This has been a great decade for television, so much so that the list of my favorite shows of the decade pretty much doubles as the list of my favorite shows of all time. Other than Seinfeld and the nineties-era Simpsons, I’m struggling to think of a pre-2000 show that would make the cut. It’s amazing how far television has come as a medium over the past ten years. Anyway, here they are, not the best, necessarily, but my favorite shows, 2000-2009 (clips when available and appropriate):
30) Sealab 2021 (Adult Swim, 2000-2005)
A bizarre show for a bizarre decade.
(I couldn’t get the embed code from Adult Swim to work for my favorite clip for some reason, so here’s the link. If I can figure it out, I’ll fix it.)
29) Extras (HBO, 2005-2007)
It’s not The Office, obviously, and parts of the series finale were painfully earnest. But Ricky Gervais (on television, at least) is always worth my time, and about half of the guest stars were hilarious.
28) The “House” Series (Frontier, Colonial, etc.) (PBS, 2000-2006)
It’s almost always entertaining to watch the types of people who sign up for reality television on PBS. For instance, Michelle Rossi-Vorhees, of Colonial House, is simultaneously attempting to recreate the life of a female pioneer in 1628 while staying true to her 21st-century ideas about feminism and atheism. In doing so, she basically undoes the premise of the show, but it makes for great drama, and the PBS veneer allows viewers to pretend that it’s not just a higher-class Wife Swap. Very sad that there hasn’t been a new installment since 2006.
27) Family Guy (Fox, 1999-present)
Almost the definition of throwaway television; often I’m not even sure if I’ve seen an episode before or not. But every third episode or so there is a moment of brilliance, or something close to it. Or, in the case of my favorite episode, “PTV”, 22 moments of brilliance.
26) Big Love (HBO, 2006-present)
The last (and least) of the great HBO hour-longs. I never miss an episode, although I never get overly excited about it, either. It does seem to get slightly better every season.
25) Da Ali G Show (HBO, 2003-2004)
The real brilliance of this show has been watered down by the Borat backlash and the transience of Brunö, but at the time it was amazingly original. And the old episodes hold up.
24) Undeclared (Fox, 2001-2002)
It had to have been frustrating for Judd Apatow that the spiritual successor to Freaks and Geeks received the same critical acclaim, but couldn’t even match F and G’s 18 episodes, falling one short. Lacks a little bit of its sister show’s heart, but has a lot of laughs, with, as usual, a great recurring performance by Jason Segel.
23) Entourage (HBO, 2004-present)
This show receives a lot of criticism, most of it basically true. But there is nothing better than Entourage on a Sunday night when faced with another work week. Really hit its formulaic stride in season four.
22) The West Wing (NBC, 1999-2006)
I loved this show both in high school, when my mom would leave a VHS with the new episode on it out on the counter for me, and in college, when hangovers were treated with Domino’s pizza and West Wing marathons. I lost interest eventually, but I’ll rewatch the first three seasons forever. Also, I will always find it odd that Aaron Sorkin was able to mostly rein in his preachiness on a show about politics, but completely lost control of it on a show about comedy.
21) Chappelle’s Show (Comedy Central, 2003-2006)
Peaked sometime in the second season. I would have loved to see where it went, but I imagine it probably would have flamed out. I always loved that even after it became a cultural phenomenon, it maintained its small-scale, independent vibe. I heard Dave Chappelle has buffed up now, which is weird to imagine.
20) Dexter (Showtime, 2006-present)
It’s fallen off to the point that I couldn’t even motivate myself to remember to DVR it this fall, but the first two seasons were outstanding, original television. It’s hard to picture Michael C. Hall as David Fisher anymore.
19) The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007)
How much credit should a show get for being groundbreaking? That pretty much determines where this should be on the list. One of the most influential shows of all time. I didn’t watch the first season when it first aired (although I now consider it one of the best seasons of television ever), but I imagine it must have been mind-blowing to those who did. Really, this should probably be higher on this list, but it is my favorite shows, not the best shows.
18) Mythbusters (Discovery Channel, 2003-present)
An educational show that manages to double as mindless entertainment. Perfect Saturday afternoon television.
17) Project Runway (Bravo, 2004-2008, Lifetime, 2009-present)
The first reality show to remain appointment television for me for more than two years, although I’m relatively bored with it at this point. Over the past couple of years I’ve stopped watching The Amazing Race, Survivor, So You Think You Can Dance, American Idol, Top Chef, and Project Runway. I don’t know what it is with me and reality TV lately. This show’s first season was the first (and maybe only) time that the person I was rooting for from the very beginning won the whole thing.
16) Rome (HBO, 2005-2007)
Definitely more of a soap than some of the other pay cable shows of the decade, but, really, that’s the way this show should be. The first season had a great slow build, finally breaking loose when Cleopatra showed up. I would have loved to see where they might have headed with season three.
15) How I Met Your Mother (CBS, 2005-present)
The quality of this show used to be a secret, but pretty much everyone has caught on at this point. Quietly lowers expectations with a four-camera setup and then surprises with callbacks, running jokes, and absurd situations that you would never find on Two and a Half Men. Again, Jason Segel is outstanding.
14) Friday Night Lights (NBC, 2006-present)
Everyone who loves this show says that you don’t need to like football to watch it. I’ll go one step further and guess that the majority of people who love this show know next to nothing about football. An intimate knowledge of football might even detract from one’s enjoyment; I’m not sure how realistic the in-game scenes are. Bounced back after the notoriously rocky second season (when it almost lost me as a viewer), and maintained its momentum this year after losing a third of the cast. Sometimes the writers make odd decisions (why did they spend all of season three struggling to make us like J.D. McCoy only to immediately turn him into a complete asshole in season four?), but they’ve taken advantage of a strong ensemble cast to create some of the best characters on television (Buddy Garrity, anyone?).
13) Mad Men (AMC, 2007-present)
The Sopranos evolved. Subtler plots and quieter performances than its evolutionary predecessor keep Mad Men riveting even when nothing much seems to be happening. Jon Hamm has the best slow burn on television, and gets bonus points for being a UCB fan/nerd in his free time. According to a magazine article I read, the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, is obsessive about the details of the era. I wouldn’t know; I was born twenty years after the period in which it’s set.
12) Freaks and Geeks (NBC, 1999-2000)
The show that launched as many careers as it had episodes. I’m ranking this show higher than it probably deserves just because of how much I loved it when I first watched it. I even emailed Judd Apatow to rave about it back in 2000. He was nice enough to send me a response with a story about him doing comedy at the U of I and then going out with students afterwards, eventually passing out, drunk and high, on a sidewalk in Urbana. Unfortunately, the email is lost to time, along with the rest of my old Prodigy account.
11) Saturday Night Live (NBC, 1975-present)
It has become completely kneejerk to claim that SNL isn’t worth watching anymore and is nowhere near as good as it used to be. It’s so easy to only remember the great sketches and completely forget the forty-five minutes of bad ones per week that most people have a completely skewed vision of their favorite era of this show, whichever era it may be. In my opinion, the following three things are true: 1) The early nineties episodes of SNL are more dated than the early eighties episodes, 2) The late nineties SNL is almost painfully unfunny much of the time, and would be unwatchable if not for Will Ferrell, and 3) This past decade has been, by far, SNL’s best. This show might not deserve to be this high, but I know that during the writers strike, this is one of maybe three shows that I really missed watching.
10) The Colbert Report (Comedy Central, 2005-present)
Not as consistently great as The Daily Show, but the highs are higher. I’m sometimes astonished by how quick Stephen Colbert is; no one else could pull this show off. The cultural impact of the show and its viral nature are amazing and unprecedented. Truthiness, The Colbert Bump, “Better Know a District,” U.S. Olympic Speed Skating, Wikipedia, the Megyeri Bridge, Steagle Colbeagle the Eagle, AmeriCone Dream, the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill; the list goes on and on.
9) Lost (ABC, 2004-present)
This show can be exasperating. The characters are mostly unlikeable at this point. Plot points that at one time seemed integral have long since been abandoned. But here I am, rewatching the first five seasons before the final season begins airing in February, even though I know parts of it will be tiresome, just because I’m terrified of missing out on anything.
8 ) The Daily Show (Comedy Central, 1996-present)
This show might define the decade more than any other. When I think about most of the major events of the past ten years, there’s a deadpan Jon Stewart in my head narrating them. Deserves this spot on the list for “Indecision 2004” and “Indecision 2008” alone.
7) The Office (US) (NBC, 2005-present)
Will always suffer from comparisons to its British counterpart, but by season two it became clear that this show had no intention of following the same path as its inspiration. Unlike the British version, this show was built to last, and had to shed a bit of heart and bump up the absurdity to make that happen. This did lead to the one advantage that Dunder Mifflin has over Wernham Hogg: the outstanding supporting cast that has had a chance to develop over 113 (and counting) episodes.
6) It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX, 2005-present)
When I go on road trips I always look forward to the hotels, and the challenge of finding something on the limited number of channels available that is captivating enough to watch without the ability to fast forward. It was on a trip from Chicago to Boston that I stumbled across a mini-marathon of the first season of this show on FX. I usually describe It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to people that haven’t seen it as an evolutionary Seinfeld, but that’s not really all that close. The beauty of this show is its simplicity, and its weakest episodes are generally those that stray too far from the bar. Also, I should really make “Dayman” my ringtone.
5) 30 Rock (NBC, 2006-present)
This key to this show is that not only is almost everyone in the cast perfect for the role they play, but the role is perfect for them. Tina Fey seems to be playing herself (very well), Tracy Morgan will never find a role that uses him this well again, and Alec Baldwin, whether he likes it or not, has completely changed the way his career will be viewed. And who could play Kenneth the Page better than Jack McBrayer? And what role could Jack McBrayer shine in other than Kenneth the Page? It really feels like a show that was written to get the best out of what it has, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Which is saying something, considering how great the parts are.
4) Deadwood (HBO, 2004-2006)
Another HBO show with a great build to start the first season off; things don’t really get going until the death of Wild Bill. The flow of the dialogue is great, but what keeps me coming back to this show are the characters. Not just Al Swearengen (although he might be my favorite television character of all time), but smaller players like Charlie Utter and Ellsworth. Few characters on television have been as simultaneously disgusting and sympathetic as E.B. Farnum. Sol Star, Doc Cochran, A.W. Merrick; every character is fully fleshed out. The third season, through no fault of its own, ends somewhat unsatisfactorily, and I’m disappointed that the promised HBO specials never came to be, but it’s hard to hold that against the rest of the show. For a show that takes place almost entirely on one street, this sure feels epic.
3) Arrested Development (Fox, 2003-2006)
Joke for joke, no other show even comes close. There is enough comedy in 53 episodes to sustain 100 of another show. Famously rewarding to repeat viewers, with callbacks to previous episodes and seeds planted for future jokes in nearly every scene. Many bemoan its premature death, but this was a show with a metabolism too fast to maintain itself over a long period of time. Introduced us to Michael Cera and Will Arnett. It still feels cutting edge, almost four years after it went off the air. This show truly had unlimited juice.
2) The Office (UK) (BBC Two, 2001-2003)
I discovered this show in the summer of 2003, while watching BBC America in preparation for a year in London. I’m not sure it really prepared me for my time abroad, but it did become the first show that I really felt compelled to have other people watch, first with a region free program on my laptop and some DVDs I’d bought in Britain, then with the premiere of the Christmas Special on BBC America, and then with the eventual Region 1 DVD release. No other show mixes comedy, heart, and pathos this well. It’s really nothing like anything that came before it.
1) The Wire (HBO, 2002-2008)
This seems to be a near-unanimous choice for best telelvision show of the decade, and maybe I’ve just been caught up in that; when I ranked my favorite shows back in 2007 I had this at number four (in my defense, that list also had Heroes at number 11, so I was obviously very confused at the time). I’ve rewatched the entire series twice since then, though, so maybe I’ve just come around. Unlike every other show on this list, I don’t know anyone who has made an effort to watch this show and doesn’t love it. Season four is the greatest season of any television drama, ever. Johanna and I almost named our dog “Bodie.” It’s Barack’s favorite show. It’s the greatest television show of all time. Oh, indeed.
Honorable Mentions: Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Attack of the Show, Battlestar Galactica, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Eastbound and Down, Flight of the Conchords, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Peep Show, Reno 911, The Soup, Spaced, So You Think You Can Dance, Three Sheets, Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job!