The best TV of the decade

The show of the '00s was like a great novel. Plus: Gangsters, vampire slayers and Jon Stewart

By Heather Havrilesky
Published December 23, 2009 1:10AM (EST)
Left to right, foreground: "Arrested Development," "Deadwood," "The Wire," "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." Background:  "The Sopranos" and "The Simpsons"
Left to right, foreground: "Arrested Development," "Deadwood," "The Wire," "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." Background: "The Sopranos" and "The Simpsons"

Is it stupid to list the 15 best TV shows of the decade? Most definitely! Is it fun to list the best 15 TV shows of the decade? Oh, yes, a thousand times yes! So while "best of" stories are as subjective as good taste and swine flu, pulling together this list was a true pleasure. I sank into an unexpected state of longing and nostalgia over old TV shows I haven't seen in years, their characters haunting me like echoes of a nearly forgotten dream. Take a minute to join me on this colorful, somewhat sentimental tour through the past decade of television. Stupid, yes, but fun -- and if you can't enjoy a little stupid fun once in a while, you probably shouldn't own a TV in the first place.

1. "The Wire"

Calling David Simon's epic narrative of life in Baltimore "more than a procedural drama" is like saying that God is more than a man with a long white beard. To start with such an ambitious goal -- to paint an intricate portrait of the dysfunctional American city -- and not only succeed but also wind up with a show that's thoughtful and suspenseful? David Simon's audacious creation introduced us to characters so true to life it's hard to encounter the actors elsewhere without saying, for instance, "It's Omar!" Simon quite miraculously blended social commentary with a bitter humor, and he rarely hit a false note: From the shipping yards to the police precinct to city hall to the streets, we found rich, layered characters speaking in realistic, world-weary tones. Who could forget the smooth wisdom of Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) or the defeated banter of Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and Bunk (Wendell Pierce)? If you weren't paying close attention, sure, "The Wire" could be confusing. If you were paying attention, "The Wire" offered an unsentimental but heart-rending tour through the dystopian corridors of a crumbling America. Every single season felt like diving into the pages of a fantastic novel filled with scenes that were vivid, bittersweet, epic, unforgettable and, above all, startlingly unique. Will there ever be a TV series that comes close to touching the scope, the poetry, the understated humor of "The Wire"? Most definitely not. But then, "The Wire" itself was all about holding onto hope while accepting the limits of your circumstances. Or, as Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) put it: "A life, Jimmy. You know what that is? It's the shit that happens while you're waiting for moments that never come." 

2. "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart"

It's chilling to think of those dark ages BTDS (Before "The Daily Show") when millions of Americans were forced to watch the evening news all alone with a stiff drink in their hands, that tumbler of Scotch their only defense against the depressing reality of a nation skidding off the tracks. Thanks to "The Daily Show," instead of gritting our teeth and averting our eyes at the dreary, deeply stupid or wildly unethical events that clearly signal our decline as a culture, we were finally able to look straight at the horrible truth -- and laugh our asses off. Incredibly enough, "The Daily Show" started strong, steadily improved, and it's never faltered since, thanks to a consistent flow of new tricks and a writing staff that very clearly sets the bar impossibly high day after day. Jon Stewart, with his excellent comic timing, conversational interview style and amiable blend of overconfidence and self-deprecation, may be the unlikely Walter Cronkite of our generation. Those who lament that this is where so many young people get their televised news today fail to acknowledge that they left us with a world so malignant that we need an eye-rolling comedian to deliver the news -- that or another tumbler of Scotch. Whether it's keeping us from becoming despondent drunks or just enlightening us to the comic stylings of Joe Lieberman, there's really no way to overstate its divine grace: "The Daily Show" delivered us from evil, and filled our lives with great joy.

3. "The Sopranos"

Tony Soprano had us by the throat, and he never let go. David Chase's hulking, smirking thug with the soft spot for baby ducklings and baked ziti captured the impossible burden of the modern patriarch during the reckless, self-centered American golden age like a latter-day Rabbit Angstrom: He was careless and rude, but his self-reflection and intense brooding set him apart from the thoughtless goons around him. Even as Tony was brutal and selfish and sick, he loved his children and fought to keep his marriage together despite his inability to understand the simplest give and take of human interactions. Of course "The Sopranos" had it all -- high stakes, suspense, comic relief -- bundled into scenes that were artistically shot, brilliantly acted and scripted to reveal layers of meaning with each subsequent viewing. But what really set "The Sopranos" apart was the fact that we never, ever got tired of seeing James Gandolfini's grim mug on our TV screens. Through grueling therapy sessions with Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), through countless squabbles with Carmella (Edie Falco) and blowups with girlfriends and angry spats with his children, Tony Soprano remained evocative and enigmatic. We cared about Tony in spite of ourselves, in spite of the fact that caring about him was the surest path to pain. Even that last scene of the finale, though frustrating at the time, suspended Tony in sap like a sad dinosaur, eternally stuffing his face with onion rings and believing in his own invincibility for one more day. What could be a more fitting end to this distinctly American tragicomedy?

4. "Six Feet Under"

Each week, "Six Feet Under" pulled off a high-wire act: The show was emotionally arresting without veering into melodrama, the dialogue was witty and dark without ringing false or slipping into farce, and the palpable longing and melancholy that pervaded every scene reflected something essential and important about the built-in sadness of modern life. No other drama has come close to creating this quality of character-driven story without a crime narrative at its center -- those who've tried have inevitably settled for soapy dramedies instead. Something in the way Alan Ball's complicated, conflicted characters spoke to each other, the way they rolled their eyes instead of hugging, shrugged instead of explaining themselves, and then poured out the truth at the worst moment possible, reminded us of ourselves and our own messed-up families. Yes, "Six Feet Under" was nominally about death, but only inasmuch as death's heaviness could cause the living to reflect on their own fleeting chance at happiness. Above all else, this show was about people. Not people getting shot down in the street or performing heart transplants but ordinary people with bad moods and bad habits, bickering and then resolving to change everything and then pacing the rooms of their homes like neurotic zoo animals. Who else has created such rich, colorful, infuriating characters since? Open-hearted but ornery David (Michael C. Hall), moody, emotionally withholding Brenda (Rachel Griffiths), self-obsessed, self-pitying Nate (Peter Krause), and sweet, terrible Lisa (Lili Taylor), with her passive-aggressive, hippie-control-freak lashing out. From the first episode to its gut-wrenching finale, "Six Feet Under" was like a wickedly smart, emotionally unstable friend whose company you just can't live without. 

5. "Arrested Development"

Rich people are reckless, insensitive fools. That was the unspoken premise of Mitch Hurwitz's uproariously funny and deeply original creation in 2003, a year when the small screen was packed to the brim with mediocre sitcoms doing their best imitations of "Seinfeld" and "Friends" like hacks at an open mike comedy night. "Arrested Development" careened drunkenly into our sights without warning, featuring such sharp wit, such a manic pace and so many over-the-top ridiculous digressions and farcical asides that, at first glance, it was hard to make sense of this sly, nasty three-ring circus. The Bluths were the ultimate empty capitalists of America's boom years, all of them having grown lazy on the money patriarch George Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) made from his real estate development (see also: McMansion) empire. Lucille Bluth (Jessica Walter) was a bitter old drunk, Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) was incapable of holding down a job or even cleaning up the house, and Gob (Will Arnett), the ultimate trust fund loser, spent all his time practicing bad magic tricks and zipping around on his Segway. The Bluths not only foretold the fall of America's supremacy before we even knew it was in decline, they also told us why we would fall: because even the most privileged and educated among us are lazy idiots. Mitch Hurwitz probably deserves a Nobel Prize for that observation, but instead he got two and a half years on Fox. Damn this crazy world and its mixed-up priorities!

6. "Deadwood"

Those of you hoopleheads and dimwits and crusty old cocksuckers who never saw fit to watch "Deadwood" can go ahead and simmer the fuck down right now, unless maybe you don't value keeping your fucking guts inside your belly. The unvarnished goddamned truth of the matter is that "Deadwood" was gritty and fascinating and stylistically so unique that those of us who loved it still hunger for vengeance every time we consider those big-city cocksuckers at HBO who robbed us of the final season of creator David Milch's four-part tale. But we'd rather try touching the moon than take on a capitalist whore's thinking, since clearly the vipers didn't have the slightest grasp of the layers of Milch's creation. The whole town of Deadwood was, according to Milch, just like a complex organism, with each action setting off a series of reactions that might spell doom for all of the fucking above. What on God's green earth will ever be half as engrossing as the shenanigans of this depraved South Dakotan hamlet, teetering on the edge of the civilized world, its strange blend of citizens trying to take their fate in their own fucking hands rather than simply grabbing ankle when the government or some wealthy prospector came calling? Milch not only brought tart, snappy dialogue and palpable tension to each vivid scene, but he also developed odd, satisfying alliances between wildly different characters, relationships that shined a little hope on an otherwise intolerably brutal world. Naturally Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) will go down in history as one of the most delightfully malicious and complicated cocksuckers ever to appear on the small screen. In short, the charms of "Deadwood" are too bountiful to measure: Engrossing, provocative, wildly original, unforgettable. Those that doubt me suck cock by choice!

7. "Mad Men"

Matthew Weiner's vibrant portrayal of Madison Avenue advertising executives in the 1960s does more than just conjure that era with elegant, meticulously designed sets, razor-sharp scripts and intense yet understated performances by its talented cast. From its first season, "Mad Men" quickly moved beyond its own tragicomic tales of high capitalism's brutality and the loneliness of modern life to demonstrate how the American dream of owning a perfect, shiny, new life slowly came to own us all. At first glance, Weiner's wealthy ad executives appear untouchable -- good looks, money, pretty wives, adorable kids -- but on closer inspection, none of them seem to understand what their perfect lives add up to. Weiner's narrative, while strong, almost plays second-fiddle to the artful ways his characters reflect the shifting tone of the times: Don Draper's (Jon Hamm) fragile sense of self and protective retreat into arrogance, Peggy Olson's (Elisabeth Moss) unsteady empowerment, Roger Sterling's (John Slattery) emancipation from and return to domestic incarceration. Each character on "Mad Men" echoes a different dimension of the cultural sea change in 1960s America, but does so with subtlety and wit, while casting an unsparing, skeptical eye on the clichés of the era. Moving beyond these often repeated myths, "Mad Men" offers a more complicated understanding of this pivotal juncture in our national consciousness. TV that challenges our understanding of history? What could be better? Because, as Don Draper once said, "The truth is, people may see things differently -- but they don't really want to."

8. "Survivor"

Mark Burnett could have followed in the footsteps of less ambitious televised human experiments like "The Real World" and "Big Brother." Instead he took British TV producer Charlie Parson's concept for a survival show and ran with it, creating a reality competition more beautifully shot and intelligently crafted than any of the claustrophobic torture-fests on the air. From its first episode, "Survivor" showcased brilliant casting, nuanced post-production storytelling and countless breathtaking shots of the lush tropical setting in Borneo that made viewers feel like they too were stranded in Southeast Asia. There have been plenty of disappointing seasons along the way, but that's inevitable for a brand-new genre still finding its footing (not to mention a show that churned out 19 seasons in less than 10 years). What's more impressive about "Survivor" is how tirelessly producers have ironed out its flaws and improved it each year. The show's editors not only entertain us but make predicting the eliminated tribe member nearly impossible, while the casting staff introduces memorable, unpredictable characters each season. (Rob Cesternino? James the Gravedigger? Russell the millionaire? No other show has managed to unearth half of the provocative oddballs that "Survivor" has, and with reality shows, that's half the battle.) Over the years, producers have stuck with the aspects of the game that work -- physical challenges, island settings, host Jeff Probst -- but also experimented with twists like the hidden immunity idol, which makes it increasingly difficult to outwit competitors. While most early reality shows went the way of the dodo, "Survivor" has survived because it evolved into a consistently smart, dynamic narrative starring real people. If you don't have a sense of what a remarkable accomplishment that is, well, then, you should probably tune in and see for yourself. 

9. "The Shield"

The gruff wit and grueling pace, not to mention the many ways Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) maneuvered to keep his strike team out of hot water, made "The Shield" a spectacular powder keg of a show that gained more momentum and complexity during each of its seven seasons. Somehow creator Shawn Ryan and the other writers kept audiences engaged with and conflicted over these despicable characters, giving them impossible choices or putting them in tight corners where they could only scheme and wriggle their way out to survive. But even the most honorable characters on the show -- Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder), Corrine Mackey (Cathy Cahlin Ryan) -- ended up compromised or damaged by their proximity to big daddy Vic. What "The Shield" may have lacked in introspective moments, it made up for in pure, heart-pounding adrenaline, jacked-up stakes, and unforeseen twists. At the start of each episode, you might think, "Bad cops, drug kingpins, murder in the streets, why should I care?" But by the first strains of that aggressive theme song "Bop-bada-bada baaahhhh!" -- you knew Vic Mackey had you pinned to your seat once again.

10. "The Simpsons"

Who knew that Matt Groening's little cartoon about a squabbling, dysfunctional family would become the longest-running prime-time series on TV? "The Simpsons" moved from an amusing oddity on "The Tracey Ullman Show" to a fantastical tour of Middle American absurdities. Even as Homer Simpson developed from a mumbling, beer-swilling dupe into a scheming hero, the show managed to hold onto its original charms by employing the best comedy writers in the business and packing each episode full of references, parodies, stereotypes, digressions and unapologetic social commentary on politics, bad trends and every other bit of pop cultural idiocy under the sun. In just one recent episode, the writers took on the game Bop It, Bambi, redneck culture, homemade moonshine, "Deliverance" and Wiccan magic, to name just a few of its targets. ("No, no, no, you're too young to be a witch!" Bart tells Lisa when she mentions that she's considering witchcraft. "Savor the steps leading up to it: College anorexic, string of bad marriages, career disappointments, failed pottery shop, and then when you're old and alone, you can hit the witch thing hard!") For 20 years now, we've been savoring the whip-smart jokes and pop cultural digs of "The Simpsons." Here's to 20 more!

11. "Everybody Loves Raymond"

The glut of crappy family sitcoms on TV in the early part of this decade had the strange effect of blinding the average viewer to the most charming and consistently funny comedy on the air. Ray Romano and Phil Rosenthal spent nine years creating realistic, relatable and hilarious stories about an average guy facing the trials and tribulations of an opinionated wife and two ornery, intrusive parents living far too close for comfort. Mercifully enough, the kids lingered in the background without either spouting adorable witticisms or laying out groundbreaking philosophical insights like they did on other shows. Of course, the title "Everybody Loves Raymond" always threw viewers off the scent of its frankly dark core, which was concerned with demonstrating how ordinary situations can explode into angry outbursts, hysteria and tearful recriminations in the pressure cooker of family life. While other, supposedly edgier sitcoms rolled through town, their characters racing through their lines with the soul of speed-addled hand puppets, Romano, Patricia Heaton, Brad Garrett, Doris Roberts and Peter Boyle navigated the tattered couches and homey tchotchkes of their middle-class home, squeezing every ounce of comedy out of their lines, treating each scene with the respect of actors in a Broadway play. Widely revered among comedy writers as one of the best comedies in television history, in its later years, "Everybody Loves Raymond" didn't command the respect and reverence it deserved from younger audiences who assumed that the Archie Bunker-style setting meant that something sugarcoated and obvious was unfolding there. (Which only proved they were too young to remember the ornery genius of "All in the Family.") But Romano and Rosenthal and the show's other talented scribes never averted their eyes from the extreme ugliness and turmoil of family life, and in so doing, they unearthed something unexpected beautiful: an irascible little gaggle of hotheads, reaching out awkwardly toward each other in spite of great flaws.

12. "Sex and the City"

For some reason, shows about female friends are almost uniformly awful. So why was "Sex and the City" so deliciously fun? Far from identifying with just one member of this fabulous foursome, it was easy to see yourself in each of them: ordering Thai in your sweat pants like gloomy, misanthropic Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), daydreaming about weddings in spite of yourself like sweet, deluded Charlotte (Kristin Davis), stumbling into slutty Samantha (Kim Cattrall) territory, even musing in Carrie's (Sarah Jessica Parker) wistful, dissatisfied tones. Even as the outrageous dresses and the teetering shoes grew almost clownishly impractical and threatened to eat the whole show raw, we still cackled along over cosmopolitans or mourned the latest broken engagement over brunch. These four "ladies" (as they somewhat irritatingly referred to themselves) had each others' backs, above all else, and no matter how goofy their misadventures might've been, it was as impossible to resist the irrepressible, gossipy, thoroughly girly-girl gloriousness of it all as it was for Carrie to resist Big (Chris Noth). And just look at how many TV writers have tried and failed to pen worthwhile all-female shows in its wake. No matter how the unenlightened write it off as just an excursion into estrogen-fueled silliness, "Sex and the City" was always inventive, daring and unapologetically smart.

13. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"

What can you say about the vampire series that launched a million vampire series? How about, "This one didn't suck"? Salon's Laura Miller best summed up the brilliance of Joss Whedon's cult hit when she wrote, "Whedon's original idea, to take 'the little blond girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie' and make her the hero of the story, mutated into a remarkably flexible and inventive way to portray the terrors of adolescence. The supernatural elements of the stories provided Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her friends with more than just monsters to kill; they served as metaphors for everyday identity crises and social anxieties, most famously when Buffy and her boyfriend, the redeemed vampire Angel (David Boreanaz), consummate their love, whereupon a gypsy curse renders him suddenly cruel and hateful." Die-hard Buffy fans can attest to the clever wit of Whedon's dialogue, the ways he twisted so many new themes and layers of meaning into the standard good vs. evil vampire tale. Over the course of seven years, Buffy unearthed the demons of the underworld and the demons of young adult life with equal tenacity, creating a heroine who was surprisingly formidable but always relied on a little help from her friends.

14. "Friday Night Lights"

"Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose." Those words guided Coach Taylor's (Kyle Chandler) Panther football team to a state championship, but they also reflect the odd blend of realism and earnestness that make "Friday Night Lights" such a winning drama. From the fall and rise of injured quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) to the impossible choices faced by Coach Taylor in his new gig as coach for rival East Dillon High, the show explores the heartbreaks and fragile victories of ordinary people with such grace and sweetness that the results feel utterly extraordinary. Every little detail on this show is nuanced and genuine, from the stuttered speech patterns of its high school kids to the teasing banter between Coach Taylor and his wife, Tami (Connie Britton), to the relaxed West Texas drawl shared by the denizens of Dillon, Texas (so dead-on they make "True Blood's" Louisiana natives sound like Mandarin Chinese imitating Southerners by comparison). Without fail, two or three little scenes per episode rip your heart out: the mumbled confession, the confused outburst, the heartfelt call to action. "Life is so very fragile. We are all vulnerable," Coach Taylor memorably told his players after Street's accident. "And we will all, at some point in our lives, fall. We will all fall. We must carry this in our hearts, that what we have is special." "Friday Night Lights" is that rare show that applies unabashedly romantic tones to regular, everyday life, making it impossible not to hope for the best for the people of Dillon.

15. "Battlestar Galactica"

Who could've believed that this eclectic sci-fi remake could become one of the most riveting dramas on television? In its prime, "Battlestar Galactica" combined seemingly disparate elements into an explosive package. Following a scrappy band of shell-shocked citizens on a desperate journey through the universe in the wake of a nuclear sneak attack by their Cylon enemies, Ronald D. Moore and David Eick transformed the gloomy, claustrophobic corridors of Galactica into existential, social and political purgatory. How do budding leaders balance the security and survival of their people against the abiding principles of democracy and the demands of the people for self-rule? When faced with religious extremism, militaristic aggression, violent succession and terrorist uprisings, what measures can a ruling body take to reestablish peace? Action, suspense and human drama were wound into each high-concept narrative, and each argument over principle had layers of interpersonal conflict beneath it -- and that's not to mention charismatic, fully imagined characters, dialogue that was both poetic and restrained, art direction that alternated between brooding darkness and exquisite light. Oh yeah, and hot people fell in love and shiny robot aliens invaded and stuff went bang! Despite its awkward finale (Cavemen! Let's marry them and settle down!), "Battlestar Galactica" may be the most vivid and suspenseful science fiction series to appear on the small screen.

Honorable Mentions: "In Treatment," "30 Rock," "The West Wing," "South Park," "The Amazing Race"

To read Heather Havrilesky's picks for the best TV of 2009 click here.

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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