1. The Sopranos
David Chase’s deeply perceptive realist drama attracted audiences with the promise of mafia intrigue. In reality, however, the mob was a supporting character in this study of modern American family life. It covered immense thematic ground—everything from generational conflict to the power of parents to our inability to cope with death to, well, the elusive meaning of life. Though set in a specific time period, this is a show that makes universal commentary on human nature. Its ideas and characters can be placed in any context at any time throughout history and still be valid. That’s the mark of great art, and that’s why it’s the best show I’ve ever seen.
2. Mad Men
Heavily influenced by The Sopranos, both stylistically and thematically, Mad Men has slightly less ambitious goals. And when I say slightly, I mean it attempts to capture the changing social fabric of America in the 1960s. So, yes, it’s still an ambitious show, and so far, a near-perfect one. Novelistic in its emphasis on specific themes, stylish beyond anything on TV and, like The Sopranos, touched with dark humor, Mad Men is the finest entertainment on television today. It’s already established itself in the pantheon of great television. Depending on how the next few years turn out, it could move even higher.
3. Arrested Development
Arrested Development is the funniest show I’ve ever seen. Its smart rapid-fire comedy was too, well, smart, for a mainstream TV audience, but its style makes it one of the most re-watchable shows I’ve ever seen. Will Arnett made my best actors list, but all the major players here (and the many guest stars) are brilliant. There are too many wonderful plotlines to mention here, but, if you haven’t seen it, go get in on DVD now. You won’t be disappointed.
4. Curb Your Enthusiasm
Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm is a close second to Arrested for “best comedy of the decade” honors. Its dissection of every day annoyances as seen through the eyes of the perceptive (some might say tiresome) David retreads ground from Seinfeld (albeit with edgier plotlines and more vulgarity). The show’s loose, improvised style lets its talented cast shine. Let’s hope David keeps it on the air for at least a few more seasons.
David Milch’s Deadwood is about the creation of a civilization—and the compromises, the odd alliances, the brutality, and, sometimes, the human decency that accompany it. Written in a unique, almost Shakespearian style and anchored by several strong performances, Deadwood is a powerful, gritty Western with a lot to say about human motivation.
Save for a disastrous sixth season, 24 has been one of the most consistent shows on TV this decade. Season one is arguably the most compelling season of television of all time, and it’s ending proved that the writers were willing to push the envelope of network TV conventions. Six seasons later, the show is still going strong, coming off a series-saving seventh season that proved that it is still the most compelling hour on TV. He may not be the absolute best character, but Jack Bauer will be the defining character of a troubled decade marked by terrorist threats and muddied rules of engagement.
7. Friday Night Lights
FNL is a powerful portrait of middling, average people weighed down by expectations and visions of grandeur. Its plot is the stuff of classic literature — characters with lofty ambitions and dreams operating in an imperfect world muddled by personal flaws, social divisions and tragedy. It’s a show that captures the redemptive power of sports — for both fans and players. So, next time you wonder why people get so invested in athletics, watch this show, and you’ll understand.
8. The Office
The British version is great too, but I’ve only seen a few episodes, so I’m sticking with the one I’m familiar with. Steve Carrell is the reason this show makes the list. Michael Scott does mind-blowing things, but, as Feeney noted, we’re still sympathetic to him. The supporting cast is great as well, and, the show brilliantly captures the drudgery, personal conflicts and politics of office life.
After a scintillating first season, this show went downhill. Not quickly, but steadily. Based on what the writers have been saying about their commitment to getting back to character development in the final season, I’m optimistic about the end of the series. Still, Lost offers lessons to writers and TV execs everywhere. It’s the characters, stupid. Sure, the mysteries of the island made the show that much more addicting, but the series’ ability to craft a handful of deep, compelling and conflicted characters made it a success.
10. The West Wing
Maybe I’m just bitter that it beat The Sopranos at the Emmy’s multiple times, or maybe it’s because I don’t love Aaron Sorkin’s writing style, but I was never enamored with this show. Still, this was a strong series for a long time that gave us a unique inside look into the workings of the White House. It’s a fascinating premise, especially for political observers, and, for the most part, it was a solid show.
P.S. I know, I know. The Wire is missing. Before any of you David Simon acolytes lose your heads, rest assured that I have the DVDs and have started watching it. Based on what I’ve seen so far, it will easily make this list. Once I finish the series, I’ll amend the list and give the show it’s rightful due. So, sorry West Wing, you’ll soon be a goner.