Program of the Year: 1 KING OF THE HILL It was a good year for new cartoons, but I’ll take King of the Hill’s bracing openheartedness over South Park’s clever but monotonous heartlessness any time. TV’s most original, complicated new character was Hank Hill — middle-class Texan, political conservative, social libertarian, Willie Nelson fan — who exploded every white-guy small-screen stereotype in place since Archie Bunker. Best supporting players: son Bobby, TV’s most lovable new child star, and Hank’s sweetly shrewd wife, Peggy (voiced by Kathy Najimy, doing a great job with better lines than she gets on Veronica’s Closet). Series creators Mike Judge and Greg Daniels use the cartoon format to commit creative murder: No live-action show would have gotten away with the constipation episode (in which Hank’s colon serves as a window to his soul) or a plot about the use of crack as fish bait. Well, ER might have tried the colon-soul one, but it would have been really grrr-ooosss.
2 EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND (CBS) Not only did this superlatively old-fashioned sitcom become a solid success (by moving to Mondays), it also became a better show. I hate to compliment a guy for deftness when his funniness depends on seeming awkward, but really, Ray Romano is doing more with a deadpan and a drone than many other TV actors do with years of theater-honed technique. This is the only family show right now that gets as much of its humor from silence (the exquisite slow burns that Romano, Patricia Heaton, and Brad Garrett each deploy to convey their individual comic agonies) as from punchlines. A classic in the making.
3 BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (The WB) By contrast, there’s nothing classic about Buffy — its pleasure derives from the way it so giddily leeches off the pop culture of the moment. Tapping into the market for teen horror that he himself helped create, writer-producer Joss Whedon mingled post-Clueless slang with Scream-like sangfroid to come up with one groovy hour, week after week. Years from now (heck, probably one year from now), its in-jokes and silly scares will seem as stilted and rococo as Jack Kerouac’s hipster lingo — or Clueless — does now.
4 OZ (HBO) One of the only artists working in pop culture this year who pushed the boundaries of his medium, writer-producer Tom Fontana is also the only person in the history of television to accomplish this in part with a really artistically shot defecation/torture scene. This harrowing look into prison life featured extraordinary acting combined with stories that frequently managed to be horrific, hilarious, and bone-shakingly moving all in the same episode. Describing an edition of Oz to a non-HBO subscriber frequently gave new usefulness to Jack Paar’s old catchphrase ”I kid you not.”
5 THE SIMPSONS (Fox) ”I say there are some things we don’t want to know — important things!” Thus spake Ned Flanders, deeply spiritual nitwit, once again embodying The Simpsons’ perennial target: all-American dim-bulbedness. Television’s most gleeful satire featured an especially strong Halloween episode this year, and some of its best plots managed to make little Lisa’s existence more complicated and poignant; unlike everyone else on the show, she wants to know all the important things in life.