It's relatively easy to prove that a television show is important. If, for example, you can't miss an episode of One Tree Hill, then it's important to you. But it's harder to prove that a show is influential—especially if it's only been around for about ten years. An influential show has to start a noticeable trend— like how Judge Judy begat Judge Mathis or The Osbournes spawned Newlyweds—but remain cultural staple in its own right—like CSI or Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Those are just the honorable mentions from the 2000s, the decade that brought punditry, reality shows, and single-camera comedies into the mainstream. We think these next fifteen shows are the most influential of the last ten years. They've already made their mark on other shows and on pop culture—and they're not stopping, either.
15. Desperate Housewives (2004-present, ABC)
What it accomplished: With one simple question, "How much do we know about our neighbors?" this ABC powerhouse sparked a 21st-century fascination with suburbia. By injecting a healthy dose of film noir into a suburban-set soap opera, the show was able to entertain and please while providing social commentary on everything from adultery to parenthood to revenge. Plus, the careers of Teri Hatcher, Marcia Cross, Felicity Huffman, Nicolette Sheridan, and Eva Longoria Parker got a hefty boost.
Where it came from: Sex and the City,The Stepford Wives
What it influenced: Real Housewives series, Weeds, Cougar Town, Accidentally on Purpose, The Good Wife, Army Wives
14. The West Wing (1999-2006, NBC)
What it accomplished: Besides forecasting the election of President Obama, this drama was the first in a long line of intelligent, attention-demanding, behind-the scenes dramas. Creator Aaron Sorkin also perfected the witty, fast-paced walk-and-talk narrative.
Where it came from: Sports Night, Law and Order, Saturday Night Live
What it influenced: NCIS, 24, 30 Rock, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, The Wire
13. Lost (2004-present, ABC)
What it accomplished: One third of ABC's mid-decade triple threat (with Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy), Lost is best described as a serial mindf@*k. Or, as Tim Surette put it, "the first show that required homework and was a full-time job." Books, courses, and manuals have been created in an attempt to explain the series, which centers around a group of people stranded on a desert island after a plane crash. In fact, college students are still trying to schedule study time around reruns and marathons of this show.
Where it came from: J.J. Abrams, Survivor
What it influenced: FlashForward
12. Chappelle's Show (2003-2006, Comedy Central)
What it accomplished: Chappelle's Show became a larger-than-life hit for Comedy Central, and it still rakes in the DVD-sales dough. Dave Chappelle brought "what would blindly be called 'ethnic comedy' to the masses," according to Tim Surette. This sketch comedy series redefined a network previously limited to South Park reruns, stand-up specials, and The Daily Show, but "also showed what the demands of TV can do to one of its biggest stars."
Where it came from: Richard Pryor, In Living Color, Def Comedy Jam, Seinfeld, Home Improvement, Roseanne
What it influenced: Carlos Mencia, Larry the Cable Guy
11. Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009, Syfy)
What it accomplished: This legendary show, about a group of humans aboard a spaceship in search of Earth, put the SciFi channel on the map (so much so that it even switched to Syfy) and proved that re-imagined shows could be big hits. And it gave The Office's Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) something to talk about besides beets and bears.
Where it came from: the original Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Firefly, Stargate series
What it influenced: Sanctuary, Warehouse 13, Stargate Universe, Life on Mars, V, The Prisoner.
10. Sex and the City (1998-2004, HBO)
What it accomplished: SATC wasn't just a billboard for Blahniks and cosmos. For six years, four females revealed what women really talk about and how they really talk about it. Frank discussions of sex and love were the focal points of the show, but relationships, careers, and New York City were not far off the radar. And every woman became either a Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), a Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), a Charlotte (Kristin Davis), or a Samantha (Kim Cattrall); and every man a Steve (Dave Eigenberg), a Harry (Evan Handler), a Trey (Kyle MacLachlan), a Smith (Jason Lewis), an Aidan (John Corbett), or a Mr. Big (Chris Noth).
Where it came from: Candace Bushnell's New York Observer column and subsequent book
What it influenced: Sex and the City: The Movie, Sex and the City 2, Lipstick Jungle, Cashmere Mafia, Cougar Town, Accidentally on Purpose, Entourage, Men of a Certain Age, The L Word, What Women Want, The Greg Behrendt Show
9. The Daily Show (1996-present, Comedy Central)
What it accomplished: This "comedy" show brought news to a generation that never cared about it before, thanks especially to its second host, Jon Stewart, his team of correspondents (alums include Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, Rob Riggle, and Kristen Schaal), and his election coverage, dubbed Indecision. The show attracts politicians, celebrities, and authors alike, all willing to brave Stewart's fearless, well-informed probes and obvious liberal bias to access the show's young, large audience.
Where it came from: CNN's Meet the Press, ABC's Nightline, NBC Nightly News, CBS Evening News, SNL's Weekend Update
What it influenced: The Colbert Report, The Office
8. The Shield (2002-2008, FX)
What it accomplished: The Shield's ensemble cast, which included Michael Chilkis as the indomitable Vic Mackey, proved that basic cable channels like FX, TNT, USA, and AMC can produce kick-ass shows just like the big guys. The Shield's strength was its raw, gritty take Los Angeles law enforcement, but other shows like Monk and Mad Men deserve mention for their brilliant storytelling, too.
Where it came from: NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Street, Kojak, Scarface
What it influenced: Monk, Mad Men, Damages, Breaking Bad, Saving Grace, The Closer, Mad Men, Nip/Tuck, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Burn Notice, Sons of Anarchy
7. Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006, FOX) and The Office (2005-present, NBC)
What they accomplished: Single-camera hits like these revived the American network sitcom and, as Richard Lawson said, "helped insure a decade's worth of non-conventional, brainy comedies." Instead of relying on a laugh track and a huge star, these comedies boasted incredibly talented ensemble casts, smart writing staffs that trusted the audience to laugh without any prompting, and a reliable narrator to tie everything together. Malcolm's title character broke the fourth wall and talked directly to the camera, while The Office's cameraman has stayed silent into his sixth season.
Where they came from: Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Larry Sanders Show, The Office (UK)
What it influenced: Arrested Development, Modern Family, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, Community, The Middle, Better Off Ted
6. The Oprah Winfrey Show (1986-present, CBS)
What it accomplished: To put it bluntly: Oprah went from being a black woman with a weird name and a weight problem to being the single most powerful person in America. Her show launched the career of Dr. Phil, her book club got people to read again, her endorsement got people to vote for Obama, her lawsuit got us to stop eating beef for awhile, and her couch got Tom Cruise to jump on it.
Where it came from: The Phil Donahue Show, Geraldo
What it influenced: The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Tyra Banks Show, The Rosie O'Donnell Show, Rachael Ray
5. The OC (2003-2007, FOX)
What it accomplished: This new-age soap opera revived that 90s fascination we all had with rich kids in Southern California—except with hotter actors, better music, and way more interesting characters. And without the geek-turned-sex symbol Seth Cohen (Adam Brody), there would be no geek-chic sweater vests and skinny jeans, no proudly-fluffed Jew fro, no Death Cab for Cutie on the radio, and no Chrismukkah, of course. Just remember: no one actually calls it "The OC."
Where it came from: Beverly Hills, 90210
What it influenced: Gossip Girl, NYC Prep, Miami Social, Laguna Beach, The Hills, The City, Newport Harbor: The Real Orange County, The Big Bang Theory, Chuck, Juno, Adventureland, The Real Housewives of Orange County
4. The O'Reilly Factor (1996-present, FOX News)
What it accomplished: Confrontational, balls-out interrogations rather than interviews showed conservatives had a home outside of talk radio—and as a result, liberals emerged from their print media cocoon to fight back!
Where it came from: Rush Limbaugh
What it influenced: The Colbert Report, Real Time with Bill Maher, The Glenn Beck Program, The Rachel Maddow Show, Ann Coulter
3. Survivor (2000-present, CBS)
What it accomplished: Considered "the mother of all reality shows," it took our fantasy of being stranded on a desert island, smashed it into a thousand tiny pieces—and dumped it in a primetime TV slot. "Voted off the island" became a popular euphemism, Richard Hatch became a household name, and everyone at home learned just how far a certain attention-starved sub-section of the population would go for money and fame.
Where it came from: The Real World, Road Rules
What it influenced: every other country's version of Survivor, Lost, Big Brother, Fear Factor, Jackass, Castaway
2. The Sopranos (1999-2007, HBO) and The Wire (2002-2008, HBO)
What they accomplished: Widely considered to be the best shows of all time, and certainly HBO's best products, The Sopranos and The Wire exposed "the other side," delving deep into the worlds of the New Jersey mafia and the Baltimore drug trade, respectively. The shows examined the relationships between the law enforcers and the law breakers and developed rich, complicated characters previously seen only in books and films, thanks to phenomenal ensemble casts. In short, the two shows revolutionized storytelling on television.
Where they came from: David Chase, a real east coast Italian-American; and David Simon, a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun and creator of Homicide: Life on the Street
What they influenced: Mad Men, Six Feet Under, Dexter, Big Love
1. American Idol (2002-present, FOX)
What it accomplished: After American Idol, the Big Three (ABC, CBS, NBC) became the Big Four—and FOX has been on top ever since. The reality competition show turned into a brand, a product-placement vessel, a corporation, and a launching-pad for the careers of Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, and Ryan Seacrest. Oh, and all those singers.
Where it came from: Star Search, Pop Idol (UK)
What it influenced: The X Factor, America's Got Talent, So You Think You Can Dance, Randy Jackson Presents: America's Best Dance Crew