1. ROSEANNE (ABC) Roseanne Arnold’s ongoing mission to redefine America’s lower middle class through situation comedy made Roseanne a no-contest No. 1 choice last year; this year, the honor could also have gone to Larry Sanders or Seinfeld. But Roseanne has a slight edge: It has been more than extremely funny — it has been wise and moving, knowingly mean to the right targets, exceptionally kind and generous to others. Among the season’s highlights: the wounded pride of John Goodman’s Dan Conner when his motorcycle shop succumbed to the recession; the hilarious, desperate, and touching elopement of oldest daughter Becky (Lecy Goranson); and virtually any scene that included the other Conner daughter, the profoundly moody Darlene (Sara Gilbert) — Sara, please rethink that college education you’re planning; your fans need you! Roseanne is also something increasingly rare in pop culture: a No. 1-rated show that takes its massive outreach seriously. Say what you want about how ”wild” and ”unpredictable” Arnold can be, she’s a shrewd artist whose show never settles for the easy, comforting answers that television usually requires. Or, as Roseanne remarked in a recent episode, ”We make fun of ya till it gets old and then we move on.”
2. THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW (HBO) Hey, now: At its frequent best, this brilliant Garry Shandling creation was the year’s most inviting in-joke, a parody of talk shows that went on to become an exceptional satire of office politics: yours, mine — anyone’s office. Shandling’s Sanders — so coolly sarcastic hosting his show-within-the-show, so heatedly rattled by behind-the-scenes backbiting — is something new: a rich, complacent superstar we can actually root for, even identify with. All this, plus a great cast: I never thought any TV; performer would give Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander competition for best supporting sitcom actor, but this series has two of them. Jeffrey Tambor as Larry’s sidekick, Hank Kingsley, is a beguiling creation, unctuous yet lovable, while Rip Torn, as Larry’s producer, is giving his best, most raucous, butt-kicking performance since his 1973 movie Payday.
3. SEINFELD (NBC) By now, explaining what’s been going on in Seinfeld to someone who doesn’t watch it would require a short book detailing all the spiraling, self-referential jokes and plot lines filling Jerry Seinfeld’s sitcom apartment: Seinfeld has become Finnegans Wake with rent control. So rather than discuss the pleasures of watching Jerry and George (Jason Alexander) pitch a sitcom pilot that sounds exactly like Seinfeld to a group of pretentious, if fictional, NBC execs, or explore this season’s essential subtext of the Cuban cigars smoked by Kramer (Michael Richards), let’s just say that Seinfeld is at once the densest and lightest show on television.
4. THE SIMPSONS (Fox) Creator Matt Groening’s cartoon clan has become an immense pleasure for all real-life families. Sure, there’s still plenty of naughty-Bart slapstick for kiddies of all ages, but the grown-up jokes have been even more intricately wrought this year. Who can forget the flawless episode in which Marge played Blanche DuBois in a musical version of A Streetcar Named Desire? (”You’re a dame and I’m a fella”/”Stanley, stop, or I’ll tell Stella!”) Bonus points for the wonderful lesson in cartooning Groening gave in an episode of PBS’ solid new kids’ show, Behind the Scenes.