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THE SOPRANOS. photo: Annie Leibovitz

'There's nothing good to watch on TV."

It's a familiar complaint, voiced repeatedly since Mom and Pop purchased their first black-and-white Philco. But if you uttered those words over the past 10 years, you weren't paying close enough attention — or didn't have cable.

This, after all, was the decade in which television raised its game — when TV junk food gave way to brain food.

That might sound ludicrous considering the decade tortured us with "Temptation Island," "Joe Millionaire" and hundreds of other reality TV nightmares. Yes, prime time, as always, served up its share of schlock.

But it also served up "The Sopranos" and "Lost" and "Mad Men" and "The Wire." It gave us shows that were audacious and ambitious, artful and sophisticated. Shows that embraced mature themes and challenged us to actually think.

Give some credit to pop-cultural fragmentation. As television splintered off into an array of niche channels, it may have lost some of its electronic-hearth power to gather the multitudes in communal unity. On the other hand, the dynamic enabled a new wave of TV auteurs to express their visions without being beholden to the masses.

David Simon, for example, could push boundaries with "The Wire" on HBO while averaging only 1.6 million viewers per episode, which would have earned him a quick cancellation on a broadcast network. And Joss Whedon took advantage of the relative obscurity of the WB (and later, UPN) to offer a very offbeat twist on the teen drama with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

That's not to say the major networks couldn't occasionally still attract the masses with high-powered programming. ABC's "Lost" completely rattled our notions of what television could be. Meanwhile, "American Idol" (Fox) and "Survivor" (CBS) proved that reality TV — when wedded to a great concept — could hold us in thrall.

Here are our picks for the best TV shows of the decade — choices that were made on the basis of artistic achievement, originality and cultural impact. Feel free to disagree and let us know your thoughts.

1. "The Sopranos" (HBO, 1999-2007): Creator David Chase gave us a protagonist like none we had ever seen: A beefy, baggy-eyed mobster (and family man) with a hair-trigger temper, a weakness for the ladies and some very serious mommy issues. Impeccably played by James Gandolfini, Tony Soprano was both revolting and riveting. Chase surrounded him with a superlative cast, including the fabulous Edie Falco, and took them all on a wild ride with more twists and curves than a Bada-bing girl. Many shows later would deploy their own Tony-like anti-heroes, but none quite managed to replicate "The Sopranos" stimulating blend of social commentary, wicked humor, psychological depth and violent intrigue.

2. "Lost" (ABC, 2004-present): It's the Rubik's Cube of TV shows. This plane-crash survival drama has had fans obsessed with trying to crack its numbers-crunching, monster-chasing, time-tripping mythology. But in addition to an intricate mystery, "Lost" has offered us a compelling web of personal stories tied to a diverse and ever-engaging group of island castaways. We can hardly wait for the final chapter to unfold.

3. "The Wire" (HBO, 2002-08): At a time when quick-and-tidy procedural cop dramas were spreading like a virus, Simon's grim urban masterpiece resisted the simplistic approach, unfolding in novelistic leisure while deftly exploring its flawed characters and pertinent social issues. The result was a monumental achievement that was as rewarding as it was challenging.

4. "Mad Men" (AMC, 2007-present): Creator Matthew Weiner could have immersed his 1960s-era drama in sugarcoated nostalgia. But to his credit, he instead plunged us deep into the dark side of the American dream, exposing the lies behind our idealized pop-cultural imagery and the emotional scars that come with unbridled self-indulgence. Don Draper and his booze-guzzling, skirt-chasing cohorts not only demonstrate how much we have changed as a society, but how much we haven't.

5. "American Idol" (Fox, 2002-present): Not even Simon Cowell could have predicted how big this show would become. Blending glitzy entertainment with heart-tugging stories, a parade of deluded oddballs (Bless you, William Hung), and a heaping dose of Simon's snark, "Idol" became No. 1 with a bullet. Along the way, it changed not just television, but the music industry and the star-making process.

6. "Deadwood" (HBO, 2004-06): At first glance, David Milch's violent and vulgar saga recalled a TV era when the Western was king. But this complex series shot gaping holes in all the innocent illusions, cartoonish heroism and open-range romance traditionally associated with the genre. At its heart was Milch's wonderfully theatrical dialogue and an astonishing performance by Ian McShane as the grotesquely sinister Al Swearengen.

7. "Sex and the City" (HBO, 1998-2004): Yes, much of it was about the shagging and the shopping. But Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her sassy gal pals also gave us a moving portrait of all-for-one friendship — the unbreakable bond shared by four soul mates. And that's something every viewer can admire, even if they don't wear Manolo Blahniks.

8. "Arrested Development" (Fox, 2003-06): A perfect show for the post-Enron era, this sitcom about a family of wealthy buffoons done in by their own greed was so fresh and bizarre and bubbling with larcenous wit that we were stunned to find it on broadcast television. No wonder it didn't last long. Let's hope the Bluths wind up on the big screen very soon.

9. "Friday Night Lights" (NBC/DirecTV, 2006-present): We're still leading the cheers for this big-hearted football drama that happens to be about so much more than football. "Lights" deftly delves into the hopes and dreams of its small-town characters with the kind of emotional honesty rarely seen in prime time. Meanwhile, Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton have given us television's most natural and realistic depiction of marriage.

10. "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" (Comedy Central, 1999-present): The smirky Stewart may not have been the show's first anchor, but under his reign, the faux newscast gained a sharper edge and greater cultural relevance. In skewering the media and the people the media cover, he and his band of merry jesters have not only amused us, they've informed us.

11. "Freaks and Geeks" (NBC, 1999-2000): This tragically short-lived high school drama dispensed with the genre's typical glamour and gloss to capture the true essence of teen life — zits and all. It also gave us our first glimpse into the comedic genius of Judd Apatow and launched the careers of Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jason Segal and others.

12. "The West Wing" (NBC, 1999-2006): Aaron Sorkin's White House drama might not have always depicted what public service in Washington was really like, just what we wanted it to be like. The show followed high-minded and harried staffers who were fiercely loyal to their feel-good president (Martin Sheen). This romantic idealism, blended with sharp acting, a breakneck pace and Sorkin's erudite banter, made for a winning campaign.

13. "The Office" (NBC, 2005-present): We scoffed when NBC announced plans to remake the British classic. But the Steve Carell-led version did the unthinkable by eclipsing the original and developing TV's most adorable couple in Jim and Pam. With their distinct comedy of discomfort, the oddball paper-pushers of Dunder Mifflin continue to have us wincing while they work.

14. "30 Rock" (NBC, 2006-present): Behind-the-scenes shows about show business too often disappoint. That's not the case with Tina Fey's delightfully demented satire, which accents the screwball wackiness with sly social commentary and a barrage of zingers delivered by a hilarious cast. The show's best-comedy Emmy is at three and counting.

15. "Survivor" (CBS, 2000-present): "Gilligan's Island" was never this much fun. When Mark Burnett tossed out the script and plopped a group of strangers on tropical turf near Borneo, he paved the way for a new brand of TV celebrity. There was naked Richard, mouthy Sue, cranky Rudy and all the others. Countless reality copycats have followed, but none has been able to outwit, outplay or outlast the original.

16. "Battlestar Galactica" (Sci Fi, 2004-09): To call "BSG" a successful remake would be selling it short. It was a total re-imagining of the cheesy 1970s original. To call it the best sci-fi show of the decade is even more of an insult. It was one of the best shows, period. Dark, moody and stylish, "BSG" was an out-of-this-world saga that hit close to home.

17. "The Shield" (FX, 2002-08): "Al Capone with a badge." That's how a superior described Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), an L.A. cop who was brutally corrupt and ceaselessly fascinating. With its raw violence and edgy language, "The Shield" pushed the basic-cable boundaries and then sealed its place in TV history with one of the best series finales ever.

18. "Dexter" (Showtime, 2006-present): Build a drama series around an emotionally detached serial killer? It seemed like a preposterous notion. But Michael C. Hall's nuanced and chilling performance had us hooked before the first drop of blood hit the floor. In the hands of a lesser actor, this dark drama would have been dead on arrival.

19. "CSI" (2000-present): We thought we had seen TV cops of every stripe, but along came a show that put the focus on the science geeks and their high-tech wizardry. Who knew maggots could be mesmerizing? "CSI" became so popular that it spawned two spin-offs and a mind-numbing slew of crime procedurals. But we won't hold that against it.

20. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (The WB/UPN, 1997-2003): Long before the arrival of "Twilight," this cult favorite had the audacity to weld vampires with teen angst while speaking volumes about the demons we face in everyday life. Whedon gave us a female hero (Sarah Michelle Gellar) who was smart, funny, strong and sexy. He also gave us the kind of hip and witty dialogue that made the show as much fun to listen to as watch.

Read Chuck Barney's TV blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/tv and follow him at twitter.com/chuckbarney.