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The Decade In (On) Television

December 26, 2009

When you think about it, watching ten years of television is a lot of television. Of course, ten years is also a lot of reading, or of helping those less fortunate, or of bringing art to the world, or of  being a world-famous surgeon who saves countless lives or something. Luckily for you guys (unless you needed surgery), I didn’t do any of the latter. I did, however, watch a lot of television — which is why I’m qualified to tell you what was the best.

First, however, a disclosure. While I’m very pleased that I watched roughly 95%+ of the best (and probably all of the worst) of the decade’s television, there are two omissions for which if I didn’t explain myself, I’d be crucified. The first is this: I’m sorry, America, but I didn’t watch The Wire. I know, I know, it’s the best show in the history of television. Blah blah Omar blah Bubbles blah McNulty blah blah. And perhaps someday when I have 48 days free, I’ll catch up. But that’s my one big regret, because those I trust have glowing things to say about it. So let’s pretend that if you love The Wire, I will too. I also have all the Mad Men episodes, though I haven’t begun the series yet. So everyone, get off my back. Yes, I know they’re great shows. But you won’t see them represented here. I don’t care who you are, sometimes you just can’t watch everything — and sometimes things slip through the cracks. These, to my knowledge, are the biggest crack-slippers. Also, “crack-slippers” are what I am giving my less trustworthy and chemical-dependent friends this holiday season.

That said, the 2000s were a decade of fantastic television. In fact, the 2000s were a decade in which television, at times, transcended what television had ever been in the past — and by that, I mean that television had moments, and programs, which were better than the best movies, and which were just as character driven as any Oscar-winner. Make no mistake about it, it was a very, very fine decade for television. But enough blathering on about television; let’s talk about television:

Greatest Characters: Television of this past decade brought some great characters to life. Hugh Laurie’s Holmes-esque House was crotchety, angry, vicodin-addicted and one of the most intriguing characters the medical procedural has ever seen. Alec Baldwin went from being a menacing mobster to being the comedy sun which everyone on 30 Rock orbits, changing the entire trajectory of his career (case in point: go back and watch Baldwin’s infamous speech from Glengarry Glen Ross, and imagine that guy hamming it up as an Oscar host next year). And perhaps the greatest barroom debate for televisionheads in the past decade is the following: pick any main character from Arrested Development and make the case that your chosen character is the best on the show. You’ll be surprised at how arguable each of them is (Buster vs. George Michael, Lucille vs. Gob, etc.). Endless dialogue ensues.

Best Return to the By-the-Numbers Sitcom — For the old-fashioned multi-camera laffer, it’s tough to beat How I Met Your Mother. What could have been a half-baked CBS-ified Friends ripoff became an increasingly clever show thanks to a more-than-capable cast involving Apatow-friend Jason Segel, Allyson Hanigan and the fantastic Neil Patrick Harris, the latter having perhaps the best last few years of any living celebrity. Able writing that spins sitcom convention and creates relationship vernacular only seals the deal. If you’re not watching HIMYM, the beauty is you can start now. It’s like a great dog with one eye: you could do better, and it’s not perfect, but it loves you and always brings a smile to your face.

Best Proof That Television Audiences are Smarter Than the Networks Thought: On a Wednesday evening in September 2004, you had no way of knowing that the launch a barely talked-about, under-the-radar little show called Lost would capture the imaginations of an entire nation who couldn’t get enough of the ABC network bending their minds. But in 2010, Lost ends its run after playing games with narrative structure heretofore unseen by past television programming. An ingenious switch from the flashback to the flashforward in the middle of the show’s story was enough for ABC to order a show called, actually, Flashforward. With characters you can actually care about and a throw-it-all-in-there attitude to storyline (string theory, time travel, Pangaea, Egyptian mythology and pirates have all figured prominently), Lost was — and is — consistently mind-blowing fun.

Best Use of Television to Face Your Own Mortality: The last seven minutes of the series finale of HBO’s Six Feet Under. For five seasons, we’d identified with the Fisher family as they struggled to run a funeral home as their domestic lives seemed to crumble around them in a multitude of ways. But the kicker was the show’s ending episode, which actually showed us how each of them would die. We’d never seen this before, and after growing so close to them, the finale — written by series creator Alan Ball himself — felt strangely like losing people we loved. It was weird, innovative, and sadly beautiful.

Most Overrated Show: I’m going to get killed for this, but I watched almost the entire run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and though I found it interesting enough for a show based very loosely on a Luke Perry/Kristy Swanson vehicle, I’ll go on record as being in the camp that’s always believed its tsunami-sized swell of frothing fandom wasn’t entirely justified. Sure, it was cool. Sure, it was unique. Well cast, too. But I always felt like it thought it was cooler than it was, and I always felt that its fans gave it a little too much credit. I’m not saying it was a bad show. Just saying it was overrated. I’ll sit back and await my death threats from the People’s Republic of Joss Whedon Followers now.

Best Television Personality: The 2000’s saw us introduced to the great Stephen Colbert, who moved seemlessly from being flawless as a correspondent on The Daily Show to being flawless as the host of his own program The Colbert Report. What could have simply been a send-up of Bill O’Reilly took on a life of its own, with Colbert visiting Iraq, having a bald eagle named after him, running for POTUS and currently sponsoring the US speed-skating team in this February’s Winter Olympiad. Mixing politics with absurdity, satire and a heaping helping of faux egotism, Colbert consistently threatens to upstage Jon Stewart and the show which spawned him, and he only seeems to really just be getting started.

Best Episode of the Year: “Long Term Parking” from the 2004’s fifth season of The Sopranos, in which Christopher’s long-suffering girlfriend Adriana La Cerva was gunned down alone in the forest by a menacing Silvio, who stalks her into the brush as she pleads for her life before firing two bullets into her head. The Sopranos had no shortage of jaw-dropping, out-of-the-blue deaths, but poor Adriana’s death was the death of an innocent, serving to strengthen the Sopranos undercurrent that these lead characters were bad guys. The only thing worse was Christopher’s lack of remorse, which would be repaid ten-fold a few seasons later when father figure Tony would off him with the same unfeeling callousness.

Biggest Surprise: Anyone who saw Danny McBride and Jody Hill’s bare-budget comedy The Foot Fist Way could see the potential, but even at that couldn’t help but reel at the deftness of  HBO’s McBride-driven Eastbound & Down, which introduced to the world to the bullish asshole Kenny Powers, a disgraced, alcoholic, drug-addled MLB pitcher forced to return home to North Carolina and teach gym at his hometown middle school. It was mean, it was cruel, it was completely unredemptive, and it was absolutely hysterical.

Most Absurd: This decade saw Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block of Sunday night programming branch out from the out-there in terms of animation to the out-there in terms of green screen technology. There were a lot that didn’t work, but Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job did — and it’s rather hard to pinpoint quite why. Each week brought a new fifteen minutes of completely abstract comedy, and perhaps the show’s true beauty was that you never knew if it was going to tickle your funny bone or creep you the hell out. One thing was sure: you’d always see something you weren’t expecting. And there’s something to be said for that in the television landscape.

Best Television Show of the Decade: It spawned an American remake and a million “awkward moment” rip-off comedies, but you won’t find many — if any — shows as beautifully perfect as Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s original The Office. Gervais’ David Brent is hailed for his cringe-inducing moments (of which there are many), but the title character was always — always — pitch perfect and one of the greatest characters ever conceived for the small screen. A fantastic supporting cast of everymen and a series of episodes which turned ho-hum office activities but turned into Brent’s look-at-me showcases made The Office not only endlessly funny, but hands-down brilliant. And it ended after only two episodes and a Christmas episode. Perfection. If you haven’t, you need to make time for this. It’s one of the greatest shining reasons why the 2000’s were a fantastic decade of great television.

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