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)

  • JD  

    Hmm, I'll give it my own whirl with explanations:

    1) Battlestar Galactica (show was a non-stop ride of action and intense drama and managed to ask some great social questions even though it was a scifi show)
    2)The Wire (close 2nd, this show worked off a great premise and had a pair of the most compelling characters ever with the brutally honest, flawed womanizing alcoholic Det. McNulty and Omar a robin hood who stole from drug dealers and gave to the poor, sometimes!)
    3)The Sopranos (using the mafia as a means to again make relevant social commentary)
    4)Rome (great series dramatizing ancient Rome to great effect and did a better job than most in keeping it historically real)
    5)Weeds (hilarious premise with a drug dealer Mom who becomes addicted to a life on the run even when there's no need to run!)
    6)Firefly (a short run doesn't change the fact that this show exemplified Whedon at his best by combing scifi adventure, drama, comedy and sometimes a little horror with a touch of romance!)
    7)Monk (a clever series about one of the most unusual characters ever depicted on TV, a sufferer of OCD who uses his 'weakness' as a strength by obsessing over details that no one else can see!)
    The Shield (once again, the main character Vic Mackey, at times a villain, but almost always a sympathetic one, playing a dangerous game of deceit and somehow always a step ahead of everyone!)
    9)Mad Men (like Pleasantville, this series looks at 1960s not from the counter culture perspective, but rather the establishment view to great effect and shows just how advertising functions as a type of propaganda far more effective than anything the former Soviets came up)
    10)Angel (a dark horse to be sure, it starts slow and lost much of its audience I believe as a result, BUT by the 2nd season it assembles a great cast of characters and the tense drama never lets up once they enter the formerly cursed hotel and later become part of a demonic law firm to naively change it from within!)
    11)Futurama (simply put this show manages to get more laugh out loud moments than of the other cartoon comedies and still manages a poignant moment here and there)
    12)Entourage (saved by none other than the hilarious Johnny Drama played brilliantly by that other Dillon brother!)
    13)True Blood (somehow this show, still in its early stages, manages to combine extreme sex and violence while still managing to move a coherent plot forward to great effect!)
    14)Family Guy (while inconsistent and at times gross for no real point or purpose, Stewie and Brian keep this show afloat and the fighting chicken has made Peter more than a Homer ripoff)
    15)The Daily Show (what other show manages to satirize our dismal news landscape while being consistently hilarious AND informative?!)
    16)The Colbert Report (a much needed spoof of the idiocy of rightwing infotainment run amok!)
    17)Scrubs (one of the tightest comedies ever written and another laugh out loud and witty series that, in its heyday, was better written in terms of jokes than all the other sitcoms, including the ratings giant Friends)
    1Buffy the Vampire Slayer (another Whedon show that gave great poignancy to the high school experience while maintaining an entertaining backdrop of horror and violence)
    19)The West Wing (if nothing else, this series gave us a glimpse of a Presidency we can only wish would exist)
    20)The Office (British version, which most of us in the US have not seen, is funnier and avoids the sometimes forced humor of its lesser American cousin; without a doubt the best export of the decade in TV)

  • David  

    what about NBC KINGS!!!!! NBC KINGS!!! NBC KINGS!!!!!
    I know its nbc fault for the poor marketing but "great achivements deserve recognition." NBC KINGS IS ONE OF THE BEST!!!


    "KINGS IS NOT A POLITICAL DRAMA. KINGS is an alternate reality, adventure type of thing. Countries still have KINGS. Its a nice version of scarface where one guy rises from nothing to become a KING" ITS A MODERN DAY monarchy that has all the makings of an? EPIC story, LOVE, WAR, hope, FAMILY, courage, ROYALTY, power and CORRUPTION. the language in KINGS is gorgeous. WATCH IT, YOU WON'T BE DISAPOINTED

    I am not exagerating, it is one of the best.

  • brendan  

    (sorry for double post) is this only counting american shows? in that case V was awesome.

  • brendan  

    um doctor who? the longest running sci fi show and widely considered one of the best it definitely deserves to be number one or at least higher than american idol

  • Ahmed  

    oh c'mon kyle XY is awesome and no one notice it its sux that abc wont make a fourth season , really sux

  • tara  

    1.Bones
    2.CSI:Miami
    3.CSI:NY
    4.House
    5.NCIS
    6.The Vampire Diaries
    7.Eleventh hour
    8.Prison break
    9.Lost
    10.Stand off

  • Ronnie  

    Best Series Ever:
    1. Fringe/ 1. Dexter
    2. Prison Break / 2. Mind Your Language
    3. 24 / 3. Chuck / 3. Flashforward (cancelled.. f up)
    4. How I Met Your Mother/ 4. LOST
    5. Heroes( Nothing can beat the first season of heroes on this list except maybe dexter)
    6. Leverage 7. The 4400
    8. Two and a half men / 8. Big Bang Theory
    9. Scrubs / 9. White Collar / 9. V
    10. CSI's

  • LILLY  

    I FORGOT A REALY IMPORTANT ONE PRETTY LITTLE LIARS BEST SHOW EVER . WATCH IT

  • LILLY  

    I FORGOT TOP GEAR ITS SIMPLY GREAT ....

  • LILLY  

    THESE ARE THE BEST SHOWS EVER ,.........................
    TRUE BLOOD (REALLY GOOD ONE OF THE BEST)
    VAMPIRE DIARIES( I LLOVEEE IT SO MUCHH )
    BURN NOTICE (REALYY GOOD)
    ONE TREE HILL ( USED TO BE MY FAV STILL IS ONE OF THEM)
    PRISON BREAK (AWSOME)
    SKINS (LOVE ITT )
    SHAMELESS (ALL OF THE SEASONS )
    MISFITS (I HAD TO WATCH THIS TO FIND OUT NATHANS POWER AND REALLY LIKED IT AND WILL KEEP WATCHING IMMORTALITY HIS POWER
    F.R.I.E.N.D.S (MAKE ME LAUGH JOEY MY FAV CHARACTOR)
    DEXTER ( JUST GREAT NO OTHER SHOW LIKE IT )
    FAMILY GUY ( FUNNY SHOW )
    SPARTICUS ( REALLY INTRESTING SHOWS A LOT OR GORE WHEN FIGHTING)
    DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES ( JUST CANT STOP WATCHING IT SO GOOD)
    90210 ( FIT BOYS )
    GLEE ( LOVE THIS SHOW )
    CHARMED ( USED TO BE MY FAV SHOW WHEN LIKE 12 STILL LOVE IT JUST NOT AS MUCH AS I DID THE LOL )
    V ( REALLY GOOD SHOW )
    DOCTOR WHO ( DAVID TENNANT BEST DOCTOR LOVE THIS SHOW )
    2 PINTS OF LARGER AND A PACKET OF CRISPS ( FUNNY STUFF )
    AND THERE PROBERBLEY MORE IVE FORGOTTON WHICH I LOVE BUT THESE ARNT IN ORDER THERE JUST SOME SHOW I REALYY LOVE AND YOU SHOULD WATCH EM IF YOU HAVNT SEEN EM ALL READY .....

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