The Best TV of the 00's in Under 40 Hours

Hey did you know that I love TV and think that TV is one of the best artistic mediums in 2016? But also TV has always had a push and pull between serial storytelling and episodic content. I think TV is cool because you get to learn a lot about characters over time and you get a much deeper impression of TV characters than you can get from film characters.

But there are way too many episodes of most shows and it requires a huge time investment to watch them. So one of my hobbies is making compressed playlists of good TV shows that take out all the filler episodes and focus on the important moments of character development. Here are all of the compressed playlists I’ve made so far, and a little bit about each show.

The Good Wife (in 40~ hours)

Back in 2009 I was living with my ex who was a TV writer and we watched every single pilot for every new TV show. We were barely interested in watching The Good Wife because it’s a legal procedural on CBS, which are all red flags. CBS is a factory for dumb baby boomer schlock like CSI, and legal procedurals are rarely character-focused or well-written. But within 5 minutes of the pilot we were fully invested and we followed the show religiously until it’s conclusion.

The Good Wife could be described as “Breaking Bad for women.” (The show even has a show-within-a-show called Darkness Before Dawn that’s a parody of gritty anti-hero cable dramas.) It’s the story of a woman who starts out as a powerless victim and evolves into a cold-hearted machiavellian objectivist. She’s Walter White, but working within the law instead of against it.

Each episode features murder mystery cases that feel more like Sherlock Holmes or Murder She Wrote than CSI; plot twists are often foreshadowed by actual on-screen clues, and unlike most procedurals the internal mechanics of cases mirror real-life logic. Each season also has a greater story arc that is normally about a single year-long court case, or a political campaign, or a corporate takeover.

The show hits a stride in season 5, bringing every on-going plot to a head at the same time. Which leaves season 6 as a low point—multiple cast members start to leave the show, old plots get repeated with a different set of characters, and everything starts to feel a little stale. Luckily in season 7 they wisely decide to wrap up the show in the most satisfying way possible.

Also: this show premiered in 2009, right after the 2008 election, and it was always intended to conclude in 2016, during the 2016 election. So if you watch it right now, it should feel pretty relevant to current events. There’s also a web-only spin-off premiering in spring of 2017.

The entire series is available on Hulu. If you just watch these episodes, you’ll get most of the character arcs and overall storylines without any of the filler:

1.1 — Pilot
 1.6 — Conjugal
 1.13 — Bad
 1.14 — Hi
 1.16 — Fleas
 1.17 — Heart
 1.22 — Hybristophilia
 2.1 — Taking Control
 2.4 — Cleaning House
 2.6 — Poison Pill
 2.16 — Great Firewall
 2.17 — Ham Sandwich
 2.21 — In Sickness
 2.22 — Getting Off
 2.23 — Closing Arguments
 3.1 — A New Day
 3.5 — Marthas and Caitlins
 3.7 — Executive Order 13224
 3.10 — Parenting Made Easy
 3.14 — Another Ham Sandwich
 3.17 — Long Way Home
 3.22 — The Dream Team
 4.1 — I Fought The Law
 4.5 — Waiting for the Knock
 4.10 — Battle of the Proxies
 4.13 — The Seven Day Rule
 4.14 — Red Team, Blue Team
 4.16 — Runnin’ with the Devil
 4.18 — Death of a Client
 4.22 — Whats In The Box?
 5.1 — Everything is Ending
 5.2 — The Bit Bucket
 5.5 — Hitting the Fan
 5.7 — The Next Week
 5.10 — The Decision Tree
 5.13 — Parallel Construction, Bitches
 5.14 — A Few Words
 5.15 — Dramatics, Your Honor
 5.16 — The Last Call
 5.17 — A Material World
 5.18 — All Tapped Out
 5.22 — A Weird Year
 6.1 — The Line
 6.4 — Oppo Research
 6.6 — Old Spice
 6.8 — Red Zone
 6.11 — Hail Mary
 6.16 — Red Meat
 6.19 — Winning Ugly
 6.20 — The Deconstruction
 6.22 — Wanna Partner
 7.1 — Bond
 7.2 — Innocents
 7.11 — Iowa
 7.15 — Targets
 7.19 — Landing
 7.20 — Party
 7.21 — Verdict
 7.22 — End

The Office (in 20~ hours)

I think The Office is the greatest TV show to come out of the 00's. Ignore all comparisons to the extremely different British version. The American version doesn’t start to get good until it deviates from the original source material.

The American version of The Office is co-created by Greg Daniels who also worked on King of the Hill (my all time favorite show — omitted from this list because you can’t stream it anymore), The Simpsons, SNL and Parks and Recreation. Greg Daniels signature is creating a sense of warmth and family between characters who would otherwise have purely contentious relationships.

The Office is an ensemble show, but the real main character across the entire series is Pam Beesly. A lot of people stopped watching around season 7, when Steve Carell leaves the show, but Pam’s story doesn’t reach it’s natural conclusion until the final moments of the final season.

The comedy of Steve Carell’s Michael Scott comes from the fact that he’s a loser and he doesn’t know it; the tragedy of Pam Beesly is that she’s a loser but she knows it and can’t do anything about it. She’s an underdog who stays an underdog forever.

It’s available on Netflix. Watch these episodes:

2.1 — The Dundies 
 2.3 — Office Olympics
 2.8 — Performance Review
 2.11 — Booze Cruise
 2.15 — Boys and Girls
 2.22 — Casino Night
 3.1 — Gay Witch Hunt
 3.7 — Branch Closing
 3.8 — The Merger
 3.11 — Back From Vacation
 3.16 — Business School
 3.22 — Beach Games
 3.23 — The Job
 4.2 — Dunder Mifflin Infinity
 4.6 — Branch Wars
 4.8 — The Deposition
 4.9 — Dinner Party
 4.14 — Goodbye, Toby
 5.1 — Weight Loss pt 1
 5.2 — Weight Loss pt 2
 5.6 — Employee Transfer
 5.12 — The Duel 
 5.16 — The Lecture Circuit pt 1
 5.17 — The Lecture Circuit pt 2
 5.21 — Two Weeks
 5.23 — Michael Scott Paper Company
 5.25 — Broke
 6.4 — Niagara pt 1
 6.5 — Niagara pt 2
 6.11 — Shareholder Meeting 
 6.15 — Sabre
 6.17 — The Delivery pt 1
 6.18 — The Delivery pt 2
 6.26 — The Whistleblower
 7.4 — Sex Ed
 7.11 — Classy Christmas pt 1
 7.12 — Classy Christmas pt 2
 7.19 — Garage Sale
 7.22 — Goodbye, Michael
 7.25 — Search Committee pt 1
 7.26 — Search Committee pt 2
 8.1 — The List
 8.12 — Pool Party
 8.19 — Get the Girl
 8.24 — Free Family Photo Day
 9.2 — Roy’s Wedding 
 9.6 — The Boat
 9.12 — Customer Loyalty
 9.14 — Vandalism
 9.16 — Moving On
 9.19 — Stairmageddon 
 9.22 — A.A.R.M.
 9.23 — Finale

Doctor Who (in 26~ hours)

You’ve probably heard a lot about Doctor Who and thought “do I need to watch Doctor Who to witness some kind of important cultural moment?” and the answer to that, is no. Doctor Who is not a great show, but boy, it sure is a show that happened. It sure is a scifi thing you can watch if you want to. There are really cool set pieces and you get to go to really wacky planets. The universe is really cartoony for a live action show; like, there are multiple Christmas-themed worlds.

There are three distinctive eras of Doctor Who: classic, Russell T Davies, and Steven Moffat. The classic era is 26 seasons of barely-watchable 60's scifi. I did not watch them and you probably shouldn’t either. While this means the reboot series will constantly feel like it’s making references to things you don’t know, that almost adds to the experience. The universe in the show feels vast because it is vast: there are hundreds of hours of footage and dozens of established planets and alien races and you could never watch it all. It’s almost like the TV version of No Man’s Sky.

The reboot series began in 2005 and was helmed by Russell T Davies, a gay nerd who worked on Queer as Folk. Davies’s Doctor Who feels really charming and organic; you almost can’t believe they build these elaborate sets and special effects just to have the actors walk on stage and talk like they’re kinda winging it. There are often shining moments of natural acting that are reminiscent of Han Solo stammering on the intercom in Star Wars. The aliens are all designed to resemble their original 60's counterparts (many of whom were tin foil monsters with plunger probes and colander helmets) which forces the show to lean into a pleasingly camp aesthetic.

Everything comes to a dramatic conclusion at the end of the Russell T Davies era: The main character “regenerates” (gets recast) and all the recurring side characters stop recurring. It’s basically a brand new show, written by Steven Moffat, who unfortunately decides to take the show way more seriously than Davies. If the Russell T Davies era is Star Wars, the Steven Moffat era is Phantom Menace. But it’s still worth watching; the arcs get more dramatic, the finales get more exciting, the cinematography gets way better and the acting gets way worse.

This playlist only goes up to season 7, even though there are more seasons on Netflix and new episodes continued to be made. But the end of season 7 is a good stopping point; it wraps up all of the original Moffat era storylines and brings back the Russell T Davies era characters (using time travel, of course) for one big finish. You could keep watching after that if you want to, but I wouldn’t.

It’s available on Netflix. Watch these episodes:

Russell T Davies era:
 
1.2 — The End of the World
 1.6 — Dalek
 1.8 — Father’s Day
 1.13 — The Parting of Ways
 2.2 — New Earth
 2.4 — School Reunion
 2.14 — Doomsday
 3.1 — The Runaway Bride
 3.4 — Gridlock
 3.11 — Blink 
 3.12 — Utopia
 3.14 — The Last of the Time Lords
 4.9 — Silence In The Library
 4.10 — Forest of the Dead
 4.12 — Turn Left
 4.14 — Journey’s End
 4.19 — The End of Time: Part 2
Steven Moffat era:
 
5.1 — The Eleventh Hour
 5.5 — Flesh and Stone
 5.9 — Cold Blood
 5.10 — Vincent and the Doctor
 5.12 — The Pandorica Opens
 5 13 — The Big Bang
 6.1 — The Impossible Astronaut
 6.2 — The Day of the Moon
 6.7 — A Good Man Goes To War
 6.8 — Let’s Kill Hitler
 6.13 — The Wedding of River Song
 7.1 — Asylum of the Daleks
 7.5 — Angels Take Manhattan
 7.6 — The Snowmen
 7.7 — The Bells of Saint John
 7.11 — Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS
 7.14 — The Name of the Doctor
 7.15 — The Day of the Doctor
 7.16 — The Time of the Doctor

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel (in 40~ hours)

Unlike Doctor Who, Buffy is mandatory viewing if you’ve never watched it all the way through. It is good in every way that a show can be good. The acting is great, the characters are great, the special effects are bad, and the conclusion is satisfying. It’s a perfect show. I wrote a longer essay about it which you can read here.

In the first episode on this playlist Buffy says “I’m 16 years old, I don’t want to die.” That’s basically the emotional core of the show. Buffy doesn’t want to die. But she’s destined to die young — because most Vampire Slayers do. Slayers get their powers at around 16 years old and they normally die in combat after a year or two. In many ways it plays out as if Buffy has a terminal illness.

As the show progresses, Buffy’s psyche starts to get worn-down by the non-supernatural horrors in her life; being poor, feeling deeply alone, dealing with the death of loved ones, and the endless drudgery of adult responsibilities. In the later seasons Buffy starts viewing death as a merciful release from a miserable life. Her arc is her journey to reconcile these feelings and to directly address the systems of power and inequality that are responsible for her suffering.

Series-creator Joss Whedon has said that Buffy’s precocious existential dread is based on his own experiences of losing his mother as a young adult. He’s also said that some of the vampire characters were inspired by the “heroin chic” aesthetic that became popular in the mid-90s. Vampires within the Buffy universe behave in a way that is similar to fiending drug addicts. The show uses it’s lighthearted fantasy context to say meaningful things about heavy topics like depression, addiction, sexual abuse, and suicide.

The experience of watching Buffy is way different if you also watch Angel at the same time. The two shows intertwine and pass characters back and forth and they share one big interesting universe. This playlist has Buffy and Angel episodes listed in tandem, and you should switch back and forth between the two shows to get the full effect. The story starts out with Buffy but it ends with Angel, which stayed on the air one season longer than Buffy and makes an effort to resolve all the loose ends from both shows.

Buffy and Angel are both available on Netflix. Watch these episodes in this order and switch between the two shows accordingly for the full experience:

Buffy: 1.12 — Prophecy Girl
Buffy: 2.6 — Halloween
Buffy: 2.7 — Lie to Me
Buffy: 2.10 — Whats My Line? (pt 2)
Buffy: 2.14 — Innocence
Buffy: 2.17 — Passion
Buffy: 2.21 — The Becoming (pt 1)
Buffy: 2.22 — The Becoming (pt 2)
Buffy: 3.9 — The Wish
Buffy: 3.1o — Amends
Buffy: 3.22 — Graduation Day (pt 2)
ANGEL: 1.1 — City of
Buffy: 4.3 — The Harsh Light of Day
ANGEL: 1.3 — In the Dark
ANGEL: 1.9 — Hero
Buffy: 4.10 — Hush
Buffy: 4.21 — Primeval
ANGEL: 1.22 — To Shanshu In L.A.
ANGEL: 2.2 — Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been
Buffy: 5.5 — No Place Like Home
Buffy: 5.7 — Fool For Love
ANGEL: 2.7 — Darla
ANGEL: 2.15 — Reprise
Buffy: 5.16 — The Body
Buffy: 5.22 — The Gift
ANGEL: 2.22 — There’s No Place Like Plrtz Glrb
Buffy: 6.2 — The Bargaining (pt 2)
Buffy: 6.7 — Once More With Feeling
ANGEL: 3.9 — Lullaby
ANGEL: 3.11 — Birthday

Buffy: 6.12 — Doublemeat Palace
ANGEL: 3.17 — Forgiving
Buffy: 6.16 — Hell’s Bells
ANGEL: 3.20 — A New World
Buffy: 6.20 — Villains
Buffy: 6.22 — Grave
Buffy: 7.1 — Lessons
ANGEL: 4.4 — The House Always Wins
Buffy: 7.5 — Selfless
Buffy: 7.7 — Conversations With Dead People
ANGEL: 4.12 — Calvary
ANGEL: 4.17 — Inside Out
Buffy: 7.17 — Lies My Parents Told Me
ANGEL: 4.21 — Peace Out
ANGEL: 4.22 — Home
Buffy: 7.22 — Chosen
ANGEL: 5.2 — Just Rewards
ANGEL: 5.6 — The Cautionary Tale of Numero Cinco
ANGEL: 5.8 — Destiny
ANGEL: 5.11 — Damage
ANGEL: 5.12 — You’re Welcome
ANGEL: 5.14 — Smile Time
ANGEL: 5.15 — Hole in the World
ANGEL: 5.20 — The Girl in Question
ANGEL: 5.21 — Power Play
ANGEL: 5.22 — Not Fade Away

Big Brother 6 and 7 (in 20–40~ hours)

Okay I know these have all been scripted shows up until this point, but Big Brother 6 and 7 totally fits in on this list. It’s an engaging character-driven drama from 2006 and 2007 that just happens to be a reality show. It’s about 14 people who move into a house together to compete on a lived-in game show for 3 months. They are filmed through hidden cameras and have minimal interaction with the production staff or the outside world. You’ll see real people experiencing real emotions in a way that you could never see documented in any other format.

But what makes Big Brother 6 special is that everyone goes completely insane. A freak accident in the social dynamics creates a Stanford Prison Experiment-like environment, where one group of people is in power and the other group is not. The people in power — who call themselves The Friendship — become disgusting monsters while thinking that they are “the good guys” that the viewers are rooting for. The Friendship relentlessly bully the other group for weeks until they finally snap and retaliate. You see glimpses of real human darkness — and also compassion — that you rarely see on reality TV shows.

The de facto protagonist of Big Brother 6 is Janelle, a 25 year old stripper with a heart of gold. The Friendship repeatedly says that Janelle is an inherently unethical person because of her career as a sex worker and therefore she cannot be trusted. But the viewers can see that Janelle is a light — she’s funny, intelligent, strong-willed, compassionate, friendly, and romantic. It ends up feeling like a Jon Waters movie, where a group of mean ugly christian girls harass a buxom stripper for essentially being too beautiful.

Big Brother 7 is basically a sequel to Big Brother 6. The producers decided to do an “All Stars” season as an excuse to bring Janelle back on the show for another 3 months. But this time she isn’t fighting against petty morons, she’s competing against people who won the game show on previous seasons. It’s the first time anyone has gotten to play Big Brother more than once, so everyone is extremely experienced and good at the game. It’s just as entertaining and dramatic and it leverages the viewers deep knowledge of the game’s mechanics that you would have learned by watching season 6.

Big Brother 7 is only worth watching if you loved Big Brother 6 and want to see those characters again in a new scenario; most of the major players from BB6 make it on to BB7, and all of the ‘new’ characters are aware of the events of BB6 from watching it on TV. Each season is only 30 episodes, and you don’t need to watch any of the other seasons. It’s like a stand-alone thing, almost like it’s own show. This is not a compressed playlist; you have to watch every episode. Each season is about 20 hours.

You can watch both seasons on CBS All Access, but (unlike current seasons) CBS apparently has no problem with you just watching them on YouTube. There are good YouTube playlists of both Big Brother 6 and Big Brother 7.

Bonus: Star Trek TNG (in 40~ hours)

This post was originally inspired by Max Temkin’s Star Trek playlist. If you’re interested in watching classic TV shows quickly, you should check it out. I personally couldn’t get into it and I have concluded that I just don’t like Star Trek. (But in all fairness, I still can’t get Max to watch Buffy.)