Like Peter Chattaway on film, I am more comfortable writing about my favorite programs of 1999 than holding forth on what's best. While coping with a temporarily bi-metropolis marriage, I have watched far more TV in the last quarter of 1999 than, oh, since about 1988. This list notwithstanding, my Lent probably will be TV-free.

New Year's Eve coverage (ABC and CNN)

After enduring more than a year of gloomy and misanthropic predictions about the Y2K bug, what better antidote could we have asked for than round-the-clock live coverage of this worldwide celebration? (Congratulations to Australia, Egypt, and France for the most eye-popping displays.) For the trolls who spent New Year's Eve oiling shotguns in the fluorescent glow of their disaster-proof bunkers, don't worry: you can still buy a highlights video and watch it on your Y2K-compliant VCRs.

Frasier (NBC, Thursday)

This comedy recycles plot themes (the follies of lying, the slapstick of hubris) even more often than the many Star Trek spinoffs. Still, it offers the witty scripts and brisk directing we can expect from any show that attracts James L. Brooks. Star Kelsey Grammer combines the dulcet tones of Orson Welles with the comic timing of Jack Benney—and manages to ridicule most of the Seven Deadly Sins.

The Simpsons and Futurama (Fox, Sunday)

"The Simpsons" is an especially rich pleasure because I took a few years to grasp its importance. Both shows from Life in Hell cartoonist Matt Groening regularly barbecue every American sacred cow, including popular culture and New Age aphorisms. Both also pay more attention to Christianity than most other network hits combined.

King of the Hill (Fox, Sunday)

Like "The Simpsons," "King of the Hill" dares to portray a churchgoing family, and it puts a human face on American suburbia. Beneath its often biting jokes lies one of the sweetest-natured programs on TV. Considering that creator Mike Judge first gave the world Beavis & Butthead, this show represents nearly miraculous artistic growth.

E.R. (NBC, Thursday)

What TV season would be complete without at least one hospital drama? "E.R." has been the best since it first went up against "Chicago Hope," although in 2000 it should face serious competition from Stephen Bochco's latest creation, "City of Angels." "E.R." has survived a few major changes in its ensemble cast—and week after week, it tells gritty, believable stories about a downtown Chicago emergency room.

Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends (Bravo, Friday)

The son of novelist Paul Theroux cut his teeth as one of the scattered correspondents who lasted more than a few months on Michael Moore's aggressive "TV Nation." "Weird Weekends" imitates the quirky topics and ersatz cinema verite of "TV Nation," but without the excessive cynicism. Louis Theroux seems to like people—even nutty and aggravating people—more than Michael Moore ever did, and it shows.

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The Late Show With David Letterman (CBS, weeknights) and Saturday Night Live (NBC, weekly).

TV shows for insomniacs have always occupied a parallel universe—one of greater experimental freedom and, for 25 years now, live rock and roll. Yes, of course David Letterman drives barely funny routines into the ground (enough with the two sycophantic models, already!) and "Saturday Night Live" was uneven at best in 1999. Still, both shows continue to highlight some of the best live music on television, and when SNL aims its satire at both the right and (too rarely) the left, it's very funny (consider the Gap parodies featuring imitations of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, and Kenneth Starr).

Hardball With Chris Matthews (CNBC, weeknights)

During the bleak drama of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, Hardball was a nightly snack of righteous indignation and lively discussion of stories that so many Americans wanted to will into non-existence (thanks anyway, Juanita Broderick). Maybe someday Matthews will acquire better interviewing skills, such as active listening, not interrupting people's answers, and remembering that the interviewer is not the subject. Meanwhile, Hardball remains essential viewing for people who love the horse races of national politics and a man who shows passion when principles are at stake.

Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly (PBS, varying by city) and Odyssey (cable network).

"Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly" does not have the production values of any major network newscast, but it's impossible to dislike an honest effort at reporting on the most important force in many people's lives: belief in God. Correspondents such as Kim Lawton (a former news correspondent for Christianity Today) give it their all in the Herculean task of covering the plethora of religions around the world. During the past decade Odyssey has gone through a dizzying array of name changes and identity crises. (Remember VISN? VISN/ACTS? The Faith and Values Channel?) But no other cable channel would think to bring together evangelicals Steve Brown and Tony Campolo for a friendly argument over coffee ("Hashin' It Out"). With its recent purchase by Henson & Hallmark Entertainment, the Odyssey Channel faces the potential of stability, both in finances and content, so long as it doesn't become a mere Positive Mental Attitude Channel. It is worthy of at least an occasional half-hour visit.

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EWTN (cable network)

Woe betide the Hollywood producer or liberal Catholic who attracts the anger of Mother Angelica. When the feisty nun is not slaying the dragons of modernity on "Mother Angelica Live," this network delivers creative and heartfelt programming by orthodox Roman Catholics. Its recent coverage of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops featured not only lengthy excerpts of the bishops' nuanced debates, but even color commentary by a conservative priest. Ecclesiastical politics meets Monday Night Football! While liberal Protestants stroke their chins and bloviate about the importance of TV as a mass-culture artifact, Mother Angelica gets in the trenches and transforms a small but significant chunk of pop culture. God bless her for it.

Douglas LeBlanc, despite his months-long absence on the masthead of, really is an Associate Editor of Christianity Today (the paper version).

Related Elsewhere

For a second opinion, read today's other article on the top television shows of 1999, by Ted Olsen