These breakthroughs extended to sitcoms as well. When Seinfeld ended in 1998, critics eulogized the genre—but on network, comedies outstripped dramas for sophistication and often emotional depth. The British version of The Office launched the mockumentary sitcom, a much-imitated technique that reflected and parodied reality TV. There were deconstructive sitcoms like the transcendent Arrested Development and 30 Rock; there were self-loathing Hollywood satires like The Comeback. And there were sparkling, multilayered comedy-dramas like Sex and the City, a stylized, easily underestimated series that spoke with nuance and complexity about single women’s lives. Even less ambitious sitcoms became faster and subtler (although not as politically aware as sitcoms of the seventies): Compare How I Met Your Mother to its cornier cousin Friends.
But if there was one show that exemplified the highest aspirations of TV-as-art, it was The Wire. Airing from 2002 to 2008, it was the single best show in the history of television, a (yes) Dickensian portrait of an entire city’s corruption. Show-runner David Simon was a classic aughts auteur: arrogant, grudge-bearing, with a bullheaded sense of artistic entitlement. The show he created never became a pop sensation like The Sopranos; it attracted a cult following. Yet despite the show’s tiny fan base, it symbolized what truly brilliant TV could be. A portrait of Baltimore in decay, the series built, over 60 episodes, a prismatic, mordantly funny, bleak, and enraging universe of drug dealers, cops, pier workers, teachers, politicians, journalists, and do-gooders. Animated by a slow-burn moral outrage, it was grounded in Simon’s experience as a crime reporter. And it featured an astonishingly diverse set of African-American male and female characters, often playing roles other crime series would have reduced to fungible thugs. (Standouts included Idris Elba’s stunning turn as business-student/kingpin Stringer Bell.) But the series’ sneakiest achievement may have been the way it elevated, shattered, and remade the format of the police procedural, spider-webbing that old scaffolding with numberless subplots, bits of crackling dialogue, sickening and subtle imagery. Over the seasons, The Wire generated a sheer narrative density that demanded and assumed an intelligent audience was out there, willing to interpret. No wonder critics kept reassuring readers that the show wasn’t homework: It was worth the devotion it required.
In fact, a series like The Wire might not have found that audience were it not for galloping advances in technology: DVDs that allowed viewers to watch a whole season in a gulp and, later, DVRs that let viewers curate, pause, and reflect. By opening up TV to deeper analysis, these technologies emboldened a community of TV-philes, fans and academics who defended the medium as worthy of critical respect. Online, writers were forced to reckon with their most passionate viewers (and some loopy new critical forms: the recap, fan fiction, “filk”). A show like Lost, with its recursive symbol-games, couldn’t exist without the Internet’s mob-think. But this was true as well for The Sopranos and Mad Men, allusive dramas that rewarded rumination, causing nationwide waves of appreciation and backlash for months after each new episode.
It’s no coincidence that such technologies ran parallel to a rise in structural experimentation. Besides using mockumentary style, many series experimented with voice-overs and other self-conscious tricks, like the real-time countdowns of 24 (the first big DVD hit) and the fantasy sequences on Scrubs. In the latter part of the decade, there was a vogue for fractured chronology, with time-leaps or rippling flashbacks (gambits that echoed the new pausing–fast-forwarding technologies). Sometimes these methods felt gimmicky, but more often, the aughts auteurs expanded the vocabulary of TV while reveling in the peculiar strengths of the medium: 22 hours to tell a story, long-arc characterization, that intimate loop with viewers who watched alone, at home—and then in communion online. Few shows were baldly political, but many explored adult themes. Weiner and Whedon were obsessed with gender and power; Battlestar Galactica explored religion; The Wire took on class, race, and the nature of human corruption.
Television had always been a pleasure, a mass entertainment. It was by nature collaborative, requiring and rewarding compromise from those who created it. But in the aughts, the best TV-makers displayed the entitlement of the artist, a risk in an industry dependent not only on advertisers but on the willingness of viewers to continue to let you in, week after week. When his online fan base howled at tragic plot turns, Whedon argued, “It’s a mandate: Don’t give people what they want, give them what they need.” Chase resisted fan worship of Tony Soprano by grinding our faces in his anti-hero’s repulsiveness. In an interview just before the Mad Men finale, Weiner mused, “You know what, I don’t want to have the tail wag the dog; I don’t want the audience deciding what I do. Because I don’t think in the end they’re the best judges of that.” This doesn’t mean that every nose-thumbing auteur made great TV: Take, for example, Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a tantrum about television, on television. But despite such misfires, there was something revelatory about this personality type, characterologically resistant to people-pleasing, with a bratty—sometimes self-destructive—insistence on a legacy beyond that night’s ratings.