“Mad Men” didn’t premiere until 2007 — after the landmark year of 2006 — but what Don Draper said about the Kodak Carousel is eternally true: “Nostalgia: It’s delicate, but potent.”
Some context: A passing comment from a critic, who made an astute observation about “The Americans,” made me search out a piece I’d written a decade ago. That short exchange led me down another rabbit hole: I began to compile a list of TV shows that were on the air in 2006.
The more I dug, the more I dwelled on something I and many other critics knew 10 years ago, but today, this realization struck me again with some force: The year 2006 was, by any account, a banner year for television.
This is by no means a complete list of TV shows available on American television in 2006. It’s a a very partial list that leans heavily on many of my favorites of the mid-aughts era. Regardless of the nitpicking: Holy smokes, look at this roster!
- “The Shield”
- “Battlestar Galactica”
- “The Office”
- “The Sopranos”
- “Grey’s Anatomy”
- “Everybody Hates Chris”
- “The Wire”
- “The Bernie Mac Show”
- “Slings & Arrows”
- “How I Met Your Mother”
- “Arrested Development”
- “Doctor Who”
- “Wonder Showzen”
- “Ugly Betty”*
- “Friday Night Lights”*
- “30 Rock”*
Shows marked with an asterisk premiered that year (so yes, it was a banner year for premieres as well).
You’ll no doubt have your own list of notable shows I should have included (yes, “The West Wing” was still on, I am aware of that). But when I think of how wonderful TV was that year, these are among the shows my mind most often turns to. (Truth time: “Psych” belongs on this roster too, but I thought if I put it on a list with “Deadwood,” Al Swearengen might punch it. Also, “Wonder Showzen” is on my list because it’s as weird and great as the best of what Netflix, HBO and FX commissioned in the last decade.)
Much has been written about the fact that the number of scripted prime-time programs has more than doubled in the last few years. And there’s no doubt that what FX Networks CEO John Landgraf dubbed Peak TV has brought us dozens of wonderful shows to suit every taste. There’s dross out there too, of course (there always is), but last year, I had to expand my annual Top 10 list into a Top 20. TV is positively bursting with great storytelling these days, from a wider array of creators than ever. That’s a very, very good thing.
And yet, I find myself with lurking nostalgia for the TV scene of a decade ago. With my relatively new DVR, I could keep up, some of the time, with what felt then like an avalanche of worthy and entertaining shows. Oh, what innocents we were in 2006. What did we know? A few dozen shows worth following — that was nothing! Last year alone, more than 400 scripted shows inhabited cable, broadcast and streaming platforms. Like Don Draper, I’m inclined at times to see the past through rose-colored glasses. From this remove, there are moments when 2006 looks like the good old days, an era when critics and viewers had time to sleep and occasionally converse with loved ones. Good times!
I joke, but I sense a bit of weariness in the culture at times, as though we are all constantly behind on our homework and feeling vaguely guilty about it. Even a decade ago, DVR fatigue was not uncommon among hard-core TV fans (who among us hasn’t secretly rejoiced when a DVR unexpectedly bit the dust and took unwatched TV episodes with it?). But now, thanks to the explosion of catch-up options, there are even more opportunities to stay current with a huge array of shows — and the pressure’s on us to keep up with it all. With more shows and more viewing options come more opportunities to feel a little overwhelmed.
And yes, that is the most high-class problem in the world to have, and also, at the end of the day, it’s not really a problem. That creeping sense of feeling constantly behind is a mild inconvenience that is far outweighed by the bounty of the small screen. But just because the current heap of TV shows is so huge, we shouldn’t forget what’s gone before, and the distinctive tone and feel of previous eras (for instance, comedy may reign now, but a decade ago, macho, brawling dramas ruled the land).
In any event, I feel lucky that I was able to write about TV during that high point as well as this one — and 2006 was truly a peak. There were some less flashy and impressive years before the streaming explosion truly got underway in the early part of this decade. Maybe a decade from now, “Black-ish’s” Kenya Barris and Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer of “Broad City” will have as many shows on the air as “Everwood’s” Greg Berlanti and “Grey’s Anatomy’s” Shonda Rhimes do now. We can only hope.
Maybe in a decade, we’ll think of this year or last as another watershed moment. TV, that wily beast, continues to challenge the outer limits of form and technique on a weekly basis, it’s widened the array of protagonists it’s willing to follow, and many of the people who made the TV shows on this list are making programs worth watching now. (It’s the circle of life, a la Don’s Carousel speech: “This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.”)
I miss Adama and Roslin (so say we all), I miss Vic Mackey, Hurley, Tami Taylor, McNulty and Titus Pullo, and who knew that “Grey’s Anatomy” would be one of the few shows from that time to keep on going strong? (Everyone knew “Doctor Who” would keep going because it will exist intergalactically forever). The real question is, who knew then how much good TV was in our future — or that a lot of the shows on this list would be so readily accessible via streaming?
If only I had the time to go back and enjoy these shows all over again (their good seasons, anyway). But there’s too much TV to watch.