Best in Show(time)

Once upon a time, Sunday was the best night on TV. From 1998 pretty much through last year, Tony, Carrie, Nate, Larry and Omar made my least favorite day of the week (who doesn't get the Monday dreads every week around 9 p.m.?) a destination for the best entertainment on the small screen.

And so it was: The Sopranos, I don't care what anyone says, was gripping from its ducks-in-the-pool first episode until its last fade-out/fake-out frame. The Sex girls bowed out one or two seasons too early, in my opinion (though the media blitz surrounding the SATC movie seems to have beaten any lingering sentiment out of me on this), the funereal Fisher clan of Six Feet Under remains my favorite, most heartbreakingly honest TV family ever. And the departure of Omar and the thugs of The Wire is still too fresh for me to ponder fully.

Aside from scoring the kookie Kiwis of Flight of the Conchords, HBO's recent forays into original programming of late have either been good but major downers (hello, Tell Me You Love Me and In Treatment), good but too much like school (John Adams, Recount), or not good at all and utterly disastrous (last summer's John From Cincinnati). And with Flight, Curb, Entourage and Big Love all delayed until fall because of the writer's strike, the next few months are going to be brutal on HBO, which may have to change its catchy slogan to "If it's not on TV, it's HBO.")

Enter Showtime, that scrappy, somewhat scattered second fiddle that just may be perfectly poised to catch HBO's falling crown. Despite struggling over the last decade with a bit of an identity crisis, it's never shied from edgy -- lest we forget, it cornered the gay-drama market years ago with Queer as Folk and The L Word -- which is why I'm happy to see its risks paying off on the comedy front. Showtime's critically-lauded Monday-night lineup of Weeds, which just returned for its fourth season, and The Secret Diary of a Call Girl, a promising British import that's equal parts SATC, Bridget Jones and Pretty Woman, not only has equal appeal to men and women, it's a lineup that's poised to kick HBO's butt from now until Labor Day. (Though both appeal to the younger "herb" set, Weeds is way more favored over Entourage by the crucial 25-to-35 male population, which really just shows that guys are uncomfortable watching a show that depicts with excellent accuracy just how incredibly crass and immature they are.)

My newest favorites on Showtime, the deliciously naughty Californication, and serial-killer black comedy Dexter (whose December 2007 second-season finale attracted the network's biggest audience ever with 1.4 million viewers) are returning later this year, so by my calculations, Showtime is poised to keep me laughing and/or wonderfully grossed out until Christmas.

Don't get me wrong: I'll still give Vince and his crew, Larry, and the Utah polygamists a chance this fall. And I'm looking forward to David Simon's latest outing for his former Wire network, General Kill -- an Iraq-war-set miniseries debuting on July 13. But HBO will have to work hard to convince me that Showtime doesn't deserve to assume the mantle of "cable's hottest destination." Because if Monday night's lineup has anything to say about it, it already has.