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My Top Ten Shows of the Decade

Yep, it’s retrospective time. I’ve done my top 50 movies of the past ten years, so it’s time for me to reflect on my top 10 television shows of the 00s. Prepare to be awed and mazed, shocked and astounded, angered and enraged, by the inclusions (and omissions) from my list. The good folks over at Television Without Pity included their favourite episode in each choice, so I think I’m going to run with that idea.

10.) Life on Mars (UK)

Proof that the police procedural has life in it yet and a demonstartion of the BBC’s willingness to take a chance. Featuring two fantastic leads – though Glenister as Gene Hunt gets a lot of attention, it’s the ever-fantastic John Simm who anchors the show as fish-out-of-temporal-water Sam Tyler – the series only ran two years (British brevity), but spawned a slightly-less-impressive sequel Ashes to Ashes and a very solid US adaptation (which was cut short, alas). Still, it’s a landmark production which managed to be both subversive in it’s deconstruction of the media portrayal of seventies policing methods and still jolly good fun as Sam managed to find himself enjoying the experience more and more.

Best Episode: Season 1, Episode 7 – the one where the suspect dies in police custody. Perhaps the best demonstration of the show’s capacity to handle heavy subject matter while not taking itself too seriously and also highlighting the values dissonance between Sam and his new companions in an effective and dramatic way.

09.) Family Guy

Yes, it’s not as good as it once was. Yes, it’s a blatent clone of The Simpsons, but Family Guy – for better or worse – helped codify comedy in the naughties. A hodge-podge mismatch of countless pop culture refrences to create images startlingly iconic (the KoolAid guy making an entrance or when Abraham killed Isaac, for example), the show is perhaps a reflection of our ADHD culture, or perhaps a contributing factor. Sometimes it doesn’t work – but when it does, it’s magic.

Best Episode: Blue Harvest for a stunning commitment to its core concept, and possibly the best spoof of the naughties. Yes, Robot Chicken did it first, but Family Guy offered a fantastic retelling of a modern myth. The force is indeed strong with this one.

08.) Planet Earth

The reason to own a HD home media centre and perhaps what Lester was talking about at the end of American Beauty when he talks about there being “so much beauty in the world”. The cinematography is absolutely stunning and really can’t be appreciated in standard definition. It’s perhaps the only show which turned our television into a portal to the other side of the planet.

Best Episode: They’re all stunning, but I’m a big fan of Ocean Deep because I like that sort of freaky stuff – it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t quite have the best HD photogrophy of the bunch.

07.) House

Okay, it’s a procedural. It’s straightforward. It isn’t necessarily to most creative and incredible television show of the past decade. On the other hand, I give you Hugh Laurie. There’s also the rest of the solid supporting cast, including the oft-ignored Lisa Edelstein as his will-they/won’t-they boss. The human drama works about eight times out of ten, but Hugh Laurie manages to work eleven times out of ten, with his mind games and witticism forming at least as much reason to enjoy the show as the melodrama that comes drafted in with the patient-of-the-week.

Best Episode: House’s Head/Wilson’s Heart was the best episode of television last year, in what was a stunning year for television. It’s a perfectly bittersweet examination of the series’ central bromance. You try not crying when House reveals to his best friend’s dead girlfriend that he doesn’t want to wake up because “I don’t want him to hate me”. It’s a shocking moment of emotional honesty, and a wonderful performance from Hugh Laurie. Give him an Emmy already.

06.) Lost

Our generation’s The Prisoner. I’m amazed this show found an audience, but that’s a testiment to the cast and crew as much as to the central mystery of the island. The characters exist. Sure, in a large ensemble some are more likeable than others, but the show has a welcome tendency to kill off the more irritating castaways (thank you, Ben – “are you looking for this?” might be the best television moment of this year and “oh… so you do speak English” is pretty awesome in its own right). The mystery of the island will apparently be explained in the coming year, but I’m not sure that that resolution will affect the placing of the series on the list (either up or down). I hope that everything is somewhat explained (though I doubt they will be). As long as Michael Emerson and Terry O’Quinn continue to show up, I will too. It’s discussion of theories of free will and of fate (as well as some out there scientific thinking) only help to add meat to the show’s bones – as does the stunning high definition island photography.

Best Episode: Everyone is going to say The Constant, and it’s a good choice, but I always appreciated The 23rd Psalm, maybe because it was stuck in the middle of the show’s most meandering season. It’s also a stunning tale of a man looking for redemption for his sins. Eko was a fascinating character – though his other centric episodes wouldn’t quite live up to the introduction – and it’s a shame he lasted only a year as a cast member.

05.) The Sopranos

How could this not make the list? A story of suburban listlessness disguised as a mob tale, it’s one of the most insightful dramas of the past decade and a solid demonstration of HBO’s capacity to produce stunning dramas. Shame about the ending, but it was a damn fine ride. The fantastic ensemble (and the consistently impressive guest stars) are just icing on the cake of the fascinatingly scripted drama.

Best Episode: Pine Barrens is a personal favourite, as it takes two of the show’s more interesting characters (and from an ensemble that talented, that’s saying something) and places them completely out of their element chasing an impossible-to-kill Russian through a snowy forrest.

04.) 24

Sometimes shows make us think. Sometimes shows offer us new ways of looking at the world. Sometimes shows simply deliver a syringe full of adrenile straight to your heart so you can’t resist declaring that “it’s a Bauer-dozer!” at the top of your lungs when Jack Bauer comes after an adversary in a bulldozer. It’s not deep, it’s not insightful. I think it does have something interesting to say about the American psyche, even if it never really articulates it, but I think it’s just – more often than not – great fun. Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 5 and Day 7 can stand alongside the best blockbusters that Hollywood has produced this decade – offering compelling television that will keep you coming back week-after-week. The Sopranos and The Wire demonstrated that television can offer incredible insights and observations into urban and suburban life, whereas 24 demonstrated that television can now truly compete with the cinematic experience.

Best Episode: Day 1, 11:00pm-12:00am is a cliché choice, but it really is the best example of the series does best. Discarding logic to simply viscerally attack it’s audience with shock revelations, edge-of-the-seat thrills and an emotional whallop, this hour is the show distilled down to its purest essence.

03.) The Wire

The only thing more depressing than this show is the fact that it’s pretty much been conceded that it is true-to-life. A stunning look at how the drugs trade as infiltrated and corrupted American life, it’s the antithesis of a police procedure. Forensics cost money, red tape blocks everything, there are no easy resolutions, no “done in one” episodes. It’s an epic saga spanning five long and harrowing years, but it’s one of the most powerful television dramas ever made.

Best Episode: It’s hard to pick an individual episode, since the show really works best as complete seasons, but I’d probably go with Middle Ground as the best episode of the best season. It’s the point were what seems to be the best chance at actually improving life on Baltimore collapses around the characters, but it also offers the death of one of the most fascinating members of the ensemble.

02.) Battlestar Galactica

If you had told anyone back in 2002 that the best examinations of post-9/11 America would come from a Batman movie and reimagining of that show with the crappy robots, they probably would have laughed in your face. Battlestar Galactica is a stunning exploration of the moral quandries facing a civilisation reeling from the greatest catastrophe in its memory. It’s brutal, it’s shocking, and it’s effective. Featuring the best ensemble of the decade, the show was able to convincingly use its science-fiction roots to explore topics like suicide bombing and abortion through a lens that mostly avoided being too on-the-nose. Yes, there were missteps (The Woman King and Black Market clearest among them), but it was a show that was never afraid of posing daunting philosophical questions about the inherently distructive nature of humanity, or the historical cycle of violence that traces our existence, or the very nature of God itself. It was a show that dared to ask these sorts of questions – but, more than that, it was a show willing to let the audience find their own answers.

 

Best Episode: I’d go for the Occupation/Precipice/Exodus, Part I/Exodus, Part II quadruple bill if it didn’t feel like cheating. But if I have to limit it to a one- or two-parter, then Pegasus takes the cheese. It’s a stunning encapsulation of all the series’ themes up to that point and a stunning reminder that – despite how crap life on the fleet has been – things could have been a whole lot worse.

01.) Doctor Who

Looking back at the list, there’s a lot of depression. Be the murder and destruction of The Sopranos, the depressing philosophical statements of Battlestar Galactica, the collapse of urban society portrayed in The Wire, this decade was more than a little dark and depressing. That’s why this choice seemed so odd. It’s quite simply the most incredibly optimist show of the noughties. Sure, occasionally the human race can be slavers or genocidal maniacs from the end of time itself or just frightened on a stranded cruise liner, but the lead character’s unrelenting faith in the human capacity for good is almost as uplifting as the stunningly fascinating glimpses of cultures both ancient and modern portrayed by the show. While Russell T. Davies gets a lot of flack (some deserved) for his writing, his credentials as a showrunner are beyond question. The two leading actors in the titular role (Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant) bring their own briliant enthusiasm to a character who seems at once incredibly tragic yet freed by the joy of wandering the universe. Yes, there have been a few disappointments along the way, but no other show has managed to take its audience on so wild a ride each and every week.

Best Episode: The Girl in the Fireplace by a country mile. Possibly the best episode of television this decade. A stunningly effective examination of the life of a time traveller and a better adaptation of The Time Traveller’s Wife than the Eric Bana adaptation earlier this year. It’s fun, it’s flighty, but it also has a fairly serious heart. Moffat is fantastic writer and we’re already anticipating his term as showrunner. Anyway, if you needed more convincing, here’s the Doctor’s introduction to Louis XIV upon riding a stallion through a mirror into the royal court to stop a bunch of crazed androids. It’s even more incredible than it sounds.

Who’s he then?

I am the King of France!

Yeah? Well I’m the Lord of Time.

Midnight gets an honorary second place.

5 Responses

  1. I’ll give you The Sopranos and House.

  2. I’m glad you have included Planet Earth. I also have that show in my #8 spot coincidentally. I really disagree with you on Family Guy. That show just grates me no, its so annoying.

    As for best episodes, I agree with you for 24. That was a really stellar last hour that they had for the first season. But the 23rd Psalm? Odd choice. Wow, there are well over a dozen episodes I would have chosen before that one.

    And I had to skip over your analysis of Battlestar, as I haven’t seen the last season yet, and I am paranoid of spoilers.

  3. I began reading your Battlestar Galactia Season 1 post and stopped for fear that I would encounter a few spoilers (I’ve already seen and forgotten the spoilers I’ve been hit with over the last year or so). Instead, I went with the safe bet of reading your synopsis above – Having read it, I’m looking forward to beginning the BSG journey even more! This is the first show where I know quite a bit based around it, before I’ve actually watched it (In fact, I purchased a Cylon oil painting earlier this year. Don’t ask). I shall return to your Season 1 article at a later post-BSG stage.

    • Yep, they are quite spoiler-ish, I’m afraid – more like post-match analysis than reviews. But it’s a really, really great show, even if the ending isn’t particularly brilliant (without spoiling anything).

  4. Well, I am finished BSG now and I agree that it is a great series. The ending is weird, but I’m okay with it. I know a lot of people saw it as a cop-out, but how else could everything really be explained? And I really liked where they ended up. Pretty neat.

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