Andy Serwer is right. As his recent cover story in Time magazine made clear, the 00's have indeed been The Decade from Hell. These last ten years began with a stock market crash and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. They are ending with a full-blown economic crisis that has people longing for the good old days of 1999. In between we have suffered two wars, the unprecedented devastation of Hurricane Katrina, failing power grids, falling bridges, numerous school shootings and so much more that would best be forgotten, were so much of it not so unfortunately instructive.
It's hard to think of anything that will evoke fond memories when people look back on these last ten years, as they inevitably will. But here's something worth remembering: The beginning of the decade unexpectedly ushered in a new Golden Age of Television, an accolade previously reserved for the Fifties, when high culture and profound drama (much of it live) dominated the then nascent medium.
As I think back, the quality of scripted television entertainment had eroded so noticeably in the Nineties that critics everywhere were wondering what would happen to TV when its handful of remaining gems -- especially Seinfeld -- ran their course near decade's end. With the exception of NYPD Blue, which by the late Nineties was showing its age, and Law & Order, which has proven timeless, there were no longer any dramas on television that had people buzzing. Even ER, one of the most acclaimed series of the decade, had dropped below the radar.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, along came The Sopranos and The West Wing in 1999. Viewers took to both shows with such surprising vigor that well-written, adult contemporary drama was in sudden demand. Consider the outsized wave of quality dramatic programming that would follow throughout the 2000s: The Shield, Six Feet Under, 24, Lost, House, The Wire, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, Rome, Rescue Me, Mad Men, The Closer, Friday Night Lights, Big Love, Damages, Burn Notice, Dexter, Breaking Bad, In Plain Sight, True Blood and so many more.
The success of these shows proved even more satisfying given everything that happened to television during the decade. There were so many lousy sitcoms produced that the genre looked to be a goner. Reality television came roaring back in the summer of 2000 with Survivor and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, opening the floodgates for low-cost unscripted programming that put higher-cost scripted fare on notice. Homemade and professionally produced videos siphoned millions of young people from TV to the 'Net.
But here we are at the very end of the decade, and scripted drama is still as vital and vibrant as it was ten years ago. Consider FX's Sons of Anarchy, which just wrapped its second season last Tuesday. A modest performer last year, Sons was a sophomore hit, especially with male viewers. Considering it is a gritty drama about rough, tough biker guys, Sons unexpectedly became a showcase for the actresses in its cast: series lead Katey Sagal (as deserving of an Emmy nomination as any other lead actress this season), supporting player Maggie Siff (also Emmy-worthy) and guest star Ally Walker (ditto).
Meanwhile, Showtime's Dexter is careening toward its season four climax in grand nail-biting fashion, as serial-killer-of-killers (and new dad) Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) draws ever closer to a fateful confrontation with Arthur Mitchell, aka the Trinity Killer (played by scary good guest star John Lithgow). The recent Thanksgiving episode, in which Dexter witnessed firsthand the means by which Mitchell routinely tortures and torments his wife and two teenage children, was an unforgettable shocker. Dexter has never been better.
Lastly, DirecTV's Friday Night Lights last Wednesday delivered its finest hour since its Season One finale. Zach Gilford as nice guy Matt Saracen was absolutely heart-wrenching in a story that found the recent high school grad coping with the sudden loss of his estranged father, a career soldier who died in Iraq. In most drama series, characters typically respond to the deaths of family and friends with a big boo-hoo and a few hugs. But Lights avoided any such clichés: Matt kept most of his emotional turmoil inside, even after viewing the ravaged remains of his dad, until he became quietly unglued at the Taylor home, trying to explain what he was feeling to girlfriend Julie, former coach and father figure Eric and Eric's wife Tami. There were no "everything is going to be okay" hugs, which rang completely true for these very realistic characters. Instead, in one of this series' typical grace notes, Eric silently accompanied the quietly crying Matt as he walked home. I once wrote that an Emmy Award wasn't good enough for the performance Bryan Cranston delivers in Breaking Bad. Instead, I thought he should receive an Oscar for his work on that show. I felt the same about Gilford after last week's FNL.