One note: I added at the end of each entry (besides #11, because the series didn’t lend itself to this kind of analysis) a quick mention of what I felt were the best season and episode for each series. These were honest attempts to make a few more declarations on the shows, but I’ll admit, I didn’t kill myself picking my favourites. I’m working completely from memory, so there’s a good chance that for some of them, another episode might actually be better. So feel free to share your opinions on them and anything else I write here.
10. Big Love (2006-2009)
The genius of HBO is its ability to generate buzz from shows that at first glance seem like fresh and original entries into the medium, but upon further study, are simply fresh takes on the genres we’ve seen for years. They’ve got their mob story (The Sopranos), their western (Deadwood), their buddy comedy (Entourage for dudes, Sex in the City for ladies), their cop show (The Wire), and their period piece (Rome and Deadwood again). When they started Big Love, it seemed like they were courting controversy by equating Mormonism with polygamy, with the assumption being that HBO would play up the multiple wife scenario for sexy thrills (given the network’s history of steamy programming). It turns out that the network and creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer had something more simple in mind: using their unusual premise to give the network a family drama with a mix of primetime soap opera, two genres that have been around forever, but have largely disappeared from network television (other than ABC).
At its heart, Big Love is a simple story of family and religion in today’s America. It’s kept vibrant due to its soapy nature, that pushes multiple seasons worth of storylines into short 10-12 episode seasons, as well as its examination into the bizarre subculture of compound polygamy. But what makes it great is the uniformly strong performances by the cast that make up the various members of the Hendrickson clan, particularly with the actresses of the cast, who succeed in making you care about this unusual family and their unusual lives. Unlike some critics, I enjoy the compound mysteries quite a bit, but the show is still undoubtedly at its best when its focus is on the three wives of Bill Hendrickson, giving the wonderful Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny, and Ginnifer Goodwin their chance to shine.
Best Season: 3
Best Episode: “Come, Ye Saints” (Season 3, Episode 6)
9. The Shield (2002-2008)
For seven years, The Shield took the personality of its main character Detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), constantly moving forward like a shark lest it perish. Each episode was densely packed with A, B, and usually C plots, all rushing forward at a brisk pace. Upon reflection, the series probably would’ve been better if it shaved off a season in the middle, as it started to become a little repetitive with its “strike team gets close to being caught, then wriggles out at the last minute” storytelling. But it all moved so quickly and entertainingly that I didn’t mind (it probably helped that I watched the whole series on DVD). Whatever dips it may have suffered while trying to stretch the series out indefinitely, the series more than made up for once it decided to bring the story home, concluding with what might be the best final season of any show this decade, and a final two episodes that still leave me a little dumbstruck. The Shield was a breath of fresh air for what had been a warmed over genre (the cop show), and in the process became a fairly definitive post-911 examination of America. On the surface, it was a thrill ride about dirty cops in Los Angeles, but just beneath the surface it was an examination of just how much control are we willing to concede to our protectors in the name of security. While the show never shied away from the appeal of having a Vic Mackey patrol the streets, it ultimately never forgot how much was lost by letting things get so out of hand.
Best Season: 5
Best Episode: “Family Meeting” (Season 7, Episode 13)
8. Arrested Development (2003-2006)
In my previous post, I wrote “there’s only one series I can think of that packed in as much laughter and quotable lines as did 30 Rock during its peak period”. Well surprise, surprise, Arrested Development is that series. I wrote in the introduction to this series that part of the reason why TV increased in quality this decade is due to technological changes like the DVR and DVD. Arrested Development was a little early to capitalize on the spread of DVRs, but is a definitive example of how DVD shaped television this decade. Its strong DVD sales are probably the main reason FOX renewed the extremely low-rated series twice, and are also the main way the majority of its audience experienced the show (myself included). But more than that, it’s hard to imagine a comedy this dense with call-backs to earlier gags existing before audiences had the ability to relive the series whenever they want, and know that they’ll never have to miss an episode. There’s probably only two other shows on this list that demanded more attentiveness and engagement from the audience than this one, and neither are comedies. Which ultimately probably explains why it never reached with mass audiences: people don’t want to work that hard to laugh. Thankfully, those who did put in the work of paying attention and remembering earlier bits were rewarded with the biggest and most consistent laughs of any show this decade. If that wasn’t enough to catch on to bigger audiences, than so be it. We’ll just have to live with its legacy of three near-perfect seasons, the launching or resurrection of the careers of its fabulous cast, and its influence on many of the best comedies on TV today (including 30 Rock, Better Off Ted, Community, and Modern Family).
Best Season: 1
Best Episode: “Good Grief” (Season 2, Episode 4)
7. Six Feet Under (2001-2005)
Six Feet Under is HBO’s other family drama, highlighting the lives and deaths that enter the Fisher and Sons Funeral home. As with Big Love, it’s a family drama disguised as something else, but the spirit of the show was always more familial than macabre. The strength of the show was the way it made you care deeply for its family of characters while never being afraid of showing them at their worst. Because of the uniformly strong cast, this show could go to areas that most shows would be afraid to go to, for fear of alienating their audience. Even when I didn’t always like what they were doing, I loved Nate, David, Claire, Ruth, Keith, Rico, and yes, even Brenda. When they said their final goodbyes during the phenomenal series finale, I was legitimately sad for the next couple days. Perhaps a bit dramatic for a group fictional characters? Sure, but as fitting a tribute to this show’s ability to connect over the course of five great seasons as I can think of.
Best Season: 1
Best Episode: “Everyone’s Waiting” (Season 5, Episode 12)
6. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2000-2003)
The series was split pretty much in the middle by the changing of the decade, with the first 3.5 seasons airing in the 90s (thus out of consideration for this list), and the final 3.5 seasons coming this decade (the final episode of the 90s was season four’s “Hush”, whose exclusion from consideration probably kept the show from my top five). Most fans revere the 90s output while complaining about later seasons for having the temerity to allow its characters to graduate from high school. Not me. I steadfastly believe that season five is the best season in the history of the show, while four and six are underrated, and you’ll never convince me otherwise. It helps that I didn’t start seriously watching the show until season four (watching the earlier seasons sporadically due to scheduling issues — we didn’t get the WB on basic cable here in Canada, and instead had to watch it on a Canadian network on Saturday nights, and I often had things to do on Saturday nights), so I wasn’t prejudiced by what the show had been, and thus was more willing to follow it where it wanted to go. Throughout its back half, the show remained ambitious, with episodes like “Restless”, “The Body”, “The Gift”, and “Once More With Feeling” helping to push the boundaries of the medium. My favourite element of television this decade is probably the increase in serialized storytelling, with Joss Whedon’s flagship show being one of the most influential in this regard. And the show only go more serialized as the decade moved on, which is why I feel it peaked with season five, and why I have no problem ranking the last three and a half seasons of one of my favourite all-time shows as the sixth best show of the decade.
Best Season: 5
Best Episode: “The Body” (Season 5, Episode 16)