1 NYPD BLUE
[PROGRAM of the YEAR] (ABC) TV’s most varied, humane, and exciting drama took more chances this year than a hit show needs to, and became a deeper, richer series for the effort. Earlier this year, cocreator Steven Bochco told EW: ”This is now [cocreator-producer] David Milch’s show; if I disappeared tomorrow, the quality of that show would not suffer for a second.” And a key to Milch’s production work this season is his knowledge that once you’ve set up a character people care about, that creation can do questionable, even bad things, and the viewers won’t merely accept the behavior but feel that badness in their bones. I’m thinking not only of the racism embedded in the soul of Andy Sipowicz (the earthshakingly good Dennis Franz) but of the increasing complexity of Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits). Whether Bobby was cruelly slapping around that squirrelly little creep Henry (Willie Garson), or finding himself unable to resist the little-boy selfishness that’s been mucking up his relationship with Diane (Kim Delaney), Smits somehow managed to make every flicker in Bobby’s mind register on his stoic face. And, as if in response to the criticism that NYPD seems unable to create a female character who’s not primarily a foil for the men, there seems to be a breakthrough: new addition Jill Kirkendall (Andrea Thompson), a cop who is already looking like the most resonant crime-solving woman since Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect.
2 THE X-FILES
(Fox) The concept most alien to this show — displays of simple human emotions — is what kept The X-Files fresh and intriguing this season. David Duchovny’s Fox Mulder and Gillian Anderson’s Dana Scully now give off a united glow that says to the world, ”We’re right, you’re wrong, back off.” There’s no denying that The X-Files is more uneven these days (that episode where Mulder was remembering past lives was more heartburn commercial than X-File), but this is one series in which such erratic-ness is less a sign of creative exhaustion than of an admirably heedless faith in flaky flukiness.
3 THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW
(HBO) Garry Shandling is TV’s purest artist, quietly yet aggressively laboring over an unmatched portrait of show-business egotism. Very often, Larry Sanders is so funny I have to choke back a guffaw lest I miss the next punchline. And I can’t think of another sitcom that repays taping and repeated viewing as well. Representing a final flourish of ’90s irony, it’s a deconstruction of talk shows that’s now even better than David Letterman’s.
(NBC) Former Sanders collaborator Paul Simms has managed something Shandling has opted not to try: an iconoclastic sitcom that nonetheless adheres to the strictures of network TV. Dave Foley, as the radio station’s put-upon news director, is probably the subtlest actor in sitcoms, whereas Phil Hartman and Andy Dick thrive on reckless excess. And it’s apology time: A while back, I tagged Joe Rogan as a Tony Danza wannabe; Rogan’s smart work this season as dim fix-it guy Joe made my remarks seem churlish.
5 THE SIMPSONS
(Fox) Unappreciated now because the media celebrated Bart-mania years ago, The Simpsons continues to be the most reliable satire on network TV. The season opener, in which Homer and family left Springfield to work and live in a happy-faced, fascist corporate community was such a dead-on critique of the Disney empire, I swear I heard Rupert Murdoch chuckling.
(NBC) Overexposure has led to a widespread underrating of this still-excellently written, hilariously performed show. True, Lisa Kudrow’s Phoebe seems stuck in a dumb-chick rut, and David Schwimmer’s Ross is becoming dismayingly sappy. But Matt LeBlanc’s Joey and Courteney Cox’s Monica have flourished anew, while Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel and Matthew Perry’s Chandler are steadily becoming comic creations of remarkable intricacy. Think I’m exaggerating? Look at this show with an open mind and try not being beguiled.
7 MURDER ONE
(ABC) By the end of last season, Daniel Benzali had become known in my house as ”the boring bald guy.” But that debut run of One also pulled off the show’s then-central conceit — keeping you engaged in a single trial over 21 episodes. This season, Anthony LaPaglia replaced Benzali and offered a hero who was prickly and arrogant in a more engaging way. The Waltons’ Ralph Waite has been a marvelous skunk of a baddie, and Missy Crider’s work as a hapless murder defendant who also happened to be, as one character puts it, ”a major hottie,” gave One a fresh jolt of energy. So few viewers are watching that this vote is probably for a lost cause: big mistake, America.
(Fox) In the year’s stupidest programming move, Fox canceled this strikingly original series after a scant four episodes. You probably don’t remember, but Profit was a wittily bleak show about corporate shark and high-functioning sociopath Jim Profit (the magnificently oily Adrian Pasdar), who’d been raised in a cardboard box and parented by an always-turned-on TV set. Less a dig at big business than a fulmination against all media culture, Profit was the funniest scary drama of the year.
(NBC) Last season’s concluding episode, in which George’s fiancee Susan died a ridiculous death (poisoned by the glue on cheap wedding-invite envelopes), was widely decried for its coldheartedness. I laughed at the episode and at the protests — what, from writer-cocreator Larry David you expected warmth? So far, the David-less new season has been uneven but agreeably wacky. High point thus far: Michael Richards’ Kramer accidentally entering the corporate world and having his entire business career rise and fall in the space of 30 minutes.
(UPN) There’s no current sitcom star with ebullience equal to Brandy Norwood’s; as Moesha, she’s prime time’s most engaging teenager. Beyond that, Moesha is a consistent pleasure, with punchlines that deploy hip-hop cadences with a cleverness beyond mere laugh making. As he proved with the brief, terrific South Central (1994), producer-creator Ralph Farquhar knows how to bring African-American life to television without disguising or cheapening it.
THE FIVE WORST
(HBO) A lot of sitcoms contain no laughs, but arid Arli$$ isn’t just mirthless, it’s the year’s most pathetic rip-off. In thieving attitude and atmosphere from The Larry Sanders Show, Arli$$ renders its unfunniness not merely sad but infuriating.
2 MR. RHODES
(NBC) Even if this show about a hep-cat teacher didn’t star the charmless, barber-deprived Tom Rhodes, its ceaseless procession of ignorant yet cool students makes the show’s ”education is good” message merely depressing.
3 DARK SKIES
(NBC) The second-worst copycat, this time an insufferably pretentious X-Files variation. The ongoing theme — alien invasions in the time of the Kennedy administration — manages to be boring, trite, and tasteless all at the same time.
4 THE JEFF FOXWORTHY SHOW
(NBC) The redneck routines that brought Foxworthy fame were pleasant, innocuous bits, but in retooling the comic’s flop ABC sitcom, the NBC version turns his material into marathons of joke-free vulgarity. 5 BAYWATCH NIGHTS
(syndicated) All-powerful producer and bathing-suit wearer David Hasselhoff has turned Nights into X-Files with Plan 9 From Outer Space F/X. The results are dumb, sure, but also lacking in Baywatch’s blithe goofiness. Besides, how can they do an X-Files rip and not include an episode about the alien forms occupying Donna D’Errico’s maillot?
GREAT PILOTS, MEDIOCRE SERIES Fox’s MILLENNIUM and ABC’s SPIN CITY. In the first case, the (mono)tone of the show is less disturbing than boring; in the second, spinning Carla Gugino out of the series still may not stop the rising sap quotient.
MOST DRAWN-OUT UNOFFICIAL CLIFF-HANGER Ellen’s COMING-OUT PARTY. All right already, DeGeneres — you’ve got your time-period change, we’re intrigued. Suggested first date for your character: Cruella De Vil.
WHY JOHNNY CAN’T READ PEARL, THE STEVE HARVEY SHOW, MR. RHODES, BOSTON COMMON, NICK FRENO: LICENSED TEACHER, DANGEROUS MINDS…have we left out any TV series set in schools?
BEST CAST NAMES MALIBU SHORES. The show sank, but who can forget actors with names like Charisma Carpenter and Essence Atkins?
BEST ARGUMENT FOR DIVORCE The marriage of LOIS & CLARK, followed by a traditional decline in the ratings.
SADDEST TWIST OF FATE MARK FRANKEL, who starred as the undead vampire chief on Kindred: The Embraced, died a few months after Fox canceled the show. MOST PROMINENT BELLY BUTTON SINCE ‘THE SONNY AND CHER COMEDY HOUR’ VICKI LEWIS’ on NewsRadio. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
CHEESIEST CASTING Knots Landing vet DONNA MILLS as Josie Bissett’s B-movie-starlet birth mother on Melrose Place.
VERY FUNNY ACTOR IN A SEMI-FUNNY SHOW THOMAS HADEN CHURCH in Ned and Stacey gets laughs purely on the strength of his gonzo line readings. Best sitcom hair, too.
BEST ARGUMENT AGAINST INCEST This season’s creepiest X-Files episode: ”HOME.” Let’s just leave Mommy alone in the car trunk, kids.
WORST TITLE THE BURNING ZONE. No wonder no one’s watching UPN’s sci-fi series — it sounds like a show about jock itch.