It was the best of decades; it was the worst of decades. But really, as far as television is concerned, it was the best of decades. Yeah, there was a glut of reality shows that made stars — or “stars” — of morons like Jon & Kate; trolls like Tila Tequila; vapid heiresses like Paris Hilton; and talentless jackoffs like Heidi & Spencer.
But you know what? You didn’t have to watch a single second of those people, because there was also a glut of utterly amazing shows, and three pieces of technology to ensure you can watch what you want to watch when you want to watch it: DVR, DVD & Streaming Video. In the past decade, Rox & I used all three to watch shows at our convenience, catch up on episodes we missed, or just to try a show we’d missed the first time around.
The rules for this are simple: if a show broadcast a significant amount of episodes between Jan 1, 2000 and Dec. 31, 2009, it was eligible. So Freaks and Geeks gets in, as does the second season of Spaced. But this is a tricky business: I’m probably counting the first seasons of The Sopranos & West Wing in their overall ratings, and I’m definitely counting all of Freaks and Geeks. But Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a Top 3 1990s show (after The Simpsons and The Larry Sanders Show,) had already peaked with its 1998-1999 third season, yet still had enough juice in the second half of its run to make my list.
Which is why it’s better to burn out than it is to rust. Shows like 24, Rescue Meand Weeds had amazing beginnings only to either got too repeat-y or went off the rails forever. Which wasn’t the case for one-season wonders like The Middleman or Undeclared. That said, the only show with in my Top 20 with fewer than three seasons was the U.K. Office, and that got a proper ending.
Finally, this list represents my 40 favorite TV shows of the past decade; the degree to which it is similar to the best TV shows of the decade is a conclusion which you can draw your own self.
THE TOP 40 TV SHOWS OF THE 2000s
- Battlestar Galactica (SCI FI 2005 – 2009)
BSG changed its focus so much over its 4(.5) seasons that a lot of people couldn’t stick with it, getting off of the bus as it morphed from a chase show to a political drama to a terrorism allegory to a mediation on religion and coming to terms with the humanity of your enemies. Even if they were sexy killer robots from outer space. I loved every aspect of it, and while the last minute or so was unnecessarily silly and preachy, that hardly takes away from hours and hours of badassery.
- Deadwood (2004 – 2008 HBO)
At first, it was hard to figure out what kind of show this was, what with all of the poetic vulgarity and the introduction of famous charismatic historical figures. But what they did with the most famous of the historical figures spoke volumes, and they were off. Season 1 set up a power struggle between Ian MacShane’s titanic Al Swearengin and Timothy Olyphant’s glowering Seth Bullock, but after that they forged a grudging, ultimately doomed alliance against, well, the future. Sadly, we never really got to see exactly what that future held as the hoopleheads at HBO let the utterly insane David Milch go off and do John From Cincinnati.
- The Sopranos (HBO 1999 – 2007)
Every other drama on this list owes a debt to what David Chase did with The Sopranos. The first season of this show raised the bar so far and so high for what scipted drama could do, it turned out to be a challenge for showrunners everywhere. And, in return, David Chase never coasted on the coattails of that first season, and took chance after chance with his show right up until the very last scene. Which, BTW, I take as the closing of our window into Tony’s world as opposed to the actual END of Tony’s world, if you know what I mean. Not all of those chances succeeded, of course — though I kinda love Tony’s controversial coma — but the career-defining performances of James Gandolfini and Edie Falco always kept us anchored to the essential realities of a 21st century crime boss and his family.
- The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Comedy Central 1999 – )
For quite some time now, every decade has gotten the late night show it deserved. The druggy, decadent 1970s got Saturday Night Live; the ironic 80s got Late Night With David Letterman, the meta 1990s got Mr. Show, and the 00s — a decade where straight news, entertainment and advocacy journalism all get meshed up into one ill-tasting post-modern stew — gets Jon Stewart, who night after night offered up an informative, entertaining fake news show that most definitely had a point of view. Which was this: “I can’t believe that you expect us to believe this bullshit!”
- The Wire (HBO 2002 – 2008)
The consensus Greatest TV Drama Ever in the History of Mankind World Without End Amen is probably just that, from any objective standpoint. (Though I do wonder if some of the same people that put it at the top of their list were dissing the controversial fifth season at the time.) But this is a subjective list, which is why I’m underrating it slightly at #5. From the first scene — “This is America” — to the last, elegiac shots of what we’ve come to know as more than Bodymore, Murderland, The Wire caught everything good and bad about who we are now, as well as how we got there.
- The Office (NBC 2005 – )
After the trainwreck that was the American version of Coupling, this looked like the stupidest idea EVER. Especially considering that the original BBC series was an instant iconographic classic which was pretty much pitch-perfect throughout. And, indeed, at first, it seemed like that was exactly what was going to happen, as they stumbled through a shortened first season that played like a tribute band version of the original. Then something happened: they deepened the secondary cast, upped the pathos, and decided to show us HOW the Scranton branch of Dunder-Mifflin could possibly stay in business, despite Michael Scott’s weaknesses as a boss and a human being. Turns out it’s because of Michael Scott’s strengths as a boss and a human being, as well.
- Mad Men (AMC 2007 – )
If Mad Men only gave the lie to the canard that “everything was better in the 50s,” it would deserve a spot on this list. But things only *looked* better in the 1950s, and while there was outward stability, it was really only fragile and/or temporary. Or only on TV. The fact is that we’re now closer to the 2050s than we are to the 1950s, and if 1973 is life on Mars, then Mad Men is life on Saturn. Or Neptune. But it’s more than that. Mad Men is a tone poem, a mediation on how slippery identity is, and how Robert Anton Wilson was right: reality is what you can get away with. And in a decade where news organizations sell opinions as facts, it’s a message that squares solidly with life on Earth in 2009.
- LOST (ABC 2004 – )
We’ve been rewatching LOST from the start in preparation for its final season, and it’s only gotten better on the second viewing. Who cares if they changed everything the second Michael Emerson parachuted onto the scene? As Ben Linus, he deserves every award he wins, and anchors a tale that may have otherwise drifted a bit too much through time and space. If LOST can somehow pull out a polar bear out of a hat for their ridiculously-anticipated final season and give us an resolution that is satisfying and solves most — not all — of the crazy-ass questions they’ve raised, it will go down as not just the greatest drama on a trad network of this decade, but one of the greatest ever.
- Freaks and Geeks (NBC 1999 – 2000)
It took awhile for the all-time greatness of Freaks and Geeks to sink in. I mean, we knew it was special from the start, but I think that it took the DVD, and the sequencing of the episodes in the correct order to get at what Paul Feig and Judd Apatow (who was already a known quantity to us Larry Sanders fans) were doing: telling the story of how Lindsay Weir changed her life. And at the same time, they also gave us the most heartbreakingly true depiction of what it was like to be early Gen-X teenager at a time when being a teenager was — believe it, or not — just about the uncoolest thing you could be.
- Arrested Development (FOX 2003-2006)
Endlessy funny. Endlessly re-watchable. And — along with the UK Office — the template for nearly all of the great comedies to follow.
- The West Wing (NBC 1999 – 2006)
Had Aaron Sorkin been just a little bit more stable, personally, he might have stuck with his creation, and it would be more fondly remembered than it currently is. Or, it could have carried on the downward path he set for it. Instead, it reinvented itself as a show about political campaigns, and while it never quite found the peaks of the first couple of seasons, it did weirdly predict the 2008 campaign.
- Friday Night Lights (NBC 2006 – )
Back in 2007, I wrote this about Friday Night Lights: “It’s a show about High School Football in the same way that The Sopranos was about the Mafia or Battlestar Galactica is about killer robots who want to destroy humanity. Which is to say that High School Football is a catalyst, but it ain’t what makes the show so great. What makes the show so great is the hard look at family dynamics in small-town America when everybody knows that the thing that they are living for is fleeting and won’t help them escape the rest of their lives.” And now I’d add that Kyle Chandler & Connie Britton play the most realistic happily married couple you’ll ever see on TV.
- 30 Rock (NBC 2006 – )
At first, it was all about Alec Baldwin, and how it didn’t preach like Studio 60. But about halfway through the first season, they figured out that the burgeoning friendship between Baldwin’s weirdly assured Jack Donaghy and Tina Fey’s needy nerd Liz Lemon was comic gold, and that the ongoing implosions of NBC itself could be commented upon — I can’t hardly wait for the episodes about their late-night implosion. And while it’s declined a bit, Baldwin never fails to deliver the goods, and deserves every piece of hardware he’ll ever get.
- Angel (WB 1999 – 2004)
After an undistinguished first season, Mutant Enemy threw up their hands and gave in to the weirdness of the concept of their Vampire Detective with a soul who was looking for redemption, and for the rest of its run, Angel was the strangest show you ever saw in prime time. When they went deep deep into the story arcs in the 3rd & 4th seasons, it became impenetrable to anybody who wasn’t already onboard, making it nearly impossible to get the ratings it deserved. After a fifth season that only gelled at the end, Angel went out the only he could – fighting beasties that he helped bring about.
- The Office (BBC 2001 – 2003)
The continuing high quality of the US version hasn’t remotely diminished the comic awesomeness of the nasty, brutish and short BBC original. And original it was: from the desperate menace that literally poured from David Brent’s pores to the twists and turns of the Tim & Dawn romance, The Office not only reinvented the workplace comedy, but breathed new life into comedy in general. And, best of all, jumpstarted the career of Rickey Gervais, who had the strongest decade of any comedian not named “Jon Stewart.”
- Veronica Mars (UPN & CW 2004 – 2007)
The first season of Veronica Mars was a miracle, combining a terrificly twisty murder mystery, an epic love story and one of the best father-daughter relationships ever depicted on the small screen. The second season was nearly as good, even if the villain wasn’t. Since the ratings were never good, it was a miracle that they got a third season. Maybe they shouldn’t have, as the shorter “Veronica in college” story arcs never got any traction, and despite the high quality of work by Kristen Bell & Enrico Conantoni, the show lost its direction, ending — ironically — with the best show of the season. And that “Veronica in the FBI” teaser that came with the DVD? The guess here is that it would have furthered tarnished the legacy. Still, that first season? For the fucking ages, folks.
- Doctor Who (BBC 2005 – )
I still haven’t watched any pre-RT Davies Doctor Who episodes, but was hooked on this reboot from the moment that Eccelston first told Rose to “run!” Eccelston — who in the DVD interviews seemed to feel like he was a bit above the material — only lasted for a season, and was replaced by David Tennant. Tennant obviously loved the material, and he inhabited the Tenth Doctor in a way that will make Who fans simumtaneously happy and sad for years to come. Happy, because he will always be their Doctor, and sad because we really wanted him do it forever. Still with Stephen Moffat running the upcoming seasons of the show, I’m cautiously optimistic about what comes next.
- How I Met Your Mother (CBS 2005 – )
The key to the greatness of this one is that they’ve combined the basic Friends concept with more flashbacks, flashforwards (and sometimes flashsideways) than LOST, and somehow maintained the obsessive continuity of The Wire. So it has become more about the “how” part — which mimics how people actually tell stories, out of sequence and with digressions and perhaps not the entire truth all at once — than who the actual mother is going to be. After all, the kids to whom he’s telling the story already know who she is.
- Slings and Arrows (The Movie Network 2003 – 2006)
Do you have to be crazy to be a working stage actor? That’s the central question at the heart of Slings and Arrows, a Canadian import featuring the equally wonderful Paul Gross and Martha Burns, whose psyches have taken a huge hit from playing other people night after night. Each season was a hilariously loving look at the chaotic Shakespearean theatre company that is central to their lives, even as they try to escape it, and each other.
- Chuck (NBC 2007 – )
Chuck!! In any other era of TV, this show would have been a huge hit. After all, week in and week out, Chuck is the most fun you can possibly have watching TV. This is a show that has something for everyone: spy missions; wacky sidekicks; hot chicks; quippy action guys, family drama and an evil organization with designs — admittedly fuzzy at this point — on the world. Trouble is, the audience for an hour-long show as smart and as funny as Chuck doesn’t expect it to find it on NBC, but rather on one of the cable networks . . . where we don’t have to worry about its renewal every single year.
- Breaking Bad (AMC 2008 – )
- Spaced (BBC 1999-2001)
- Life on Mars (BBC 2006 – 2008)
- Firefly (FOX 2002 – 2003)
- Undeclared (FOX 2001 – 2002)
- The Middleman (ABC Family 2008)
- The Colbert Report (Comedy Central 2005 – )
- Extras (BBC 2005 – 2007)
- Rome (HBO 2005 – 2007)
- Buffy The Vampire Slayer (WB & UPN 1997 – 2004)
- Andy Richter Controls The Universe (FOX 2002 – 2003)
- Flight of the Conchords (HBO 2007 – 2009)
- Party Down (Starz 2009 – )
- It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (F/X 2005 – )
- Gilmore Girls (WB 2000 – 2007)
- Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO 2000 – )
- The Simpsons (FOX 1989 – )
- Scrubs (NBC / ABC 2001 – 2009)
- King of the Hill (FOX 1997 – 2009 )
- South Park (Comedy Central 1997 – )
Here’s a selection of writing over the years about some of the shows listed above.