I watch way too much TV. Anyone within earshot of me on a daily basis probably thinks that I spend all of my free time watching television shows and then recapping them with friends and co-workers. To some degree this is true. I believe we are (still) in “The Golden Age Of Television” (a term I did not make up but one that critics generally refer to as anything that’s been put on TV since The Sopranos first aired. If you ask me, it started with HBO’s Oz, but I won’t rock the boat on this one). I have nothing against non-TV watchers, I just want you to know that you are missing out on some quality programming these days.
With the rise of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Go, iTunes, etc. binge watching has replaced good old fashion week-to-week anticipation. Cliffhanger ended the last episode? Don’t want to wait a week (or a year) to see who killed off your favorite character? Simply click the “Next Episode” button and binge away. Netflix even goes as far as releasing every episode of its shows seasons at once. Anticipation be damned!
Online recaps are as abundant as Starbucks and McDonald’s. Noted publications/sites from The New Yorker to Rolling Stone run endless stories, interviews, recaps, discussions, and podcasts about popular television series. The most recent season debut of The Walking Dead drew over 16 million viewers (to put that into perspective, there are around 300 million people in the US. 16+ million of them are watching a show about zombies). I am one of those 16 million viewers and I watch–and have watched–a ton of television series in my day (mostly dramas). Way too much some would say.
You might be very apprehensive when it comes to deciding which series to watch first–since there are so many good choices out there. Even if you missed the initial run of The West Wing you can easily binge through all its seasons online. But should you watch that or catch up on Mad Men? Is True Blood worth diving into? How many seasons behind am I? You hear “everyone” talking about how great these shows are and you’re kinda interested in them but don’t know where to start. I equate it with how I feel when I walk into a really good music store (yes, some do still exist!): I am overwhelmed with having to narrow down my choices in order make a selection. When I sift through 80 Zappa records trying to figure out which one to buy, how do I know which one to begin with?
So lucky for you (I think?) I am here to write you a list of what I feel are excellent television series that you should watch. This is not a list of the “best shows ever” in some arbitrary order (I mean, how could I say The Wire is better than The Sopranos or vice-versa? I can’t!). I am purposefully not putting numbers in here because I cannot rank them in terms of greatness.
The following list contains my personal favorites when it comes to great television. I hope that if there is a series on this list you have not watched–or have been tempted to watch–that my brief explanation(s) of the show(s) might intrigue you enough to get started. (Note: I did my best to not include any spoilers.)
The HBO Shows
The story about a crime boss trying to balance his family and his “family” in northern New Jersey. The main thing I took away from The Sopranos is that when all is said and done, in many ways, it’s one of the great comedies of our time. Ok, I suppose technically it’s a “dark comedy” and it’s certainly dramatic and violent, but I find myself laughing– a lot–when watching re-runs. How can these characters be so intelligent at one thing (organized crime) yet ridiculously stupid at everything else (like life)? The purposeful misuse of the English language is, in and of itself, brilliantly hilarious (Tony: “I was prostate with fear!” or “revenge is best served like cold cuts” or when describing a recently outed gay capo: “he’s a come-from-behind kinda guy!”). And when it wanted to get heavy, fuck, it got uber-heavy. You want to watch some of the greatest dramatic acting in television history? Watch the Season 4 episode entitled “White Caps.” Edie Falco (Carmela Soprano) and James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano) do some of the best work of their careers in this episode. Absolutely incredible acting (pretty sure some Emmy’s were won for this ep.). Arguably my favorite show of all time.
Greatest…Show…Ever? How many times have you heard these words uttered: “you have to watch The Wire.” It’s hard for me to one-line what this show is about because whatever I write will not serve as a satisfying explanation. In short, The Wire is about the institutional struggles of a major, crime-laden city and the results of what happens when those institutions fail the people they are meant to serve. In terms of sheer drama, story, realism, and message, nothing will ever top The Wire. “All the pieces matter” was a phrase used frequently on the show and it couldn’t be more appropriate when describing the show itself. There was never a wasted line of dialogue, shot, character, joke, plot twist, piece of music, or act of violence used during the shows run. The biggest complaints I’ve heard about it are the pacing and the dialogue (so much slang is used–even by the cops–that it takes some time to figure out what a character might be referring to. But once you do…). As for the pacing, well, let’s just say that not every story needs to be told in 60 minutes. In some cases, the slow buildup of a story line just makes the payoff that much more fulfilling. This really is must see TV.
Ahhh Deadwood. The show no one has watched. The show that, when it first aired, even I was skeptical of. A western? Who’s in it? I don’t like westerns. But calling Deadwood a western is like calling The Beatles a pop band. It is true on some level but you are missing the point. And just like The Beatles, Deadwood was incredibly written (yes, I somehow compared The Beatles to a TV show). It’s a show about the survival of a lawless, gold-rich Dakota territory in the mid-1880’s (along with its inhabitants of drunks, gamblers, lawmen, whores, drug addicts, and pimps). Al Swearengen–played to absolute perfection by Ian McShane–-is one of the most complex characters in television history (and certainly one of the most well-spoken, however crude he may be). Watch the clip below if you want to know what happens when great writing meets great acting. Even in dolling out death, Swearengen remains a sympathetic anti-hero, long before the anti-hero became commonplace. (I literally just got goosebumps re-watching the scene below–and I’ve seen it a dozen times. Warning: it does contain a spoiler.)
Six Feet Under
I originally had this show listed below in my “Honorable Mentions” list for HBO but then realized that there is no way in hell I am not including it on here. Perhaps the most original show in this list. It’s the story of a quirky family that owns a funeral home in Los Angeles. The show uses a new death at the beginning of each episode as a springboard for the episodes plot. Death, drugs, sex, repressed homosexuality, mental disease, and family are the main themes of this downbeat show. Each are done with such dramatic fortitude that you find yourself both fascinated and disgusted by the characters (usually at the same time). One of the best finales ever neatly wrapped up the story of this odd family and left the audience with practically zero questions left unanswered. Very well done show that doesn’t get the credit it deserves being that it was greatly overshadowed by The Sopranos during it’s initial run.
Back in the late 90’s HBO debuted a show about life inside of a maximum security prison in New York and “The Golden Age Of Television”–for all intents and purposes–began. Certainly not the best show on this list–it had its moments of utter ridiculousness–but it’s play-like structure/ensemble and character development, along with its insight into race-relations and crime, was unprecedented upon its release. To say the show is violent is an understatement. Stabbings, rape, drug use, riots…you name it, OZ showed it. And the show was certainly not shy at all about showing it. This is not a show for the weak of heart or mind and its brutality–however much over-inflated for drama–has not been matched on television since.
Honorable Mentions: Game Of Thrones, True Detective, Boardwalk Empire
The AMC Shows
In many ways this series is a modern day western set to the story arc of a chemistry teacher who gets cancer and decides to start cooking meth with an ex-student in order to provide (financially) for his family. No other show has been as crafty at pitting man vs. man (or man vs. himself) as Breaking Bad was. It was also masterful at creating what seemed like inescapable situations for its protagonists who would then, somehow, miraculously escape. One of the most well-rounded shows on this list in that every single aspect of the show was done well: acting, writing, story, directing, cinematography (one of the best shows ever for this), and pacing. There were no “slow” shows and I will even go as far to say there are no “bad” episodes. Some of the greatest standoff’s off all time (and face offs). Probably one of the most interesting all-around character arcs ever seen on TV.
Like The Wire, not many people actually watch Mad Men (though plenty of people have watched The Wire since it went off-air. I am referring to watching the show as it originally airs). Too bad, for those of you not watching are missing one of the most stylish and well written shows in TV history. Make no mistake: Mad Men is a prolonged multi-character study laden with symbolism and historical context. Nothing blows up, no one gets whacked, there are no stand offs or fist fights (well, some). The pacing can be–at times–excruciatingly slow, but I find that is what makes it so appealing. In the day-and-age of short attention spans, Mad Men’s essence–in its own way–pays homage to a show like The Wire in terms of the slow drag. With a backdrop of the constantly evolving 1960’s and life inside a Madison Ave. ad agency, Mad Men delivers powerful stories about sexuality, fidelity, consumerism, sexism, family, work, ageism, and alcoholism. Another show with an anti-hero protagonist (something more and more popular in a post-Sopranos world) that you somehow find yourself rooting for, despite his abhorrent behavior.
Honorable Mention: The Walking Dead
The FX Shows
A true modern day western set in Kentucky (seems to be a theme on this list, maybe I do like westerns). U.S. Marshals vs. The Dixie Mafia and known associates. Witty, bemusing, off-kilter characters lace the story lines. Tons of great guest appearances, accents, white trash morons, Nazi’s, shootouts, and sharp-tongued villains. Ohh, and did I mention how violent it is? Put it this way: every new season a friend and I have a “Death Pool” where we list all of the characters in the show and randomly pick them out of a hat. At the end of the season, whomever has the most names on the list that have died, wins. Yea, it’s that kinda show.
Perhaps one of the most underrated and/or underappreciated shows ever to appear on this list. Dennis Leary plays an alcoholic NYC Firefighter in a post 9/11 world struggling with the deaths of his cousin and comrades while juggling various love interests and a family. The show was a masterful balance of comedy and drama. You could be cracking up one minute and crying the next. Though it did drag on for a touch too long in its run (I have a theory that no show should go longer than 5 seasons) it still hit hard until the end. Another great ensemble cast of characters.
Honorable Mentions: The Americans, Fargo, The Shield
The Netflix Shows
House Of Cards
The fact that “Netflix Shows” is a category on this list shows you just how much of a major player this company has become in our collective movie/television viewing habits. It was only a matter of time before they joined the foray and they did so with a big hit. House Of Cards is the story of the rise (and fall?) of southern, democratic politician Frank Underwood (played by the always entertaining Kevin Spacey). To say Frank is manipulative and power hungry would not be doing those words justice. Like most shows on this list the cast is top grade, the acting is phenomenal, and the drama is thick. Though it lacks in realism at points, it is without a doubt an extremely provocative show. It’s The West Wing if The West Wing included murder, infidelity, back-door-deals, and narcissistic characters. Closer to trashy than preachy, House Of Cards is an enjoyable journey into a world that most of us would rather never be part of .
Orange Is The New Black
This is the only show on this list, that at the time of this writing, has only aired one season. So I was a little reluctant to put it on here due to it’s lack of content but I found its inaugural season so compelling I couldn’t resist. It’s the story of an otherwise stanard suburban white woman tossed into prison for semi-big time drug dealing (along with her one time lesbian girlfriend). What I find most groundbreaking about the show is that, like OZ before it, it is a glimpse into a world I hope to never witness first hand. Yet, somehow, the show still manages to pull off humor quite well. Once again, a great ensemble cast brings us many complicated characters and the writing is above par.
Honorable Mention: Lilyhammer
The Network Shows
Friday Night Lights
I was beyond skeptical going into this one. I love sports but, in general, sports-related movies/shows never really did it for me. I read a few good things about FNL before watching it (I had not seen the movie or read the original book that it was based off), so one night I decided to give it a shot. The show had me hooked immediately. It is without a doubt one of the best pilot episodes ever aired and I cannot praise its use of music enough. Just as it would be easy to say The Sopranos is about the mob or The Wire is about drug dealers or Mad Men is about advertising, it would be oversimplification to say FNL is about football. And while football is the central theme of the show, it’s more the jumping off point for the numerous stories; a nucleus for the characters to orbit around. Exploring the sometimes tumultuous relationships that can exist within a small community–this one obsessed with the local high school football team–FNL is at its best when breaking down the complexity of relationships between children and their parents and peers. Watch this show and tell me you don’t want a Coach Taylor in your life. Sniff sniff.
The West Wing
Aaron Sorkin’s political masterpiece about a fictional, ideological, democratic president’s tenure in The White House and his staff of walk-and-talker’s. Much has been written and said about Sorkin and it’s not all good. His writing is preachy, he’s over dramatic, long-winded, etc. etc. etc. I find The West Wing to be his best all-around work. The ensemble cast of then-mostly-unknowns did a brilliant job of taking Sorkin’s smarter-than-thou, hyperactive-speaking characters and making them enjoyable to watch on screen. I have never been as interested in how bills get passed into laws since the days of Schoolhouse Rock. I found the show at its very best when focusing on multi-episode arcs and political tensions that arose from terrorism, kidnappings, natural disasters, and the like. Though a lot happens to President Bartlett during his years in office, the show did its best to mix entertainment and what amounted to a weekly lesson in civics.
Honorable Mentions: Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Lost, NYPD Blue, Hannibal
Wow, that is a ton of TV to watch, who has the time for all of that kinda mindless entertainment? Which leads me to my conclusion, in which I will leave you with a befitting song from the great Frank Zappa:
“I’m The Slime”
[backing vocals Tina Turner & The Ikettes]
I am gross and perverted
I’m obsessed and deranged
I have existed for years
But very little has changed
I’m the tool of the Government
And industry too
For I am destined to rule
And regulate you
I may be vile and pernicious
But you can’t look away
I make you think I’m delicious
With the stuff that I say
I’m the best you can get
Have you guessed me yet?
I’m the slime oozin’ out
From your TV set
You will obey me while I lead you
And eat the garbage that I feed you
Until the day that we don’t need you
Don’t go for help . . . no one will heed you
Your mind is totally controlled
It has been stuffed into my mold
And you will do as you are told
Until the rights to you are sold
That’s right, folks…Don’t touch that dial
Well, I am the slime from your video
Oozin’ along on your livin’ room floor
I am the slime from your video
Can’t stop the slime, people, look at me go
I am the slime from your video
Oozin’ along on your livin’ room floor
I am the slime from your video
Can’t stop the slime, people, look at me go