The Decade in Television

This decade brought us programming on the small screen that rivaled or surpassed what you could see on the big screen — all in the comfort of your own home and with no additional cost beyond your cable bill.

Was there any comedic movie that was so delightfully funny as “Arrested Development” or “The Office”? Did the annual Oscar bait move us like “Six Feet Under” or “The Sopranos” did? (OK, those last two make the case for splurging for a premium cable channel or two). How about an action film that thrilled us as relentlessly as “24” — the show that perhaps captured the spirit of the decade best with its dissection of terrorism and its ensuing moral inquiries?

Moving from global issues to international embarrassments, “The Real Cancun” proved the reality genre is strictly the purview of television. Loftier subjects such as the war on terror, gun violence and health care get documentaries (and Michael Moore ones at that), but drunken, exhibitionist college students and money-hungry opportunists thrive in a more intimate setting. It was “Survivor” that really kicked the trend off with its 2000 season — with Susan Hawk’s immortal rat-snake speech — and it’s the juggernaut of “American Idol” that makes it the ascendant genre on TV today.

Despite a seeming surfeit of cheap reality shows involving B-stars, dancing or some combination thereof, there’s plenty of great scripted programming — you just might not see much of it on the networks. As cable networks increasingly step in to fill the void, the audience is rewarded with an array of choice. Some of the boldest, most interesting shows of the decade could be found away from the top 5 networks (are we counting CW?), whether basic cable (“Nip/Tuck” on FX, “South Park” on Comedy Central”) or pay cable (“Weeds” and “The United States of Tara” shows Showtime can be a creative force equal to HBO).

The increase in specialized channels means you could be entertained mightily by finding one that dovetails with a hobby or interest — since I love cooking I can watch the Food Network every day with its “Iron Chef America” challenges and its more straight-forward cooking shows like “The Barefoot Contessa.” Other networks even got into the act and created their own chef showcases; sometimes it was about the food (“Top Chef”) and sometimes about the kitchen bickering (“Hell’s Kitchen”).

With so many options, how does a viewer take it all in? Well, there are hundreds of shows available on DVD — from old treasures such as “I Love Lucy” to the latest season of modern classics like “Desperate Housewives.” I can watch my No. 1 show, “Arrested Development” (read more about my love of this late, great show here), over and over to find new layers of brilliance and hilarity. Of course, that same treatment could expose limitations on shows we once thought were good — “Gilligan’s Island: Complete Series” box set anyone?

When I would watch such programs as a kid, I’d always imagine how great it would be if one could hit a simple button and watch any show ever made when he wanted. We haven’t gotten to that point yet, but we’re closer than ever with the ascendancy of DVR. You not only keep up with your favorite shows (without worrying about a videotape), you can easily skip commercials and other dull proceedings.

Paired with the artistic renaissance of television programming and the technological advances in the physical TV sets, it’s a wonder anyone goes out to the theaters at all.

OK, caveat time first: I didn’t see every season of every show (alas, I stopped paying for pay cable mid-way through the decade and will have to catch up on some of those shows on DVD), but at least one season of these shows made enough of an impact to be included. Conversely, not every season is counted here for long-running programs. If I had taken the brilliant ’90s peaks of “Absolutely Fabulous” and “The Simpsons” into consideration, they would have been fighting for the No. 2 spot. Oh, and guilty pleasure alert: I’m endlessly fascinated with the lives of those who are young, rich and beautiful — but not on the inside, so you’ll see a few of them here (“Gossip Girl,” “The OC,” the first season of “The Simple LIfe”). As far as “Why the hell is (blank) missing?” comments, I have a job outside watching television so I have a large backlog of critically acclaimed shows such as “The Wire” and “Lost” to get to on DVD.

Anyway, these are the shows that mattered most to me this decade:

25 Scripted Series

1. Arrested Development (Fox)
2. Six Feet Under (HBO)
3. 24 (Fox)*
4. Weeds (Showtime)*
5. Absolutely Fabulous (BBC)
6. The Office (American and British versions: NBC/BBC)*
7. The Sopranos (HBO)
8. Desperate Housewives (ABC)*
9. South Park (Comedy Central)*
10. True Blood (HBO)*
11. United States of Tara (SHO)*
12. The Simpsons (Fox)*
13. Nip/Tuck (FX)*
14. Gossip Girl (CW)*
15. Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO)*
16. Angels in America (HBO miniseries)
17. Undeclared (Fox)
18. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX)*
19. Rome (HBO)
20. Frasier (NBC)
21. Jack & Bobby (WB)
22. Malcolm in the Middle (Fox)
23. The O.C. (Fox)
24. Extras (HBO)
25. Dawson’s Creek (WB)

Top 5 New Shows (from the crop of 2009 debuts)
1. Flash Forward (ABC)
2. Modern Family (ABC)
3. Glee (Fox)
4. The Vampire Diaries (CW)
5. Community (NBC)

10 comedy and reality shows
1. American Idol (Fox)
2. Top Chef (Bravo)
3. The Daily Show (Comedy Central)
4. Wife Swap (ABC)
5. Iron Chef America (Food Network)
6. The Simple Life (Fox, Season 1)
7. The Barefoot Contessa (Food Network)
8. The Real World (MTV)
9. Survivor (CBS, first season)
10. Saturday Night Live (NBC, for its best moments)

* Still on the air. Try to enjoy the others on DVD


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