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Monday, December 21, 2009

The top 50 TV Shows of the Noughties

The Top 50

50: (2001-)

It was incredibly tense. It was incredibly clever. It was also, paradoxically, often incredibly stupid — the mountain lion bit? The hostaged Teri Bauer getting cystitis? — but there were few better boxed sets to enjoy than any season of 24, what with Kiefer Sutherland shouting “Get me a trace on that, Chloe, Goddamnit!” CM

49: Who Do You Think You Are? (2004-)

Before “going on a journey” became every documentary’s format, this genial genealogy series took celebrities on a trip back up their family tree. Top moments included Jeremy Paxman weeping at his great- grandmother’s poverty and John Hurt finding he wasn’t as Irish as he thought. AB

48: Lost in Austen (2008)

Costume dramas? Can’t stand ’em. Then along came Lost in Austen, in which a modern gal stepped through a cupboard and found herself in the Bennet family home in Pride and Prejudice — producing a wholly original time-travelling fiction- bending rom-com drama. TT

47: Phoenix Nights (2001-02)

The Phoenix Club, Chorley, was the home for something new: postmodern working-class humour. Or at least the sitcom that detailed its travails was. The much-missed show’s legacy? The man who played nasty Brian “Ironside” Potter, the club’s wheelchaired owner: Mr Peter Kay. AB

46: When Louis Met the Hamiltons (2001)

It wasn’t just the Hamiltons, everyone Louis Theroux met was handed enough rope, and then some, to hang themselves, mainly because they could never quite work out the depth of his sincerity. Later he stretched himself and took on whole communities of saddos, but the Hamiltons, filmed amid a tabloid frenzy responding to bizarre and totally unfounded allegations of sex abuse, were his most famous scalps. As if they had not suffered enough . . . AB

45: Red Riding (2009)

Tony Grisoni’s three-part adaptation of David Peace’s quartet of novels, about corrupt cops in the murk of 1970s West Yorkshire, was a stewy mess of colours, atmosphere and menacing music. It required patience and an open mind. Or perhaps a stoned one. TT

44: The X Factor (2004-)

And so it came to be that after the foot-soldiers — Popstars, Popstars: The Rivals, Pop Idol — had discharged their minnows into pop’s paddling pool, along came Simon Cowell’s leviathan of a talent show. This year’s big news: Cowell gets his hands waxed. TT

43: Strictly Come Dancing (2004-)

Strictly married a cult film (Strictly Ballroom) with a dead TV format (Come Dancing) as celebrities put themselves up for ridicule as ballroom dancers. The judges are bitches, and the celebs and their professional partners adept at generating scandal and going on “journeys”. TT

42: The Lost Prince (2003)

Is this Stephen Poliakoff’s most enduring work? However haunting and richly atmospheric Friends and Crocodiles, Joe’s Palace and others were, his characters often seemed to breathe a rarefied air that required viewers to slow down and surrender to a mood. Not so here. The story of Prince John, the sixth child of King George V and Queen Mary, was a mainstream costume drama filtered through a unique sensibility. It is hard think of any other period drama in which the writing, the acting, and every last detail of a lavish production were so perfectly rendered, and where great public events and private concerns were so seamlessly matched. DC

41: The Unloved (2009)

No one who watched Molly Windsor as little, unloved Lucy will forget her. In the childcare system, Lucy is plunged into a world of shoplifting, sexual abuse and alcohol. That this largely improvised drama was the director Samantha Morton’s childhood merely made it more remarkable. AB

40: Damages (2007-)

An insanely complicated US legal thriller that jumps about in time, features plot twists you never quite understand and Ted Danson with hair as white as a polar bear. Compulsive and brilliant, Glenn Close makes her character in Fatal Attraction look like a puddy-cat. TT

39: Life on Mars (2006-)

High concept (21st- century cop gets stuck in 1972 — or is it all in his head?) delivered in such a gleeful manner that by the series finale it raked in over 7m viewers. Retro-porn setting and John Simm (Sam Tyler) entranced nerds and girls, while Philip Glenister’s Gene Hunt was an instant icon. CM

38: God on Trial (2008)

Frank Cottrell Boyce’s drama had only one unprepossessing setting, yet it commanded absolute attention. A group of Jewish concentration camp prisoners debated the presence and purpose of God in a bunkhouse in an event that was supposed to have actually happened. TT

37: Criminal Justice (2008-09)

What could the BBC do to convince licence-fee payers that it could still make brilliant drama? Across five consecutive nights, a radical conceit would show the workings of the criminal justice system. Both series, if you could be bothered giving up your week, were distinctive and powerful. TT

36: Never Mind the Buzzcocks (2006-09)

This is for the Simon Amstell-era only. Operating on the premise that pop is both the silliest, and most important, thing in the world, Amstell saw Amy Winehouse being hilarious (“Work with Katie Melua? I’d rather get Cat Aids, frankly”) and pop celeb Preston walking out. CM

35: Desperate Housewives (2004-)

Loathed by many but adored by its devoted, DH customised the glossy night- time soap after years of post-Dynasty atrophy. Fake pregnancies, poisoning, psychopaths and amnesia froth among the suburban cupcakes and card games. TT

34: No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005)

Martin Scorsese’s four-hour film of Dylan’s early career from 1961 to 1966 pays tribute to an artist who produced an unending stream of iconic songs. Scorsese’s triumph was to illuminate an enigma rather than trying to explain it away. DC

33: Grand Designs (1999-)

In the decade that we became obsessed with property, Kevin McCloud became the Delia Smith of self-build houses: always with the rueful eye as Hortensia picked an unsympathetically toned render, or Adrian insisted on a stupid outside spiral staircase. CM

32: Forgiven (2006)

It is easy to condemn child abuse. It is much harder to try to understand it, to engage with the abuser and stop it from happening. Paul Wilmhurst’s harrowing drama with Lucy Cohu showed unbelievable courage. DC

31: Jamie’s School Dinners (2005)

Not much TV changes anything, but Jamie Oliver’s crusade changed millions of lunches in schools across the land, shaming the Government into coughing up a few extra pence per meal and condemning the Turkey Twizzler to eternal damnation. AB

30: The Private Life of a Masterpiece (2003-)

This series focuses on a masterpiece and explains who, when, why and how — and then what. There are no better programmes about great art — none more absorbing, informative and unpretentious — to be found anywhere on television. DC

29: Dispatches: Beslan (2005)

A devastating film that described what happened during the siege at Beslan in which 330 people died. The footage from the school and the testimony of survivors will ensure that this does not become another forgotten horror of history. DC

28: Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution (2005)

With forensic calm and devastating power, Laurence Rees’s series analysed one of the foremost horrors of the 20th century. A rare example of television that will benefit future generations as much as our own. DC

27: Krapp’s Last Tape (2000)

John Hurt, looking as ravaged as Beckett himself, gave a definitive performance as the old man poring over his tapes and tomes, muttering about “everything on this old muck ball — all night and dark and famine”. A stunning performance of a 20th-century masterpiece. DC

26: QI (2003-)

Did you have an interesting fact that you shared at a dinner party or in a pub over the past decade? I bet you got it from QI. It is the perfect BBC charter show — illuminating, funny and source of the catchphrase, “QI SIREN!” when someone says something obvious, but wrong. CM

25: Bleak House (2005)

Scripted by that wicked old goat Andrew Davies, with a Who’s Who of acting talent and some help from Charles Dickens, this was the adaptation that transformed literature into soap opera and soap opera into art. DC

24: Out of Control (2002)

Dominic Savage’s masterpiece shows how easily children can be drawn into crime and destroyed by it. David Morrissey and a cast of unknowns are so convincing that you wouldn’t know they were acting, while Tamzin Outhwaite gives the performance of her life. DC

23: The Flight of the Conchords (2007-)

Two hairy, charity-shop-dressed lummocks from New Zealand single-handedly resurrected the notion of the “comedy song” in this lovingly handmade, funny and often damned funky sitcom. As with Peep Show, the debate on “Which One You’d Shag First” rumbles on across Britain. CM

22: Tomorrow, La Scala! (2002)

This wonderful drama was inspired by a real production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd performed in Wormwood Scrubs. A bunch of thespians overcome their preconceptions to develop a relationship with the prisoners. Not surprisingly, it got a standing ovation when first screened at Cannes. DC

21: The Century of the Self (2002)

This eye-opening documentary series by Adam Curtis, who also made The Power of Nightmares, explained exactly how we have been transformed from citizens into consumers by the Freud family and the black art of PR. Curtis quietly suggested that we deserve better. DC

20: Wit (2001)

Emma Thompson was exceptional as a professor specialising in the poetry of John Donne who is dying of ovarian cancer. At once bleakly funny and heartbreaking, Mike Nichols’s TV film examined the limitations of the intellect, of metaphysics and of modern medicine. DC

19: The West Wing (2000-06)

Aaron Sorkin’s White House drama was satire in reverse. It showed how America should be governed. A brilliant liberal economist, Martin Sheen’s Jed Bartlet, led a team of idealists posing as cynics, as opposed to the norm, which is the other way round. Its real brilliance, however, was in the coruscatingly funny and sometimes moving dialogue, much of it delivered latte in hand, as the policy wonks strode down the corridors of fake destiny or Bartlet cursed his Maker (a Catholic God, not Sorkin). The scripts never had the same screwball-comedy pizzazz once Sorkin left, but the first four series were dazzling. AB

18: Mad Men (2007-)

They are mad as in “Madison Avenue”, where these 1960s advertising executives work, but mad also to think their working routine of long lunches, cocktail cabinet breaks and secretarial seductions could go on for ever. Matthew Weiner’s slow-burning (Marlboros mainly), beautifully nuanced drama stars two outsiders, suave Don and awkward Peggy, who see through the whole thing and go with it anyway. Back home, Don’s beautiful Grace Kelly lookalike of a wife, Betty, is cracking up. An essay on bad faith and the American way, it is also the most stylish thing on TV by about four decades. AB

17: State of Play (2003)

Hard to tell which was the more impressive here — cast (John Simm, Bill Nighy, James McAvoy) or script: a career high for Paul Abbott. If you could guess what was coming next in the plot, you were psychic or demented. Later, Hollywood made it into a film. It wasn’t as good. CM

16: Marion & Geoff (2000)

The brilliant Rob Brydon is taxi driver Keith Barret, a man low on self-knowledge but overflowing with resilience and goodwill, who sits alone in a car and films himself telling mesmerising stories that ricochet between hilarity and sadness. DC

15: Peep Show (2003-)

Simple conceit: it’s a show in which you can hear the inner thoughts of the two main characters, Jeremy (Robert Webb) and Mark (David Mitchell). Scorching writing and, six series in, Mitchell was a national institution, while Webb made a sexy lady doing Flashdance for Comic Relief. CM

14: Band of Brothers (2001)

The $125 million Spielberg- produced mini-series followed Damian Lewis and a happy few all the way from boot camp to Normandy to triumph. It was a huge television achievement, but still needed Generation Kill, about the Iraq invasion, to come along as a corrective to all the heroism. AB

13: The Blue Planet (2001)

Closer to a miracle than a television programme, this landmark series narrated by David Attenborough took the viewer on an unforgettable journey from the surface of the oceans to their lowest depths, hypnotising us with images of jaw-dropping beauty and savagery. DC

12: Six Feet Under (2002-06)

The Californian undertakers’ saga, created by Alan “American Beauty” Ball (who realised the best writing was on cable TV), was ostensibly about death but its real subject was love — carnal, fraternal, maternal, marital — as framed by death. Never were Ethos and Thanatos so wittily, movingly paired as in this tale of the Fishers who buried anyone, but not their hatchets. AB

11: In the Night Garden (2007-)

Igglepiggle came to play. He did a lovely dance with Upsy Daisy. Oh dear, now they both have mucky patches. But what’s this? It’s the Pinky Ponk and the Tombliboos are on board. Every toddler in the land needs to be on board for this nonsense series that totally engages the under-threes and makes Andrew Davenport’s forerunner, Teletubbies, look like Muffin the Mule. AB

10: TV Burp (2002-)

The funniest show of the Noughties, full stop, ENDOV. Satirising the grammar of TV rather than its content — gags sprang from a rogue camera angle, odd noises, or single reaction shot in Coronation Street — the sheer effort involved, combined with a surreality surreal in itself, given its 7.30pm slot on ITV1, made this a comedy highwater mark. FIIIIIIGGGHHHT! CM

9: Bodies (2004-05)

If they could have watched Jed Mercurio’s darker than dark hospital series from the womb, no babies would have allowed themselves to be delivered by the NHS ever again. The tragically curtailed series (Mercurio had previously written the 1990s medical drama Cardiac Arrest), unloved by the Beeb, portrayed doctors as either incompetent, venal or ineffectual. It made the acting careers of Patrick Baladi (incompetent), Keith Mitchell (venal) and Max Beesley (ineffectual), all of them strangled by bureaucracy and government targets. Let’s hope it was satire. AB

8: 9/11 (2002)

The Naudet brothers were making a film about New York firefighters when the first hijacked plane hit the north tower. Their footage is overwhelming and timeless. A hundred years hence, it will still have the same power to appall. DC

7: The Apprentice (2004-)

In these kinder times, there aren’t many social groups we feel comfortable about laughing at, but besuited arses who think they’re It is, happily, one of them. Sir Alan is an angry little bear, Margaret and Nick snitch, and someone always acts like a Gold Medal div in the “making an advert” task. CM

6: The Thick of It (2005-)

By grace of being a malevolent, sweary, abusive, sexist, vile, bullying, democracy- crushing government spin doctor, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) has joined the venerable gallery of comedy greats, in Armando Iannucci’s satire of the dark ways of government. TT

5: Doctor Who (2005-)

I don’t care what anyone says about The Wire or The Sopranos. This is a kids’ show, made in Wales, by gays, about a scorchingly hot pacific nerd travelling through time and space. That’s clearly the best show ever. F*** off. CM

4: The Office (2001-03)

So groundbreaking and fertile of ROFL that, in 2009, it’s hard to see a comedy that wasn’t influenced by it. Off the back of its mere two series, Ricky Gervais became the most famous Briton in America, save Amy Winehouse, and got snapped up by Hollywood and The Simpsons. We, meanwhile, perfected doing a “Tim face” emoticon on our keyboards: :-| CM

3: The Wire (2005-09)

Baltimore’s black underclass traded drugs, banter and bullets, as the police (or PO-lice, as they called themselves) fiddled the stats, the longshoremen’s business went to hell, the politicians served themselves, the city’s children learnt nothing and the local paper turned advertorial. The drama was the reality he reported as a journalist, but the creator David Simon fashioned it into something that found humanity and even beauty in the despair. AB

2: Big Brother (2000-)

Until series five (the one with Michelle Bass singing Pie Jesu, ohmygod), before it got swamped with wannabe models and a nasty undercurrent, there was no more entertaining, or socially relevant, show than Big Brother. Transsexual Nadia and gay Brian Dowling prompted a million thoughtful pub conversations, the jungle cats plotted revenge dressed in pantomime gear, and Darren put Marjorie the chicken on a see-saw. A human zoo, yes — but in a good way. Like Longleat. CM

1: The Sopranos (1999-2007)

This was the series that put HBO at the forefront of television drama and proved that television can take on the movies and triumph. It was the series that blazed the way for shows such as The Wire and Six Feet Under.

The scale of the production allowed stories and characters to develop over years as naturally as life itself. It was specific, a saga about New Jersey mobsters, and universal, a story about families and survival. It blew every cliché out of the water and stood morality on its head. It was always three steps ahead of its audience, daring to head off on unlikely tangents and down weird cul-de-sacs. Only in The Sopranos could you have a scientist discussing the Oneness of Being, Buddhist monks appearing in dreams, a Mafia captain getting outed and a chef rediscovering the joy of cooking.

Only in The Sopranos could you have a Mafia boss swallowing peyote and later telling his shrink that: “I saw for certain that this — and everything we see and experience — is not all there is.” Only The Sopranos could see the world through the eyes of a depressed hoodlum, a small child and a junkie in a single episode. The dialogue never sounded scripted, the acting never felt like acting, the stories never seemed contrived. It embraced appalling violence and pitch-black humour, often at the same time.

Not once, in all six series, did it lose its ability to shock and surprise. “You eat and you play,” Carmela tells husband Tony, “and you pretend like there’s not a grand piano hanging by a rope just over the top of your head, every minute of every day.” Give the box-set to someone and watch it take over their lives.


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