MARK McGUIRE Staff writer
Section: ARTS,  Page: I1

Date: Sunday, May 30, 1999

We could whine about all that is bad with television . . . so we will. But while we're at it, in looking back at the 1998-99 television season, we should also note the outstanding. And yes, there were some noteworthy achievements.

So with the season just concluded, let's get right to it, the inaugural TUbe Awards:

Best show: Arguably for the first time ever, the best series on television is not on the networks. ``The Sopranos'' debuted in January on HBO, and when its 13-episode run ended fans immediately began suffering withdrawal symptoms. This Mafioso-sees-a-shrink drama is as stirring, and at times as funny, as any show in years. In a word, stunning.

Best new show (``The Sopranos'' excluded): ``Sports Night.'' This ABC half-hour show is part comedy, part drama and all singular in its unusual pacing. Deftly penned by Aaron Sorkin, it is one of the best-written programs on television.

Biggest shocker: ``Providence.'' This vanilla wafer of a drama has struck a chord with viewers, prompting NBC to re-examine Fridays now that it knows people will in fact tune in that night. Why they tune in to this show still escapes me.

Worst new show: ``Wind on Water.'' This lavish-looking but thoroughly empty Bo Derek drama for NBC would have made a good three-minute MTV video. Dishonorable mention: ``The Army Show'' (WB). Both are long gone.

Best show NBC wished it had back: ``JAG.'' This was a ratings winner for CBS, which picked it up off the NBC scrap heap a few years back.

Worst stand on ``principle'': ``The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer.'' UPN wanted to shake things up and offer a sitcom that was not cute, set in New York or stupefyingly yuppified. What they made was an offensive little show that forgot to do one thing -- be funny.

Best exit: (Tie) Jimmy Smits' departure from ``NYPD Blue'' was poignant without descending into condescension. The ``Mad About You'' finale was about as fitting a send-off a sitcom can get. Other notable departures included ``Home Improvement,'' George Clooney (``ER''), ``Melrose Place,'' Benjamin Bratt (``Law & Order''), ``The Nanny'' and ``Homicide: Life on the Street.''

Best debut: Rick Schroder, ``NYPD Blue.'' The unlikely selection to replace Smits has pumped new life into what remains one of the best dramas on television.

The most welcome exits: Reality shows on Fox and the syndicated ``Hard Copy.'' Don't let the door hit you on the way out. And if it does, don't forget to get it on tape.

Most improved series: (Tie) ``Dharma & Greg'' and ``Spin City.'' Both of the ABC sitcoms had breakout years creatively.

Best actor: James Gandolfini, ``The Sopranos.'' We find ourselves rooting for Tony, the alternative Mafia hero, even as he is whacking another bad guy. And how bad can a guy be if he likes ducks?

Best actress: Nancy Marchand, ``The Sopranos.'' Think I liked this show? Marchand, best remembered from ``Lou Grant,'' has crafted in matriarch Livia Soprano a startling character who straddles benevolence and pure evil.

Celebrity everyone should cut some slack: Calista Flockhart, ``Ally McBeal.'' I don't want to hear her discuss her diet. I don't want to see her chowing down hot dogs again when the World Series is on Fox. Just let her act, will ya?

Weakest top 10 show: ``Veronica's Closet,'' NBC. Let's see how well this show does next season, when it departs the built-in ratings cocoon that is Thursday night between ``Friends'' and ``ER.'' By putting it on Mondays, NBC has put this show on a proverbial iceberg and shoved it out to sea.

The next best thing to network television: UPN, Pax. Keep swinging, guys.

Best miniseries: ``Joan of Arc,'' CBS. This May historical drama gave CBS the season ratings win (among total viewers) and was an artistic triumph as well. Honorable mention: ``The Temptations,'' NBC.

Worst miniseries:(Tie) ``The '60s,'' ``Noah's Ark,'' both NBC. Don't make me go over the details again.

Best drama (``The Sopranos'' excluded): ``The Practice,'' ABC. Who needs movies on Sundays when you have ``The X-Files'' at 9 p.m. (on Fox) followed by ``The Practice'' at 10 p.m.?

Best comedy: ``Friends,'' NBC. The show made a stirring comeback this year, thanks to Monica and Chandler.

Biggest disappointment: ``Frasier,'' NBC. A perennial all-star, this comedy had an awful year overall (but improved down the stretch).

The best show you might think isn't for you, but is: ``Buffy the Vampire Slayer,'' WB. The writing is shockingly good and relevant beyond teens.

MVP (Most Valuable Performer): Drew Carey, ABC. He is the personification of the network, starring on two shows (``The Drew Carey Show,'' ``Whose Line is it Anyway''). He will even be in a network movie next season (``Geppetto''). Honorable mention: Bill Cosby, CBS.

Event of the season: With apologies to Jan of ``The Brady Bunch,'' it was ``Monica, Monica, Monica.''

And the locals:

Best new local anchor:

Kari Lake, WNYT, Ch. 13. Brad Holbrook at WRGB, Ch. 6, has been extremely solid, what you would expect from the seasoned professional. But Lake came into a more difficult position, replacing icon Chris Jansing (nee Kapostasy) and has handled the job. Tremendous potential.

Most improved:

Sue Nigra, WRGB, Ch. 6. Yes, that Sue Nigra. A bundle of nerves who was not connecting with viewers, Nigra has undergone a dramatic change in recent weeks, dating back to when she was temporarily paired with Jack Aernecke.

Once viewed as a terrible mistake -- remember, she had to overcome legal hurdles to go to WRGB from WTEN, Ch. 10, then initially bombed -- Nigra is developing into a capable and, surprise, confident anchor.

Best job in local television:

Dan DiNicola, WRGB, Ch. 6. DiNicola gets to tour Long Island vineyards, craft odes to baseball parks and the game, review movies (which he also does for The Daily Gazette), co-host cooking segments and report the offbeat features. The best gig if you like to travel, and work seven days a week.