As we enter the last month of the last year of the decade, you’re likely going to see a lot of Best of the Decade lists, both here and elsewhere (we’ll cap our Best of the Aughts coverage in mid-December with our Top 10 Movies of the Decade). We won’t argue that our lists are better or worse than the others, but they are our favorites, and hopefully the readership we’ve cultivated over the last six years will agree more often than not. People take their lists seriously, and the stakes feel even higher when you’re attempting to encapsulate the best of an entire decade. We expect a difference of opinion; we expect a lot of bitching; and we expect to have some pissed-off readers. But if you’ve been a reader of Pajiba for a lengthy period of time, I doubt our lists will contain too many surprises — they should consist of the same shows, movies, scenes, and moments we’ve been talking about for much of the Aughts. Anything else would be dishonest.
We kick off our Best of the Decade series with The Ten Best (American) Television Shows of the Aughts, a list that should be fairly obvious from our television coverage. Nevertheless, with an entire decade to cover and an abundance of brilliant television shows (thanks to the explosion of quality TV on pay cable and off network channels over this decade, we are living in the Golden Age of television, the Nielsen Top 20 notwithstanding), there are going to be a lot of omissions, some of them glaring. But there are only ten slots, and we can’t cram them all into the Top 10. We will, however, make excuses for the omissions of a few shows that were more difficult than others to leave off: First and foremost is “Deadwood,” an overall brilliant series that would’ve made the top ten if HBO had allowed David Milch to finish the series — as it is, the lack of resolution kept it right on the edge of the list. Another is “Lost,” which we can’t really make a determination on until we see the last season, which could prove “Lost” to be a top five show of the decade or, ultimately, a huge disappointment, depending on how they wrap it up. Finally “Breaking Bad,” which we have no excuse for leaving off our Top Ten but for the fact that there was nothing else in our list that we felt like we could remove in favor of it.
As for the other shows you might feel were unfairly slighted? That’s what ALL CAPS are for, right?
10. Veronica Mars: If “Veronica Mars” had ended after its first season, it still would have almost been enough to last a lifetime. Of course, creator Rob Thomas went on to bottle lightning again in the second season, doubling and trebling the mysteries and their revelations until the show became jaw-dropping and mythic in the way it presented the intertwined lives of these conflicted, yearning, and complex men and women. Season Three is good on its own terms, but it falters by ditching the serialized format in favor of miniature story arcs that don’t pack the same punch as the first two years. Kristen Bell and Enrico Colantoni have dozens of perfect moments together, their chemistry one of love and honesty and genuine caring. Veronica is following in her father’s footsteps in the private investigation business, but she’s really doing her best to follow the pattern he’s laid out for her of love and support. She called her father a hero for staying when her mother split, and that’s what Veronica does in every one of her friendships: She stays. She’s the hero. She will not turn and walk away. She does her best to cut herself off from things that could hurt her, but at the end of the day, she’s still too much her father’s daughter to do anything but stand by her friends and fight for them. You know what they say about that Veronica Mars: She’s a marshmallow. — Daniel Carlson
9. Battlestar Galactica: “Battlestar Galactica” is amazing precisely for what it isn’t: It isn’t formulaic, it isn’t predictable, and it sure as hell isn’t your standard science-fiction show. The final season was mired in mythology and steeped in clunky plots and bad acting, but the first three years were stellar ones, kicked off by a breathless first season in which the show could do almost no wrong, when it turned convention on its head to present a gritty, believable, and thoroughly compelling human drama about the lives and heartbreaks of the sole survivors of an alien genocide. “Battlestar Galactica” is balanced between burgeoning mythology with relatable characters and pure-fire run-and-gun storytelling, the kind of adventure show that makes you realize how much damn fun it can be to see it done right. — Daniel Carlson
8. Firefly: When you boil “Firefly” down to its rawest essence, it’s an equally funny and dramatic character piece about a bunch of disparate personalities on a perpetual roadtrip. Yes, it has science fiction elements — they all live on a spaceship after all, traveling from planet to planet, scavenging and thieving and taking whatever rogue jobs they can find to get by. And yes, it’s got a lot of Western to it, from Captain Malcom “Mal” Reynolds (as old-school a cowboy as they come) to the frontier settlements on various planets, where folks still travel by horse because they’re too poor to have the fancy technology available to the elite. But what Whedon and company managed to do is not make the show about these things — rather, these elements are deftly used to service the nine characters that live on Serenity (the name of the Firefly-class ship which the show itself is named after). Frankly, if you’ve never seen “Firefly,” you’re doing yourself a disservice. It doesn’t matter if you dig on sci-fi, if you love/hate serialized shows, if you prefer chick flick-type shows, etc. Whatever you like about TV, “Firefly’s” got it. And the only problem with the show is that there absolutely isn’t enough of it. — Seth Freilich
7. The Daily Show With Jon Stewart: As much as Jon Stewart tries to deflect the grand accolades thrown his way, claiming his is just a cable comedy show, between 2000 and 2008, in many ways he served as a key voice for people who have nearly clawed their eyes out trying to understand the rationale — if there is any to be found — behind George Bush’s policies, or behind the platforms of the Religious Right, or of the reason why Fox News continues to exist. His show was cathartic, part of a daily healing process as a helpful tonic reminding us we aren’t alone in the world and giving us hope that maybe things could change. And while Stewart is still culturally relevant in light of an Obama presidency, he may not be relevant in the sense that he represents something bigger — a movement, a way of thinking, a group of people demanding change. But that’s a good thing. After all, thanks in small part to Jon Stewart, we have a president who can speak in complete sentences and values crazy things like the Constitution. — Sarah Carlson
6. 30 Rock: “30 Rock” may be the most quotable show in the history of the TVs. They’ve yet to make a bad episode. Some are better than others but in each and every one they balance the ridiculous with the heartfelt to hilarious effect. Like every great show, it exists in a brand new world: an exaggerated reflection, fun house mirror-like, of our own. Tina Fey is fearless. Sure, she picks off the fish in their barrels with shots at Republicans and Bush and the war but she has no qualms confronting all the ways white, middle class liberals can be ineffective assholes content to feed off the tit of those they decry. I could write a tome on each and every character from Lemon on down to Grizz and Dot Com, wax poetic on the brilliant comedic usage of product placement (“Can we have our money now?”), compare and contrast the merits of “Who Dat Ninja” and “Samurai I Am Awry” and write a sonnet about Tina Fey’s Easter bonnet. “30 Rock” is that good. — Angelina Burnett
5. Six Feet Under: At its essence, “Six Feet Under” was about the different ways in which people deal with grief. The show was at its best when it focused simply on the deaths — when it used the loss of life to prove a point about living. Like no other show before or since, “Six Feet Under” confronted death head on, splintering taboos, and taking a hundred different maxims and extracting all the cliché out of them, making us appreciate what death meant without the torture of “He’s in a better place now.” In fact, in the final episode of that first season, Nate offered up the best thing I think anyone has ever said about dying: When a hysterical woman asked Nate, “Why do people die?” he paused briefly, and then offered the perfect rejoinder: “To make life important.” We each grieve in our own ways, and “Six Feet Under” brilliantly gave us a glimpse into other people’s process so that we could better understand our own. — Dustin Rowles
4. Friday Night Lights: A show best described as a modern-day dramatic-version of “The Wonder Years,” except instead of 1960s suburbia, it takes place in Dillon, Texas, a small Southern town steeped in religion and football. It’s “Freaks and Geeks” centered on the other side of the cafeteria: The jocks, cheerleaders, bullies, skanks and rally girls, the ones many of us — the band geeks, dorks, geeks, stoners, and outcasts — viewed superficially with equal parts envy and hatred. But “Friday Night Lights” humanizes the very people in my high school I was often incapable of humanizing myself. But more than that, “FNL” is as real-to-life as any show on television. Granted, the characters are slightly idealized, but they are real people, not just the stereotypes that we, ourselves, couldn’t look beyond when we were there. — Dustin Rowles
3. Arrested Development: While many have been close, no comedy series has ever touched the levels of “Arrested Development.” I’ve watched this show several times over, and yet I still find new things to laugh at and appreciate with each go-round. The show actually grows, and I find my perspective and appreciation changing, with repeated viewings. There are and have been other comedies with richly developed characters, but I’m not sure I can think of another comedy that is so layered and filled with over-the-top, farcical characters that are treated with the respect they are in “AD.” Smart show, funny show, brilliant show. — Seth Freilich
2. The West Wing: No matter what he does with the rest of his career, Aaron Sorkin will be known as the man who created “The West Wing” and shepherded it through its first four years, years of towering faith and moving drama and contentious political discourse, and that is no small thing. In fact, while the series’ first four seasons are light-years beyond its final three in intelligence, structure, and plain old storytelling, subdividing those four years into rankings of better or worse is almost impossible. Each season offers something different and powerful, and together those four years — those 89 hours of television — add up to something more wonderful than maybe even Sorkin had a right to expect.”The West Wing” was full of emotional resonance, pitch-perfect writing, and an unabashed sense of hope that the hearts of men and women can lift American society and its government from its typical vulgarity and elevate it to something like poetry. — Daniel Carlson
1. The Wire: “The Wire,” addresses various elements of the downfall of America’s Rust Belt inner cities — from the political gamesmanship, to the unmourned deterioration of a school system hanging on by its fingernails, to the petty-minded complicity of the media in the addled, bovine inertia of the public view of poverty and the drug trade. Not content to sound the alarm bell over the utter failure of traditional policing and incarceration in the face of poverty and the drug trade, “The Wire” undertook an epic exploration of the failures of our society to create a viable environment where people have desirable choices other than crime.The first step off the easy path, the leap from the well-worn track … that is the hard step. The second and third steps are critical, even admirable, but they cannot exist without the fundamental decision to abandon rutted convenience. For television — for narrative as an art — “The Wire” represents a New Way, a 90-degree change in course that straightened the line. — Ted Boynton