The 20 Best TV Shows of the Decade (2000-2009)

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The 20 Best TV Shows of the Decade (2000-2009)

This list of 20 phenomenal TV shows from 2000-2009 reinforces our belief that the young millennium has launched a new Golden Age of Television. Granted, there are countless terrible shows polluting the airwaves. But there are also more smartly written, well-acted epic storylines playing out on the small-screen than ever before. There were certainly plenty of great shows that didn’t make the list, so let us know your picks for the best in the comments section below.


20. Deadwood
Creator: David Milch
Stars: Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker, John Hawkes, Jim Beaver, Brad Dourif, Paula Malcomson, William Sanderson, Kim Dickens, Keith Carradine
Network: HBO 
Sure, Deadwood does a fine job within the revisionist Western sub-genre’s traditional trappings, but ultimately it’s less concerned with its setting and historical accuracy (though it has plenty to spare) than it is about accurately portraying humans. Why do societies and allegiances form, why are close friends betrayed, and why does humanity’s best seem to always just barely edge out its worst? These are the real concerns that make Deadwood a masterpiece. David Milch created a sprawling, fastidiously detailed world in which to stage his gritty morality plays and with it has come as close as anyone to creating a novel on-screen. With assistance from some truly memorable acting by Ian McShane, Brad Dourif and Paula Malcomson, Deadwood ‘s sometimes over-the-top representations never veer far enough from reality for its inhabitants to become “just characters.” Sean Gandert


19. Dexter (2006-present)
Creator: James Manos Jr.
Stars: Michael C. Hall, Julie Benz, Jennifer Carpenter, Desmond Harrington, Erik King, C.S. Lee, Lauren Vélez, David Zayas, James Remar
Network: Showtime

Dexter Morgan is a family man and a blood-splatter analyst for the Miami Police Department. Oh, and a serial killer. The fact that Dexter is governed by a strict moral code, only preying on murderers, makes the series uniquely fascinating and challenging—as a viewer, you find yourself rooting for a killer, caring for his family, hoping he’ll do the right thing, and wondering: Can slicing someone to pieces and dumping the body in the ocean ever be right? Kate Kiefer


18. Breaking Bad (2008-present)
Creator:   Vince Gilligan  
Stars:   Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte
Network: AMC

The premise alone could carry a show: A high-school chemistry teacher with a baby on the way finds out he’s dying of lung cancer, so he goes into business with a drug-dealing former student and starts cooking near-perfect meth in order to pay the bills. Bryan Cranston is pitiful and disgusting as main character Walter White, and a convincing supporting cast provides just enough comic relief for a show that’s violent, heartbreaking and incredibly dark. Kate Kiefer


17. Family Guy (1999-present)
Creator:   Seth MacFarlane  
Stars:   Seth MacFarlane, Alex Borstein, Seth Green, Mila Kunis, Mike Henry
Network: HBO 

It’s the show that made Seth MacFarlane a household name, and unfortunately, the one it seems he’ll never top. This is with good reason. MacFarlane created a family that’s easy to relate to despite the fact that it includes a talking dog and an inexplicably British, bloodthirsty infant. Combine the characters’ eccentricities with jokes that (sometimes literally) won’t quit, and you’ve got one of the most important cartoons to grace the small screen. Austin L. Ray


16. Weeds (2005-present)
Creator: Jenji Kohan
Stars: Mary-Louise Parker, Elizabeth Perkins, Hunter Parrish, Alexander Gould, Allie Grant, with Justin Kirk, Kevin Nealon
Network: Showtime

When widowed soccer mom Nancy Botwin started selling pot in order to maintain her family’s suburban California lifestyle, her life took a turn for the dangerous. Weeds is a dark comedy at its finest—Nancy’s behavior grows progressively darker, but supporting characters like alcoholic neighbor Celia, stoner CPA Doug and irresponsible brother-in-law Andy provide just enough comic relief. Kate Kiefer


15. Friday Night Lights (2006-present)
Creator: Peter Berg
Stars: Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton, Taylor Kitsch, Jesse Plemons, Aimee Teegarden, Michael B. Jordan, Jurnee Smollett
Networks: NBC/The 101

Who ever thought football, a sport infamous for its meat-heads and brute force, could be the cornerstone of one of television’s most delicate, affecting dramas? Heart-rending, infuriating, and rife with shattering setbacks and grand triumphs—Friday Night Lights is all of these, and in those ways it resembles the game around which the tiny town of Dillon, Texas, revolves. “Tender” and “nuanced” aren’t words usually applicable to the gridiron, but they fit the bill here, too. Full of heart but hardly saccharine, shot beautifully but hyper-realistically, and featuring a talented cast among which the teenagers and parents are—blessedly—clearly defined, the show manages to convince week after week that, yes, football somehow really is life. Rachael Maddux


14. The Colbert Report (2005-Current)
Creators:   Stephen Colbert, Ben Karlin, Jon Stewart
Stars: Stephen Colbert 
Network: Comedy Central

Opting for a different approach to news satire than his mentor, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert takes his potshots at the shouting-match mess of modern cable-news partisan commentary by hilariously inhabiting a blowhard persona himself, and playing it for all it’s worth with only the slightest wink. He does this so well that a recent Ohio State University study found that there’s actually a sub-group of viewers who believe that Colbert “only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said.” Wow. Steve LaBate


13. Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000)
Creator:   Paul Feig  
Stars: Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, James Franco, Samm Levine, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, Busy Philipps, Becky Ann Baker, Joe Flaherty
Network: NBC

We’ve had eight years to come to terms with Freaks & Geeks’ untimely cancellation, and while the axe’s blow still smarts, in some ways the series’ scant 18 episodes have proved an ideal offering. Like a musty old yearbook, the short run preserved one gloriously specific time in the lives of McKinley High’s do-gooders and reprobates, and now we remember the trials and tribulations of Lindsay and Sam Weir, Daniel Desario, Bill Haverchuck and the whole gang like those of so many long-lost high-school friends of our own. Despite the intervening years (and starring roles in raunchier Judd Apatow fare), we remember the characters precisely as they were then, in 1980—sweetly fraught, awkward, hilarious and unsullied by the harsh realities of post-graduate life (or trite plot-lines, forced love triangles or sweeps-week shenanigans). Rachael Maddux


12. 30 Rock (2006-present)
Creator:   Tina Fey  
Stars: Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski, Jack McBrayer, Scott Adsit, Judah Friedlander
Network: NBC

The spiritual successor to Arrested Development, 30 Rock succeeded where its competition failed by largely ignoring the actual process of creating a TV show and instead focusing on the life of one individual in charge of the process, played by show creator Tina Fey. 30 Rock never loses track of its focus and creates a surprisingly deep character for the its circus to spin around. But Fey’s not the only one that makes the series. Consistently spot-on performances by Tracy Morgan—whether frequenting strip clubs or a werewolf bar mitzvah—and Alec Baldwin’s evil plans for microwave-television programming create a perfect level of chaos for the show’s writers to unravel every week. 30 Rock doesn’t have complex themes or a deep message, but that stuff would get in the way of its goal: having the most consistently funny show on TV. Suffice to say, it’s succeeding. Sean Gandert


11. Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-present)
Creator:   Larry David  
Stars:   Larry David, Cheryl Hines, Jeff Garlin, Susie Essman
Network: HBO 

Curb Your Enthusiasm  spreads its cringe-worthy neuroticism like a contagious disease, infecting us with horror and laughter alike. Currently in his seventh season, perpetually farklempt writer, producer and star Larry David still hasn’t run out of that vintage arrogance that skewers every race, color and creed with undiluted misanthropy. Riding strong off constantly clever writing and a recent Seinfeld cast reunion, there isn’t much to complain about—we’ll leave that to the professionals on this show. Sean Edgar


10. Mad Men (2007-present)
Creator: Matthew Weiner
Stars: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, Bryan Batt, Michael Gladis, Aaron Staton, Rich Sommer, Robert Morse, John Slattery
Network: AMC

Unless you worked on Madison Avenue in the early 1960s, AMC’s first foray into original drama has all the otherworldliness of a foreign film. It’s easy to covet a time when working in an office meant sharp suits, free-flowing liquor and nary a computer screen or Blackberry to tie you down. It’s also easy to feel superior to the characters’ rampant racism and misogyny. But there’s something all too familiar at the heart of Mad Men—the failings of the powerful and petty never go out of style. Josh Jackson


9. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
Creator:   Joss Whedon  
Stars: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nicholas Brendon, Alyson Hannigan, Charisma Carpenter, David Boreanaz, Seth Green, Marc Blucas, Emma Caulfield, Michelle Trachtenberg, Amber Benson, James Marsters, Anthony Stewart Head
Networks: The WB, UPN

Buffy the Vampire Slayer had it all: Romance, drama, tragedy, suspense. The show took the teen-soap formula and elevated it to an art. It was a unique combination of tragic romance, apocalyptic fantasy and the clincher—emotional realism. It also featured the most serious and realistic depiction of human loss ever witnessed on the small screen (in “The Body,” dealing with the death of Buffy’s mom by natural causes). Humor? The writers understood the campy sheen that must accompany any show named Buffy. They also knew how to use snappy dialogue and uncomfortable situations to full effect. Complex characters? You’d be hard pressed to find another program that had the same range and consistency of character development. Everyone matured (or devolved) at his or her own realistic rate. As some feminist writers have argued, TV had never before seen the complexity of relationships among women that you saw with the likes of Buffy, Willow, Joyce and Dawn. Plot? The writers employed elaborate multi-episode, multi-season story arcs. People and events of the past always had a way of popping back up, the way they do in real life. Philosophy? Series creator Joss Whedon was all about the “meta”—the ideas and story behind the story. Each season had a driving concept, and he explored an astonishingly wide range of topics. Quick asides referencing Sartre or Aquinas were as at home as the pop-culture references. The show spawned an active academic community around it (see “Buffy studies” at Whedon wanted his heroine to be iconic. As he put it, “I wanted people to embrace it in a way that exists beyond, ‘Oh, that was a wonderful show about lawyers; let’s have dinner.’” He succeeded, creating a WB/UPN show that bears closer resemblance to the works of Dostoevsky and Kafka than 90210 or Dawson’s Creek. Tim Regan-Porter


8. Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)
Creators: Glen A. Larson (original), Ronald D. Moore, David Eick
Stars: Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Katee Sackhoff, Jamie Bamber, James Callis, Michael Hogan, Aaron Douglas, Tricia Heifer, Grace Park, Tahmoh Penikett
Network: Sci-Fi (SyFy)

Ronald D. Moore turned a cheesy ’70s show into a gritty, unflinching look at what it means to be human, and ended up with one of the best sci-fi series of all time. With the crew of Galactica encountering no aliens during its exodus, the show was free to pit religion against science, freedom against security and family against conscience—tensions with no easy answers. It’s an epic tale with few villains and fewer heroes—just flawed people fighting for survival. Josh Jackson


7. Lost (2004-present)
Creator: J.J. Abrams, Jeffrey Lieber, Damon Lindelof 
Stars: Matthew Fox, Evangeline Lilly, Naveen Andrews, Michael Emerson, Terry O’Quinn, Josh Holloway, Jorge Garcia, Yunjin Kim, Daniel Dae Kim
Network: ABC

When J.J. Abrams first marooned his plane-crash survivors on a remote island, no one realized the show’s name was a double entendre: It took crowd-sourced blogs to make sense of all the hidden clues, relevant connections, time shifts and intertwined storylines, and each season has given us far more questions than answers. But there’s something refreshing about a network TV show that trusts the mental rigor of its audience instead of dumbing everything down to the lowest common denominator. Sometimes it’s good to be a little lost. Josh Jackson


6. The Sopranos (1999-2007)
Creator: David Chase
Stars: James Gandolfini, Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Dominic Chianese, Steven Van Zandt, Tony Sirico, Robert Iler
Network: HBO 

For eight years, James Gandolfini crawled deep inside the complexities of Tony Soprano—loving father, son and husband, goodhearted friend, master of sardonic one-liners (“How do you vandalize a pool?”), troubled psych patient, serial adulterer, mob boss and brutal, remorseless killer—inspiring as much dumbfounded loathing and shuddering sympathy as any character in TV history. Murderers aren’t one-dimensional; they have feelings, aspirations, justifications, families. The Sopranos brilliantly and believably explored this dynamic, turning the crime-drama on its head and taking dysfunction to the extreme in the process. As unfathomable as their world was, the characters of this tragic, beautifully arcing modern epic were so real that they became like family to us, too. Steve LaBate


5. The Office BBC (2001-2003); NBC (2005-present)
Creators: Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant 
Stars: BBC: Ricky Gervais, Martin Freeman, Mackenzie Crook, Lucy Davis, Oliver Chris, Patrick Baladi, Stacey Roca, Ralph Ineson, Stirling Gallacher; NBC: Steve Carell
John Krasinski, Rainn Wilson, Jenna Fischer, B. J. Novak, Oscar Nunez, Brian Baumgartner, Angela Kinsey, Ed Helms, Creed Bratton, Phyllis Smith, Leslie David Baker, Kate Flannery, Mindy Kaling, Paul Lieberstein

Ricky Gervais’ immortal Britcom deserves full marks for establishing this comedy franchise that killed the laugh track and introduced us to a hilarious bunch of paper-pushing mopes. Defying expectations that it would pale in comparison, NBC’s Office has become an institution unto itself. At its best, the American version is just as awkward as its predecessor, while showing a lot more heart than the gang could muster in sooty old England. Nick Marino


4. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (1996-present)
Creators: Madeleine Smithberg, Lizz Winstead
Stars: Jon Stewart, Samantha Bee, Jason Jones, John Hodgman, John Oliver, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Rob Corddry, Ed Helms
Network: Comedy Central

Amidst the madness and absurdity of the post-9/11 world, as the old-standby TV-news anchors retired or passed away, young America was looking for its new Cronkite, Rather, Jennings or Brokaw. Into this void, improbably, stepped comedian Jon Stewart and his band of brilliantly deadpan correspondents. While The Daily Show never really claimed to be more than a satirical faux-news show, it is so much more, offering the smartest, most unflinching social commentary on television. Steve LaBate


3. The West Wing (1999-2006)
Creator:   Aaron Sorkin  
Stars: Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff, Rob Lowe, Stockard Channing, Joshua Malina, John Spencer, Dulé Hill
Network: NBC

Television’s quintessential political drama began in the Clinton era, soldiered on through Bush and 9/11, and ended in the earliest days of the Age of Obama. Weirdly, the show’s political climate was more stable than reality itself. And maybe that was its appeal. The West Wing showed us government not as it was, but as it could be—a White House run by quippy, tireless, big-hearted public servants who believed in governing with decency. President Josiah Bartlet would give any of his real-life counterparts a run for their money. Nick Marino


2. The Wire (2002-2008)
Creator:   David Simon  
Stars: Dominic West, Lance Reddick, Sonja Sohn, Idris Elba, Domenick Lombardozzi, Ellis Carver, Andre Royo, Wendell Pierce, Rhonda Pearlman
Network: HBO 

Series mastermind David Simon conceived The Wire as a modern Greek tragedy, a morality play set in a drug-infested urban war zone where conventional good guys and bad guys barely exist. Everyone is conflicted and compromised. We didn’t need The Wire to remind us that “the system”—the criminal justice system, the political system, the education system—is broken. But no other cultural enterprise (and certainly no television show) has shown us precisely how the infrastructure has collapsed, forcing us to consider the impossible decisions required for repair. Amidst the rubble of a failed city, Simon created an engrossing human drama about the eternal struggle between aspiration and desperation, ambition and resignation—in other words, the fight for the American Dream. Nick Marino


1. Arrested Development (2003-2006)
Creator:   Mitch Hurwitz  
Stars: Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Portia de Rossi, Tony Hale, David Cross, Michael Cera, Jeffrey Tambor, Jessica Walter, Alia Shawkat, Ron Howard
Network: Fox

Mitch Hurwitz’ sitcom about a “wealthy family who lost everything and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together” debuted six weeks after Two and a Half Men, but never gathered the audience to keep the show alive. Still, Hurwitz packed a whole lot of awesome into three short seasons. How much awesome? Well, there was the chicken dance, for starters. And Franklin’s “It’s Not Easy Being White.” There was Ron Howard’s spot-on narration, and Tobias Funke’s Blue Man ambitions. There was Mrs. Featherbottom and Charlize Theron as Rita, Michael Bluth’s mentally challenged love interest. Not since Seinfeld has a comic storyline been so perfectly constructed, with every loose thread tying so perfectly into the next act: The Oedipal Buster spiting his mother Lucille by dating her friend Lucille, and eventually losing his hand to a hungry loose seal; George Michael crushing on his cousin only to have the house cave in when they finally kiss; the “Save Our Bluths” campaign trying to simultaneously rescue the family and rescue the show from cancellation. Arrested Development took self-referencing postmodernism to an absurdist extreme, jumping shark after shark, but that was the point. They even brought on the original shark-jumper—Henry Winkler—as the family lawyer. And when he was replaced, naturally, it was by Scott Baio. Each of the Bluth family members was among the best characters on television, and Jason Bateman played a brilliant straight man to them all. The show was canned three years ago. Meanwhile, Two and a Half Men is still trotting out new episodes. What the hell is wrong with you, America? Josh Jackson

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