TV: Best & Worst of '98 -- Brice Fretts ranks ''Everybody Loves Raymond,'' ''Oz,'' and ''The Daily Show'' among the year's best

TV: Best & Worst of ’98

1 Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS)
No show makes me laugh louder or longer. That’s because Raymond‘s comedy is rooted in characters as deeply drawn as those of TV’s best dramas. The better we get to know them, the funnier they become. The basic principle that Raymond plumbs is that the interconnectedness of American families isn’t a blessing or a curse — it’s just an inescapable fact. Everything Ray Romano’s Everyman does affects everyone around him. His offhand comment about feeling like a hostage in his marriage causes his commitmentphobic brother (Brad Garrett) to break up with his girlfriend, which upsets Ray’s mom (Doris Roberts) because she’s losing potential grandchildren, which makes Ray’s dad (Peter Boyle) mad because he can’t get any peace, and ticks off Ray’s wife (Patricia Heaton) because…well, because he said he felt like a hostage in his marriage. This organic vision of family life as a chain reaction of comic agita is vividly rendered by a flawless ensemble.

2 Oz (HBO)
With Bud Paxson’s PAX TV network and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Family Channel leading the charge for blander, gentler TV, thank God for Tom Fontana’s shocking prison drama. Yet all of the horrific violence and full-frontal nude scenes would seem like cheap stunts were it not for Oz‘s uniformly fantastic acting, writing, and direction.

3 Buffy the Vampire Slayer (The WB)
Who would’ve thought that an adaptation of a flop teensploitation flick would turn out to be one of the most artistically ambitious series on TV? Buffy bounces between genres — comedy, horror, romance — with an otherworldly grace.

4 Homicide: Life on the Street (NBC)
The jolting cop show still hasn’t fully recovered from the loss of Emmy winner Andre Braugher, but new costars Giancarlo Esposito and Michael Michele grow on me more every week. Even if you’re not wild about Homicide‘s swoony new tone this season, you’ve got to give the writers credit for continuing to reinvent the series after more than 100 episodes.

5 Friends (NBC)
Monica’s uproarious affair with Chandler (Matthew Perry) has allowed the once comedically challenged Courteney Cox to emerge as the sitcom’s most reliable guffaw generator this season. As Cox’s voice has grown scratchier and more interesting, so has this show’s.

6 Law &amp Order (NBC)
With the addition of Angie Harmon as pit-bull ADA Abbie Carmichael, the long-running crime drama has its strongest roster in years. I’ve even finally accepted Benjamin Bratt as an adequate substitute for the irreplaceable Chris Noth, whose L&O character was revived in the terrific TV movie Exiled.

7 Late Night with Conan O’Brien (NBC)
If you had told me five years ago that Conan would someday make my top 10 list, I’d have written you a prescription for antipsychotic medication. But the genial goof has matured into TV’s most engaging interviewer, and his monologues are small masterpieces of pinpoint phrasing.

8 The Daily Show (Comedy Central)
This mercilessly sarcastic satire draws its strength from a vital stable of correspondents, including Stephen Colbert, whose buttoned-down demeanor is so subtle that the oddballs he profiles don’t know how savagely he’s mocking them, and Beth Littleford, who spiritedly sends up Barbara Walters’ soft-focus celebrity interviews. And with Jon Stewart taking over from anchor Craig Kilborn in January, the show can only get better.

9 The King of Queens (CBS)
Stand-up Kevin James exudes likability as the star of this well-crafted working-class comedy, while TV spouse Leah Remini pulls off sharp-tongued comebacks without seeming like a nag. And Jerry Stiller’s fuming father-in-law is much more than a Frank Costanza rerun — although nobody yells funnier than Stiller.

10 Dawson’s Creek (The WB)
Say what you will about the verity of these high school kids’ postgraduate dialogue, but you can’t deny the teen soap has risen to a new level of intelligence with Creek. For all the publicity its cast has received, they’re still underrated as actors, especially the wonderfully unaffected Katie Holmes and the sneakily charming Joshua Jackson.