This is not a list of the best TV of the past decade. Nor is it a list of my personal favorites (scroll down to the end for that). Rather, it is a disparate group of shows that have changed the way the medium is produced, promoted, and experienced. These are the series that will be remembered not only for their runs, but more importantly for what they begat. While the biggest impact on television over the past ten years has certainly been the constantly shifting ground of technologies and media economics, these shows have had a profound impact on what we actually watch on our screens.
American Idol (Fox, 2002- )
The 2000s was certainly the weirdest decade for the music industry since at least the 1940s, as the market fragmented into a billion pieces and a generation or two opted out of the Way Things Have Always Been, choosing to ignore the monoliths of radio and the album-length CD. So how is it that the #1 show on TV was an unapologetically up-the-middle mainstream, almost olde-timey musical talent show? While it has steadfastly honed in on only the most aggressively middlebrow musical genres and idioms, Idol has also provided what the recording industry has not: the frisson of raw talent, instant celebrity, live event television, and even ersatz democracy. Passions, rivalries, and tensions build throughout each season, involving singers, judges, critics, and millions of voting viewers, providing involved fans with as cathartic an experience as the medium can deliver. Moreover, it has had a symbiotic relationship with publicity, offering a textbook lesson in how to exploit press coverage and fan devotion, regardless of the incident: voting controversies, recurrent homophobia, and bizarre behavior from Paula Abdul did nothing but maintain and build interest in Idol. This is the template for all subsequent talent shows, currently rivaled in the ratings only by ABC’s clearly cribbed (if similarly involving) Dancing With The Stars.
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS 2000- )
The decade’s most popular drama almost didn’t happen. The series order was in jeopardy when Disney pulled out its financing at the eleventh hour, and it was the very last series CBS added to their fall 2000 schedule. Within a year CSI was the top-rated drama on television, and, particularly as a franchise of three series, has since been the most popular, and lucrative, dramatic property on TV. When you add up the impact its premise, narrative style and aesthetics have had on the crime drama genre across all TV (and particularly on its network, the Crime Broadcasting System), its influence dwarfs that of any other scripted series. As I write in my upcoming book, however, CSI also happens to be compelling mainstream TV, taking the otherwise well-worn detective genre into the 21st century with hyperbolic aesthetics and resonant contemporary ethics. It has relocated crime on the plain of measurable (i.e., “visible”) data, and has explored all physical and philosophical corners of its Vegas locale, all in bravura style. Moreover, in the characters of Gil Grissom and his team of criminalists, we were presented with a real cultural rarity in the honesty-impaired 2000s: intelligent truth-seekers, driven by curiosity and a strong (though not perfect) dedication to public duty. In many ways it’s resolutely mainstream, far from the edge-pushing dramatic fare found throughout the decade on AMC, FX, HBO, and elsewhere, but that underlines its significance: it’s unapologetic big-tent TV, in an era of little tents.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Comedy Central, 1999- ); The Colbert Report (Comedy Central, 2005- )
Television journalism has been under steady, and deserved, fire since at least the days of That Was The Week That Was in the 1960s and SNL’s “Weekend Update” in the 1970s. The explosion of cable news channels in the 1990s profoundly altered the operation of journalism, rendering it more directly as infotainment and foisting a new breed of personality–the media pundit–onto our news plate. While the persistent failure of these channels, programs, and personalities to actually produce something that might be called “journalism” has been profound, the new codes of news have provided ample fodder for Stewart, Colbert, and their writers and collaborators. Simply put, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report were an invaluable sanity check on our news media. I can scarcely imagine what the decade would have been like without Stewart’s “heh-heh-heh” Bush impression, Colbert’s “Word,” and countless takedowns of the stuffed shirts of the DC media/politics bubble. The shows also deserve credit, surprisingly enough, for being two of the very few places on American television for serious conversation about serious topics. Unfortunately, mainstream journalism still mostly chugs along in an isolated reality where they aren’t perceived mostly as sycophants or “kool kids.” However, thanks to these shows, it is now impossible for us to view TV journalism without the concept of “truthiness.”
Lost (ABC, 2004-10)
Arguably the most controversial show of the decade for one reason: thick, uncompromising, convoluted serial narrative. Yes, serial narrative has been the mainstay of prime time TV for at least two decades, and yes, soap operas have chugged along with unending serials for decades beyond that. But Lost has meticulously (if not always coherently) unfolded a massive, though importantly bounded, narrative universe in a way that has deliberately challenged viewers more than any other drama in the history of TV (including Twin Peaks, which in many ways now seems almost childlike). Consistently eschewing straight-up exposition for intrigue (i.e., advancing plot points like weekly random pieces of a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle…and then flipping the pieces over), Lost requires and (mostly rewards) not only viewing but immersion. Unlike most of the shows on this list, one cannot just plop down to watch Lost on a whim. It was a massive gamble for ABC (particularly given the narrative issues with J.J. Abrams’ Alias at the time of Lost‘s creation), which has paid off with solid ratings and a guaranteed place in television history. Its success has inspired many contenders (a slew of them in particular in 2005-06), though with mostly lackluster results, indicating perhaps that Lost really is singular. It’s not enough to ape the narrative beats and slow drip of exposition; there’s got to be some depth to the material, something beyond what seems to be on-screen. And this is what Lost has delivered. Most elegantly, and again, virtually singularly: this labyrinthine story of secrets, codes, and philosophies will decisively, and with plenty of preparation, is designed to end, which it will in a few months.
The Office (BBC 2001-03; NBC 2005- )
While the traditional multi-camera live studio audience sitcom has taken a much-publicized critical beating during the past decade (perhaps a hangover from the sitcom-centric 1990s), the single-camera style (along with animation) has taken up the torch of comedy narrative. The contemporary version of this production mode was brought back in vogue in 2000 with the now-underrated Malcolm In The Middle, but I would argue that the mockumentary spin of The Office has been more influential. The soul-crushing banality and awkward interactions and rituals of everyday corporate life seem more frayed and desperate when the camera is acknowledged, i.e., when the codes of documentary challenge our separation from the representation. The original British version (by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant) nailed this sensibility most starkly, particularly in the character of David Brent. Although the US version has opted for broader, more theatrical comedy (e.g., contrast Dwight Schrute with the original’s Gareth Keenan), and traded the original’s bitter core for some aw-shucks American sentimentality, it has added more serial depth; we still care about the workers of Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch even after five years. The problem is that, after all this time, any consistency or legitimacy of the mockumentary style has largely fallen away, and the series is plotted mostly along traditional sitcom lines. Still, the central hook of the concept–allowing characters to return the camera’s gaze–has been enough to fuel several similarly-designed series, including this season’s lauded Modern Family (ABC). I suspect at least this style is going to remain a staple of TV comedy in the coming decade.
The Osbournes (MTV, 2002-05)
There once was a time when every eighth-rate celebrity did not have a TV series. That time was prior to the March 2002 premiere of The Osbournes, without doubt the most influential series on this list, in terms of stylistic footprint over the medium. The Osbournes crystallized bits and pieces of celebrity culture that had been bouncing around for years, particularly on MTV and VH-1, rendering the everyday lives of the sort-of famous as endearing half-hour comic narratives. In other words, as MTV described the series at the time, as a “reality sitcom”: an extraordinary rock-star family doing ordinary things, with copious swearing, yelling, and (of course) dog shit. Were it not for the massive media splash this series made in 2002 and 2003, we likely would never have cared about Laguna Beach or any of its supernaturally gorgeous teens, nor coined the term “Speidi,” nor wanted to keep up with the Kardashians, nor thought about Gene Simmons’ family jewels, nor considered Flavor Flav’s love life, nor even heard of Bam Margera. In addition, the made-for-TV “celebrity” status of the likes of Dog the Bounty Hunter or the spoiled princesses of My Super Sweet Sixteen would likely never have occurred. The entire celebrity ecosystem of the 2000s (and a massive chunk of cable programming) owes its very existence to this series.
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (Bravo 2003-07)
The rash of makeover shows that erupted on TV in the middle part of the decade–involving physical appearance, material possessions, and psychology–are an important part of the cultural legacy of this era. This was when the televisual apparatus dispensed with pretense and went right at our self-esteem. Apparently, none of us were worthy: we were all lacking. Now, bear in mind that 2003 was also the year the US invaded Iraq and the mortgage bubble started to take off. I believe these events, and this subgenre, are all connected. This was the pinnacle of Bush-era bravado, and many of us bought into to the idea of spending our way into promised happiness. There was nothing that a credit card (e.g., a home equity loan, an open check to fight the “war on terror,” etc.) couldn’t do. Queer Eye was a critical component in this mix for repackaging queerness as a personal hetero/”metro”sexual branding machine for the patriarchy (quite literally, right there in the title). In the new cultural milieu, even “the gays” could be mobilized in our war on body hair, pleats, and the wrong wine. This was arguably the hottest show of 2003, forking the reality wave at its crest into an ongoing project of consumerist self-realization. While it might be argued that this show was indicative of a mainstreaming of queer identity, and acknowledged that the interactions of the titular queer eyes and straight guys were certainly entertaining, much of America seemed to respond by electorally denying gays and lesbians the right to marry. By the end of its run, the bubbles had burst.
The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007)
This is the one cheat on the list, a show that premiered back in the last century. By 2000, its shadow already loomed over television drama. Its ambiguous morality, iconoclastic style and beguiling world of New Jersey mobsters seemingly opened up another dimension in TV drama. But that’s not the big story here: its primary influence on television stems from the fact that many critics declared The Sopranos to be the greatest cultural achievement since Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. This perception from the cultural elite fueled the status of not only HBO, but many other cable outlets, who immediately realized the cultural and industrial gains that could be realized from “edgy” dramas. By the time The Sopranos ended, a dozen or more similarly regarded (or at least ambitious) series had premiered on several cable channels (including most prominently, other than HBO, FX and Showtime). While the show, in retrospect, was great but overrated (several subsequent cable dramas have proceeded with more grace and less ego), its impact on the way drama is conceived, produced, promoted, and viewed is undeniable.
Survivor (CBS, 2000- )
I can still recall scratching my head at this concept in May 2000, writing it off as another desperate attempt to make waves from a losing network. And then I started to watch it, and grokked the very concept of reality TV: give ostensibly “real” people something interesting to do (ideally in some kind of competition), and watch the sparks fly. Survivor‘s genius isn’t its exotic, pseudo-primitive settings (though those certainly don’t hurt); rather it’s the fact that it’s at heart a classic game show. Or more specifically, an intricate mashup of all sorts of “games”: from football (e.g., the obligatory Survivor obstacle course) to chess (e.g., the manipulation of loyalties and votes to advance further in the game). Though I haven’t watched a season for a few years, I’m not surprised at its continued success. Every new group of contestants knows the game slightly better than the one before it, which always keeps producers and viewers on their toes. This was the template for every subsequent reality competition show, from The Amazing Race and The Apprentice to America’s Next Top Model and Top Chef.
24 (Fox, 2001- )
It is hard to recall that this series was conceived before 9/11 (though it premiered in November 2001). With its ticking clocks, high-stakes deadlines, national security court drama, and masculine opera, it became instantly synonymous with the age of terror. At its worst, it has justifiably been criticized for its cheap theatrics, tenuous plausibility, and neo-con fantasies of torture and stereotyped middle eastern villainy. At its best, as in the superb season five, it has offered an intoxicating mix of geopolitical thriller, melodrama, and relatively ambitious action. Though no series is quite like it, it has widened the scope of television drama, and helped solidify the concept of event-driven serial narrative. Like Lost, one doesn’t randomly watch 24. Moreover, 24 has also (usually) executed a rare cultural confluence in these divided times, appealing to (and at times, explicitly arguing for) both backers and opponents of the Bush-Cheney worldview.
What Else I Watched, 2000-09
The Amazing Race
Six Feet Under
What Else I Should Have Watched, But Haven’t Yet
Friday Night Lights
How I Met Your Mother
Life On Mars/Ashes To Ashes
All-Star Acting Team, 2000-09
Alec Baldwin (30 Rock)
the entire cast of Arrested Development
the entire cast of Battlestar Galactica
Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars)
Kelly Bishop (Gilmore Girls)
Steve Carell (The Office US)
Sarah Chalke (Scrubs)
Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under)
Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad and Malcolm in the Middle)
Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who)
Michael Emerson (Lost)
Tina Fey (30 Rock)
Ricky Gervais (The Office UK)
Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls)
Michael C. Hall (Six Feet Under)
Jon Hamm (Mad Men)
Marg Helgenberger (CSI)
Dennis Haysbert (24)
Gregory Itzin (24)
Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men)
Justin Kirk (Weeds)
Jane Lynch (Glee)
Jayma Mays (Glee)
John C. McGinley (Scrubs)
Elizabeth Mitchell (Lost)
Eve Myles (Torchwood)
Terry O’Quinn (Lost)
Elizabeth Perkins (Weeds)
William Petersen (CSI)
Tony Shalhoub (Monk)
William Shatner (Boston Legal)
Jean Smart (24)
Catherine Tate (Doctor Who)
David Tennant (Doctor Who)
Duane “Dog” Chapman (Dog The Bounty Hunter)
Simon Cowell (American Idol)
Phil Keogan (The Amazing Race)
Cesar Millan (The Dog Whisperer)
Jeff Probst (Survivor)