The Best TV Shows of 2009 ... and the Decade

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  • Publish Date: January 2, 2010

Best ... decade ... ever?

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While we don't have any scientific proof to back up such an assertion, the past ten years of television appear to be unsurpassed by any other decade in TV history in terms of quality.

Sure, the period from 2000-09 gave us a never-ending supply of reality programs -- some good, others more like "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance" -- but the decade also produced some of the most compelling, involving and complex dramas of any time period (or medium), from the urban realism of "The Wire" to the mind-bending mystery of "Lost." And comedies broke free from their studio constraints and laugh tracks, with highlights including cult favorites like "Arrested Development," and the UK version of "The Office" to Jon Stewart's ongoing blend of media criticism and satire offered on "The Daily Show." The increasing relevance of cable meant that there were a number of new outlets willing to take a chance on unconventional fare, and the introduction of high definition meant that everything looked better, even if it wasn't.

But don't take our word for it. (As a matter of fact, you can't, even if you wanted to. Metacritic's television coverage launched in the fall of 2005, so our data for the decade as a whole is incomplete.) What shows did the critics enjoy when they first premiered, and what shows have they selected now, at the end of the decade, as representing the best of the past ten years? We answer those questions below.

On the following page, we'll also recap the best (and worst) that 2009 had to offer on the small screen. First, let's explore the entire decade of television in further detail.

The best and worst shows of the decade

When a film critic reviews a new movie, or a music critic critiques a new album, they can base their analysis on the finished, whole product. A television critic, on the other hand, typically has just a few episodes on which to base her opinion, and those episodes may make up just a small portion of the series as a whole and may not even be representative of the eventual quality of the ongoing work.

However, that small sample can be enough to determine whether a new show is very good or very bad. And what we have next are lists of just that: the very best -- and very worst -- series premieres, based on reviews compiled since the fall of 2005.

Best Reviewed New Television Series by Season, 2005-09
Season Show (Network) Genre Metascore Users
Fall 2005 Everybody Hates Chris (UPN) Comedy 88 8.1
Midseason 2005-06 Big Love (HBO) Drama 72 7.5
Summer 2006 Brotherhood (Showtime) Drama 75 9.4
Fall 2006 The Nine (ABC) Drama 81 7.9
Midseason 2006-07 This American Life (Showtime) Anthology 79 9.8
Summer 2007 Mad Men (AMC) Drama 77 8.6
Fall 2007 Pushing Daisies (ABC) Fantasy 86 8.0
Midseason 2007-08 Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox) Sci-Fi 74 8.5
Summer 2008 The Middleman (ABC Family) Action 73 8.0
Fall 2008 Life on Mars [US Version] (ABC) Drama 74 8.4
Midseason 2008-09 Spectacle: Elvis Costello With... (Sundance) Music/Talk 74 10.0
Summer 2009 Nurse Jackie (Showtime) Dramedy 76 7.2
Fall 2009 Modern Family (ABC) Comedy 86 8.6

American television series with seven or more reviews and debuting between August 1, 2005 and December 31, 2009 were eligible for the above list. (Metacritic's television coverage began in 2005 and thus earlier years from the decade are not available.) Shows are scored and ranked based on reviews published at the time of the original first season debut; returning series are excluded from this list. The Metascore is a weighted average of scores from top professional critics, on a scale from 0 (bad) to 100 (good). Although scores have been rounded to the nearest whole number, movies are ranked prior to rounding. User scores represent an average of scores assigned by Metacritic.com site visitors on a scale from 0 (bad) to 10 (good).

Two other first-year shows topped the 80 mark -- indicating "universal acclaim" from critics -- but didn't finish on top in their season: the HBO/BBC Ricky Gervais comedy "Extras" 81, and the CW fantasy "Reaper" 81.

Next, let's revisit some of the bigger mistakes of the past five years. In case you were wondering, the absolute worst-reviewed first-year show of the past half decade was NBC's "The Real Wedding Crashers," NBC's poorly-conceived attempt to capitalize on the popularity of both MTV's "Punk'd" and the big screen's "Wedding Crashers." Just a fraction of a point behind was another cautionary tale: ABC's "Cavemen," the rare program based on a television commercial. Let's hope there isn't another one.

Worst Reviewed New Television Series by Season, 2005-09
Season Show (Network) Genre Metascore Users
Fall 2005 Killer Instinct (Fox) Drama 25 8.5
Midseason 2005-06 Modern Men (WB) Comedy 23 4.8
Summer 2006 How to Get the Guy (ABC) Reality 26 7.2
Fall 2006 The Game (CW) Comedy 22 8.6
Midseason 2006-07 The Real Wedding Crashers (NBC) Reality 19 3.1
Summer 2007 Lil' Bush: Resident Of The United States (Comedy Central) Comedy 31 4.1
Fall 2007 Cavemen (ABC) Comedy 19 5.2
Midseason 2007-08 The Return of Jezebel James (Fox) Comedy 29 5.4
Summer 2008 Farmer Wants a Wife (CW) Reality 31 7.5
Fall 2008 Knight Rider (NBC) Drama 21 5.9
Midseason 2008-09 Momma's Boys (NBC) Reality 19 4.5
Summer 2009 Mental (Fox) Drama 40 6.1
Fall 2009 The Jeff Dunham Show (Comedy Central) Comedy 20 2.4

A roundup of television critic Top 10 lists for the decade

Much to the consternation of the Metacritic Features staff, while most television critics analyzed the past decade in television, many of them did so with "words" and "sentences" rather than easy-to-summarize lists. Having said that, we were able to collect enough lists (summarized below) to notice some trends.

ImageOnly #2? That's bunk!

The two most popular shows among the critic community -- even among those who didn't explicitly list their picks -- were a pair of groundbreaking HBO series: "The Sopranos" and "The Wire." And cable in general was the place to find the best shows of the decade; only three of the ten most-cited programs were on the traditional broadcast networks. While one of the defining trends of the past decade of television was the rise of reality television, only two such programs ("American Idol" and "Survivor") were saluted by more than one list-making critic -- and the Emmy-dominating "Amazing Race" was ignored. Also of note: many of the best programs of the decade actually survived for many seasons, with just one ("Freaks and Geeks") getting the ax after a single year.

Note that the list below is not weighted or scored in any way; shows are simply ranked by the frequency with which they appear in critic Top 10 lists, in any position on those lists. (The number of times they appear in the #1 position is indicated as a convenience.) A full list of publications used -- with links to many of the individual lists -- appears beneath the table, and you'll notice that we have expanded slightly beyond our usual group to include a few additional publications and critics.

TV Shows with Most Mentions in Critic "Best of the Decade" Top 10 Lists
  Show (Network) Years # 1's Top Ten Lists
1 The Sopranos (HBO) 1999-2007 7 16
2 The Wire (HBO) 2002-08 6 15
3 Arrested Development (Fox) 2003-06 1 14
3 Mad Men (AMC) 2007- 0 14
5 Lost (ABC) 2004- 0 11
5 The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Comedy Central) 1999- 1 11
7 The Office [UK Version] (BBC Two / BBC America) 2001-03 1 9
8 Deadwood (HBO) 2004-06 0 7
8 The Shield (FX) 2002-08 0 7
10 American Idol (Fox) 2002- 0 6
11 Battlestar Galactica (Sci-Fi) 2004-09 0 5
11 The West Wing (NBC) 1999-06 0 5
13 Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO) 2000- 0 4
13 Freaks and Geeks (NBC) 1999-2000 0 4
13 The Office [US Version] (NBC) 2005- 0 4
16 24 (Fox) 2001- 0 3
16 30 Rock (NBC) 2006- 0 3
16 Friday Night Lights (NBC) 2006- 0 3
16 Survivor (CBS) 2000- 0 3
20 Breaking Bad (AMC) 2008- 0 2
20 Six Feet Under (HBO) 2001-05 0 2
20 Veronica Mars (UPN/CW) 2004-07 0 2

The 17 individual Best of the Decade lists used to compile the above data were from (with their #1 picks indicated):

The following lists are not included in the results above because they either are divided into multiple categories, exceed 10 shows without indicating rankings, or offer an alternative take on the decade (e.g., worst of the decade lists, best episodes, etc.).

On the next page, we examine the top shows from the past year.

We're sorry, but comments are closed for this article.

Comments (245)

  • Phil  

    NO ONE HAS SAID RESCUE ME !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • J.C.  

    Ohh yeah and Spartacus is the best thing ive watched in a really long time, check that one out.

  • J.C.  

    Everyone has their opinions and i respect that of course there are some just obscured post however, when i made my list i thought of which series i watched all the way through and would watch again over and over.

    1.) Soprano's (Wasnt till years after it stoped airing that i learned to love it)
    2.) Band of Brother (no 2nd season was a bummer)
    3.) Dexter (one of my favorites ever), but not deserving of #1.
    Undecided upon listing:
    The wire, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, Sons of anarchy, Mad Men,Boardwalk empire,
    These series are amazingly good im sure but i unfortunatly haven't had the pleasure of watching them yet.
    4.) The office (US)
    5.) King of the hill
    6.) Prison Break
    7.) True blood
    8.) Justified
    9.) The unit
    10.) South Park
    11.) 24 (its great and all but nothing im gonna lay in bed all day and watch.
    12.) Arrested developement is really good, but same as 24 with the attention span for me.
    13.) The pacific (was pretty good, but lol nothing compared to band of brothers.
    14.) The glades ( I love this show lol its so good, but nothing to go crazy over.)
    15.)Lost (I dont know why this is at 15 and not higher, but honestly i argued withmyself about where it should go so much that i put it at the end cause it sucks sometimes and other times its the best crap ever lol.

    From here on it just gets to be randomly naming things that i watched and tolerated enough or liked it well enough to not turn it off.
    Like weeds, my name is earl etc... all really good shows that i guess i could say i really like but wouldn't be something i loved.

    Only reason i posted this is cause thats how i find movies i really end up loving is on peoples post. im def gonna watch a lot of stuff ive read on here sounds like alot of people like it so its gotta be good.

  • :)  

    My list:

    Dexter
    House
    Bones
    Prison Break
    Glee
    Veronica Mars
    ER
    ...and a lot more...

    The reason some of the high profile shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Wire are not on my list is because I have NOT seen them...

  • joyce  

    how I met your mother is a good one currently airing, when you get restless/bored

  • joyce  

    Interested in commenters' Best Episodes of TV ever lists! Even the best shows rarely come out with one of those episodes that dazzle/daze.

    Most popular shows just attract people to sit in front of the tv and watch week after week. They don't require/have brilliant writing or affect lives- which real "best tv" should have.

    I tend to agree with including Dexter, it's not the greatest but a benchmark current shows should at least equal to be on the best list.

  • Raylam22  

    Heroes belongs in class 2 for me....

    I know I missed some but all I can say is that the Wire is hands down the best show ever made...Mcnulty, Marlo, Prop Joe, Stringer, Avon Barksdale....if you havent seen it go check it out...even if your not into what you make think of as a "ghetto" type show, its worth it.

  • Raylam22  

    I know everyone is saying pretty much the same thing - I have seen all of these shows and have to say that there are different classes and I cant put the shows in order - but I can tell you which class they fall in.

    Class 1: The Wire

    Class 2: Dexter, Lost, Sopranos, Spartacus

    Class 3: Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, 24, Six Feet Under, Veronica Mars

  • thecunn  

    Best currently running
    Dexter
    Breaking Bad
    Weeds

    Any list that doesn't include Dexter is useless. Dexter is easily the most riveting suspenseful and just plain entertaining series ever created. Breaking Bad and Weeds are right up there. Sopranos is by a long shot the most over rated show of all time. Slow and very slow. They should have wacked all the sociopath **** in episode 2 and been done with it. Tony Soprano is a scumbag psychopath from hell.

  • nim  

    I forgot one of the very best UK shows: Gavin & Stacey! (Don't be fooled by the name, it's nothing like Will & Grace)

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