Out of all the forms of entertainment to rank, television shows may be the most difficult. I would attribute this to the expanse of a single show, reaching across so many characters for so long, introducing new storylines and plot lines every season, growing and adapting the feel and mood of the show based on new budgets and the passage of time. The variables in both the storytelling and the story are so much greater. Because of this, the conversation becomes that much more fun and interesting.
So below are my top ten favorite shows, ranked in order, but also separated into confidence tier. In each tier, I would be comfortable shifting the order around in whatever way. This is my way of hedging, but it also provides a deeper look into how much I like each show. There is a difference between a clear 2 and a clear 3, and a 2 and 3 that could switch depending on the day or how recently I watched each show.
- Entertainment Value
- Quality Assessment (i.e. pacing, acting, writing, and filming)
- All shows must be completed (or else Succession and Stranger Things would be on this list)
There are a few honorable mentions that also make it into Tier 3, but I will not mention them because I wanted to keep this post to Ten TV Shows.
10. Silicon Valley
Sneaking onto the list out of the scrum of every other TV show I have watched, is Silicon Valley. A bit inconsistent because of exiting characters and diverting plotlines, but overall, a hilarious and sharp comedy poking fun at a region that has no humor… its namesake, Silicon Valley.
Silicon Valley recreates companies like Google and the neurotic and socially unhealthy CEOs who run them and then tears them apart by making them navigate complex business and interpersonal conflict. The show works because in such a complex and larger than life area, surrounded in mystery and legend, the absurdity of the characters is believable- the key to any successful comedy. And those ridiculous characters easily slip into equally absurd plotlines and conversations based on their affinity for technology and computation (like a refrigerator that plays porn or if a man can actually jack off an entire conference room of people in a certain amount of time).
9. Downtown Abbey
Downtown Abbey is a dramatic play in six seasons. Every time I hit play, I felt like I was sitting down at a local theater waiting for the curtains to come up, and it was delightful.
I have found with distinctly British television (The Crown is another example that comes to mind), I rarely am exckted to begin a new episode, however, I am high on investment while the show is playing. Downtown Abbey is the epitome of this phenomenon. To the point where, whenever I didn’t want to watch the next episode, I just told myself to give it a few minutes, rarely did I get past the opening scene without finding myself transported to rural Britain and into the privileged lives of the Crawley’s and the hardworking lives of those that served them.
The writing is top notch, the acting is top notch, the setting is scenic and engaging. From the fundamentals to the story everything is done so well that Downtown Abbey gets a spot on this list.
8. Arrested Development
This may sound silly, but Arrested Development is modern Shakespeare. It is deeply rooted in traditional comedy established in Shakespeare’s comedies, often using those reliable tropes like mistaken identity, a half-heard conversation, situational irony etc. Arrested Development cuts through an era of comedy based on one liners and clever observations and creates situational comedy, where lines are only as funny as the people who say them and the context in which they are spoken (“The money is in the banana stand”). Because of this, Arrested Development will always be funny (unlike shows like The Big Bang Theory which get stale), because it is a true comedy rather than a television show that is funny. This show may not have some of the bells and whistles of shows on the higher tiers, but I would put its writing up against any other.
This section, I think, has room for the most argument.
7. Mad Men
Let me pour a martini while I write this section. Mad Men is the most sophisticated of these shows, a smart and subtle period piece that is both entertaining and enlightening. Mad Men creates lots of layers and then thrives off of the drama created when those layers interact. There is an overarching narrative of 1960s disillusionment that affects misogyny in the workplace and family life that in turn affects office relationships which are made more precarious by business deals and politics which… so on and so forth. This creates the slow burn of a well-paced and confident show with an intelligent structure. It all just feels exactly like Don Draper looks.
A lot of these shows in Tier 2 and below have a base that is ‘take it or leave it’ but it seems like if you watch Sherlock, you love Sherlock. Part of this can be attributed to the topic, which is well known and therefore selects its own audience. Also, the episodes are so long, that anyone on the fence about watching deselect themselves. But maybe the greatest reason, is because this show slaps.
Nothing seems less appealing to me the then ole ‘modernize an old classic’ shtick, but with Sherlock it worked scary well. Cumberbatch brings an old character to new life with a perfect rendition (I feel confident saying perfect because of how many other renditions tried to do it in the wake of Sherlock’s success, and frankly… sucked) of outdated antics and neuroticisms in a more modern approach, and the stories are rooted in the old plots, yet navigate the tough waters of new forensic tools and cell phones and a more sophisticated police force with a dazzling display of storytelling and thought. Each episode feels like a feature film, and each feature film is worth the price of admission.
5. Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones was destined to be in Tier 1 and maybe even the show that would become the definitive favorite and dethrone the triumvirate of commonly recognized ‘best shows of all time,’ forever ending the argument and residing as Queen. But instead, with a poor final season, they missed the landing and end up in the second Tier of great TV shows, a coveted spot for any other show, but when, with one season to go, GoTwas flying so high, it feels like a disappointment (I wrote about the last season here).
In the wake of that last season, I even heard rumblings of this show falling out of some people’s top 10 list entirely. I think that is an overreaction. Even if you are an extremist in your feels about the last season, there are still five top notch seasons of groundbreaking entertainment that prop up the weak final season. It could even be argued they are the reason the last season feels so bad (expectations vs reality). Game of Thronesbrought an entire generation of TV watchers over a decade of water cooler fodder and memorable moments of dragons and battles and deaths that didn’t seem possible before this series existed. To me, that easily places it in tier 2 of the Top Ten TV Shows.
This is my dark horse TV show that is probably higher than most people would have it. Fleabag may not even make it on a lot of other viewer’s top TV Show lists (Or maybe it would, I just don’t hear a lot about it, not trying to sound patronizing). But this two-season jab to the diaphragm is a clinic in comedy writing and acting, and it provides enough new content in a relevant plot that it feels groundbreaking in its approach.
Admittedly, this show might not age well, over time it may become niche, but I think the story told is significant enough, and the execution is strong enough, that it will grow in its esteem in relation to its availability and familiarity.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a comedy star and created a character that should be placed in the pantheon of TV characters. I would also not be surprised if she creates another show that pushes its way onto this list.
The argument sometimes changes, but in aggregate, it always comes down to these three. As it should…
3. Breaking Bad
Breaking Bad is a common favorite for the #1 spot among avid TV watchers. It provides everything a viewer could want- intrigue, escapism, action, great writing, unforgettable moments, and a perfect ending- and it does so in a bingeable format. Lots of people (including, most notably, Anthony Hopkins) watch the series over the span of days rather than weeks or months.
Breaking Bad is frighteningly relevant and relatable to the widest of audiences, which accounts for its popularity. The topics of drugs, the middle-class American rut, and the ambiguity of morality can apply to youth and adults alike. But Breaking Bad’s greatest strength is the confidence in which you can recommend it to just about anybody and know they will find something in it in which they can relate.
2. The Wire
The Wire might be a perfect series, and depending on the day, I may have it as my number one pick, but, in the words of the King of Gondor, today is not that day. I don’t want to delay on any criticism of The Wire, but I think I prefer the entertainment value of The Sopranos, which is equal parts light and dark to The Wire, which is perfectly executed but dominantly dark in tone.
But that is not a criticism as much as a preference. The clarity in which this show was created (which could be said about all of the shows in Tier 1) is a bit astounding. Rarely does a show feel like they were one hundred percent consistent from the first episode to the last, but The Wire does. Even though the characters and settings change in extreme ways, it is always The Wire. The extremity of the changes and the consistency of the show is one of the most astounding achievements in television. The cops largely stay the same, but the cast of characters that surround them, and the challenges of the streets of Baltimore are so wildly different it would be crazy to suspect any two seasons have anything in common. But the clarity of the writers and directors are able to wrangle in the broad sweep of the show and provide a united message.
TL/DR The Wire has the power to change your view on the world.
1. The Sopranos
My favorite. The Sopranos introduced me to amazing television, the kind of television that makes the rest of the day feel like it’s in the way- ‘I got this show I need to go watch’ or ‘I got these characters I want to spend some time with.’ And no cast of characters is better than that of The Sopranos. Full of life and often in conflict with the roles they must fill, they may surprise you with their brutality or their tenderness. And the connection you build with them makes it that much harder to see one get whacked and know that their role in the show and your life is finally over.
But it doesn’t stop there. The political intrigue of the Soprano crime family, as well as the Soprano family, is layered and engaging. It introduces the viewer to a crime vocabulary that is as foreign as the familial angst is familiar. And all of it fits comfortably into an American commentary that so easily shifts, in those therapy chairs, from mob activity to issues with Tony’s mother to the struggle to find his American Dream. I was and still am in love with the story told throughout these seasons.
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