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The Best of 1999/Television

Friday, December 31, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Glory be!

After several seasons with nothing to crow about, the networks actually premiered quality shows, providing viewers with the best fall TV season since 1994 (the year "ER" premiered).

Granted, many viewers migrated back from basic cable just to see the family-friendly game show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," but a half-dozen new fictional series look to have legs.

While some favorites of the past have peaked and begun their slide into oblivion ("The X-Files," "ER"), other returning series continue to impress and warrant inclusion in this list of the Top 10 TV shows of 1999:

1. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"

(The WB) -- Part of me really wanted to put "The West Wing" in first place. Somehow being a fan of "Buffy" diminishes me in the minds of those who have never watched this comedy-drama. But my own conscience prevailed, because "Buffy" remains the strongest, most vibrant series on TV.

The promotion of sarcastic Spike (James Marsters) to full-time status, the barbs of demonic Anya (Emma Caulfield) and the college matriculation of Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Willow (Alyson Hannigan) breathed new life into "Buffy" just when most 4-year-old series begin to show signs of aging.

Creator/executive producer/writer Joss Whedon deserves credit for shepherding his creation into new territory, including this month's genuinely creepy episode where Buffy and the gang lost the ability to speak. Even without dialogue, Whedon capably spun a suspenseful and funny hour of television.

2. "The West Wing"

(NBC) -- It's been a couple years since an NBC drama made me excited to see what would happen next. "The West Wing" does that every week because executive producer Aaron Sorkin creates characters unfailingly imperfect, which makes them perfectly human. The audience cares about these flawed men and women who toil in the White House. Sometimes the speechifying is a bit much, but the clipped dialogue is nowhere near as annoying as it was last season on Sorkin's "Sports Night." And politically, "West Wing" has been surprisingly balanced, often going out of its way to present both sides of an issue.

3. "The Sopranos"

(HBO) -- Though I prefer the three series listed above, "The Sopranos" easily qualifies as groundbreaking television. Family dramas are plentiful this season, but this successful merging of family and the family deserves the gushing kudos it received. Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) juggles his responsibilities to both, but the show's high points are always Tony's confrontations with his miserable mother (Nancy Marchand). It's been a long wait for new episodes, but the mob drama's second season premieres Jan. 16.

4. "7th Heaven"

(The WB) -- This fall's two-parter about high school senior Mary losing her college scholarship after vandalizing her school's gym was a knockout. It showed good kids can do bad things, and more importantly, the episodes depicted the consequences of such thoughtless actions. Sometimes "7th Heaven" is dismissed for solving problems too quickly and easily, but in a TV landscape that's becoming a morality-free zone, this funny, dramatic series of life lessons continues to charm kids and adults.

5. "Freaks and Geeks"

(NBC) -- NBC had little success appealing to the high school outcast demographic, but those of us who fit the bill alternately howl with laughter and wince with pain watching this life-like re-creation. Genuine dialogue -- sophomoric retorts and pop culture references well-suited to the '80s -- gives "Freaks and Geeks" credibility teen shows on The WB only hope to achieve.

6. "Will & Grace"

(NBC) -- In this year of laughless new comedies, "Will & Grace" became the freshest half-hour on the air. Last season the secondary characters regularly upstaged the leads. This fall the title characters proved to be the heart of the show around which inspired lunacy thrives.

7. "Beggars & Choosers"

(Showtime) -- What began as a tame satire of the network TV biz has grown into a winning character comedy complete with serialized stories and over-the-top performances. Charlotte Ross steals almost every episode as insecure, power-mad network executive Lori Volpone, and Brian Kerwin has settled into his role as nice, but tough-when-he-has-to-be programming chief Rob Malone. Now if only Showtime would learn to program and promote its original series as consistently as HBO does...

8. "Friends"

(NBC) -- It's almost the sole reason to still watch NBC Thursday nights. "Friends" isn't building toward anything in particular like last year's secret Monica-Chandler relationship, but it remains the most reliably funny sitcom on the air.

9. "The Practice"

(ABC) -- Antics more suited to "Ally McBeal" have slipped into this show with increasing frequency and the denouement of head-slicing, nun's habit-wearing George Vogelman disappointed, but "The Practice" still comes close to perfect when its characters debate human ethics and morality.

10. "Now and Again"

(CBS) -- This freshman drama -- about a bionic man (Eric Close) who isn't allowed by his government keeper (Dennis Hasybert) to have contact with his wife (Margaret Colin) who thinks he's dead -- continues to surprise. Sometimes it's a comedy, sometimes a drama, sometimes a fantasy, sometimes an action hour. Whatever the genre, "Now and Again" enchants as it engages.



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