1 Friends (NBC) So popular, so unceasingly amusing, NBC’s Friends is a little miracle: a show that’s already survived its hype, its imitators, and its hit-single theme song. That TV’s most appealing cast turns out also to be the funniest is one of those coincidences that makes television our most surprising friend. Whether the subject is an unarticulated crush, parenthood, lesbianism, the parameters of good-neighborism, or how Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) can turn absolutely anything into a Dylanesque folk song, Friends is always supremely assured, clever, and often startlingly touching. It’s the only sitcom I watch in reruns and laugh at 2 NYPD Blue (ABC) Television’s best drama is relentless, and to be loved for precisely this quality. Just when we think we have a fix on any one of its characters — whether it’s Jimmy Smits’ moody Bobby Simone, or Nicholas Turturro’s nice guy Martinez, or Justine Miceli’s cool customer Lesniak — the series pulls that person in another direction, further humanizing and complicating these cops. The biggest potential pitfall the series had going into the season was the sentimentalization of the marriage of Andy (Dennis Franz) and Sylvia (Sharon Lawrence), but that was adroitly avoided. Now the ongoing challenge is how to turn the romance between Bobby and Kim Delaney’s Diane into something more than an extended fling.
3 The X-Files (Fox) The most telling phrase uttered this season was by an observer of some paranormal phenomenon under investigation by Agents Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Fox Mulder (David Duchovny): ”Monsters begetting monsters.” Which is to say that in the pure logic of this great series, one thing always leads to another. Coincidences are significant; the truth may be out there but it’s not making itself easily understood. The relationship between the two central professionals is at once collegial, sensual, and unearthly equal.
4 The Larry Sanders Show (HBO) Difficult to pick out this season’s highlight: Was it Hank’s new assistant Brian (Scott Thompson) explaining to peerlessly obnoxious writer Phil (Wallace Langham) the intricacies of gay sex? Was it former MTV supporting player Colin Quinn as Artie’s son Cully calling Janeane Garofalo’s tough, feminist booker Paula ”babe”? Was it Larry (Garry Shandling), upon hearing the gravelly voice of Brett Butler entering his office, saying ”I’d know that voice anywhere; hello, Dad!”? Shandling’s beautifully complicated, inside-baseball showbiz spoof continues to accumulate emotional power as its run continues. Forever, one hopes.
5 NewsRadio (NBC) Created by former Larry Sanders writer Paul Simms, NewsRadio is cruising through its first full season as one of the most satisfying sitcoms, with vividly imagined characters (headed up by Kid in the Hall Dave Foley’s marvelously polite yet firm, intelligent yet silly news director) and intricate layers of gags. Special credit to Phil Hartman, who could easily have starred in his own show yet chose this ensemble, where his sly talents are on constant, glowing display.