Best TV of the Aughts: Tier Three
As I discussed in my last post, I’m heading down my list for best TV of the decade, broken into tiers. Today I’m onto tier 3 – these shows are all more flawed or erratic than the top tiers, but still qualify as among the best of the decade. I’m also including a few shows that I’ve not watched enough of to really rank honestly, but based on what I’ve seen they should qualify. These are the last of my rankings, save for some blindspots and other caveats coming up soon, plus hopefully a general Best of 2009.
[Updated: forgot a certain slayer in the original post - many apologies!]
30 Rock: This fall’s Thursday night line-up is showing 30 Rock for what it really is: a joke machine loosely draped around a clever scenario and some people who resemble characters. In comparison to Community, Parks & Recreation, and The Office, 30 Rock rarely displays an emotional core or engaging storytelling – I wouldn’t go as far as Jaime Weinman, who calls it a live-action Family Guy, but it’s pretty close. The reason why it’s here at all, though, is that the jokes it churns out are often pretty great. No sitcom shy of Arrested Development has offered laughs as big as “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” or Kathy Geist’s sublime moments, and Alec Baldwin’s Jack is a masterful performance. But thus far this season, I’ve found every episode unsatisfying, even when it’s funny, and that pulls it down the decade rankings.
The Amazing Race: I’m not a big reality TV guy, but along with prime time serialization, it’s the major programming trend of the decade and needs some acknowledgment on this list. Race is the classiest and most consistently enjoyable of the competition reality shows, combining an effective format with a real sense of vicarious pleasure. When we were regular watchers in the early seasons, my wife & I regularly imagined how we would handle the various challenges and locales – and when we did travel, Race provided a frame of reference for how (not) to cope with stress and logistics. We don’t watch anymore, but not because the show has faded – rather we simply feel like we’ve gotten everything out of this still enjoyable show.
The Backyardigans: One of our televisions and TiVos is dedicated to children’s programming – while I rarely sit down and watch entire episodes with my kids, I drift in and out enough to recognize that there’s some really great programming for children right now. If I had to choose just one to watch myself, it would be Backyardigans. The premise of the show is that a neighborhood of five animal kids make up scenarios to play in their shared backyard – each episode features a distinctive genre adventure, accompanied by a group of original songs they sing. The stories are clever and the music is great, making it highly enjoyable for kids – and quite tolerable for their parents.
The Boondocks: While quite erratic, especially in the second season, when it’s good, there are few shows that are so politically risky and amusing – not to mention the compelling anime-influence visuals. The “Return of the King” is one of my favorite episodes of the decade. The downside is that the debut of the television series meant the death of one of the all-time great comic strips.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: This one kept bumping between tiers 2 and 3 – so much so that when I converted the lists to the blog, I forgot to include it all together! Buffy is an awkward decade straddler, as the best material (for my money much of s2 and all of s3) is in the 1990s. Additionally, it feels like a 1990s show, of that decade’s teen spirit. Thus the 2000s era material doesn’t quite reach the heights of the other Whedon properties in Tier 2 (noting that Dollhouse falls short altogether for its highly erratic and brief existence, despite some great eps along the way). The show dealt with the switch to college – and losing a chunk of its cast – without major problems, and I’ll go on record as a fan of the Dawn appearance. But I’m not on board with Todd VanDerWerff’s claim that season 5 is the show’s best, and most of Buffy‘s innovations were laid out in seasons 1-3. While its resonance was certainly felt in the 2000s, the show doesn’t really feel like it belongs at the top of the decade’s best. But clearly it’s as good as much of the decade’s programming and thus is happily listed here (after my update…).
Chappelle’s Show: Generally I prefer my sketch comedy in the absurdist rather than topical vein (Monty Python and Kids in the Hall are all-time faves), but Dave Chappelle created a brief but sensational exception with his Comedy Central series. He tackled racial topics in a tone not seen on TV since All in the Family, and offered a number of teachable sketches. My personal favorite: The Niggar Family.
CSI: We shouldn’t condemn the original for what the franchise has wrought (I’m looking at you, Caruso!). The first few years of CSI pushed the crime procedural into new stylish and scientific realms, and seemed truly groundbreaking. The fact that CBS has remade its entire line-up to resemble this innovation takes away from the original’s merits, but it is still one of the most important – and at times, most entertaining – shows of the decade.
Deadwood: Both this and the next series have caveats – I’ve not seen their entire runs, and such serialized programming requires more of a sense of the entire run than other genres. I wrote up my thoughts on season one of Deadwood, and haven’t watched more beyond that. Even though I don’t love the show, I do respect it and recognize its quality.
Dexter: Similarly, I’ve only watched the first season, but am more motivated to keep watching than with Deadwood. I recognize that Dexter is not as “good” as Deadwood in any real measure of quality, but the narrative world and genre is more compelling to me than the Western milieu. And certainly knowing that its story continues rather than ending abruptly (as with Deadwood) is part of the draw too – as well as the critical buzz around season 4 as a return to form.
Friday Night Lights: Had this been a one-and-done series like Freaks & Geeks, it would have made my second tier. But seasons 2 and 3 (I haven’t started watching s4 yet) were such a step down as to taint the show. I’m on record as being in the tiny minority who prefers season 2 to 3 due to the latter’s lack of continuity and truth to the storyworld – and it’s been interesting to read critics try to skirt the way s3 reset the story (for instance, Daniel Feinberg mistakenly claims that s2 set the groundwork for Tami to become principal, while actually she’d just returned to work from maternity leave and had taken over coaching volleyball). Perhaps it’s my genre proclivities that prefer story continuity and character consistency over making weaker choices to set-up relationship drama, but I find the unbelievability of both of the recent seasons to drag down the overall ranking. Still though, season 1 is as great as everyone claims, and clearly many people think s3 is up to par as well.
In Treatment: I’ve only seen the second of its two seasons, but the quality of performance and innovative way it parcels out stories over weeks is quite compelling. The time commitment to return to season 1 will make it unlikely that I go back, but I’m eager to see how they make season 3 work and how much I’ll miss some of the patients that I became attached to.
The Joe Schmo Show: As I seem to be the only critic celebrating this short-running gem, I’ll write a bit more about it. At the height of the reality competition boom in 2003, two Joe-themed reality hoaxes aired: Fox’s Joe Millionaire and SpikeTV’s The Joe Schmo Show. The former, in which women competed to woo a fake millionaire, was incredibly popular, but the follow-up was such a huge bomb that it highlighted how shallow the one-trick idea was. On the other hand, Schmo took a much more parodic take on the genre – focused on a fake reality show called Lap of Luxury, contestants lived in a mansion and competed in challenges to avoid being ousted, like Survivor. But the show had only one real contestant (the Schmo), with all the others played by improvising actors; the show-within-the-show was completely ludicrous as well, with Spike-appropriate lowbrow challenges like Hands on the Hooker. But the fun was in seeing how far they push the “reality” without the Schmo discovering the hoax.
If the original was a fun genre parody, Joe Schmo 2 (now on DVD!) entered a postmodern hall of mirrors. Mocking the dating reality genre, the fake show Last Chance for Love had ridiculous elements like the ribald version of the “rose ceremony” with men getting their “candle wicks lit” and women receiving “pearl necklaces,” along with awkwardly horrible challenges and twists – all performed for two Schmos. But from the beginning, the female Schmo knew something was fishy, and the drama throughout the season became focused on the producers and performers strategizing how to either keep her fooled or enlist her into the hoax. Below is a taste of an eviction ceremony, with spot-on parodies of the typical editing and sound style of reality competitions, along with a glimpse of the unravelling hoax. Highly recommended to all reality TV fans and anti-fans!
Pardon the Interruption: Daniel Fienberg has posted an excellent celebration of this show which I fully concur with. I frequently listen to the audio-only podcast version, although the TV version is better, if only for the low-fi props. The core joy is listening to two friends argue about things in a way that makes you feel as if you’re eavesdropping rather than they are performing for the cameras, a rarity made clear by contrasting PTI with any other sports talk show.
Rescue Me: Few shows can hit higher highs or lower lows than Rescue Me, often in the same episode. At its best, the show was hysterically funny, especially in the casual firehouse conversations that typically combined insult humor, social commentary, and an undercurrent of masculinity in crisis. The show can also do effective melodrama, such as the familial and professional reactions to 9/11, or my favorite character Lou coping with being conned out of his life savings. But at its worst, the show indulged in misery porn, forcing turmoil on characters into contrived tragedy where simply sadness would have sufficed – the death of Connor is the #1 example of this trend. But despite its frequent excesses, there are few shows as funny and sad at the same time, and the performances continue to be underrated throughout the ensemble.
Samurai Jack: At a time when Cartoon Network had a growing brand with Adult Swim and a successful formula of slightly edgy kid comedies, Samuari Jack was a complete shift in genre, style and appeal. The pilot movie is a gorgeous piece of animation that recasts Seven Samurai into a sci-fi setting, but with only one samurai – and somehow it works beautifully! Subsequent episodes allowed for a wide range of settings, styles, tones, and visual palettes. Not all of them worked, but when they did, as in the nearly-wordless “Jack and the Three Blind Archers,” there was no better animation made for American television this decade.
Scrubs: Another show that would have fared better with a shorter run, at its peak Scrubs was the perfect blend of wacky non-sequitur comedy and sentimental drama (and great musical numbers!), combining the styles in a seamless blend of a single episode. The series was formally inventive, picking up Malcolm‘s mantle and moving in new directions, and featured an entire universe of references and characters like few comedies do (Dr. Beardface anyone?). It stumbled hard in later seasons, and despite an excellent finale, it’s back from the dead in an awkward and ineffectual retooling. But at its peak, there was nothing like it. Here are a couple of my favorite musical moments – the first, a perfect blend of comedy, relationship drama, music, and formal play in less than three minutes; the second, just a great gag:
The Sopranos: If the near-perfect first season had aired in this decade rather than 1999, I’d rank this higher, but I’m showing far less affection for this groundbreaking series than most critics – thus instead of celebrating its place as one of the best shows of the decade, I’ll justify it not being near the top of the list. Yes, The Sopranos is very good and even great at its best, but it’s rarely at its best. Instead, the show traffics in sloppy storytelling, brutal gratuitous violence, over-the-top art film clichés, and too frequently asks too much forgiveness of its audience in terms of infinitely delayed gratification. I’m willing to grant the show some slack for losing the lynchpin of the late Nancy Marchand after season 2, but after that point it seems to me that David Chase believed his press clippings more than his talent, allowing his more indulgent whims to guide him rather than the character-driven drama that the show featured at its best. My take on the finale has been well-documented, but the most telling indicator of my dissatisfaction with the show is that after bailing on season 6 after two episodes, I still haven’t gone back to watch it aside from the finale. I know I should, and I’ve heard the last few episodes are great, but I honestly don’t care enough to spend the time. A sad coda for a show that started as well as anything in television history.
South Park: While many episodes are forgettable, I could list more than a dozen priceless episodes airing this decade, ranging from topical satire (the Scientology-skewering “Trapped in the Closet” or terrorism commentary “Imaginationland”) to lowbrow goofy fun (“The Return of the Fellowship of the Ring to the Two Towers” or “Scott Tenorman Must Die”). One of my favorites is “Cartoon Wars,” which combines anti-censorship commentary in the wake of the Muhammed cartoon controversy with a brutal lambasting of the object of my anti-fandom Family Guy. Even when the show hits a dry spell, it can pull out a classic like this year’s “The Ring,” which provides a perfect (and utterly crude) commentary on Disney’s commercialization of “purity.”
Survivor: In the summer of 2000, CBS imported two European hits for its foray into the nascent reality TV trend. Big Brother was supposed to be the guaranteed hit, a true sensation across Europe and innovative in its use of online video and participation, but it received mediocre ratings and had virtually no cultural impact. Survivor seemed less groundbreaking at first, but proved to be the biggest spark to the emerging genre and served as one of the last dying gasps of America united around a single television program – the first season finale is the second most-watched episode of television this decade, behind only the finale of 1990s remnant Friends. Not only did people watch it, but we all talked about it in a way that few shows can still serve as cultural common ground. I haven’t watched in years, but the format remains intact, based on the positive buzz for this recent season. Probably even more than The Sopranos and Malcolm in the Middle, it’s the most influential show of the decade, even if that influence resulted in much lower-quality and short-lived imitators than the scripted innovators. Plus it has the honor of inspiring the unlikely imitator of Lost, which was developed at ABC as an attempt to create a scripted version of Survivor (but obviously grew into something much different).
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Tags: 30 rock, amazing race, backyardigans, best of the decade, boondocks, buffy, chappelle's show, csi, deadwood, dexter, friday night lights, in treatment, joe schmo show, pti, Rescue Me, samurai jack, scrubs, Sopranos, south park, survivor