By Ken Tucker
December 21, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

SHOW OF THE YEAR 1 The Sopranos

(HBO) Sopranos creator David Chase spent the first season of his dysfunctional Mob-family series designing a finely detailed world; he spent the second season raising it to operatic grandness and exaggeration (remember the talking-fish season ender?); and he spent the past season bringing it back down to earth. The first two seasons brought him raves and TV-industry power; in the third he used those rewards to do his best to subvert what he had created. Chase knew that James Gandolfini’s Jersey crime boss Tony Soprano had become, to too many viewers, a huggy bear. (How cute — he’s henpecked! How conflicted — he kills people, but he so loves his wife and kids!)

And this year, Chase exploded The Sopranos. He allowed the therapist, Lorraine Bracco’s Dr. Melfi, to be raped, and then defied our TV-ingrained expectation that she would be revenged. And he had the faithless Tony finally snag a girlfriend (Annabella Sciorra) who was even more neurotic and tortured than he is.

Chase, who knows commercial TV from years on The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure, denied us the comforts of television’s conventions. In doing so, he advanced his medium’s art once again.

2 BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (UPN) In a calendar year’s worth of emotional episodes that saw the death of Buffy’s mother, the death and resurrection of Buffy herself, and a musical production that put most contemporary Broadway efforts to shame, the Slayer’s fiercest battle continues to be against that old TV shibboleth, Industry Respect. No matter; wise, stern creator Joss Whedon still forces us to go where we may not want to venture, but are ultimately always glad we did: Alyson Hannigan’s Willow gone witchcraft-crazy; James Marsters’ Spike gone soft for Buffy; Nicholas Brendon’s Xander and Emma Caulfield’s Anya picking out wedding china patterns. Oh, the horror, the exquisite horror!

3 THE BERNIE MAC SHOW (FOX) Self-proclaimed ”strong, healthy black man” Mac is the season’s strongest new king of sitcomedy. In starting nearly every episode by revitalizing a trite claim — that ”we’re all family” — Mac taps into the feelings Bill Cosby did 15 years before (that family transcends race; that race determines social perceptions; that all kids need to be firmly disciplined). Yet Mac also takes pre-Cosby, old-school TV strategies — staring directly into the camera and talking like George Burns; doing long slow-burns like Jack Benny — and adds heartfelt funk.

4 THE SIMPSONS (FOX) With each year, the consensus builds that this is one of the greatest sustained-quality acts on television. True, but it requires a grunt-work TV critic to keep track and point out that this was a slightly uneven season (witness the aimless Thanksgiving episode: That joke about Bart digging a hole to China — as if plotting an escape — went nowhere, didn’t it?). But regular broadcasts of brilliance like the one featuring Lisa’s ecologically minded decision to live in an imperiled redwood tree (which incorporated everything from slapstick humor to pointed political satire) are what keep this the only show capable of jumbling every style of comedy with consistent and surprising adroitness.