TV

The decade in TV: Ten shows that raised the boob tube's IQ

"There's nothing good to watch on TV."

It's a familiar complaint, voiced repeatedly since mom and pop bought their first black-and-white Philco. But if you uttered those words during the past 10 years, you weren't paying close enough attention — or didn't have cable.

This, after all, was the decade in which television raised its game — when TV junk food gave way to brain food.

That might sound ludicrous considering that the decade tortured us with Temptation Island, Joe Millionaire and hundreds of other reality-TV nightmares.

But it also served us The Sopranos, Lost, Mad Men and The Wire. It gave us shows that were audacious and ambitious, artful and sophisticated. Shows that embraced mature themes and challenged us to think.

Here are our picks for the best TV shows of decade — choices that were made on the basis of artistic achievement, originality and cultural impact.

1. The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007): Creator David Chase gave us a protagonist like none we had ever seen: A beefy, baggy-eyed mobster (and family man) with a hair-trigger temper, a weakness for the ladies and some serious mommy issues. Impeccably played by James Gandolfini, Tony Soprano was both revolting and riveting. Chase surrounded him with a superlative cast, including the fabulous Edie Falco, and he took them all on a wild ride with more twists and curves than a Bada-bing girl. Many shows would later deploy their own Tony-like anti-heroes, but none quite managed to replicate The Sopranos' stimulating blend of social commentary, wicked humor, psychological depth and violent intrigue.

2. Lost (ABC, 2004-present): It's the Rubik's Cube of TV shows. This plane-crash survival drama has had fans obsessed with trying to crack its numbers-crunching, monster-chasing, time-tripping mythology. But in addition to an intricate mystery, Lost has offered us a compelling web of personal stories tied to a diverse and ever-engaging group of island castaways. We can hardly wait for the final chapter to unfold.

3. The Wire (HBO, 2002-08): At a time when quick-and-tidy procedural cop dramas were spreading like a virus, David Simon's grim urban masterpiece resisted the simplistic approach, unfolding in novelistic leisure while deftly exploring its flawed characters and pertinent social issues. The result was a monumental achievement that was as rewarding as it was challenging.

4. Mad Men (AMC, 2007-present): Creator Matthew Weiner could have immersed his 1960s drama in sugarcoated nostalgia. To his credit, he instead plunged us deep into the dark side of the American dream, exposing the lies behind our idealized pop-cultural imagery and the emotional scars that come with unbridled self-indulgence. Don Draper and his booze-guzzling, skirt-chasing cohorts demonstrate not only how much we have changed as a society, but how much we haven't.

5. American Idol (Fox, 2002-present): Not even Simon Cowell could have predicted how big this show would become. Blending glitzy entertainment with heart-tugging stories, a parade of deluded oddballs (bless you, William Hung), and a heaping dose of Simon's snark, Idol became No. 1 with a bullet. Along the way, it changed not just television, but the music industry and the star-making process.

6. Deadwood (HBO, 2004-06): At first glance, David Milch's violent and vulgar saga recalled a TV era when the Western was king. But this complex series shot gaping holes in all the innocent illusions, cartoonish heroism and open-range romance traditionally associated with the genre. At its heart was Milch's wonderfully theatrical dialogue and an astonishing performance by Ian McShane as the grotesquely sinister Al Swearengen.

7. Sex and the City (HBO, 1998-2004): Yes, much of it was about the shagging and the shopping. But Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her sassy gal pals also gave us a moving portrait of all-for-one friendship — the unbreakable bond shared by four soul mates. And that's something every viewer can admire, even if they don't wear Manolo Blahniks.

8. Arrested Development (Fox, 2003-06): A perfect show for the post-Enron era, this sitcom about a family of wealthy buffoons done in by their own greed was so fresh and bizarre and bubbling with larcenous wit that we were stunned to find it on broadcast television. No wonder it didn't last long. Let's hope the Bluths wind up on the big screen very soon.

9. Friday Night Lights (NBC/DirecTV, 2006-present): We're still leading the cheers for this big-hearted football drama that happens to be about so much more than football. Lights deftly delves into the hopes and dreams of its small-town characters with the kind of emotional honesty rarely seen in prime time. Meanwhile, Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton have given us television's most natural and realistic depiction of marriage.

10. The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (Comedy Central, 1999-present): The smirky Stewart might not have been the show's first anchor, but under his reign, the faux newscast gained a sharper edge and greater cultural relevance. In skewering the media and the people the media cover, he and his band of merry jesters have not only amused us, they've informed us.

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