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The Ten Greatest Of The Decade: TV Shows

Andrew Payne Andrew Payne
December 14th, 2009 9:30am EST
Best TV Of The Decade

As the decade reaches its conclusion, you'll undoubtedly come across many lists. Lists that purport to tell you the best, the top, the cream of the decade as they relate to pop culture. You're also certain to come across many lists that claim to rank the "greatest" of the ten year period from 2000-2009. But what does that really mean?

"Greatest" should be something entirely different from what we usually associate with these lists. Mostly, these lists claim to rank the best - something that is only truly possible were a listmaker to, say, see every single movie in a given decade. If this person were to miss even one, they may have not seen a film that is better than all the rest they saw - rendering their list incomplete and inaccurate.

Just as often, the self-righteous reviewer will make their list based simply on their favorite items from that time period. This is a very self-serving practice that has no real benefit outside of a personal catalog. Then there is "greatest." This is something of its own.

When measuring a piece of pop culture, the "greatest" items should be measured based on five key factors: Appeal, Acclaim, Popularity, Zeitgeist, and Influence/Originality. They break down this way:

Appeal - How well-liked something is by the masses. Simply put, how many people consider it their "favorite".

Acclaim - How the critics and cognoscente evaluated something. In other words, how often it is considered the "best".

Popluarity - Very simple - how many people experienced this piece of pop culture in the way it would be consumed.

Zeitgeist - How much something enters the public discourse. Catchphrases, clichés and a general buzzing determine this category.

Influence/Originality - Pretty much speaks for itself - One thing's impact on those that come after it is crucial in determining greatness.

Perhaps the easiest way to differentiate between the concept of "Best", "Favorite" and "Greatest" is with the analogy of Baseball players.

Say you're a big Milwaukee Brewers fan and about forty years old. Your "Favorite" player is probably Robyn Yount. A very good baseball player, but certainly not the "Best", and also an opinion that may not be shared by anybody else you meet yet triggers no argument. The "Best" is something up for debate. Some would say Honus Wagner, others Willie Mays, still other Ted Williams or Barry Bonds, the debate rages on, but it typically hinges on raw ability and performance. But when you get to get to the "Greatest" baseball player, there is no room for debate - The answer is Babe Ruth. Looking at the key factors above, it's easy to see why he stands out so clearly as the "Greatest": When you think baseball player, no name comes to mind more quickly than Babe Ruth.

With that in mind, we'll be counting down the "Ten Greatest of the Decade" in five different areas of pop culture all week. Today, we kick it all off with the "Ten Greatest TV Shows of the Decade:"

10. "Malcolm in the Middle"

It's true, before "Malcolm" came around there were single-camera sitcoms, but none of them really worked. With this show, the format finally had a hit, and it was a runaway from the start. For the beginning of its run "Malcolm in the Middle" was a wild success, regularly hitting the top 20 and making a young star out of Frankie Muniz. It also took off with the critics, who praised its innovative style and lack of a laugh track for reinventing the sitcom format.

In retrospect, this is probably the second-most influential scripted television show of the decade. Now it seems almost peculiar to have a show with a laugh track, or a comedy in which nobody talks to the camera, but when "Malcolm" first aired, these were all major innovations, and the first time anybody ever pulled them off successfully. If it weren't for a rapid flameout in its ratings and positive reviews, it would surely be ranked higher.

Malcolm In The Middle

Image © Twentieth Century Fox and Regency Entertainment



9. "Everybody Loves Raymond"

The most-watched comedy of the decade (by a longshot) was also its most sneakily acclaimed. It won two Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series and was nominated nearly every single year it was on the air. Additionally, everyone in the cast (except Peter Boyle, somehow) won their own Emmy and reviews were mostly glowing.

Of course, this didn't do anything to revolutionize the sitcom format, it was basically a repeat of what's been working since "The Dick Van Dyke Show" show created the modern sitcom in the 1950s. Still, it did it very well and was one of the few comedy shows that could boast a steadily high audience throughout its entire run.

Everybody Loves Raymond

Image Courtesy of William Morris Agency



8. "The Daily Show"

Sure, this show isn't very popular by conventional standards (getting about a million or show viewers per episode as it languishes on cable) and its format was essentially just a daily "Weekend Update" or a remake of "Not Necessarily the News" depending on which way you'd like to direct your cynicism. But what about the other categories.

Especially during the election, no show held a greater share of the zeitgeist than this one. Its "Indecision 2000" coverage had the incredible fortune of the most apt name ever - as we watched an election deadlocked for weeks. This also led to the show's winning a Peabody Award of all things, to go along with many Emmys to come. All that, plus Jon Stewart is now the preferred news anchor of a generation of TV viewers. How's that for appeal?

The Daily Show

Image © Comedy Central



7. "24"

It started out as a gimmick show but ended up the defining action series of the decade. Not only that, but its countdown and split screen formatting were so original and unique that one ticking second on any other show or commercial instantly conjured images of this series.

But "24" went beyond mere gimmickry and innovation - its main character, Jack Bauer, became a hero for the modern age - somebody by which all badasses and heroes (sorry, Chuck Norris) became measured in this era. Where would Jason Bourne or Daniel Craig's James Bond be without Jack Bauer? He set the precedent for the always-prepared and super-skilled spy that was ready to save the world at a moment's notice.

All that and it gave it Dennis Haysbert's State Farm commercials. We were always in good hands with this series.

24

Image © Fox Broadcasting Company



6. "The West Wing"

Another show may have set the standard for all TV dramas of the decade (see below), but it took this series to bring the cinematic standard of film to a weekly network drama - with crisp writing and a visual depth that never before existed in the quick-cut procedurals that made up the entire network drama oeuvre for decades.

Not only that, but this series had a grand agenda. Yes, shows like X-Files and ER started to change the way the networks did drama, but it wasn't until President Josiah Bartlett started to opine on issues beyond aliens and inter-hospital romance that network drama really hit a stride we'd see in future series like Lost and Desperate Housewives (albeit, the latter was a bit snarkier with its issue-tackling).

Critics and audiences responded for much of the series' run - keeping it in the top ten for several years and seeing the series win four consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series. Believe it or not, such an innovative, acclaimed and popular series was on NBC. Seems like more than a decade ago, doesn't it?

The West Wing

Image © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc



5. "LOST"

Oft-imitated, never even close to duplicated on TV for many years after that first plane crash, "LOST" was a complete game changer for the drama format - An intelligent serial that played its audience like a piano with twists, mysteries and an unrelenting mythology as deep and thick as its island's jungle.

This show may have confounded as many as it entertained, but those who did get into it were into it as deeply as any other show, flooding message boards with detailed theories about everything from a giant cloud of smoke to the way one character looked when they threw away a piece of dialogue. This was a television obsession like none other before or since, no matter how hard the networks have tried to replicate its success. Not only that, but this show practically invented the need for the DVR. One episode away from the island and viewers lived up to the name of the show, entirely befuddled as to what was going on. This was a new type of appointment viewing - one that required fans to watch at all costs, and usually to watch again.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this series is the level of acclaim it garnered. It's very rare for such a geeked-out series to do well with mainstream critics and awards, but this show is four-for-five with regards to Emmy noms with numerous wins including a Best Drama Emmy for its maiden season.

With the end of this series leading off the 20-Teens, and massive success sure to come for its final season, look for many new shows to again attempt to replicate its DVR Save-Until-I-Delete level of success, with none able to match its quality or indispensability.

LOST

Image © Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Inc. and Touchstone Television. All Rights Reserved



4. "Survivor"

Reality TV never really had a show that did anything on networks. There were always documentary series and that thing called "The Real World" hanging out on cable, but nothing could ever really connect on the Big Four. The closest thing was "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" - A Game Show.

Then, in the summer of 2000, a show about 16 stranded castaways doing their best to be the last one on the island, and an entire genre was born. Soon, the reality genre exploded with several different shows set on islands ("Pirate Master," anyone?) and ordinary people competing against one another for a season or show ending prize ("Fear Factor" and "The Apprentice" to name a few mega-hits) and just like that, you couldn't have a real cable channel without something similar to "Survivor" to head up a night.

And the ratings for this show? A bonanza doesn't even begin to describe it. The final episode for the first season brought an incredible 52 million viewers in front of their TV sets and it hasn't left the top 20 since it started. Remaining a lynchpin for CBS' dominant Sunday evening lineup.

But "Survivor" is more than just popular or entertaining. It's the perfect water cooler show - the many organic twists and turns (as well as the human element) make it perfect to discuss the next day. These are always real people, and that voyeurism gives a level of drama that can't be matched by any other show in terms of gleeful gossip.

Oh, and that Susan Hawk "Rat vs. Snake" speech that ended the first season? Maybe the most compelling TV moment of the decade.

Survivor: Samoa

Image © CBS Broadcasting



3. "Sex and the City"

This show has become so ubiquitous that it's hard to imagine a time where it didn't exist - it just always seemed to be there, as though our materialistic society had always been calling out for a shoe and clothes-driven rom-com to finally bring us weekly installments of the fabulous.

But it didn't always exist. This show debuted in the summer of 1998 and by the time this decade rolled around, it was a full-blown cultural phenomenon. So much so that throwaway lines like "He's just not that into you" were good enough to launch a wildly successful book. This was a new type of girl power - one of confident sexuality and self-sufficiency - that all seemed to stem from the four female Manhattanites.

While the show did see one-third of its run occur in 90s, this is clearly a show of this decade. Not only because it hit its creative peak on this side of the century, but because it became even more of a success through syndication. This was the first HBO show to really enter the Seinfeld realm of an every-night-at-10 placement that became as essential viewing as its first-run network contemporaries. It's as though "Sex" was given a new life by TBS - given a second beginning that allowed a whole rash of non-premium subscribers to gobble up its insatiable dish.

This wild stream of success was capped by a megahit movie and included over 50 Emmy Nominations and seven wins including one for its leading lady and one for Outstanding Comedy in 2000. Though it may have appealed mostly to one gender, its massive acclaim and widespread phenomenon of zeitgeist firmly make it the comedy of the decade.

Sex and the City

Image © Paramount Pictures



2. "American Idol"

The most popular show of the decade by a longshot, and the only one (thanks to its live telecasts) to make appointment viewing a reality in this DVR and Internet-using world.

But this was more than a show. It was a way of life. It was a talent factory that gave us several Grammy Winners, Chart Toppers and even an Oscar Winnner - none of whom would likely have a career were it not for the singing competition.

It's the only show that can make an unknown and A-Lister. Sure, there fame doesn't last much beyond the run of the show, but was anybody more instantly recognizable than Clay Aiken or Taylor Hicks or David Archuleta at the time of each "Idol" season's pinnacle? These people weren't anybody before "Idol", but when the show is running, they're all anybody can talk about.

Of course, the one constant on this show is the judges. Paula Abdul found a second career as being goofed out of her mind and talking about rainbows while Randy Jackson became famous enough for yelling "Dawg" that he got his own show on MTV. But these two pale in comparison to this decade's singular television creation: Simon Cowell.

Before Cowell, there was entertainment competition on television - Hell, "Star Search" is practically the same exact show - but with Cowell, the judge became the star. The last honest man standing on television, Cowell always made the singer a precursor as the audience cared most about his opinion (often as harsh as it could be) of what they just witnessed.

Cowell was the most galvanizing public figure of the decade, and one of its most brilliant. He singlehandedly made something that could have been an old-hat singing competition into compelling entertainment that paved the way for everything from "Top Chef" to "Dancing With The Stars".

American Idol

Image © Fox Broadcasting



1. "The Sopranos"

Quick, make a personal list of the ten Best Television Dramas of all time? What'd you put on that list? "The Wire"? "Mad Men"? "Six Feet Under"? "The West Wing"? "The Shield"? "Lost"? What do those series all have in common? Each hit the air after "The Sopranos".

This is no coincidence. "The Sopranos" changed the television drama game in a way that seems unimaginable now. It looked at the small innovations made by 90s classics like "NYPD Blue", "The X-Files" and "ER" and took a significant leap from there. This was a show unconcerned with the concept of actually ending an episode - instead, it sought to tell a grand thematic story developed over the course of its intricately plotted seasons. Not only that, it raised the quality of both the writing and filming of each episode to finally rival films. This was the first time we saw true cinematic-level storytelling on the small screen, and the television landscape would attempt to duplicate that concept endlessly for the next decade.

"The Sopranos", premiering in 1999, did more than outdo every show of the next decade - it gave them a template off of which to work and reinvented the genre to a point that for the next decade, everybody had to do something in a style similar to "The Sopranos" otherwise they'd instantly look like a dinosaur.

But it isn't just the incredible influence that makes "The Sopranos" the greatest show of the decade. It won 27 Emmy Awards out of a stupefying 111 nominations - including an Outstanding Drama Series nomination every year it aired and two wins in that category - and received more critical praise initially than any other television series in history - by far.

The Sopranos

Image © Home Box Office // Photo credit: Craig Blankenhorn



Andrew Payne
Story by Andrew Payne

Starpulse contributing writer