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Top Ten Television Shows of the Decade

TV Static

Come with me, friends, to another time. Let’s say 1998ish. Ross and Rachel rule the airwaves, ER is hailed as the Best Drama Evar. As the sun sets on Seinfeld, critics mourn its passing, proclaiming that we’re not likely to see a show of its brilliance ever again.

I watched an episode of Seinfeld yesterday. It’s still funny, despite the canned laughter. But it’s also… quaint. When I think about the strides that TV has made in this intervening decade, my head hurts. If I were to go back and tell my 1998-self that some of the most hilarious, insightful, and involving stories I’ve ever seen would be serialized and pumped into my living room, I’d never believe me.

And yet it’s true. This decade has been a (if not THE) Golden Age for television. When our viewing options exploded into a thousand cable channels, the limitations on what television SHOULD do fell away, and we got some of the best dramas, comedies, dramediodocs and everythingelses of all time.

First off, apologies: here’s a collection of runner-ups for the list.

30 Rock
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Chappelle’s Show
Family Guy
Six Feet Under
House
Glee
Modern Family
The Office
Entourage
The CSI Megacomplex
Firefly
Deadwood

Look at all that quality… that list includes some of the funniest/saddest/craziest/most insanely profitable shows I’ve ever seen. Ten years ago, any of them could have been #1. So what rose to the top (in one TV addict’s unsolicited opinion)? Scroll on.

10. South Park

South Park

I’ll admit it… when South Park first started up, in the pre-Butters days, I wasn’t a fan. The art style got in the way of my enjoyment… I couldn’t see why it was so funny to see a cluster of raggy circles and triangles say “ass” twenty times in a half-hour. But over the course of the years, Parker, Stone and team have consistently stepped up their game.

Now even a former hater has to admit… they are satirical masters. From an episode about World of Warcraft created using footage from the actual game, to an insane apocalyptic global-warming parable starring a cast of head lice, they are fearless in their creativity. Added bonus for creating most of their episodes in UNDER ONE WEEK, sometimes incorporating headlines from less than 24 hours before airing.

9. Mad Men

It came out of nowhere. From the setting (late 1950’s New York, in the heart of the budding advertising culture) to the characters (pasty cookie-cutter businessmen and wives who slowly unravel into fascinating, unique individuals) to the network (AMC? Don’t you have a John Wayne marathon to run?), this show was completely original, completely unexpected.

Nonetheless, it’s the most compelling period-piece of the decade… not only because the art direction is amazing (it is) but because it refuses to dumb down the past. Lesser shows will use the social trends of their day as straw men for lame morality plays. Not Mad Men. These dudes smoke incessantly around kids. They ash their Camels on babies… they’re unapologetic, aftershave-scented chimneys. They don’t give a fuck! Because in the 1950’s, no one knew better. And yet seeing those behaviors go unmentioned really nails home both the differences and the parallels between their world (a society on the brink of an immense and undefinable sea change) and ours (ditto).

8. Dexter

Dexter

A show about a lovable, crime-scene-analyst serial killer… it sounds like a parody of a failed FX pilot. And yet this pitch-black suburban remix of the Batman myth slides into the number eight spot… why?

First, because Michael C. Hall is brilliant in it. He brings light and depth to a character that, on paper, should be utterly hateable. Second, because it consistently balances its drama and comedy better than any other show of its time. Third, because it reaches beyond its concept: if it’s a show about a man who’s afraid to reveal the serial killer inside him, it’s just as much a field guide to the social masks and facades that we wear as we enter adulthood, and the way we deal with them. And last, because it may be the structurally tightest show I’ve ever seen… each of the four seasons is a brilliantly paced self-contained arc. At the end of each, as they wrapped the last loose thread, I wondered “what can they do now?” Then the next season came, and blew me away again.

7. Arrested Development

Arrested Development

#7, and we’re already into shows that, in a sane world, would top the list. Arrested Development is the great comedy of our time. There it is, on the table. Why? Let me count the reasons. Will Arnett’s as Job, who has seared Final Countdown into my memory for life, Michael Cera, who before his overexposure was the most painfully perfect thirteen year old imaginable, Jason Bateman as the most entertaining straight man I’ve ever seen, and of course David Cross as the most entertaining “straight man” I’ve ever seen. I could go on to list the entire cast… the ensemble works flawlessly together.

But it’s Mitchell Hurwitz’s stories, with their endless creativity, devices and self-references, that make the whole thing work. The show is so amazingly complex and subtle that half of each episode is told through voiceover exposition… and yet, on each rewatch, I still catch something new each time.

6. Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar

The opening miniseries starts out with evil robots plotting to destroy human civilization. What separates Battlestar from every other sci-fi epic out there? Within the first three episodes, these robots succeed. Damn, I wish I’d thought of that setup.

Among the Battlestar fans there are many, many people who swore they would never watch a sci-fi (or SciFi) series. This show changed our perception of the genre: it’s more about difficult human dillemas than abstract concepts, and more about faith than science. The main spokesman for “rationality” is a narcissistic Jesus-clone who talks to nonexistent supermodels. For that alone, BSG deserves a Nobel prize.

The remains of mankind are constantly faced with Sophie-esque choices… “who should get the last of our oxygen,” etc. Luckily there are fantastically written characters, jaw-droppingly awesome space battles, plenty of spot-the-Cylon mysteries, and Edward James Olmos’ cratery mug to make that heavy moral load not only bearable, but fascinating.

5. The West Wing

West Wing

Ah, West Wing. You are the Kindest of all shows. You are a warm glass of political milk. It’s an increasingly rare thing to find an hour of TV that is both idealistic and whip-smart, but for its seven seasons the West Wing more than managed the task.

In season one, Martin Sheen/Jeb Bartlett talks incessantly about what he wants to do with his presidency, and he keeps coming back to the idea of “the great debate”. An open and honest exchange of ideas to discover the best possible path for his country. This mission statement may as well have come straight from Aaron Sorkin’s own mouth. The characters in the West Wing are fantastically written and acted, but as they wander the halls, talking at light speed about NEA funding and women’s rights in the Middle East, it becomes clear that the real stars of the West Wing are the issues. The West Wing was comfortable being hilarious, tragic, and everything in between, but it also takes on the responsibility of making us smarter. We need more shows like this.

4. Lost

Lost

Lost is my favorite show. Whether it DESERVES to be my favorite show is something that remains to be seen in 2010, when the last season finally hits the airwaves. But for the sake of this list, let’s not debate whether it all adds up or not, or hypothesize about the shape of things to come. Let’s take it as it is, and look at why it warrants a place on this list.

In its first season, Lost was a show about a group of plane-crash survivors. These tattered Gap models used to be the main characters, and the show used the device of the flashback to unravel them piece by piece, and juxtapose who they had become, in thus new, unknowable context, against who they used to be. Make no mistake, this show was utterly amazing. Every new hour added a new human dimension to the proceedings, coupled with some utter smoke-monster mindfuck to make your pupils dilate.

By the time the third season rolled around, however, a clear shift had taken place: this was a show about an island. There were no other central characters, only character-shaped pieces being shuffled around an ornate backgammon board. This, I believe, is the true reason the show lost much of its following: their labyrinthine story began to drive the human element, instead of vice versa.

So we can agree: the show’s not perfect. A good episode’s amazing, a bad episode is… really bad. But even a detractor has to admit, Lost is unparalleled in its ambitions. The plot is the most complex I’ve ever witnessed, weaving endless substories and mysteries across five seasons. Their mastery of the hour-long form is pitch-perfect: though they constantly play with their structure, each episode has a carefully controlled narrative arc. But perhaps most important is the pioneering work they did to poke holes in the barrier between audience and show. An episode of Lost doesn’t end at the confines of its hour-long block: there are a web of literary allusions, clues and meta-fictions sprinkled through each episode, to deepen, clarify, or in some cases, further cloud, the big picture. Lindelof, Cuse and Co. are doing more than just hashing out a series… they’re creating a strange parallel world, and inviting us to buy real estate.

3. The Sopranos

Sopranos

And at last, we get to HBO. The network that led an amazing arms race of quality, reclaiming the phrase “TV Drama” and beginning a snowball effect that took us beyond hour-long conundrums and happy endings, and into the deep end. The Sopranos was their first smash hit, psychoanalyzing the American fascination with mob movies via the fascinating character of Tony Soprano.

As a character study, as a moving oil painting of New Jersey, as a three-ring circus of gruesome Italian-American death rattles, the Sopranos reigns supreme. If you want a grand summary of it all, however, look elsewhere- look ANYwhere. Ten seconds of black screen and silence, ten seconds of nothing on this show has generated a host of essays and commentary smarter than anything I’ll ever write, and totalling more words than I’ll type out in my lifetime. Me, I remember the simple things. The way Adrianna pronounced “Christofuh”. The way Tony was always eating proscuitto straight out of a bag. The way AJ’s eyebrows got more archy and annoying each season (whoops, spoiler). Yep, Sopranos is more than worthy of #3.

2. The Wire

The Wire

Each of you out there probably either has, or IS, a friend who rants and raves about it. If somehow you’ve missed the gospel, let me tell you now: you cannot top, you cannot stop, The Wire. As Victor said in his Top Ten Storytellers post, this is the great American novel televised. Unforgettable characters, from the secretly British McNulty right down to the openly awesome Omar Little. Dialogue that is culture-conscious and real yet constantly surprises with its cleverness and strange moments of poetry. A constantly evolving story that does these people justice, even if its sometimes painful to watch. These things would have been enough. But David Simon and Co. went beyond a ridiculously good drama… they gave us a show with a mission.

The Wire is all about exposing systems, bringing all the hypocrisies and bureaucracies that make our world grind to a halt run into the cold light of day. Starting with the interdependent drug enforcement and dealer culture as a baseline, they go on to take a hard look at unions, smuggling, politics, the education system and the media that regurgitates and sensationalizes it all. They draw the arrows between them, and they point out the places where self-interest breaks it all down. Of course, spelled out this way, it sounds like a drag… but in my experience, burning through episode after episode in fascination, this correspondence course in the school of Hard Times never felt tedious. It’s one of the few shows that manages to be both brutally honest and entertaining.

Speaking of honest and entertaining…

1. The Daily Show with John Stewart

The Daily Show

Yep. Despite the leaps and bounds made in the realm of TV drama, the Daily Show is my #1. Because it takes a true genius to take reality with all its pockmarks and grease-stains, and make it hilariously bearable four days a week. We all know that traditional news media is in a state of utter disrepair… most of us don’t fully trust it any more, and so many of us are tempted to simply ignore the ticker-tape of current events. John Stewart and company spares us that impulse. He coats our medicine in sugar for us… but not before showing us exactly what’s in it.

I know, I know. The Daily Show should not be a primary news source. I know it’s slanted so far left it may as well be lying down. But despite this fact, I think it has served an invaluable function in this decade. John Stewart took a Craig Kilborn show that was basically a vehicle for Comedy Central to dry hump A- and B-list celebrities for 1/2 hour, and transformed it into an amazing, complex constant commentary on world events. The show is scathing and unyielding in its criticisms of the media. But unlike so many parodies, it also provides an alternative to throwing up our hands: John Stewart takes care to bring in genuinely smart people for interviews, from pundits to policy-makers to authors, and while he doesn’t ALWAYS listen, he tries to leave us with a takeaway every time. There’s a little bit of Oprah in him.

I guess what I’m saying is… the Daily Show is going to be remembered as a huge cultural force in the ’00’s. For the vast bulk of this decade, we were stuck with a shrug of a president, and an out-of-touch political machine leading the US towards disaster. John Stewart is one of the few people who FACED that, head on. He used his comedy and insight on The Daily Show as a weapon, and while it’s impossible to really know, I’d like to think it made a real difference.

***

So there you have it. I know, I got a little adjective-rich there, but read over and consider. With all the crap that we’ve been through this decade, our TV’s actually treated us pretty damn well. Now maybe in 2010 we can turn it off for a minute and go outside.

Or maybe I’ll just finish up this Two and a Half Men marathon instead. I hear the MaSheen really brings his A game this episode!

0. Two and a Half Men

Two and a Half Men

Meeennnnnnnnn~

Have a nice decade, folks.

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