On January 16, 2000, Big Pussy slouched up Tony Soprano’s driveway, hiding his terrible secret. It was the first episode of the second season of The Sopranos, and everywhere, on cable and network, artful programming was on the rise. In April, HBO aired The Corner, the precursor to David Simon’s The Wire; in May, Buffy the Vampire Slayer closed its fourth season with the dream-finale “Restless.” In July, Freaks and Geeks completed its single perfect season. Sex and the City was a national sensation, The West Wing had begun the previous fall, Jon Stewart was finding his feet on The Daily Show, Adebisi was murdered on Oz, and Curb Your Enthusiasm debuted, violating the premise that viewers couldn’t tolerate a hateful protagonist. HBO was in its heyday; TiVo in its infancy. As Sinatra crooned over The Sopranos’ opening scenes, it was a very good year.
Of course, 2000 was also the year Survivor debuted, that bug-eating guilty pleasure critics denounced as the apocalypse. On Fox, Rick Rockwell married Darva Conger on Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, attracting 22 million viewers: a faked-up spectacle, starring unpaid unknowns, yielding a massive jackpot.
You could easily memorialize the aughts as the Decade of Reality TV, that wild baby genre conceived in some orgy of soap opera, documentary, game shows, and vaudeville—it was reality, after all, that upended the industry’s economic model and rewrote the nature of fame. Or you could mark this as the era of the legal procedural, or the age of Hulu and DVRs and TWOP. But for anyone who loves television, who adores it with the possessive and defensive eyes of a fan, this was most centrally and importantly the first decade when television became recognizable as art, great art: collectible and life-changing and transformative and lasting. As the sixties are to music and the seventies to movies, the aughts—which produced the best and worst shows in history—were to TV. It was a period of exhilarating craftsmanship and formal experimentation, accompanied by spurts of anxious grandiosity (for the first half of the decade, fans compared anything good to Dickens, Shakespeare, or Scorsese, because nothing so ambitious had existed in TV history).
To recognize how radical a shift this was, you need to recall the easy contempt television inspired for 50 years, back when it was “the vast wasteland,” “chewing gum for the eyes.” Even the greatest TV creators knew enough to be reflexively self-mocking; they labored in a compromised medium, built to sell soap. But as this decade began, it had already begun to dawn on viewers that television was something that you could not just merely enjoy and then discard but brood over and analyze, that could challenge and elevate, not just entertain. And a new generation of prickly, idiosyncratic, egotistical TV auteurs were starting to shove up against the limits of their medium, stripping apart genres like the sitcom and the cop show, developing iconic roles for actors like Edie Falco and Michael C. Hall. As the years proceeded (and technology inspired new styles of storytelling), even network TV could stage an innovative series like Lost. On pay channels, especially HBO, it was a genuine renaissance: Show-runners like David Chase and Alan Ball and David Milch and Michael Patrick King (and his Sex and the City writers) reveled in cable’s freedom, exploring adult themes in shocking, sometimes difficult ways.
The New York Times pretty much lost its mind over The Sopranos, but even in retrospect, David Chase’s nasty masterpiece was a prescient creation, a symbol of what was taking place across the schedule: It was an auteurist twist on a classic genre, featuring a dislikable protagonist and stylistic risk-taking startling for TV (dream sequences, oddball pacing, film-quality visuals). In the last years of the nineties, Joss Whedon attracted a passionate cult following with his very different but equally ambitious series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, freed not by paid cable but by the invisibility of the WB. Blending teen romance with classic horror, Buffy had adult resonance disguised by its juvenile title and lo-fi looks—and it was the precursor to ambitious genre programming including Veronica Mars, Alias, Battlestar Galactica, Whedon’s Firefly, Lost, and True Blood.
Chase’s and Whedon’s very different voices would come to represent the new style of TV making, less sentimental and more freewheeling, willing to alienate viewers, capable of a slow build not over episodes but over whole years—in striking contrast to the slick, interchangeable legal and medical procedurals, the syndication-friendly format that dominated the networks. On HBO, Alan Ball turned Six Feet Under into a stage for questions about mortality. Aaron Sorkin built a liberal holodeck on The West Wing; on FX, The Shield examined the intertwining nature of corruption and heroism. J. J. Abrams co-created the philosophical puzzle-box Lost; David Milch shocked the Western to life on Deadwood; Vince Gilligan interrogated one man’s slippery moral slope on Breaking Bad. On Canadian television (and reruns, thank God, on Sundance), the drily hilarious Slings and Arrows slashed through three matchless seasons from 2003 to 2006. Showtime built its own boutique-cable brand, with naughty series that reveled in dysfunction—the best being Weeds and Dexter (and the loopiest, Ilene Chaiken’s The L Word). The decade of innovation was capped by the rise of Matthew Weiner, another sly, combative auteur inspired and trained by David Chase, whose narcotic Mad Men brought back the watercooler debates of The Sopranos.