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Al Gore in hot tub? Memorable

Al Gore poked fun at himself, and Steven Spielberg took us away with 20 hours of television.

I couldn't let the year end without remarking on two events this month that spotlight TV at its best: Mr. Gore hosting "Saturday Night Live" and the Sci-Fi Channel's absorbing 20-hour miniseries "Taken."

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Anyone who watched "Saturday Night Live" a couple of weeks ago couldn't help but enjoy Gore's self-deprecating humor, his ease on stage, and his relaxed affability. Hey, he can act, even in a hot tub.

But it was a sketch in which Gore visited the set and the cast of "The West Wing" that proved a unique moment in television history.

The Oval Office was reproduced on the sound stage, and as the entire "West Wing" cast, from Martin Sheen to Allison Janney, introduced themselves to Gore, it became a surreal experience. As Gore sat in President Bartlet's (Sheen's) chair, shouting into the prop phone, "Get me Putin!" the actors tried to coax him off the set and out to dinner. But Gore was wrapped up in the illusion of the realistic set, or at least pretending to be caught up. It's like looking into facing mirrors - the implications go on ad infinitum. It was a glorious, inspired moment of TV comedy.

The next day, Gore announced that he would not run for president in the 2004 election. He had foreshadowed this decision in that late-night comedy sketch, which became all the funnier in retrospect.

The "SNL" sketch made my TV year, but then there was the gift of "Taken." Like "Band of Brothers" (HBO) last season, and "The Forsyte Saga" (PBS) this fall, "Taken" represents the greatest form television has ever produced. The miniseries makes possible epic storytelling. Think of the impact of eight nights of "Roots" as it continues to this day.

"Taken" concerns a heroic search for the truth about extraterrestrial visits to Earth - and their interaction with humans over three generations. The search for answers gives way to a cosmic search for meaning when an angelic little girl comes into the world - part human, part alien. In this sometimes preachy story, love is the source of power, the antidote to evil, and the means to man's (and alien's) ongoing search for the meaning of life.

Flawed as it was, with plotholes the size of black holes, this sci-fi epic points beyond even the stars to the necessity of love. Nothing else on TV has been so explicit about so grand an idea. "Taken" will be repeated this spring. The epic television form and the ability to reflect instantly on the culture are two of TV's significant contributions to our society.