Now that I’ve spent parts of the past two months listing the best albums of the past decade, it’s time to move on to television. I finished off that end of decade list theorizing that “given that it was the decade where I was in my twenties, it’ll probably end up being my favourite decade for music as my tastes begin to calcify”, but in the case of television, I truly believe that this was the decade that television grew up and rose to levels of quality previously unmatched.
You probably wouldn’t know it if you only watched network TV, or focused on all the negatives that rose along with these newfound levels of quality, like the constant stream of reality TV and copycat procedurals. But it’s useless to judge TV by its worst output, or even its average output, because as a viewer you only have so much time to watch it. Say you watch 10 hours of TV (which is a lot less than me, but more than others). You can now fill those 10 hours with greater levels of quality than ever before, and if you choose to fill them with the dregs, that’s on you, not the medium. Me? I could care less about how the other hundreds of hours are filled by all the channels out there, because I can barely find time to watch all of the high quality TV that I want to watch.
A lot of things contributed to this golden age. But the two most prominent (besides simple evolution borrowing from the great work that proceeded this decade) would have to be the fracturing of audiences brought on by competing cable networks (and other entertainment sources) and the technological advances of DVD and PVRs.
The smaller audience expectations that have come as a result of fractured audiences have allowed TV creators to have more control over their visions, as they no longer have to reach the same amount of viewers as they did in the past. This is especially true of cable networks, who only have to meet a fraction of the audience of networks to prove successful. And with the advent of TV on DVD and PVRs, creators have been freed up to create complicated and more sophisticated stories knowing that their audiences won’t have to worry about missing episodes and will have plenty of ways to catch up and revisit, so now no level of detail is too much.
And it is because of the level of quality that the medium has produced this decade that I think that of all the pop culture I absorb, television is probably my favourite. This may come as a surprise from those who think of me as a music guy (as evidenced by things like my last list), or as a movie guy (as evidenced by things like going to the Toronto International Film Festival for a vacation), and I suppose others may know me as a comic book guy or a sports guy. But if I’m truly honest, my love of TV trumps them all. I never decide to spend an entire evening listening to music instead of watching TV, I usually wait until my PVR is cleared before popping in a DVD, and, yes, I watch TV instead of reading books (although I do still manage to do that sometimes too). So I’d have to say that television is my favourite, and it’s because of the shows below that I’m not afraid to admit that.
First, the qualifications. This is a list of TV shows that aired between January 1, 2000 to December 31, 2009. Shows that debuted in the 90s but continued into this past decade are eligible, but will only be judged based on their 00s output. This will get a little fuzzy for seasons that began in September of 99 but continued on to 2000, and I’ll admit that I’m not spending that much time separating my thoughts right at the turn of the calendar, but it will exclude shows that had a great 90s but a so-so 00s (like ER or The Simpsons). The major asterisk is that while I’ve seen most of the best shows from the past decade, I didn’t see everything. The major shows missing from this list due to me not seeing them are Battlestar Galactica, Deadwood, and The Sopranos, all of which have been making almost every other TV show of the decade list. So at least I’ll have three different shows from everyone else to replace them. Hopefully, I’ll get those watched sometime in the teens.
Honourable Mentions: Usually, the honourable mentions are simply the runners-up; a way of tacking on a few more titles to a list without worrying about order or write-ups. For this list, the honourable mentions are shows that were too difficult to compare and rank amongst the other shows that made the list for reasons that will soon be apparent. But in terms of pure quality, these honourable mentions often equal and possibly best those that made the list. So don’t think of these as runners-up, think of them as exceptions.
Firefly (2002-03) and Freaks and Geeks (2000)
There were plenty of good shows this past decade that were cancelled during or after their first season, including Wonderfalls, Undeclared, and Greg the Bunny. These are the two GREAT one season shows, who can, pound-for-pound, contend for the honour being called one of the best shows of the decade. Unfortunately, longevity does matter, and I found it too difficult to compare the 14 episodes of Firefly and the 13 episodes of Freaks and Geeks of this decade (5 of the series episodes aired in 1999) with shows that aired several more quality seasons. After all, with a small enough sample size, many shows can look great. Heroes looked great after one season. Instead, I choose to celebrate these too-brief glimpses of greatness here, rather than try to compare them with shows of three seasons or more.
Firefly is the most unique and fun sci-fi property to come along in years, which had the misfortune of airing on network when it was clearly a cable/syndication cult show. When you think of how its talented cast have spread around TV, and how many inferior sci-fi shows survived to make multiple seasons elsewhere, it’s hard not to get frustrated that all we have is 14 episodes and a movie. Freaks and Geeks features a cast that movie producers keep trying to replicate (well, one producer in particular), and may have been the best mix of comedy and drama of any show in the decade. A show about teens that remembers how awkward the phase is for most of us, ultimately, it’s probably for the best that it only lasted one season. It’s a tough debate in art, whether it’s better to keep going, or die early and leave a beautiful corpse. But when you consider the other two great, low-rated high school shows of the decade, Veronica Mars and Friday Night Lights, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where this show wouldn’t have changed dramatically for a hypothetical second season while implementing network-mandated suggestions in a desperate attempt to garner higher ratings. Freaks and Geeks got to be itself for one great season, and we should all be thankful for that.
Band of Brothers (2001), Generation Kill (2008), and Planet Earth (2006)
Similarly, comparing mini-series to a full series is too difficult, not just because they have fewer episodes, but because they are immediately working toward the end of the series, while regular TV develops with the idea of continuing for years. It’d be like comparing a short story to a novel. But these three series were such important contributors to the high level of quality of the past decade that they needed mentioning.
If the thesis of this list is that this is the decade where television stopped being a second class citizen compared to the more glitzy film industry, then you need look no further than these three series for proof. Despite the fact that Hollywood marches out new World War II films every time the studio wants to contend for awards, none came close to matching the quality of Band of Brothers (which some would argue even surpassed its spiritual predecessor, Saving Private Ryan). Despite the fact that Hollywood has been greenlighting Iraq films since the moment the “Mission Accomplished” banner was hung, they weren’t able to make any films worth seeing until 2009’s The Hurt Locker. Meanwhile, David Simon and Ed Burns made an instant classic in Generation Kill, proving the medium more capable of examining the quagmire in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the BBC produced the greatest nature documentary ever in Planet Earth, and they did it for TV, not theatres. The mini-series format may be a non-starter for network, but as these three series have proven (as have others like Angels in America, Recount, and The Corner), cable networks have stepped up and shown what a legitimate medium it is, and how it may be the superior format for adapting longer stories. Try to imagine a condensed-for-movie version of any of these, and you’ll understand what I mean.