The EW critic ranks ''Buffy the Vampire Slayer,'' ''Friends,'' and ''The Simpsons'' among the year's best. Plus: The five worst of the year

1 Buffy the Vampire Slayer (The WB)
Program of the Year
Like people who say they hate hip-hop without listening to it, those who disdain Buffy without watching it are to be pitied for their lack of open-mindedness. What fun they’re missing with the only teen show that manages to work on multilevels, nourishing adult viewers as well. Most episodes this year seized on a typical adolescent crisis — learning to drive, cramming for the SATs, having such an awful fight with your mom that you run away from home — and turned it with artful ease into the premise for supernatural deviousness and martial-arts horror splatterings. For me, the season was all the better for the low profile kept by the series’ most humorless character, Angel (David Boreanaz), during his near-death (near-life?) experience. The dizzying romantic quadrangle involving Xander (Nicholas Brendon), Willow (Alyson Hannigan), Oz (Seth Green), and Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) is intricate and witty to the point of Shakespearean comedy. Indeed the show has proved remarkably deft at deepening nearly every character’s personality, while maintaining a slapsticky, cartoonish exaggeration that yields much bloody laughter. Not only the year’s best, but the most underrated.

2 The Larry Sanders Show (HBO)
The series spent its final season pursuing its logical conclusion — the end of The Larry Sanders Show, with Larry (an ever more morose, dark-minded Garry Shandling) nursing his insecurities and self-absorption. The real-life drama surrounding Shandling and his seemingly quixotic split with longtime manager Brad Grey only injected more richness into the show. Always willing to make a hilarious fool of himself so long as the fool remained tortured, Shandling turned Larry into a black hole of celebrity: Everyone from fake-out substitute host Jon Stewart to Jim Carrey (doing a brilliant, Singing Defective turn in the finale) was drawn into the bleak Sanders universe. Oh, yeah: It was real funny, too.

3 The X-Files (Fox)
It’s now clear that this series transcends the expected (but still exceedingly pleasurable) Mulder-Scully byplay, and I’m not referring to its government conspiracy-alien story lines. Rather, creator Chris Carter knows a more fundamental truth: that work — what you choose to do with your life as a productive human being — is at once the ultimate pleasure and the ultimate torture. The best moments this year (feature film included) occurred during M&S’ skirmishes with FBI bureaucracy, but just as often in nonconspiracy episodes, such as the recent Bermuda Triangle triumph.

4 Friends (NBC)
A minor miracle: While exec producers Marta Kauffman, David Crane, and Kevin Bright were busy presiding over the unfortunate artistic failure of Jesse and the ongoing disaster that is Veronica’s Closet, Friends managed to actually get better, and it wasn’t in any sort of creative slump to begin with. Just when I thought I’d had about enough of the hangdog whine of Ross (David Schwimmer), the staff writers tossed him a fine bone to sink his teeth into: the abortive marriage with English prissy miss Emily (Helen Baxendale), which in turn gave Jennifer Aniston a chance to shine anew as a suddenly dumped Rachel. Add the apparently endless monkeyshines the writers can devise for roommates Chandler (Matthew Perry) and Joey (Matt LeBlanc), a revitalized intensity in the way Courteney Cox is attacking the role of Monica, and the truly touching surrogate pregnancy for Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), and you’ve got the season’s best ensemble work.

5 Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS)
EW reader mail to the contrary, anyone who watches this sitcom regularly would realize that far from being on the producers’ pad, I and my office colleagues shower Raymond with praise because it consistently takes the most worn-out TV format — the family sitcom — and pumps it up with a laughing gas that’s also truth serum. This season has benefited from beefing up the presence of once-beefy brother Robert (the svelte Brad Garrett), who flew from the nest of his parents (that Mobius strip of bad parenting, Peter Boyle and Doris Roberts) only to crash, thuddingly, into the greater problems of a single guy alone.