Welcome to the Golden Age of Television. In the last 20 years, TV — a medium that was once frowned upon and thought of as junk food when compared to the gourmet meal that was theatre and film — has given birth to a brave new world of at-home-media.
Improvements in storytelling, visual aesthetic, and a general migration of talented filmmakers and actors from big screen to small helped transform TV from puerile entertainment into cerebral high art. At least, that’s what many students of the form will tell you. There are still plenty who are willing to decry TV as hogwash; juvenile; crass. No matter what your thoughts are on the matter, it cannot be denied that TV has changed drastically in the last two decades. Be it the rise of HBO’s adult-driven dramas — a style later perfected and even surpassed by AMC — or the advent of Netflix and their binge-worthy model of how we digest our entertainment, television just isn’t what it used to be. Whether or not that’s a good thing is up to you.
Our main beat at CutPrintFilm may be movies (“film” is in our name, after all), but we love good TV just as much as anyone. So we’ve compiled a list of what we believe are the 50 Best TV Shows of the Last 20 Years. The criteria was simple: the shows picked had to have been created no earlier than 1996. In other words, while something like The Simpsons may still be on the air, and seemingly will continue to be on the air until the end of time, it did not qualify. This is an eclectic list with all types of shows from all types of networks, but it’s worth noting that HBO shows ended up with the most votes. Also worth noting: while several of our writers had True Detective on their lists, every single one of them stressed that they meant the first season, and only the first season. Behold our list below, and feel free to let us know what you think we’re missing (like, say, Terriers or The Shield or Freaks and Geeks).
Before Game of Thrones there was Rome, which arguably did a better job at witty jabs and battlefield treachery than it’s predecessor. The series, created by legendary screenwriter John Milius, ran for 22 episodes and covered 19 years of brutal Roman history through the eyes of two legionnaires. The show accomplishes so much without ever feeling rushed, that I’m sometimes amazed it was only 2 seasons long.
James Purefoy is a master as Marc Antony, and his performance is worth the price of admission alone. However, the series boasts a number of fantastic actors including Kevin McKidd, Ray Stevenson, Ciaran Hinds, Tobias Menzies and Lindsay Duncan.
If you missed Rome, then it’s time to get your mom’s HBOGo password and start binging. — David Costill
49. MASTER OF NONE
It seems like a lot of people still haven’t watched Master of None. The general consensus among detractors is they “couldn’t get into it” or “the acting was bad.” If you don’t like millennials or dating or dating millennials, or feminism, you probably won’t like this show. Granted, Aziz Ansari often has an immature, goofy sounding way of saying adult things- and sometimes it sounds foolish as hell, but Master of None is really smart and hilarious, just like he is. It deserves at least a second chance or first viewing. The writing especially shines when boldly and humorously confronting the most awkward of things: from racism and sexism to immigration, all with the main theme of modern romance, and the mishaps that can haps. What sets this show lightyears ahead of the rest though is the self-awareness in highlighting disparities and stereotypes between genders and sexes with inventive ways to defy the norms, all while remaining entertaining. If that’s not enough to garner a gander, how about the involvement of other heavy-hitting comics like H. Jon Benjamin, Todd Barry, and Eric Wareheim, and far more great performances than not. It also comes with super cute montages of “real” serious acting, and a soundtrack that’s on point. Just watch it already. — Susie Nuessle
48. JANE THE VIRGIN
A telenovela-inspired rom-com featuring soap opera drama, a meme-loving omniscient narrator, plenty of daydream sequences and an immaculate conception may seem like a disaster waiting to happen. And for all we know, as Jane the Virgin has only just begun in TV terms, it could be. But as of this moment, in between the second and third seasons of this Emmy-winning CW series (yes, read that again), Jane the Virgin is a shining gift to this often hellish world. And the giant bow on that gift is its star, Gina Rodriguez, whose turn as a Type-A hopeless romantic with a messy, Type-B life is pure effervescence. Rodriguez brings so much depth and joy to a role that could be terribly cheesy but is instead complex and meaningful.
The rest of the cast does similar magic with the show’s dramatic foundations, taking it past camp and all the way to meta in its lovable absurdity. Regardless of the plot – which has enough twists and turns for twelve shows – Jane’s family and friends manage to maintain a sense of believability with their mixture of humor, charm and gravity. Jaime Camil, who plays Jane’s telenovela star father, is the biggest scene-stealer of them all, delivering hilarious gems of dialogue at every turn. Such an intoxicating cast coupled with the show’s rich Latino cultural parentage makes it at once entirely refreshing and an instant classic. — Aubrey Nagle
47. MR. ROBOT
Despite the outrageous influx of shows over the course of the past two decades, there are those rare instances where television feels like a cultural event again, giving us all something to talk about and obsess over together. Mr. Robot just so happens to be one of those instances. When we were first introduced to Eliot (Rami Malek), a geeky loner who ends up falling into a black hole of cyber-hacking and anarchy, bringing the audience along for perhaps a more terrifying ride than Coney Island has ever seen. Along with his group of punk Edward Snowdens, Eliot is forced to bring upon the downfall of capitalism from the mere tips of his fingers. It’s hard to remember a time where American television has seen anything this bold, and it’s exactly that risk-taking nature of the show that makes it so unforgettable and important, driving us into further paranoia over the state of technology, all the while making us a little more cautious of our obsessive habits. — Nix Santos
There may be no moment in pop culture so deserving of the cliché “a flash in the pan” as Glee. Its fire burned hot, bright and fast and, as many TV shows have found out since – cough Smash, Empire, Nashville cough – has been difficult to replicate. Glee not only managed to capture the attention of teens for more than five minutes in the internet age, but also built a rabid, devoted fandom from scratch, no superheroes or sequels required, and inspired them to buy music sometimes decades-old and written by people their parents’ age. Broadway tunes, long forgotten 80’s ballads, classics of the American songbook – hell, it singlehandedly resurrected a Journey song and added that to the American songbook.
Though TV tragedies both common – cast departures, lazy writing – and thankfully uncommon – the devastating loss of star Cory Monteith to a drug overdose – turned it into a shell of its former self by the finale, it’s undeniable how important those first few seasons were. (Its pilot is a near-perfect hour of television.) Glee gave every pushed-aside, downtrodden population a voice, and a soaring, resilient one at that, then threw in tears, laughs and dorky choreography for good measure. Each episode was a decidedly uphill battle to recapture the bliss and pain of adolescence and bottle it in a few lines of song. But man, when it was good, it was good. — Aubrey Nagle
Love it or hate it, or both, or neither- at least Girls is a show about what it says it is.
The title is descriptive. It’s not Little Women, it’s not exclusively about Sex in the City, it’s not a fill-in-the-blanks certain type of girl, it’s simply, brilliantly a show about Girls.
Intentional or not, and despite the intriguing ‘will they/won’t they’ train wreck cast of lovable and hate-able yet ultimately relatable characters, this HBO show’s hallmark is that it fills a generational void by being a pop-culture showcase of important issues facing modern women and people of varying maturity levels. Slightly subversive, and rightfully meant to shock the status quo, it doesn’t skirt around confronting tough issues, rather cooly and humorously chronicles necessary subjects like individuality, sexuality and health (including gratuitous nudity outside of mainstream beauty ideals) mental illness, and complex relationships- all while being a fun space for fashion, music and making light of current cultural trends. Golden Girls paved the way, and now the baton has been passed to Lena Dunham. — Susie Nuessle
44. BETTER CALL SAUL
When Breaking Bad wrapped in 2013, and quite satisfyingly, few fans were instinctively clamoring for a prequel about Bob Odenkirk’s character Saul Goodman. Although shot through with multiple, intersecting storylines and an intrinsically intriguing cast of characters, Breaking Bad seemed a wholly contained universe to itself. It didn’t obviously call out for a supplementary text.
How wrong we were. In its two seasons (to date), writers Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have explored the nooks and crannies of this universe with a deftness that still manages to surprise. Odenkirk’s central character – lawyer/hustler Jimmy McGill, en route to becoming Saul Goodman – is a study in nuance and contrast, often hilarious but deeply felt. The rest of the central cast – Michael McKean, Rhea Seehorn, Jonathan Banks – are stellar, uniquely drawn characters in service to larger stories of compromise, intrigue, family and ambition. The bright, even mawkish desert colors of Albuquerque contrast with an almost film noir aesthetic, an attention to foreground and back, and some of the best working directors and editors around continuing to argue for the cinematic possibilities of serial television. As it turns out, Better Call Saul is the show we didn’t realize we needed, a gift-bag of easter eggs for Breaking Bad enthusiasts that also functions entirely well on its own terms. We’re lucky they’re just getting going. — Rick Kelley
43. HORACE AND PETE
We live in the age of the “surprise album”, where artists like Beyonce and Frank Ocean can just drop a new release out of nowhere without any prior warning and dominate the pop charts overnight. For his 2016 web series, Louis C.K did the exact same thing- he dropped the first episode of dark drama Horace and Pete, which contained more despair than the humour he’s known for, onto his website with no prior warning or explanation as to what it was. The lack of marketing may have made him flirt with bankruptcy as mainstream audiences remained unaware of the show’s existence (something he now regrets), but not having to adhere to the needs of a TV network allowed him to flourish creatively and deliver something far closer to art.
Stylized to mimic the early 1970’s TV plays that director Mike Leigh recorded for the BBC, complete with the theatrical sets, Horace and Pete feels like a show from another time. Of course, there are plenty of topical references towards politics and pop culture- but they all take a back burner to a depressing story about a family owned bar, where the owners all harbor deep emotional wounds. C.K has made a living out of black comedy, but to see him treat issues from mental illness to misogyny without a shade of comedy is to see him develop as an artist. C.K, along with the rest of the ensemble deliver performances that rank amongst their career best- you will definitely never see Alan Alda in the same way again. — Alistair Ryder
42. HOME MOVIES
Before he brought Bob’s Burgers to primetime success, director Loren Bouchard sought to go against the ‘shock comedy’ grain of other popular animated series and instead rely on personal storytelling and clever comedic dialogue. The show centers on eight year old filmmaker Brendon Small, his divorced mother, his friends and film stars Jason and Melissa, and alcoholic, skirt-chasing, slobbish soccer coach John McGuirk, Home Movies alternately features hijinx and emotional family drama.
Not only unique in its role as a subdued animated show, the creative process of ‘telescripting’ (scripts left purposefully vague to rely upon the improvisation of the cast) resulted in artfully human wit and emotion in the shows overlapping comedic dialogue. Though the show never achieved great popular fame, its influence as one of the vanguard shows of ‘mumble-core humor’ is undeniable. Though animated without flair, the show’s top-notch dialogue, episode structures which did not shy to pull influence and reference from the entire history of film, and high value sound and music, Home Movies is the perfect animated snack for fans of the Noah Baumbach, Whit Stillman, and Rebecca Miller style for film. — A.R. Magalli
Even in the Golden Age of Television, Louie is a constant standout. Veteran stand-up comedian Louis C.K. writes, directs, stars in and possibly even caters every single episode of the artistic, melancholy, forever self-depreciating FX breakout dramedy series. Defined by its surrealism and poignancy, C.K. took what very well could have been a run-of-the-mill Seinfeld wannabe and turned it into a remarkable, heartfelt, jazzy and deeply mindful slice-of-life program, one unlike any other on television. Well, at least before the copycats came around; some good, like The Jim Gaffigan Show, some bad, like Dice (at least, I’m assuming).
Winningly sincere and always filled with tremendous heartache, Louie is auteur-driven, deeply contemplative and always remarkably self-defined. Narratives can extend anywhere from a single episode to six, and in that process, CK often celebrates the absurd, the tragic and the uncomfortable in ways only he bothered to communicate on television before. Inspired by the better elements of Woody Allen’s extensive resume, it’s a rousing achievement —particularly in a time where television is finally now just as cinematic as film — and it set a golden standard for what not only comedy television could be, but what television should be, period. Filled with pathos and countless celebrity guest appearances, with David Lynch, Garry Marshall, Robin Williams, Joan Rivers, Dane Cook and Jeremy Renner among my personal all-time favorites, Louie is dynamite television at its finest, and one of the most emotionally involving, compulsively intimate and wonderfully existential pieces to ever hit the medium. That’s nothing to joke about, even if it’s still one of the funniest, and subsequently darkest, shows in television history. — Will Ashton
40. SEX AND THE CITY
Are you a Carrie, Samantha, Miranda or a Charlotte? Women all over the world have pondered this question in search of their own identities. Are you the social butterfly? The “try-sexual”? The workaholic? The straight edge? It’s a testament to the phenomenon that was (and to an extent, still is) Sex and the City that a question bearing the exceedingly common names of four thirty- and fortysomethings instantly brings to mind four very specific, iconic characters. Looking back on the hit show nearly two decades later it’s hard to imagine what was so revolutionary about a bunch of affluent straight white women chatting about sex, fashion, love, and friendship – you know, girl stuff – over brunch.
In fact, we’ve come such a long way toward a more diverse and more interesting entertainment world that Sex and the City’s brand of feminism now looks childish and its willingness to talk about womanhood in both serious and comic tones a no-brainer. But it’s also easy to forget that a show that centered female friendship, embraced imperfect female characters and discussed everything from abortion to female orgasm freely was unheard of in 1998. Without SATC paving the way, – in towering Jimmy Choos, mascara running because of a man, again – there would be no Girls, no Orange is the New Black, no Girlfriends and certainly no Broad City. Our TVs would be a much less sparkly place. – Aubrey Nagle
When Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss adapted Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective stories for contemporary times, they were convinced it was going to remain a cult oddity that averaged around 3 million viewers and got cancelled straight away. Even as TV audiences are dwindling so fast that 3 million sounds like a hit, Sherlock manages to draw in blockbuster sized audiences worldwide, even managing to eclipse the successful Guy Ritchie directed movies that are still in the public consciousness.
The show has got more divisive as it has entered its third season, with Moffat frequently being accused of making narrative decisions to appease online fan culture, as opposed to bring the story forward. This reached breaking point during the period set Christmas special, which may be the most divisive thing Moffat has ever produced in a career of dividing television audiences. But to look back on the early episodes, you see one of the most ambitious, well acted and thoroughly enjoyable British drama series of the new millennium. Benedict Cumberbatch may have reached peak saturation point in pop culture; but as easy as it is to tire of him elsewhere, his performance as Sherlock should surely be rendered the best screen portrayal of the character. — Alistair Ryder
38. ORPHAN BLACK
The star of Orphan Black, Tatiana Maslany, is one of only three actors on the planet who has succeeded in playing twins, or in her case clones, so well that the audience forgets that it’s one actress in all the roles. That’s a pretty rare achievement, considering that only John Noble on Fringe and Boris Karloff in a little movie called The Black Room ever achieved such a thing before. Sorry, Jeremy Irons! You don’t make the cut. The fact that Jeremy Irons, the illustrious stage, movie, and voiceover actor doesn’t make the list says everything you need to know about the quality of acting on OB. Everyone who watches Orphan Black has a favorite clone (mine is Cosima, because she’s the coolest), which is pretty amazing considering that eight or nine roles are played by the same actress. And each one is embodied completely differently; Allison has the upright posture you’d expect from a soccer mommy who has a stick that far up her ass; Sarah has the slouch, the glower, and the goth eyeshadow you’d expect from a street kid with a bad ass attitude; and Cosima has the wardrobe, the eyeliner wings, and the laid-back, groovy body language you’d expect from someone with that good a brain riding on top of that relaxed an attitude. And then there’s Helena. Helena is a force of nature and deserves a show of her own when this one ends. The power that is Helena is perfectly exemplified by her “I Survived the Electric Chair” hair. She looks like a blonde Bride of Frankenstein for good reason.
This story is pretty good too; while later seasons do not have the surprise factor that seasons one and two had, the story keeps rolling along in such an intricate and absorbing way that we are compelled to keep watching it unfold. Orphan Black has made weirdness seem so normal; how many TV shows boast a character that wears a sheep mask, and it doesn’t even seem all that strange? Plus, you’ve got to love a show on which so many of the villains are female. The women are all in charge on Orphan Black, for better or for worse. The men come and go, but the women determine what happens. And in the world that is Orphan Black, that seems entirely natural, because that world is so well constructed, well thought out, and thoroughly imagined. The writing is tight, the acting is excellent, the story arc well designed in advance, and the ideas are timely. Who would’ve thought that a show with so much science in it would be so interesting? Orphan Black actually makes science sexy. Eat your heart out, Bill Nye. — Amy Anna
37. HOUSE OF CARDS
The recent shift towards streaming television and cord cutting birthed by Netflix has perhaps no finer product than House of Cards. The political drama first introduced itself with thirteen episodes of a conspiracy theorist’s most indulgent nightmares come true. Corruption, power envy, and murder twist around Frank Underwood with the ferocity of an entire generation’s worth of political lunatics – and that’s just the first season. Kevin Spacey has found had no role more fitting. Underwood receives a great deal of pleasure from tearing apart your brain by making you root for him to succeed in vile acts. It’s a crummy feeling when you breathe a sigh of relief after he pushes a young twenty-something journalist in front of a train, but that’s the wavelength to which this show is trying, and succeeding, in getting you to.
This is the show that time after time is spangled with critiques from its viewers as being too unbelievable, but then is ultimately proven right. And at every occurrence of life mirroring art as produced by this show, the political world feels a little darker. It’s impossible to know just how much this show is getting right, and it might be better of that way.
And not only is it accurate, but it’s tremendously entertaining. Here we are, just three seasons in, and the show only now feels like it’s stepping completely into the light; things are only now beginning. It will be interesting to see where the show goes from here, and we should all hope they start getting a few things wrong. — Peter McCarville
36. PUSHING DAISES
On the surface Pushing Daisies might visually shock you with the bright yellows, greens and reds of its art design or the beaming nature of a few of its characters but the real content assesses what we can never truly control as we navigate love and loss. Touch and taste factor heavily into Ned the Piemaker’s delicate world. With just a touch of his hand he can bring the dead back to life- but only for a moment or else the the person or animal stays alive and something else must perish in its place. The moral dilemmas of the show are profound- choosing who lives and dies and who one can fully love under the circumstances given to you in life. It manages to successfully navigate darkness and the secrets of the dead with humor and a sprinkling of musical numbers. Ned (Lee Pace) making pies out of spoiled fruit that he revives and solving murder mysteries with a cynical private investigator are kooky plot devices but Bryan Fuller’s Pushing Daisies packs a magical and moving punch with its blend of death, romance, music, food and yearning. — Lane Scarberry
35. ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK
When the story of the current “Golden Age” of television is written, Orange is the New Black will emerge as a revolution all its own. Netflix’s audacious series about life at an upstate-New York women’s prison gleefully turns every babes-behind-bars trope on its head. Yes, there’s violence, lesbian affairs, corrupt wardens, and drug rings; but they’re depicted as never before. Any exploitation there is is wholly owned by the characters themselves. As with HBO’s Oz, the majority of the cast bears the dynamics of both genders in relationships, daily activities, fights, and yes, even sex.
The series uses the long form to full advantage, spinning season-long arcs and giving characters real depth. And as its source material, Piper Kernan’s fish-out-of-water memoir, ran dry, Orange increasingly allowed the fictionalized Piper’s story to become just one of many unfolding under the roofs of Litchfield State Prison. Creator Jenji Kohan gives generous screen time to characters seldom portrayed in more than one dimension and illuminates the often-ignored stories behind the label “inmate.” We know why every one of them was sent to Litchfield, recounted in flashbacks that are sometimes funny, often heartrending, always riveting.
What’s more, the actresses in these roles are seldom given opportunities to really show their chops as they do on Orange. Transgender actress Laverne Cox plays transgender inmate/hairdresser/confidant Sophia Burset. In-your-face butch comic actress Lea DeLaria plays in-your-face butch Big Boo. Older actresses, including many of color, get juicy roles like nothing they’d ordinarily get.
By turns hilarious, dramatic, melodramatic, heartbreaking, infuriating, and ironic, the stories involving these women (and the institution that houses them) captivate like nothing else – except real life. — Mike Grunwald
The anthology format has become ubiquitous by this point, but the only show that has made a successful argument for being made that way is Fargo. It’s a show that began against a stacked deck considering how well-loved its namesake is, and managed to surpass all expectations from there. It’s a starkly human series, showcasing the good and the bad and the mediocre in all of us, as well as boasting incredible performances across both seasons thus far. As large as the cast is, there’s not a single character that’s given short shrift, nor one that’s impossible to relate to in at least some small way. We’ve all felt slivers of Lester Nygaard’s cowardice, or Lou Solverson’s achingly earnest but understated love. It’s also no small feat that the second season proved even better than the first, with a bigger (and stranger) story and usage of split-screen worthy of Brian De Palma. Fargo also has one of the best soundtracks on television, featuring tracks that reference the Coen oeuvre as well as placing the respective eras of the seasons so far. But make no mistake, though it may be named after the 1996 movie, Fargo is its own creature, and proudly so. — Karen Han
Someone once told me she didn’t find women funny — that she couldn’t think of a single female comedian/actress that was naturally funny, as opposed to just saying funny things that had been written for her. My first and only necessary debunking response: Julia Louis-Dreyfus. More specifically, Julia Louis-Dreyfus in HBO’s stunningly sarcastic and smartly scripted half-hour political comedy Veep. As the hapless, foul-mouthed, egocentric, at times oblivious, but also refreshingly emotionally vulnerable Selina Meyer, Louis-Dreyfus & Co.’s take on the D.C. rat race is astonishing, and like its distant colleague House of Cards, probably hits a little too close to real life. Created by Armando Iannucci (who revels in political satire, having also directed In the Loop and created the BBC’s The Thick of It), Veep absolutely skewers the American (and sometimes international) political landscape in ways you never thought possible (and again, in ways that probably hew too close to realism). In one of the earliest episodes, Meyer’s campaign staff agonizes, complete with flow chart, over which flavor of ice cream she should choose upon visiting a black-owned ice cream parlor somewhere in D.C., as any flavor is going to trigger a litany of political analysis over what it all means. You want to laugh, but you also have to wonder: is this for fun, or is this for real? This is Veep’s genius. (It also boasts one of my all-time favorite lines: “You like to have sex, and you like to travel? “Yes, ma’am.” “Then you can fuck off.”) — J. Tonzelli
When it comes to Timothy Olyphant television westerns, Deadwood gets all the love; and while there’s no denying the short-lived HBO series was worthy of praise, Olyphant’s Seth Bullock wasn’t as interesting or memorable as his Raylan Givens, the dry-witted bad-ass of FX’s excellent six-season series Justified. Based on the short story “Fire in the Hole” by Elmore Leonard, the modern, Kentucky-set western pits Givens against his series arch nemesis Boyd Crowder (a glorious Walton Goggins), boyhood friend and fellow coal digger (a recurring detail which influences both the plot and their direct relationship). Over the course of six seasons, minor baddies make appearances (memorably played Margo Martindale, Neil McDonough, Sam Elliott, Mary Steenburgen, and more), but like any sure-footed series, there was always the main backbone conflict (Raylan and Boyd) that gave Justified its purpose. Exposing the criminal underbelly of the south that most people wouldn’t have guessed, Justified makes the wise and honest decision to present them not as southern-drawled inbreds (okay, sometimes they do), but as intelligent, cunning, well-read criminals who could stand their own against Tony Soprano or Walter White. That the final episode of the final season was able to end at the height of the series’ run was a testament to how well rendered Justified remained throughout, never faltering with a weak season. Never before has a series ended with one line of dialogue that managed to effectively summarize an entire conflict between good vs. evil, which remained the crux of a series as well as why the relationship between Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder was so complicated: “We dug coal together.” — J. Tonzelli
31. HOUSE, M.D.
This formulaic medical drama managed to elevate itself beyond its genre through excellent story-building and a willingness to examine closely topics such as mental health, addiction, faith, toxic relationships, and spirituality. Drawing heavily from the psychologic profile of Sherlock Holmes, the show follows brilliant-but-troubled diagnostician Gregory House (played to poignant perfection by Hugh Laurie) as he tries to balance his mastery of the medical arts with his inability to conquer personal and interpersonal demons. The show has a palette ranging from biting sarcasm to clever prank wars, psychotic rage to heartbreaking trauma, the later seasons break from episodic ‘illness of the week’ storytelling to delve into complex character arcs that highlight the acting strengths of Laurie and the rest of the stellar cast. — A.R. Magalli
30. THE AMERICANS
FX’s major drama doesn’t have as many eyes on it as other acclaimed dramas, but those missing out should take note. At a time when Americans are looking for enemies in every neighbor, this series couldn’t have been more welcome. Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings put a face to every Reagan-era threat: their marriage, their family, their entire existence, are all based on lies. An uncomfortable truth is that makes Elizabeth and Phillip as authentically American as the FBI agent hunting them next door.
The strength of The Americans is the examination of who we are and the roles we play as husband, wife and parent. Sure, the stakes aren’t as high as life or death in the Cold War, but the deception is still recognizable. Paige’s discovery that her parents are spies is just as devastating as any other fall from grace kids witness their parents make. And unlike other programs, The Americans is never afraid to let scenes breathe while ratcheting up the tension. Bond-level spy games are the selling point for advertisers, but that’s not the real draw to the show. Pulling the trigger is easy, but the quiet devastation that follows leaves one to wonder just which moral boundaries they won’t push, and each new season poses the question whether Phillip and Elizabeth will have any soul left. — Colin Biggs
It’s something of a miracle that Rectify will have lasted four seasons by the time of its conclusion this fall. Aided by the fact of being on a smaller channel (Sundance), the series has almost none of the obvious signposts readying a drama for years on the air. Sure, there’s the central crime: nearly two decades ago a girl was killed and the question of blame lingers. And the protagonist may sound familiar at first: a hulking man, released from death row after 17 years, his true guilt or innocence unknown. Yet, while this may all read as pulpy indulgence, Rectify consistently plays at a hushed tone. This is a show more fascinated by lead character Daniel Holden digging through his old belongings than reliving the events of the night that led him there. Plenty of shows kick off with the murder of a young woman, too many in fact. But none of them feel anything like this humble, ambling poem of a series.
The word novelistic is tossed around often in regards to modern television. Rectify happens to earn that distinction, playing with the quiet and gnarled tones of Southern Gothic literature. Its constant use of metaphor could be overbearing if it weren’t so beautifully intertwined with the lives of the characters. You may never look at those air dancing floppy men the same way again, but you might recognize the tussles between religion and the plain fact of sin. Rectify warps the familiar world, getting away with this by grounding everything in the battles that take place inside all of our heads. There are people we love, but at times we despise them. We are good people, but sometimes we do the wrong thing. This is a weighty show, but it moves like the breeze through stunning imagery and stirring monologues. And everything circles around Aden Young playing Daniel, truly one of the great performances in the history of the medium. Like the series around him, he looks like a giant but floats like an angel with weights on his ankles. Rectify is the rare show that sees the world for all of the beauty and horror it contains. And even more than this, it understands that those two elements are often one in the same. — Josh Oakley
28. TRUE DETECTIVE (Season 1)
To begin talking about True Detective without prefacing with the McConaissance would be criminal, as it was only just blossoming at the debut of the show. It’s easy to forget that just a few years ago, Matthew McConaughey was just that dude from Dazed and Confused, or the butt of every joke that involved a southern drawl and the phrase “alright, alright, alright.” For anyone who saw Dallas Buyers Club, it was evident that something strange was happening within McConaughey. Why were we taking him seriously now? And then it hit.
Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) walked up to the most absurd, insane crime scene television had ever seen up until that point, and instantly gripped True Detective’s entire audience. But that was only an introduction. What followed were eight of the most gripping episodes of television to date. Dirty cops, deep introspection, and a five minute shot of an intense and terribly nerve racking shoot out with all sorts of drug dealers later, we learn that we were all wrong, and the light is winning. And for all the talk that McConaughey got after the first season was all said and done, Woody Harrelson deserves perhaps even more. Think about it. Five years ago would anyone have thought that Woody Harrelson could make an audience weep? It was surely believable that he could be taken seriously from No Country for Old Men, but you are lying to yourself if you say you knew he was capable of making you die a little with a line as simple as, “I’m fine…or I will be fine…” That’s what made this show a spectacle. Two actors who would have been laughed out of an audition for roles this cerebral a decade ago made the world think, reconsider, and respect.
I am aware there is a second season of True Detective. — Peter McCarville
27. SOUTH PARK
You think you’ll eventually grow out of South Park, but you never do. At least, I still haven’t. I don’t see when I ever will either. As debased as it might seem, primarily due to its cheap animation, excessive bathroom humor, fouler potty mouth, lowball celebrity potshots and incessant shock value, the long-running Comedy Central series constantly surprises you, entices you, endears you and ultimately leaves you wanting more. It’s as raunchy and crude as it is daring and uncompromising, and that’s what keeps it so fresh and inviting. With practically 20 whole seasons on the air, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have created a series that’s both timely and timeless, off-base and hard-hitting and as involving as it is alienating. You know, depending on the audience.
Based loosely on their snowy Colorado childhoods, Parker and Stone don’t care who they offend, or what the damn general public thinks of their endlessly silly, often lowbrow and politically-driven and/or pop culture-inspired animated antics, for that matter; their series is a bewildering and off-the-wall high-mark in adult animation, comedy or otherwise, and it’s hard to imagine a time when that’s not the case — until they finally call it quits, or perhaps get kicked off the station. Whichever comes first. With plots devoted towards bringing down Barbara Streisand, Jennifer Lopez, Scientology, Mel Gibson, Michael Jackson, Catholicism, Mormons, gingers, Family Guy and pretty much anyone with a guarded sense of humor (to name a few), South Park has a rich history of debauchery, and they’ve shown very few signs of slowing down.
It’s nearly as hilarious now as it was in ’90s-’00s, and with Stone and Parker still willing to push the envelope whenever they can, South Park may not be as brazen, shocking, wild and/or deeply irreverent as it was during its glory days, but it still knows how to keep the laughs coming. It’s one of the most gleefully ridiculous, insane, scrutinizing, fearless, incessantly non-PC TV shows in history, and it will be a terribly sad day when that’s no longer the case. So, if you haven’t already, come on down to South Park and meet some friends of mine. — Will Ashton
You might be tempted to think that Futurama is just The Simpsons in space. You might think that the show, debuting the same year as Family Guy, would be one of the many concurrent “adult” cartoons attempting to capitalize on the dissonance of swearing and various bad behaviors in a format often used for children’s shows. In both cases, you would be wrong. Though the show from Simpsons creator Matt Groening bears some stylistic resemblance to its long-running cousin, Futurama is resolutely its own beast.
Set in the 31st century, Futurama follows the hapless Fry, a delivery boy who accidentally freezes himself for 1,000 years and wakes up in the future. He goes to work for a delivery company run by his distant relative Professor Farnsworth. The show’s plots usually revolve around the crew’s interplanetary jobs or the Professor’s sci-fi inventions. His fellow crew members include the strong and capable Lela, after whom Fry pines, and what may be the show’s signature character – its Snoopy, if you will – the party-animal, booze-guzzling robot, Bender.
What immediately impresses about Futurama is its creativity and the quality of its wit. The setting of 31st century New York (New New York, as it’s called) gives the creators license to imagine scientific advances of every kind and make endless extrapolations from – and at the same time knowing riffs on – our current social climate. Rarely content with mere randomness or pop culture references, the show’s humor is deeply character-based. Each character has well-defined qualities and many of the jokes consist of simply putting them in different situations and allowing them to react out of their own established traits. That consistency means that the writers can also wring surprising emotion when it suits them because we come to believe in and care for the wacky crew. Furthermore, Futurama doesn’t lean on vulgarity or hi-jinx (at least not before its woefully misjudged series of 90-minute episodes following its first cancelation). When it addresses social issues, it does so with a finesse entirely different from a blunt instrument like South Park. With its memorable characters and intelligent brand of comedy, Futurama has made an indelible mark on the television landscape. — Daniel Stidham
25. GILMORE GIRLS
If you’ve never watched Gilmore Girls, you may have been confused by the parades thrown in honor of its imminent return on Netflix. Isn’t this just the series where the mother and daughter talk really quickly? How does this earn the fanatical distinction of something like the comedic labyrinth of Arrested Development? In some ways, the answer is more complicated than that basic description. But in a direct sense, it’s that simple: this is that show about the mother and daughter who talk really quickly. And oh, the things they say.
Following Lorelai and Rory, Gilmore Girls quickly settled into the small town utopia of Stars Hollow. While the phrase has become nauseating over the years, it rings absolutely true here: the setting is yet another character, and maybe its most important. Gilmore Girls nearly always felt like a show inviting the viewer in, and the charm of Stars Hollow was too enticing to turn down. Thankfully, that quirk was always watered down enough by Lorelai’s sarcasm, Rory’s intellect and the gruff embodiment of denim that was Luke Danes. Aiding with that varying temperament, Lorelai’s parents Emily and Richard presented a more “proper” living just outside of the cozy little town. Gilmore Girls would go on to develop each of these figures, and more, giving them loving arcs. But from the beginning, the most vital element was clear, the chemistry between Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel. Through tormented romances and broken promises, that relationship was the bedrock of the series and their conversations were nearly always engaging and heartfelt (and qualifications are meant to blur out the infamous seventh season, for which creator Amy Sherman-Palladino was not present). Gilmore Girls was a genial and warm show, qualities that rarely get the respect in television that they deserve. They are difficult to pull off with finesse, to be sure, but Gilmore Girls nearly always nailed the formula. That one of the best shows of the young century happened to be one of its kindest is only more of a reason to celebrate. — Josh Oakley
When J.J. Abrams announced that he was bringing a new science fiction show to television, legions of Bad Robot fans got primed for another Lost-style feast of philosophical genre bending. What they got was something even better – a show that actually delivered on its philosophical ambitions. And Fringe was nothing if not ambitious. Take equal parts The Twilight Zone and The X-Files, throw in a dash of Law & Order and you start to get the picture. Now run those elements through the mind of David Cronenberg. Got it? Through that twisted prism, Fringe dove deep into questions of mortality, faith, family and forgiveness. Not to mention the boundaries of time and space, the moral grey areas of science, the benefits of taking psychedelics … lots of psychedelics, and the mathematical perfection of Red Vines. Fringe premiered to solid ratings and rave reviews with a massive two hour pilot in the fall of 2008. And audiences quickly forgot about it.
But Fringe did keep a slim, devout fan base for the entirety of its five season run. I didn’t discover the show myself until late in Season 2. Flipping by Fox one night I caught sight of Peter Weller fitting sprockets and gears into his own flesh. I stopped to watch. And immediately joined the ranks of the devout. The show’s profound mix of heady science fiction, pulpy horror and heartfelt human drama was unlike anything else on TV. And its sense of wonder was positively infectious. At the heart of that wonder was a dedicated but haunted FBI Agent (Anna Torv), a cocksure con artist (Joshua Jackson) and a bona fide mad scientist (John Noble). Together, they formed TV’s least likely nuclear family and battled everything from shape-shifting assassins to inter-dimensional oracles to alternate versions of themselves … from a parallel dimension.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Through 100 episodes Fringe visited a haunting past (1985), a dystopian future (2036), took an animated acid trip through the human mind and even crooned through a noir-inspired musical. It was frequently the boldest show on television. More often than not, it was one of the best. That had a lot to do with the performance of John Noble. The show’s overarching mythos centered on the morally ambiguous actions of his scientist, Walter Bishop. So too did much of the show’s human drama. Noble carried that dramatic torch through the show’s quirkiest highs and shadowy lows. And created one of the greatest characters in the history of television. Not that many people noticed – I’m looking at you Emmy voters. But that’s the story of Fringe, a pop sci-fi masterpiece that never found the audience it deserved. At least not in this dimension. — Patrick Phillips
23. CHAPELLE’S SHOW
Entire academic treatises can, and have, been written about the short-lived outburst of incendiary confrontation-comedy that was Chappelle’s Show. A sampling of titles, from a casual Google search: “Racial Satire and Chappelle’s Show”; “Deconstructing ‘Chappelle’s Show’ : Race, Masculinity, and Comedy as Resistance”; “A Sketch Comedy of Errors: Chappelle’s Show, Stereotypes, and Viewers”.
The point isn’t to laugh at the analysts. There’s little doubt that laconic stand-up comedian and occasional movie star Dave Chappelle exploded onto the televised sketch comedy scene in 2003 with more on his mind than a few cheap laughs, and even less doubt that he exited that same scene in a truly revolutionary way, casting aside untold millions in the name of integrity and a profound unease with how his provocations were being co-opted. But the seriousness of such analyses also tends to mask the basic fact that Chappelle’s Show was really, really fucking funny. Skits like the groundbreaking “Clayton Bigsby” riff (focused on a blind KKK member who doesn’t realize he’s Black), the “Racial Draft” conceit, or “The Mad Real World” caught comedy audiences unaware, combining honest attention to the absurdity of barely-concealed social norms with a gut-busting self-awareness and physical comedy that borrowed as much from the Three Stooges as Richard Pryor. Chappelle’s Show burned bright for a few years and vanished, but it left in its wake bewildered, laughing audiences who, by and large, probably often felt less comfortable than they did moments before. Good. — Rick Kelley
22. RICK AND MORTY
Riffing on the Marty/Doc Brown dynamic from Back to the Future could have lost interest after a few episodes—instead, Rick and Morty wound up being one of the most ambitious comedies in years. Combining the bizarre wit of Justin Roiland with Dan Harmon, the show resembles a child’s imagination served with heaping dollops of horrifying social commentary. The creators have no interest in the conventions of animated comedy, but will lead viewers to stare directly into the abyss—after a few dick jokes, of course.
Rick and Morty is no stranger to some of the darkest moments of television, and, much like its spiritual cousin, Bojack Horseman, none of this could fly without being animated. Sitcoms reseting at the start of every new episode has been touched on by South Park, but Roiland and Harmon pushed that idea to its farthest reaches by having Rick and Morty finding a safe haven in an alternate universe where they had just died violently. The hijinks from earlier are resolved, but Rick and Morty still have to bury themselves to pick up where they left off. Dark. Yet, for all of the darkness there’s still room for a character named Mr. Poopybutthole. Just so you know not to take it all too seriously. WUBBA-LUBBA-DUB-DUB! — Colin Biggs
Let’s get this out of the way: Firefly was cancelled after a single season and fans have been pissed about it ever since. There, now we’ve addressed it. While I wouldn’t count myself among the throng clamoring for a new season, especially given the time that’s passed, it’s easy to see why the show inspired such devotion. Joss Whedon’s space western about a band of outlaws living on the edge of a post-earth solar system created a lived-in world that felt fresh and invigorating despite its borrowing from Star Wars and similar properties. The title refers to the class of spaceship captained by our hero Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a Han-Solo-esque scoundrel with a heart of gold. His crew – stalwart Zoe, cut-up pilot Wash, brash Jane, and sweet Kaylee – draw the ire of the corrupt Alliance when they harbor fugitives in the form of Simon Tam and his sister River, a traumatized girl with untapped power. The show is exciting and witty, eager to upend convention and subvert genre tropes to satisfying effect. Whedon’s dialog is full of verbal repartee and unique turns of phrase, including an infusion of Chinese meant to demonstrate an increasingly integrated, mutli-ethnic world a la Blade Runner. The juxtaposition of futuristic technology like spacecraft alongside horses and revolvers gives the show an almost steam punk aesthetic. Most of all, though, Firefly’s characters are vivid and magnetic, and fans wanted to spend a lot more time with them. The 2005 feature film Serenity tied up a few loose ends and provided a measure of closure, but for many the only solace for the premature demise of their beloved genre-bender will be re-watching its fantastic 14 episodes on home media. — Daniel Stidham
20. THE OFFICE
The early 2k’s were a transitional period for the sitcom. Seinfeld and Friends were, at the time, the pinnacle of what the medium could offer, and their massive success provided for the birth of many, many copies and deformities (see Joey). But after a while, the format from which those shows sprung were finally played out. The laugh track was in desperate need of the ax, and it began – although its slow death lingers to this day – with The Office.
The Office was the perfect show of the 2k’s not just because of bringing an end to canned laughter, but also because of its nonconformity to its predecessors, having almost zero resemblance to sitcoms of the 90s. Its refreshing format ridded the world of a show structure that had dragged on for fifty years. Its cast spawned characters who were plain, complex, and, perhaps most importantly, ugly. They talked to the camera, they used their real names, and they made their best out of their monotonous lives. In essence, they were Real.
The first four seasons could stand up to any comedy show before it and completely blow them away. Here we see the true arc of the show, which was the evolution of Jim and Pam’s relationship. But there’s just so much more. Steve Carell’s true genius was at play, and working at full steam. Take “The Client” as an example of the show at its best. Jim and Pam are falling in love, but so naturally, while on their first date where they stay late to do a table read of Threat Level Midnight. Dwight’s insecurities are at play when Michael leaves his “Dwigt” smoking gun within the script. And Michael, in his fullest form, jib jabs his way through an important client meeting, only to reveal his genuinely nice guy essence by showing he cares about understanding his clients – and, on a larger scale, everyone around him – before hooking up with Jan, a decision that snowballs into another perfect story arc.
There are many reasons The Office was perfect for its time, and its influence is, for better or worse, still going strong. It’s hard to find a network television show now that isn’t running with the mockumentary style (also for better or worse). And if nothing else, The Office gave the world Creed Bratton, a gift that gave and gave. Or maybe his name was William Charles Schneider… And even if the show completely nosedived after Michael left – like in a colossal way – the first few seasons are untouchable, pure, and forever special. — Peter McCarville
19. IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA
When it debuted in 2005, It’s Always Sunny was an unusual figure in the TV landscape. This peculiarly low budget show, with a warped sense of humor infamously described by one critic as “Seinfeld on crack”, seemed like the TV equivalent of all the musicians on Myspace who were getting instant, fleeting fame through online bedroom recordings. The no budget pilot was shot by series creator/star Rob McElhenney and shopped around to various networks, with no production company behind it. When FX green-lit the series, they were presumably trying to be ahead of the curve by commissioning a new style of sitcom, that would last for a couple of seasons before fizzling out. Instead, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has become the longest running live action sitcom on US TV, with series 12 currently in production; impressive for a show that has never gained mainstream success and has never seemed particularly interested in it.
After a first season that aped Curb Your Enthusiasm, the show really started to flourish in season 2, with the addition of Danny DeVito; an addition to the cast that quickly allowed the humour to become more surreal and significantly darker. The cast were all introduced as unlikeable characters, but over the course of eleven seasons, they’ve all developed into being full blown sociopaths. How many other shows on TV have a core cast of characters including an illiterate janitor, a millionaire who wants to live in filth and a full blown serial killer, with an “implication” to get away with sexual assault? Even with episodes dedicated to, say, a musical that is an allegory for a past incident of child abuse (Season 4’s masterpiece “The Nightman Cometh”), it manages to flirt with offensiveness in a way that renders all controversy silly. No show has ever made the offensive so funny, or turned hyper real societal fears into the most surreal, ridiculous narratives imaginable. — Alistair Ryder
Much like Arrested Development, Community‘s long running jokes are layered and become more fantastically bizarre with each passing episode. The sitcom’s premise is fairly mundane- misfits form a study group at a community college and end up leaning on one another for everything. What makes creator Dan Harmon’s show stand out are the rapid pop culture leaps in logic and the surprising risks that it takes with storylines that only a committed and fairly odd viewer can come to appreciate. Episodes that are animated, musical, sci-fi, paintball themed or centered around a holiday are gimmicky but end up being terrifically inventive and present smart alternative realities that keep everything fresh. One episode is a clip show that presents moments from episodes that never happened. Community is snarky and full of itself (akin to its character Jeff Winger) but hides a loving sense of humor that lifts it beyond its satirical ambitions and the laugh track peers. — Lane Scarberry
17. THE LEFTOVERS
When you hear the premise of The Leftovers—a rapture-like event causes a huge portion of the population to disappear at random—it’s easy to think of premise heavy shows like Flashforward or even Damon Lindelof’s other TV venture Lost. Those shows rarely have time to focus on character because they are too busy burning through an unsustainable “event.” The Leftovers is instead a masterpiece of character that explores the thematic challenges of post 9-11 anxiety with perfect symbolism and overwhelming emotion.
International Assassin, the second season’s 8th episode, is one of the best pieces of television I’ve ever seen. It’s the perfect culmination of hours of tense and overwhelming moments.
I can’t begin to describe how good Justin Theroux, Carrie Coon, and Christopher Eccleston are in this show. All I can do is let you know that if you aren’t watching The Leftovers, then you are missing out on some of the best television ever created. — David Costill
16. THE WEST WING
The West Wing is a politically-charged drama known for its witty back-and-forth dialogue, constant walking conversations in hallways, and subject matter still relevant a decade later. Aaron Sorkin’s examination of the intersection between humanity and public service forces its audience to realize that an elected politician — and those working for him or her — must balance personal ethics with the morality of a governmental body and its electorate. The show neither negates nor excuses the faults of its key figure, President Bartlet, or the multitude of ethically grey actions taken by his staff.
Watching the show, we get to see party pitted against person as different characters navigate decisions and dialogue from unique perspectives. For the communications director, the stakes are different than for the press secretary, minority party leader, president, and presidential candidate. The West Wing is a study in the professional versus the individual and the overlap between both that’s relatable to anyone with multiple roles (father/lawyer, mother/doctor, child/mother, client/friend, and so on). You don’t have to understand the intricacies of American politics to appreciate the show’s unique ability to explore the striations of its characters’ identities and personalities and to see the effect of each element.
The show makes politics and politicians seem less sterile and more nuanced, for better or worse. By including characters of various political persuasions, with different jobs and values, Sorkin’s drama makes it easier for the average viewer to understand the implications of the political negotiations, scandals, and choices made by the characters. It invites you to stop viewing politics through any particular prism and reminds you that those making the decisions are just as affected by them as any voter.
During an election cycle that has incited all sorts of passionate reactions, it’s both sobering and comforting to realize how many of today’s big issues and talking points were central to episodes of The West Wing. Gun control, gender equality, separation of church and state, candidates’ health, free speech, international trade, terrorism — the issues haven’t gone away since the show aired, and it’s tempting to watch the episodes and shake one’s head at the inevitability of continuing crises. And yet the thoughtful conversations and complicated votes depicted in these episodes are still helpful in understanding the issues and even more helpful in understanding why the issues are so divisive, complex, politically charged, and resonant today. The fact that The West Wing still feels completely relevant, useful, witty, and thought-provoking is a testament to its ability to transcend the stuffy political drama and connect with anyone who’s ever had trouble figuring out a career, a family, a sickness, a struggle — this whole messy life thing that’s somehow still troubling us in 2016. — Emily Ambash
15. BOJACK HORSEMAN
The supposed “golden age of television” enshrined shows with similar features: they were usually hour-long dramas, finding their homes away from the censors on network TV. They typically featured a burly male protagonist, a sinister figure with a heart of gold (or a heart of gold concealing a sinister figure). BoJack Horseman, arriving just after this era concluded, knew exactly which pieces of the formula to adapt and which to junk completely. The protagonist is familiar, at least in terms of his nihilistic outlook. But this time, he’s a horse. That may read as a superficial difference, but given that the world around him is just as outlandish there was reason to herald this as something staggeringly new.
Instead of a 60’s ad man or a newly introspective mobster, BoJack features a washed-up sitcom actor decades past his “prime” (flashbacks have raised questions of just how cheery the period of his financial success actually was). He’s accompanied by a childish roommate (voiced by Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul in one of many genius casting moves), another sitcom star who refuses to look into the face of obsolescence, a surly brainiac constantly adjusting her comfort zone and his current agent and former lover. These pieces could be used for simple Hollywood satire, and that element is certainly present. But more than anything, BoJack Horseman is a pitch-black sinkhole of depression and anxiety. Penultimate episodes of each season have grown a reputation for reaching further and further into that onyx pit. And yet all of that darkness is somehow levied by a pun-based economy. From the background gags of chalkboard writings to ridiculous gags of animals acting in their nature despite being anthropomorphized, BoJack Horseman is as goofy as it is despairing. And that combination has bared endless fruits in just three seasons. Hope, gloom and Character Actress Margo Martindale are just of a few elements the series plugs into with abandon. By loosing the shackles of the “golden age’s” formal guidelines, Bojack Horseman has opened up a thrillingly new universe that no one could have predicted. — Josh Oakley
14. 30 ROCK
If there’s one word that comes to mind when I think about 30 Rock, it’s Liz Lemon. Wait, that’s two words. Tina Fey’s frazzled but lovable (and semi-autobiographical) head-writer character is certainly central to the show’s success, but the word I was looking for is density. It’s hard to imagine that any of its contemporaries matched 30 Rock for sheer number of jokes per minute. In the era of The Office and Parks and Rec – mockumentary style shows that often used silence, reactions, or non-punchlines to highlight awkward situations – 30 Rock was a joke-writing machine, pumping out verbal jousts, digs, sight gags, and hilarious non-sequiturs at an allegro rhythm that made its lean runtime fly by. Most comedies are diverting, but 30 Rock is that rare show that had me laughing out loud almost every single episode.
Fey plays Lemon, the head writer of a live weekly comedy show similar to Saturday Night Live who must constantly corral her selfish, loose-cannon stars (Tracy Morgan and Jane Krakowski) and unruly team of writers. Though she lives in New York and has an exciting entertainment job, her disappointing love life and junk food addiction make her the character that will most easily relate to most audience members (you know at least 5 people who have called Liz Lemon their spirit animal). Opposite in every way is her boss, Jack Donaghy, played by Alec Baldwin. Donaghy is the consummate suit – purring, confident, ambitious, impossibly suave. Baldwin’s contribution to the show is incalculable. He’s a calming presence in the midst of the maelstrom, and effortlessly funny to boot. He and Liz end up forming one of the great platonic TV friendships. In seven seasons, 30 Rock never truly ran out of steam. It’s an incredibly consistent half hour of television. — Daniel Stidham
Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal is a dizzying immersion into the toxic yet fulfilling bond between an empathic profiler for the FBI and a serial killer who thrives on controlled chaos. They feed and tease each other’s intellectual prowess, all the while building an intensely perverse relationship that leaves many forever psychologically damaged, maimed or dead in its wake. The impeccably ordered albeit decadent Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) and brilliant but broken Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) embark on a close relationship that creeps along and bides its time for maximum emotional carnage. Mikkelsen and Dancy give introspective weight to each loaded conversation and glance. Fuller intricately weaves artists and writers like Francis Bacon and William Blake into Hannibal’s bloody tapestry. The high aesthetic and lofty language of Hannibal can be tough to absorb at first but the deeply unnerving and completely riveting hook of the show isn’t that Dr. Hannibal Lecter eats people but that he finds other, more disturbing ways to dissect and devour the inner lives of his victims and those unlucky few that are counted as friends. Adapting the infamous central character of Thomas Harris’ books could have proved a flat and cheap shot at Anthony Hopkins’ legacy but instead a gorgeously realized world that is elegantly sickening and intricately disturbing emerges out of each mosaic of murder. — Lane Scarberry
12. PARKS AND RECREATION
We promise you this: you’ll never meet a more endearing pack of dorks than the cast of Parks and Recreation. High praise, we’re aware, but try getting through an episode of the show without falling in love with any of them, who are so shamelessly earnest without being obnoxious about it. Set in the humble town of Pawnee, Indiana, Parks and Rec turned the dreariness of local government into something funny and sweet, all without giving you a toothache or being offensive. The show itself continued to be an underdog throughout its seven-season run, but thanks to a fantastic set of actors and writers, it kept chugging along and only got better over time. Rarely is television able to capture such warmth and compassion that it almost makes you feel as if its very characters were your own friends or Pawnee your own home, but that’s exactly the kind of magic that Parks and Rec did so damn well. — Nix Santos
11. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER
A teenage girl is destined to fight the forces of darkness — among them vampires, werewolves, robots, and bullies. She tries to hide her secret from her family and new school before ultimately forming a Scooby Gang of friends and friendly monsters to fight a slew of Big Bads. She grows up quickly through rare teenage experiences like briefly dying and vanquishing her high school principal — and through more common ones like encountering post-coital heartbreak, fighting for social acceptance, and losing loved ones. She does things better than you and worse than you and it all feels simultaneously familiar and outside your comfort zone. Into every generation a young adult is born.
Joss Whedon’s campy, gory, action-filled, poignant, heartbreaking, hilarious Buffy the Vampire Slayer defied categorization on a number of levels, which both made its success unlikely and also connected it with an unusually diverse audience. It wasn’t an easy feat: the title might be a put-off to mainstream viewers who see “vampire” and think it’s not for them, that it’s too silly or scary. Its initial home, the WB, was just about to come into its reputation as a home for teen shows, potentially alienating adult viewers. For horror fans, the cutesy name might (accurately) imply comedic overtones unfit for a serious genre or action series. And Buffy featured a female protagonist defined, and in many ways constricted by, her well-accepted strength — not exactly a mainstream TV formula at the time.
The show worked anyway. By fitting nowhere, it could fit anywhere. Who can’t relate to the experience of growing up, of fighting your demons, of finding your own identity in a world determined to tell you who you are and what you’re not? Buffy used monster metaphors to illuminate life lessons more effectively than any preachy drama could. The Scooby Gang was the embodiment of the idea that we can all find a place, a people, a group — from the cheerleader and prom queen to the book nerd, bad guy, and redeemable demon. The characters dealt with literally life-threatening circumstances like death and defacement while treating with equal sensitivity (and humor) the everyday struggles like feeling invisible, dealing with new experiences, questioning your sexuality, and fighting with your family.
Buffy proved that while we may be handed down a destiny, we also can and must choose our own. In a world with so much out of our control, so much that existed (or died) hundreds of years before us, Buffy is an enduring reminder that you’re always who you are first (“Buffy”), and only then what you are or what the world sees you as (“the Vampire Slayer”). It means a lot to be something, but it means more to be someone. — Emily Ambash
Over the course of 6 seasons, ABC’s island mystery series LOST captivated viewers unlike any show before it. Utilizing an excellent ensemble cast portraying endlessly fascinating characters, LOST pinned these characters up against not only one another, but against the ever-unraveling mysteries that both surrounded and lay at the center of the island. In many ways, LOST was the first network TV series of the internet generation, inspiring blogs devoted to spoilers, rumors, intelligent (and less so) theories on what certain plot developments meant and who could or couldn’t be trusted, and even bringing fans of the show into the action via an ARG. It was also one of the first mainstream TV series to produce internet-only webisodes – mini supplemental stories that furthered the show’s mythology, if not the main plot.
LOST was the very definition of “watercooler” television as it dominated workplace conversation much like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead do today, but to a larger degree. This was, after all, a show that was televised and accessible to every single person with a television. And while it slipped in ratings in its final couple seasons (a writers’ strike that took place just as the show was hitting its highest creative point certainly didn’t help), LOST never disappointed in keeping us hooked – even when it seemingly reveled in disappointing us. — Jeff Rollins
9. SIX FEET UNDER
After taking home Oscar gold for his acerbic screenplay for American Beauty (1999), Alan Ball had the film world in the palm of his hand. It was a bit of a shock when he announced he’d be heading to HBO for his much anticipated follow up. Simply put, nobody saw Six Feet Under coming. Maybe we should have. If American Beauty was a savvy study of life and death in middle class America, Six Feet Under proved that Ball was just beginning his examination. Free from the restraints of a single, self-contained story Ball’s small screen venture was anything but small. Over 63 episodes it became a sprawling, pastoral tale of love and death and life and loss as viewed through the eyes of a singular American family – who happen to operate a funeral home.
On the surface, The Fisher clan – Nate (Peter Krause), David (Michael C. Hall), Ruth (Frances Conroy) and Claire (Lauren Ambrose) – were a family like any other. But surfaces are often deceiving. And Six Feet Under was never a show concerned with the surface. Right from the opening episodes, Ball & Co. began peeling back layers to examine The Fisher’s dysfunctional underbelly. Stories of sibling rivalry, sexual dysfunction, religious crises and self-discovery ensued. Those stories were often extremely personal and deeply unsettling. Sometimes they were really funny. More often than not, they were heartfelt explorations of the human condition in all of its messy glory.
Death was a predominant theme throughout. The show’s title dictates as much. And death seemed to stalk characters big and small through every episode of Six Feet Under. It often claimed those characters with little notice and under shocking circumstances. But that always made sense. Death is, after all, the one thing that every human being has in common. Six Feet Under never buckled under the weight of that heaviest of themes. It was a show that knew better than to look for anything more in death than an ending. It fully embraced the inevitability, but never dwelled long on the finality. And episode by episode, Six Feet Under became an unabashed celebration of life. Life with all of its mundane highs and lows and unspeakably personal truths. Truths reflected in characters so much like ourselves that it was impossible not to identify with them … and maybe uncover our own truth in the process. To find that sort of comfort anywhere in life is a gift. That Ball & Co. gave it to us for one hour a week over five seasons was nothing short of divine. — Patrick Phillips
8. GAME OF THRONES
What can I say about Game of Thrones? HBO’s paradigm-shifting TV series has changed television watching to such a degree that it’s almost like CE versus BCE. There’s TV before GoT, and there’s TV after GoT. Although the show has hit uneven patches, especially at the beginning – there has been some inferior writing, some of the casting decisions were unfortunate for those of us who have read the books, and the first season’s costume design was atrocious – there has never been a TV show like Game of Thrones before. There may never be another one. Never before has a show dared to kill off so many main characters regardless of whether or not they were fan favorites. Never before has a show which might uncharitably be listed under “Sword and Sorcery” reached such a wide audience. TV series that fit into the fantasy genre were always laughable before. Game of Thrones is a lot of things but it is not laughable. You don’t dare like a character on this show, because they are all so likely to get whacked. The miracle that is GoT is especially unlikely when you consider that it is based upon a series of books that did not reach that broad an audience. This is not Harry Potter. Only the geekiest geeks had ever heard of John Snow and Circe and Arya before the show premiered. There is magic, and there are dragons, and there is good versus evil on GoT. But in this game of thrones, magic and dragons do not populate a simplistic story in which good always defeats evil. Hardly. Evil is far more likely to win out on GoT than has ever been the case in any other TV show in history. And that makes Game of Thrones feel much more like a political show than a fantasy series. It’s a fantasy show tailor-made for our times, in which terrorism has become a part of daily life, and politics is a whole lot more frightening than magic ever was. — Amy Anna
7. CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM
One reason for Seinfeld’s success was the wish fulfillment it offered viewers, who loved watching its characters do things they themselves would never get away with in real life. How better to top that idea, then, than to have real-life Seinfeld co-creator Larry David play a version of himself living the life that reputedly inspired the show? Perpetually irritated, blithely non-PC, and completely unaware of his effect on those around him, the fictionalized David illustrates how the world would treat someone who tried to live life “Seinfeld-style.” The character’s self-absorption tops anything ever seen on Seinfeld. While its characters laughed at an obese man being mugged or saw the upside in the death of George’s fiancée, Curb‘s David berates the disabled, terrifies children, destroys friendships, and offends those of every religious and cultural stripe. Most episodes end with David dressed down by his fictional wife, Cheryl (the inimitable Cheryl David), or the couple’s friends: “What were you thinking, Larry?” they scream. “Why would you think this was okay?” And that’s when he gets off easy.
The show also made “meta” part of its mission: stars like Wanda Sykes, Ted Danson and wife Mary Steenburgen, and Richard Lewis play themselves while others, such as Jeff Garlin and Richard Kind, play fictional friends and relatives. This works best when the show crosses paths with Seinfeld (as when Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Jason Alexander talk deals with Curb network HBO) and reached its peak in season 7, when all four of the original series’ stars unite, first as themselves, then for a “new” Seinfeld episode.
Part cautionary tale, part experimental comedy (the show was also non-scripted), Curb upped the ante on Seinfeld’s self-centeredness to its logical – if not always perfect – conclusion. — Mike Grunwald
6. THE SOPRANOS
No other show in the modern era has been as impactful on the medium as The Sopranos. HBO’s look into the domestic lives of a New Jersey crime family in the autumn of the Mafia not only elevated the concept of ‘serial drama’ into prestige television, but it also raised the bar on acting, cinematography, and complexity on the small screen and established HBO as a network willing to create intelligent and demanding programming. Drawing production inspiration from the likes of Kubrick and Scorsese, The Sopranos remains one of the most complex and weighty titles in all of television, and its 2007 finale remains the most impressively director episode of a TV series ever made.
Anchored by James Gandolfini’s iconic performance as patriarch Tony Soprano, The Sopranos was a critical and audience favorite that broke records for nominations and wins while becoming the first cable series to become a social event. Equal parts family and crime drama, the show examined the professional and personal relationships of its extensive cast with sincerity and candid rawness without shying away from exploring the complex moralities and philosophies of its criminal cast. — A.R. Magalli
5. THE WIRE
Created by former Baltimore Sun writer David Simon in 2007, The Wire not only completely reinvented the crime drama formula, but set an entirely new standard for storytelling on television. Throughout the course of five seasons, the show explored the brokenness and corruption of a system that repeatedly failed its citizens, with each run focused on a different institution in the crime-riddled city of Baltimore. The raw intensity of the show and its representations of law and crime morphed into a realism unlike we had ever seen before, making for such a culturally, socially and politically relevant television event. It’s no secret that The Wire (along with The Sopranos) helped pave the way for the so-called Golden Age of television, but let’s be real here — The Wire was more than a great show, and we haven’t seen anything that could even come close to its greatness since. — Nix Santos
Long before Game of Thrones covered thespians in dirt and grime and set them against each other in bloody conflict, there was HBO’s magnificent Shakespearian Western Deadwood. Based, in part, on true events, the series — created by David Milch — brought Old West politics and Old Testament wrath together in perfect, cussword-laden harmony. Both figuratively and literally, no one was clean in Deadwood — vengeance and vice ran rampant, the body count rose, and characters embraced the most colorful forms of vulgarity ever to appear on TV.
Series creator David Milch wasn’t a fan of Westerns. In fact, he had wanted to create a series about Rome in the time of Nero. But HBO already had a show about Rome in the works (see number 50 on this list), and so Milch sights on the Old West, being particularly interested in the lawlessness of the era. “I wanted to push that situation further,” he said in an interview with Salon, “to the point where it was acknowledged by everyone that there was no law, and then to try and figure out how we govern ourselves, how we improvise the structures of governance in an environment which acknowledges that it is the abrogation of everything but brute force.”
The characters on Deadwood are all wonderfully flawed in ways that go beyond the typical “antihero” trope that would take hold of TV following The Sopranos. At the center of it all was Gem Saloon owner and de facto Deadwood ruler Al Swearengen, played by Ian McShane in a career-defining performance. Swearengen was evil, but there was a likability to his evil; it was a seductive, charming brand of villainy. Countering, and complimenting, Swearengen was extremely short-tempered lawman Seth Bullock, played by a constantly furious-looking Timothy Olyphant. These two volatile men were at the heart of Deadwood, but the show was populated with a rogues gallery of characters played by marvelous actors, like prostitute-turned-madame Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens); bruiser Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown), the loyal Smithers to Swearengen’s Mr. Burns; and the drunk-but-noble Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert). Deadwood ended after three seasons leaving things slightly unresolved after the vile George Hearst (a delightfully cruel Gerald McRaney) turned the town upside down. There’s been talk ever since of possibly two Deadwood films written by Milch that would wrap things up; these rumors seemed to pick up again earlier this year. If Deadwood is truly not dead and bound to rise up from the dust again, TV will be the better for it. But if it’s not to be, there are still three fantastic seasons of searing drama ripe for new hoopleheads to discover. — Chris Evangelista
3. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT
There are a multitude of ways to describe Arrested Development. It was a period-specific satire, with spoofs on land development deals, corporate collapse, and the catalyst of the whole story being a deal with Saddam Hussein. It was a TV show for people who loved TV, with the narration and visual gags constantly referencing other works (including those its guest actors were in). And it was a family sitcom that managed to turn the genre on its head; every time its lead character would put his family first, instead of reaching a happy ending, things would devolve into disaster. Packed with jokes with a density that has to be seen to be believed, it rewarded its audience with running jokes that paid off across seasons and a story that ultimately proved just as emotionally engrossing as any drama. As for its fourth season, no matter what you think of it, it has to be applauded for the risks it took in choosing to tell its story as if it were constructing a puzzle, with the whole picture cohering little by little, and ending with a twist that subverted all three seasons that came before it. — Karen Han
2. BREAKING BAD
Breaking Bad debuted in 2008; a year where many of us felt trapped by debt, a lackluster career or illness. The rest of us zigged where Walt zagged though when he decided to go completely off the rails in his little time left. Originally, Walt had only become a meth manufacturer to create a more financially stable future for Skyler, Walt Jr. and his infant daughter after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. What harm is there in that? Yet, that narrative became a lie as soon as Walt attempts to reassure a frightened Skyler by telling her “I am the danger”. The irony of Breaking Bad is that if Walt had died he would have been better off than he is now. The tragedy is he didn’t.
The only thing more addictive than crystal meth was watching Walter White’s transformation from unassuming Dad into feared drug kingpin. The Godfather saga was a four hour showcase for Michael Corleone to abandon his conscience, but Vince Gilligan let audiences come to a slow boil for five seasons as they realized the cancer survivor they were rooting for is actually a cold-blooded murderer. Without the brilliant Bryan Cranston as Walter White, that descent couldn’t have been stomached, much less believed. Viewers might not have agreed with some of the choices Walt made, but we could never look away. Watching Breaking Bad through to its conclusion is like painstakingly setting up dominos in a grand pattern just to watch everything fall down in the finale. Television simply doesn’t get better. — Colin Biggs
1. MAD MEN
“Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent.” Mad Men, with its slick 1950s fashion, retro set design, and three martini lunches might seem on the surface level a glorification of the “good old days”, but all you need do is look past the exterior to get at the deeply flawed existential crisis burning within. Creator Matthew Weiner cut his teeth on The Sopranos before creating what would be the best TV show of the last 20 years (according to our list). A fascinating, rich character study of ad agency men and women in the 1950s and 60s, Mad Men didn’t hamper itself by attempting to create season-length movies, as so many peak TV showrunners claim they’re doing today. Instead, each episode of Mad Men was like its own tightly constructed short story — something penned by Raymond Carver or Richard Yates.
Mad Men featured what would soon become a cliche in modern TV — the deeply flawed and downright immoral male lead character. But whereas characters like Tony Soprano or Walter White were outright crooks, Mad Men’s Don Draper (played to perfection by Jon Hamm) was something else entirely. He was a man literally living a lie — taking the place of a dead soldier and constantly struggling with his terrible flaws, be it in the form of alcoholism or philandering. It all might not have worked had Weiner not cast Hamm in the part. “My litmus test was, at the end of the pilot you find out that he’s married and I would just sort of watch the audition and say, ‘Do I hate this man? Do I hate this man for cheating on his wife? Do I hate him after everything I’ve seen?’’ Weiner told NPR. “And Jon had a depth and maybe carries — even if it’s fictional — a sense of a wound, a sense of a conscience, a sense of conflict. You’re seeing it on the show all the time. He brought that to it…Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I think, ‘Oh my God, what if I didn’t cast him?’ You know? Well, I wouldn’t have a show.”
Hamm was Mad Men’s backbone, but the show had an incredibly rich cast of characters, including Elisabeth Moss as secretary-turned-copy editor Peggy Olson, Christina Hendricks as force-to-be-reckoned-with Joan; John Slattery as silver fox Roger Sterling; Vincent Kartheiser as weasel Pete Campbell; and January Jones as Don’s long-suffering wife Betty. And that’s just a small fraction of the wealth of complex characters the show spawned. Whereas other ensemble dramas can tend to lose its supporting players in the shuffle, Mad Men found ways to give each and every one of its rich, flawed individuals their own life. For seven nearly-perfect seasons of TV, Mad Men broke the mold. “This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine,” Don says in one of the series’ most famous advertising pitch scenes. “It goes backwards, and forwards… it takes us to a place where we ache to go again.” That’s what Mad Men is. TV will go on for many years to come, but it’s hard to imagine anything will ever come close to matching the brilliance that was this show. — Chris Evangelista