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Sunday, December 20, 2009

0! 0! The best TV shows of the past 10 years

Say what you want about the 00's, the past decade has been a pivotal one in the world of TV. Over the past 10 years, the way we watched TV changed dramatically. It seems odd to think of a time when, if you weren't home to watch your favorite show, your only option was to tape it with your VCR. Today, we can still tape a show, using a DVR that allows us to tape two shows at once (at least). We can also watch shows online or on DVD. The old methods of viewing are dead. A new age of TV has begun.
If our methods of watching TV changed, so did TV itself. Yes, we saw the rise of the reality show, but we also saw a change in story-telling style. Many shows (most of them on cable) offered rich, complex serialized stories, told through complicated (and not always heroic) characters. This decade offered some of the best TV shows of my lifetime, including such iconic efforts as "The Shield," "The Wire" and "The Sopranos" (yes, the last one started in the 90's, but most seasons aired this decade -- which also lays claim to the show's polarizing finale).
Below is my list of the best shows of the past 10 years. Yes, I'm sure most of the choices will be the same as those found on other "Best of the Decade" lists, but that doesn't negate their quality. Nearly every show on this list was revolutionary in some way, offering something new to the medium. They're also all extremely entertaining.
Take a look.
1. "The Shield," FX: Most folks think Tony Soprano is the anti-hero of the decade, and he's all right. But for my money, Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), the arrogant corrupt cop at the dark heart of FX's "The Shield" is the one to beat. Vic and his "strike team" of thug cops killed, stole and lied their way through the ravaged community they patrolled. They also caught a lot of bad guys, so it was hard to totally hate Vic and co. "The Shield" re-invented Chiklis's career and backed him with what remains the best acting ensemble of the decade. CCH Pounder was subtly moving as Mackey's polar opposite, the principled Claudette Wyms, and Jay Karnes was a wry treat as Claudette's partner, the goofy Dutch Wagenbach. But possibly the show's best character was Vic's mad dog sidekick Shane Vendrell, played with absolute perfection by Walton Goggins, whose lack of an Emmy is nothing short of a sin.
The series had a slew of memorable moments, but my vote for the best was this one, in the show's last season, when Vic finally confesses to all the evil crap he's done over the years. Note the prolonged closeup of Chiklis's face. It's uncomfortable, raw and devastating. Like this whole show.

2. "Freaks and Geeks," NBC: Yes, roughly half the episodes of this single-season series ran in 1999. So what? Enough ran in this decade for it to qualify. And, frankly, what decade wouldn't want to claim this brilliant show, about students at a Michigan high school in the 1980s? The show beautifully captured the pain, awkwardness and humiliation of growing up. That's probably why it only lasted a season. But it's a gem, featuring brave, honest performances from its young cast, including Linda Cardellini as conflicted brainiac Lindsay Weir, John Francis Daley as her brother, Sam, and future stars James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segel as Lindsay's friends. Bonus: "SCTV's" Joe Flaherty played Sam and Lindsay's dad. And yes, he was AWESOME.

3. The Wire, HBO: After all the praise heaped on this brilliant portrait of life in urban Baltimore, it's hard to think of anything else to say. So why not let the show speak for itself?

4. "The Sopranos," HBO: The fade to black. After years of operatic characters, brilliant writing and star-making performances, the moment that will forever define "The Sopranos" is the fade to black. Creator David Chase, instead of giving fans a neat, tidy ending to the saga of New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), cut abruptly to black at the close of the show's final episode. Many fans thought they had neglected to pay the cable bill. Others were plain angry about what they saw as a flip of the bird to a loyal fan base. But, eventually, it's been revealed for what it was: a bold, uncompromising and totally fitting end to one of the decade's most daring shows.

5. "Deadwood," HBO: There's a lot of talk about the "Three Davids" of HBO -- "Sopranos" creator David Chase, "Wire" auteur David Simon and "Deadwood" mastermind David Milch. Milch might get lost in the shuffle occasionally, because his show is so dense and strange. It's a Western loaded with violence, profanity, poetic dialogue, a star-making performance by Ian McShane as anti-hero Al Swearengen. It's hard to describe and even harder to forget. Here's one of the more under-stated scenes from this series. Yes, there's a lot of cursing, but it's pretty much impossible to find a profanity-free "Deadwood" clip.

6. "Lost," ABC: Maybe the strangest show of the decade and definitely one of the most gripping. A disparate group of people board a plan that crashes on a mysterious island. Smoke monsters, mysterious natives called "Others," polar bears and time travel all follow. It's a mind-boggling show, made watchable by some of the most compelling characters on TV. My favorites include mysterious Other Benjamin Linus (Michael Emerson), serene -- if nutty -- lottery winner Hugo "Hurley" Reyes (Jorge Garcia, playing one of the decade's most engaging characters), and the baffling John Locke (Terry O'Quinn). It's smart, funny, moving and vastly entertaining.
Plus, it has some of the coolest visual, most eye-catching set pieces of any show on TV. Behold -- the frozen donkey wheel!

7. "Arrested Development," Fox: This quirky sitcom about a crazy spoiled family lasted only three seasons. But let's be honest -- we're lucky this show managed to stay on the air that long. This intricate character-based comedy dared viewers to work for their laughs. It rewarded us for paying attention, being well-versed in pop culture and current events, and for being just a little bit sick. All this, plus Jeffrey Tambor and Jessica Walter as the best bad parents of all time. (Note: Hulu clips look weird when I imbed them, so I can only link. Sorry!).
8. "Mad Men," AMC: True, it might be a bit too early in the show's run to bestow the mantle of greatness upon it. Still, in just three seasons, its accomplishments have been astonishing. This period drama about New York ad men (and women) not only revived 60s style, it made a star of the incredibly gifted Jon Hamm, launched AMC as a home for original program and won buckets of Emmys. It's also provided some of the most memorable TV moments of the best 10 years, including this one.
9. "Veronia Mars," UPN/the CW: A lot of people thought "Veronica Mars," a drama about a teen detective, was just a perky Nancy Drew update. Oh how wrong they were. In the first episode alone, we learned that Veronica (Kristen Bell, in a star-making role) had been raped, that her best friend had been murdered and that her mom had abandoned her. Nancy Drew never had such problems. Of course, it wasn't all darkness in Veronica's world. This was one of the quickest-witted shows on TV and full of zippy moments, like this one:

And this one:

Aaaand this one:

10. "Everybody Loves Raymond," CBS/ "30 Rock," NBC: On the surface, these two comedies seem to have nothing in common. "Raymond" is a conventional family sitcom, with a laugh track, cute kids and a lot of bickering. "30 Rock" meanwhile is a zany workplace comedy with no laugh track, a gag-a-minute pace and no kids to speak of. Yet they have more in common than you'd think. The stars of both shows came from fields other than acting. Ray Romano was a standup comic with little acting experience. Tina Fey was a comedy writer whose acting experience was limited co-hosting "SNL's" Weekend Update and a small supporting role in "Mean Girls," which she wrote.
Both seemed unlikely choices to carry a sitcom. But both succeeded, due mainly to sharp writing and excellent supporting casts.
On "Raymond," that cast was epitomized by Peter Boyle, as Ray's dad Frank.

And, on "30 Rock," the supporting cast was headed up by none other than Alec Baldwin. Here is my favorite Baldwin clip, in which his Jack Donaghy helps Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) with some therapy:

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