Best ... decade ... ever?
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.
|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|
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.
|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.
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.
|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||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||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||30 Rock (NBC)||2006-||0||3|
|16||Friday Night Lights (NBC)||2006-||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):
- Associated Press [unranked list]
- Contra Costa Times (Chuck Barney) - The Sopranos
- Entertainment Weekly - The Sopranos
- HitFix (Daniel Fienberg) - The Wire
- Hollywood.com (Brian Marder) - The Sopranos
- The Hollywood Reporter (Barry Garron) - The Sopranos
- The Huffington Post (Bill Mann) - The Sopranos
- Metromix - The Office [UK Version]
- The Onion A.V. Club - The Wire
- Paste Magazine - Arrested Development
- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Rob Owen) - The Sopranos
- Salon (Heather Havrilesky) - The Wire
- San Diego Union-Tribune (Karla Peterson) - The Wire
- San Francisco Chronicle (Tim Goodman) - The Wire
- Time Magazine (James Poniewozik) - The Wire
- Time Out New York - The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
- TV Guide - The Sopranos
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.).
- Boston Globe (Matthew Gilbert) - best moments
- Chicago Tribune (Maureen Ryan) - key events more coverage
- Houston Chronicle (Therese Odell) - most important shows alternate list
- The Oregonian (DeAnn Welker) - best things on TV
- The Star-Ledger [Newark] (Alan Sepinwall) - various lists by category
- Time (James Poniewozik) - brilliant but canceled shows
- TV Guide - worst shows
- Washington Post (Tom Shales) - best things on TV
On the next page, we examine the top shows from the past year.