Time to make with the listing. Go here to read the introduction of this post for the qualifications for this list and my general thoughts on television this decade, along with some honourable mentions for shows that didn’t fit well with the list. Also, I should add that some of my thesis about this being the best decade in television history was influenced by this great piece by Emily Nussbaum of New York Magazine titled “When TV Became Art”. If you haven’t read it yet, you probably should.
15. Survivor (2000-2009)
The big counter for my “best decade for TV ever” stance is the fact that the biggest trend in television for the decade was the often-negative presence of reality TV. So Survivor‘s place on this list is largely in recognition of its role in shaping the decade. Sure, there was some reality TV before it, notably MTV’s The Real World and the abominable Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?. But it wasn’t until CBS caught lightning in a bottle with its summer offering of Castaway-the-game-show did the concept take off, as seemingly all of America tuned in to see what naked Richard Hatch would do next.
But as much as I’m including Survivor for its historical significance to the decade, I’m also including it because I like the show, dammit. There’s been 19 iterations of the show since its debut in the summer of 2000, and I’ve seen them all. I enjoy the competition aspect of the show, which always has me playing armchair Survivor from home, figuring out what moves a certain player needs to make in order to stick around. It’s that competition that offers a different viewing experience than anything else on this list. There’s an art to putting together a show like this, with the casting, filming, and editing required, that might not be as artful as the rest of this list, but it’s still an art that doesn’t deserve the automatic scorn that some people might throw at anything labelled “reality TV”. Just when I think that the series has shown every thing it possibly can and has become stale, along comes a Tom Westman physically dominating everyone, or a Yul Kwon applying rational strategy to the game, or even a Russell Hantz digging up immunity idols left and right, and I’m ready for more. And that ability to reinvent itself over and over is as good an argument as any to put it on this list.
Best Season: Palau
Best Episode: “It’s a Turtle?!” (Fiji, Episode 10)
14. Angel (2000-2004)
There are some that would argue that this was Joss Whedon’s best series. I think what those people are responding to is that Angel was his most masculine series, what with the star, the general nihilism that surrounded the series, and in later seasons, all the gunfire machismo. For me, Angel never quite lived up to its promise, held back by outside forces, be they Glenn Quinn’s hastened removal from the show in season one, Charisma Carpenter’s pregnancy switching the end game of season four, or the WB’s edict that the series do more stand-alone episodes in season five, only to send the show scrambling to get some kind of closure when they were cancelled. So no, Angel wasn’t Whedon’s finest creation, but it was still a pretty great genre series that I counted as one of my favourites for most of the first half of the decade. Despite the hiccups, it hit some triumphant highs, both in its two best seasons (two and three) and throughout the others. Sadly, the show was a bit before its time, since vampires are all the rage now. But it’s probably best that we weren’t forced to see Angel sparkle.
Best Season: 3
Best Episode: “Smile Time” (Season Five, Episode 14)
13. 30 Rock (2006-2009)
And to think, this was the NBC show based on a fictional representation of Saturday Night Live released in 2006 that was supposed to be superfluous. I was barely interested in watching it, my loyalties already tied to Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (which I ended up hating), only choosing to check it out because I liked Tina Fey and Adam Baldwin (well, his appearances on SNL anyway) and an internet friend kept buzzing about it. After a bumpy start in part brought on by the big changes from the original pilot, 30 Rock got on a roll, ending up with two seasons worth (from midway in season one to midway in season three) of the absolute funniest television I’ve ever seen. There’s only one series I can think of (spoiler alert: it will rank higher on this list) that packed in as much laughter and quotable lines as did 30 Rock during its peak period. It’s slipped a bit with the back half of the third season and its current season, understandably unable to maintain its breakneck pace. But that slippage simply removes it from the “best show ever” discussion, leaving it squarley in the “great show” discussion.
Best Season: 2
Best Episode: “Rosemary’s Baby” (Season 2, Episode 4)
12. Friday Night Lights (2006-2009)
To watch this show is to love it. Which has lead many to overrate it just a bit, I’d say. Sure, everyone rightfully condemns the second season as a probably network-mandated mis-step designed to get people to, you know, actually watch the show. But too often, I hear the first season described as “perfect”, which, it pains me to say, isn’t close to being true. There were too many miraculous victorious, an over-reliance on Minka Kelly’s limited acting range, and it took most of the season to figure out what to do with Adrianne Palicki’s Tyra. But ultimately, none of that matters, because of the love the series inspires. The depiction of smalltown life is so real, performances so true, and emotions so raw that you quickly overlook the things that don’t work and let this scrappy underdog of a show into your heart and you become another Dillon booster. Whether it’s the determined stoicism of Coach Taylor, the awkward humour of Landry, the rakish charisma of Tim Riggins, the earnest vulnerabilty of Matt Saracen, or the all-around awesomeness of Tami Taylor, I have more warm feelings for the characters of this show, and the show itself, than any other on this list. Even the deservedly-maligned second season had value because of the way the actors and writers make me care deeply about the inhabitants of Dillon, Texas.
Best Season: 1
Best Episode: “State” (Season One, Episode 22)
11. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (2000-2009)
Some might argue that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was the most influential entertainment program of the decade, as many people of my generation are more likely to get their news from Stewart’s fake news program than legitimate sources (guilty — although to be fair to myself, I don’t actually need to follow American news as much as I do). But it’s probably best to resist giving too much credit to this little basic cable show, given that during Stewart’s tenure throughout the entire decade (he took over the gig from Craig Kilborn in 1999) George W Bush was elected twice and the demagoguery that he constantly pokes fun of on cable news has only gotten worse (although his legendary appearance on Crossfire did help end that show). So instead of making an intuitive leap that The Daily Show/Colbert Report generation helped elect Barack Obama, I can make an argument for the show’s placement on its influence on the world of comedy alone.
That TDS replaced Saturday Night Live as the go to source for biting satire this decade is unquestioned. It took the happy coincidence of SNL having a former cast member/head writer bearing an uncanny resemblance to an unlikely vice presidential candidate to give that venerated series any semblance of relevance by the end of the decade, so thoroughly had the ground shifted to Jon Stewart and company. TDS also replaced SNL as the choice breeding ground of tomorrow’s star comedians, headlined by superstars Steve Carrell and Stephen Colbert, along with star-in-the-making Ed Helms, bolstered by smaller successes like John Hodgman, Lewis Black, Rob Corddry, Demetri Martin, Rob Riggle, and John Oliver. All the recent talk in the entertainment world has been over the debate of Team Coco vs Team Leno, and while I’ve always found Conan funny, I’m Team Stewart all the way.