TV in the 2000s: The Shows that Defined the Decade

A recent issue of Time magazine has the phrase “The Decade from Hell” emblazoned across its front cover. It’s referring to everything America has gone through in the past ten years, and it’s difficult to argue such an assertion: it’s been a shitty decade on a national level. During such times of stress, people inevitably turn to entertainment as a form of release, and although the methods in which we’ve distracted ourselves over the last ten years have unquestionably diversified, television remains the most easily accessible outlet for most Americans.

Within the format itself, the whole concept of reality TV must surely have been the biggest revolution of the decade. It’s really easy to bag on reality TV – mostly because the bulk of it is so damned unreal – but anybody who spends any time in front of the tube has surely had at least a couple of reality series they consider appointment TV. The two concepts that paved the way for everything else are undoubtedly “Survivor” and “American Idol.” The former, of course, opened the floodgates for the genre, and while it’s seen a considerable dip in the ratings department over the years, 12 million viewers isn’t a viewing figure to sneeze at. The latter, despite all the bitching and moaning and cries of “it’s not as good as it used to be” that accompany each new season, remains one of the most watched shows on the tube, likely due to the fact that it’s strictly a talent competition.

On “American Idol,” the only backstabbers are the judges, and since they aren’t part of the competition, their amusing duplicity is championed. The contestants, on the other hand, are innocents, and once the competition is underway, we’re given no peek into any possible backstage drama, which is a good thing, because by the time the audition rounds are over, we’ve had enough drama to last the whole season. Everything that comes after is all about who can best transfix us for three minutes a week via one pop ditty. It actually says something positive about the U.S. that “American Idol” remains our #1 form of reality entertainment, even if the actual reality is that the vast majority of Americans couldn’t care less about buying the winner’s album six months after they’re crowned.

You might think reality TV is a bunch of crap, and in most cases you’d be right, but the whole idea of it, to my mind, led to an important revolution, and that is serialized nighttime television (the classic “soap” formula notwithstanding). Reality shows taught viewers how to become invested in characters, how to be concerned for their eventual fate, and, most importantly, how to pay attention to an ongoing storyline, and the need to tune in every week. It didn’t take long for the networks to figure out that there was an audience for shows that didn’t continually hit the reset button. “24” must have been the first successful show of the decade to embrace the serial formula, and it embraced it whole hog. It required you to tune in for every episode, because each installment was another hour of a single day in the life of Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer. That “24” premiered less than two months after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 was pure happenstance. That it became enormously popular with viewers? Probably not so much. America needed some fictitious reassurance that there were folks on the job who could get shit done, and “24” filled the prescription.

Strangely, “24” didn’t open the network floodgates for more such programming right away. It took a few years, and then “Lost” made its mark. The number of “Lost” episodes I’ve seen could be counted on two hands, but that’s not because I didn’t like it, but because real life got in the way of it being appointment TV. Yet I viewed the pilot for “Lost” several months before its 2004 premiere, and when it ended I was convinced that I’d seen the second best TV pilot ever made. (“Twin Peaks” stills sits at #1.) The fact that a show as intricate as “Lost” still has a hardcore, central audience is perhaps a testament to that pilot. “24” started a new story with each new season; “Lost” required that you tune in for every episode of every season.

Another sci-fi series that did just that was “Battlestar Galactica,” a show that, due it being on a niche network (Syfy), never amassed a huge audience yet snagged boatloads of publicity and awareness nonetheless. It was no small feat to take an utterly laughable short-lived series from the late ‘70s and re-envision it for modern audiences, but Ron Moore and company did just that…and they did it far more successfully that anyone ever guessed possible. Most amazingly, the show taught us a lot about ourselves, by thoroughly defining what it means to be human, and as the damaged ‘00s dragged on, there may not have been a more important lesson to be learned.

On the same day I saw the “Lost” pilot, I saw another pilot for a completely different kind of series. While I didn’t rank it as one of the greats, there was one thing I was sure of: it would be a massive hit…and it was. “Desperate Housewives” was precisely the sort of vapid, soapy fare that had been absent for far too long on American TV. It clued into the seemingly bland suburban construct which surrounds so many Americans, via the Lynchian notion that “all is not what it seems.” Most anyone who lives a suburban life can no doubt relate to that idea, because wherever there are groups of people, there are bound to be some of them that are fucked up. “Housewives” is littered with fucked up suburbanites of all shapes, sizes and types, but they’re kooky and funny and there’s always some twinkly music playing in the background that in the end makes everything OK. It is not great television, but over the years it has, for the most part, been immensely watchable in the most disposable sort of way.

Around the same time period as “Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” made some major waves. It’s a series I have never watched and never plan to, but I’d be foolish to omit it from discussion since it brought two annoyingly obnoxious terms to the TV table: McDreamy and McSteamy. I haven’t heard either in a few years, but there was a time when they seemed to define everything that was wrong with television. I assume “Grey’s” fans have grown out of it…or maybe the show killed one of those guys off? I’ve no idea and can’t be motivated to investigate. Presently, there’s a brand new version of it going around, through cinema, via Camp Edward and Camp Nimrod. People can be so easily distracted it makes you wonder why some shows actually try harder.

Speaking of trying harder, it’s a good time to bring up some cable shows, otherwise I’m going to lose about 90% of the readers – only people who appreciate cable fare are likely to be on the net reading an article like this in the first place. “The Sopranos.” Jeez, what can possibly be said that hasn’t been said already? It turned pay-TV into a must-have for millions, and proved that there was a huge audience for an ongoing series with gratuitous nudity, violence and bad language. Of course David Chase’s baby wasn’t just tits, blood and variations on the word fuck – it was also a deep exploration of the human condition. You didn’t have to be a gangster to identify with Tony Soprano’s problems – you just had to understand them, which wasn’t a tall order since most of his dilemmas had nothing to do with offing people. The show rearranged the mafia formula so methodically, that it’s presented a serious challenge for any like-minded material that’s come since. It’s too soon to proclaim the definitive TV series of the ‘00s, but were I placing bets on what folks would say 20 years from now, I’d put my money on this one.

Fans of “The Wire,” would tell me I’m insane with the previous assertion, but since every time I’ve tried to watch “The Wire” I’ve fallen asleep, I’ve no basis for an argument. The thing is, the people I know who worship “The Wire” (and for some it really is a fucking religion) are the smartest, most well-read and educated, witty and interesting folk in my life. I’m probably a boob for not “getting it,” but I’m willing to bet there are quite a few other “boobs” reading these words, nodding in agreement. “The Wire” must be engaging, literate television…that was so niche it failed to capture a huge audience. The thing is, “Wire” fanatics, not everyone “gets” your show, no matter how damn good it is. You know how I know this? My two favorite shows of the ‘00s – both of which I believe to be incredible examples of TV – are “Doctor Who” and “Farscape,” and yet I know better than to showcase them in this piece, because it quite simply wouldn’t make any sense to do so, as neither of them had any real impact on American culture. “The Wire,” however, probably made some very relevant statements on certain segments of our culture, which is why I’ve devoted this much space to it. It’s too bad the general public didn’t bother to tune in and care. Maybe there wasn’t enough tits and ass?

There was plenty of tit and ass on another HBO series that captured a great deal of attention, and that was “Sex and the City.” This one I’ve seen far too much of, and I’ve no hesitation in saying that while “The Wire” made me comatose, and its fans may have driven me up the wall, “Sex and the City” made my blood boil, and its fans are some of the most clueless I’ve come across in all my TV watching years. Here’s the thing with this show: These women are not meant to be emulated. They are not just bad examples of women, they are bad examples of human beings. Some folks made the same mistake by rooting for Tony Soprano, only David Chase had the good sense to eventually call them on the carpet for it. The people who made this show never did any such thing, even though I’m fucking positive they damn well know better. If you think Carrie Bradshaw is an encouraging role model, then I hope you enjoy living alone for the rest of your life, because that’s exactly what’s going to happen if you choose to behave as she did in this series. Since the show has miraculously moved on to successful movies – proving that its disciples are more slavish than any fan base outside of “Star Trek” – it begs to have a happy ending sooner or later. And unless the writers dig way down deep and drag these women through the muck all the way to a reasonable sense of enlightenment – it’s going to be horribly hollow. There was, quite simply, no show that was more evil and insidious in the past decade than this one. Not even “According to Jim.”

Lest you think that outside of “The Sopranos” I’ve a hatred for all things HBO, that’s hardly the case. Even with my opinions of “The Wire” and “Them Clueless Bitches in NY,” there’s no question that HBO uniformly provided the finest entertainment of the decade. There have been times when critics have championed Showtime as “the new HBO,” yet I couldn’t come up with a single series from that network that really mattered. Oh, they’ve tried, but if the cream of their crop is “Dexter” and “Weeds,” they’ve got a long way to go before catching up to Home Box Office (a phrase that’s all but forgotten, yet is perhaps more descriptive than ever). “Six Feet Under” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” are two series that have had a lot to say about the people we are/were in the ‘00s: The former through its deep exploration of fractured and problematic humanity, and the latter though its shallow exploration of fractured and problematic humanity. I miss “Six Feet Under” immensely, although it ended at a perfectly reasonable point. I look forward to more “Curb” because it has no clue where to end; hopefully Larry David will keep coming back to it every few years until either he dies, or runs out of straw men to bash.

“Curb” is damn funny. Wish I could say that about more comedies in the ‘00s, but the humor was scattered and inconsistent. As far as the defining comedy of the decade? That’s a tough one to assign, since nearly every single offering seemed to appeal to a different kind of audience, but the honor should probably go to “The Office.” Here’s a show that, given the track record of translated Britcoms, should not have worked, and yet it did, and continues to do so. I’m not sure exactly what “The Office” has to say about the typical workplace, because I haven’t done that sort of work in years, yet it still largely manages to be a scream on the occasions I bother to tune in, which is, admittedly, maybe once every six or so weeks (chances are if I tuned in every week I’d have gotten sick of it a long time ago).

Probably the most influential comedy of the past ten years was “Arrested Development,” and it also happened to be the most prescient: George Bluth, Sr. was Bernie Madoff long before the phrase “Ponzi scheme” entered our everyday vernacular. The series has a devoted following that continues to demand a movie followup that they may never even see (but we’ve got our fingers crossed, even if the storyline revolves around George Michael’s funeral).

Fox discovered it could build a Sunday night empire on animated fare outside of “The Simpsons” by bringing back a series in ‘05 that it’d cancelled in ‘02. “Family Guy” may not be the definitive comedy of the ‘00s, but it must be one of, if not the most popular. It’s been amazing to watch comeback kid Seth McFarlane conquer the world through sheer idiocy, and one wonders exactly what sort of Faustian deal was made, and which supernatural deity has such a warped sense of humor.

Comedy Central’s “South Park” remains the go-to series for pissing people off, and rare is the season that goes by without some kind of shitstorm erupting from the questionable content presented by Messrs. Parker and Stone. Again, here’s a show I never really got into, but probably not for any reason you’d guess: I simply get bored by the cutout animation style, and it visually fails to hold my attention. One of my editors, however, was quite insistent that it be included here, which seemed a reasonable directive, especially given how often it’s been a focal point for controversy and discussion.

Also on Comedy Central we’ve seen the rise of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” a comedic take on daily events that for many has turned into an actual source of news, which in itself says something more profound about our country than anything I can possibly come up with. But I ask you, who presents a more reasonable version of the day’s events – Stewart or Glenn Beck? Sometimes the only thing left to do is laugh, because nothing’s really funny anymore. Something should be said about the show’s previous host, Craig Kilborn, but it would fall on mostly deaf ears, as nobody either cares or remembers that “The Daily Show” ever even had another host. (See also “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.”)

“The Colbert Report” is a spinoff of “The Daily Show,” and a lot of people are fervent believers in Stephen Colbert’s mock brand of conservatism. Occasionally, you get the awful sensation that some of them might not realize that it’s all a big joke, but rest assured it is. Mind you, I say that even though the joke has always escaped me, but then again, I love “Real Time with Bill Maher,” so what do I know?

Actually, one thing I do know for sure is that Americans love their fictitious cops, doctors and lawyers. We can’t get enough of idealizing these three professions that in real life we fear and/or hate. Noteworthy legal dramas were on the lean side in the ‘00s, and with a half a dozen versions of “Law & Order” (a concept that has the cojones to showcase all three professions to varying degrees) on the schedule, it’s perhaps unsurprising that lawyers especially got the short end of the TV stick. Regardless, “Boston Legal,” was a fantastically entertaining series that was never shy on opinion. During its run (’04-’08), it managed to do an exhaustive job of chronicling the political and social landscape as seen through the eyes of two very different lawyers – über liberal Alan Shore (James Spader) and extremist conservative Denny Crane (William Shatner). The show was clearly aimed at folks who wanted to think, which is probably why it never amassed a huge audience.

On the cop front – or indeed on any front – there was no show people tuned in for en masse more than “CSI.” Man, this thing was a ratings monster, and it even spawned two successful spinoffs. Of course, the central characters aren’t actually cops, but rather criminologists, but since they’re investigating and solving crime, they might as well be. The concept likely paved the way for all sorts of other successful fare such as, but not limited to, “NCIS” and “Criminal Minds,” as well as their current and future spinoffs.

The best cop drama of the ‘00s was “The Shield,” and it was a huge step forward for the genre, since it didn’t ask us to love its morally bankrupt central character, Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), and yet the intricate study of this man made it very difficult not to relate to him on some level. For perhaps the first time in a cop drama, we saw an officer of the law (actually several) faced with all the temptations we assume cops are presented with on a daily basis; sometimes they indulged, sometimes not. Either way it went down, for the first couple of seasons especially, the damn thing felt so real.

If “The Shield” was the most real cop show of the decade, then “Monk” was the most absurd, but it never pretended to be anything other than a whimsical presentation of criminal investigation. In lieu of delivering a fascinating storyline, “Monk” delivered a fascinating central character, brought to life by Tony Shalhoub. This past weekend saw the end of “Monk,” which was heartbreaking and uplifting simultaneously, and yet it was an ending for a lengthy ongoing series that snagged little press. People won’t realize how much they’re missing “Monk” until it’s been off the air for a few years. This is the kind of show of which we’ll see TV-movie followups in the coming years; Shalhoub, much like Peter Falk before him, will never escape this character.

Then there are the doctors. Resting uncomfortably at the top is Hugh Laurie who stars as “House.” I personally have some major reservations about this show, but I’d be a damn fool to not realize its power to entertain, and much like “Monk,” the show wouldn’t work without the talents of its central star driving the bus. There’s no question that the man just inhabits this character, and adding to the equation is the fact that, once again, it’s a bold new stab at a tired genre. The idea of taking the medical cases for which nobody has the solution is a grand one, and episodes typically feel more like mysteries than medical drama. The other great series of the ‘00s that revolved around surgery turned out to be not so great after all.

FX’s “Nip/Tuck” charged out of the gate, and its first two seasons rewrote the book on what TV doctors could be. During that period, it felt like we were watching TV history unfold, and we probably were. Too bad that book ended up being more of a novella. Here I am watching the show’s sixth season every single week, mostly because the end is nigh and Episode 100, which, as I understand it, airs in March of ’10, will be the finale. (If the show had no end in sight, I’d have given up some time ago.) Surely there must not have been a series this decade that showed more promise in the beginning, and then went so disastrously south so quickly? I suppose there’s a lesson to be learned here about making tit jobs the central draw of your series – or perhaps knife-wielding madmen are just not the best course of action to take when telling this kind of story. In any case, flawed though it is, you gotta give credit to the show for saying everything there is to say about the previously unexplored topic of plastic surgery.

Speaking of madmen, let’s wrap all this up with “Mad Men,” a series I was reluctant to mention here, yet two people on the Bullz-Eye staff suggested it as being important to this piece. The main reason I didn’t see it as worthy of inclusion is because, even with three seasons under its belt, the show still feels as if it’s in its infancy. Perhaps this is my problem, as I don’t see that the series has properly defined its mission as of yet. It’s a period piece and when I watch it, I wonder, “How will these characters react to disco?” Yes, that proposition is ludicrous, yet I’m unable to see a proper end for this story, and I’m not sure how it fits into this decade any more than it will fit into the next. But I have a feeling that the deepest parts of the series have yet to be presented, and that much of what we’ve seen over the past three years has been a sort of buildup. Matthew Weiner cut his teeth on scripts for “The Sopranos,” and even though the first few years of that series had massive amounts of greatness, the show delivered some of its finest, most definitive and thought-provoking material in the last two seasons. I’m hoping that Weiner took some notes from David Chase.

  

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