Reality television, the genre innovation of the decade, is here to stay. So-called “reality” shows changed the TV landscape, and they won't disappear as long as they remain comparatively inexpensive to produce and enough viewers continue to watch.
Survivor begat a slew of reality competition imitators; The Osbournes gave birth to the celeb-reality genre; and the success of American Idol brought performances back to television in a way viewers hadn't seen since variety shows died out after the 1970s.
TV's best remains its scripted series, which have been on the rise since Hill Street Blues changed the rules of the dramatic genre in the 1980s. The past decade has seen further maturation of the medium and the audience (even the intellectual elite can no longer sneer at the tube).
Picking a list of the Top 10 shows isn't always a matter of gleaning from annual Top 10 lists from the past decade. Time and distance gives perspective. Heroes was the No. 1 show in 2006, but the series didn't hold up and now ranks as one of the decade's greater disappointments.
But there's nothing disappointing about the series that did land in the decade's Top 10:
1. The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007): There were character-driven shows before this family (and Family) drama, but none dealt with its characters' psychological damage in quite as straightforward a manner as this series that revolved around mobster Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and his weekly visits to a therapist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). The quality of the performances (especially Edie Falco's Carmela) and the filmic look of the show raised the bar for quality TV dramas. The audience's acceptance of a morally ambiguous anti-hero laid the groundwork for many series that followed.
2. Arrested Development (Fox, 2003-06): Without those Bluths, there might not be a 30 Rock or even the comparatively warmer Modern Family. With its cracked clan of weirdos and tossed-out gags that often required multiple viewings to get, Development set the stage for the move away from traditional family comedies and toward more clever adult fare that insisted viewers pay rapt attention to appreciate all the humor.
3. The Daily Show (Comedy Central, 1996-present): The Comedy Central series began in 1996 with host Craig Kilborn, but it didn't really gain cultural and political cachet until after Jon Stewart took over as host in 1999. Since then, he's done a public service exposing (and mocking) hypocrisy among political and media figures. He offers incisive critiques that have earned him the trust of viewers who delight in his take on current events.
4. The Wire (HBO, 2002-08): A bleak look at inner-city violence, drug-slinging, politics, and media, David Simon put a microscope up to a crumbling Baltimore, showing us the good in junkies and the craven manipulations of cops and elected officials. It wasn't pretty, but it was consistently compelling drama that didn't flinch from its jaundiced view of humanity.
5. Lost (ABC, 2004-present): After The X-Files overstayed its welcome, this island-set head-scratcher proved that viewers would give another mythological, mystery-laden series a chance. Best of all, producers and network executives set an end date (2010) that prevented the show from rambling on too long, a smart bit of planning ahead that future myth-arc shows would be wise to follow.
6. 24 (Fox, 2001-present): Although it was developed pre-9/11, the show tapped into Americans' fears about terrorism and the desire for an easy savior, which they found in CTU agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland). His very bad days proved to be a thrilling orgy of exciting violence for viewers (torture, plane crashes, biological weapons, assassinations, even a nuclear detonation). Seeing Jack win gave viewers some solace that there was someone who could save us — even if it was just TV smoke and mirrors.
7. The West Wing (NBC, 1999-2006): In a poisonous, partisan political culture, Aaron Sorkin wrote a love letter to the American presidency and public service. Consistently emotional without resorting to cheap heart-tugging, Sorkin and company allowed viewers to dream that a competent, thoughtful president might truly be electable.
8. The Office (BBC America, 2001-03): Simply put, without David Brent (Ricky Gervais), there would be no Michael Scott (Steve Carell). The British original set the comedy-of-the-uncomfortable template (also embraced by Curb Your Enthusiasm) and the mock-umentary format that extends to Modern Family and Parks and Recreation. It also took the Seinfeld rule of “no hugs” and ratcheted it up to a point that was both hilarious and sometimes too painful to watch.
9. Mad Men (AMC, 2007-present): An exhumation of America's socio-cultural past that also allows for meditation on the present, this ensemble period piece traffics mostly in the drama of its characters' secrets but also makes time for humor through dialogue (every word out of Roger Sterling's mouth) and incidents (ad man got run over by a John Deere).
10. Battlestar Galactica (Sci Fi Channel, 2004-09): Who knew a remake of a cheesy 1970s show, widely regarded at the time as a Star Wars ripoff, would offer the most potent post-9/11 political critique? BSG benefited from stirring performances by Mary McDonnell and Edward James Olmos and a fearless approach to storytelling that allowed the romance of post-middle-age characters to take a front seat.
Honorable mentions: The Amazing Race (CBS), Band of Brothers (HBO), Big Love (HBO), The Big Bang Theory (CBS), Boston Legal (ABC), Breaking Bad (AMC), Chappelle's Show (Comedy Central), The Colbert Report (Comedy Central), CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS), Deadwood (HBO), Desperate Housewives (ABC), Dexter (Showtime), Farscape (Sci Fi Channel), Friday Night Lights (NBC/DirecTV), Gilmore Girls (The WB), Law & Order (NBC), Playmakers (ESPN), Pushing Daisies (ABC), The Shield (FX), South Park (Comedy Central), Survivor (CBS), 30 Rock (NBC).
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen is the TV editor for the Post-Gazette. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org