Review of the Decade: TV

ROB SMITH picks the best things on the idiot box this decade (now with video clips).

Curb Decade Noughties The Office The Wire TV

The noughties was a decade defined by trash TV. Big Brother proved that you could make successful telly by shoving a group of socially dysfunctional ‘people’ in a house together for a few months. This heralded the onset of the reality TV clusterfuck of the past ten years. The X Factor now descends on television every year and kicks the shit out of your brain until you nearly care if the mentally ill one from Essex will beat the big mouthed bi-sexual. On the other side of the pond, The OC led the trend of fetishism of rich stupid people, an appetite sated by the apparently reality offerings of ‘The Hills’ and ‘Super Sweet Sixteen’.

I don’t mean to sound moralising though. Shit TV has an important purpose. When I’ve had a day of pain in the UL the last thing I want to do when I get back to college is think. Let’s face it though, man cannot live off reality fluff alone. Like a week spent on YouPorn, it’s bad for the soul. Luckily there was some pretty fucking good TV amongst all that reality rubbish of the past ten years, and it’s time to decide what was the best.

American Drama.
Nominees: The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men.
In a decade when Hollywood’s big innovation was adapting toys into films, the American small screen drama quietly went through something of a renaissance. Whereas the nineties opened with the sheer fucking brilliance of Twin Peaks and then fizzled out, the noughties saw series after series of challenging and intelligent television. This was due in no small part to the efforts of HBO, whose subscription service meant they didn’t have to prostitute themselves for ratings as heavily as their commercial competitors. The decade opened with a portrayal of Mafia life as compelling as any of its big screen brothers and closed with a vision of the early sixties advertising world that was if anything more disturbing. The West Wing and Six Feet Under missed out narrowly on a position in our final three, but even so there can only be one winner.

Winner: The Wire.
Okay so you already knew the result. I realise how boring it is to say The Wire is the best television programme of the decade but it’s true goddamn it. Notoriously difficult to get in to (creator David Simon famously saying ‘Fuck the casual viewer’) but oh so rewarding when you do, The Wire demonstrates what television can achieve when proper care is taken. Plot lines unravel over whole seasons, a perfect antidote to CSI’s brand of solving an implausible murder each episode, and the whole show slowly transforms from a police procedural into an analysis of a whole city from its school system to city hall and beyond. True, Season Five was a bit of a letdown, but only in comparison to the repeated braingasms of the previous four seasons. Above all, The Wire invites repeat viewing. It’s been three years since I first watched it and I haven’t yet grown bored.

British Drama
Nominees: Fantabulosa!, State of Play, The Lost Prince.
The past decade has been rather lacklustre, however, on this side of the Atlantic. The great tradition of hard hitting series, such as Boys from the Blackstuff, and one off television plays, such as Abigail’s Party, struggled to find spiritual successors. Paul Abbott provided some respite with his excellent Clocking Off, State of Play and Shameless, with the latter straddling that difficult divide between drama and comedy. BBC Four proved its reputation as the place where the BBC hides all its quality television with a brilliant series looking at the miserable private lives of comedians, Michael Sheen’s turn as Kenneth Williams being the most memorable. Randy Andy Davies was still in action on the costume drama front, with Bleak House being his standout adaptation. The master of costume dramas, however, was bested in this field by another televisual giant.

Winner: The Lost Prince
Unlike The Wire, you probably haven’t seen, let alone heard, of The Lost Prince. You should have though as it’s fucking good. Created by Stephen Poliakoff, The Lost Prince is set in the early Twentieth Century and examines the true story of the British prince who was kept behind closed doors because of his epilepsy. The whole thing is a little bit heart wrenching to say the least. It also has plenty of big hitters such as Gambon, Nighy and Bibi-motherfucking-Anderson. I realise you’re probably not going to watch this; you’re too busy having a cheeky look at Tab Totty no doubt. Seriously though, have an evening off from Trinity and The Season and give this a watch instead, you might learn something for once.

American Comedy
Nominees: Futurama, Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm.
The Nineties was the decade of the superstar American sitcom, with Friends, Frasier and Seinfeld becoming international icons. By the time the noughties came around, however, they were either over or were comfortably settling down to die with all the lost dignity and vitality of an old people’s home. No fall was more upsetting than The Simpsons which, once the funniest insight into modern America, had become both intellectually stale and, more importantly, rarely funny. Fuck.
There was hope though. Futurama provided several great seasons at the beginning of the decade and somewhat compensated for Matt Groening’s other creation slowly defiling the memory of its former self every week. Let’s face it though, this contest is a straight out street-fight between Arrested Development and Curb. Both demonstrated that America could do intelligent comedy and distinguishing one from the other can only ever be a subjective decision.

The Winner: Curb Your Enthusiasm.
The premise seemed simple to begin with. The creator of Seinfeld Larry David makes a sitcom about his life with plenty of celebrity cameos and real life situations. Sounds boring, and indeed the First Season plodded along slowly. That is until Larry accidently puts ‘Beloved Cunt’ instead of ‘Beloved Aunt’ in a newspaper obituary. This profane incident sets the tone for the next six seasons, with David every week crafting a multi-faceted plot that magically comes together to fuck his fictional counterpart royally in the end. Curb refuses to shy away from the topics that other comedies blanch at, with Larry mistaken as a paedophile or a racist just about every other week. The opening of Season Seven sees Larry getting in a drag race with a Doctor in order to get home and dump his partner before she’s diagnosed with cancer. Who said American comedy was safe?

British Comedy
Nominees: Peep Show, The Office, The Thick of It.
The noughties was all about the sitcom when it came to comedy. Sure the second series of Big Train appeared at the very beginning of the decade, but I challenge you to name another British sketch show of above average merit in the past ten years. And don’t you dare say Mitchell and Webb.
Feel free to mention those two names when discussing sitcoms, however, as David Mitchell and Robert Webb spearheaded what was, for the first three series at least, one of the finest comedies ever produced and the programme that above all others defined a new generation. Mark, flustered at the modern world, and Jeremy, happily revelling in its idiocies, both painted a grim picture of modern Britain. Similarly, The Thick of It illustrated the impotence of modern politics, with its chaos reigned over by Malcolm Tucker, the shameful love child of Sir Humphrey and Drill Sergeant Hartman. Neither of these programmes would exist, however, if it wasn’t for a low key comedy set in the office of a Slough paper merchant.

The Winner: The Office.
Again, The Office is the obvious choice but it’s obvious for a reason. Shot in the style of a docu-drama (a technique that in itself wasn’t new no matter what people say), The Office was willing to look at the mundane and out of this craft a series of lives that you actually cared about. It was also really fucking funny. Brent continually trying to be the comedian and failing by all accounts, Gareth hopelessly pretending to be a tough no nonsense man and Tim the figure of intellectual resignation in this bleak spiral. We all know Gervais’ performance redefined cringe comedy, but what was more impressive was that, by the close of the second series, you actually cared about this sad little man from Slough. One of the bleakest endings in TV history was fantastically turned around by the finest Christmas Specials this side of Father Ted. If for some reason you haven’t seen it, stop stalking your supervision partner on Facebook and buy the DVDs.

Click here for our look at the best albums of the decade and stay tuned for film.