What can I say? It's fun to do these things. Heather Havrilesky at Salon has a good one, though mine would not be identical.
What do I take "best" to mean here? I'm thinking a mix of entertainment value, intellectual heft, clever writing, and strong production, I suppose. I understand that Havrilesky gets a lot of entertainment out of "Survivor," and felt the need to include something from the reality TV genre, but I don't feel any such compunction about leaving out a genre if I think it's cheap, brainless filler pretty much by definition. I'm sure there are some well-crafted, entertaining game shows, too, but you won't see any on my list. You also won't see shows I haven't seen yet (sorry, Sopranos). You also won't see the two shows everyone's ga-ga over: Mad Men and 30 Rock. I like and watch them both, and 30 Rock is probably number 11 on my list. I hear the most recent season of Mad Men is the best, but I can't watch it until it comes out on video.
1. The Wire
Agreed with Heather on this one, and I'll go even further. The Wire isn't just the clear standout of the decade; I think it may be the greatest show ever. I'm not sure I've ever seen a show this smart or this coldly realistic, or have characters this detailed, or organized and executed so meticulously. The show carefully cultivates a sense of brutal realism, even pessimism, but without becoming merely cynical. The characters are not just memorable or "captivating" but alive, and we see them in their natural environment, most of them always teetering on the brink of destruction.
One of the things I thought was most interesting and alluring about the show was that the entire premise proceeded from a single, pedestrian theme, a mere cliche in pretty much any other context: "Drugs are bad for people and communities." The creators of the show, a former journalist and a former policeman, create an entire series about the city of Baltimore and how drugs are choking the life out of it, and exactly how that's happening, and exactly why that's happening, and why all the city's civic institutions are powerless to stop it.
2. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
I'm with Heather here as well. It is scary remembering what life was like when the only comedy acts attempting to deal with politics were Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show. God we must have been stupid back then. Critics may point out that Colbert Report is, on the whole, funnier and a deader aim. That may be true, but The Daily Show was just bigger this decade in its aim and in its impact on politics and TV comedy and even news media. Jon Stewart filled a void so dearly longed for by so many people, and did it so completely, that he's become one of the most trusted news men in America.
Who saw that coming after watching Death to Smoochy?
F you, FOX.
Joss Whedon's magnum opus was just the cleverest durn thing you ever seen. Amusing, infinitely quotable, with endearing characters and surprisingly well-conceived special effects (the silent hand cam was so good at making the effects scenes feel like actual space), Firefly was perhaps the single saddest casualty of America's taste for shitty television.
The long defunct western genre was resurrected on TV in some surprising and brilliant ways. Deadwood took the western genre and recreated it for savvier, more intellectual audiences, and even inserted Shakespearean cadences into the banter. Ian McShane's Al Swearengen may be the best executed character of the decade. Also, it had the best opening credits sequence of any show I've ever seen.
5. The Office
Anybody else notice that "that's what she said" is everywhere now?
Seriously though, this show is so much more than meets the eye. The humor is hard to crack at first because it's so uncomfortable, but underneath there's a surprising amount of heart in this show, and of depth in the characters, especially Michael Scott. A pre-emptive response to the fans of the British version: by the end of the 2nd season, Steve Carell inhabits this character more fully than Ricky Gervais, and the writing is better, to boot. The show talks about life at work in a way that is smarter than it first sounds.
A show that takes everything cliche about TV in the aughts (a Miami crime procedural about a serial killer? really?) and makes something brilliant. I hate that I like this show so much.
7. Arrested Development
I've only seen the first season so far, but you can just kinda tell.
8. Battlestar Galactica
Not always the smartest dialog and not always the best acting, but the story is majestic, a real spectacle. Probably the greatest straight sci-fi TV show in history.
9. In Treatment
Minimalist television, stripped down to 3 staple characters in 2 rooms, doing nothing but having therapy sessions. Like fragments of ancient poetry, there is something about the tiny, truncated nature of the episodes and stories that sticks with you long after they're over.
The whole weight of the show rests upon the acting chops of its cast, doing entire episodes without a cut in many cases, and Gabriel Byrne and Dianne Wiest are enthralling.
10. Big Love
It's impressive how well the writers take a group that is universally despised and makes them not just sympathetic but almost like representations of the average American. They can tug on different thematic strands to make the Henricksons appeal to different social and political subgroups at different times. See there, Bill is a church-going, true believing man of God who's unafraid to invoke the name of Jesus in public. Look there, there's Barb and Nicki being discriminated against for living an alternative lifestyle! Oh, those crazy in-laws, am I right?