10 "The Sopranos"
There were great TV shows before there was "The Sopranos," of course. But HBO's mob drama paved the way for a whole new genre of cinematic television, with top-notch production values, fantastic acting, dense storylines and on and on. Tony Soprano begat some of the decade's most complicated leading men - Jimmy McNulty, Nate Fisher, Don Draper.
9 "30 Days"
There's not a show (or a movie or a book) that's put me in another person's shoes better than Morgan Spurlock's FX reality series, which plops people in someone else's life for a full 30 days and films what happens. From the very first episode, where Spurlock and his wife subsisted on a minimum-wage salary, the show tackled some of the hottest-button issues out there - pro-life vs. pro-choice, gay vs. straight, Christianity vs. atheism, immigration and gun control.
8 "Six Feet Under"
It was admittedly uneven and its characters occasionally unlikable, but for pure emotional impact, no show can touch it. Sometimes a good cry is just what you need to cure whatever's ailing you, and HBO's tale of the funeral-home-owning Fisher family is my go-to pick for that particular brand of pop-cultural therapy. Re-watching the final 10 minutes of the series finale, showing how all the main characters eventually meet their demise, is the quickest way to get there. And beyond all that, this is a show that makes you think about life and death and what it all means and all that good stuff.
7 "The Wire"
I'm going to be completely honest and admit that I'm only through the first two seasons of David Simon's sprawling take on the drug trade, government corruption and other deteriorating institutions in the city of Baltimore - but I'm already hooked. If I'd caught it while it was actually airing, perhaps it'd rank even higher. Sometimes hard to watch, it embraces something we all know but don't often want to admit, that the real world doesn't usually have the kind of happy endings television conditions us to expect.
6 "Freaks & Geeks"
Yes, it officially started in 1999, but more than half the episodes of Judd Apatow's excruciatingly accurate depiction of the highs and lows high school aired in 2000 - and it didn't become a cult DVD favorite until well into the decade. So it counts! I'm a fan of the guy's movies, but what we think of when we hear Apatow's name these days doesn't even come close to this refreshingly honest, surprisingly sweet and funny as hell take on the, well, hell that is being a teenager.
5 "Arrested Development"
Made for the age of DVR and TV on DVD, Fox's story of the dysfunctional Bluth family rewards loyal viewers with episodes packed full of running jokes, catch phrases, sight gags and clever wordplay (loose seals, Bob Loblaw, "I understand more than you'll never know"). And let's not forget the best use ever of Europe's "The Final Countdown."
You may have noticed a distinct lack of sci-fi stuff on this list. That's because I generally don't care for the genre. That I'm still riveted by "Lost" now that it's pretty much moved beyond the lost-in-the-jungle, interconnected backstories, love-triangle angles in favor of time travel, mythology and the battle of good vs. evil proves just how transcendent J.J. Abrams' drama really is.
3 "The Daily Show"
Somewhere around the middle of this decade, which we'll look back on as the last gasp for journalism as we once knew it, a self-acknowledged fake journalist over on Comedy Central became our most trusted newscaster (verified in a 2009 Time poll). It's no secret that Jon Stewart's a raging liberal (remember his gleeful grin when Obama officially won the presidency?), something that's refreshing to viewers sick of proclaimed "fair and balanced" coverage. But this season has been a good reminder that regardless of politics, the "Daily Show" crew is dedicated to holding people accountable for being stupid, whether it's making campaign promises they have no intention of upholding or brazenly lying about cheating on their wife. And their best weapon, archival video footage, is awfully effective in proving the point.
2 "Mad Men"
Has there ever been as pretty a show as AMC's "Mad Men"? As a period piece, it offers a window into the way things were in the early years of the 1960s. The mod offices at Sterling Cooper, the sleek suits favored by Don Draper, the Barbie-doll gowns worn by Betty, the flaming red hair of Joan, all rendered in brighter-than-life technicolor. Of course, all that beauty just serves as contrast for the ugliness. At its essence, this is a show about the ways we fail as husbands and wives, as mothers and fathers, friends and coworkers. How hard it is to escape from your past, despite your best attempts at conjuring up a new persona. But it's also darkly funny, surprisingly addictive and captivating all around.
1 "The Office UK"
Without the original "Office," my Thursday nights would be a lot less enjoyable than they are today. Back in 2001, this BBC show ushered in a new era of sitcoms, leaving behind the laugh-track-laden "Friends" and "Seinfeld" for a single-camera, mockumentary format where much of the humor comes from characters' asides to the camera crew.
Within just 14 episodes, mastermind Ricky Gervais gave us a cast full of memorable characters like his own obliviously pompous David Brent, the lovably underachieving Tim and assistant (to the) regional manager Gareth, a far superior brown-noser than Dwight Schrute. (I'm awfully fond of Scotch-egg aficionado Keith, too.)
Plus, this show masterfully weaves together delightfully awkward and often offensive comedy with the sweetest, quietest, most realistic love story ever depicted on TV. The U.S. version of "The Office" is a direct descendent, of course, and the show also inspired some of my other favorites of the decade - "Arrested Development," "Parks & Recreation," "30 Rock" and "Modern Family."