It’s sometimes really hard to know what TV shows are worth watching and will pay off your investment of time/money.
The following 25 are those that I consider to be well above average and essential viewing for anyone interested in ‘quality’ TV (not a term I would have used pre 1990). Some are more mainstream than others but I have personally re-watched every single one of these several times over.
(Note: these are in a general order and are (depending upon my mood) – except for the first 3 interchangeable)
1: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Joss Whedon’s seminal 7 series masterpiece can be modestly described as a story of a girl with supernatural powers who slays vampires – but, as any fan knows, it is just SO much more than this. Forget the vampire issues (twilight, the vampire diaries etc .. have ruined this premise) it’s about characters and people – how they act, the choices they make and the consequences of those choices in their lives and the lives of those around them. Buffy is simultaneously funny, ambitious, heartbreaking and groundbreaking and totally relatable – I mean who hasn’t slept with a nice
guy vampire on their 16th birthday and woken up to find he has turned evil? Forget the name – if it has put you off – and don’t judge the series on season 1 alone (it left much to be desired) – if you haven’t seen it, be prepared to be caught up in Whedon-mania.
Many see Angel as Buffy’s lesser but to me, it’s Buffy – the next gen. Angel has been described by the cast as more of a ‘guy’s show’ with more action and a more noir-like feel than Buffy but Angel retains that which made Buffy so memorable – seriously outstanding writing and character development.
Yes, another Whedon program – and yes, my allegiance is showing – but dammit Janet! I love Firefly. This is another ‘must-see’ series that plays with genre, character and setting in a unique way. Described as ‘cowboys in space’, FF was far, FAR before its time and was cancelled in its first season – but the 13 episodes we have are worth every single moment.
read my post here
4: Arrested Development
One of the funniest – and cleverest comedies to ever grace the small screen, AD is yet another program that pays off repeat viewings as in-jokes and references are often overlooked upon first viewing – usually because the audience is laughing so hard. AD regenerated Jason Bateman’s career and has a stellar ensemble cast that includes Will Arnett, Amy Poehler, Michael Cera, Portia de Rossi, Jessica Walter, Tony Hale, Jeffrey Tambor, Scott Baio and a hilarious comeback of Henry Winkler. Placing itself on the cutting edge of US humour, AD examines the fall of the spoiled, self-indulgent, wealthy Bluth family in light of a corporate scandal.
5: The Wire
Possibly the most critically acclaimed series ever to not get any awards, The Wire is realism at it’s best and for thought-provoking drama, it doesn’t get much better than this. The Wire surgically dissected the institutions that both create and sustain ongoing socio-economic problems through the looking-glass of Baltimore. Sequentially looking at the drug trade, unions, the education system and the media, The Wire tied together themes, social issues and characters in an intelligent and thought-provoking way. The Wire never underestimates its audience and repays several viewings as street slang is kept as realistic as possible and this can be difficult to follow at times (especially for those of us outside the US) but will pay off like very few ever do, leaving you with the feeling that you have watched something truly special.
6: The Sopranos
A simple premise: “Mobster seeks psychiatric help for panic attacks” belies the extraordinary depth of The Sopranos. Captained by Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), The Sopranos took an age-old genre – the mob story – and bought it into the 21st century. Tony Soprano is a wiseguy identity who struggles to cope with his dual roles as both mobster and family man – he is a dark, often sociopathic character who also tries to be a loving husband and father. Tony struggles for self-awareness through therapy sessions but rarely moves beyond his own view of the world. At once charismatic, murderous and charming, it is difficult not to relate to Tony but The Sopranos never shies away from the brutality Tony creates and this makes for compelling viewing. The finale polarised audiences everywhere (probably more so than Lost even) but it is safe to say that in all 5 seasons, The Sopranos was never short of absolutely brilliant.
read my post here
7: Freaks and Geeks
The show that launched a bunch of careers – Seth Rogan, John France Daley, James Franco, Sam Levine, busy Phillips and Jason Segal all starred in F & G – Many episodes were also written and directed by Judd Apatow pre 40 Year Old Virgin, Talladega Nights, Knocked Up (etc). F & G centres around one teen girls’ attempt to leave behind her good-girl ‘mathlete’ reputation and join the school losers or ‘freaks’. Focusing on inter-relationships, the weight of looming adult responsibility and the sense we all had in the eighties that things were becoming far more complicated than they had been for our parents – Freaks and Geeks will propel you back to highschool in the 80’s or, if you weren’t there, give you a glimpse of what it was like.
read my post here
8: Lost (S1-S3)
I didn’t start to watch Lost until S3 was well underway – this meant that I was able to watch S1 & S2 quickly & without the frustration of waiting an entire week between episodes (I honestly don’t know how people managed that!). I was originally put off by the premise – an airline crashes and the survivors are stuck on an island – yawn! Who cares right? Finally persuaded by the hoopla, I watched the pilot and was hooked. This was TV as I had never seen it before – structured in a completely different way to its contemporaries and with a massive production budget, Lost blew me away for 2 entire seasons; well, until they moved the island (I won’t elaborate for those who haven’t seen it) – I know many, MANY fans continued to love the show until and including the finale – which left me cold. But no amount of crazy conspiracy or seemingly abject mythology can detract from the first 3 seasons – spellbinding TV drama infused with some truly great characters.
9: The Office (UK)
Ricky Gervais was introduced to a mass audience through his portrayal of David Brent – awful boss extraordinaire. This groundbreaking BBC mockumentary showed the banality and absurdity of the working lives of the lower middle-classes. Excelling at awkward moments and punctuated silences framed around the ineptness of middle-management, The Office has been described as just too cringe-worthy to sit through – personally, I found it absolutely hilarious and sometimes even heartwarming (see The Christmas Specials).
10: The Shield
Vic Mackey and his Strike Team are perhaps the best example of corrupt cops ever to be shown on TV. Yes, it was guilty of sometimes overdoing the hand-held camera, but The Shield is a mix of a great ensemble cast and a solid storyline that explores the consequences of actions and behaviour on both sides of the law and order divide (and often interrogates that divide itself). The Shield grows in complexity as the series progresses so that by the final, season 5, you can’t help but be invested in all 4 members of The Strike Team, not just Mackey (and the final season pays off and wraps up the series-long build-ups very nicely).
11: Twin Peaks
This definitely goes up in the top 5 if I had to choose – David Lynch’s surreal, psycho murder mystery revolutionised TV in its time. Based in the small logging town of Twin Peaks, the murdered body of Prom Queen Laura Palmer is discovered. FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) comes to town to solve the murder and finds himself immersed in a strange world of eccentric characters, bizarre occurences and secret cults and supported with an amazing soundtrack. No stranger to weirdness himself, Agent Cooper uses occultish means to determine his investigation including the deconstruction of his own pervasive dreams.
Twin Peaks attracted a massive following world-wide and the mystery of ‘Who Killed Laura Palmer” was sublimated when fans clamoured to watch the strangeness of each week unfold on their screens. Season two is often though to be inferior to season 1 although it is still worth watching. Seminal art TV.
12: Game of Thrones
Another ground-breaking drama for HBO, based on the novel series ‘A Song of Fire and Ice’ by George R.R. Martin. GoT has developed a massive following due to high production values (S1 estimate is $60 million), an intricate mythology, dark-tone and excellent acting by the ensemble cast. Although a fantasy series, GoT goes beyond this to explore the relationships and politics of its central characters, making it accessible for a range of fans. Season one shocked viewers by killing off a main (and beloved) character which raised the stakes going into Season 2. Season 3 has just started and I cannot wait.
13: Friday Night Lights
Based in small-town Texas, FNL explores how sports-culture permeates and controls the lives of many of the townspeople – non more so than the hopefuls on the high school football team. Transcending what could have been just a ‘sports show’, FNL is a stellar drama that has some truly memorable characters. You don’t need to like football, or even sports to enjoy this – it’s dramatic gold.
Who doesn’t love (the artfully named) Al Swearenger? One part western, one part drama and one part Shakespeare, Deadwood proved that audiences will come if they are given quality characters that they can relate to irrespective of genre and that language is even more colourful and entertaining than we could ever have imagined (plus – Timothy Oliphant in a cowboy hat – oh yeah!).
15: The X-Files
Conspiracy theories, spooky creatures, a crime-fighting male/female duo with ample sexual tension, a large and interesting mythology and the urge to show that geeks are cool – what’s not to love? Chris Carter’s The X-Files created a new world for prime time TV viewers by creating compelling and believable character-driven sic-fi drama. It sometimes focuses too much on the ‘monster-of-the-week’ but the overall product set the stage for many sci-fi and fantasy shows that came afterwards.
read my post here
16: Family Guy
Pop culture references and quirky characters and glib references to social issues have forefronted Family Guy as a controversial text. Family Guy resonates with viewers who enjoy identifying the cultural matrix within which media production occurs – watching for in-jokes and references is part of the enjoyment of Family Guy, as is the use of humour at the expense of often serious social politics. Family Guy is ultimately a conservative text in many ways but it’s a fun ride all the same.
17: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Completely inappropriate ensemble comedy and Danny deVito plays dad. ’nuff said.
18: Prime Suspect (UK)
Helen Mirren’s award-winning portrayal of DCI Tennison is not the only reason to watch this excellent crime drama. Although criticised by some for the portrayal of an increasingly bitter female protagonist, Prime Suspect is a riveting British ‘whodunnit’ series that (for me) transcends the idea/s or problem/s of a female lead detective. This is a gritty police drama that puts CSI, NCIS etc to shame and demonstrates how compelling a well written police drama can be.
19: Peep Show (UK)
Based on flatmates/ friends – Jez and Mark, Peep show is a pioneering cult-comedy that gives the viewer access to the thoughts of the main characters – and these thoughts are usually inappropriate, self-deluding and downright hilarious. Some of the funniest concepts ever seen on TV are played out in Peep Show which never shies away from disturbing or awkward topics but rather attacks them with glee. Not for the faint-hearted but absolutely hilarious for those who can stomach it.
read my post here
20: Life on Mars (UK)
Life on Mars had a somewhat shaky premise – cop from present day is (somehow) propelled back through time to the 1970’s while in a coma – ridiculous right? But against this rather guffaw-inspiring idea came a brilliant TV show that was tightly scripted, superbly acted and refreshing to watch. The show is driven through the eyes of protagonist Sam who is forced to live through in the politically incorrect 1970’s amongst corrupt cops, rampant sexism and inept procedures. What could have been extremely hokey and unbelievable is instead incredibly fascinating – and as the 2 seasons actually wrap up the series, it’s satisfying as well.
I have been told by friends who read my blog that this is a problematic choice for my Top 25 but, for the moment, I’m standing by it.
Yes, I admit it, I LOVE Jack Bauer. 24 has everything you need to whittle away an hour of good TV – a decent plot, excellent bad guys and non-stop action (Jack rarely stops running around). Named after it’s storytelling technique (each season covers one 24 hour period) 24 broke ground with its real-time narrative structure, this is big-budget TV at its very best and having Kiefer Sutherland in the main role doesn’t hurt either. It’s not particularly challenging, but as far as entertainment value goes, it doesn’t get much better.
How to describe this series? On a basic level, Carnivale is about a travelling carnival set in dust-bowl America. Mixed in with the setting is a tale of good and evil that sets up and explores its own rather dense mythology. Part of the charm of Carnivale is how the show looked – the creators went for an authentic ‘dust-bowl’ feel so that the landscape is at both oppressive and visually stunning. Although it ran for just two seasons, Carnivale has developed a cult following thanks to DVD release – if you like your TV drama dark, moody and peppered with the supernatural, Carnivale might be worth a look even if only for the aesthetic pleasures to be found.
read my post here
23: Summer Heights High
The brilliant Chris Lilley plays 3 central characters in this Aussie mockumentary set in a fictitious Sydney high school. Ja’mie King is a cruel and self-obsessed private-school girl who is an exchange student at the public school, Mr G has an overinflated sense of his own acting/singing talents and no idea how much is hated by the other staff while Polynesian Jonah Takalua is a troubled student who is pathologically disruptive and bullies students who are smaller or younger than himself without remorse. Lilley has a knack of creating character who cross over the comfortable line of social nicety. These three characters are all given the opportunity to grow but show resistance to anything outside their own viewpoints. Very funny and cringe-worthy TV.
24: Breaking Bad
Underpaid science teacher Walter White finds out that he has cancer and decides to generate some quick cash for his family by running a meth lab. Teaming up with ex-student-current-junkie Jesse for his contacts, Walter soon discovers that cooking and distributing meth is serious business. With one of the most powerful opening scenes ever, Breaking Bad is a long, slow burn that builds up over the season and then lets loose in the final episodes. This is show that pays off some initial investment as it’s not always clear where a season is going – but you will not find much better scripted or acted drama currently available and unlike some of its contemporaries, Breaking Bad continues to deliver even 5 seasons in.
25: (*insert text here*)
Yep .. I’m stumped. So, 24 it is.
Homeland : This is an amazing series – the only reason I don’t have it on my list is that we only have 1 and a half seasons so far – but at this stage, it’s a definite must see.
Black Mirror (UK)
Heroes – S1
In Treatment – S1
Mad Men: I have watched and enjoyed – to varying degrees S1-S3 but, I just can’t champion Mad Men like so many others do – if you are in the mood for further analysis of the paradox of watching Mad Men – there is an excellent essay here
Parks & Rec – I know I should love this – great cast, excellent premise but I find it tedious. Sorry folks.
Star Trek/Deep Space 9/Battlestar Galactica/Dr Who: While I understand the merit and see the appeal, for me, they’re just not up there in the top 25.
Dexter: While S1 and S2/3 are wonderful the downhill slope of recent seasons keeps it out the list.