My Top 50 TV Shows of 2000-20009

I started doing my decade-end retrospectives in late 2009, and didn't want to drag them out too long -- but I ended up finishing my lengthy series on favorite singles of 2000-2009 a few weeks ago, and now it's almost a year and a half out from the end of that timeframe. So doing this TV list, which is a bit less important to me than the music lists, feels even more unnecessary and indulgent now that it's kind of tardy. But it was still fun to put together and in a way I've already got a little more perspective on that era.

This list leans pretty decidedly towards the second half of the decade; generally speaking, shows that were on the air from 2005 to 2009 are represented about 50% more than shows from 2000 to 2004. I could say that it's because I think TV has gotten better the last few years -- which I do kinda believe -- or that the first half of the decade was too full of the later years of shows that were better in the '90s (like, I almost thought about including "Everybody Loves Raymond" or "Friends" but I'm not sure I even watched them at all past 1999). But mainly it's a result of me being in college during the first half of the decade and not watching as much TV then -- moving in with my girlfriend (now wife) in 2005 and her getting me into "Veronica Mars" and "Lost" and some other shows kinda got me back into paying attention to primetime, and around that time I also started writing about TV on this blog, renting old shows on DVD, etc.

As per my tradition here, I'll be posting each of the 50 entries in the list one at a time throughout this week, 10 a day, and you can follow me on Twitter as I unveil each choice:

50. "The Riches" (FX, 2007-2008)
The shows on this list basically fall into two categories: shows that stayed on the air long enough to flourish and/or jump the shark, and shows that didn't last long enough to entirely fulfill their promise (or fail to do so). Dmitry Lipkin's tale of Irish travelers and con artists was thoroughly entertaining for most of its two seasons, but also tended to paint itself into narrative corners so often that when it didn't get renewed for a third, that felt like a good place to leave it off. Lipkin went on to create HBO's "Hung," which is still going and hopefully won't lose direction in the same way.

49. "Sealab 2021" (Cartoon Network, 2000-2005)
"Sealab" encapsulates two of the major threads running through the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming: repurposing characters or footage from older cartoons, and chatty, awkward dialogue. I'm not as much of a fan of Adam Reed's particular ear for dialogue as I am some of the other Adult Swim showrunners, and on later shows like "Frisky Dingo" and "Archer" he just plain annoyed me, but at the time "Sealab 2021" was one of the first post-"Space Ghost" shows working its particular concept and still felt fresh and weird and frequently hilarious.

48. "The Late Late Show" (CBS, 1995-present)
The 12:35 spot on CBS has never generated as much excitement as on NBC, but there's always been something there after Letterman worth tuning in for. In the '90s, Tom Snyder had the most calm and intimate hour of talk on TV this side of Charlie Rose, and by the end of the decade he was replaced by outgoing "Daily Show" host Craig Kilborn, who's kind of ended up with a legacy of being the vapid, fratty precursor to Jon Stewart but really could be hilariously funny, especially in the goofily surreal early days of his "Late Late Show" tenure. And then another Craig, "Drew Carey Show" alum Craig Fergusion, became the unlikely heir to the show and made it better than ever, with a completely unique mix of broad comedy and the kind of moments of real face-to-face honesty and candor that you don't almost never see on TV before midnight, and only rarely after.

47. "Late World with Zach" (VH1, 2002)
Years before breaking box office records in The Hangover, or even really before he had built a major following as a standup, Zach Galifianakis spent 9 weeks on VH1 being their gineau pig for a short-lived experiment in late night talk shows. And he treated it like a true experiment, running the entire hoary format through his now signature mixture of deadpan absurdity and unbridled whimsy.

46. "Andy Richter Controls The Universe" (FOX, 2002-2003)
I thought about including "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" alongside the talk shows I just mentioned, but the fact is Andy Richter's departure from the show five months into the decade kind of put a damper on the second half of the show's run. But during those years before Andy returned to the Conan fold he starred in three short-lived shows, two of which were really great and hilarious ("Andy Barker, P.I." was a gem, "Quintuplets" not so much). My favorite was "Andy Richter Controls The Universe," a brisk and odd workplace comedy created by Victor Fresco, who went onto create another great, brisk, odd, short-lived workplace comedy that deserved a longer run, "Better Off Ted."

45. "Ace of Cakes" (Food Network, 2006-2011)
There will always be people in Baltimore who gripe about the unflattering image it gets from the David Simon shows best known for depicting the city on television, as if the essential truthfulness of some of the greatest shows ever made could ever be a bad thing. But for those people,there's always "Ace of Cakes," an incredibly charming workplace reality show about a bunch of loveable punk rockers making absurdly ornate desserts.

44. "Family Guy" (FOX, 1999-2001/2004-present)
I don't really put much stock in the concept of 'guilty pleasures,' but if there's any show on this list that falls under that category, it's "Family Guy." Because with each passing year that Seth MacFarlane takes over more of FOX's primetime schedule with other, increasingly terrible shows, and "Family Guy" continues to gobble up more syndication space once occupied by "The Simpsons" and other superior shows, I feel guilty for ever having been even passively complicit in this depressing TV phenomenon. But I really have laughed my ass off at this show, at least before it got too predictably 'unpredictable.'

43. "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" (CBS, 2000-present)
"CSI" just made headlines with the departure of Laurence Fishburne, but I still can't even fathom the idea of the show without original star William Petersen. Another show that has a lot to answer for in terms of lousy spinoffs and a bar-lowering influence on its genre in general, but at its best it was really a pretty great procedural with a uniformly strong cast.

42. "Jackass" (MTV, 2000-2002)
This is a strange thing to say about a show like "Jackass," but I respect it more than I enjoy it. I could probably count on one hand the number of times I've deliberately opted to watch the show when nobody else was holding the remote, but aside from the excruciating Bam Margera, I think just about everyone on the show is entertaining and they more often than not were doing pretty inspired things.

41. "MythBusters" (Discovery, 2003-present)
I'm the kind of person that runs to Snopes every time I read something vaguely unbelievable and opt for documentaries over fact-based fiction whenever I can, so this show is endlessly watchable just for satisfying my curiosity about various urban legends, movie stunts and internet memes. Plus Adam and Jamie are probably the best comedy team in the world of contemporary TV hosts, and Kari is just too hot for words.

40. "Being Human" (BBC, 2008-present)
Although I like the American adaptation that debuted on SyFy earlier this year, I've probably gotten more enjoyment out of it introducing me to the British original, which has of course been on the air longer, so I've been able to delve into a couple years' worth of episodes and stories. In a post-Twilight world it's a little hard to believe anyone can do a soapy story about vampires and werewolves that feels light, clever and genuinely affecting, but they're going a pretty good job. Honorable mention to the also enjoyable "True Blood," but I couldn't deal with having two vampire shows on the list.

39. "Malcolm In The Middle" (FOX, 2000-2006)
It's kind of silly to say, but I was completely unsurprised by Bryan Cranston's later dramatic breakthrough on "Breaking Bad" because even when he was mugging at a fish-eye lens on "Malcolm In The Middle" I always thought he was the true talent of that cast. The show may have dragged on too long and man is that Frankie Muniz creepy, but it had some real moments of hilarity.

38. "Grounded For Life" (FOX, 2001-2005)
To a lesser degree than Cranston, Donal Logue also was able to parlay a gig as a dad on a silly FOX family comedy into showcasing serious dramatic chops on one of the best cable dramas of the current decade so far, "Terriers." But "Grounded For Life" is itself a pretty enjoyable program that I always assumed was terrible, until one summer I ended up watching every episode in reruns and kind of really caring about the saga of the Finnertys.

37. "Monk" (USA, 2002-2009)
"Wings" was one of the most rightfully ignored comedies of the '90s, but as unremarkable as it was, it did have a pretty strong cast, and it's been nice in the past decade to see Thomas Haden Church jump into movies and Steven Weber kind of quietly become a consistent character actor, while good old Antonio Scarpacci has had the best career of them all. "Monk" stayed on the air way too long and I never got over the loss of Bitty Schram (although her replacement Traylor Howard's name is almost as much fun to say), but it was always nice to see Tony Shalhoub get some well deserved spotlight.

36. "House" (FOX, 2004-present)
"House," like "Monk," is a show that has lots of supporting characters and procedural storylines but ultimately rests entirely on the appeal of the star's performance in the title role and the basic idea of that character. And also like "Monk," "House" has gone on far too long with cast changes hurting the show -- I got off the bus during the fourth season after House fired his original team, but before that it was definitely appointment television.

35. "Entourage" (HBO, 2004-present)
Of all the shows on this list that have fallen off or worn out their welcome after entertaining early seasons, there's perhaps no greater culprit than "Entourage," which is about to air its 8th and final season after being on a steady downhill slide after peaking in its 2nd season. There's been a couple dead cat bounces of quality in recent seasons, but mostly it's just been one long futile attempt at trying to remember how hilarious I thought Johnny Drama was those first couple years.

34. "Meerkat Manor" (Animal Planet, 2005-2008)
They're weird-looking little animals with funny names, but the scientists studying them had evidently found that the social world of meerkats made for a great soap opera, and the narration of Sean Astin made the struggles of Flower and Zaphod and the rest of the clan feel like an epic worthy of Frodo and Samwise.

33. "The Simpsons" (FOX, 1989-present)
All but the most generous fans generally place somewhere in the late '90s or early '00s at the latest as the point of the Simpsons' irreversible decline, if not necessarily its shark jump. But every now and again, I do still see a surprisingly funny recent episode that makes me a little less annoyed that this show will stay on the air until someone from the cast drops dead, if then.

32. "Futurama" (FOX/Comedy Central, 1999-2003/2008-present)
"Futurama" didn't immediately live up to its pedigree and I lost interest in it pretty quickly, but the reruns on Adult Swim and later Comedy Central, plus being married to a huge "Futurama" fan, brought me around to its charms, its fantastic animation, and its endless supply of misdirection jokes. I should note, by the way, that it's completely unintentional that half the shows I've unveiled today were on FOX.

31. "Breaking Bad" (AMC, 2008-present)
I just recently finished watching the second season of "Breaking Bad" -- so essentially, all of the episodes in the timeframe under consideration for this list -- and I have to admit, it left a bad taste in my mouth. In a way, I can feel the show painting itself into corners much the way I complained about "The Riches" earlier. And in general, I just don't feel it lives up to the hype. But when it's good, it is pretty damn good.

30. "The Loop" (FOX, 2006-2007)
Philip Baker Hall's role as Bookman the library cop on an early episode of "Seinfeld" is one of the greatest one-off guest star turns in sitcom history. And the closest Hall ever came to recapturing the hilarity of Lt. Joe Bookman was as the boss in this goofy, improv-heavy single camera workplace satire, which FOX dumped two short seasons of in the spring of 2006 and the summer of 2007 before unceremoniously canceling. It was the first headlining gig for "Grounded For Life" co-star Bret Harrison, who went on to get canceled in the also enjoyable "Reaper" and was canceled twice this year as a cast member of "Breaking In" and "V."

29. "The Office" (BBC, 2001-2003)
I don't love the original British version of "The Office" that much. But I do acknowledge that it is pretty good, and when I compare it to the American version, or almost anything Ricky Gervais has done since, it seems great.

28. "Sons of Anarchy" (FX, 2008-present)
While I appreciate the the trail "The Shield" blazed for gritty macho FX dramas, the network really hit a sweet spot of shows I enjoy with their biggest current hit "Sons of Anarchy" and more recent shows that debuted in the current decade, "Terriers" and "Justified." The 2009 season with Alan Arkin and Henry Rollins as two very different villains has probably been the show's peak so far.

27. "That '70s Show" (FOX, 1998-2006)
I've always believed that casting is the single most important thing to a show, in general but especially with sitcoms -- writers come and go without the audience ever being conscious of it barring any major change in quality, but the actors either are fun to watch together or they're not. And"That '70s Show" is a testament to that, because the stories were shit, and the consistency of the jokes was up and down, but those were some good looking kids that really knew how to deliver their lines and seem like they were having fun in their weird half-assed version of the '70s.

26. "Two And A Half Men" (CBS, 2003-present)
"Two And A Half Men" was a symbol of what's wrong with mainstream TV comedy for years even before Charlie Sheen became America's favorite sideshow. But seriously, if you're gonna go for a show with blue humor and mean zingers, you could do much, much worse. Chuck Lorre is probably the greatest master of that particular brand of sitcom since "Married With Children" went off the air. And despite the show's reputation for dick jokes and misogyny, the Harper brothers are consistently upstaged by female characters who are funnier and often smarter than them, played by Holland Taylor, Conchata Ferrell, Melanie Lynsky, April Bowlby, Kelly Stables and Jane Lynch, among others.

25. "Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends" (Cartoon Network, 2004-2009)
Sometimes it feels like grown up cartoon fans of the Adult Swim era are so used to being catered to with animated shows full of dirty jokes, pop culture kitsch and naturalistic dialogue that sometimes it's easy to forget the universal appeal of a really well done kids' show, and that the Cartoon Network's daytime programming still has plenty of it. The episodes of "Foster's" with the character Cheese are some of the most insanely funny TV of the last 10 years.

24. "Deadwood" (HBO, 2004-2006)
I didn't have HBO consistently until around the time this show went off the air, so I've been slowly catching up on a lot of the network's most revered shows (spoiler: "The Sopranos" isn't here, mainly because I've never spent much time with it and to be honest haven't felt very inspired to by what I have seen). So I'm still only a few episodes into renting the second episode of "Deadwood," and I don't feel the devotion a lot of people feel for it, but it's definitely growing on me.

23. "Slings & Arrows" (The Sundance Channel, 2003-2006)
On "The Kids In The Hall," Mark McKinney always hinted at having the troupe's greatest potential for both writing and playing drama, and this Canadian series isn't exactly Shakespeare, but its darkly comedic look at a Shakespearean theatre company does give him a chance to show his range in something slightly more based in reality (if just barely -- much of the series centers on the main character talking to a hallucination of his dead friend). But while McKinney was my entry point for checking out the show, he's just a small part of a uniformly great ensemble cast.

22. "Scrubs" (NBC/ABC, 2001-2010)
"Scrubs" was never a cool show to like, and when its star became more famous for directing some stupid indie rock infomercial dramedy, it became just untouchably lame. But I'm glad that family members liked it enough to bring me around to it, and by the time Comedy Central started airing reruns every day I realized that it really was a strangely unique show, combining the broadest of comedy with the most sobering realities of the medical profession in a way that couldn't be more different from "M*A*S*H" but is a kind of achievement in and of itself.

21. "Damages" (FX/DirecTV, 2007-present)
I haven't seen the third season, but the second season of "Damages" was a pretty impressive achievement just for being anywhere near as enjoyable as the first, given that this show seemed so totally doomed to be a one season wonder that showed off all its tricks the first time around.

20. "Acceptable TV" (VH1, 2007)
"Community" is probably my favorite show of the current decade so far, but it debuted in the fall of 2009 and has gotten much better since then, so it doesn't really make sense to include it on this list. And the main reason creator Dan Harmon has been able to so inventively turn TV tropes inside out and make almost every episode of "Community" feel like a different show is his roots in the long-running Channel 101 film festival, in which 5-minute 'shows' were voted on to either come back and keep making new episodes, or were canceled. "Acceptable TV" was the attempt to turn that virtual television experiment into an actual one, and though it lasted only one season on VH1, it was one of the most unusual and exciting experiences I had watching TV the past decade. I've never voted for a singer on "American Idol" or any other reality show, but I logged onto the "Acceptable TV" site and voted for "Joke Chasers" and "Homeless James Bond."

19. "Pushing Daisies" (ABC, 2007-2009)
Although it often featured awful CGI, an overbearing score, and a flair for overflowing sentiment and offbeat characters, "Pushing Daisies" was so thoroughly excellent and original in its writing, acting and premise that I'd daresay it justified its preciousness and set a high water mark for the twee quirkiness that's become so ubiquitous in movies and television over the past decade.

18. "Wonderfalls" (FOX, 2004)
After I fell for "Pushing Daisies," I went back and checked out creator Bryan Fuller's other shows, and realized that he's one of my favorite minds in television, certainly one of the most talented guys who's never had a show get to a third season. He left the cable series "Dead Like Me" amid creative differences after a few episodes and it never quite recovered or retained enough of his sensibility, but the 13 episodes that "Wonderfalls" lasted on FOX stand as perhaps his greatest work to date, just a truly strange and unique and consistently funny show.

17. "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975-present)
It's easy to take "SNL" for granted as a relic, or a factory, and it's inconsistent even at its best. But a quick glance at just a few of the highlights of its '00s run verifies that it belongs on any list of the best television of the decade: Tina Fey on Update and returning for Sarah Palin sketches, the Digital Shorts, the tail end of Will Ferrell's run including Bush impressions and "Celebrity Jeopardy" sketches, the bulk of the "TV Funhouse" cartoons, Chris Parnell and Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig at their best, great frequent hosts like Jon Hamm and Christopher Walken and Justin Timberlake, Jean K. Jean, Debbie Downer...shall I go on?

16. "The Colbert Report" (Comedy Central, 2005-present)
In the big picture, "The Colbert Report" is a spinoff from "The Daily Show" that wouldn't exist without its predecessor and timeslot lead-in, and in some ways will always be the fluffier, sillier of the two. But in a side-by-side comparison, I laugh more at the second half of the hour those shows are on just as much if not more than at the first half. Colbert may crack himself up onscreen now and again, but he has an amazing talent for never breaking character, even when the character is himself.

15. "Chappelle's Show" (Comedy Central, 2003-2006)
The way "Chappelle's Show" came to a sudden, unexpected early end and Dave Chappelle has yet to embark on any major TV or film project since has kind of unfortunately frozen the show's short run in amber as this moment in time when it was the biggest phenomenon in TV comedy. I'd love it if the show had gone on longer, and maybe if I hadn't burnt myself out on its most popular sketches being rerun over and over, but it remains a pretty undeniable show.

14. "Party Down" (Starz, 2009-2010)
I've always loved workplace comedies, and "Party Down," despite its trendy single camera documentary-ish look, honors a lot of the traditions of the workplace sitcom, with one inventive twist: we follow the adventures of the titular catering company from job to job, the same gang in the same stupid pink bowties at a different party every week. They had the best cast on TV, but since they were stranded on a pay channel that people were scarcely aware had any original programming, it was a matter of time before they started getting picked off for bigger (if not better) shows, and in a way I'm happy that they got those two seasons before that happened.

13. "Veronica Mars" (UPN/The CW, 2004-2007)
Before he co-created "Party Down," a guy named Rob Thomas who is not in Matchbox Twenty made this clever neo noir series about a high school girl detective. A lot of people feel like "Veronica Mars" was a one season wonder that jumped the shark by the end of its third season, but I really kind of wish they'd gotten to keep going, there was still so much they could've done with that character and the chemistry of the cast was pretty perfect.

12. "Home Movies" (UPN/Cartoon Network, 1999-2004)
I'm a fan of Loren Bouchards Squigglevision animation style and heavily improvised dialogue from way back in the "Dr. Katz" days, but I think "Home Movies" ended up being his real masterpiece, there's just so many adorable and hilarious and strange moments in this show. There's a good reason that H. Jon Benjamin stars in no fewer than three shows on TV right now, and that reason is Coach McGuirk.

11. "American Idol" (FOX, 2002-present)
"American Idol" is such a vast empire of broadcasting media that's taken up so many hours of primetime and has gone through so many peaks and valleys of watchability depending on who's competing or who's behind the judges' table. But at its best, it really is great, exciting TV.

10. "Planet Earth" (BBC/Discovery, 2006)
I grew up watching nature specials on PBS for hours and hours and just being amazed by the kind of footage they got of exotic animals in faraway lands, and seeing "Planet Earth" just top all those shows with the most incredible cinematography and storytelling that type of television's ever seen really brought me back and made me feel like a kid again.

9. "Lost" (ABC, 2004-2010)
As I've said, these shows are all ranked based purely on the episodes aired from 2000 to 2009. And I can't lie, the final season of "Lost" that aired in 2010 left such a bad taste in my mouth that maybe this is a few spots lower than it might have been before that, but I still stand by those first five seasons as genuinely great television.

8. "The Soup" (E!, 2004-present)
"The Soup," even more than its predecessor "Talk Soup," does a valuable service, in assuring me that I can focusing on watching shows I genuinely like and admire like the ones on this list, and don't need to spend any time watching daytime talk shows, soap operas, and reality shows, because they'll catch all the really crazy shit that happens on those shows and distill them to the funniest clips. I mean, seriously, they deserve some kind of award.

7. "How I Met Your Mother" (CBS, 2005-present)
No sitcom today bridges the genre's oldest conventions with the contemporary single camera approach better or more seamlessly than "How I Met Your Mother," even if that means using a laugh track to do it. So many of the laughs on this show are classic sitcom tropes, right down to Barney-as-Fonzi, but all the playful experiments with chronology and memory and self-censorship (joints as "sandwiches," etc.) always keep you on your toes and admiring how inventive the writers are.

6. "Freaks & Geeks" (NBC, 1999-2000)
It's almost overbearing how much "Freaks & Geeks" has been cemented in history as one of the most sentimentalized 'brilliant but canceled' shows, but I watched it when it was new, when I was going through my own senior year of high school, and it really was just perfect and relatable and resonates more with time, and it's been so cool to see the cast grow up and mostly go on to greater successes.

5. "The Venture Bros" (Cartoon Network, 2003-present)
Where so many of the hip Adult Swim cartoon shows feature long stretches of dialogue between two barely moving characters, "The Venture Bros." is chatty yet relentlessly action-packed, with constant action, changes of scenery, an ever expanding cast, and an epic scope and rich subtext beneath all the clever quips and pop culture references. It's just so many light years ahead of its contemporaries that I almost feel like it's done an injustice by being in the same programming block sometimes.

4. "30 Rock" (NBC, 2006-present)
Every year, the internet produces a new mountain of handwringing thinkpieces about how "30 Rock" isn't as good as it used to be because of guest stars or Tina Fey not being a good feminist or something that has absolutely nothing to do with comedy, meanwhile the show continues to get faster and funnier and more inspired.

3. "The West Wing" (NBC, 1999-2006)
On a level playing field, "Sports Night" is my favorite Aaron Sorkin creation, and I wish it could've been on the air for seven years. But since "The West Wing" is the one that became a pop culture phenomenon with a nice long run, that's the show that really got to build its own little universe. And even as stylized as Sorkin's dialogue is and as goofy as some of the storylines are in retrospect, there's still something very comfortable and lived-in about that universe that rings true to me more often than not.

2. "The Daily Show" (Comedy Central, 1996-present)
In a way, the title of this show is a big part of why I rank it this high -- almost every other show in this list aired once a week, and those that aired more frequently generally weren't very scripted. But year in and year out, four nights a week Jon Stewart and his writers churn out an insane amount of topical humor, with the endless stream of ridiculous real world evens as their currency, and it continues to boggle my mind how they do it so well.

1. "The Wire" (HBO, 2002-2008)
In a cheesy way, I deliberately picked a top 3 on this list that are all shows that made me feel a little more engaged in the world around me, if not in a specific issue-driven political way than just in terms of giving me a different way to look at problems that I otherwise find it easy to feel apathetic about. But "The Wire" is an obvious #1, not just because everyone knows it's amazing or because I feel a bond to what the stories it told about Baltimore or saw them shooting around town for years or had some small role in helping local music get onto the soundtrack of the later seasons, but it just addressed so many things no other show has even touched, without ever sacrificing its capacity for drama and humor and tragedy and narrative. Not a perfect show, but definitely one of the all-time greats.
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