As we celebrate rediscovering the best that TV has offered over the past 50 years as part of TV Guide's TV Throwback, the 2000s stand out as a television goldmine. Many credit the decade as marking the beginning of the second Golden Age of Television, with much of the focus being placed on the last few years of the aughts, coinciding with the rise of AMC dramas Mad Men and Breaking Bad. But overlooking the rest of the decade ignores some of the very best shows, not just of the 2000s, but in all of television history.
Beginning with the early years, the 2000s featured several influential programs that left a lasting impression on the television landscape and viewers alike, and while some of these shows changed the way we watched TV and interacted with fellow fans (Lost), others came to define entire generations through their storytelling (The West Wing). The following list includes some of the best and most influential shows of the decade, including shows that debuted in the late '90s but aired most of their episodes in the beginning of the 21st century.
The West Wing (1999-2006)
Watch it on: Netflix
Aaron Sorkin's snappy dialogue, Thomas Schlamme's walk-and-talk direction, and an idealistic view of politics combined to make the world of public service feel cool and romantic during The West Wing's seven-season run on NBC. By putting a human face on, and attaching empathy to, an institution that's traditionally been viewed with cynicism, the show acted as a form of catharsis. It depicted a better government, one with a big heart that we could aspire to re-create in the real world. And many millennials, who came of age just before or during the show's run, decided to try to do just that and entered politics during and after college. If you weren't left with the desire to do something for the greater good after watching The West Wing, you watched it wrong.
The Sopranos (1999-2007)
HBO's mafia family drama starring James Gandolfini is almost as popular now as it was when it was airing for a very simple reason, which is that it's timeless. As long as America exists, The Sopranos will be relevant, because The Sopranos is a quintessential American story. It's a story about criminals who think they're victims, people holding onto old ways of doing things long after they've stopped working, an empire in decline, and how capitalism corrodes the souls of everyone who participates in it. There's a reason the finale is called "Made in America." Everyone knows The Sopranos is widely considered the greatest series of all time, but you can't really know all the different ways it's the greatest series of all time, or evaluate how close any potential runners-up come, until you've watched the crime saga all the way through. –Liam Mathews
Watch it on: CW Seed (not all episodes available)
Arriving at the dawn of the new decade, Girlfriends presented four vibrant young Black women, navigating career, relationships, family, and friendship. Chronicling the exploits of uptight lawyer Joan (Tracee Ellis Ross), the working mom Maya (Golden Brooks), the free-spirited Lynn (Persia White), and the self-centered Toni (Jill Marie), Girlfriends introduced Ross as a leading actress but depicted all its women with range, depth, and great fun. The brainchild of Mara Brock Akil, with Kelsey Grammer signed on as an executive producer, Girlfriends stood out for its sophistication and polish; nobody was a trope or an expected idea of a Black woman. Instead, each character was a real person with real problems (Maya's marriage), real flaws (Toni's narcissism), and real neuroses (Joan's overthinking) that made nearly every episode feel fresh and lively. Running for a whopping eight seasons (and launching the successful spin-off The Game), Girlfriends made its mark as both a mirror and an aspirational template for young Black viewers coming of age in the 2000s. –Malcolm Venable
Gilmore Girls (2000-2007; 2016)
Watch it on: Netflix
With its signature rapid-fire dialogue, pop culture references, and an infusion of small-town charm, the heartwarming series Gilmore Girls left a lasting mark on The WB and later on The CW (and eventually on Netflix, which revived it in 2016). The relationship between Lauren Graham's Lorelai and Alexis Bledel's Rory made women everywhere yearn for a mother-daughter friendship that was as endearing, as fun, and as filled with humor. And when you add Kelly Bishop's Emily to the mix, the series' cross-generational relationships made for a strong and poignant story about the complexity of family. Many shows have tried and failed to replicate Gilmore Girls' charm and wit, but no series has ever come close, not even creator Amy Sherman-Palladino's follow-up, Bunheads, so it's best just to rewatch the Gilmores.
Watch it on: Amazon Prime
Between the end of Felicity, the beginning of Alias, and creating or co-creating enthralling sci-fi series Lost and Fringe, J.J. Abrams pretty much ruled TV in the 2000s. But the spy drama Alias, which was a star-making turn for Jennifer Garner, arguably featured the most compelling story of all Abrams' series. Garner's Sydney Bristow was a grad student and double agent for the CIA, and while she jetted off to new locations, saved the world, and kicked major ass every week, she yearned for a normal life as she did a job that, while necessary for the greater good, also required a solitary existence. Her strained relationship with her father (Victor Garber) was the show's strong central thread, which became increasingly important as the show's plot eventually got away from itself and no one actually understood the Rambaldi storyline. But at the end of the day, we were lucky to have a show like Alias then, and we're even more lucky to have a show like it now.
The Wire (2002-2008)
At some point in your life, probably while you're at a party, someone will ask you if you've seen The Wire yet, and while this is a frustrating and unavoidable part of human existence, it's not entirely without reason. Although the HBO drama, created by David Simon, is now considered by many to be one of the finest shows ever made, it wasn't until the series was nearly over that many TV viewers started to take notice of it and its brilliance. With each season tackling a different aspect or institution of Baltimore — the drug trade, the docks, the media, etc. — and its relationship with the members of law enforcement, the series was a compelling portrait of an American city in decline. At its worst, the show was still better than most everything else, which means the show at its best was transcendent. There's a reason The Wire is now studied in academia and former President Barack Obama cited it as his favorite show. So, have you watched (or rewatched) The Wire yet?
The Shield (2002-2008)
Watch it on: Hulu
As FX's first original scripted program, Shawn Ryan's crime drama The Shield put the basic cable network on the map and left a legacy of prestige programming. Following the corrupt cops of the LAPD's strike team, which were led by Michael Chiklis' Vic Mackey and his number two, Walton Goggins' Shane Vendrell, the series was an exceptional drama that regularly drove home the idea that all actions have consequences, and some of them are devastating. After seven seasons that asked what we were willing to accept from the men and women in blue, the show went out with one of the best series finales of all time. Many of the people involved with The Shield would go on to create, star in, and work on other FX projects, keeping the prestige drama alive and well beyond the 2000s.
Chappelle's Show (2003-2006)
Watch it on: Amazon Prime (for purchase)
Chappelle's Show only ran for 28 episodes — and three of those were "Lost Episodes" released without co-creator and star Dave Chappelle's involvement after he walked away from the Comedy Central sketch show during production on Season 3 — but that was more than enough to cement the series' reputation as one of the funniest shows ever made. When you look at how many zeitgeisty hit sketches Chappelle's Show produced in such a short period of time, it's almost hard to remember that they were basically all in a few weeks in 2003 and 2004. The show started with Clayton Bigsby, the Black white supremacist — still one of the most provocative and effective pieces of commentary on race of the century so far, comedic or otherwise — and ended with an MTV Cribs parody in which Dave, a $50 million man by that point, said he sprinkles diamonds on his food because "it makes my dookie twinkle." In between, there was Prince, Rick James, Tyrone Biggums, Wayne Brady, The Player Hater's Ball, and way more extremely silly toilet jokes than you probably remember. –Liam Mathews
Watch it on: Hulu
Along with Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy, Lost changed the landscape of ABC for the better when it debuted in the middle of the decade, but it also changed the way we watched television as a whole. Argue all you want about the series finale, about Damon Lindelof as a storyteller, or whatever else still bothers you to this day about how the puzzle box show played out, but the truth is the series was the first drama that prompted viewers to engage with one another online to an unprecedented extent as they theorized and tried to figure out the show's central mysteries. With flash-forwards, flashbacks, and flash-sideways, the show about survivors of a plane crash on a mysterious island was one of a kind and spawned a million copycats that were never able to replicate Lost's success. Plus, rewatching the series allows you to uncover new pieces of the puzzle you might have missed the first time around.
Desperate Housewives (2004-2012)
It might be hard to believe now, but there was a time in which the ABC comedy-drama Desperate Housewives absolutely dominated pop culture. The soapy series about a group of women on Wisteria Lane (portrayed by Marcia Cross, Teri Hatcher, Eva Longoria, and Felicity Huffman) as seen through the eyes of a dead neighbor (Brenda Strong) detailed the domestic struggles, comedic adventures, and shocking crimes that went on behind the doors of their seemingly perfect suburban neighborhood. Along with Lost and Grey's Anatomy, the long-running series helped turn ABC around and became one of the network's most-watched shows and a steady anchor for the second half of the decade. There aren't many similar primetime soaps on TV right now, and that's a shame.
Everybody Hates Chris (2005-2009)
Instead of watching The Office again (though it is also on this list), maybe it's time you make room in your viewing schedule for another standout sitcom from the mid-2000s. Everybody Hates Chris was a hilarious, pointed, and poignant take on co-creator and narrator Chris Rock's adolescence in the early '80s, with Tyler James Williams giving a riotous performance as a teenaged Chris. The feel-good comedy explored issues of race and class, while providing fresh insights into the early life of one of today's most celebrated comedians. There's a reason it was nominated for three Emmys and a Golden Globe, and won an NAACP Image Award: Everybody Hates Chris is one of the best sitcoms of the era, and it's about time it gets recognized as such. –Sadie Gennis
The Office (2005-2013)
Watch it on: Netflix
An American remake (and a less abrasive version) of the British series of the same name, NBC's The Office can be credited with launching Steve Carell's career in mainstream comedy and popularizing the mockumentary format, but the true legacy of the workplace comedy about the men and women of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company is one of celebration for the small things in life. Rather than detailing the despair of American corporate life or working a dead-end job, the series followed characters who found joy in the little things and the relationships they built at work, and in doing so, the Greg Daniels-created comedy managed to separate itself from its source material and create an identity completely its own. With a strong supporting cast and an excellent writing staff, the series ran a surprising nine seasons, and although there was an obvious dip in quality after Carell's departure, the comedy itself is timeless, and it remains one of the most popular sitcoms to stream for that reason.
The Boondocks (2005-2014)
Where to watch: HBO Max
Aaron McGruder's groundbreaking series The Boondocks may be a cartoon, but when it comes to both exemplifying and confronting Black culture directly, it's one of the most brave and controversial series anywhere. The show, which ran in chunks from 2005 to 2014 and will return for two more seasons on HBO Max, follows a pair of kids, ages 10 and 8 (both voiced by Regina King), and their civil rights activist grandfather, but it's become well known for its satire about the current state of Black America, how it's perceived, and how it pertains to both history and entertainment. –Tim Surette
Watch it on: Hulu
Let's cut to the chase: What makes Bones worth watching is the chemistry between its leads. Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz, as forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan and FBI agent Seeley Booth, respectively, have an Old Hollywood rapport with a modern touch: Brennan is brainy and super-confident, while Booth is both old-school masculine and unapologetically sensitive. Every procedural needs a good will-they-won't-they couple, but Bones worked overtime to make Booth and Brennan's relationship make sense. Bones has a sense of empathy — not just for its main characters, but for everyone — that sets it apart from similar shows in the genre. It's comforting to return to a world where victims get justice and people's futures look brighter than their pasts. And who wouldn't want to spend time in a science lab run by so many cool women? –Kelly Connolly
Friday Night Lights (2006-2011)
Watch it on: Hulu
Friday Night Lights is the rare sports drama that is essential viewing for more than just sports fans. Following the lives of high school football players, their coaches, and their family members in the small town of Dillon, Texas, the series explores ideas of class, race, family, and, most of all, community. Every character in the show's expansive cast — which includes Kyle Chandler's Coach Taylor, Taylor Kitsch's Tim Riggins, and Michael B. Jordan's Vince Howard — is treated with deep empathy and dignity, and even smaller players, like Matt's (Zach Gilford) grandmother Lorraine (Louanne Stephens), are given room to have their stories shine. An inspirational tale that blends authenticity with some of the most beautifully shot soap TV has ever seen, no 2000s drama was quite as cathartic, or as immersive, as Friday Night Lights. Watching all five seasons, it's hard not to get invested in the dreams and successes of the Dillon Panthers, and later the East Dillon Lions, as though you're as much a part of the team as the players on the field. –Sadie Gennis
Looking for more shows to stream? Check out TV Guide's TV Throwback, recommending the best shows to rewatch — or to discover for the first time — from 1970 through the present day.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)