1 The Sopranos (HBO)
Fuhgeddaboudit. Much as I’d love to be a wiseguy and declare something else 1999’s best show, there’s no denying that David Chase’s deeply penetrating Mafia psychodrama whacks the competition. Its merits are too numerous to list in such a small space, so let’s just focus on one: the brilliant anti-typecasting of Lou Grant Uber-WASP Nancy Marchand as Machiavellian matriarch Livia Soprano, a woman frozen-hearted enough to order a hit on her son Tony (the incomparable James Gandolfini) for the good of ”the family.” Marchand’s Emmy loss to The Practice‘s Holland Taylor stands as the year’s most shocking TV injustice…
2 Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS)
…unless you count 3rd Rock From the Sun‘s Kristen Johnston beating out Doris Roberts for her masterly turn as Marie Barone, TV’s second-most-suffocating mama. This season, ELR’s fab ensemble has returned to full strength, with Peter Boyle (back from his heart attack) and Patricia Heaton (back from her maternity leave) rejoining Roberts, Ray Romano, and Brad Garrett. No show has ever deserved its better-late-than-never ratings success more.
3 Oz (HBO)
Just when you think Tom Fontana’s prison ensemble has reached maximum capacity, he adds another compelling character—like Andy Schillinger (ex-Kate & Allie kid Fred Koehler), the strung-out punk who became a pawn in the deadly mind game between his neo-Nazi dad, Vern (J.K. Simmons), and archenemy Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen). Ingenious plots like this one make Oz criminally good TV.
4 The King of Queens (CBS)
With a belly-laugh quotient equal to Raymond’s, Kevin James’ second-year sitcom deserves a similarly extra-large audience. Bonus points for fleshing out African-American pals Deacon (Victor Williams) and Kelly (Merrin Dungey) this season.
5 Now and Again (CBS)
The high-concept premise starts off with a brain transplant, but Glenn Gordon Caron’s sci-fi romance plays more like The Six Million Dollar Man with a heart transplant. Who knew a secret-agent superhero show could be so…moving?
6 Friends (NBC)
It’s always fascinating to see which of the sextet will pop next. Last year, it was Matthew Perry, and now David Schwimmer’s scoring more than he has since the first season. Of course, with writing this sharp, even Elle Macpherson looks funny.
7 Buffy the Vampire Slayer (The WB)
Sarah Michelle Gellar’s demon duster has lost a bit of her bite since entering college, but this supernatural soap still serves up dialogue so juicy, you could sink your teeth into it (as when a snooty classmate dissed Buffy’s fashion sense: ”What a cute outfit — last year”).
8 Tenacious D (HBO)
Its run was mercilessly brief: three half-hour episodes. Yet Jack Black and Kyle Gass’ delirious spoof of an acoustic satanic metal duo (a musical genre so specific it doesn’t even exist) packed more madcap creativity than three seasons’ worth of Arli$$.
9 Who Wants To Be a Millionaire (ABC)
Regis Philbin’s more-than-just-a-game show didn’t just save ABC; it may have saved network TV by going against the narrowcasting grain and appealing to almost everyone. After all, who doesn’t want to be a millionaire?
10 The Tom Green Show (MTV)
Canada’s biggest guffaw-generator since the Kids in the Hall, this likably obnoxious prankster gives bad taste a good name.