Introduction and Runners-Up [TV Aughtrospective]
January 4, 2010 3 Comments
The decade that we just left behind was terrible in a lot of ways. The news was usually frightening and depressing; check out a decade in New York Post covers, it’s all the evidence you need. Some truly horrible people dominated the headlines; John Yoo and Octomom come to mind. The movie and music businesses grew ever more formulaic, and while some crazed geniuses still made masterpieces, the overall view was depressing. The decade in pro sports was pretty rough too, unless you were from one of five cities (New York, LA, Philly, Pittsburgh, Boston) that everyone else in the nation hates.
One epic “pro” that the 2000s should be remembered for, however, is the creation and airing of thousands of hours of fantastic television programming. With the profusion of cable and satellite TV systems, more channels offered more great shows with each passing year. Eventually, even a humble basic cable station like AMC, with the express purpose in life of playing old movies, started developing its own original programming — and gave us two of the best television shows of the decade in the process.
Even the most maligned formats of the decade, such as reality television, were responsible for some of the great television triumphs of the new century. While the classic broadcast networks sometimes foundered, there was more than enough great programming to pick up the slack on the hundreds of other channels.
That’s why Rumors on the Internets is going to spend this week detailing its choices for the ten best television shows of the decade.
Before the list begins, however, here are some shoutouts to great shows that just missed the list for one reason or another.
24. The action drama starring Kiefer Sutherland will live forever in history seminars that comb media archives to divine the spirit of the age. Jack Bauer, counter-terrorist badass, foils a wide variety of plots, squashing various fall guys even shorter than he is. The myriad scenes with Kiefer torturing a dude to get to the bottom of a WMD scheme pretty much sum up a vibrant strain of US culture during the period. This show benefited greatly from the advent of DVRs and DVD box sets; its plot moved so quickly that in the space of a few episodes, a major character might turn into a terrorist or suddenly get murdered — thus, the ability to rip off hours of the show at your leisure was essential to following the antics of the CTU and its many malign opponents.
Battlestar Galactica. This show isn’t just for sci-fi geeks; it’s the equal of any real-world drama for characters, plotting and suspense. After the cybernetic menace known as the Cylons destroys the human fleet, one lone group of survivors search for the near-mythical refuge of Earth. While the show is known for its cult fandom and jaw-dropping plot twists, Stephen King probably said it best when he wrote, “This is a beautifully written show, driven by character rather than effects…but the effects are damn good. And there’s not a better acting troupe at work on television.”
The Simpsons. One of the TV masterpieces of the 1990s was arguably past its prime over the past decade, but the extremely talented writers and directors continued to churn out many hilarious episodes. Some of the best episodes included “I’m Spelling As Fast As I Can,” “Behind the Laughter,” and the clip-show ending song, “You’ll Never Stop The Simpsons.” The episode where Bart and his classmates are recruited for a boy band called the Party Posse, whose off-key crooning is heavily Auto-Tuned and used for subliminal military recruitment, was a pitch-perfect sendup of the aughts’ musical and political trends — sorry for the crappy video, but this clip is priceless.
Chappelle’s Show. This instant classic was crushed by its own popularity, as hordes of fratty fans profoundly freaked out Dave Chappelle (he ran away to Africa). Before his flight, the blaze of glory included classics like “A Night With Wayne Brady,” “The Racial Draft,” “Rick James,” and “Wu-Tang Financial.” While two other Comedy Central shows cracked our Top 10, “Chappelle’s Show” at its height was the heaviest hitter in the channel’s lineup.
Friday Night Lights. A superbly executed sports-themed family show, very loosely based on the Bizz Bissinger book of the same name. Though the show constantly flirted with cancellation, a legion of devoted fans followed it from network to satellite and back. While one might have wished for SuperCoach Eric Taylor and his Dillon Panthers to play more than six or seven games a season, and the last-second come-from-behind victories often strained realism, FNL expertly blended teen drama with sports plotlines. Bill Simmons called it “the best sports-related show ever made.” Plus, Captain Jeets got a girlfriend out of it.
Saturday Night Live. While SNL the actual show is consistently hit-or-miss, petering out after the first musical performance every week, Youtube/Hulu technology gave its best skits a life of their own for weeks afterwards. The superb Will Ferrell era was a tough act to follow, but Lorne Michaels emerged with new waves of superstars like Tina Fey, Bill Hader, Tracy Morgan, Kristin Wiig and Amy Poehler. Fey’s lacerating take on Sarah Palin was in the best tradition of political satire, helping to expose the Wasillan demagogue at a crucial moment in the 2008 election. The best hire Lorne made all decade was the Lonely Island crew of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone: their viral videos, particularly the collabs with Justin Timberlake, were some of the best comedy moments in the history of the show.
30 Rock. When Tina Fey spun this show off of Saturday Night Live, it was considered “that other SNL-based sitcom,” dwarfed in hype by Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” Those perceptions were quickly obliterated when the stillborn “Studio” was eclipsed by the comedy greatness of Alec Baldwin, the madcap laughs provided by Tracy Morgan, and the brilliance of Fey and her writing team. The ensemble cast was well-assembled, despite network bigfooting like demanding Jane Krakowski in place of Rachel Dratch. As NBC crumbled around them, the “30 Rock” team often seemed to be in full “Fuck You” mode, holding middle fingers up to their network while gleefully lampooning its absurdities.
Survivor. It got old pretty fast, but for a couple of seasons, this reality show expanded the boundaries of what television could be. Oft-naked, scheming Richard Hatch was one of the first celebreality icons; a truly great character who figured out the essence of the game before anyone else and set the template for success. Elizabeth Hasselbeck nee Filarski launched her annoying-talking-head career with a star turn as a compelling stick figure on Season 2. The recurring challenge wherein the starving contestants would bid on food, and “winning” meant victoriously chugging a nutrition-less Mountain Dew, was reality exploitation at its finest. No historical discussion of the reality television craze would be complete without mention of Jeff Probst and his Tribal Council.
Curb Your Enthusiasm. This ingenious effort sprung from Larry David’s brilliantly self-deprecating HBO special, in which he portrayed himself as a complete asshole with a wife AND a mistress who makes the lives of everyone around him worse. “Curb” made viewers squirm every episode as David blundered his way through life, offending people and trampling social mores. A truly excellent supporting cast featuring Cheryl Hines, Jeff Garlin, and Richard Lewis made this show a joy to watch. While its first few must-see seasons were followed by box sets of lesser brilliance as the decade waned, “Curb” was inarguably one of the five funniest shows on TV in the 2000s. One scene in particular, the conclusion to the third season, stands out as “Curb” at its best: when Larry’s big restaurant opening is threatened by an outburst from the Tourette’s-ridden chef, it’s up to him to save the day.
The Office (UK/US). Ricky Gervais’ BBC sitcom was a masterpiece of awkward moments and humiliations, as incompetent douche David Brent antagonizes his office-ful of underlings. Mackenzie Crook’s sniveling Gareth Keenan was a particular standout, and the chemistry between Tim (Martin Freeman) and Dawn (Lucy Davis) was a key to the show. Gervais and his co-creator Stephen Merchant ended the show after fourteen terrific episodes and two specials, and moved on to other work like “Extras” for HBO; Ben Silverman made one of the few smart moves of his career by picking it up for American television. Steve Carell was magnificent on the US edition, and the deep bench kept the show consistently funny; appropriate homages should be extended to Rainn Wilson, Ed Helms and Brian Baumgartner. That said, the heavily hyped writer-actors Mindy Kaling and BJ Novak were pretty annoying, and the once-promising romance between John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer ended up dragging the show down to mediocrity. All told, though, the “Office” concept made for great television on both sides of the Atlantic.
Deadwood. This gritty HBO drama ran for three tasty seasons, plotting the slow encroachment of civilization on a lawless frontier outpost. Ian McShane dominated this series as Wild West warlord Swearingen, but a strong ensemble cast (yes, this is a theme of our selections) more than held their own. Deadwood was known for its cavalcade of profanity, but what really made the show stand out was its uncompromising look at the oft-gussied up Western genre, depicting a bestial gold rush camp slowly corralled and absorbed by the US government and American corporations. Its only shortcoming with regard to the HBO shows on our Top Ten was its relative brevity; but for three strong seasons, it held its own with the rest of the channel’s world-class lineup.
Breaking Bad. This series demands mention as a great TV show of the aughts even after two seasons; it’s one of the two great AMC series referenced earlier. Bryan Cranston is outstanding in the lead role of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher with terminal cancer who uses his skills to cook extremely potent meth in an attempt to take care of his family after he dies. As his life takes the turn for the worse suggested by the title, the series gets more and more intense and gruesome; Walter and his sidekick Jesse’s encounters with drug dealer Tuco were a particular highlight. This show feels real and relevant; it’s timely and gripping and not to be missed.
Also worthy of mention: “Freaks and Geeks” is a favorite, but it’s really a 90s show. “Dexter,” the first season of “Heroes,” “Weeds,” “The Colbert Report,” Shepard Smith’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina on Fox News Channel, and the many guilty-pleasure classics that we hope to detail in a bonus post were all reasons to tune in this decade. Of course, there were many more great TV moments than we could find time to mention.
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Before we move on to the 10th-best show of the aughts, here are five oft-laureled shows that we weren’t tempted to include:
Family Guy. While this show often provokes a good laugh, its reliance on non-sequitur gags and not-that-great, overly-quoted characters (Stewie, Quagmire) makes it inferior to the truly great animated series of the decade.
The West Wing. Every 60s liberal’s fantasy of what the White House should be. Yawn.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If there’s one recurring motif in pop culture that we really have no use for, it’s vampires. They’re really, really lame.
The Shield. It’s unfair, but we were never really able to take The Commish seriously as a corrupt cop. Supposedly this is a great show, but it just wasn’t happening for us.
Sex and the City. An insufferable orgy of emotional and consumerist materialism that was emblematic of virtually every flaw in urban culture throughout the aughts, and fittingly culminated in an abomination of a movie, soon to be a fart of a sequel.
Stay tuned and feel free to sound off in the comments throughout.
Introduction and Runners-Up
#10: “Six Feet Under.”
#9: “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.”
#8: “The Daily Show.”
#7: “South Park.”
#6: “Mad Men.”
#5: “Arrested Development.”
#4: “American Idol.”
#2: “The Sopranos.”
#1: “The Wire.”