We’re currently enjoying an incredible time for television with show runners taking full advantage of the long form. Actors who would have scoffed at the medium are now clamoring for it. The wide range of options through cable and online venues has opened the marketplace. Which new series will stand the test of time? That’s hard to say. I haven’t finished mentally absorbing everything from Breaking Bad, and there are plenty of similar examples. Please remember that any list of favorites is personal and doesn’t reflect judgments on the “best” show. So much depends on what you’re trying to get out of art and your place in life. It’s important to note that I’ve yet to watch Deadwood and Mad Men, and I’ve only caught the first two seasons of Six Feet Under. I’ve also bypassed shows like Seinfeld and Cheers that make me laugh but don’t create the same personal connection. These 10 picks reflect TV that I’ve watched frequently and can’t wait to see again.
Special Mention: Survivor/The Amazing Race
It didn’t seem right to try and rank my favorite reality competition series against fictional comedies and dramas. Even so, I felt like they deserved a mention since I’ve watched both since the beginning. While the quality depends greatly on the casting, I still get plenty of enjoyment from these shows. The Amazing Race has floundered since its early glory days yet still has enough to make it worthwhile. On the other hand, I’ve grown more interested in Survivor in the past few years. They’re starting season 28 next month, and the staying power of the original reality juggernaut is astounding.
10. Farscape (1999-2003)
Rockne O’Bannon’s ambitious sci-fi adventure remains one of the most creative shows from the genre. I was late to the party and didn’t catch this gem until 2010, when I ran through the entire series in a few months. It’s consistently surprising and does the type of long-form story telling that I love. The third season in particular does a crazily ambitious move to split the cast in two and use two versions of Ben Browder’s John Crichton. His love story with Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black) drives the story, but there’s so much more. The Creature Shop puppets from the Jim Henson Company are so original and are true characters. When you add in wormholes, vicious enemy races, and the amazing Wayne Pygram as the nefarious Scorpius, you have a show that continues to surprise right up to the end.
9. Twin Peaks (1990-1991)
How did this show air on network TV? It’s such an unconventional choice for ABC, but I’m so thankful it exists. David Lynch and Mark Frost deliver a hilarious, sometimes horrifying series with so many surprises. It goes off the rails after Laura Palmer’s killer was revealed, but even the worst episodes have their moments. The finale remains stunning and ends in such a nihilistic way. There is no other show that has scared me like Twin Peaks, and the moments with Bob haven’t lost their impact. Agent Cooper isn’t your typical goofball and is both charming and intelligent. The crazy subplots (Nadine going to high school, Ben Horne re-enacting the Civil War, anything with James) aren’t for everyone, but they’re brilliant to a certain type of viewer. I’m one of those people.
8. Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000)
Although it lasted just 18 episodes, this heartfelt drama from Paul Feig and Judd Apatow about high school in the early ‘80s leaves quite an impression. It feels breezy while still tackling the big issues faced by teens in any era. It’s also really funny. Having actors like Martin Starr, Jason Segel, and Seth Rogen involved doesn’t hurt. Linda Cardellini does a great job in the lead part, but the show thrives because of the incredible ensemble. The soundtrack also sets the timeframe without being overly tied to the specific era. There are so many classic moments, and the comedy never feels strained.
7. Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007)
Most of these choices wouldn’t seem out of place among what many consider the best shows of all time. This pick is probably the exception. I’m an unabashed fan of all three Stargate TV shows, and the original is the strongest. The main reason is the chemistry within the cast, particularly the four leads. Richard Dean Anderson understands the silliness of this premise, and his approach works perfectly for it. He can still sell the dramatic moments, and that’s the key. My love for SG-1 connects to the simple idea of taking adventures to faraway planets. It’s an old-school show that arrived just before the arc-heavy genre boom, yet it still finds interesting ways to connect the episodes. During its heyday (seasons 3-6), few shows offered more enjoyment for me on a weekly basis.
6. The Shield (2002-2008)
When Vic Mackey shoots a cop at the end of The Shield’s pilot, it’s a shock even after seeing him raise hell for an hour. The willingness to paint its “hero” in such a bad light works because it was never simple villainy. Michael Chiklis’ incredible performance also shows us that Mackey could solve a case and still work tirelessly to save an innocent. The moral compass of this show is all over the map for all the characters, and that only grows during the later seasons. The quality level only increases with each new season, and adding Glenn Close and Forrest Whitaker is a stroke of genius. Unlike the tidy Breaking Bad finale, The Shield closes perfectly and connects with its entire run. The image of a determined Mackey venturing into the darkness is brilliant and sets the bar for how to end a story.
5. The Wire (2002-2008)
It took me a few episodes to warm up to The Wire, which feels so different. We’ve been trained to watch TV a certain way, and it explodes those conventions. Creator David Simon takes a slow burn with each season, and the major players aren’t clear. It feels like a logical extension of Homicide: Life on the Street and goes much further into Baltimore and the workings of a modern city. I love the way that the writing gives the audience so much credit. There’s no easy solution, and the layers of complicity stretch to the cops, journalists, bureaucrats, and criminals within the system. It’s more than a clinical perspective, however. It’s the emotional side that’s under reported with coverage of this show. There are heart-breaking moments that keep us invested right to the final scene.
4. Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)
I love the way that Ronald Moore and David Eick take a hammer to the conventions of the sci-fi genre. Despite being set in space, BSG feels completely unique and ranks among the most intense shows ever created. There is such a different look and tone to the show, and it hooks me right from the start. I don’t mind complicated mythology, especially when it’s combined with engaging characters. It also really helped to bring in veteran actors like Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell to lead the ship. Despite a few misfires, Moore and Eick never rest on their laurels and keep pushing the envelope. It’s a thrilling reminder of the possibilities within the genre when the rule book is tossed aside.
3. Sports Night (1998-2000)
Few shows are as endlessly re-watchable for me as Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night. The half-hour episodes fly by, and several hours have passed before I realize it. The main reason is the cast, which has such a strong group of actors. Josh Charles and Peter Krause get the best material as hosts Dan and Casey, and Felicity Huffman does so much with Dana. It says a lot that it’s taken me even this long to mention the wonderful Joshua Malina as Jeremy. This behind-the-scenes comedy of a Sportscenter-like production uses Sorkin’s trademark dialogue and fast pace to great effect. Even when it stumbles with unfortunate story lines like the dating plan, the actors push through and keep us with the characters. It’s too bad that it only lasts two seasons, but that might be a blessing in disguise. It goes out on a high note and avoids the downturn that affects even the best series.
2. Firefly (2002-2003)
An even stronger example of a show that never had a chance to slip is Joss Whedon’s beloved Firefly. I’ve enjoyed all of his shows, yet none keep me coming back like this one. We can feel the strong bond among the actors right from the start, and everyone gets a chance to shine. Nathan Fillion stands out as Mal, but Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Alan Tudyk, and Summer Glau are right there with him. I’ve watched the 14 episodes many times, and I’m amazed by how much I still connect with them emotionally. When Mal gets his first look at Serenity at the end of “Out of Gas”, it brings chills. The ship feels like home for the characters, and it builds that same connection with the viewers. I can’t say enough good things about everyone involved with this wonderful show.
1. Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999)
Choosing a top pick for this list was nearly impossible. What lifted Homicide above the rest was its impact on me as a TV viewer. It arrived when I was a teenager, and no shows had connected in the same way at that point. On an intellectual level, it just felt smarter than anything else on network TV. Emotionally, I connect with characters that don’t look like your typical faces on cop shows. They’re fat, balding, and racially diverse. The cases often go unsolved, and the job takes its toll on the detectives. Even when the show evolves to stay afloat, the writing remains top-notch and delivers gripping episodes. Homicide introduced me to Andre Braugher, Melissa Leo, Richard Belzer, and Kyle Secor. It reminded me why Yaphet Kotto is awesome. It even found the best out of Daniel Baldwin. It’s incredible and deserves every accolade that it’s received. If you haven’t watched it, you need to get started right now. I promise that you won’t be disappointed.
These 10 shows just missed the cut and have provided so much enjoyment over the years:
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The West Wing
What are your favorite TV shows? Make your case.