What Do You Think? Most Important TV Shows of the Decade

January 8, 2010
By | 25 Comments

television setSo yes, yes, the decade is an arbitrary way to group years, but (a) list-making can be fun, (b) decades take on meaning for many, which means even if they were arbitrary to begin with, they cease to be arbitrary in lived reality, and (c) see (a). With that in mind, what shows would you nominate as the most important of the decade? We’re not asking for the “best” per se, and we’re leaving it open with regards to what constitutes “importance,” but humor us and play along. We’ve started the ball rolling, with personal picks, but the list needs your participation too.

All we ask is that you only list one show per post, then let others have a turn, since we want this list to form communally, not simply to be a collection of everyone else’s lists. Also, be sure to say why it’s important.

(Note: soon to follow will be Film, Music, and Websites).

Family Guy (Nick Marx):  Like most Simpsons acolytes 25 and over, I used to loathe Family Guy.  I devoted an entire chapter of my terrible, terrible master’s thesis to “Cartoon Wars,” the South Park episodes that pick apart the supposed laziness of FG‘s “Hey, remember that time we…” aesthetic.  I’m still not entirely sure I like the show, but there’s no denying its importance.  FG was rightfully razed, then rightfully raised from the dead by Fox, and creator Seth MacFarlane now controls 75 percent of network television’s most hallowed ground for primetime animation (not to mention the program’s thriving syndication, DVD, and merchandising lives).  But its real importance can be seen as catalyzing the spread of flashback- and cutaway-driven humor on situation comedies and beyond, from How I Met Your Mother to 30 Rock to Saturday Night Live to the movies of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer (check the B.O. numbers, y’all).  Certainly, Family Guy is not the first or funniest program to do this, nor is it the most watched.  It is, however, a window into the mind of millennials, a useful case study in post-network era politics, and an ineluctable talking point for any discussion on comedy in the aughts.

The OC (Jonathan Gray): Of all the shows I’d put on my list, this is probably the one that I liked the least, so let’s be clear that it’s not here out of personal bias. But important it was. The show ushered tawdry, guilty pleasure teen viewing back into network primetime, and in doing so cleared the way for 90210, Melrose Place, and Gossip Girl. But rather than simply target a new generation of teen viewers, The OC also aimed to bring the previous gen along with them. And it led to Laguna Beach (and hence The Hills) on one hand, and The Real Housewives of Orange County on the other. And through the character of Seth Cohen, it arguably played a key role in instating geek chic, which led not only to geek friendliness across primetime but also to helping geek chic cinema (cf. The World According to Apatow).

The Wire (Andrew Bottomley): I may be over exaggerating here but it seems quite possible that more words have been written about The Wire than the series had viewers during its original run. Thus, it is perhaps unnecessary that I add to the heap of critical and academic musing now. But it is for precisely this reason that I’d choose The Wire as one of the most important programs of the 2000s: it is a show that will continue to be talked about, analyzed, rediscovered, and, if we’re lucky, emulated for years to come. Relatively few TV shows have attracted the kind of serious examination and respect that The Wire has received from observers outside the traditional realms of Arts & Entertainment beats and media studies departments. Granted, praise for The Wire is too often cloaked in notions of “quality” and its successes are described as exceptions from the televisual rules. Nevertheless, as someone who both studies and cares a great deal about TV, I consider the venerability afforded to The Wire a great achievement because, despite efforts to define the show in terms of film, literature, sociology, political science, et al, it is TV and, as such, its merits highlight the value of the entire medium.

The Sopranos (Josh David Jackson): The Sopranos was at the very epicenter of one of the most significant television trends of the ‘00s: the rise of the cable drama. It was truly a popular phenomenon. Few, if any, other programs during that period could match the series in terms of its critical regard and commercial success. Consider the final episode, which captured nearly 12 million viewers with its premiere alone, won an Emmy, and launched ten thousand water-cooler discussions and internet tirades (and, of course, a Family Guy gag). It also punctuated the different ways people consumed TV in the ‘00s. The Sopranos shepherded viewers to premium cable and to DVD on TV (indeed, HBO has released a new “complete box set” for the series every holiday season since it ended in 2007, including its full Blu-ray treatment last November). Moreover, unlike other dramas on premium channels, The Sopranos lives a happy afterlife in syndication. Finally—and this is a little more subjective but what the hell—I thought it was often pretty damn good, and that’s better than I can say about 90% of the other shows I’d put on a “Most Important TV” list.


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25 Responses to “ What Do You Think? Most Important TV Shows of the Decade ”

  1. Liz Ellcessor on January 8, 2010 at 5:54 PM

    Much as I’m tempted to say The Hills is one of the most important shows of the decade, I can’t justify it – Jonathan covered most of the bases, and tied it back to The OC.

    Instead, one word – LOST. It’s emblematic of the evolution of serial drama in the time period, becoming more and more complex, multimodal and puzzle-like, taking full advantage of internet buzz and fans, bringing together elements of scifi and reality tv, and featuring a multicultural ensemble cast.

  2. Kyra Glass on January 8, 2010 at 9:09 PM

    So anyone who knows me will not be shocked to hear me see its a tie between Sex and the City (although there is a little 90s overlap) and Queer As Folk for me because they both really made the most of what cable, and only cable, could do. They demonstrated that sex could be explicit and complicated and that audiences would get on board with characters whose lives were very different (and perhaps even slightly unpalatable) from their own. Their descendents are numerous (if of varying quality) Nip/Tuck, Lipstick Jungle, Cashmere Mafia, The L-Word, most of Logo’s fictional programming, Big Love, Californication, and characters whose sexuality or sexual activities are now far more prominent in the past. While these shows might not be “influenced” by Sex And the City or Queer As Folk directly the work these showed did on cable in demonstrating just how far television could go in dealing with sex, relationships and nontraditional families without becoming tawdry and remaining meaningful helped us move along way from the things you can’t say (and can’t shown) on television. Also, for Liz, these shows really knew how to harness their fans and their potential as “event” programming.

    • Ky boyd on January 12, 2010 at 10:26 PM

      Thank you for mentioning Queer As Folk. It was and is a landmark show for its portrayal of gay and lesbian characters as sexual beings. Both QAF and SATC had profound influences on both the culture and the industry of television beyond their core audiences. Id also like to mention the excellent but short-lived Eli Stone as a show that played in interesting ways with the challenge of integrating musical-style moments into a dramatic series far more successfully than is usually done.

  3. Matt Sienkiewicz on January 9, 2010 at 1:53 PM

    A slight bending of the rules, hopefully justified. I’m not sure if anyone is intending to go international with their selection, so I’ll list a few nominees and pick a winner. It’s impossible, of course, to tame 10 years of an entire world’s tv, so there will be many omissions and I have to admit a near total ignorance of East Asia:


    Yo Soy Betty, La Fea (Columbia)- Massively important Drama Format
    Big Brother (Netherlands)- Massively important Reality Format
    Gümüş (Turkey) (Known as Noor in Arabic)- Absolute sensation across Arabic speaking world despite non-Arab origin.
    BeTipul (Israel)- Inspiration for In Treatment, very good, solidified a Hollywood-Israel connection that seemed to bound to take place sooner or later.
    Langt fra Las Vegas (Denmark)- Just ridiculously funny, lead to Klovn, which is probably even funnier if not quite as consequential.

    Winner- The Opposite Direction (Qatar)

    Al-Jazeera is the most important thing that happened to worldwide TV in the 2000s, bringing fierce public debate to the Arabic speakers from Morocco to Iraq and perhaps even making the “Arab World” a coherent idea for the first time ever. Faisel al-Qassem’s Crossfire-style talk show represents everything good and bad about Al-Jazeera. It’s wildly controversial and not afraid of breaking cultural/religious taboos in order to open up new discursive spaces. It also often devolves into bizarre and perhaps unproductive screaming matches, creating something less than a perfectly logical Habermasian Public Sphere.

  4. Erin Copple Smith on January 9, 2010 at 2:01 PM

    I was thinking hard about this last night, and had a lot of ideas, but some of them have already been addressed here, including LOST and SATC (though the ’90s overlap occurred to me, too). So I think I’ll take a different approach and suggest that the most influential sitcom of the decade was The Office.

    The Office, with its single-camera, documentary-style aesthetics, gave Americans a new TV sitcom vocabulary to learn and enjoy. We became used to characters looking at the camera–indeed, those Jim reaction shots became, in many ways, the essential heart of the series. We became used to mock interviews with characters, designed to give us information directly. Many series followed with similar formatting, and now audiences don’t think twice about why, exactly, a documentary film crew is interested in following the exploits of a Pennsylvania paper company for so many years.

    Moreover, the tone of the show–its cringe humor, its clueless characters, its “well, sometimes life is just uncomfortable” feeling–that has become standard within current sitcoms, too. In fact, all the Modern Family press I’ve seen mentions the fact that although MF is documentary-style, and has clueless characters, it’s unique for its heart–something a series like The Office or 30 Rock seems to lack.

  5. Jonathan Gray on January 9, 2010 at 2:50 PM

    Thanks for opening it up beyond the US, Matt. Indeed, I’ll follow your example with this next one. Its first broadcast was watched by 20% of the nation, regularly getting over a 30% share, numbers that would make American Idol or even Sunday Night Football jealous. It is Blue Planet. The fact that a nature doc could do that well is reason alone to stand back and marvel; indeed, it really challenges ideas of what people will watch on a network at primetime, and of a “lowest common denominator” audience. But it also set a new bar for nature docs, with Planet Earth most obviously following in its foot-steps. On the verge of a hi-def TV environment, it gave a sense of how beautiful TV could look. And, to top it off, it had more penguins in it than any other primetime show in living history.

  6. Andrew Bottomley on January 10, 2010 at 12:48 AM

    I’ll follow Erin’s lead and add Arrested Development to the list, which to date I think has made the most innovative use of the mockumentary sitcom style (and brought it to American TV screens two years before the US version of The Office – though don’t get me wrong, I love The Office and Erin’s post is spot on). But more importantly, Arrested‘s high levels of intertextuality and self-reflexivity resulted in a frenzied absurdism that became exceedingly prevalent in TV comedies of the late 2000s (30 Rock, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, My Name is Earl, How I Met Your Mother, et al).

    There’s been plenty of talk likening these “digressive comedies” to postmodernism, but whereas many shows like Family Guy rarely take postmodern deconstruction beyond mere pastiche, Arrested made exceptionally sophisticated critiques of TV and popular culture, ranging from Ron Howard’s narrator to the brilliant “Save Our Bluths” campaign. The show’s unique form of storytelling marks a significant move toward greater narrative complexity in American TV comedy.

    • Erin Copple Smith on January 10, 2010 at 11:59 AM

      So glad you gave AD a nod, Andrew. It certainly merits one, and your point about its connections to The Office and its contribution toward cringe humor and mockumentary sitcoms is absolutely right. Not to mention its absurdism, which is something The Office lacks. (The premise of The Office–documentary footage of paper companies?–is absurd, but the stories are not as absurd as AD’s.)

      Excellent points, all.

  7. Kyra Glass on January 11, 2010 at 12:28 AM

    I re-read the definition of this list and reminded myself that important is in no way interchangeable with best, so I will go out on a limb and nominate a show I don’t particularly like: CSI. Love it or hate it, it has had a major impact on the network tv and syndication landscape, the CSI franchise has for better or worse made crime even more central on TV. NCIS, Cold Case, Bones, The Forgotten, etc. etc. ad nauseum can be traced directly to CSI, because they are less focused in Law & Order’s crime and punishment then they are working through the puzzle. Crime procedurals are televisions proverbial weeds (sometimes they are attractive or useful but they also can overgrow the entire backyard) and whether you are a fan of this manifestation of the crime genre or long for the days of Cagney and Lacey CSI is in large part to thank for what we have today.

  8. Jeffrey Jones on January 11, 2010 at 9:33 AM

    This is going to seem predictable coming from me, but it’s a tossup between “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” (if one thinks citizenship trumps entertainment in the age of Stupid Democracy, re Bush twice elected and the spectacle of cable news). “The Daily Show” seems fairly obvious–using very old forms of communication (satire and parody) to hold the powerful accountable when newer forms of communication (“journalism”) have gone missing or morphed into something different. But “The Colbert Report” seems so truly significant to me because it not only criticizes certain forms of communication in its parody, but also the political culture that supports, popularizes, and sustains such people as Glenn Beck and George Bush and such thinking as Truthiness. A 22-minute show that can indict the entire culture, including the audience, seems particularly powerful, and therefore quite meaningful.

    • Jonathan Gray on January 11, 2010 at 10:24 AM

      Not okey-dokey, Dr. Jones! Colbert deserves due credit, yes, but The Daily Show (a) was there for the entire 2000s, (b) created Colbert, and was the standard bearer, flag waver, path setter, and all those other metaphors of leading the way, and (c) allowed some of us non-Americans early evidence that the US wasn’t all Bushies, and thereby may’ve contributed to some of us sticking it out on this planet, and not calling it quits and moving to Mars 😉

      • Jeffrey Jones on January 11, 2010 at 10:49 AM

        Points well taken!

      • Kelli Marshall on January 15, 2010 at 8:37 AM

        I was scrolling through the comments hoping no one had mentioned THE DAILY SHOW, but, alas, you beat me to it.

        Nonetheless, you’re right: TDS is arguably one of the MOST important shows of the decade. It entertains, provokes, reveals, and most significant, it challenges its audience as well as the (virtually ridiculous) 24-hour news media. As Brian Williams stated last week on NPR, the satirical program

        “has gone from optional to indispensable. [Stewart and the show’s writers] hold people to account, for errors and sloppiness. … It’s usually delivered with a smile — sometimes not. It’s not who we do it for, it’s not our only check and balance, but it’s healthy — and it helps us that he’s out there.” http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122375199

  9. Annie Petersen on January 11, 2010 at 9:35 AM

    I’m going to go with an untraditional and unpopular selection and say FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, and not just because I love Matt Saracen. The progression of the show not only highlights the ‘evils’ of network meddling (hello, Landry’s 2nd season), the potential benefits of the writer’s strike (goodbye, all melodramatic plot complications of the 2nd season), but also offers a blueprint for how a ‘quality’ show with low ratings avoid cancellation. The production deal between NBC and DirectTV is not only innovative but unique; it may make me wait until January to see Coach Taylor in his new red uniform, but it’s ensured that a show of poignant social realism, that would have otherwise surely met cancellation following its second season, will enjoy a run of at least five seasons.

  10. Aswin on January 12, 2010 at 8:10 AM

    Following Jonathan and Matt, I’m going to look beyond the U.S as well. To begin with, another vote for Betty. Betty’s many avatars around the world were incredibly popular and generated much discussion.

    As we begin looking outward, perhaps we could look north and add CBC’s Little Mosque on the Prairie to this list. Given that US tv writers and execs seem unable and unwilling to think outside the terrorist or alien (24, Aliens in America) categories, CBC showed us how to make stereotypes uninhabitable.

    A second show I’d like to add is Kaun Banega Crorepati, the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, starring Amitabh Bachchan. Revived the career of one of the most prominent film stars ever and, more crucially, forced metropolitan TV execs to sit up and take note of the influence that cell phone wielding “middle India” had come to wield. Set the stage for the reality tv explosion + made TV fandom public.

    • Myles McNutt on January 12, 2010 at 11:43 AM

      I’ll resist regurgitating a thesis chapter in response to your mention of Little Mosque on the Prairie, but I think Aliens in America actually does a lot of what Little Mosque does, and if it had run for multiple seasons I think that point could have become more clear. Little Mosque does subvert pre-existing stereotypes of Muslims in Canada by placing the unfamiliar Muslim community at the heart of familiar small town narratives, but Aliens in America offered a similarly interesting perspective through presenting both Raja and Justin as similarly “alien” in their culture. If it had been given more time to develop, and reached the point where the initial culture clash-driven premise (also present in the first season of Little Mosque) began to fade away to the level of comfort often associated with sitcoms, I think we would view the show much differently.

  11. Myles McNutt on January 12, 2010 at 11:56 AM

    I think that other shows have had greater impact, but it’s interesting to look at a show like Dexter in terms of being representative of some of the decade’s larger television trends. The show plays with moral ambiguity (The Wire, The Sopranos, the Shield, etc.), captures cable’s ability to portray blood and violence (see, well, the Sopranos, the Shield, etc.), and evokes both the desire for heavily serialized programming (Lost, etc.) along with the need for those series to nonetheless contain familiar procedural elements (like 24). It’s a show which feels as if it were created by a committee of people trying to combine all of the decade’s best into a single series, which is one of my fundamental issues with its continued longevity despite the diminishing returns of its formula.

  12. Lindsay H. Garrison on January 12, 2010 at 8:47 PM

    I’m not sure I would argue it’s the most important show for television as a whole during the last 10 years, but Lizzie McGuire is one that has certainly made a huge impact on youth media culture. It was one of the Disney Channel’s first original sitcoms to become a major hit and really helped to map out the backstage musical-esque Disney Channel cross-platform formula. It only ran for two years, but with the TV movies, feature film, various soundtracks, Hillary Duff’s albums, and merchandise/licensing, Gary Marsh and Rich Ross figured out just how well notions of tween celebrity could work in constructing a franchise. The successes and failures of Lizzie McGuire laid the foundation for That’s So Raven, Hannah Montana, High School Musical, and the Jonas Brothers, to name a few.

    • Myles McNutt on January 12, 2010 at 9:13 PM

      You could even throw Glee in there in terms of antecedents of that type of series.

      It’s interesting to note, though, that Disney’s attempt to turn the Jonas Brothers into a T.V. show was actually a qualified failure – although their fame was created by the marketing machine surrounding Hannah Montana et al., fans weren’t willing to follow them back to a sitcom in the same numbers. Is this a sign that the brand has grown to the point where the television component is now irrelevant, or just a sign that the Jonas Brothers’ popularity is being fuelled by people who refuse to acknowledge their fandom to the point of watching the Disney channel?

      • Myles McNutt on January 12, 2010 at 9:50 PM

        Or, you know, the OPPOSITE of antecedents. Le sigh.

        • Lindsay H. Garrison on January 12, 2010 at 11:17 PM

          Yeah, the TV series, JONAS, isn’t so much a ratings beast, if that’s how we’re measuring success. But I don’t think that means the TV component is now irrelevant – it’s just a different stage in the franchise life cycle. While TV is central to launching Disney Channel stars (the Jonas Bros guest starred on Hannah Montana, starred in Camp Rock, and most of their music videos premiered on the Disney Channel), I think JONAS (developed after they became uber popular) serves as an interesting component to keep the Jo Bros front and center by regularly airing new content. Unlike a movie like Camp Rock, a series like JONAS offers regular, weekly engagement with the band and their music, not to mention a product Disney can continue to utilize in syndication, plus a proven franchise that can help seed and launch the next one (Bridgit Mendler?)

          I like your point about considering just who is making the Jonas Brothers popular; there are certainly people listening to the Jo Bros who don’t (or won’t) watch the Disney Channel. But I still think JONAS wasn’t necessarily engineered to be a huge ratings draw, but rather a maintenance vehicle for the band among Disney’s young audience and a place to try out and grow new talent.

          • Myles McNutt on January 12, 2010 at 11:31 PM

            You’re right, Lindsay, that the show wasn’t a failure (what you explained was what was implied in “qualified,” in my brain at least). However, I wonder if the show is actually standing in the way of any further success. There came a point where Duff outgrew Disney, and Miley Cyrus will likely reach the same point, but the Jonas seemed like they had gone beyond Disney only to be tethered back to the mothership with the sitcom. I understand the value of having a regular location to maintain their cultural relevancy, but Disney needs to be very careful about not “using” its stars too blatantly. The (arguably) regressive JONAS sitcom was a sign that we could be reaching this point in their life cycle.

            • Lindsay H. Garrison on January 12, 2010 at 11:51 PM

              Yes, totally agree that it does seem like a somewhat repressive move in many ways. It IS weird to see guys in their early 20s (one of whom is now married) playing goofy high school kids living with their parents and dealing with crushes in silly Disney-style physical comedy. BUt I might say that’s entirely the point – for Disney to perhaps infantilize them in an attempt to maintain their success among their most lucrative market? To be honest, I’m not sure why the Jo Bros would agree to such a project instead of trying to get further away from Disney, which would seemingly be in their better interest for the long term. Maybe the comfort and support of the mothership is just that good…or Rich Ross is that convincing.

  13. Jason Mittell on January 12, 2010 at 10:02 PM

    I don’t want to repeat previous entries, although I’d certainly support claims from Lost, The Sopranos, Daily Show, and The Office. But here are three more that deserve consideration:

    Survivor – obviously hugely influential in launching the primetime reality trend in the US, it also was arguably the last mass audience show (the s1 finale was the second most watched episode in the decade, behind only the Friends finale).

    The West Wing – not really influential, but a show that really captured a political and cultural moment at the beginning of the decade, and amazingly foreshadowed the Obama presidency at the end of its run.

    The Shield – less for its gritty content and genre revisionism, but because it showed that a basic cable channel could sustain a premium-style dramatic series, and thus laid the groundwork for all of the other great FX, AMC, etc. shows.

  14. Bragah Zqular on July 9, 2010 at 4:41 AM

    I think the TV shows industry exploded lately and its going to take a harder decision to make in order to decide the next “Most Important TV Shows of the Decade”