By Tim Cuprisin Media Columnist Published Dec 30, 2009 at 11:00 AM
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January 1 marks not only the beginning of 2010, but the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century. So rather than just look back at the year that's ending, as I did last week, here's a look back at TV in the first 10 years of the new millennium.

It's my list, so feel free to comment with your own best shows of the decade.

On television, it's been a decade of "reality," a decade when cable dramas changed the rules for hour-long programs and a decade when the sitcom thrived -- despite reports of its imminent demise.

The best drama: "The Sopranos."

While HBO's landmark drama about a New Jersey mob family began in 1999, it's really THE show of this decade, as it raised the bar for how a story is told on television. Novel-like in its structure, each episode is a chapter in a story that's really less about the mob and more about the dark side of all families. "The Sopranos" is TV as literature, and we'll be studying it for decades to come.

The runners-up include HBO's "The Wire" and "Six Feet Under." The former takes a TV cop shows and turns it into something more, the latter, set in a funeral home, appears obsessed with death when it's all about life. "Six Feet Under" featured one of the best closing scenes of any TV series ever. AMC's "Mad Men" is as close as we come now to "The Sopranos." Its recently-completed third season has been its best, as the cast deals with the lies that can define lives.

The only broadcast network drama on my list is NBC's "Friday Night Lights," which is hampered by low ratings. That's forced a unique deal with DirecTV, where it airs on satellite first, then pops up on NBC in the second half of the TV season. The characters are as realistically drawn as you'll find on television. But the ratings problems show why quality TV has been moving to cable -- where audiences don't have to be quite so large.

The best sitcom: "Arrested Development."

Gone since 2006, there's still talk about a movie (although I won't really believe it until it happens). The story of the the ridiculously dysfunctional Bluth family had the pedigree to be a ratings success on Fox, coming from Ron Howard, who understands how to reach a mainstream audience. But it never brought in the ratings it needed to survive, another sign of the weakness of the broadcast networks. This absurd pseudo-documentary filled with characters lives on in reruns on cable's IFC.

As is often the case with more traditional sitcoms, the story spun around the most normal member of the cast, Jason Bateman, as Michael Bluth, and introduced most of us to the likable Michael Cera as his son, George-Michael.

The runners-up are all still on the air.

NBC's "The Office" began as a copy of Ricky Gervais' Britcom, but found an American voice, thanks to Steve Carell and Rainn Wilson's incredible Dwight Schrute. NBC's "30 Rock" looks behind the scenes of a network comedy show, using creator Tina Fey's "Saturday Night Live" experience, but a daffy cast of characters and scripts that are a weekly gold mine of pop-culture references makes for consistent first-rate comedy.

Finally, Comedy Central's "Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" are two very different ways to do topical comedy, the first being a faux news show that features Jon Stewart consistently jabbing at the powerful, the second being a re-imagining of the right-wing pundit in the fictional version of Stephen Colbert, who deftly satirizes the nightly political mud-wrestling shows on the cable "news" outlets.

The best "reality" show: "American Idol."

It's not always guaranteed that a top-rated show will be the best of its genre, but Fox's "American Idol," which begins its ninth season on Jan. 12, takes the crown specifically because of its ratings. The singing competition has tweaked its formula regularly -- and, usually, wisely -- as it achieves a feat unheard of in modern TV: bringing young and old viewers together in front of the same television show.

It's been the top-rated TV show for half a decade.

The main reason variety shows died in the 1980s (and won't be back, despite regular attempts to resurrect them) is that entertainment these days is niche-marketed, with little crossover. "Idol" is as close as we come to a modern variety show, combining the music of the competitors and the comedy stylings of Simon Cowell and some of the early auditioners.

The runners-up include CBS' "Survivor," which set the pattern for all such modern "reality" competitions when Richard Hatch developed the "alliance." It's been relatively consistent over the years, as has CBS' "Amazing Race," which is the smartest of the "reality" competitions.

Speaking of "reality": MTV's "Real World" is back with a new season from D.C. tonight at 9. The granddaddy of "reality" TV has lost its edge to such MTV shows as "The Hills" and, now, "Jersey Shore," keeps plugging along.

Tim Cuprisin Media Columnist

Tim Cuprisin is the media columnist for He's been a journalist for 30 years, starting in 1979 as a police reporter at the old City News Bureau of Chicago, a legendary wire service that's the reputed source of the journalistic maxim "if your mother says she loves you, check it out." He spent a couple years in the mean streets of his native Chicago, and then moved on to the Green Bay Press-Gazette and USA Today, before coming to the Milwaukee Journal in 1986.

A general assignment reporter, Cuprisin traveled Eastern Europe on several projects, starting with a look at Poland after five years of martial law, and a tour of six countries in the region after the Berlin Wall opened and Communism fell. He spent six weeks traversing the lands of the former Yugoslavia in 1994, linking Milwaukee Serbs, Croats and Bosnians with their war-torn homeland.

In the fall of 1994, a lifetime of serious television viewing earned him a daily column in the Milwaukee Journal (and, later the Journal Sentinel) focusing on TV and radio. For 15 years, he has chronicled the changes rocking broadcasting, both nationally and in Milwaukee, an effort he continues at

When he's not watching TV, Cuprisin enjoys tending to his vegetable garden in the backyard of his home in Whitefish Bay, cooking and traveling.