Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Top Ten Television Shows of the Decade

The strongest argument in favor of the 00's as a landmark of artistic achievement is in the medium of television. The decade may have brought about the irreversible decline in broadcast viewership, but it turns out the splintering of the national television audience meant more than choice -- it meant increasing artistic freedom and risk-talking in a format that had too often felt comfortable and stale. The best tv series' that emerged from the decade, many which thrived on cable, strived to create experiences that had never been seen before on TV. As Emily Nussbaum notes in her excellent essay in New York Magazine, the aughts were "the first decade when television became recognizable as art, great art: collectible and life-changing and transformative and lasting." Below are my favorite tv series' of the decade:

10) (tie) Gilmore Girls/The West Wing
Gilmore Girls

The West Wing

It may seem odd to couple these seemingly different shows together, but they shared a number of traits: rapid-fire, hyper-literate dialogue, angelic characters, idealized backdrops, and incredibly smart and controlling writer/creators (Amy Sherman Palladino for Gilmore Girls and Aaron Sorkin for The West Wing). Where they differed was in the scale of their settings. Gilmore Girls told the story of a mother and daughter, so close in age they were more like best friends, living in an idyllic Connecticut town surrounded by their quirky neighbors and WASP family. For most of its run, Gilmore Girls mined the complicated relationships of the Gilmore clan for both laughs and tears, with stellar performances from its lead actresses and a marvelous ensemble cast. The show fell apart in its last few seasons when Palladino decided to leave, but until then it was wonderful television aimed at all ages.

The West Wing, too, suffered when its creator left after season 2, but it actually recovered in its last season, with the riveting election race between Jimmy Smits' Matt Santos and Alan Alda's Arnold Vinick. The high points of the show were that last season and the first, when Aaron Sorkin introduced President Bartlett and his eloquent, high-minded staff to the television airwaves. The seasons in between were filled with scandals that were either too lame to be interesting (the MS storyline) or too sensational to be believable (assassination attempts and child abductions), but with its introduction and its ending, The West Wing managed to make the dirty world of politics seem not only honorable but sexy.

9) Top Chef/Project Runway
Top Chef

Project Runway

In a decade that brought the rise and dominance of reality TV, Magical Elves Production, the company behind both these shows, deserves credit for taking a genre that lends itself to sensationalism and using it to foster real competitions with creative challenges and fair evaluations. In highlighting the worlds of food and fashion, these programs offered fascinating glimpses into the inner workings of industries we all engage with on a daily basis. They also offered real people tackling difficult competition and intense work environments, resulting in very compelling television.

8) The Office (US and UK versions)
The Office (US)

The Office (UK)

The mockumentary format gained its current prominence on TV due to the brilliant, hilarious, and intensely uncomfortable British sitcom The Office. When the show first premiered in 2001, it was practically impossible to get through a full episode given the unrelenting, cringe-inducing behavior of office manager David Brent (Ricky Gervais). But Gervais and fellow creator Stephen Merchant understood that such humor is most palatable in a setting that is universal, and in choosing the monotonous modern-day workplace as the backdrop for their comedy they also surrounded Brent with characters and plot points that were both hilarious and relatable. The American version, with Steve Carell leading the office as the equally bumbling Michael Scott, added some good old fashioned American sentiment to the proceedings and, while never quite surpassing the comedy of the original, created storylines and characters with more heart and depth.

7) Lost

Broadcast networks may have been a bit reluctant to embrace the sprawling, serialized storytelling that was thriving on cable in the first part of the decade, but ABC dove in head-first with Lost, a supernatural drama about crashed passengers stranded on an island. The show is more audacious than just about anything else on broadcast TV -- and, amazingly, it draws a mass audience (or at least it used to). But what makes the show so watchable beyond the supernatural mysteries and time-shifting narrative techniques is the well-earned character development. The island and its mysteries draw you in, but the characters keep you there.

6) Mad Men

It may be a bit premature to put a show that is just ending its third season amongst the classics of the decade, but the last two seasons of Mad Men have suggested that creator Matthew Weiner has a vision for the series that is every bit as ambitious and well-realized as any of the other shows on this list. With an impeccable cast led by the captivating John Hamm, plots that engage with the cultural milestones of the 50s and 60s while moving characters in believable and exciting directions, and an attention to detail that makes everything from the set design to the costumes a feast for the eyes, Mad Men heads into the new decade as the best show on television.

5) Deadwood

David Milch's fascinating Western was not your typical tale of the Old West. Deadwood was concerned with much more than just Cowboys and Indians, focusing instead on the town of Deadwood's transition from campground to township, demonstrating all the difficult alliances, negotiations, and compromises needed to build a civilization. Anchored by Ian McShane's brilliant performance as saloon owner Al Swearengen, Deadwood showcased a town on the verge of modernity and did so in way that was more sophisticated and profane than had been tried before. The series never really came to a satisfying conclusion, but the three seasons that aired on HBO were enthralling television.

4) The Sopranos

If any singular person deserves credit for the idea that television is an artistic medium, it's David Chase and his landmark series about a mafia family struggling to come to terms with such existential issues as morality, mortality, and the diminishing relevance of the mob. At the center of the story was a magnetic monster (beautifully played by James Gandolfini), a character viewers were attracted to even though he embodied evil. It was that paradox, that we were enchanted by a world that we were supposed to find reprehensible, that Chase used to constantly undermine viewer expectations. The series suffered when it veered in less focused directions (e.g., Vito's lark in New Hampshire), but when it zeroed in on the anxieties of Tony or Carmella (the excellent Edie Falco), it was the pinnacle of the medium.

3) Freaks and Geeks

This short-lived dramedy on NBC heralded the rise of Judd Apatow, for before he made The 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up he created this beautifully observed, very funny television show. Focused on the outcasts of a midwestern high school, Freaks and Geeks was the first tv series to capture fully all the minor tragedies and occasional triumphs of adolescence. Since its debut and subsequent cancellation after one season, the players from the show -- Apatow, Seth Rogen, James Franco, Linda Cardellini -- have all gone on to bigger things, but none have been better than this gem.

2) Arrested Development

The best sitcom of the decade, Arrested Development was, as Ron Howard narrated at the beginning of every episode, "the story of a wealthy family who lost everything." With that pitch, we were introduced to the Bluth family, an incredibly stupid, selfish, and oblivious clan that served as the vehicle through which creator Mitch Hurwitz and his fellow writers delivered the most hilarious satire to air on television. Touching on subjects ranging from incest to the Iraq War, Arrested Development stocked every episode with millions of inside jokes, cultural references, and subtle visual cues, rewarding its viewers' intelligence along the way. With a magnificent ensemble cast led by the wonderfully deadpan Jason Bateman, Arrested Development was the zenith of comedy in the aughts.

1) The Wire

I've said it before, I'll say it again: The Wire is the best television series in the history of the medium. Period. Frankly, if I haven't convinced you to watch the show by this point it says more about your obstinacy than my powers of persuasion. What else is there to say? In five marvelous seasons, creator David Simon and his co-writers produced television on par with the greatest literature, with every season unfolding as a new chapter in the story of modern day Baltimore. Whether the focus was on the drug dealers who had ravaged the city, the crooked politicians who let it happen on their watch, the cops and teachers working admirably to improve an impossible situation, or the generation of children most vulnerable to powers outside their control, The Wire told the tale of city in decline with gripping honesty and emotion. We'll be lucky if the upcoming decade brings a television series with even half the ambition and flawless execution of this masterpiece.

Honorable Mention: Friday Night Lights, Veronica Mars, Chapelle's Show, The Daily Show With John Stewart, The Colbert Report, South Park

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