Hundreds of years hence, media historians seeking to learn about American society in the early 21st century will stumble across evidence of our TV viewing habits — maybe from the remnants of a cable listings schedule, or the flickering images of an antiquated 60-inch flat screen — and wonder what the hell we were thinking.
"How could these crude people have derived so much entertainment value from tales of isolation and man's savage inhumanity to man?" they will ask. The most popular show at the beginning of the century threw together a handful of strangers in the most desolate places on Earth, deprived them of food, shelter and all creature comforts, then watched to see if they would scratch each other's eyes out. The success of Survivor helped spawn an entire generation of "reality" programs, although even fools had to know that staged encounters played out in front of three or more video cameras couldn't possibly have been real. And the top scripted shows of the period celebrated an airline crash that killed most of its passengers (Lost), murderous mob violence (The Sopranos), meth dealers (Breaking Bad) and serial killers (Dexter).
What was wrong with these people?
As we leave the '00s and prepare for the '10s, be on the lookout for two major trends: the increasing incursion by the Internet as a means to deliver original TV programming, and a tectonic shift in the way television is produced and distributed, exemplified by cable giant Comcast's purchase of once-mighty NBC, an acquisition literally inconceivable at the start of the decade.
One man's opinion of the 10 defining shows of the decade, in alphabetical order:
American Idol, FOX: Anyone old enough to have even heard of Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour knows there's nothing new under the TV antenna. But in a thoroughly modern milieu, TV's No. 1 show fuels as never before the American obsession that anyone — anyone — can be a star. Just look at Ryan Seacrest.
Arrested Development, FOX: Beyond the fact I would watch Wayne State University grad Jeffrey Tambor in anything (except perhaps NBC's horrid sitcom Twenty Good Years a few seasons back), this fall-down-funny, too-smart-for-the-tube dysfunction-junction of a family had everything — great cast, inspired writing, even weekly narration by Ron Howard. An AD big-screen movie has been announced for 2011, so Tambor's dastardly jailbird George Bluth Sr. should live at least once more.
Curb Your Enthusiasm, HBO: At the outset, I couldn't figure out why an ill-tempered nebbish like Larry David would want to step out from the shadow of Seinfeld to star in his own comedy. I was so wrong. Clearly, David had volumes more to say about life in the new millennium, with a sitcom whose every episode sparkles like a perfect little jewel.
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, Comedy Central: Great show? Probably not. Stewart quite frankly gets on my nerves quite often. Influential? Without a doubt. When a frightening percentage of Americans gets its news and spin on current events from a standup comedian, we have a program that says more than we want to admit about the state of our nation in this century.
Family Guy, FOX: The Simpsons revived the idea of animation in prime time, but the amazingly prolific Seth MacFarlane kicked it up a notch with this adult cartoon for the 21st century, so blisteringly fast and wildly risqué that kids shouldn't watch it and parents are repulsed.
Hannah Montana, The Disney Channel: Ask your kids. Or anyone's kids. Especially the daughters.
Lost, ABC: To tell the truth, I never got into this series. (Hey, it happens!) But I remember the plane crash and subsequent machinations made the Lost pilot one of the best I'd ever seen, and fanatical devotion from a legion of fully invested viewers makes it a decade-defining drama.
Sex and the City, HBO: Let's face it, female empowerment has been skirted in our popular media since the beginning of television time. Hail a series with the nerve to have four diverse women act on their sexual urges then brazenly talk about them like best buds in a bar.
The Sopranos, HBO: Like NYPD Blue did the decade before, pay-cable's rat pack changed the entire landscape of television when it exploded onto the screen like a car bomb. As violent and F-bomb profane as it was contemplative, the impact of the series defined its actors for all time. Tell me you will ever see James Gandolfini as anyone but Tony Soprano, and that Nurse Jackie still looks a lot like a Carmela to me.
24, FOX: The series that redefined the concept of serialized television in prime time, with the ultra-high concept of a whole season compressed into a single day, the breathtaking miss-a-second-miss-a-lot action of Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer, and the subliminal post-9/11 reassurance that our covert government operatives could still keep us safe (but let's not talk about the torture stuff).Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]