In 2005, "The Shield," "Deadwood," "Battlestar Galactica," "Rome" and the first incarnation of "Arrested Development" were all on the air. "Grey's Anatomy," "Lost," "Veronica Mars" and "House" were early in their runs. Many of us probably thought the TV scene couldn't get any better. We were wrong.
The top tiers of television have stayed good and even great, and the art form has radically widened its scope and ambitions in the past decade. Where we watch it, when we watch it, who delivers it and how much (or whether) we pay -- all those things have changed tremendously in the past decade.
What hasn’t changed is why we watch. We watch to see ourselves in all kinds of fantastical and yet identifiable circumstances; we watch to tell ourselves a story about who we are, what we believe in and who we could be. Television gives us ideas what we’re capable of, and even “Breaking Bad,” the story of a man who finds out just how awful he can be, inspired countless tributes to its artistry, moral complexity and intensely realized vision.
Here’s what this list isn’t: It’s not a list of the best TV programs of the past decade. It’s merely a roster of shows that helped us think differently about the medium and see new possibilities, in distribution, in form, in content, in theme, in the kind of characters that are entrusted with a difficult duty: Embodying our dreams, hopes and fears.
Of course, it’s a highly idiosyncratic list, and no doubt yours would be very different. I can relate -- my own list might be different if you asked me for a roster of influential programs a few months from now. It’s just a list to ponder, one that I came up with as I reflected on the past decade of evolution in the realm of entertainment that seems most willing to change, evolve, adapt and find new ways to snare us and make us think.
We certainly don’t lack for choice: According to Vulture, the number of scripted shows on cable has grown by 683 percent since 2000 (and that's not counting the broadcast networks, streaming services and PBS). Going through my mid-aughts Top 10 lists was an instructive experience. Back then, I thought I had hard choices to make, but little did I know how preposterously crowded the TV realm would get. There were programs on my old rosters that would barely rate Honorable Mentions now.
That’s nothing to be sad about, though I’m sure we all miss sleep and interacting with loved ones. In any event, there are a lot of wonderful shows out there these days, and more ways than ever to watch them. Here are a few of the ones that helped me -- and maybe some of you -- think differently about TV during the past decade.
“American Horror Story” (debuted October 2011 on FX): These days, TV is awash in miniseries, TV movies and anthologies, but that was most definitely not the case in 2011, when this strange fever-dream arrived on the scene. Very little about this highly stylized show is linear or logical; “AHS” is much more interested in creating moments and effects than in consistency and tastefulness. That said, it has achieved moments of true poetry (especially in its haunting second season), and in an increasingly crowded TV landscape, “AHS’” ability to draw attention to itself with its rotating top-shelf repertory company and with provocative storylines has made it not just an undeniable TV mainstay but a marketer’s dream.
“Breaking Bad” (debuted January 2008 on AMC): The early days of this show were not auspicious. Its ratings weren’t great, its first season was interrupted by a writers’ strike, and it labored in the shadow of a much more famous AMC show, “Mad Men.” But slowly and quietly, “Breaking Bad” bent us to its will, much as Walter White once tamed the Albuquerque underworld. “Breaking Bad” honed the template for modern-day success in a few ways: It got better and better as it progressed, it set new standards in taut direction, acting and cinematography, it widened its array of fascinating characters -- and last but not least, it had a mutually beneficial relationship with Netflix. When “Breaking Bad” arrived on Netflix in the middle of its run, the service wasn’t exactly overflowing with truly exceptional content, nor did it have its own original series to showcase. “Breaking Bad” came to symbolize the binge-tastic possibilities of the streaming service, and it also helped convince TV executives that Netflix could drive higher on-air ratings for their shows. The final season of “Breaking Bad” set new ratings records not just because it contained jaw-droppingly great moments, but because viewers who’d developed their blue-meth addiction online had to go to the network source to get new product. It wasn’t just the definition of a win-win situation, it was a whole new TV paradigm, one that’s still playing out in all kinds of places and on all kinds of screens.
“Community” (debuted September 2009 on NBC): “Six seasons and a movie” used to be a punchline, until the catchphrase came amazingly close to turning into reality. “Community” has gotten six seasons, and I’d be shocked if a wrap-up movie didn’t get made someday. “Community” may never have made much of a mark in the ratings, but its ongoing survival is a testament to the power of word of mouth and fan devotion, and the pull of both those factors is far greater than it used to be. As a fan of many cult series that met early deaths and never had much of a shot at resurrection, the fact that a network canceling a show now only means the hunt for another home has begun is amazing. Not every canceled show gets a new life, of course, but the unlikely survival of shows as disparate as “Community” and “The Killing” shows just how much the game has changed. The gaping maw of the industry that still calls itself television needs more and more content all the time, and shows with established brands and fan bases are now seen as sought-after delicacies, not iffy leftovers. Hence the unlikely six-season survival of “Community” and its eventual migration to its most logical home, an online entity (Yahoo! Screen). Of course, none of that fan devotion would exist had “Community” not taken its collection of Greendale oddballs to some inventive, daffy and heartbreaking places. “Community” gave renewed impetus to a basic bit of advice that your mom probably gave you back in the day: It’s better to be the best possible version of yourself than to try to imitate others.
“Game of Thrones” (debuted April 2011 on HBO): In the weeks after this fantasy epic arrived on TV, there was a certain amount of nervousness on various “Game of Thrones” fan sites. The show’s ratings were respectable but not nearly in blockbuster territory, and even though HBO gave the show a second season two days after it debuted, there was still some anxiety about about the show’s long-term future. Ha! “Game of Thrones” has proved to be one of HBO’s most reliable hits, and like a previous HBO drama about a complicated power dynamics (set in New Jersey, not Westeros), when it’s airing, it often dominates the conversation about TV. Not only has “Game of Thrones” given rise to a boomlet in fantasy-inspired programming, it has followed in the footsteps of Golden Age lynchpin “Battlestar Galactica” by examining modern-day social and political issues via unlikely relationships playing out in exotic settings. The “Battlestar Galactica” reboot used the building blocks of science fiction to comment on the wrenching changes that post-9/11 America went through, and like that show, “Game of Thrones” uses the tropes of a particular genre to ask deep questions about power, who deserves it and whether it’s worth having. “Game of Thrones,” which shoots on multiple continents at once, is also representative of the international flavor of much of TV programming, where programs can cross the ocean with the flick of a cursor on a streaming site -- but shows have to look incredible, as this one often does, to hold the interest of viewers all over the world.
“Mad Men” (debuted July 2007 on AMC): I’m old enough to remember that AMC originally debuted this once-obscure period drama on Thursdays, years before Sunday nights became the insane logjams of Quality Fare they are now. Within a season or two, “Mad Men” was all the rage, and clothing tie-ins, magazine covers and weekly reviews were everywhere you looked. Cable networks had been putting themselves on the map with anti-hero dramas for a while when Don Draper turned up, but “Mad Men” upped the creative ante by making formal experimentation, high- and low-brow references, incisive humor and digressive ambiguity truly addictive. Given how much TV has changed, it does feel a little bit like a relic from another era, but few shows have caught fire so entertainingly as both cultural phenomena and critical favorites and over the course of its stylish history, “Mad Men” set a standard that many shows have found difficult to beat.
“Louie” (debuted June 2010 on FX): David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” has often said that a show teaches the viewer how to watch it, and I’ll confess I needed a fairly extensive tutorial before I really got what this program was all about. Fortunately, the educational process was usually fun, revelatory or at least thought-provoking. Even when “Louie” plays with the laws of space, time and reality, Louis C.K.’s engaging frankness serves as an anchor that makes most scenarios work on some level, and even his failures are usually at least interesting. Early in the aughts, the U.K. version of “The Office” opened the floodgates for a wave of smart, character-based mockumentaries, and a decade later, “Louie” begat “Girls” and a new wave of confessional, experimental half-hour programs that are occasionally funny, always deeply human and often deviously unpredictable.
“Orange Is the New Black” (debuted July 2013 on Netflix): Netflix had rolled out some original fare before “OITNB” arrived, but “House of Cards” felt like something that could have aired on any number of high-end cable networks, and “Arrested Development” was a property that Netflix obviously didn’t develop itself. With “OITNB,” Netflix did what a disruptor is truly supposed to do -- bring to market a product so radically different and fantastic that few customers (or potential customers) can resist it. What television network would have green-lit a show in which the majority of the characters were women of color of all ages? It’s hard enough to find a show in which any characters -- male or female -- don’t wear designer clothes, live in expensive dwellings and have aspirational jobs. On top of all that, “OITNB” mixes comedy, drama, pathos and satire with audacious glee; it has little use for the usual network ideas about likability and relatability. And yet viewers did relate, because the women of the Litchfield prison were so like so many of us -- scared, brave, stupid, loyal and consistently irreverent. By ignoring all the rules of conventional television, “OITNB” scored Netflix a ton of attention and most likely led to an uptick in subscriptions (which is, after all, the point). Most of Netflix’s originals are not nearly as good as this show, but it did feel like streaming truly arrived with the ladies of the Litch.
“Scandal” (debuted April 2012 on ABC): Shonda Rhimes, creator of the long-running hit “Grey’s Anatomy,” was already an important TV producer when “Scandal” debuted, but little did we know that its eventual success would not only cement her status as one of the top producers in the industry but re-define how success itself is defined. Other shows before and since have engaged in cast live-tweets of a program, but Team “Scandal” engaged with its audience in such a major way -- and it all seemed so fun -- that even doubters had to check in on the show to see what the fuss was about. “Scandal” has its ups and downs, but when it is on its A-game, its unique brand of addictive wtf-ery is an entertaining jolt to the system. It’s equal parts drama, melodrama and meta-commentary about America, crackling by at the unrelenting pace of a fiesty Twitter feed. Also important: Rhimes' shows, which now dominate Thursdays, have always had prominent non-white cast members, but “Scandal” put a black woman at the front and center of a network drama, and thus it helped usher in the more diverse TV era we’re living in now. TV still has a long way to go in this department, but at least it no longer feels as if only a tiny handful of shows are trying to reflect the actual demographics of America.
“Transparent” (pilot appeared February 2014 and series debuted September 2014 on Amazon Prime): Amazon Prime was an also-ran in the originals category but, like Netflix before it, by bringing viewers something radically fresh and adventurous, it put itself on the map as an outlet to watch. Creator Jill Soloway brought an indie-movie sensibility to this complex portrait of a Los Angeles family, but she is also a veteran of all kinds of TV shows, from comedies to elegant dramas like “Six Feet Under,” thus “Transparent” nimbly united humor and pathos, drama and subversive commentary. And like several of the shows on this list, “Transparent” helped pivot the Quality TV discussion away from troubled male anti-heroes toward a much more varied group of characters who reflect a wide array of compelling interests and ideas. It’s appropriate that a show about transformation is helping to bring one about.
“The Walking Dead” (debuted October 2010 on AMC): Of all the shows on this list, this one might actually be the most influential of all. As I said in my 2014 year-end list, this AMC zombie chronicle helped kick-start the blockbuster-ization of TV. It was a rising trend for some time -- the mining of existing intellectual property (books, movies, old sitcoms and dramas, comic books, grocery lists) for potential television ideas and the current wave of superhero programs are just the most prominent parts of that franchising phenomenon. The success of “The Walking Dead” is so outsized that, in an era of shrinking audiences and declining ratings, its huge ratings dwarf almost everything around it. Not only is a spinoff coming, other networks have tried hard to achieve success with shows in the horror and apocalyptic realm, and don’t expect them to stop any time soon. AMC found major critical success and some commercial success with “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” both of which were the products of singular auteurs, but “The Walking Dead” has had an array of showrunners and yet has managed to keep on stomping all its competitors. Does that mean the era of the celebrity showrunner is over? No, but this show took a pretty big bite out of it.
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