We truly do live in a golden age of television. The past decade has not only seen an embarrassing wealth of outstanding programming, but I was happy to discover that six of the 10 favorites I listed below are still on the air. On top of that, a number of truly great programs — including "Battlestar Galactica," "The Shield," "Friday Night Lights," even "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Futurama" — just barely missed the cut.
Take a look at my list and then head to austin360.com/tvblog to tell me how badly I blew it.
Liz Lemon is no Mary Richards, but she retains Mary's pluck (and is just as groundbreaking) in a wacky ensemble comedy that skewers television, celebrity, politics, vanity, sex, class and race with hilarity and, often, insight. Corporate politics mix with brilliant sight gags (Kenneth the page sees the world as "The Muppet Show" and high-definition cameras reveal grotesque flaws that never existed) and the two never seem incompatible. When former "Saturday Night Live" head writer and cast member Tina Fey and "West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin simultaneously debuted shows loosely based on "SNL," who would have imagined Sorkin's would tank while Fey's would become the critically acclaimed, award-winning, smartest show on television? "30 Rock" deserves its Emmy nods ... and a lot more viewers.
If shaky, one-camera shows such as "The Office" and "Modern Family" make you queasy, blame "Arrested Development" (2003-2006, Fox). If their cringe-inducing humor makes you laugh, well, you can thank Mitch Hurwitz's groundbreaking comedy for that, too. Director Ron Howard, post "EdTV," was looking to apply the cinema verit? style to a television show. Writer Hurwitz suggested a topical, loose takeoff on the Enron scandal. What emerged was the tale of the dysfunctional Bluths. Hurwitz says that he and Howard had no idea that the British version of "The Office" was being created at the same time with a similar faux-documentary conceit. But it's academic — "Arrested Development" pushed the format further, with flashbacks, cutaways and stories densely packed with visual puns that — unusual for a comedy — pretty much require repeat viewings. Never a ratings success, the show lasted just three seasons. But a rabid cult fan base has kept interest in the series high, and Hurwitz is currently penning a big-screen continuation of the saga.
'Curb Your Enthusiasm'
Larry David's HBO series belongs on this list just for the fact that it's the closest thing we've got to "Seinfeld." "Curb's" shenanigans haven't infiltrated the cultural lexicon to a Seinfeldian degree (that NBC hit had the Soup Nazi ... "Curb" sports an obscenity-spouting, Holocaust survivor chef; Jerry had "not that there's anything wrong with that" ... Larry has "having said that") but character Larry's utter selfishness — David based him on "Seinfeld's" George Costanza, in turn based on himself — provides reliable if increasingly predictable laughs. More crass and extreme than "Seinfeld," "Curb's" brilliantly plotted episodes similarly taffy-pull disparate and seemingly unrelated plot threads together into surprising and satisfying resolutions. The show also revived the careers of Ted Danson, Richard Lewis and "Super Dave" Bob Einstein. Finally, Larry ended this season by pulling off an actual "Seinfeld" reunion in the best way imaginable.
'The Daily Show with Jon Stewart' and 'The Colbert Report'
('The Daily Show with Jon Stewart' 1999-present; 'The Colbert Report' 2005-present, Comedy Central)
The hosts can claim that these aren't news shows, but we know better. Since Jon Stewart took over hosting duties from original host Craig Kilborn in 1999, "The Daily Show" has taken on a decidedly political bent. And as his political sway has grown, Stewart has finally become a bolder interviewer, asking tough questions of guests often appearing in hopes that some of the show's cool will rub off on them. It's a nice bonus that Stewart's show plays at the same time as your local newscast. Colbert does a better Bill O'Reilly than O'Reilly, and his faux conservative punditry allows him to speak truth to power in a decidedly devious fashion. As a programming block, the hour is inspired and sometimes stupid. But it's more oxymoronic than just moronic: With his team of "senior correspondents" and faux location reports, Stewart disguises comedy as news and commentary. Colbert, on the other hand, hides actual hard news and scathing commentary beneath a slick veneer of humor. No wonder so many clips from these shows go viral: At their best, both are hysterically funny.
The plane crash. The smoke monster. The hatch. The Dharma Initiative. The Others. Never has a show so completely and continually confounded and upended the expectations and suppositions of its viewers. Consider this: If you're all caught up on this series and you tried to discuss it with a friend who just started at the beginning, your friend would think you were talking about a completely different show: Benjamin who? The Hostiles? Desmond and Penny? Constants? Who'da' thunk that a show about plane crash survivors on a tropical island could have such mind-bending twists and cast turnover? It's a safe bet that few suspected the extent of the time-travelly sci-fi stuff that was coming (although, really, the polar bears should have been a clue). The revolutionary concept of setting a series end date ("Lost's" final season starts in February) and writing toward it has everybody and his brother waiting to see if creators Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cruse really have known what they've been up to all along.
The spoiled, misogynistic child of Matthew Weiner (who cut his teeth as a writer on "The Sopranos"), AMC's ensemble period piece — placed in a '60s ad agency — is an occasionally ponderous, slow-moving character study of surprisingly rich and numerous tones. With storylines playful and caperish, self-important and plodding, the show — praised as much for its art direction and authenticity as for its writing and performances — is also a lightning rod for frustration. Weiner's genius lies in how he melds his characters' internal and interpersonal conflicts with the tumult of an era that's been studied to death, mining both for moments of truth, humor and genuine emotion. Its seasons are so well though out and meticulously plotted that rewatching an entire season gives you a whole new appreciation of Weiner's craftsmanship. As we enter a new decade, "Mad Men" enters the era of the Beatles, psychedelia and Austin Powers. I can't wait.
Auteur David Chase's brutal, hilarious, dark and captivating saga of family politics and, ahem ... family politics in Jersey wasn't HBO's first original series, but, with its feature film quality writing, acting and production values, it set the standard by which all cable (and network) dramas would forever be compared, and it opened the door for the likes of "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad." And it wasn't just a critical darling; despite a much smaller audience pool, the pay cable hit routinely grabbed bigger ratings than competing broadcast fare. The show was uneven and had its share of goofy plot twists, especially in its later years — Christopher breaking into showbiz and Vito's big, gay New Hampshire holiday spring to mind — but, at its best, Tony Soprano, spewing malaprops and menace like an enraged Norm Crosby with a machine gun, could shock, surprise, amuse, outrage and terrify us like nobody's business. Try opening up a bowling bag without thinking of Ralphie Cifaretto.
It's hard to overestimate the impact that this reality show has had on the television landscape. Based on a Swedish television series and introduced as a summer replacement series in 2000, "Survivor" became standard-issue water cooler fodder and allowed reality show god Mark Burnett the capital to re-create huge chunks of prime-time television in his own image. Now in Season 19, the show's first 11 installments sat solidly in the top 10. Admit it: No matter how hard you try, you've been unable to erase the vision of first season winner Richard Hatch and his floppy belly walking around in the buff. And I'm pretty sure I've heard you use the phrase "voted off the island." "Survivor" might seem old and somewhat tired now, but it was once new and revolutionary. Without it there'd be no "American Idol."
'The West Wing'
Before his own personal demons got the better of him, Aaron Sorkin's "The West Wing" was a critically lauded and popular ensemble drama that attempted to personalize politics for the masses. Setting Emmy records for a freshman series, the show focused on the fictional Democratic administration of President Josiah Bartlet, his staff and family. It was criticized by some as liberal propaganda (they snarkily called it "The Left Wing"), but others praised the show for what cynics would call an unrealistic and bright-eyed depiction of politicians as ideal-wielding, noble public servants. Sorkin's characters dealt with drug abuse, terrorism (though 9/11 hit America's shores, it never happened in "The West Wing's" universe), abortion, homosexuality and natural disasters, all while walking and talking in extended single shots, discussing policy in a wonky sort of "Gilmore Girls" chatter that Sorkin ("Sports Night") was famous for. When the writer, who had obsessively penned nearly every script by himself, left the show after Season 4, it was compromised by committee. It had moments of resurgence, but never reached the heights of its early years. So far, neither has Sorkin.
The cops and robbers, politicians, educators, lawyers, union leaders and journalists who populated this HBO drama's inner-city Baltimore couldn't have hailed from a locale farther away from central casting. Complex and demanding, its characters filled with ambiguous and questionable motives and morals, "The Wire" was unlike any other cop show. Its expanding scope (from the drug trade to politics to education to media) rewarded attentive and patient viewers willing to make the investment creator David Simon demanded of them with a realistic, uncommon viewing experience. There might never be another show like it.