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

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

Best ... decade ... ever?

Image

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)

  • tbpeaceman  

    -Ya Dexter. - Freaks & geeks... thats a good call. Maybe its soooooo good b/c there was only 1 season...but what a gem! -Always Sunny in Phili, now thats quality. ...Wtty and sophisticated with utmost abusrdity! Bird Law.

  • Alain Trepanier  

    I've seen most of the one listed. for me Dexter top is the top then Rome. Dexter show is so powerfull.

  • Joe Shmoe  

    I agree with everyone who says Battlestar Galactica is way underrated. It's good that it's at least recognized here. It's really a shame when people don't watch a show just because of its genre (to be more precise it reveals a blindingly narrow-minded way of looking at things, but let's not offend anyone).

    Oh, and would everyone kindly STFU about dexter already? This was about quality, not popularity. Next they'll be yelling for smallville. [Expletive]!

  • Chet W  

    This is what MY list would look like:
    1. Arrested Development
    2. Curb your enthusiasm
    3. Veronica Mars
    4. Dexter
    5.The Office (UK)
    6. Lost
    7. Damages
    8. Alias
    9. 24
    10(tie). Extras
    10(tie). 30 rock With a few honorable mentions being Six Feet Under, Prison Break, and Friends.

  • kandie, k  

    burn notice deserve recognition,i do have a homework to watch;
    six feet under
    mad men west wing
    dexter
    x-files
    big love

  • ur friend  

    keep in mind this list is from like 1999 to like a whole year before now

  • chiron  

    My favorite one.. by far... is Dexter. I am so surprised it didn't make the cut. There are a lot of good shows out there but Dexter is truly special. It is unlike any shows I have seen before. It is so refreshing to see something completely different to any other show. So for me Dexter top then in no particular order Friends, prison break, lost, wire, desperate housewives, true blood, mad men, rome, lie to me...

  • Asia  

    DEXTER is the best show ever! Just watch season 1 and you will understand.

  • Ajmal  

    What about Legend of Seekers?

  • Sean Baylon  

    I watch a lot of tv, very few people have seen more tv than me and i can see from different angles why c ertain people like certain tv shows, believe me, i've seen most of them but shows that stand out for me and in no particular order r preference because they attract different parts of my brain
    Scrubs, How I met your mother, Friends, Veronica mars, Oz, Prison break, The Wire, The Sopranos, Band of Brothers, Criminal Minds, Law and Order (all of them) Modern Family, Lost, Arrested Development, Californication, The Good Wife, Entourage, South Park, Extras, 30 Rock..

What Our Users Are Talking About

  1. /feature/music-releases-for-the-week-of-september-15-2014 Image
    Music Monday (9/15): This Week's New Albums + Videos
    September 15, 2014 - 1 comment
    1. LamontRaymond : Jeff the Brotherhood hits the road this week in support of their new album. And Bella Novela is putting the... Read »
  2. /feature/film-festival-reviews-2014-tiff-venice-telluride Image
    2014 Fall Film Festival Recap: The Verdict on Films Screening at TIFF, Telluride, and Venice
    September 15, 2014 - 2 comments
    1. Pazzo7 : I was shocked when I saw the score for Chris Rock's movie.WOW.I am really looking forward to it and I am truly happy... Read »
    2. golem64 : I saw Adult Beginners at TIFF starring comedian Nick Kroll. It is a great comedy drama and Kroll is an excellent... Read »
  3. /feature/new-movies-and-trailers-for-the-weekend-of-september-12-2014 Image
    Film Friday (9/12): This Week's New Movies & Trailers
    September 12, 2014 - 1 comment
    1. MarcDoyle : I was surprised by how much I liked The Drop. Read »
  4. /feature/fall-2014-tv-preview-abc-cbs-nbc-fox-cw-new-shows Image
    Fall TV Preview: A Guide to New & Returning Broadcast Shows
    September 11, 2014 - 2 comments
    1. dunker : Duke_Challanger, you are obviously a very discriminating viewer. While I agree that The Good Wife is the best show on... Read »
    2. Duke_Challenger : I don't care about anything on Network Television except The Good Wife. Read »
  5. /feature/destiny-ps4-xbox-early-reviews-and-observations Image
    Destiny: Early Impressions From Critics
    September 9, 2014 - 20 comments
    1. gamer0315 : well safe to say I was right reviews keep coming in and the score keeps dropping 75 is abysmal for a game with this... Read »
    2. azusdee : I feel like some of you so-called gamers are just spoiled rotten from too much COD and Battlefiled! Don't **** about... Read »
    3. gamer0315 : KAZIZOKSUPY so I have to do 14 things to enjoy this game? nah ill pass.. its already receiving 6 and 7s from most... Read »
  6. /feature/best-and-worst-films-of-2013 Image
    The Best and Worst Movies of 2013
    January 6, 2014 - 6 comments
    1. ilveirinso : happy to see "Pines" in the top 25 :) Read »