TV Shows – A Decade in Retrospect

Deutsche Version

Since everybody seems to be starting to count at zero instead of one the first decade of this century and millennium is now over. So it’s time to recap these past ten years and take a look at the TV Shows it has given us.

Let me give my résumé at the beginning: Of the four decades I know TV Shows from (70s – 00s) this was without question the best decade for us TV junkies. When you read my review you might say in the end “Hey what about <insert your favourite here>?” (e.g. The Sopranos, Dexter, The Wire, Six Feet Under, …) but that’s exactly my point. This decade has given us so many outstanding shows that it was impossible to watch them all. Also, everybody has a different set of favourite genres but I’d say that every genre got their fair share of excellent series in the last years.

But let’s face it: There’s rarely any series (if there’s one at all) that could keep up the quality and its appeal for its entire run. Some had a bad year in between, some fell short at the end. But even in these “bad years” they had more quality episodes in it than entire shows from previous decades. So all the shows I am going to name have of course aspects that can be criticized and I invite you to do so.

For me the most outstanding characteristic of this past decade’s shows is that they are more often than not more about the “journey” of the character(s) than the actual events. It’s not the character who shines a light upon the unfolding events but it’s the events that shine a light upon the character and his development. I have to say that shows (hereby excluding comedy shows that work with stereo- and archetypes) that don’t have a real character development don’t interest me at all. But if the character development is interesting I might even watch shows from genres that usually don’t interest me at all.

If the character development is interesting enough I might even set the fact aside that my second favourite characteristic is missing: A real story-arc. The first TV Show in my TV universe that had a real story-arc, was Babylon 5. Later Star Trek: DS9 did the same albeit not in that quality and complexity. But these shows were two of the rare exception in the 90s (another famous exception would be Twin Peaks, but I never watched it). It seemed that viewers weren’t interested in either developing characters or story-arcs.

This drastically changed in this decade and one show had an early start to this:

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)

I believe Buffy is one of the most studied TV Shows there is, possibly only surpassed by the Star Trek universe and comparing the age of both franchises one sees how truly amazing that is. Just take a look at Slayage Online to get a glimpse.
I had of course heard of Buffy but ignorant as I was I did not watch a single episode during its original run. It was only in the year 2007, three years after the show had ended, that I discovered it for me and it swept me of my feet. This show does not deal in black & white, every character is flawed and yet tries to contribute in the ultimate fight against evil.
For me there’s not one season I’d qualify as “bad” even though some of them are very different than the others.

Angel (1999-2004)

On the dawn of the new millennium Angel relocated from Sunnydale to Los Angeles and opened a second front against the apocalypse. The show was different from Buffy but the characters were still wonderfully drawn and the story was very good. The show had its down during the fourth season which I didn’t like that much but got better again only to get cancelled. But it went out with a BOOM. “Let them fight the good fight. Someone has to fight the war.”

And then the new millennium began.

24 (2001-)

“All Events Occur in Real-Time.” This show introduces a whole lot of concepts in a TV Show. Since everything happens “live” they depend heavily on split-screens to show multiple events in different places. It’s also one of the first shows that uses technology to a sometimes ludicrous extend. But its compact and thrilling story-telling totally makes up for it.
There have been years where the story absolutely jumps the shark, especially the fourth and fifth season. But then the writers manage to refresh it again end they’ve delivered a real highlight with the seventh season and I truly hope they can keep it up in the soon-to-begin eighth year.

Alias (2001-2006)

The show surely declined during its five-year run but overall it’s a fascinating piece of television, with its elaborate Rambaldi-arc and its shifting allies and enemies. It especially wins it fascination from all these grey characters where it isn’t certain on which side they’re on (for now) and what their hidden agenda is. It also uses a remarkable amount of plot locations all over the world that coincides with the number of wigs the main character Sydney Bristow seems to have. 😉

Smallville (2001-)

Smallville is a complicated topic. The label says “How Clark Kent became Superman”. On its face it’s a show about teenage drama mixed with some action pieces. Many don’t like it because it often breaks with the official Superman canon (whatever that means in a comic universe that retcons itself all the time…). Others have problems with Clark himself who is not yet the iconic character he’s supposed to become. Still others had problems with the prolonged presence of Lana Lang and the very existence of the not-in-the-comic character Chloe Sullivan. And they are supported in their criticism by the often kitschy storylines and the Freak-of-the-Week episodes in the early seasons. The show also lacks a mastermind who has a clear idea of where the journey is supposed to end up. This was painfully obvious during the seventh and eighth season that fell flat on every aspect of story-telling.
But still, the show has something that draws me in – even though I never read a single Superman comic. Despite their problems the characters are really enjoyable and most of them undergo a real development. If I had to name a favourite character (excepting Clark) it would be Allison Mack’s Chloe Sullivan even though they heavily damaged the character in the last two years. The second one is Erica Durance’s Lois Lane who is slowly taking the place that is rightfully hers.
I have to admit I was nearly giving up on the show but the ninth season is developing really great so far – let’s just hope they can keep it up this time.

Firefly (2002)

Maybe it was so good because it was so short-lived but the 14 episodes of this series showed a potential worthy of a Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel) show. This show literally brought the wild west into space. One has to wonder what this show could have achieved if it would have had a reasonable lifetime.

Two and a Half Men (2003-)

Sitcoms have always been era-bound for me. I’ve watched many sitcoms during their original run. When I watched them again years later I didn’t find them as funny as the first time or don’t find them really funny at all anymore. Maybe all the sitcoms in this list will fare the same fate. But for now I really enjoy the two brothers, their house-keeper, their mother and their son/nephew very much.

Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009)

Most sci-fi shows are plot-oriented. The spaceship that flies from planet to planet to go where no one has gone before. The station that is the last hope for peace. The team that searches for technology to protect Earth from the Evil Overlords. The fleet around the Galactica also has a goal: to find Earth. But the story is about the crew of these ships and about their robotic enemies who are as diverse as the Humans. In the end it’s not as simple as in the beginning: Humans vs. Cylons. The journey will re-shape all of them in a way none of them could have anticipated.
Unfortunately the end was a bit disappointing because the writers thought too late about where the journey is supposed to be going.

House M.D. (2004-)

House is a typical Procedural. Basically every episode has the same general plot. If that were everything to it, I would not bother to watch it. But it is more. All the other characters sum up to a counter-balance to House, to keep him in check. While House spirals down in his medication addiction they try to pull him up again and they manifest as a wall when he tries to go too far. Every one of them is necessary and due to recent events in the sixth season I fear that one element will be sorely missed in future episodes: Humanity. They have to find a way to restore the balance. House doesn’t work with just House.

LOST (2004-2010)

A great mystery show that will hopefully have an end this year that is worthy of it. For me the entire appeal of the show depends now on if they manage to give satisfying answers to all (or at least most of) the riddles they produced over the last five years. Otherwise it might have the same fate as Battlestar Galactica. They promised that they would have a satisfying end in mind – let’s hope they can keep this promise. If they do this will be one of the most memorable shows of this decade.

Veronica Mars (2004-2007)

After the 80s I was never to much into private investigation stories but this show was highly praised – even though German television dump-aired it in the middle of the night. And it rightfully got the praise. It combines teenage drama and crime/PI stories to an excellent mix and has an excellent cast, especially the ones of the Mars family. Unfortunately the third season deviated from the way the story was told in the first two seasons and the show never got a fourth season. But these three seasons are absolutely worth checking out.

Bones (2005-)

Another Procedural that combines technological overdose and a relatively strict plot pattern. But it has a fascinating set of characters who complement each other (both at work as well as emotionally). Just with House I do not watch it for the case of the week but to see how the characters grow and how they struggle with their past and try to find their future.

Doctor Who (2005-)

The Brits are different. But that doesn’t make them less interesting. The Doctor is a national institution just like the Queen. The show as a whole has been running since 1963 with a big break during the nineties. In 2005 they revived the show and the Ninth Doctor and his companion Rose took the TARDIS and travelled to the end of the Earth. The Tenth Doctor even took it to the end of the universe itself. And in 2010 the Eleventh Doctor will take command of ship and he too will travel to places and times one can hardly imagine.
In order to like Doctor Who one has to like a certain kind of humour and has to appreciate weird stories and ideas. To give you an idea: If you like/disliked the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy book series by Douglas Adams or the “Thursday Next” book series by Jasper Fforde or the Australian TV Show Farscape you’re probably going to like/dislike Doctor Who.

How I Met Your Mother (2005-)

In one regard sitcoms are like all other shows: There are those that are episode-based and those that are arc-based and then there are those in the middle. While Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory are more (though not strictly) episode-based, so is HIMYM more arc-based. The very title points to it. In this regard HIMYM is the successor of Friends; the life of the characters is actually changing and not a (relative) constant.
Although, now that the show is in its fifth year I feel that it is time that Ted actually meets his future wife. I don’t have the desire to drag out every show endlessly. I prefer a good closure over a never-ending story.

Supernatural (2005-2010?)

Two things brought me to Supernatural: Firstly my disappointment of Smallville over the last two years. While reading and writing in the forums I often read good comments about this show that otherwise totally went below my radar. Secondly my getting closer to the horror genre by watching Buffy and Angel. I’ve never been a great friend of the horror genre and probably never will be – but this show intrigued me. At first it looked like a standard Monster-of-the-Week show but soon it developed its own story-arc that is culminating in this year’s battle against the apocalypse and Lucifer himself.
According to the show runner, this will be the last year of Dean’s and Sam’s journey and I really like that idea because then the show has managed something many shows fail to do: To tell one big story and to bring that story to a defined end.

Heroes (2006-)

Heroes is now in its fourth year and it’s doubtful whether there will be a fifth. It started with great promise and the first year was really great. But then basically everyone lost their way and the characters started to act uncharacteristically and erratically and unpredictably and it all went down the drain. I am still watching it because I like the characters but it’s not nearly as much fun as in the beginning.
If you’re new to this show, buy the first season and probably leave it that.

The Big Bang Theory (2007-)

The best sitcom there currently is. The four geeks and their hot neighbour are a really great ensemble and the hilariousness goes up to eleven when Penny and Sheldon clash into each other. There’s nothing I can laugh more about than these five.

Burn Notice (2007-)

I don’t even remember how I stumbled across this show but Michael Westen is basically James Bond and Q in one person. He’s the spy who builds his gadgets himself. His entourage is also great: The trigger-happy ex-IRA ex-girlfriend, the now retired former spy and friend – and his mother. Since he can’t work as spy anymore he has become the local MacGyver / Michael Knight / A-Team of Miami, Florida. He still tries to get his old “job” back but there is someone who does not want him back and Michael has no idea, why.

Chuck (2007-)

Chuck is an action comedy about a guy who accidentally gets all the secrets of the CIA and NSA uploaded into his brain. What makes things worse: His knowledge is now the only copy in existence. He gets two personal bodyguards: The CIA agent Sarah Walker and the NSA Major John Casey. The three of them try to use Chuck’s knowledge to protect the country while hiding the fact that he knows what he knows and without getting exposed as spies by enemies and family.
This show is pure fun and I am really glad that they got a third season. The three main characters are great but all the supporting characters from Chuck’s family and the Buy More superstore form a great ensemble.

True Blood (2008-)

There are Vampires in the world and they live openly among us. But not only Vampires, but also mind-readers and shape-shifters and others. And in Bon Temps, Louisiana the waitress Sookie Stackhouse meets Bill – the very first Vampire in their small town. But mankind has still getting used to the idea that Vampires actually exist and there are quite a few animosities between both groups, especially when people get killed and it looks like Vampires were behind it.
This is a very graphic show based on the “Sookie Stackhouse” book series by Charlotte Harris. But it’s quite fascinating to watch all these different people and how they deal with life (and death).

Being Human (2009-)

A Vampire, a Werewolf and a Ghost are moving in together. What sounds like a joke is basically the question that what it means to be Human. All three struggle with themselves and their fate. The Vampire is the oldest one; he’s fought as a young man in the First World War. The other two have only recently become “different”. This British series is not a comedy although it is funny at times and as most British series relatively short (the first season has only six episodes). But the story it’s telling is really worth watching.

So, that’s it. Let’s hope that this new decade can at least hold the quality bar if not even outshine the last decade since the producers should have learned by now that high-quality television is something viewers do appreciate.