I watch too much TV. I admit this. However, it makes me more than qualified to list the best dramas of this decade. For the record, shows like Mad Men, Deadwood, Damages and Alias just missed the cut. It was tough to whittle this down to 10.
10. Six Feet Under (2001-2005) -- The only television series that really -- truly -- dealt with death. The despair, tragedy, confusion and even humor of death arose throughout this series, brought to us by American Beauty and True Blood honcho Alan Ball. This HBO drama chronicled the Fisher family, led by free spirit and narcissist Nate, who returns to his family-run funeral home after the death of his father.
At the beginning of almost every episode, Six Feet Under showed the death of the Fishers' new client. The manner or the ramifications of that death often interwove with the problems of the family, like closeted homosexual and control freak David, repressed mother Ruth and angst-ridden teen Claire. This show, more maturely and more accurately portrayed death than any TV series that's ever aired. The melodrama grew much too heavy at times, but the great acting and the deep themes always came through. It gets extra points for having perhaps the greatest series finale I have ever seen. It made me ... emotional.
Best episode: Season 5 "Everyone's Waiting"
9. Dexter (2006-present) -- Another Michael C. Hall show. So convincing as David Fisher in Six Feet Under, he effortlessly portray likable serial killer Dexter Morgan on the show that made Showtime a serious network. He's creepy. He's unnerving. He's many things, but what makes Dexter Morgan such a fascinating character is that he's a psychopath who mutilates his victims (always criminals who have gamed the system and need to be punished in his eyes) and then treats his girlfriends kid's like his own. As hard as he tries, he actually does have sincere human emotions. His urge to kill is insatiable.
Dexter is a one-man show. There are other redeeming characters, especially Dexter's sister Debra and foil Doakes, but they are Dickie Simpkins and Luc Longley and Dexter is Michael Jordan. It's a great character study that also mixes mystery and the macabre to become one of those shows you just can't stop watching once you start. Hall's performance in every episode is the main reason, especially his droll and often darkly funny narration.
Best episode: Season 1 "Born Free"
8. True Blood (2008-present) -- Here's Alan Ball again, this time with a show that couldn't be any different than Six Feet Under. The biggest watercooler hit for HBO since The Sopranos, True Blood is classic Southern gothic and vampire camp. It follows Sookie Stackhouse and Company in a backwater Louisiana town as vampirea are "coming out of the closet" now that a synthetic blood drink called True Blood means they don't have to hunt people anymore. Yeah, some parallels to gay rights in this show, but such deep themes take a back seat to plain supernatural fun. This is the most screwed up show I've ever seen and nothing comes close. From constant sex scenes, gory, bloody violence and more than a few WTF? moments, True Blood is like a comic book serial, always ending on a cliff-hanger.
Humor can turn a good drama into a great one and True Blood has plenty of that, mostly from awkward vampire Bill Compton, idiot brother Jason Stackhouse and the flamboyantly gay and totally awesome Lafayette Reynolds. No character is wasted and no moment is boring. You'd have to be a corpse not to find this show entertaining. What it lacks in the usual HBO depth it more than makes up for by just being damn fun to watch.
Best episode: Season 2 "I Will Rise Up"
7. Friday Night Lights (2006-present): For such a sports-crazed society, there aren't many successful, scripted sports-themed shows (besides Indianapolis Colts games). FNL isn't the best television show in the country right now because it's about football, but because it is amazingly authentic. Where it could fall into traps with high school cliches like jocks and geeks and stern teachers, it gives us fleshed out, endearing characters of every stripe. Smash Williams is cocky, but he's a nice kid with the weight of an entire family on him. Matt Saracen is shy and introspective, yet he is the star quarterback. There's not a single solitary character you can't root for in some respect. Everyone has faults. Everyone has redeeming qualities and FNL applies this to everyone in the show.
The reason it's No. 7 on this list, besides the facts mentioned above? It has the best couple on TV. Forget Ross and Rachel or Sam and Diane. Eric and Tami Taylor have the most believable relationship I can remember seeing. It's what I imagine any successful marriage to be like. They push each other's buttons. They have their fights. But they always support each other, through the travails of his football team to raising a teenage daughter. Coach Taylor has more than one kid in a sense. He's the father for all the players on his team and often goes out of his way to help them, hiding his sensitive side with a gruff, no-nonsense demeanor.
Not enough people watch this show. It's good for an entire family and it really is a brilliant snapshot of small-town American life. As I've said before, it's the best TV show currently on the air.
Best episode: Season 1 "Blinders"
6. The Shield (2002-2008): The show that put FX on the map.
This decade will be known for the relevance of the anti-hero. Don Draper from Mad Men is described as an anti-hero. He's got nothing on Vic Mackey. The fascist leader of a Los Angeles strike team, Mackey kills, bribes, beats, cheats, steals and breaks every law imaginable ... all while wearing an LAPD badge. Taking on the gangs of the fictional and hellish Farmington district, Mackey only cares about getting the bad guy. Laws, constitutional rights and common morality don't matter much.
This dearly departed program never took an episode off. Michaek Chiklis nails the brutal ferocity of Mackey while making the viewer somewhat understanding of why he is the way he is ... because there's no other way, not in the gang-infested areas of L.A. Opposite the extra-legal strike team were two law-abiding, smart and troubled detectives who turned out to be two of the best characters on the show -- Claudette Wyms and Dutch Wagonbach. They served as a perfect counterbalance any time Vic planted evidence on a guy or shot a fellow cop.
The intensity grew season by season, helped by appearances from Glenn Close and Forest Whittaker. By the final seventh season, you knew there was only one way for this to end for Mackey and his crew and it wasn't good. It sure was fascinating to watch. You can't get more intense than this, folks. The final few episodes of the series were bone-chilling.
Best episode: Season 5 "Postpartum"