Britcoms, sitcoms, talk shows, dramas and more of the best TV of the century so far
50 It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005–present): On paper, this show shouldn’t work: five deeply unlikable, morally bankrupt characters do icky things to themselves and others in Philadelphia. But it does, thanks to a toxic cocktail of dark humor, absurd plots and go-for-broke performances—Danny DeVito, we’re looking at you.
49 Alias (2001–2006): The first season was stylish, heart-pumping and unapologetically fun, so it was kind of a shame when J.J. Abrams’s first adventure show went off the rails with a tangled mess of mythology in its later years. But whenever Jennifer Garner’s bewigged superspy was kicking butt in high heels, it was perfect escapism.
48 The Amazing Race (2001–present): Few shows stick to a formula as stubbornly as this round-the-world trek, but after 15 circumnavigations, it’s hard to argue with success. By filming contestants at a constant run and hustle, the show leaves little time for them to become narcissistic loungers. And the backdrops beat any Real World house ever, hands down.
47 Dead Like Me (2003–2004): When Six Feet Under became a hit for HBO, Showtime got into the death business with Bryan Fuller’s comedy about an alienated young woman who is enlisted as a grim reaper after dying in a freak accident. At its best, it had viewers laughing at the inevitability of death for us all, and that was a valuable service in the 2000s.
46 Degrassi: The Next Generation (2001–present): On most teen shows, a kid gets pregnant, considers an abortion and then conveniently miscarries before the deed is done. While we’re sure Rep. Stupak is a fan of that model, this Canadian import has the gall to portray such aspects of teenager life in dramatic, rather than sensationalistic, tones.
45 House (2004–present): Sure, Hugh Laurie’s House is a compelling focal point; the guy makes crabby, drug-addicted, rule-ignoring doctor Gregory House almost sympathetic. But let’s not forget the real star of the show: the diseases and disorders that cause some poor patient’s freaky symptoms (“Her skin fell off!” “His urine is blue!”).
44 Aqua Teen Hunger Force (2000–present): Students have to watch TV, too, you know. As the surreal flagship for the Adult Swim animation block, ATHF represents cartoons that are gonzo and weird, not smug (ahem, Family Guy) or for kids—and the talking ball of meat is just precious.
43 The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson (2005–present): Leno’s humor is broad and toothless; Letterman tends to look bored (or guilty); Conan O’Brien relies too strongly on his geek persona. But the Scottish Ferguson is playful and petulant without resorting to fratboy humor, delivering crisp, lively late-night banter free of baggage.
42 American Idol (2002–present): The Godzilla of TV talent competitions might be most notable for its size, but beneath the endorsements, the screams and Ryan Seacrest’s bleached tips are sweet kids wanting nothing more than a shot at the big time. For all the dross in the lead-up, the best singers usually finish on top.
41 Reno 911! (2003–2009): The incompetent Reno police department made for one of the most entertaining cop shows on TV, and the inherent humor of police-issue short-shorts deserves applause all on its own.
40 Deadliest Catch (2005–present): Of all the places reality-show cameras have taken us, none is as flat-out impressive as the deck of an Alaskan crab boat in the dead of winter. Hardened fishermen just doing their job is the anti–Real Housewives, the anti–The Hills, the anti–stupid reality show.
39 Sons of Anarchy (2008–present): Call it the son of The Shield; when a writer-producer from that intense police drama crafted a show about outlaw bikers, he was smart enough to cast his wife, Katey Sagal, as the brittle matriarch. The twisted web of brotherhood and ruthlessness has been riding under the radar, but this Sopranos-on-Harleys saga is dirty, serious fun.
38 24 (2001–present): Between Jack Bauer and Dick Cheney, we’d definitely think twice before engaging in domestic terrorism. The adrenaline-pumped series should be commended not only for its tricky format, but for the fact that it featured the escape of a ravenous cougar as a major plot point and it still survives five seasons later.
37 The Soup (2004–present): It’s the Friday night show everyone considers their own personal guilty pleasure: Comic Joel McHale snarks on the week’s worst television moments in a revamped Talk Soup. Try to crib a Kim Kardashian–bashing joke from the master, though, and you’ll find that all your friends recognize the reference.
36 Carnivàle (2003–2005): The story of a Depression–era kid with special powers and a weird destiny was cut short just as it was about to blow the lid off of its good-versus-evil battle. We don’t know whether to blame the mythology, the Masonic stuff or some roving carnival freak.
35 Justice League/Justice League Unlimited (2001–2006): The epic culmination of the DC Animated Universe, Justice League was a veritable comics-geek orgasm, balancing Technicolor action with multishaded character development, and succeeding where nearly every superhero movie has failed. The triumphant finale—Superman, Batman and Lex Luthor unite against Darkseid—reminded us why these characters became icons in the first place.
34 Strangers with Candy (1999–2000): Following the disturbing exploits of 46-year-old Jerri Blank, who returns to high school after having run away two decades earlier, this send-up of After-School Specials launched the careers of Amy Sedaris and Stephen Colbert.
33 Yo Gabba Gabba! (2007–present): DJ Lance Rock and his furry pals teach moppets manners, morals and the joys of dancing in Nickelodeon’s trippiest show for kids (and, apparently, late-night clubbers). We’d like to have seen Mister Rogers pull off a form-fitting orange bodysuit.
32 Glee (2009–present): Whether these high-school glee kids are going for over-the-top emotion (the “Defying Gravity” diva-off), humor (the mash-ups) or poignancy (“When You’re Smiling”), they always hit the right notes. And Jane Lynch as the cheer coach from hell is particularly delicious.
31 CSI (2000–present): It’s easy to take the procedural behemoth for granted now, but the first CSI was originally a Friday night show about forensic science, starring, uh, a bunch of nobodies. Even after the two spin-offs and massive ratings, the focus is still on clever whodunits rather than the actors, and the three-show empire has changed the way juries approach criminal evidence.
30 Coupling (2000–2004): Anything Americans can do the Brits can do in a fraction of the episodes. Their take on six urban singles goofing around lasted a mere 28 episodes, every one of them quotable. The show was tart and hilariously naughty in a way that American sitcoms still haven’t mastered, so the 2003 U.S. version predictably tanked.
29 Rescue Me (2004–present): One of the medium’s more trenchant responses to 9/11, Denis Leary’s ode to NYC firefighters has morphed into a first-rate, testosteronized soap opera. If there’s a more charismatic swearing, swaggering, womanizing and whiskey-drinking Irish-American guy on TV than Tommy Gavin, we haven’t met him yet.
28 The Colbert Report (2005–present): We dislike Bill O’Reilly as much as the next guy, but if his continued presence on the air gives Stephen Colbert fodder for his hilariously ignorant television personality, then we can live with him. Buried underneath Colbert’s blowhard exterior is true comedic talent, with the ability to skewer someone to their face without seeming like a jerk.
27 Saxondale (2006–2007): How do you follow up a cringe-comedy creation like Alan Partridge? If you’re Britcom legend Steve Coogan, you go the opposite route: His middle-aged rock-roadie-turned-exterminator Tommy Saxondale gave dignity to England’s everyblokes for two remarkably funny, poignant seasons.
26 How I met Your Mother (2005–present): Don’t compare it to Friends—HIMYM is better, and has spawned a whole lexicon of catchphrases and relaunched the career of the erstwhile Doogie Howser, M.D. The sitcom’s commitment to clever, Rashomon-as-high-comedy storytelling, as well as its heartfelt characters, will ultimately make it legen—wait for it!—dary.
25 Project Runway (2005–present): The original fashion competition show brought couture to the masses, inviting us all to have an opinion about bubble skirts and ratty hemlines. Without it, Tim Gunn would be just another underappreciated educator instead of everyone’s favorite “make it work” mentor.
24 The West Wing (1999–2006): Though its pitch-perfect premiere predates the aughts, Aaron Sorkin’s sweeping political drama delivered some of its best punches in its following years, including an untranslated monologue in Latin. President Bartlet was a necessary retreat for liberal daydreamers during the Bush era.
23 The Comeback (2005): Little could have prepared us for the humiliation pileup of this faux-reality documentary about a faded sitcom star; it mined the thrills of cringe-induction before it became the stock-in-trade of the American Office.
22 Sex and the City (1998–2004): Go ahead, scoff—we don’t care. For all of the criticism, HBO’s girly comedy did something that few shows had done before: It focused exclusively on four women over the age of—gasp!—30. Underneath all the froufrou was a fun show that often had more heart and feminist verve than it was given credit for.
21 Generation Kill (2008): If you ever wondered exactly what the storming of Baghdad was really like, this peerless HBO miniseries will clear it up. By giving the Iraq War the Band of Brothers treatment, it refused to wait for the distance of history to unpack the war’s ambiguities and heroism.
20 Wonderfalls (2004): Unmotivated, depressed college grad Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas) shows up at her dead-end job at a gift shop one day to find the souvenirs giving her cryptic orders—and her failure to follow them inevitably results disaster. Bizarre, yes, but also surprisingly moving.
19 Futurama (1999–2003): The adventures of Fry, Leela, Bender and the rest were always hilarious (and smartly so, with pokes at Schrödinger’s cat and the binary number system), but often surprisingly poignant. Here’s hoping it proves more popular when it returns to Comedy Central in 2010.
18 Firefly (2002–2003): Fox killed Joss Whedon’s Orwellian romp after only one season, but it featured just as much violence, romance and snap-talking camaraderie as Buffy. Yeah, we got a movie in 2005, but that was hardly enough space cowboys for one lifetime.
17 Breaking Bad (2008–present): When the going gets tough, the tough turn from teaching high-school chemistry to cooking meth. With his trusty sidekick (an ex-pupil) by his side, Bryan Cranston’s Walt White is the quintessential ’00s man caught between the forces of mortality and morality.
16 Freaks and Geeks (1999–2000): Though set in the 1980s, this was a universal slice of modern adolescence for every slacker, loser, nerd or lovesick ignoramus. Bridging 1999 and 2000, it found a fan base only after it was canceled and its stars (James Franco, Jason Segel and Seth Rogen, not to mention writer Judd Apatow) moved on to bigger fame.
15 Gilmore Girls (2000–2007): The WB’s gentlest show celebrated smart chicks with DIY style and bullet-fast quips. It showcased the comic chops of Lauren Graham, who managed to make consectutive references to Pippi Longstocking and Saul Bellow seem both believable and charming.
14 Deadwood (2004–2006): The operatic cadences of Ian McShane’s Swearengen monologues were works of art, especially when performed to a decapitated head. With all due respect, Deadwood stands as one of the best Westerns ever. There, we said it.
13 Lost (2004–present): The island. The polar bear. The plane crash. The scientist cult. The inexplicable hilarity of two characters trying to explain time travel to each other. Every element of the supernatural drama is unique, yet all fade into the background during character studies of the evil, conflicted and remorseful castaways. And again, there’s a polar bear.
12 Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-2009): How do you follow up decade-defining show like Seinfeld? Well, if you’re Larry David you walk away from the big networks, throw away the rule book and make a show about nothing again. But a different show about different nothings. The comedy of cringe found its anti-hero in the ‘real-life’ personification of Larry.
11 Six Feet Under (2001–2005): This was the decade we gathered round the watercooler not to discuss trifles like Friends but to talk about the tale of an icy, emotionally stunted family reeling from the death of their undertaker patriarch. Alternately funny and devastating—often both over the course of a few minutes—it remained rooted thanks to the haunting performances. And don’t get us started on the tearjerking seven-minute epilogue.
10 30 Rock (2006–present): This behind-the-scenes look at a late-night comedy show allows the writers to take plenty of swipes at their own network, which they somehow get away with. And the supporting cast, particularly Jack McBrayer as the sweetly naive Kenneth the Page, is never overshadowed by the now-superstars Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin.
9 Veronica Mars (2004–2007): Creating a neon noir aesthetic on a shoestring budget, the teen-detective drama cast away comparisons to Nancy Drew the moment its tiny blond protagonist told us she was on a post-rape revenge quest. The titular bitch on wheels solved mysteries using a suspicious, wounded nature that never rendered her a victim.
8 Battlestar Galactica (2004–2009): Sure, it killed most of humanity in the pilot, gave the genocidal robots a sympathetic side and turned its heroes into violent insurgents. But that’s why we loved the genre-busting sci-fi drama, and a celebratory conference at the United Nations only cemented its thoughtful impact.
7 Mad Men (2007–present): Matthew Weiner’s pitch-perfect drama about the golden age of advertising doesn’t just view the Camelot era though the prisms of fetishized retro-fashion and nostalgia; this AMC series delves into today’s McLuhan-on-steroids media with a vengeance. It also gives us a great existentialist hero in Don Draper, a walking identity crisis in a gray flannel suit.
6 The Office (U.K.: 2001–2003; U.S.: 2005–present): Ricky Gervais made us squirm in horror as inept office manager David Brent in the original humiliation-humor sitcom, setting the stage for the equally cringeworthy (in a good way) American adaptation. Thank the excellent cast of that import—many of whom do double duty as writers or producers—for making “That’s what she said” funny again.
5 The Sopranos (1999–2007): Even with all of the Mafia shenanigans and spilled blood around Tony Soprano, at its heart this was a story about a middle-aged guy facing pressure from his family, his job and his own inner demons. The ambiguous series finale will likely remain one of the all-time most debated ends to a television show.
4 Arrested Development (2003–2006): Even if this absurdly hilarious comedy was never hugely popular, it helped propel its cast onto bigger things (oh, hi, Michael Cera)—and made us remember why we loved Jason Bateman so much in the ’80s; dude can deadpan like nobody’s business. We need the über-dysfunctional Bluth family on the big screen.
3 Friday Night Lights (2006–present): The dramas of small-town American life were rendered with such perfect grace, it’s no wonder Time Out New York’s late Time In editor, Andrew Johnston, inked CLEAR EYES, FULL HEART, CAN'T LOSE on his arm. The emotion seeping from the laconic Coach or injured quarterback socks you in the gut—never manipulative, ever purposeful and beautiful.—
2 The Wire (2002–2008): David Simon’s epic portrait of a crumbling Baltimore was unflinching, showing the forces at work—corruption, drugs, even capitalism—that contribute to the slow death of American cities. Has there ever been a television character as conflicted and surprising as the shotgun-carrying thug-killer Omar Little?
1 The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (1999–present): Despite its format and preaching-to-the-choir attitude, Jon Stewart’s nightly news chastisement was the decade’s most impactful and interesting program. Though Stewart’s tenure began in 1999 (and the show itself in 1996), the program’s scathing parody blew up in its aptly named “Indecision 2000” coverage. Consistent, colorful and a time capsule of our decade, The Daily Show exemplified drama and comedy in ways most shows couldn’t touch.