I suppose strong arguments could be made either that this was the best decade of television, with cable TV coming into its own and providing us with richer, more complex dramas than anything we'd seen in the past, or that it was the worst, with reality TV's rise to popularity signifying a low point in our culture. Well, I actually happen to think there's such a thing as good “reality TV,” but for now, as the decade comes to a close, I want to take a moment to focus on the earlier argument and look back on what were the standouts for me in TV drama in the 2000s.
The Wire—Quite possibly the best television show of all time. This is the poetry of real life in America in the early 21st century. Over the course of five seasons, it turned its piercing gaze on the drug war, labor unions, big city politics, public schools, and the print media, opening our eyes to the world we live in. At the same time, it's a riveting and powerful human drama, with complex characters on both sides of the law that we come to love and to despise, to root for and to fear.
The Shield—If The Wire is the television equivalent of the Great American Novel, The Shield is like a modern-day, extended take on a Shakespearian tragedy, about the way one man's gargantuan ambitions can inhale and destroy the lives of many. For my money, it's pound-for-pound the most exciting drama of the decade, rarely taking a false step from its shocking first episode until its pitch-perfect, devastating finale. Perhaps the most fascinating thing for me about The Shield is the way it so often made me feel so conflicted. Vic Mackey is absolutely, unquestionably immoral, and yet I often found myself cheering him on as he brought his own brand of justice to the criminals of LA's fictional (but thoroughly believable) Farmington district. Mackey (played by Michael Chiklis) pulls focus with his massive persona and his shiny bald head, but this is absolutely an ensemble show, and although I have much love for Vincent D'Onofrio's enigmatic and disturbed detective Robert Goren from Law & Order: Criminal Intent, my favorite TV detective is The Shield's slightly awkward, dogged, brilliant Holland “Dutch” Wagenbach.
Watching this montage from The Shield finale still gives me goosebumps. If you haven't watched the show, this won't spoil anything. The snippets are too brief to give anything away. But to me and fans of the show, they speak volumes.
Six Feet Under—Forget Touched by an Angel. This is deeply spiritual television, at least for this agnostic.
The West Wing (The Sorkin Years)--I stopped watching when Sorkin was dropped, but in those early years of the Bush presidency, when it all still felt like some sort of bad dream, I know I wasn't alone in taking solace and inspiration in the imaginary presidency of Jed Bartlet. Sorkin's excellent “let's-have-snappy-conversations-while-walking-briskly-down-hallways” writing style and the top-notch work by Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford and others made this show a delightful entertainment. (Yes, I know, it actually started airing in the final months of the 90s. Sue me.)
Law & Order—Because after 20 years, there are still few things on TV as reliably satisfying as an episode of Law & Order.
In a category of its own:
24--While The Wire is the show people in the future should look at if they want to understand what our world was actually like in this decade, the show they should look at if they want to psychoanalyze us is 24. The pilot was actually delayed and edited because of the attacks of September 11th, 2001, but the entire show almost feels like a reaction to that day. Jack Bauer is absolutely a hero our society gravitated to in the wake of that attack. Like its hero, the show is ruthless and exceptionally effective. It's also the most video-game-like show ever (though the actual 24 game is pretty lousy), and I'm convinced that it has heavily influenced the outstanding campaigns of the Modern Warfare games, which do things with game narrative that previously just weren't done.
Deadwood—Gorgeously vulgar dialogue and towering performances by a great cast.
Battlestar Galactica—I found the last set of episodes deeply disappointing. Still, it had a lot of great moments, and was the best sci-fi that TV of the 00's had to offer.
Dexter—Wickedly entertaining. Dexter (the show and the character) is still a work in progress, but it may deserve a place on a list like this in ten years' time.
Law & Order: Criminal Intent—Vincent D'Onofrio's Robert Goren is what has made this show so watchable, though it achieved heights with regularity in the earlier seasons that it has rarely been able to recapture in more recent ones, and I was crushed when Goren's rivalry with archnemesis Nicole Wallace, which was the source of some of the show's best moments, was brought to an end last season in the most unsatisfying way possible. Goren and Eames will be leaving the show at the start of next season as it becomes Monk 2: Jeff Goldblum's Kooky Crime-Solving Hour full-time. But I'll still watch it.