The 25 Best Television Shows of the Decade – Part 1

October 11, 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.  I’ll address a show not available, then a few honourable mentions (my initial pass through yielded a top 47), and then onto the main event.  This is Part 1.  Part 2 can be found here.  Part 3 can be found here.  Part 4 can be found here.

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John From Cincinnati

David Milch’s noble failure was doomed from the beginning.  After unceremoniously axing Deadwood, HBO asked him to make a show about surfing.  To quote the man himself, ‘what were they expecting?’  It was premiered right after the Sopranos finale, and it’s no shock after the way that ended that there was a massive ratings drop off.  Given the content of Cincinnati, I can’t even begin to grasp what HBO thought they would get out of it.  It concerns three generations of surfing prodigies living in Imperial Beach, California.  Mitch has a blown knee, his son Butchie is a heroin addict, and his son is just starting out on the circuit.  They are visited by a supernatural being that mostly just parrots what everyone else says save a few key phrases he repeats over and over.  Oh, and he can produce anything he wants from his trouser pockets.  There were problems galore with the ten episode first and only season, (it was one of the most maddeningly obtuse shows, for one) but there was something special about it’s ambitious oddness.  In the end, it was meant to be about spirituality, community, family, and the prevention of genocide through mercantilism.  It achieved some of those aims, and set the ball rolling on others, but was too short-lived to reach its potential.  Still, raise a glass to the ambitious insanity of it all.

Honourable Mentions

The O.C.

The show that revitalized the prime-time teen soap opera, it is largely responsible for a glut of awful rip-offs as well as the most horrendous reality series imaginable (Laguna Beach and The Hills, take a bow).  Pop-culture, irony, and constant self-awareness made it hip, its attractive young cast and luxurious setting made it aspirational, and its sometimes smart, sometimes-ridiculous plotlines made it mostly unmissable.  Dire second and third seasons caused a ratings crash, but it freed up the writers to run with a redeeming and fun fourth and final season.  And that was the key to its best moments – it was a lot of fun.

The Gilmore Girls

The second-best thing to come out of the mostly abhorrent WB, The Gilmore Girls gave us the wholesome family drama that was the mantra of that upstart network, but with the wit and attention to character that set far above the likes of 7th Heaven.  It created an idyllic world of pleasant and quirky people, and it gently sent them up without ever hiding the love it had for them.  It was anchored by some excellent performances and believable relationships, and even if the story got shaky towards the end and the barrage of pop culture references and quips became a bit awkward and tired after a while, it was a pleasant and surprisingly moving world that shows just how American family dramas should be done.

The Colbert Report

The decade saw the rise of the news pundit in the US, and it might be the worse thing to happen to the country in that time in its own way.  Egomaniacal wack jobs spewing the worst kind of unproven gossip and sometimes downright lies, they signal another nail in the already hammered-to-hell journalism coffin.  They were ripe for parody, and Stephen Colbert has done an immaculate job of providing it.  A friend of mine argued that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are bad, providing an easy mocking of bad politics that works as an outlet for the rage so many disenchanted Americans have for the state of things (I might be misrepresenting his argument there, but nevermind).  He’s probably right, but it’s still damn entertaining.

The Top 25

25.  Top Chef

Reality competitions are not my thing generally, but they run wild both in the UK and the US.  In preparation for a move back to the States, I decided to look in on the state of the format by watching Hell’s Kitchen and Top Chef.  I like my food, and I like my cooking shows, so I figured these would give me a pretty good idea of what I was in for.  The former is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen.  The drama and competition is hacked to death with awful editing, music, and narration.  Most damning of all, there is absolutely no attention paid to the food at all.  Top Chef was altogether different.  Yes, the editing was a bit much (though not as bad), the music was overbearing, and the product placement was laughable, but you could tell it was first and foremost about the food.  These were real professionals who could come up with ingenious dishes to meet the challenges presented, and they were judged by credible chefs and critics.  It isn’t a bunch of yokels fumbling around a kitchen trying to outdo one another, it’s a group of talented people working under difficult conditions to produce something impressive.  And it is very impressive indeed.

24.  South Park

The original controversy surrounding South Park mostly died down this decade, but people blowing a fuse over the harsh language, un-PC storylines, and the general gross-out nature of some of the comedy were missing the point anyway.  It can be shocking for the sake of it, but it rarely is.  At its best, it produces some of the finest, most scathing satire on the ridiculous issues of the day, whether it’s illegal immigration or the celebrity obsessed tabloids.  The genius of the show is how well it skewers both sides of every argument.  The moral centre of the show, Stan, is shown up as foolish or downright wrong just as often as the selfish, egotistical Cartman.  It also has a keen eye for the details (their version of the Supernanny theme song is a minor gem) that shows just how savvy Trey Parker and Matt Stone really are.  There will be few better time capsules for the popular and political zeitgeist for any year than a season of South Park.

23.  A History of Britain

The bias here is pretty simple:  I was a history major at university, and my favourite area was medieval Europe.  Simon Schama’s A History of Britain is probably the finest history documentary of the decade, and I think I could say that even if I wasn’t such a keen fan of the subject, and there are several reasons for this.  Schama understands how history works, for one, so much so that the article in the title is pointedly purposeful.  History is all down to interpretation, and this is his interpretation, though he understands that it is one of many, and none of them are definitive.  That basic understanding is missing from most historical documentary programs, but that’s just the beginning of what makes the series special.  Most modern programmes of this sort rely on on corny re-enactments and gaudy CGI and bombastic narration, presumably because the makers think the only way to get people interested is to bash them over the head with violence and spectacle.  Schama’s narration and writing can be dramatic, but it’s also reasonable and downplayed.  He chooses themes that run through each episode to create a classic narrative to hold onto, and highlights the importance of events like the Black Death and the Peasant’s Revolt beyond their intrinsic horror and excitement.  Thrilling or interesting events on their own to be sure, but they were just small pieces to a larger puzzle.  History is a confluence of events more than a direct chain, after all.  All of this is accompanied by gorgeous settings and period artwork, thankfully sparing us a bearded actor yelling at a Thomas Becket cosplay fanatic.  It’s the high water mark for the BBC and the History Channel, and I hope one day they’ll tackle the past in such an intelligent way again.

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22.  Rome

The post-Gladiator sword-and-sandals revival would prove to be short-lived, but while it was alive, it produced Rome. A couple of hundred million for 22 episodes and the largest permanent set on earth meant one thing was to be sure:  HBO weren’t going to do this by half-measures.  However, a massive budget for only a moderate success (both critically and ratings-wise) meant it was doomed for the chop pretty fast.  The breakneck speed of the second season indicates that the creators knew it, but it didn’t take away from the thrilling and lush drama.  For all the epic sweep, the political intrigue, the bloody violence and the graphic sex, the real joy was in the details (the soldier that rolls his eyes when he’s told to take down a cross he’s just erected, a blind man lets copulating couples know the hour so they’re aware of how much their room is costing).  It was the little things that built their world, and it was one that was both strangely familiar and completely alien.  It was a thoroughly modern show (the drama was always more Shakespearean than Greek), it had a canny sense of humour (the civil war is started because of Pullo’s gambling debt; Marc Antony’s justification for suicide as a cure for his hangover), and it created in Pullo and Vorenus one of the best bromances of the decade.  It never rose too far beyond the genre, but it was a shining example of how good that genre can be.

21.  Big Brother (UK)

Lowest Common Denominator television it may be, but dammit if I haven’t given over an awful lot of my life to this show.  It’s in its death throes now, having just come off a poorly rated and little covered tenth season, but once upon a time it was a cultural powerhouse.  But let’s leave aside the arguments about the Warholian 15 minutes, the controversy of the racist taunting, or the rise and fall and death of Jade Goody.  Really, that’s all been covered to death, so I’d rather draw attention to just how damn well this show is made.  The editing has such a subtle wit that even the most seemingly boring events can be funny or illuminating.  The tasks, when they’re good, can be ludicrous, self-aware, and/or downright ingenious.  We’re bound to get attached to people when we spend an hour a day with them for four months straight, and while there’s always an editorial emphasis on romances (shut up, Davina) and the ‘journey’ (usually from thick but decent kid to personable but still thick but decent kid),  some people who seemed horrible will be humanized if not exactly redeemed (Aisleyne!).  There are, of course, others that make you want to scream in their face how bloody stupid and annoying they are, but that’s half the fun.  The evictions shows have turned into a coliseum of unearned boos, but when 91% of the public recognizes that Sezer is a massive tool, my faith in humanity is restored for a little while and I’ll forgive the crowd.  There have been duff seasons (4, 6, and 8 come to mind as BB seems to have reverse Star Trek syndrome), but when it’s good, it’s Fight Night.

-M

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One Response to “The 25 Best Television Shows of the Decade – Part 1”


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