Best TV of the Aughts: The Top Tier

21Dec09

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m approaching my Best Television of the Aughts in top-down order, rather than the more conventional bottom-up reveal. A few other parameters for my list:

  • I’m not segmenting by genre like other critics, mostly because I don’t want to haggle over some shows that straddle the comedy/drama line, and because it’s more interesting sorting through a mass of programs and creating some unusual bedfellows.
  • I’m only considering American programs, as that’s my expertise and I see so little non-American programs that it would be hard to be able to judge what is truly tops and what just happened to make it to my TV. If I did include non-US programming, the titles that spring to mind that would be somewhere on my list are The Office (UK), Slings & Arrows (Canada), and FLCL / Fooly Cooly (Japan).
  • I’m not claiming that I’ve seen everything sufficiently to be able to rank it or not – I’m sure there are shows that belong on this list that I haven’t seen (at all or enough of). I will follow-up with a “blind spot” list of shows that I don’t rank that I might reassess if/when I watch them.
  • I’m not going to rank programs numerically – in part because I don’t have the energy to devote to deciding between what counts as #9 vs. #10. I’ve just finished grading a ton of papers, so I’m avoiding such numerical wrangling as long as I can. Instead, I’m breaking my list into tiers, highlighting similar levels of quality (subjective, of course) – within each tier, shows are listed alphabetically.

I did also want to link to many of the other decade lists that I’ve enjoyed reading over the past few weeks. But instead, go to my friend Chris Becker’s new-but-essential blog News for TV Majors where she links to dozens of great lists. I’d particularly point to Emily Nussbaum’s take on the decade as the emergence of TV as an art form, an article that just makes me feel validated professionally and personally.

I previously highlighted The Wire and Lost as my top two picks for the decade. The next four shows – which interestingly enough spell out the alphabet – round out the top tier, which I’d argue should all be considered all-time classic television, in the hunt for Best Ever status. I expect that only one of these will be controversial…

Arrested Development – Best Comedy of the Aughts

Certainly the stand-out sitcom of the decade and in the running for the title of the Funniest Show of All-Time. It deservedly lives at the top of most critics’ lists, and its absence instantly makes a list invalid (see the crazy Hollywood Reporter list that omits both AD and The Wire!).

For me, I can sum up the appeal of Arrested Development in one word: “ANALRAPIST.” It encapsulates the range of comedic strategies that made AD simultaneously innovative and hysterical. It’s a freeze-frame gag whose pacing inverts the norm for TV comedy: instead of the performances pausing for the laughter to subside as on a conventional sitcom, AD requires you to pause the constant stream to catch your breath – and I literally fell on the floor when I first saw this episode. As many critics have noted, AD was a show designed for the TiVo/DVD era, demanding the use of pause and rewind to catch the gags and recover from laughter. The gag itself is also typical of the show’s blend of the crude and sophisticated, creating clever wordplay that ultimately pays off with scatology. Finally, it highlights how AD pushed the boundaries of televisual content regulation, with off-color jokes that seemed inappropriate for broadcast television of another era – but presented so quickly that less savvy viewers wouldn’t be offended.

But AD isn’t just a rapid-fire random gag machine, a style that has become popular in both animation (Family Guy) and live-action (30 Rock). It’s also got deliriously clever plotting as inspired by classic farce and Seinfeld; richly demented and robust characters unlike any seen on TV before; a self-conscious awareness of TV history surpassing every show save perhaps The Simpsons; brilliant innovative use of televisual form, such as voice-over narration and keyed graphics; and possibly the greatest comedic cast and use of guest stars in television history. Even though it has its own particular style of comedy that’s certainly not for everyone, it’s virtually impossible to imagine what other sitcom could follow in its wake that could match its overall quality.

And it was mercifully canceled by Fox. I doubt it could have had the longevity that more conventional shows might, and we can relish the fact that it never jumped the shark (aside from when it literally had Henry Winkler jump a shark, that is…). Given the choice between 20 perfect hours of TV comedy and an additional few series of potential sub-par work, I’ll take the former.

Breaking Bad – Best Decade Straddler

Unlike films, albums, novels, and other cultural works, television series are hard to restrict to a certain year or even decade. While many shows are clearly bounded by the convenience of decades, many straddle the boundary between them in awkward ways.

Flashback to 1999 – if I were making a Best of 1990s list, what might I have done with The Sopranos? It had just aired one of the most groundbreaking and exciting seasons of television in the medium’s history, and it seemed poised to emerge as an all-time great. It would have been tempting to award it a high place on a list due to that phenomenal debut, predicting its greatness to continue unabated. But, as I’ll discuss in a later list, the series did abate in a way that I found sufficiently problematic to undermine its initial strengths – as such, despite airing the vast majority of episodes in this decade, it ranks lower on my decade list for the 2000s than it would for the 1990s. Dealing with decade-straddlers is tricky, an issue I’ll return to with some other programs later in my list.

So in looking forward, I want to nominate one fairly new program for a top slot, with the caveat that its placement might plummet depending on how it sustains its early momentum. Breaking Bad for me is clearly the show still in its early years that has achieved the most with limited time, and seems poised for reaching the ranks of all-time greats. I might regret this pick in years to come, but it seems worth gambling on one of these. (And to the Mad Men fans who have just started writing scathing comments, I’ll tackle that show in my forthcoming Blind Spot post…)

One of the chief ways that a television series can assert its quality is by offering moments that I keep returning to in my head, long after watching. Breaking Bad creates more of these moments that stick to my skin than any other show I can think of, images that haunt me and make me want to return to the series, even if the moment is (as they often are) harrowing, disturbing, or unsettling. There were a few of these moments in season 1, but the show didn’t quite cohere beyond a few effective set pieces and a spectacular lead performance by Bryan Cranston – in my roundup of 2008, I celebrated Cranston’s performance on “not a great show.” But this year in season 2, BB surpassed great, creating a depth of character and emotion beyond just Cranston’s still awe-inspiring performance. Nearly every episode had one of these stellar moments, from Walt and Jesse stuck in Tico’s desert lair, to Jesse’s adventures with the ATM machine – and of course the moment at the end of “Phoenix” which secured Cranston his second deserved Emmy. Thinking about these emotionally intense fragments fills me with such affection for a storyworld that I’d never really want to visit. And like many of the other great dramas of the 2000s, the show is also consistently quite funny in a way that balances the grim subject matter.

I’m confident in BB‘s future in large part because of “the leap” that the show made this season – series that improve over their first few seasons (such as The Wire, Seinfeld, The Office, and Buffy/Angel) seem more likely to sustain greatness than a show that starts at the top of its game (like The Sopranos, Alias, and Veronica Mars). The rest of the cast has elevated its game to match (or at least try) Cranston, and the long-term arc seems well situated to create a vibrant narrative for years to come. Perhaps it has already peaked, but Breaking Bad‘s second season is so fantastic that it alone warrants a high place in the best shows of the decade – I elevate it to the top tier with some optimistic anticipation for future sustained greatness.

The Colbert Report / The Daily Show – The Most Important Television Shows Ever

The Daily Show no longer is introduced with that hyperbolic tagline, but together with The Colbert Report – which is less two independent programs than an essentially linked tandem – these two nightly rituals emerged as truly essential outposts of democracy, serving the fact-checking, truth-to-power role that most traditional journalism abdicated. It’s a testament to the vital role these shows have played this decade that whenever breaking news hits, my first instinct is to imagine how Stewart & Colbert will tackle it. In the end, I can’t imagine my sanity surviving the political horrors of this decade without these shows.

Although they are naturally linked, they are certainly different shows. The Daily Show is at its best as a commentary on the media itself, as in this recent classic take on CNN. Jon Stewart has become a master interviewer, asking the probing questions that others in the “real press” won’t, while maintaining a degree of levity that lets him get away with it. Like Arrested Development, the show throws in scatological humor to temper its serious satire, but as with the CNN piece’s devolution into discussions of bestiality, its use of lowbrow humor somehow makes the social critique seem more vital through juxtaposition – if our country’s most reliable source of political commentary resorts to jokes about goat fucking, then we’re all screwed.

Colbert seemed likely to end up a failed one-note satire upon its debut, but four years later, it seems no less essential than its parent program. The genius of the show was not to make it solely a string of commentaries by a fake pundit, but also to craft an imagined world around Stephen Colbert’s character, with crazy obsessions and phobias (bears!), fake products and phony feuds. The parody then became brilliantly reflexive, as the show turned its mirror on the right-wing dittoheads keeping Fox News afloat by developing an ardent fanbase to play the part of meta-fans, inspiring a Stephen-centric cult of personality that resulted in internet vandalism & viral videos, hijacked votes for naming bridges and NASA equipment, and my own favorite, a fan-created Wikiality site dedicated to reconstruct the truthiness of Colbert’s worldview.

Possibly the most essential television appearances for Stewart and Colbert this decade were not on their shows but in the “real world” of the Washington press corps. Stewart’s appearance on CNN’s Crossfire in 2004 threw down the gauntlet in his fight against pundit-based journalism, a battle he won in part when CNN canceled the show months later. Even more astounding was Colbert’s 2006 appearance at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner, as Colbert gave an in-character reaming to the press and Bush administration standing next to President Bush. If you haven’t seen it, take the time to watch what might be the boldest political video of the decade:

Both the Crossfire appearance and Colbert’s dinner presentation (originally aired on CSPAN) spread dramatically via the still emerging world of online video, marking their ability to engage both old and new media platforms. Today, I’m more likely to see clips from Daily Show and Colbert Report on my computer, linked from Facebook or spread via Twitter, as Comedy Central’s online video sharing makes the programs feel native to both media, and thus exemplary texts for the decade.

Next Up: Tier Two, with a bunch of great shows that aren’t quite this great…



5 Responses to “Best TV of the Aughts: The Top Tier”

  1. Kudos on the Most Important nod. There are shows I watch more faithfully, and ones I’d take with me to a desert island (one with HDTV and a DVD player, that is) before TDS, but when the fit hits the shan, like you, there’s nobody I want to hear from more than TDS. That’s partly an excoriating judgment on the utter patheticness that is much American journalism, but it’s also a sign of how wonderful TDS has been.

  2. 2 Denis Jonnes

    Came to this via Society for Study of Narrative list. Just curious. Am not professional TV watcher, and very few American shows available in Japan (except in video shops). But what, in your view, are best American TV shows of all time? (Kind of the 10 greatest films or novels of all time).

    Denis Jonnes

    Anglo-American Studies
    Univ. of Kitakyushu
    Kitakyushu, Japan
    jonnes@kitakyu-u.ac.jp

  3. I apologize in advance for commenting on a post that’s almost six months old…

    I found your blog through a link from Monsters of Television, so kudos to them for having high-quality links! So, while I was waiting for my girlfriend to try on clothes at the mall, I started to peruse your posts (at some point I’d like to read all of them…but I’m a slow reader) and I came across your three “top television shows of the decade” posts. I glanced at the first two, quickly taking note of the shows you listed—None of which I materially disagreed with one way or another—and then a thought hit me… “Will Arrested Development make his top tier?”

    Although it’s not the best way to judge someone; I put a lot of weight on my judgment of people on what they think of Arrested Development. I watch the entire series at least once every year (probably more now that it’s on the Netflix Instant View) and I’ve been known to force AD virgins to borrow the first season from me to watch. I stand by my opinion (I’m not really going out on a limb here) that it is the greatest sitcom of all time. So, needless to say, a huge smile hit my face when I read this post (which, I’m sure made me seem creepy, since I was standing near a dressing room in a store that only sells women’s clothing).

    I’m not sure why your opinion seems any more important than anyone else’s, but I’m happy to see that a professor with your resume and lengthy CV has a similar point of view when it comes to my favorite show. So, thanks, you’ve received one more loyal subscriber. And I’ll close with my most frequently re-quoted phrase from AD: “Those are balls. They look like that up close.”

    PS: This is not related to this post, but I did notice your hatred for Cougar Town on another post. Based on the first five episodes (and the fact that it has a horrible name) I would completely agree with you. However, I stuck with it (probably because Modern Family is the lead-in) and it has become a solid show with the quirkiness and heart of Scrubs (the original Scrubs) that produces just as many LOL’s as Modern Family, Parks & Rec, or Community. So, if you need to kill about ten hours one day, give it a second chance.


  1. 1 Ich wäre beinahe erstickt…
  2. 2 Pilot Script Review: Running Wilde « the [eventual] sitcom writer

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