Yesterday’s overview of the television of the Aughts made the claim that this was the Golden Age of television. Well, here’s the proof. These are the ten best seasons of TV to air from 2000 to 2009. The criteria are simple: The season had to begin and end between January 1st, 2000 and today (that rules out Season Four of Friday Night Lights). Also, I have to have seen it. (A person can only watch so much TV, so with apologies to fans of Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Rome, The Shield, and Breaking Bad Season Two–all of which I have yet to watch–I cannot include these seasons.) Finally, the list is not limited to one season per show, but it is heavily weighted against a show’s second-best (and third-best, etc.) seasons; I didn’t want to just make a list of seasons of The Wire and The Sopranos, but depth deserves some credit. Even within those parameters, though, several very good shows could not make the cut. Here is the illustrious “Honorable Mention” category:
All seasons of The Wire and The Sopranos not already included, Lost Season Four (2008), Mad Men Season One (2007), Breaking Bad Season One (2008), Heroes Season One (2006-07), The West Wing Season Two (2000-01), Dexter Season One (2006), Firefly Season One (2002-03)
And now, the Top Ten:
10. 24 Season One (FOX 2001-02)
Best Episode: 11 PM-12 AM
The decline of 24 was fast and precipitous. Season Two was still good, but it felt formulaic and somewhat predictable when compared to the first season. Later years of the show would get laughably bad. Even so, it’s hard to deny how groundbreaking this series was when it first aired. 24 wasn’t the fist network show to have a season-long arc, but it was the first to make the arc the driving force of the show (with the possible exception of Twin Peaks). This season was one of the first on television to really embrace its serialized nature and utilize action to such an entertaining effect. Not to mention that the first season, before Jack Bauer became a superhero, actually had some compelling character moments.
9. Friday Night Lights Season One (NBC 2006-07)
Best Episode: Mud Bowl
Here’s an important rule to keep in mind when evaluating things: Something can be overrated and still be good. Friday Night Lights is one of those things. FNL is a very good high school drama—that somehow got credit for being the best thing ever to grace television screens. The New York Times called it “not just television great, but great in the way of a poem or painting.” Another review called it “perfect.” To paraphrase Winston Wolf, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Season One of FNL was very good. The dialogue was realistic, the characters were complex, and the directing was often beautiful. But I fear a lot of the acclaim came from critics and fans who wanted to pat themselves on the back. The show got credit for doing unusual things for a high school drama (centering the show on a poor community, dealing with Southern racism, employing the “shaky camera” cinematography) even if it didn’t do any of these things particularly well. What the show did do well was capture the dynamics and vocabulary of high school better than pretty much all other shows of its genre.
8. The O.C. Season One* (FOX 2003-04)
Best Episode: The Heartbreak
It’s easy to forget, but The O.C. was huge when it debuted in the summer of 2003. In high school, I remember being slightly embarrassed that I was watching such a “girly” show, until slowly it was revealed to me that practically all of my male friends were secretly watching the show as well (the process by which this revealed itself was very secretive; a girl would usually mention it, and one of our eyes’ would light up, or one of us would casually mention that we’d “seen a few episodes,” or maybe we’d say we were watching for Rachel Bilson or Mischa Barton, or someone would bravely admit that he thought The O.C. “wasn’t that bad,” until eventually it became an [almost] acceptable thing for guys to like). And while the show was widely considered a soap opera, it appealed to audiences on levels beyond mere drama. The characters (except for Marissa) seemed like likable high school kids. I may lose some credibility for putting The O.C. ahead of Friday Night Lights, since the latter is a critical darling while the former is remembered mainly as a fad. But here’s the thing: The O.C. was better. The writing on The O.C. got lazy and repetitive in later years, but we’re comparing seasons (and at least The O.C. never threw in a gratuitous murder scene), and the first season of The O.C. was great. The dialogue was clever and funny, and the stories always balanced the somewhat outlandish soap-opera drama with realistic character pieces and writing. Plus, the show really perfected the art of indie music montages.
*It’s noteworthy that the first three seasons on the list are all first seasons. All of these shows had good premises that wore thin and ultimately ended up with diminishing returns. The rest of the shows on the list, however, are all shows that more or less reinvented themselves after their initial seasons, to great effect.
7. Dexter Season Two (Showtime 2007)
Best Episode: There’s Something About Harry
I briefly considered putting this in the top 5; the character of Dexter, as played by Michael C. Hall, is one of the best characters from this decade of TV. He owes a great deal to other television antiheroes such as Tony Soprano (and also to his literary source material, written by Jeff Lindsay), but Hall gives him an original and vital perspective. By playing the killer Dexter as someone so disarming and likable (almost too much so—the character is often in danger of losing his edge) who nevertheless acts out the most violent urges, the show delves into questions of moral intent vs. moral action and the nature of evil. At times, the show becomes too formulaic/mystery-oriented, but Season Two featured the most in-depth exploration of Dexter’s own world and values. The discovery of the bodies of Dexter’s victims and the final confrontation between Dexter and Doakes would have been a fitting climax for the series, and it was admirable of the show to play those cards in the show’s second season. What holds the show back, however, are all the storylines that don’t involve Dexter: the love interests of Deb Morgan, the inner workings of the Miami Police Department, the personal lives of Dexter’s friends. All of these seem like discarded plotlines from Generic and Forgettable Cop Drama; it’s not really the fault of the cast, who do the best they can with pretty flimsy stuff, but the non-Dexter centric stories are really very, very bad.
6. The Sopranos Season Six (HBO 2006-07)
Best Episode: The Second Coming
After Nancy Marchand, who played Livia Soprano, died, The Sopranos lost its raison dtre; the show was, at its heart, about Tony Soprano’s relationship with his mother. So where do you go with the story when that mother is dead? Well, the show went a lot of places, and many of them were brilliant. Season Six, which was essentially two seasons that aired almost a year apart, featured some of the series’ most brilliant stories: Tony getting shot by Uncle Junior and going into a coma, Christopher revisiting his dream of making movies, A.J. dealing with depression. As was often the case, the season, particularly the middle, had a lot of filler (mainly the “Vito in New Hampshire” story). A bad episode of The Sopranos is still better than almost anything else on TV, but the show, as was often the case after the first two seasons, lacked direction at times. With that said, the first four episodes of Season Six Part 1 (centering on the shooting) and the last five of Season Six Part 2 (centering on A.J.’s depression and Christopher’s death) are two of the best stretches of episodes The Sopranos would ever have.
5. Lost Season Five (ABC 2009)
Best Episode: The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham
It’s hard to choose a “best season” of Lost because the show in Season Five is so fundamentally different from the show in Season Four, not to mention in Seasons One and Two. There is no denying how successful and influential the series itself has been; one need only to look at how many shows since 2004 have tried to position themselves as “the new Lost” (I’m looking at you, FlashForward) to see its impact. The storytelling of the show really hit new heights, however, after Season Three, when the producers ditched flashbacks for flashforwards. Instead of using trite flashback stories to “color the characters,” the flashforwards were used to advance the story and create suspense. At the same time, they were able to deftly balance movement of the plot with great character-centric episodes, like “The Constant” and “The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham.” Season Five gets the edge over Season Four for more fully embracing the unknown—Season Four had a known endpoint, but Season Five had more mystery—and having fewer dud episodes. Season Five also proved that it is possible to successfully do a time-travel story (take that, Heroes!), and for a show that has always known how to do cliffhangers, the finale of Season Five really raised the bar.
4. Mad Men Season Two (AMC 2008)
Best Episode: The Jet Set
Mad Men is probably the most compelling drama on TV right now, but it has yet to attain the brilliance of The Wire or The Sopranos. The closest it has come was during its second season. This season was the best example of the show’s slow, deliberate pacing building towards an impending and worthwhile climax. Multiple threads, including both the major threads—Don’s troubled marriage, his ongoing tensions with Duck at work, his personal crisis of identity, Betty’s development as an individual—as well as the more minor (and too often neglected) stories—Pete’s maturity, the inner workings of Sterling Cooper, the personal lives of less prominent characters—all dovetailed beautifully in the end. The show offers such a rich gamut of characters that it too often feels like someone like Sal or Pete is getting shortchanged (usually in favor of some stupid Peggy story), but Season Two managed to incorporate all of its themes in its final act. This season also featured some of the show’s more arresting episodes that more or less stand alone, like “Flight 1,” “Maidenform,” and “Six Month Leave.”
3. The Wire Season Three (HBO 2004)
Best Episode: Middle Ground
I could have just made the top five section of this list all five seasons of The Wire, but I feel that would be repetitive. What makes Season Three of The Wire stand out? Well, there are a lot of things. For one, the entire Hamsterdam plotline was a brilliant look at drug legalization plans and different police strategies. It also highlighted Major Bunny Colvin, played by Robert Wisdom in one of the show’s most memorable performances. The third season also introduced the City Hall storyline, opening a whole new way for the show to examine the impact of the drug trade, as well as a slate of compelling characters, most notably Thomas Carcetti. The introduction of Cutty Wise as an ex-con was also one of the series’ few stories of redemption. All of those reasons are well and good, but the main reason for Season Three’s excellence was the culmination of the Stringer Bell/Avon Barksdale storyline. The Wire had always modeled itself after Greek tragedies, and the show had many tragic elements throughout its run. But no storyline in its first three seasons encapsulated tragedy like the Barksdale/Bell relationship. Both of them have a tragic flaw—for Avon it’s his ruthlessness, for Stringer it’s his calculating nature—that ultimately results in their demise. The work of actors Wood Harris and Idris Elba also raises the status of this story; every scene between Avon and Stringer is riveting, particularly their confrontation after Avon is shot and their final scene together on the balcony. Enough cannot be said about this season.
2. The Sopranos Season Two (HBO 2000)
Best Episode: D-Girl
To quote the estimable Larry David on HBO: “‘It’s not TV’? It’s TV. What do they think people are watching? You watch it on TV don’t you?” HBO likes to pretend it stands apart from a lot of the rules of traditional television, and in a lot of ways it does—it can show cursing and nudity, it doesn’t have commercials and, therefore, doesn’t need to appeal to advertisers, it doesn’t follow traditional network schedules, etc.—but looking back at Season Two of The Sopranos, it’s remarkable how many traditionally “second season” problems or clichés it falls back on. Did you kind of write yourself into a hole at the end of Season One? Check. Are you rather hastily introducing new characters into the picture? Check. Picking up old plot threads that appeared to be dead in Season One? Check. The difference between The Sopranos and most other great shows, however, is that, even when its writers appeared to make a “mistake,” they did it well. The two new characters they introduced in Season Two, Richie and Janice, ended up being compelling characters, particularly Janice, who stuck around so long that it’s easy to forget that she was not in Season One. The apparent feud between Tony and his Uncle Junior didn’t actually burn their bridges, but rather set up an even more tense and asymmetrical interpersonal dynamic that would pay dividends throughout the series. Even keeping Tony away from his mother for most of this season allowed Livia’s relationship with other characters to be explored. It also made the impact of Tony’s “What chance did she have?” line to Livia even greater. Season Two of The Sopranos also features three of the ten best episodes in the show’s rich history (“D-Girl,” “Knight in White Satin Armor,” and “Funhouse”).
1. The Wire Season 4 (HBO 2006)
Best Episode: Final Grades
When I talk about this decade being a “golden age for dramatic television,” this is really what I mean. New art forms are generally dismissed as fads until they produce a truly transcendent work. Film needed a Citizen Kane, novels needed a Don Quixote, and the dramatic stage needed an Aeschylus.* Well, anyone who has seen Season Four of The Wire knows not to denigrate the medium of television: Anything that can produce something this good is worth watching.
*As in REALLY needed him. Aeschylus, after all, invented DIALOGUE, which seems pretty important.
This season is great in the way all great works of art are great: It changes the way you think about the world. Whereas the early seasons of The Wire had changed the way you might think about a specific American institution—the police force, drug dealers, labor unions, local politics—the show’s universe had sufficiently expanded by Season Four to seem complete. Ostensibly, this season dealt with the school system, but what it really did was illustrate childhood, and how individuals are socialized into the modern world.
There is a great scene in this season in which Bunny Colvin takes a handful of students from his middle school class to eat at Ruth’s Chris. These kids are not stupid, or illiterate, or uninterested, or unmotivated, but the mere act of ordering food in a restaurant with waiters completely overwhelms them. By the end of the experience, they are completely demoralized.
This is not an indictment of the school system, or politicians, or the police force, but something bigger; it is a clear demonstration that our choices and identities are shaped by the world we inhabit, and not the other way around. The message of Season Four is less obviously social and more poignantly human than any other of this great show.
The fact that Season Four is so focused on children obviously gives it an advantage—the emotional stakes are always higher when you’re dealing with kids—but the fact the show never drifts into after-school special territory is important; it makes the kids feel like natural, real pieces of the world the show has already built. It is, after all, this world that lends the season its most powerful moments, like the demise of Bodie and the Wee-Bey/Colvin confrontation. A show with moments like this, that stay with you for years after first seeing them, is clearly the best show of the decade.