The 25 Best Television Shows of the Decade – Part 2
October 12, 2009
A message board I frequent is running a poll on the top 25 television shows of the decade. There were threads for nominations (which I missed), and the votes had to be chosen from the resulting list of a couple of hundred programmes. The qualifying rules meant that any show had to air episodes in this decade, but could started in the fall ’99 season. If shows started before then, only the seasons aired from fall ’99 onwards were to be considered. This is Part 2, which features numbers 20-11. Part 1 can be found here. Part 3 can be found here. Part 4 can be found here.
The adverts promised teen party mayhem, and when you tuned in to the first episode of Skins, that’s what you got. A cocksure twat ringing up his mates and girlfriend on his mobile phone, strutting about like he owned the place, and everybody just fawned all over him. There was a rager at a posh girl’s, the aforementioned twat Tony stickin’ it to his lame-ass parents, his nerdy best friend Sid, dippy space cadet Cassie, the pill-popping Chris and so on. It was all bright colours, fast editing, hip soundtrack, and everything else you’d expect in an E4 drama that pandered to the wildest excesses of the edgy youth. Basically, it was awful. Then you watch the second episode, centred on the ditzy blonde Cassie and her eating disorder, and the structure becomes clear. The plot would progress, but often in the background while the episode would focus on one character and their particular plight. Cassie seemed obnoxious in the pilot, but when her motivations and troubles are fleshed out, she becomes a figure of sympathy. Eventually, some of the annoying aspects fell away, or at least became charming, such as the cartoonish exploits of almost every adult figure (never particularly funny, but the series is firmly entrenched in the kids point of view, and thus the John Hughes exception applies). As the first series progresses, that annoying twat Tony is taken through the ringer as he’s slowly abandoned by his friends and girlfriend when they clue in to how awful he is. It was hit and miss all around, but for every bizarre sojourn to Russia there was Chris and his brother, or Sid and his dad. It was everything it was advertised as, but much, much smarter.
19. How I Met Your Mother
Once Frasier ended, and the Arrested Developments and the Scrubs of the world came to the fore, I was hopeful that we had reached the end of the multi-camera sitcom forever. Much to my chagrin, Two and a Half Men rolls on (and incredibly successfully at that), but How I Met Your Mother at least holds out as a solid example of how the should-be-dead format might yet flourish. Of course, it does so by using narrative twisting techniques that might be better served as a single-camera (it jumps around timelines and perspectives and memories with wild abandon), but something tells me it wouldn’t be the same. It’s still your standard sitcom, with your standard sitcom set-ups and pay-offs, but it’s warm enough and funny enough to get past the clichés, at least most of the time. It gets tired at points (Ted is still a bit of a drag, Lily can be pretty annoying sometimes), and it is in serious danger of not being able to pull out of the relationship jumping between the leads, but the fact that that’s only a problem now, five seasons in, says something. It’s been thoroughly enjoyable so far, and if it isn’t always great, it still produced “Slap Bet”, one of the funniest half-hours of television this decade.
18. Veronica Mars
On paper, it sounds like a gaudy update of Nancy Drew for the Buffy set, and in some ways, I suppose it is. A high school girl works as a private detective for her fellow students, solving cases and punishing criminals through her wit, charm, and intelligence. It seems nice and cute and whatever, but it’s not long before the season mystery arc comes into play: Veronica’s been raped and her best friend murdered, and she needs to find out who is responsible. Dripping in pop culture references and witty repartee far beyond the skills of most American teenagers, it makes sense that it was touted as the natural successor to Buffy, but what’s most impressive is just how close it comes to living up to the banner. Veronica is likeable, smart, and vulnerable, and it helps that Kirsten Bell is a much better actress than Sarah Michelle Gellar ever hoped to be. The city of Neptune is beautifully established as the most economically stratified suburb on television, and it’s not long before you realize the bright greens and neon pinks that drench the frame are a day-glo update of the dark shadows and misty greys of the noir classics of old. When the spoiled rich kid asshole Logan (Jason Dohring, destined to be undervalued in everything he’d do subsequently) is forced by his father to choose the belt with which he’ll be whipped for hurting a PR opportunity, you know it’s something more than just a high school romp.
17. The Thick of It
I’ve already discussed the feature adaptation of this show, In the Loop, so there isn’t much need to go beyond that. Where the West Wing is staffed by idealistic public servants who just want to do what’s right, The Thick of It is populated by weasely politicians that, if not totally recognizable as the real thing, are a damn sight closer to what we imagine them to be.
16. The Office (US)
All credit to Greg Daniels. He’s taken one of the most acclaimed comedies of all time and imported it to the US, and done it well. That really isn’t an easy task. The original Office was awkward and difficult, and retained a harsh sense of humour that most Americans find unpalatable. Upon viewing the first episode of the US version, I was agog at how awful it was. The script was virtually verbatim from the original, which was awkward enough, and yet it still seemed watered down. I’m glad I gave it a second chance because, in the second season, it really came into its own. There’s still awkwardness aplenty, of course, but it is watered down, both for the audience and out of practicality. After all, you can just about justify David Brent’s position for twelve episodes, but Michael Scott’s got to be around for a lot longer than that. The turning point, I think, came with the episode in which Scott (Steve Carell) and his boss Jan (Melora Hardin) had to take a potential client (Tim Meadows) out for dinner, and what seems like a typical Michael disaster turns positive, and you understand that this man knows sales, and his promotion to boss actually makes sense. The Office is as much about the supporting characters as it is the leads, however, and over the course of five seasons, Stanley, Creed, Oscar, Kelly, et al have really come into their own as a source of endless comedy either in the background or front and centre. Bonus points for the Jim/Pam relationship which has been, so far, dealt with far better than you might expect considering the checkered past of the will-they-won’t-they routine. It’s impressive work, and when a beat doesn’t hit quite right, it’s usually because we know the characters well enough to understand what makes sense for them and what doesn’t. There were some down spots over the last few years, but it’s still remarkably strong and, more often than not, very funny.
15. The West Wing
Oh it’s corny as hell, but dammit if it isn’t stirring. Sorkin’s departure after the fourth season marked a notable drop in quality, though in fairness to John Wells and co, the seventh and final season was solid enough. Still, the Sorkin years, especially the first two, are a masterclass in storytelling, dialogue, direction, and cinematography. The second season episode “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail” is a perfect hour of television in all those areas, and probably deserves an entry all its own. The series made the struggle to get votes to pass a bill was more intense and exciting than any gunshot wound victim rolling into the E.R., and that’s one of its greatest virtues: it made politics exciting. As the decade trundled on and the real life White House became rife with mismanagement and difficulty, it felt more and more like the escapist, aspirational fantasy it was, but as comfort food goes, it didn’t get much better.
14. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
You’d expect this to be much higher, and probably should be, but there are two reasons it might be here at number 14. One would be this list doesn’t include the first three seasons, which was when the show was really exploding genre conventions on a weekly basis and paving the way for a hundred rip-offs of varying degrees of quality. Another might just be burnout. It says a lot about how much I’ve watched it and read about it that I simply don’t have much interest in revisiting it anytime soon, but that’s really a compliment. I’m actually a defender of the latter seasons, especially six, where I think it was exploring its characters and its themes much more interestingly than it is given credit. It created a rabid and sometimes annoying fanbase, it made supernatural teen dramas cool, and it has given television studies academics enough material to coast on well into the next decade. I look forward to watching it all again some years down the line, but for now, I’d like to just leave it where it is.
13. Doctor Who
One such show that Buffy made room for was the Russel T. Davies’ Doctor Who revival. The series was left for dead for a while, especially after the failure to revitalize interest in the 1996 TV movie, but the BBC saw the time was right and it delivered. The mostly standalone format meant there are some misses (I never want to see the Doctor running with the Olympic Torch again), but when it gets it right, it’s some of the best science fiction around. The brilliant “Blink”, the moving “Girl in the Fireplace”, the depressingly hopeful “Doctor Dances” (anything by Stephen Moffett, really) are all some of the best hours of drama produced in any genre and for any audience. It’s remarkably smart and dark for a family show, but I love that they’re not afraid to challenge the kids and their parents as well as the nerdy single 20-something fans. The destructive nature of the Doctor is explored throughout, never forgetting that his essence as a force for good and hope still leaves a trail of collateral damage behind. It can be pretty hokey, the series finales never quite live up to the epic sweep of the build-up, and Davies is a little too obsessed with the Doctor-as-Christ imagery, but it’s still better than it has any right to be. It’s fitting that Davies and Tennant (who must be in the top two or three Doctors of all time) are leaving as 2010 approaches, because it’s current incarnation has carried the BBC through the decade, and in the UK, it really is event television at its finest.
12. The Office (UK)
I really can’t add anymore to what’s already been said (mostly by the creators in the years since, to be honest) but re-watching the first series a few months back, it still holds up. There’s a rigid adherence to the docu-soap formula that’s really impressive. David Brent is still horrible, it’s still moving when he gets sacked, Tim and Dawn are still heartbreaking, and Gareth is still a tosser. Ignore the hype, the accolades, and the self-congratulatory retrospective. It’s still excellent.
11. 30 Rock
‘The powerful bread lobby won’t let me continue my research.’ ‘I’m Larry Braverman.’ ‘Let me be Michelle Pfeiffer to your angry black kid who needs to learn that rapping is just another form of poetry.’ ‘blerg.’ ‘Muffin Top.’ ‘I don’t see why they’re mutually exclusive.’ ‘Four score and seven beers ago.’ ‘Here comes the Fun Cooker!’ ‘This place is gonna get raw like sushi, so haters to the left.’ ‘What do you sit down and look at?’ ‘Am I wrong or is he in a meeting?’ ‘I’m not. I want to, but I’m not.’ ‘Kaaaraaate. Kaaaaarrrrate.’ ‘Oh my God it’s like a barrel of snakes.’ ‘I have two ears and a heart, don’t I?’ ‘Pos-mens.’ ‘Hall or Billingham?’ ‘I’m a huge Kevin Grisham fan.’ ‘I wear Tiger Orgasm.’ ‘Remember that time I asked that black guy if he’d ever seen Sideways?’ ‘so present, so graceful.’ ‘and you must be…Melissa?’ ‘Don’t Menendez me!’ ‘cajun style.’ ‘here’s your john legend CD.’ ‘the middle class will be renting forever.’ ‘Never go with a hippy to a second location.’ Werewolf Bah Mitzvah. ‘Shut it down.’ ‘I want to go to there.’ ‘Oooh, you ate the foil.’ ‘She said she was 16, but I could tell she was 22.’ ‘BFF.’ ‘uhh…diabetes repair I guess?’ ‘I once told a tribunal I was God.’