fans of: Hard-ass cop shows like "The Shield."

Need to know: Patrick Swayze is back as a rugged FBI agent who crosses the line to take down bad guys -- but maybe he's the real bad guy.

This season: In "The Beast's" debut, Swayze trains a young partner in the rules of undercover work. Basically, there are no rules -- at one point he shoots off a rocket launcher in downtown Chicago.

 

Dollhouse

Series premiere 8 p.m. 02/13

Network: Fox

For fans of: Everything else by geek god Joss Whedon (creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer").

Need to know: Fanboys are foaming at the mouth over the delayed debut of Whedon's latest fantasy spectacle. It concerns an illegal company that rents out women -- "dolls" -- who are programmed to fit a buyer's needs. They can be lovers, baby sitters or even assassins. After each job, a doll gets her mind wiped clean to prepare for her next assignment.

This season: The early response to Internet-leaked scenes from "Dollhouse," in which Eliza Dushku's doll becomes self-aware of her puppet reality, has been positive.


The L Word

Season premiere 8 p.m. Sunday 01/18

Network: Showtime

For fans of: A more realistic "Will & Grace."

Need to know: The Showtime series follows a circle of GLBT women in West Hollywood as they deal with coming out, same-sex adoption and a mosaic of interconnected relationships. Think "Sex and the City" without Mr. Big.

This season: The sixth and final season opens Sunday with the murder of a main character.

 

Big Love

Season premiere 8 p.m. Sunday 01/18

Network: HBO

For fans of: Seeing a softy like Bill Paxton play a polygamist.

Need to know: With three wives and a feud with the head of the local Mormon church, Paxton has his hands full trying to keep his family's lifestyle secret. One of the series' story lines echoed real-world headlines this year when a Texas polygamist compound was raided.

This season: The wives continue their battle for first-wife status, while Paxton's character considers bringing in a fourth.


In Treatment

Season premiere in April

Network: HBO

For fans of: The Dr. Melfi scenes in "The Sopranos."

Need to know: Almost all of this half-hour drama takes place on the couch of psychotherapist Gabriel Byrne. Luckily, he has the perfect soothing voice to command our attention, as each episode peers into another session with another distraught patient.

This season: Byrne's shrink nearly broke all of the rules by almost sleeping with a patient (something Tony Soprano hoped for with his shrink). What other lines will he cross this season?

 

Friday Night Lights

Season premiere 8 p.m. Friday 01/16

Network: NBC

For fans of: High-school dramas done right.

Need to know: Based on the same book that the movie was based on, the acclaimed show follows a group of small-town high schoolers on and off the football field.

This season: The third season premiere already aired on a Direct TV channel, but NBC will present it again for the rest of us Friday.


TV-on-DVD drinking games!

If you're a true TV junkie, you probably watch most of your shows on DVD. Most TV fans find it hard to wait a week for a new episode when they can watch an entire season at their leisure on DVD (this can cause the uncontrollable urge to watch a half-dozen eps in a row and never get any sleep). Here are five series (not named "The Sopranos") that deserve your addict-like obsession on DVD. To spruce up your viewing experience, we've thought up a drinking game for each show to go along with the hours you'll be spending on your coach.

The Wire

The frontrunner for best TV show ever is a labyrinthine look at the decaying American city (in this case: Baltimore) as told through the eyes of its cops, drug dealers, politicians and kids. (Five seasons, HBO)

  • Drink every time: Irishman Jimmy McNulty drinks.
 

Dexter

How's this for a curious premise: a show about a serial killer who only murders other killers? That's how Dexter spends his nights (by day he's a blood-splatter analyst for the Miami police). (Three seasons, Showtime)

  • Drink every time: Dexter thinks about killing someone.

The Shield

From the very first episode you know you're not watching a typical cop show, as bad-ass cop Vic Mackey murders another cop to protect his corrupt methods. Each season, Mackey's gang-strike team falls deeper and deeper into madness. (Seven seasons, FX)

  • Drink every time: The strike team hands out a beatdown.
 

Alias

If you like "Lost," you'll love J.J. Abrams' other mind-bender. Jennifer Garner is a double agent who comes from a family of spies. The show created its own geeky mythology (à la "The X-Files"), attracting a list of high-profile admirers who also appeared on the show (Quentin Tarantino, David Cronenberg, Ricky Gervais). (Five seasons, ABC)

  • Drink every time: Jennifer Garner cries.

Deadwood

Everything is ugly in the lawless town of Deadwood, S.D. This neo-western is able to explore bigger ideas (such as the birth of 20th-century capitalism) through gritty stories, told with pitch-black humor and nonstop profanity. (Three seasons, HBO)

  • Drink every time: Someone says the F-word.