In 2006, television asserted itself as the premier of visual literature in present-day America. Our sets burst forth with so much art that they put the current cinema and recycled shows of the stage to shame.

2007 saw a decided step back for TV as a medium with several great shows either coming to an end, being canceled, or losing there way. The new crop of shows the networks trotted out in the fall did little to build upon the incredible year enjoyed by TV in 2006 and was instead cause for a reversal of course.

Despite the troubling year on the small screen, it was still easy to find plenty of fine ways to spend an hour or two on the couch. The following are some of those highlights. Of course, we've still allowed ourselves room to gripe.

Great Performances:

James Gandolfini on "The Sopranos" - A few decades from now pop culture historians will still use "The Sopranos" as the benchmark to which all other television dramas are measured. Much will be discussed about its cinematic style, grand ambitious thematic runners, and just plain entertaining storylines, but we fear the performance of its lead may be lost in all the praise.

Gandolfini's Tony Soprano is one of the finest performances ever committed to film. It is extremely hard to find an example of an actor who knew more about his character than Gandolfini did about Tony. Every single second he appeared on screen he manifested everything the viewers knew about Tony through each of his character's movements, intonations and emotions. Gandolfini never missed a beat during the show's final season, bringing his character to a quiet climax as David Chase cut to black.

Kyle Chandler on "Friday Night Lights" - On a show praised for its realism there is not a more natural performance given than Chandler's Coach Eric Taylor. Chandler plays his character with the perfect mix of humor, rage and love that viewers would expect to find in any beleaguered father. The actor's finest asset is his ability to internalize.

While he maintains a stoic demeanor, Chandler allows the audience only a glimpse into his character's true feelings, saying more with a cockeyed stare than most actors will show in an entire scene. Chandler's Taylor is a Texan we feel could live right next door to us in the Lone Star State.

Keith Olbermann on "Football Night in America" - "Remember when Babe Ruth hit more home runs than entire teams? Keith Olbermann is having that type of year with football highlights." That quote from Norman Chad of the Houston Chronicle beautifully sums up the impact Olbermann has had on the otherwise torpid NBC pre-game show. Olbermann's two-minute reads contain more laughs than entire segments of "Saturday Night Live" and once again proves that the best "Sportscenter" anchors no longer appear on the show.

Tina Fey on "30 Rock" - Alec Baldwin, and inexplicably Jack McBrayer, grab most of the headlines and critical notices for the finest sitcom on network television. But it is Fey's Liz Lemon that gives the show its center. Like Harold Ramis, Fey is a very funny straight man (or woman in this case) who injects the maximum amount of humor into all of her lines, be they jokes or not. Fey contribution to this show are enormous being the creator and head writer, but her performance should not play second fiddle to any of her other duties in terms of positive impact.

J.B. Smoove on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" - This may well be the comedy performance of the year. Smoove's Leon failed to deliver a single line this year that did not elicit belly laughs as he portrayed a member of a displaced family adopted by Larry David. To see him inject a bit of hip hop attitude into the life of the show's star was a moment of incongruity too great be anything but hilarious. Kudos to David for giving him the proper amount of screen time as not to allow Leon to become annoying, and even more kudos to Smoove for filling the few scene he got with more laughs than any other character on TV.

Stephen Merchant on "Extras" - Merchant's Darren Lamb was the funniest agent on television in 2007 (sorry, Mr. Piven). Merchant managed to create perhaps the dimmest character ever to grace American screens and yet make him totally believable as Andy Millman's worthless agent.

The repartee between Merchant and the series' star (Ricky Gervais) is something rarely seen on television and one would imagine could go on for hours and never lose a touch of its humor. Gervais gets nearly all the praise for his brilliant collaborations with Merchant, but the latter's performance on "Extras" might allow the duo to consider placing Merchant in the lead role on their next collaboration.

Story by Andrew Payne
Starpulse contributing writer

Stay tuned for TV's Top 5 Comedies, Top 5 Dramas, and The Worst Of '07.