This past Sunday night marked the triumphant return of Breaking Bad, AMC’s critically-acclaimed drama that will come to a close next month after this most recent string of eight episodes. It’s not only one of the best shows currently on the air, it will go down as one of television’s all-time greats. It’s one of the best examples of high-quality serialized storytelling and is definitely one of the crowning achievements of this most recent golden age in television. With that being said, I feel it’s the perfect time to finally reveal this list of my all-time favorite television dramas. Ranking shows is always problematic and this list was easily the most difficult I’ve ever had to compile (I couldn’t even limit it to five shows). With shows like Justified and Game of Thrones still amidst their television runs I chose not to put them on this list, although as we near their conclusions they may just find themselves a spot. I feel it’s safe to say that to truly experience all television has to offer, these following shows are absolutely essential viewing. Let the controversy commence!
Shows I Haven’t Seen (or Completed): The X-Files, The West Wing, Deadwood, Oz, Treme, Homeland, Carnivale, NYPD Blue, Veronica Mars, Homicide: Life on the Street, E.R., Law & Orde, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Twilight Zone
Honorable Mentions: Firefly, Justified, Game of Thrones, Six Feet Under, 24, Dexter, The O.C.
10. Doctor Who
(BBC, 2005 to Present)
“I don’t want to go.”
When I was first thinking about crafting this list, I never could have guessed that BBC’s longest-running sci-fi show in the history of television would be anywhere near it. In fact, a few weeks ago I hadn’t even seen anything past the first few episodes. My how times have changed. The original incarnation of Doctor Who began all the way back in 1963 and focused on the adventures through space and time of an alien known simply as The Doctor. He is the last of the time lords and travels through space and time in a blue police box called the TARDIS, often accompanied by a revolving door of female companions. For the purposes of this list, my ranking of the show is based on the newest incarnation which began in 2005 under the guidance of Russell T. Davies. It’s exceedingly well-written and what sets it apart from most other sci-fi shows is that it is a character piece that is focused on the nature of humanity through the eyes of someone who is not human. It has a fascinating and complex mythology that constantly provides new stories and adventures for The Doctor to embark on. It also has one of the most unique plot devices in the history of television: Regeneration.
There have been eleven different doctors to date but they all play different versions of the same character. Whereas with something like James Bond an actor is just re-cast and assumed to be the same, with Doctor Who the character regenerates into a different-looking version of what is essentially the same character on-screen. This provides a built-in storyline for when an actor decides to leave the show, and in turn provides the show with moments of devastatingly pure emotion. I learned this the hard way when my favorite Doctor (David Tennant) regenerated, in what was easily one of the most emotional television moments I’ve ever seen. Thankfully for us fans, the show continues to move forward thanks to its increasing popularity not just in Britain, but here in America as well. I look forward to Peter Capaldi’s debut as the Twelfth Doctor this Christmas.
9. The Sopranos
(HBO, 1999 to 2007)
“You’re not gonna believe this. The guy killed 16 Czechoslovakians. He was an interior decorator.”
If shows were ranked in terms of their influence on pop culture and the overall television landscape, there is no question that The Sopranos would be number one on this list. I for one have always had a problem with stories surrounding the mafia, often feeling so far removed from that environment that I find it hard to relate to. This was not the case however with David Chase’s extremely personal and gut-punching tale of Tony Soprano. Tony is different from all those mafia bosses that preceded him in not only struggling with the business end of things, but also with his family and his own deep-rooted personal flaws. He visits a psychiatrist regularly and doesn’t quite understand his place within the world. He’s a mafia boss with a conscious, but it’s a conscious he often ignores to his own detriment. James Gandolfini is an undeniable force as Tony and his performance is certainly one of the best the small screen has ever seen. Although the show ended its run with a two-part final season that left, for me personally, a lot to be desired, I am one of those individuals who holds up the final moments of the show as a stroke of pure brilliance. David Chase was true to the show he had created to the end and I for one couldn’t ask for anything more.
8. Battlestar Galactica
(Sci-Fi, 2004 to 2009)
– “Starbuck, what do you hear?”
– “Nothing but the rain.”
– “Then grab your gun and bring in the cat.”
One of the most purely addictive shows I’ve ever had the pleasure to binge on, Ronald D. Moore’s re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica debuted in 2004 on the Sci-fi Channel and instantly became the crowning achievement of the network. It’s nothing like the long run of sc-fi programming that has bombarded the television airwaves for years, and it’s all the better for it. It tells the story of the crew of the Battlestar Galactica, a ship which houses the last of humanity, and their journey to the mysterious planet known simply as Earth. Their world as they know it has been destroyed by their arch-enemy, the Cylons, and now they are forced to deal with an endless string of political upheavals, Cylon attacks, and the fact that some of their very crew may be Cylons themselves. The strength of the show not only lies in the immaculate writing and pitch-perfect cast, but in its study of the nature of humanity and how we would possibly act when occupying a world on the brink of complete annihilation. It’s a show that is as much interested in politics and social injustices as it is science fiction. Now I know many people tend to doubt and often look past sci-fi shows as nothing more than a way for fellow nerds to preach to the choir, but I can assure you that Battlestar Galactica is so much more than that.
7. Twin Peaks
(ABC, 1990 to 1991)
“I have no idea where this will lead us. But I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange.”
As many better television critics have stated before yours truly, Twin Peaks is a show that is a miracle to this day. Not only did it air on network television, but it sprang from the mind of one David Lynch whose willingness to confound his film audience for years didn’t exactly translate to the mainstream-leaning audiences of ABC. Set in the fictional town of Twin Peaks, Washington, the show was concerned with the murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer and the investigation surrounding it headed up by FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). Although the show only ran for two seasons, its influence is still felt to this day as seemingly every television season a copycat show of sorts pops up centering on a murder set in a quirky small-town setting. The greatness of Twin Peaks as a series can be connected to not only its exceedingly strange and quirky cast of characters but to its eerie and offbeat tone. Much like Lynch’s other works, it’s not typical of any one genre and uses an endless amount of supernatural elements that serve to both delight and terrify audiences in equal measure. It’s safe to say that no matter how many copycats continue to spring up with each passing season, there will never be a show quite like Twin Peaks.
6. Friday Night Lights
(NBC, 2006 to 2011)
“Listen to me. I said you need to strive to be better than everyone else. I didn’t say you needed to be better than everyone else. But you gotta try. That’s what character is. It’s in the trying.”
Although some may simply call it ‘that football show’, Friday Night Lights shares a lot in common with many of the other shows on this list in that its perception is far from reality. Set in the world of Texas high school football, Peter Berg’s love letter to that sub-set of culture became so much more under the guise of showrunner Jason Katims. The show’s greatest success was using the football landscape as a back-drop for a close-knit group of flawed characters trying to make their way in the world through their support of each other. Kyle Chandler’s performance as coach Eric Taylor remains a highlight in the series as one of the most realistic mentor figures television has ever seen. He’s tough on not only his players but his family as well. He doesn’t do it to be difficult, he does it because he cares deeply about who these people are and wants them to succeed. As the show came to a close, it not only proved its self to be an entertaining portrait of the intense football culture of Texas, but a fascinating portrayal of humanity through the eyes of those individuals who finds themselves at odds with the culture itself.
(ABC, 2004 to 2010)
“Don’t tell me what I can’t do!”
Without question one of the most scrutinized and talked about series of recent memory, Lost will no doubt go down as one of the most fiercely debated shows of this most recent television age. For me, it holds up as one of the most addictive, entertaining, and emotionally-rich small-screen stories ever told. Now, I’m not going to pretend like it was perfect. It had an incredible amount of flaws that never seemed to fade away no matter how hard they tried, but for me that’s of little to no consequence. It’s here on this list because there has never been a show that has truly taken me away from real life and placed me into its world more successfully than Lost. Yes, it’s about a plane crash and its survivors trying to make a life for themselves on this mysterious island, but it’s not just that. It’s a show about second chances, about getting to start your life over again, and perhaps most importantly, it’s a show about the endless debate of science versus faith.
Now it’s safe to say that, aside from The Sopranos finale, there has never a finale more scrutinized than Lost‘s. For me personally, it was everything I could have hoped for. Although I know a large portion of the audience was looking for the solutions to all the mysteries the series had set-up over its run, for me the finale explored exactly what it should have: science versus faith. It doesn’t choose one over the other but rather takes its characters to a necessary conclusion and then asks the audience one last time, what do you believe? For me, a question is more powerful than an answer.
4. The Shield
(FX, 2002 to 2008)
“I’ve done worse.”
One of the most underrated and perhaps overlooked drama series when critics compile their greatest television dramas lists is FX’s The Shield. It’s an unflinching portrait of corrupt Los Angeles police detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) and his willingness to ignore the law in seeking his own brand of justice. The Shield contains not just one all-time great television performance with Michael Chiklis’, but two with Walton Goggins’ heartbreaking portrayal of fellow officer Shane Vendrell. Television has a long history of cop shows but the majority of those are procedural in nature. The Shield is serialized and when all was said and done it told one of the most complete character arcs the cop genre has ever seen. Saying Vic Mackey is a deeply flawed individual doesn’t do him justice and although some shows have failed by centering on a deeply unlikable protagonist, The Shield succeeds by crafting a fascinating character who Michael Chiklis accels at portraying. It also sports perhaps the finest series finale I have ever seen, as Mackey winds up in a place that may not be what you’d expect, but one entirely fitting of the character creator Shawn Ryan had crafted.
3. Breaking Bad
(AMC, 2008 to Present)
“Just because you shot Jesse James, don’t make you Jesse James.”
It’s become common knowledge now that creator Vince Gilligan’s initial pitch to AMC was to take ‘Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface’. It’s safe to say now that with only seven episodes to go in the series, he succeeded ten-fold. Set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Breaking Bad tells the tale of high school chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) who, after being diagnosed with lung cancer, turns to selling crystal meth in order to provide for his family before he meets his end. He teams up with former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and throughout the course of the series has truly become everything that Gilligan intended. It not only contains a wide array of brilliant acting performances to go along with the brilliant writing, it also has a very filmic quality to its directing and cinematography, so much so that it’s become the go-to show for cinephiles. The show’s best director, Michelle MacLaren, is so inventive with her directorial choices that you never know exactly what is going to grace your television screen from one moment to the next. Although it will certainly be hard to say goodbye to Breaking Bad, to say I am anticipating the series finale greatly would be an understatement. Will the finale avoid the trappings of being as fiercely-debated as The Sopranos’ and Lost‘s? I wager to bet yes. Why? Because Vince Gilligan. It’s science, bitch.
2. Mad Men
(AMC, 2007 to Present)
“Are you alone?”
Picking Mad Men a spot higher than Breaking Bad was a little like Sophie’s Choice. They are entirely different types of show and although they both focus on deeply-flawed male anti-heroes and their journeys to success on their own terms, there is a reason for my choice. For me, there has never been a show like Mad Men. It’s the ultimate study in existentialism: ‘the belief that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject – not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual’. Thanks Wikipedia! Sure, it’s set in the 1960s and focuses on the world of advertising, but Matthew Weiner’s creation is more interested in the subtleties of humanity, the small things in life that many shows previously have glossed over or in some cases, down-right ignored. The protagonist Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is not just a hot-shot creative ad man, he’s a womanizer and a cheater. We don’t just see him cheat however, we question why, we question for what purpose. One of the show’s most consistent storylines deals with Draper’s past and with the notion that perhaps he is not Don Draper at all, but rather a creation by a man who never quite got over his troubled childhood. For me, no show has shown deeply-flawed humanity and the minutiae that goes along with it better than Mad Men. With one season left to go, I have a hard time believing that its conclusion will be anything other than a heartbreaking portrait of humanity and all its depressing realities.
1. The Wire
(HBO, 2002 to 2008)
“All in the game yo, all in the game.”
It may not be original, but it may just be fact: The Wire is the greatest dramatic television series ever. Not only do I feel confident in stating that, I’d bet my life on it (not that my life is worth that much or anything). The creation of former journalist David Simon, The Wire is a dense and completely enthralling portrait of the city of Baltimore, Maryland and all its inner-workings. From the cops to the criminals, from the politicians to the journalists, from the drug addicts to the un-educated students, there has never been a show as important nor as meaningful as The Wire. It not only entertains with an endless ensemble of first-rate actors, but it strives for the most realistic portrayals of Baltimore life that it’s hard to not only feel like a part of the television show, but of the city itself. Perhaps the show’s crowning achievement is its fourth season in which the flawed education system of Baltimore is brought to the forefront and we are able to see where the addicts and criminals of the city come from. Although much as been made of the inconsistencies within its final fifth season, the show never truly lost its grasp on what it means to live and die in Baltimore. It’s complexity and it’s insistence on refusing to talk down to its viewers may have problematic for its ratings at the time, but there is no question that because of its willingness to continually explore real world problems that The Wire will live on forever. Is The Wire the greatest television series in the history of the medium? I don’t feel its hyperbole to quote everyone’s favorite homosexual, shotgun-toting, Honey Nut Cheerios-eating, gangster Omar Little: ‘Indeed’.