Tuesday, November 3

A Decade Of Television - The Best Of The Best.

Father Mulcahy - Well, look on the bright side. When we're told we must do our time in purgatory, we can all say "No thanks. I've done mine."

- From 'Goodbye, Farewell And Amen,' the M.A.S.H. series finale, and still the single most-watched television broadcast in American history.

One of the hardest burdens we must face as we get older and form our distinct personalities, is to remember that what is the most popular isn't always what is right. Just because everyone else is doing something, it doesn't necessarily mean that you're lesser for not hopping on board. In a personal sense, we experience this in our teens under the guise of 'peer pressure.' It takes the form of name-brand merchandise, wildly popular musicians, movies, and in the case of today's countdown, television shows.

Today, we take a look back at the most popular television shows of the decade; not in a critical or opinionated stance, but by the numbers. These are Neilsen-approved, statistically-irrefutable and, in some cases, very unfortunately, the most popular TV shows of the last 10 years.

The Most Popular Show Of 2000 - Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? (ABC)

Why It Makes Sense: In 2000, when 'Reality' programming was beginning to hit a fever pitch in the states, a game show where someone could walk away with a cool million was pretty damn alluring. Throw in the theme music, lighting cues, Regis Philbin and a three-night-a-week airing, and you had a recipe for an American Television phenomenon. The tension, the emotion, the heartbreak and triumph was there; certainly we all called the 1-800 number at least once in an attempt to get on the show. Even 10 years later, the syndicated version pulls in high numbers, and a 10th Anniversary celebration was a very welcome reunion.

Why It's Sad: With hindsight being 20/20, we can look at the success of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? as an apocalyptic horseman of Reality TV, drawing huge ratings, saving the networks millions in production costs, putting writers out of a job and dumbing down the collective IQ by a good five points. It was the success of Millionaire that made way for Survivor, American Idol and a slew of other programs that ushered in a new genre of television, one that has polarized fans for the last 10 years. Only now, in the second half of the decade, have we seen a quiet resurgence in quality, scripted television, not necessarily eliminating 'Reality TV' for good, but at least giving us the alternative we went without for quite some time.

The Most Popular Show Of 2001 - Survivor (Australia) (CBS)

Why It Makes Sense: As mentioned above with Millionaire, Survivor came at a time when Reality television was the hottest thing we've stolen from the British since Victoria Beckham. Following a much-hyped first season (that I actually watched every episode of, sadly), Survivor: The Australian Outback had everyone on board from day one, creating a series that it still a ratings powerhouse to this day. The 'voted off' concept, also utilized on Big Brother, adds an element of tension, viewer interaction and endless water cooler conversations the next day. For a great deal of time in 2001, Survivor was all that anyone could talk about.

Why It's Sad: Well, as Daniel Tosh has said, it's no wonder that other countries hate us, when we have a reality show where we pay a million dollars to someone for 'surviving' in a place where people already live. Also, this trend created a celebrity genre out of people who weren't actually celebrities (see Richard Hatch, Elizabeth Hasselbeck, etc.). Furthermore, I was sincerely hoping at the time that Survivor would be...you know... show where people actually died on a weekly basis. Way to stay on your high horse, CBS! Your crime dramas are the most grisly and barbaric shows on television, but when it comes to maybe killing off a few fame-obsessed losers, all of a sudden you're the freaking Vatican. Thanks for nothing!

Kidding. Sort of.

The Most Popular Show Of 2002 - Friends (NBC)

Why It Makes Sense: Apart from, perhaps, Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends had finally found themselves the grizzled veterans of the prime-time sitcom, leading off NBC's 'Must-See Thursday' and making hit shows out of Will & Grace and Just Shoot Me (Inside Schwartz? Not so much). The intensity of the series, specifically the relationship aspect, not only made devoted fans even more devoted, but also caused the writers to step up their game and create something considered worthy of being the #1 show on television. The ratings improved by over 6 million, the cast got filthy rich, and Friends became TV immortality.

Why It's Sad: Well, in my own personal opinion, Friends was woefully mediocre; significantly more sizzle than steak, and a success story of the hype and gossip machine far more than a creative and cerebral one. People were watching the show, in my opinion, for the same reason viewers flocked to That 70's Show in their waning years. The cast was becoming famous for being famous, and the sitcom became nothing more but an outlet to be a part of their lives for 22 minutes a week. Also, much like That 70's Show, I think that the quality of Friends waned as their viewership grew. I cannot remember a single plotline of Friends (outside of the 'will they or won't they' aspect of the Ross & Rachel phenomenon; Exhibit A, I might add), but I can remember how big of a story Jennifer Aniston's haircut was. That, my friends, is proof positive that something has been hopelessly blown out of proportion. To this day, the Dogma of Friends is enough to send hardcore fans into a tizzy when their beloved sitcom is criticized.

The Most Popular Show Of 2003-2004 - CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS)

Why It Makes Sense: It's violent, brilliantly filmed, painstakingly on-target, chock-full of intriguing characters and has essentially inspired enough new television shows to keep CBS in business for the next 20 years. No show has shaped the 'True Crime' genre like CSI; it has even changed the way that our justice system delivers jury trials, for Christ's sake. Incredibly influential, hip and seemingly never running out of prostitutes to kill, CSI seems to me to be one of the most popular shows of the decade that actually deserves it.

Why It's Sad: In 2003, approximately 26 million people per week watch CSI. This is more than double the number of people that watched the incredible 5th season of Lost, and an extremely high number for anything on television this decade. However, there is such a thing as a TV show becoming too popular, and I believe that the success of CSI indirectly saturated a prime-time landscape with an inordinate amount of crime dramas and forensic science.

Here's a quick list of just 14 television shows, produced over the last decade, that I believe were inspired by the success of CSI: The District, CSI: Miami, Without A Trace, Robbery Homicide Division, Cold Case, Century City, The Handler, CSI: NY, Numb3rs, The Unit, Criminal Minds, Flashpoint, The Mentalist, Eleventh Hour.

Bear in mind, this isn't a list of every crime drama on TV in the history of ever; merely a list of crima dramas that aired on CBS since the debut of CSI. That, my friends, is a ton of like-minded television shows, and a network that's putting their eggs into one murder-filled basket. And I'm not even including the successful JAG, NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles trilogy, either. Sure, it's been working out nicely for them, but for...I don't know...everyone else on Earth that isn't into stuff like that, CBS has become a channel that they have all but removed from their guides. Again, this isn't to say that CSI doesn't rule and deserve the praise; more like the typical story of a network sniffing out a hit show and running it directly into the ground.

The Most Popular Show Of 2005-2009 - American Idol (FOX)

Why It Makes Sense: From the first moment we caught a glimpse of Simon Cowell, Kelly Clarkson and Ryan Seacrest, American Idol smashed records and defined a network, easily etching out their legacy as the most impactful television show of all-time. Seriously. 35 million viewers a week tuned in to make celebrities out of some of the best (and worst) undiscovered singers in the nation (by comparison, 4 million fans a week tuned in for Arrested Development), and even though they never duplicated the magic of the first season, AI is showing no signs of slowing down, easily taking their crown as the most popular television show of the last five years.

Why It's Sad: Ratings like those of American Idol are mind-boggling. On basic cable, WWE Monday Night Raw is consistently the top-rated show of all cable programming, bringing in about 4 million viewers on a good week. If American Idol snagged Raw's numbers for even a minute, Rubert Murdoch's black heart would probably explode straight out of his chest. Rumor has it that more people vote for their favorite Idols on a weekly basis than they do for their candidate during a Presidential election. This is the definition of an American Phenomenon.

Why do we watch American Idol? Everyone has their own reasons. Some enjoy the open-audition cattle call, where egotistical and clueless wannabes get chastised in front of the world. Some enjoy the backstage drama; picking an early favorite and running with them until the bitter (or triumphant) end. There are underdogs. Success (and sob) stories. Several hours a week of original programming. Even Dancing With The Stars, a show that operates on a very similar formula, is wildly popular with housewives and idiots. Even with it's accusations of being rigged, results shows that offer 1 hour and 59 minutes of pure filler, and a cavalcade of out-of-touch celebrity judges and musical royalty, there's still something for everyone here. Could it be...gasp!...the perfect show?

Well, no. But for the last decade, it's pretty hard to argue otherwise.

Sound off in the comments section and enjoy your day. The Decade In Review continues tomorrow, with the Worst Television Shows Of The Decade.

I'm not a fan of game-show or competition style tv shows. There's something incredibly contrived and over-produced about most "reality tv", of course, but it is also that those shows so often bring out the worst in the people on the show or manage to highlight our collective cultural and societal ignorance and narcissism. My mom enjoys Survivor (and shows like Big Brother and mazinf Race and whatever else), so I watched a couple of seasons before losing interest because the people were never in enough threat of mortal harm and the participants are always cast as sterotypical caricatures, which I find predictable and booooring. I have never seen a single episode of American Idol, or any of its clones, because of what its popularity represents to me.

That said, CSI was interesting and innovative tv for a season or two. Now it is just another in a line of bland, interchangable crime programs. I agree with you that Friends took mediocre to new heights. It goes on my list of success stories wholly attributable to the hype machine at full tilt. Everyone I knew was watching it (according to the network, anyway) - it is a prime example of the power of Marketing to make a four-star gastronomical extravaganza out of a sh*t sandwich.
I fully admit that I watch Survivor. The show is the most racist, ageist, and sexist show on the planet and I love watching it unfold in front of me.

My secret wish is that when someone gets voted out they snap at tribal council and head into the woods hell bent on terrorizing the tribe. Then for the next two weeks they terrorize the camp and the players causing everyone to piss themselves in fear.
I am very, very, very proud to announce that I have never sat through an entire episode of Survivor or American Idol.
We watched Season 1 of Idol, half of Season 2 and stopped.

We've watched 1 ep. of CSI (the original, I think), couldn't figure out why people liked it, and never watched it again. The Mentalist on the other hand, rocks.

Friends was a good show in the fact they knew they had an ensemble cast with chemistry that works. They developed all the characters fairly evenly, with perhaps Phoebe getting the shaft. Best episode: where Phoebe and Rachel find out that Monica and Chandler are having a relationship ("They don't know that we know that they know that we know."). Second best is when Joey put on a fake foreskin to get a movie part.

My wife got into Survivor a little bit, but I never did. We love The Amazing Race. Oh, and 24.
MAUS/JT - These days, it's getting harder and harder to find someone that hasn't watched at least one episode of American Idol.

KEVIN - That's an awesome idea. They get to go rogue and anarchist on the remaining contestants!

HOSS - A season-and-a-half of Idol was all you really needed, yet I did weekly recaps on the CDP for at least three seasons. It was that sexbomb that was Katherine McPhee.
I'm still waiting for Survivor: Detroit
I stopped Survivor and American Idol when I figured out the deal and really stopped caring. I can't watch Friends in repeats, unlike Seinfeld or the Simpsons. It's just...bleah.

But I'd watch Lisa Kudrow in most anything else.
Smed: Lisa Kudrow's best work was in HBO's "The Comeback". Dear Lord, that was a fantastic show.

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