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Green Bay Press-Gazette

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Our picks: Best TV Show of the Decade

Asking TV junkies to not only pick but rank their favorite shows from the past decade feels a lot like asking Mike and Carol Brady to line up the Brady kids and choose the grooviest dresser.

Yet as unfair as it might seem to celebrate only 10 shows from the past 10 years, our Channel Surfing bloggers were up to the challenge.

Here are our Best TV Shows of the Decade. Feel free to respectfully disagree in our comments section ... or even better, go shopping for some new DVD sets today!

10. “Rome”: “Rome” was an overheated, uberviolent, supersexed potboiler of a historical melodrama, but great Caesar’s ghost was it pretty to look at. HBO basically rebuilt the entire ancient city out in the Italian countryside, down to the last aqueduct, to film this epic series that retold the lives of Julius, Brutus and the gang, along with some assorted fictional underlings. In terms of scale, TV has yet to see its equal.

9. “The Venture Bros.”: No other animated series of the 2000s — and almost no other series period — is as densely plotted and intricately layered as this Cartoon Network spoof on superheroes, spies and classic Saturday morning cartoons. Multiple viewings are required to take in every gag, reference, one-liner, and character turn, which fly by at a ridiculous rate. Now in its fourth season, it’s still going strong.

8. “Veronica Mars”: “Veronica Mars” gave modern television audiences its most endearing misanthrope in ages: the sassy, pint-sized teen detective for which the show is named. Shows just don’t come much more smartly written than this regrettably short-lived drama, and the roundly superb cast — who at every turn made the show as grounded and believable as anything else on TV — helped make this a cult sensation.

7. “Firefly”: A quirky sci-fi western that Fox canned after airing only 11 episodes, rabid fans nonetheless bought the DVD box set in droves. This happens often to cult TV shows, but rarely do they then get a movie made. But “Firefly” was no ordinary cult show: Visually inventive, each episode already looked like a feature film. It was exciting, funny, scary, romantic, and dangerous in ways many shows can only dream of.

6. “Gilmore Girls”: As far as shows geared toward the entire family go, the 2000s never topped the superior wit and whimsy of those darned “Gilmore Girls.” With more words per minute than a Mamet play, each episode of the WB dramedy sounded like a classic screwball comedy, with an extended cast of crazies that only gave the story of a young mom and her bookworm teen daughter an amazing emotional heft.

5. “The Colbert Report”: What started out as a joke, a one-off fake promo for a fake show during “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report” quickly ballooned into not only it sister show’s perfect companion, but every bit its equal. Host Stephen Colbert’s exaggerated outrage at current events provides a perfect foible for the overtrumped sensationalism of today’s “real” cable news shows. “The Colbert Report” provides some of the most relevant social commentary that you’ll find in popular culture today.

4. “Arrested Development”: Every decade has a defining sitcom family; the Naughts, for all its dysfunction and mishaps, are a perfect fit for the Bluths. Not only were they a disjointed and bickering bunch, but their ongoing legal troubles regarding their real estate business predated our current predicament. Oh, and it was also the funniest, most eminently quotable sitcom of the decade, which helps.

3. “The Office UK”: The original — and still superior — sitcom about a documentary crew following the mundane doings of a struggling paper supply company, headed by a childish, dimwitted boss. The British “Office” was remarkable for its subtle study of everyday desperation and boredom, and its humor came from recognizing ourselves in the tedious existences of the show’s core characters. A pure television work of art.

2. “Lost”: Often imitated, never duplicated, “Lost” has a way of ensnaring its audience the way only great TV dramas can. What other show operates on so many levels, encompasses such a wide spectrum of genres, and juggles an ungodly number of plot threads, mythologies, red herrings and characters, without completely collapsing? Not only that, but “Lost” has been embraced by popular culture more than almost any other scripted drama this decade.

1. “The Wire”: This won’t be the only place you read this, but “The Wire” is the greatest television show ever made. The harshly realistic crime drama transcended every cliché, broke every boundary, supplanted every assumption, and never played out like a traditional television narrative. Watching it was like reading a great work of fiction; and like a literary classic, should be required viewing for all students of great TV.

-- Adam Reinhard,

10. “Desperate Housewives”: This ABC dramedy brought back the prime-time soap in style for the oughts. With a lead cast of women — some of them, gasp, past their Hollywood prime of 35 — “Desperate Housewives” immediately seduced its audience into its brand of wacky combination of romance and mystery. Even with a leap forward in time five years, a gimmick that rarely if ever works, never has life in the suburbs looked so good as it does on Wisteria Lane.

9. “Friday Night Lights”: Rarely does a show about sports transcend the x’s and o’s, but “Friday Night Lights” gave us a whole new perspective on football, family and the hopes of a small town. Based on a book and a movie of the same name, the NBC drama followed the high school football team of Dillon, Texas to the state championships and beyond. Still, it’s characters that play the biggest role, not the games, and the show’s portrayal of middle-class small-town America that’s at the heart of this winning drama.

8. “Coupling UK”: This BBC show was a raunchy, hilarious comedy about the dating adventures of six friends in London. All comparisons to “Friends” end there because “Coupling” was far more realistic and frank in its examination of relationships, sex and the battle of the sexes. With madcap characters and sidesplitting plots, “Coupling” was really a comedy of manners, not a traditional sitcom, and that’s probably why it failed to translate across the Atlantic in a hideous 2003 remake.

7. “Gilmore Girls”: This family-friendly WB drama gave birth to one of television’s coolest mom’s — the hip, young Lorelai Gilmore — but the pop-culture references, mile-a-minute dialogue and an endless group of bizarre but lovable characters made it a classic. Lorelai and daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel), a smart studious teenager, gave us seven seasons of laughter and tears, not to mention at least a thousand cups of coffee.

6. “Veronica Mars”: Sassy, intelligent Veronica Mars was an updated Nancy Drew for the new millennium. She endures the social demotion among her well-off peers after the murder of her best friend, but channels her cynicism into helping her ex-Sheriff-turned-private-investigator father solve crimes small and large. Well-written and filled with wonderful characters, the short-lived show succeeded thanks to its loyal fans and gave us one of televisions greatest female characters.

5. “Mad Men”: This retro love letter to the 1960s woos and wows with thoughtful pacing, brilliant characters and engrossing plots. Pencil skirts and skinny ties aside, the AMC drama plunges deep into marriage, relationships, gender, race and political turmoil with an artistic touch and deliberate narrative pace. The complexity of the characters — especially the three lead women — and the show’s use of silence to punctuate dramatic moments are but two of the myriad reasons why it dazzles.

4. “Freaks and Geeks”: Never has a show been so accurate in its reflection of the angst, joy or humiliation associated with being a teenager in high school. Instead of focusing on perky cheerleaders with unblemished skin, “Freaks and Geeks” chose to examine the awkward existence of two misfit cliques at suburban McKinley High School. The characters were real and the stories resonated because we all knew people like that or were people like that in high school.

3. “The West Wing”: This award-winning NBC drama came close to showing us how it should be done in Washington D.C. Whatever your personal politics, Martin Sheen’s President Josiah Bartlett was someone Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike could all respect, if not vote for. Though “The West Wing” suffered creatively from creator Aaron Sorkin’s departure after the fourth season, the show thrived on superior acting, realistic storylines and an idealistic hope that government could do good.

2. “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”: Jon Stewart and his cadre of fake reporters became the definitive voice of satire in the last decade. Stewart skewers hypocrisy in media and politics with an enviable balance of gravitas and irreverence that real newsmen like NBC’s Brian Williams appreciate. But his genuine passion is evident, which sets him apart from his comic companions, and he continues to redefine newsworthiness with his half-hour late night show.

1. “The Wire”: David Simon’s epic HBO series is a literary masterpiece dressed up to look like a cop show. In five seasons, the show unpeeled the layers of institutional neglect and failures in Baltimore through the eyes of cops, drug dealers, working class laborers, children, politicians, and, yes, even junkies. “The Wire” was unflinching, unapologetic and absolutely riveting. Forget best of the decade, it’s the best television show ever.

-- Malavika Jagannathan,

10. “Flight of the Conchords”: As original as the folk-digi-pop hybrid that would score the short-lived HBO show, “Conchordsisn’t terribly deep or even fully connected. Instead, it relied on catchy, quick-witted song parodies like “Business Time” and “Hurt Feelings” to get from plot point A to Z in absurd fashion (dogs with epilepsy, anyone?). Plus it had the world’s most incompetent underdog in Murray Hewitt, one of the truly great TV characters of the past 10 years. Non-stop hilarity? Definitely present.

9. “Curb Your Enthusiasm”: Before Larry David ventured on his own for a faux-day-in-the-life-of-series based on his post-“Seinfeld” travails, Jason Alexander received all the credit for his memorable turn as short, stocky rage-aholic George Costanza. But it turned out that Alexander was merely playing Larry David, a point that would become all-too clear as the “Seinfeld” co-creator used his HBO platform to develop an even more selfish, crass, oblivious version of Costanza as mad genius. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.

8. “Mad Men”: Slick and savvy, patient and pensive, “Mad Men” is the road TV should continue to head down in a new decade. While most shows are quick to boast of an immediate hook or ostentatious plot grab, this Emmy-award winning AMC drama about Madison Avenue ad executives refuses to be pigeonholed by the tumultuous ‘60s it dares to reflect. And how do they keep Don Draper so amazingly likeable despite all that philandering?

7. “Arrested Development”: It never got old hearing the familiar voice of Ron Howard introduce each episode of “Arrested Development,” even if the idea of the Bluths as a bottomed-out family with normal flaws and foibles grew increasingly absurd with each passing manipulation. Critically revered but ratings challenged in its three seasons, “AD” is so cerebral, so rapid fire with its inside joke telling, it really deserves its own comedy category.

6. “Breaking Bad”: As mild-mannered chemistry teacher turned unlikely meth kingpin Walter White, Bryan Cranston has developed a character who is both protagonist and antagonist thanks to a half-cocked/fully-cooked scheme that started with the best intentions. Though Cranston’s demented conversion as a slowly sinking cancer patient created an indelible mark after two seasons, “Bad’s” impeccable writing and stellar cast (most notably Aaron Paul as wayward junkie, Jesse) gives the gritty drama an emotional resonance that is all too fitting in these desperate, delusional economic times.

5. “Freaks and Geeks”: While most high school dramedies preferred to shine a light on beautiful cheerleaders and edgy James Dean-types played by 35-year-olds, “Freaks and Geeks” chose to mine humor from the grotesque popularity contest known as the high school clique system. Some scars never heal, but Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s brilliant reflection on adolescence at least made the acne-riddled torture tolerable.

4. “Lost”: A mystery wrapped inside a riddle wrapped inside an enigma wrapped inside a smoke monster, “Lost” has had so many "no F'n way" moments during its five season run (the sixth and final season begins next month), the show feels like it’s been on for fifty years. Though the intricate island mythology has dominated day-after discussion to the point where college courses could be taught on the Dharma Initiative's dealings, “Lost” will always be remembered as a character-driven drama first, philosophy-fueled sci-fi adventure second.

3. “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”: Even to this day, Stewart and his team of Comedy Central crack-ups come off as the kids in the back of class shooting spitballs at the hypocritical dullards in the front. But just how smart and scathing they can be – while remaining so intensely rational and respected despite the brutality of partisan politics – remains “The Daily Show’s” most stunning achievement as it continues to make “real news” watching obsolete.

2. “The Sopranos”: While it’s hardly a surprise that a show centered on a New Jersey mob boss would deal with difficult moral quandaries and brutal retribution befitting the Mafia code of conduct, “The Sopranos” became more that a gritty guy drama thanks to its intricate portrayal of family. More than anything though, its landmark production and storytelling helped transform TV into a medium where important art could be created … and eventually ceased with a controversial cut to black.

1. “The Wire”: One of those shows that critics and discerning TV viewers obsessively talk about, you join a special club when all five seasons of “The Wire” are under your belt. In its most simplistic terms, “The Wire” is a cop drama about the Baltimore drug trade. But that’s kind of like saying the Grand Canyon is a rock formation with some big holes. That the show used the city of Baltimore as a central character helped it to make poignant observations about those left behind in drug-addled, dilapidated neighborhoods. Quite simply, “The Wire” will reach into your soul like no other show before it.

-- Thomas Rozwadowski,

10. “Lost’’: It seemed so simple in the beginning: a show about plane crash survivors who get stranded on an island. Then came the flashbacks, flashforwards, the DHARMA initiative, the Others and more cryptic, time-bending storylines than a mind can handle. Whether you watch it to dissect every background song and book cover or just for the Kate-Sawyer-Jack love triangle, it’s like nothing else network TV has ever seen.

9. “Ugly Betty’’: The last decade would’ve been a little less colorful – and a lot less catty – without the world of Mode magazine, where everything/everybody is high fashion, bright neon and rather plastic. As nasty good fun as it is to watch Willy, Amanda and Marc spew snotty insults, it’s ultimately America Ferrara’s adorably dorky, stubbornly sunny Betty who gives a show about inner beauty its heart.

8. “Late Show with David Letterman’’: It was a decade full of great Dave moments. He had heart surgery, became a father, got married and admitted to affairs. He egged on a whacked-out Joaquin Phoenix, interviewed his first sitting president and did a heartbreaking hour with his close friend, terminally ill musician Warren Zevon. But no moment was more meaningful or powerful than his eloquent and surprisingly comforting monologue on his first night back after 9/11.

7. “Survivor’’: A pioneer of the reality TV movement, it proved that not only was television’s newest genre here to stay but that it didn’t have to be embarrassingly bad (remember “Joe Millionaire’’?). The formula is relatively unchanged after 19 seasons: Take a bunch of strangers who look good shirtless and in bikinis, dump them in a remote, exotic locale and watch them outwit, outplay and outlast for $1 million. As host Jeff Probst might ask, “Worth tuning in for?’’ Yep.

6. “Everwood’’: A widowed surgeon leaves his practice in The Big Apple and takes his two kids and heads for the snow-covered hills of a small Colorado town where Main Street is quaint, the townsfolk are endearing and the adjustment isn’t always easy. In the realm of “nice’’ family shows, not as sugary as “7th Heaven’’ and not as emotional as “Party of Five,’’ but warmly nestled somewhere in between.

5. “Breaking Bad’’: The premise – a high school chemistry teacher with cancer hooks up with a former student to start making crystal meth to provide for his family – is only the beginning. It’s shocking, disturbing, violent, darkly funny, occasionally deeply touching and always incredibly well acted. No wonder Stephen King loves it.

4. “Once and Again’’: A family drama with the creative team of Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zick attached is like a chocolate bar with Hershey’s on the wrapper: You can’t wrong. Two divorced single parents find love – and all the real and messy heartaches and headaches that go with it. The forever-fabulous Sela Ward lit up the cast, and Patrick Dempsey turned in a gut-wrenching performance as her schizophrenic brother long before he got McDreamy-ized.

3. “Damages’’: Thought Glenn Close was scary in “Fatal Attraction’’? You wouldn’t want to get on her bad side in “Damages,’’ either. As ruthlessly driven corporate lawyer Patty Hewes on the tense, dense and complex F/X legal thriller, she can send a shiver up your spine -- and she doesn’t need to resort to boiling the family rabbit to do it. That Australian actress Rose Byrne as her protégé Ellen Parsons can hold her own against Close is a testament to not just the strong female leads but a cast that’s stellar top to bottom.

2. “Gilmore Girls’’: Lorelai Gilmore was the mom everybody secretly wished they had. Or at least her wardrobe. But what made the hip single mom-good girl daughter WB dramedy so endearing and charming without ever getting sappy was the witty, pop culture-peppered, rapid-fire banter between Lauren Graham’s Lorelai and Alexis Bledel’s Rory – usually over obscene amounts of caffeine, junk food and bad movies. Sometimes snarky, sometimes sweet, but always sincere.

1. “24’’: It not only broke the mold for the typical serialized drama, but as it would do with countless warehouses, helicopters and bad guys in the seasons to come, “24’’ blew it to smithereens. The real-time format and multiple screens were groundbreaking, leaving fans breathless as Counter Terrorist Unit agent Jack Bauer raced to save the day in an America that reflected current headlines. In its early seasons – and as recently as the last -- an hour of “24’’ can still be better than every action-thriller in theaters, thanks to an amazing army of writers and the weight Kiefer Sutherland brings to our hero.

-- Kendra Meinert,



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