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

  • Comments: ↓ 245 user comments
  • Publish Date: January 2, 2010

The best and worst new shows of 2009

ImageCongratulations

The story of 2009 in television? Quality control. While ABC's "Modern Family" was far and away the best-reviewed new series of the year (indeed, only 2005's "Everybody Hates Chris" out of all new network programs in the past five years received better reviews), a total of 36 out of 78 (46%) of all first-year primetime series on broadcast networks or cable in 2009 received generally positive reviews from critics. (This number excludes shows with fewer than seven reviews.) That's right: almost half of all new shows in 2009 were actually good.

More strikingly, only six new programs -- a miniscule 7.7% -- received mostly negative reviews from critics (i.e., they received a Metascore of 39 or below). Compare that total to previous years: eight crummy shows in 2008, 19 in 2007, and 23 in 2006. Either critics are getting less picky, or programmers are passing on the most terrible shows. (We hope it's the latter.)

Before we get to the critics' picks for best shows of 2009, let's look more closely at the programs that premiered during the past 12 months, starting with the best of the bunch.

Best Reviewed New Television Series, 2009
  Show (Network) Genre Metascore Users
1 Modern Family (ABC) Comedy 86 8.6
2 Men of a Certain Age (TNT) Comedy/Drama 79 8.1
3 White Collar (USA) Drama 78 8.6
4 Glee (Fox) Musical 77 8.3
5 Nurse Jackie (Showtime) Comedy/Drama 76 7.2
6 The Good Wife (CBS) Drama 76 8.6
7 The Electric Company (PBS) Family 74 8.0
8 FlashForward (ABC) Sci-Fi 72 7.0
9 Important Things With Demetri Martin (Comedy Central) Comedy 71 7.9
10 The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (HBO) Drama 71 9.5

American television series with seven or more reviews and debuting between January 1, 2009 and December 31, 2009 were eligible for the above list. 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).

Note that two first-year series finished in Nielsen's list of top-ten shows in 2009. Both were on CBS, but only one received mostly positive reviews: the Julianna Margulies drama The Good Wife 76, which finished 10th in the ratings. The bigger hit was the spinoff NCIS: Los Angeles 59, which finished sixth in the ratings for the past year in spite of mixed reviews from critics. You won't find any of the following programs near the top of the ratings chart, however.
Worst Reviewed New Television Series, 2009
  Show (Network) Genre Metascore Users
1 The Jeff Dunham Show (Comedy Central) Comedy 20 2.4
2 The Cougar (TV Land) Reality 33 2.4
3 13: Fear Is Real (CW) Reality 33 4.2
4 Surviving Suburbia (ABC) Comedy 35 2.8
5 Hank (ABC) Comedy 37 4.4

What becomes noticeable again from the chart below (other than the fact that despite a shift to a year-round schedule, a large proportion of shows still premiere in the fall) is just how few "bad" new shows there were in 2009. Of course, those big yellow bars reveal that there were plenty of mediocre programs, receiving mixed reviews form critics. The median score for all new programs fell in this "mixed" range, at 59.

Totals of New Primetime Television Series by Month of Premiere, 2009

Only first-year shows with at least seven reviews in Metacritic's database are included. Both cable and broadcast shows are included. Green represents the number of positively-reviewed shows (Metascore of 61 or higher). Yellow represents shows receiving mixed or average reviews (40-60). Red represents negatively-reviewed shows (0-39).

A roundup of television critic Top 10 lists for 2009

ImageDressed for success

A winner of virtually every television award for Best Drama over the past year, AMC's "Mad Men" was also a winner with critics, who added the third-year show to their year-end Best of 2009 lists more often than any other program. In fact, "Mad Men" didn't just appear on those lists; it tended to appear in the #1 position.

ABC's single-camera sitcom "Modern Family" led a crop of four freshman programs that landed in the top 10 of top-10-list mentions, with Fox's hit musical "Glee," NBC's struggling Amy Poehler comedy "Parks and Recreation" and Showtime's Edie Falco dramedy "Nurse Jackie" filling out that group. "Modern Family" also earned honors as the most-saluted comedy of the year. For "Parks and Recreation," the turnaround in critical reception is noticeable; the show received a mediocre Metascore of 59 when it debuted in April, but critics (and any remaining viewers) have noticed a marked jump in quality in Season 2.

The remaining shows that appeared with some frequency on the critic lists are tallied in the table below. Remember that our summary list 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 keep in mind that this isn't an exact science; some critics had definite rankings, while the order of shows in other lists was a bit fuzzier.

TV Shows with Most Mentions in Year-End Critic Top 10 Lists, 2009
  Show (Network) Genre # 1's Top Ten Lists
1 Mad Men (AMC) Drama 10 20
2 Lost (ABC) Drama 2 14
3 Modern Family (ABC) Comedy 2 13
4 Glee (Fox) Musical 2 12
5 Breaking Bad (AMC) Drama 0 11
5 Friday Night Lights (DirectTV 101/NBC) Drama 0 11
5 Nurse Jackie (Showtime) Comedy/Drama 1 11
8 Big Love (HBO) Drama 0 10
8 Parks and Recreation (NBC) Comedy 1 10
8 True Blood (HBO) Fantasy 1 10
11 Sons of Anarchy (FX) Drama 0 8
12 30 Rock (NBC) Comedy 0 7
12 Dexter (Showtime) Drama 1 7
14 The Good Wife (CBS) Drama 0 6
14 The Office (NBC) Comedy 0 6
16 Chuck (NBC) Action/Comedy 0 5
16 Party Down (Starz) Comedy 0 5
18 Battlestar Galactica (Syfy) Sci-Fi 0 4
18 Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO) Comedy 1 4
18 The Big Bang Theory (CBS) Comedy 0 4
18 The Middle (ABC) Comedy 0 4
18 Torchwood: Children of Earth (BBC America) Sci-Fi 0 4

The 25 individual Best of 2009 lists used to compile the above data were from (with their #1 overall pick indicated):

The following lists are not included in the results above because they either are divided into multiple categories or offer an alternative take on the year (e.g., worst shows, best episodes, etc.).

What are your favorites?

What are your picks for the best shows of 2009 and the decade? What did the critics miss? (South Park? Family Guy? How I Met Your Mother? House? It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia?) Let us know in the comments section below.

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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