What television series will go down as having been "essential" to the decade of the 2000s? What are the shows that changed the way television is experienced, and pop culture itself, by their very existence? For me, at least, singling out five proved to be very easy.
Survivor: Debuting as a modest way to kill some time in the summer of 2000, Survivor became the first smash hit of the decade, with numbers for its finale that are simply never seen anymore outside the Super Bowl. Survivor continues to work because the concept of people living together and not being able to trust each other reveals all sorts of things about human nature under pressure. The series also proved that you could turn regular folks into true celebrities in almost no time at all. Survivor contestants, even the winners, are rarely household names these days. But the process that led to Jon and Kate Gosselin as America's favorite tabloid subjects began right here.
CSI: On one level, it was the Law & Order formula all over again. But CSI added a significant element of geek appeal (remember how awesome those zooms into the body seemed at first?) and ramped up the emphasis on the personal lives of people like Gil Grissom and Catherine Willows. The series was by far the most influential of the decade; CBS, the top-rated network for most of the '00s, has cloned the CSI formula again and again, with shows featuring a middle-aged male lead, attractive underlings, and crime fighting done by folks who are not traditional police. While critics were generally kind towards CSI, they tended to prefer prestige cable series, as did the Emmy Awards. But its success proved that most in middle America just wanted a well-told story with a resolution at the end of the hour, and with the bad guys punished, or at least singled out as criminal. Still, this was a long way from Barnaby Jones.
The Sopranos: This is the one show on this list that debuted prior to this decade (in January 1999), but while it was a hit by the standards of pay cable from the start, its primary influence was felt as the years went on. It was one thing when HBO, Showtime, and Lifetime began dominating the field of the made-for-TV movie once the major commercial networks mostly stopped making them, but The Sopranos was the first series to go toe-to-toe with the networks when it came to making weekly dramas. The situation today, when it has become rare for a network drama to get attention from the Emmys, was set into motion by Tony Soprano and Co. The series also stretched the limit of what Americans would put up with from characters they invited into their homes every week. Tony was a philanderer and murderer whose attempts at gaining self-knowledge always seemed halfhearted. And yet, when he wound up in the hospital, a victim of a shooting at the hands of his demented uncle, we wanted him to make it. And then there was that ending...
American Idol: Any show that can reign as the biggest hit on television for the majority of a decade has to be on a list like this, right? Talent competitions had been a part of television from the start, but none had ever caught on in quite this way. Idol took advantage of the trend toward self-exposure spawned by Survivor and The Real World: everyone can and should become famous, preferably by singing very well, although singing very badly would do in a pinch. Paula Abdul liked to refer to the performers on the show as taking a "journey," and that quality was key to the success of Idol. It took young folks who were completely unknown in January, and by May had turned them into not just celebrities, but people capable of inspiring viewers to vote for them for hours on end. No series has done a better job of revealing the American character, or displaying the variety of life experiences that can lead someone to the audition room to face Simon, Randy, and Kara.
Lost: While all the shows on this list, especially the reality shows, had strong Internet fan bases, this is the one that would have been unimaginable without the Web. The level of complexity in Lost was something never before seen on television. Watching it for 60 minutes every week was only the beginning, as the end of every episode tended to send fans scurrying online to chat about what it all meant, and whether the physics and philosophy doled out was a bunch of hooey, or actually had some basis in fact. This was science fiction that cared about the science. It was all a very long way from "Warp Factor Three, Mister Sulu." Early on, the makers of Lost realized that airing reruns in the midst of a season was a practice that simply wouldn't work with this kind of series, and thus began the January debut of the show, with an uninterrupted run till May. Cable and 24 had figured this out earlier, but Lost proved that it could work to boost fervor for a network show. Just one more season, folks!