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

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

The best and worst new shows of 2009


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 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)

  • Bora  

    Last Decade
    1. Seinfeld
    2. Dexter
    3. Breaking bad
    4. Fraiser
    5. House
    6. Mad Man
    7. Six feet Under
    8. Lie to me
    9. Damages
    10. Sopranos

  • Giovanni  

    nobody mentioned Prison Break which was one of the greatest shows of the decade, and what's the Office UK doing here, the american version is a lot better than that british **** i started watching the us version first and then i watched the UK one and it was horrible

  • Harper  

    What no one watches ENTOURAGE? that should be at least in the top 5

  • anonymous  

    1. Chuck
    2. band of brothers ( not exactly a tv series, nevertheless it was still spectacular)
    3. breaking bad
    4. how i met your mother
    5. 24
    6. prison break
    7. heroes

  • Jack  

    Battlestar Galactica should have been better recognized. I think it is often disdained because it is sci-fi and, sadly, because of the 70's-era ridiculousness of its name, but it was seriously to most compelling, intelligent, and well-acted television I've ever seen. I hope more people can discover this gem of a show. Following that, Firefly should definitely be recognized.

  • Wout  

    It's hard to fit everything in one simple list, so I'm not even going to try. ^^
    But I feel that "The Big Bang Theory" "How I Met Your Mother"
    also belong here.
    Honorable mention's (as in: too bad they cancelled...)

  • Wil  

    What the heck?
    Where's Dexter? Damages!? This doesn't make sense!
    Both had higher reviews on Metacritic than half of the shows from 2006-2008!!!!
    This is an effed up list

  • Viola Wilkins  

    Weeds, In Treatment, Oz (prison series) State of the Union (Tracey Ullman), Awful Truth (Michael Moore tv series doctor- House, First Australians (indigenous history documentary), The Chaser (satire series from Australia) Blue Murder (Australian TV series based on Sydney corrupt police crime links) Bstard Boys (australian TV series on Maritime Union lockout in 199

  • Compton  

    y is it that south park gets absolutely no love is these types of lists just wondering if anyone else finds this weird, its def one of the funniest smartest shows ever made. does it have somethin to do with it bein animated?? i guess i would expect the simpsons to be mentioned also in these lists again animated, but no one even comments on how good the shows are. not really a simpson fan but it does deserve some credit, no??? oh and its always sunny in philly is also one of the funniest shows ive ever seen and its not animated should make the list. the wire is my fav show ever made just had to say that way better than sopranos.

  • kevin  

    Legend of the Seeker!!!

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