Show of the Year 1 The Sopranos (HBO)
It’s all but certain that no other show in the history of TV critics’ 10-best lists will appear at the top of more of ’em than this one. The Sopranos is the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band of television, the first epic-scale work in the television medium about whose impact and originality everyone can agree. Ignoring notions of conventional TV heroes, and yoking together two of the late 20th century’s most influential phenomena—psychiatric therapy and The Godfather (Puzo sourcebook and Coppola movies)—creator David Chase not only pulled off the year’s most emotionally complex and gut-level-entertaining series but brought forth a drama that provoked fervent discussion among a wide, avid audience. No matter what the quality of the next batch of episodes premiering in January, the richness of these first 13 will endure in a way most programming never even attempts.
2 Buffy the Vampire Slayer (THE WB) and Angel (THE WB)
Like a shrewd blackjack player, writer-producer Joss Whedon doubled-down this season, splitting Buffy Summers from her love interest by sending the broad-shouldered vampire Angel to fight evil in Los Angeles. The result? A familiar show stepping into fresh territory: college life (and an underground rebel group as interested in vampires and demons as the Slayer is), plus a spin-off full of swirling film-noir promise.
3 Freaks and Geeks (NBC)
The year’s most pleasant surprise: an hour-long, ’80s-themed comedy about the misery of adolescence that is as unexpectedly open to small, delicate emotions as it is to big belly laughs. Featuring the season’s finest ensemble of young actors, Freaks possesses all the qualities the touted young-adult bomb Wasteland wanted to have, but could only fake: warmth, truth, sincerity. And when was the last time that trio provided the basis for wild humor?
4 Once and Again (ABC)
Already pegged a loser because the soggy Judging Amy beats it in the ratings, this tale of divorced dad (Billy Campbell) and separated mom (Sela Ward) discomfits those people who’ve found producers Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick’s previous shows thirtysomething and My So-Called Life equally squirmy — folks who don’t like to admit how self-absorbed we tend to be, and how, with good intentions and hard work, self-absorption can be transmuted into (in the case of life) selfless devotion and (in the case of TV) sterling drama.
5 Now and Again (CBS)
As the brains behind the year’s most surprising romance/comedy/sci-fi drama, Glenn Gordon Caron obviously has learned a few things from his long TV absence since Moonlighting — foremost among them: Don’t just rely on your two main stars. Margaret Colin and Eric Close are marvy, but so is Dennis Haysbert as Close’s impishly imperious boss, and so is Gerrit Graham as a perennially confused family friend, and so is Heather Matarazzo as their sweet, all-accepting daughter. All this, plus strong ratings in the ghetto of Fridays at 9 — the wonders of network television never cease.
6 The West Wing (NBC) and Sports Night (ABC) One is an hour drama, the other a 30-minute dramedy; both are created and (most nights) written by Aaron Sorkin. Each seems to contain twice the amount of dialogue their genres usually demand, yet the talk has a purpose: It’s Sorkin’s heightened-reality way of conveying the tension and exhausting pace of the workplace, and who can’t relate to that? Sure, Wing’s labor site is the White House (with a revved-up Martin Sheen as a wily, intellectually adept but instinct-driven President any political party should wish it had) and Sports Night’s is a TV studio, but that doesn’t detract from the universality of backbiting, misunderstandings, and power grabs. These shows are two good arguments against the notion that TV is best when it’s mere escapism.
7 The X-Files (Fox) Still crazy after all these years. Creator Chris Carter’s dilemma — and our ongoing pleasure — is that the more he makes clear that he’s always known where all the mayhem, mysticism, and sci-fi are heading, the less we care. For most of us, the trip — the relationship between Mulder and Scully (capped by a tender millennium kiss), or the rare corker of a stand-alone script, like the one Vince Gilligan penned about a guy who could peel off his ears and eat your brain — is its own reward.
8 Friends (NBC) The airiest of all enduring sitcoms just keeps floating along on its own comic high with this season’s plot-propelling notion — that wisecracking, stuttery Chandler (Matthew Perry) and picky, earnest Monica (Courteney Cox Arquette) may last as an odd-couple couple — playing out with deeply satisfying laughs. Best supporting player this year: Matt LeBlanc’s Joey, miraculously finding new ways to be lovably stupid, week after week. The guy deserves an Emmy.
9 The Simpsons (Fox) And the laughs just keep on coming: TV’s longest-running cartoon sustains itself by clinging to the idea of family as lifeline—in this sense, it’s the opposite of the artful navel-gazing of Once and Again and, despite its format, every bit as realistic. The Simpsons explores fears about getting expelled, getting fired, getting fat, and getting drunk, as well as celebrating the occasional quotidian triumph, like rolling a perfect 300 in bowling. Indeed, the Nov. 14 episode, in which Homer not only bowled but sang the first version of the Doors’ ”The End” that I’ve ever found bearable, can stand with any in the series’ decade-long history.
10 Felicity (The WB) Her hair may be short, but Felicity (Keri Russell) is long on heart, soul, and humor—Russell is, in fact, underrated as a deadpan comedian in her reactions to all her oddball student friends and her two primary handsome fellas, Ben (Scott Speedman) and Noel (Scott Foley). How refreshing that, as I write, she’s not involved with either of them—she may look waifish but she’s an independent gal in what is easily the best-written large-ensemble young-adult show on TV.