By Chris Willman
Updated December 21, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

1 THE KING OF QUEENS (CBS) Kevin James’ inexplicably underappreciated sitcom delivers oversize laughs with remarkable consistency and variety, employing impeccably crafted one-liners as well as fall-down-funny physical shtick. All the while, its characters continue to grow deeper, with affecting subplots about James’ Doug Heffernan dealing with wife Carrie (the Emmy-worthy Leah Remini) suffering a miscarriage, best friends Deacon (Victor Williams) and Kelly (Merrin Dungey) enduring a marital separation, and father-in-law Arthur (comic treasure Jerry Stiller) confronting his own mortality. All hail The King!

2 THE SOPRANOS (HBO) Proof that good things come to those who wait, the long-overdue third season didn’t disappoint, with such instant-landmark episodes as ”University” (the profoundly disturbing portrait of a stripper’s dissolution) and ”Pine Barrens” (director Steve Buscemi’s hysterical, snowy homage to the Coen brothers). Mark your calendars: Only nine more months until the new season.

3 EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND (CBS) Who knew its title would prove so prophetic? Ray Romano’s slow-growing success continues to build as audiences rediscover the joys of a good old-fashioned sitcom. With its recent syndicated launch, Raymond has taken its place alongside I Love Lucy and Seinfeld; this baby will deservedly live forever.

4 GILMORE GIRLS (The WB) and Ed (NBC) The real draws of these warm sophomore dramedies are the enticingly idyllic small towns they’re set in — modern-day Mayberrys populated by lovable eccentrics trading rib-tickling dialogue. What better retreats from the big, bad real world?

5 ALIAS (ABC) The breathtaking Jennifer Garner is reason enough to watch this rookie spy show, so it’s a bonus that it also boasts a skillful ensemble, intelligent writing, and kinetic direction. Plus, TV’s coolest new theme song in years.

6 LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN (CBS) Even before Sept. 11, Dave seemed like a New Man. Since returning from surgery last year, he’s radiated a refreshing openheartedness that only enhances his what-the-f — – attitude. As an ironic result, the infamously dark soul now presides over one of TV’s most sincerely feel-good shows.

7 SCRUBS (NBC) An endearingly dry cast, startlingly creative scripts, and breakout potential up the wazoo. So why hasn’t this freshman doc-com taken over Inside Schwartz’s Thursday spot?

8 OZ (HBO) Like many real-life prisons, Tom Fontana’s fictional correctional facility is seriously overcrowded. But in this case, that’s a good thing, as compelling new inmates played by everyone from Luke Perry to Method Man compete with old-favorite lifers for screen time.

9 SMALLVILLE (The WB) On the surface, the teenage Superman serial might seem cornier than its titular Kansas hamlet. Scratch below and you’ll find a subversively witty spin on comic-book myths.

10 UNDECLARED (FOX) A show for anyone who ever found that telltale sock hanging on their dorm-room door, Judd Apatow’s latest parade of freaks and geeks nails the so-funny-it-hurts glee of college life.

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