I feel confident in saying that we are currently living through the Golden Age of Television. It is possible that we will see a continued streak in this title for many years or, perhaps, decades to come. You could argue that streaming services are going to cause a lot of issues for films (especially in the current pandemic climate) but at the same time, streaming services due to help films and TV shows find a broader audience even years after the show may have went off the air. It also must be said that due to so many channels and services, it is nearly impossible to keep up with some of the shows as they premiere…but one thing is true, the prospects for what can be done for a TV show now have certainly taken off.
There is a reason that most of the network shows (i.e. ABC, CBS, NBC) are getting snubbed at the big award shows year after year: most of them lack bite or spark or originality. Some have broken through with nominations (THE GOOD PLACE or THIS IS US) but people have been turning to Amazon, AMC, FX, Hulu, HBO, Netflix, and Showtime for their shows and the content has been more than exceptional.
That isn’t to say that there weren’t any older shows that were great, or that a network show could surprise all of us in the near future, but when thinking about what I feel may be the best experiences I have had watching a TV series (such as being entertained while also being impressed with the writing, acting, directing, production values), a lot of the ones considered actually premiered within the last two decades.
The following list will be 10 of the shows that I truly think were the best that I’ve seen all around. There will also be shows omitted from this list that might even surprise some of you based on how much I discuss them, but I am trying to take several factors into account here.
With that all said, let’s jump in, and usual, I am going to list some honorable mentions first:
Veep, Buffalo Bill, The West Wing, Cheers, The Office (UK/US), Better Call Saul, Arrested Development, Bojack Horseman, Six Feet Under, Hill Street Blues
#10-THE TWILIGHT ZONE (CBS 1959-1964)
-Not every episode of The Twilight Zone is a gem…you can say that about almost any show though. The simple truth about this particular anthology series was that when Rod Serling (or the occasional guest writer, particularly Richard Matheson) nailed on a topic, it would be vibrant and chilling. For me, New Years Eve was never really about celebrating a New Year growing up…it was about The Twilight Zone marathon that would air for 24 hours on SCI-FI (now called SyFy).
I can’t deny some of the episodes don’t hold up and some resort to almost melodramatic tendencies, but the content/writing feel remarkably vital and fresh or even modern by today’s standards for a show that just recently celebrated its 60th anniversary. Very few shows have also managed to become such an indelible part of pop culture as The Twilight Zone; so much so that I remember hearing the theme song featured on other mediums before even knowing where it came from. Futurama did a frequent bit parodying one of the series’ intros by calling it The Scary Door; sitcoms and sketch shows would do sketches based around Rod Serling’s verbose intros/outros…it goes on and on.
Certain episodes that stand out for me would be: Time Enough at Last, Twenty-Two, The Monsters are Due on Maple Street, Walking Distance, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, It’s a Good Life, The Hitchhiker, Eye of the Beholder, Living Doll, Long Distance Call, Little Girl Lost, and The After Hours.
#9-ALL IN THE FAMILY (CBS 1971-1979)
-As a kid approaching pre-teen years, I think I took more joy in watching old shows on NICK-AT-NITE rather than on NICKELODEON itself (I am still of that group that felt Nick began to fall apart around the time Spongebob premiered). Around this time, ALL IN THE FAMILY began airing in reruns on NICK-AT-NITE. This was a sitcom but it was unlike any other sitcom I had really seen up to that point. Sure, it had a live studio audience and a typical cast of characters similar to most formulaic sitcoms but it felt brash and bold and unrelenting.
Archie Bunker, the patriarch of the household, was a racist…but somehow, you didn’t hate him. You sort of just viewed him as someone who just didn’t understand the world and that deep down, he was somehow a good person. Why do you know that? Because his wife Edith loved him. These two, played by Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton, are in contention of giving my favorite performances on a sitcom. What they were able to achieve in these two characters created by Normal Lear was nothing short of outstanding.
Knowing full well that this show premiered right as the infamous Rural Purge occurred on CBS (the mass cancellation of shows like GREEN ACRES, THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, and PETTICOAT JUNCTION), it makes the idea of this show seem all the more radical. Times were definitely changing and by the end of the 60s, it truly did seem like a different world. Movies and TV finally caught up and the content drastically improved.
I won’t list a lot of episodes for this one but I do want to single out that basically any episode that focused on Edith would be high up on my list. One of the best ones to come to mind is Edith’s Crisis of Faith, a Christmas based two-parter in which one of her dearest friends, a cross-dresser that went by the name of Beverly, is killed in a mugging which then causes her to refuse to accept any kind of faith in God. It takes Archie, someone who doesn’t seem that concerned with church, to convince her to go back. While the Beverly storyline may not play as well nowadays, it still feels stark and fresh. All in the Family had many episodes that tapped into this kind of emotional state while also being quite funny.
#8-CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (HBO 2000-Present)
-British filmmaker Mike Leigh always drafts outlines of his films and then strongly encourages his actors to improvise in scenes. Who would’ve thought that Larry David, the showrunner of SEINFELD who was known for being so particular about his scripts that he would correct you if you said “but” instead of “and”, would adopt this approach.
Curb Your Enthusiasm is a marvel of a show because of how much you just enjoy watching this fictional version of Larry David living his life in L.A. (briefly in NYC) and destroying any sense of social grace and decorum.
Each episode is based on an outline that Larry David and other writers map out and, taking a lot from his SEINFELD house style, most of his stories wind up in a twist ending that somehow often combines various bits of story together in an ironic way. These moments, combined with the use of the show’s theme song, have become fairly iconic as a way to express such ironic or uncomfortable moments.
If I had to choose a season that would be my favorite, it would probably be the 4th season in which Mel Brooks, rather surprisingly, comes to Larry and asks him to star on Broadway as a replacement Max Bialystock in the smash hit musical The Producers. Without spoiling it, David’s whole season builds to a moment that is so meta and perfect for the concept at hand.
Even at its weakest, CURB is never exactly boring. It might be a little sluggish but it is amazing how much he can mine out of these people and how talented his co-stars are. It also didn’t hurt that he was willing to shake it up at times by having his real life divorce complement a fake divorce from his TV wife, played by Cheryl Hines.
#7-THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW (HBO 1992-1998)
-While HBO had the amazing Not Necessarily the News back in the 80s that was an early forerunner in the Comedy News programs that are very popular today, I would say HBO’s legend sort of began with THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW, a single-camera show shot in the same vain as stuff like THE OFFICE and…well…most shows are nowadays. Larry Sanders was a smart and inventive show…and it was funny. It wasn’t always laugh out loud funny but it was witty and dry and urbane and completely original for its time. It also could be said it was an early example of cringe TV.
THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW was based around the titular fictional late-night talk show hosted by Sanders, played by the late great genius Garry Shandling (whose previous effort, IT’S GARY SHANDLING’S SHOW, deserves a shout out for how it basically made a mockery of the traditional sitcom format). The cast of characters included Sanders’ meek sidekick Hank (Jeffrey Tambor) and his blustery producer Artie (Rip Torn) and typically various guest stars on a week by week basis considering he was hosting a talk show.
I should point out that HBO’s history with comedy certainly hasn’t been as consistently successful as it has been with drama…so it is a little funny in retrospect to think that a comedy show is what put it on the map…but it deserves to be mentioned often for being such and inventive and groundbreaking show. I feel like it is never mentioned enough…and even though it broke through barriers in the 90s by getting several Emmy nominations year after year, it lost 5 times to FRAISER and once to SEINFELD. You can’t deny that those were two pretty good sitcoms…hell, SEINFELD may be the most iconic sitcom ever…but it seems sad that a show like LARRY SANDERS doesn’t often get its fair shake.
#6-FLEABAG (BBC/Amazon 2016-2019)
-I came across FLEABAG‘s first season not long after it originally premiered. At that point, it seemed like no one was talking about it but the reviews seemed immensely positive and I do love basically anything that is British so I gave it a go.
FLEABAG is easily my favorite comedy series in recent years. It falls under cringe comedy, cynical comedy, and even flight-of-fancy at times. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, genius that she is, based this around her one-woman show (which is also fantastic and even more bold) involving a single thirtysomething woman who owns a small struggling cafe and is essentially the millennial who feels lost and isn’t sure what she wants out of life.
I almost don’t even want to talk about the show at all. I feel like it just needs to be seen…and it is an easy watch because it’s only two seasons (and she isn’t planning on bringing it back any time soon…she said perhaps once she is a lot older) and 12 episodes altogether.
Plus, she has a great bunch of supporting players around her including Sian Clifford who is delightful as her uppity and neurotic older sister Claire, the divine Olivia Colman as their snippy godmother turned stepmother, and in the second season we get Andrew Scott as a priest that crosses paths with Fleabag…and the results make for a truly brilliant stretch of episodes.
Just…go watch it. I am not a binge watcher by nature but I sped through season 2 in a day…and I think season 1 was split over two days.
#5-THE SOPRANOS (HBO 1999-2007)
–If LARRY SANDERS helped put HBO more on the map, I feel like THE SOPRANOS solidified it as a true power player.
We now live in the age of the anti-hero where the line between protagonist and antagonist isn’t always abundantly clear…and I think that often makes any form of entertainment much more interesting as you never really know how to feel about or expect from those kinds of characters.
Tony Soprano as a mobster in therapy is certainly a concept that might seem a little iffy at first glance, but it made for an interesting dynamic right off the bat. The show does realize it can’t sustain it as much so it does feel like they fade Lorraine Bracco’s Dr. Melfi into the background post season 4.
Much like THE GODFATHER is considered the pinnacle of mob movies, I think THE SOPRANOS would easily be considered the TV equivalent. Truly strong writing, directing, and acting. The late James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano and Edie Falco as his suffering (but strong) wife Carmela make for a truly dynamic duo.
I think the show was definitely at its best in its first 4 seasons, and I particularly loved the dynamic between Tony and his rather acerbic mother Livia (played by the truly amazing Nancy Marchand who passed away between its second and third season)…but I must say that its infamous series finale certainly made for a lot of discussion and theory making as to what the “cut to black” meant. I loved it then and I love it still today.
#4-TWIN PEAKS/TP: The Return (ABC 1990-1991/Showtime 2017)
-Ranking this 4th almost feels like a betrayal. TWIN PEAKS could very well be the most influential piece of entertainment I’ve ever encountered…and despite how brilliant it was, it also does suffer more than it succeeded.
TWIN PEAKS, as most of you know, was co-created by famed surrealist director David Lynch along with TV writer Mark Frost. Both of them always stated that the show as to strictly be about the resident of Twin Peaks and that the show’s pilot, which introduced the murder of recently crowned Homecoming Queen Laura Palmer, would use that as a McGuffin of sorts to ease viewers into the town.
Here’s the problem with that: we all love a good mystery but sometimes, we just want the mystery to finally be solved. By the end of the show’s first season, viewers were livid that her killer wasn’t revealed. Don’t believe me? Watch this clip from an ABC news broadcast featuring Diane Sawyer and Sam Donaldson that goes into the drama of how fans reacted to getting no answer:
This caused ABC to freak out and they insisted Lynch and Frost reveal who the killer was ASAP (and I will not reveal who the killer was)…and they did by the 2nd season’s 7th episode. The reveal of the killer actually helped prop up another mystery in a sense, not to mention made network executives even more uncomfortable so with that all in place, Lynch then left the show because he was too upset at how the network killed the show.
Did the show really have to be killed? I mentioned before that Lynch and Frost had intended the show to be about the town but it was obvious that the show was primarily thriving strictly based on the investigation and mystery surrounding “Who Killed Laura Palmer?”. Once the show reverted to its other storylines, people began tuning out in droves and without Lynch in particular to guide the ship, guest directors and other writers tried doing their work in the way they felt best resembled Lynch which just meant most things came off as a cheap or pretentious imitation.
Lynch did come back to right the ship at the end of the second season with a season finale that was one of, if not THE, best episodes of the series…and then ABC promptly cancelled it even though it ended with a many crazy cliffhangers.
I could go on and on about this series…and frankly I should write a whole post about it so I can go on more at length, but my main point here is that whenever Lynch was directly involved in writing or directing the episodes, the results were brilliant and innovative. Otherwise, they ranged from very good (seldom) to rather dull or ridiculous.
Lynch and Frost returned strong with Showtime’s reboot TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN in which they were able to achieve something that was both not what we asked for but also what we ended up needing and didn’t deserve to get.
#3-THE WIRE (HBO 2002-2008)
-The industry may seem to have a bone to pick with David Simon and his colleagues considering they never seem to get any kind of awards attention, but hey, they have the legend behind them…and considering what else was getting awards attention throughout its run, I think its safe to say THE WIRE will live on while JOAN OF ARCADIA and BOSTON LEGAL will mostly just live on in modest streaming viewership.
David Simon served as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun from 1982-1995…and developed a strong connection to his community which led him to begin writing based around what he knew. After writing for NBC’s cop show Homicide: Life on the Street, he then wrote the largely forgotten but wonderful HBO miniseries The Corner, which feels a lot like a forerunner to The Wire as it is set on a rough street in Baltimore involving a poor black family in which the patriarch is a drug addict. It was the only time Simon was honored with an actual Emmy win for his work.
THE WIRE aired for 5 seasons and each season took a primary focus on a specific issue:
Season 1-The War on Drugs
Season 4-The Education System
I feel like THE WIRE is another show that deserves its own lengthy essay because it is so rich with stellar writing, important concepts, and acting that was among the best ever seen on television because it felt so real. In many ways, it was like watching a true documentary at times.
I do want to single out what I consider to be the best season: which would be the 4th.
Despite the season by season focus, each set of characters still remains featured as the series progresses though to varying degrees of screentime (with the exception of season 2 which seems to disappear from existence until the very end…plus Dominic West’s character of McNulty is seen less as by this point, the actor really missed his family in England and wanted to go back more regularly)…and in Season 4, we get re-introduced the disgraced cop Roland Pryzbylewski, who was considered incompetent and rash, but has actually found himself by working as a teacher at a middle school in which attendance is low and funding is down.
His response to the students and watching their lives in relation to the kind of crime we’ve seen them be apart of on the streets in previous is nothing short of heartbreaking and infuriating…though still unbelievably captivating.
#2-THE SIMPSONS (FOX 1989-Present)
-I was a year old when The Simpsons premiered….and its 32nd season just premiered (as of this writing) a little over a week ago. When most people think of The Simpsons nowadays it is usually one of the following: “I can’t believe that show is still on” or “It stopped being funny 20 years ago!”
Has The Simpsons stopped being funny? I don’t know if I would go that far. I will say that the quality has dipped dramatically to the point where the truly well done episodes are few and far between. The only real things it has going for it now are that they still have its amazing voiceover actors and that it is still better than Family Guy.
The Simpsons started showing signs of becoming erratic in Season 9 (the infamous episode The Principal and the Pauper being the most infamous example more for its story rather than the script itself) and then descended more with seasons 11 and 12 feeling surprisingly weak at times. The show did rebound some once Al Jean came back for season 13 and it maintained a steady quality for several years until crashing more so beginning with season 20.
So, this leaves me with The Simpsons Seasons 1-8…a stretch of seasons that are brilliant, hilarious, innovative, iconic, and classic…and the majority of them still hold up remarkably well today. On a basic level, the pop culture references feel more timeless in these episodes whereas today, they rely too much on pop culture for references as they’ve mined as much as they probably could from these characters.
When The Simpsons premiered, it was seen as “counter-culture” at time when we were coming off 8 years of the Reagan Administration and approaching the one-term of Bush Sr. In fact, it was Bush Sr. that once made the infamous comment that he felt American families should be “a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons”.
The remarkable thing about the show was how seamlessly it managed to blend satire, cynicism, quirkiness, and sentimentality…and as for the latter, due to the other tones the show brilliantly kept, the sentiments always felt earned and amazingly heartfelt.
It is also amazing how much the show has been able to tap into the psyche of how we are as a society. Upon a recent rewatch, I was amazed at how the show was able to speak to something that seemed crazy to me decades ago but seems more relevant now than it did in 1997.
I once did a post about my top 10 favorite Simpsons episodes. I don’t know if it would be the same if I made it today but here is a sampling of what I consider to be THE BEST OF THE SIMPSONS:
Last Exit to Springfield, Marge vs. The Monorail, Lisa’s Substitute, A Streetcar Named Marge, Bart Sells His Soul, Lemon of Troy, Cape Feare, Summer of 4ft 2, Homer’s Enemy, and A Star is Burns.
#1-BREAKING BAD (AMC 2008-2014)
-Actors can impress you. Actors can go far beyond whatever you might have expected of them. Who knows what might be hiding inside someone like Pauly Shore?
Okay, let’s not discuss Pauly Shore more than that, but when you look at someone like Bryan Cranston, most people remembered him as either Dr. Tim Whatley on SEINFELD or for his truly hilarious portrayal as the bizarre dad Hal on MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE. It was obvious Cranston was talented, but he could do more than comedy. We see it all the time: The Comedic Actor Who Jumps to Dramas (Tom Hanks, Jim Carrey, and more recently Adam Sandler)…but I don’t think anyone was quite prepared for Bryan Cranston as Walter White.
The creator of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan, had been a writer on The X-Files and had written an episode involving an anti-Semite who takes Mulder hostage. Cranston was cast as this character and Gilligan expressed that he was quite amazed at how well Cranston was able to play someone that was loathsome but somehow give him a sympathetic edge. Tying into this, Gilligan was curious to take the anti-hero concept a little further by having a lead character begin as a protagonist and turning him into the antagonist. The pitch? Turn Mr. Chips into Scarface.
Cranston’s Walter White is a very meek high school Chemistry teacher who ends up getting diagnosed with a rare form of Lung Cancer and he is essentially told his death will be inevitable. As a means to provide for his family, a chance encounter with a former slacker student of his named Jesse (Aaron Paul) leads him into the world of drugs. While Walter doesn’t partake, his chemistry skills make him a master at making primo meth.
Thus begins the journey of Walter and Jesse, an odd couple both tragic and hilarious and infuriating. Cranston and Paul are magnificent together and might very well be my favorite duo ever on a TV series…and if not, they are certainly in the top 3.
BREAKING BAD premiered on AMC not long after MAD MEN which took off as an awards darling right off the bat. This isn’t to say BREAKING BAD didn’t get attention, because Cranston did win his first Emmy for the show’s first season. However, with today’s standards, the show’s audience grew and by the final season, it was hugely popular and built up buzz just as it was starting to leave the airwaves (much like SCHITT’S CREEK recently).
I do feel like MAD MEN had nearly instant admiration but BREAKING BAD seems to have the legend behind it…and I can’t go any further without mentioning the supporting cast.
Anna Gunn as Skylar White seems to be one of the most infamous characters in recent memory. People seemed to LOATHE her in the same way many people grew to hate January Jones’ Betty Draper on MAD MEN. Early on. you do sort of prickle up at Skylar’s cold attitude but by the end, I feel like she just accepts what Walter has gotten into and decides she wants to be sure it goes smoothly…and Gunn is magnificent.
Jonathan Banks as Mike. Talk about a cool son-of-a-bitch. Mike has got to be one of the coolest badass characters ever devised. He is no-nonsense, tough, dry, and yet has a heart the size of Kansas. I still think how he takes a protective approach to Jesse is incredibly touching.
Bob Odenkirk as “Saul Goodman”. When he first came onto the scene in season 2, he provided the show with much needed comic relief. Sure, certain scenes may have been humorous before but Saul was an irreverent beast…and I love that Better Call Saul now exists because Odenkirk (and Banks) both deserve the exposure for their amazing work.
Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring. This guy was always a source of jubilance and charisma in everything he performed…and with Fring, he becomes a soul-less, menacing, calculating, and cold creature. When a man threatens to kill an infant, you pretty much know he means business….sadistic, evil business.
Before I ramble on any further, I do want to talk about how well that Breaking Bad builds up to its climax. The final two seasons are easily the best seasons of TV I have ever seen, and it is primarily that reason that I have the show as #1. I also want to give a shout out to one particular episode…and it won’t be anything new to hear, but so be it:
Ozymandias isn’t just the greatest episode of BREAKNG BAD, it is my current choice for the single greatest episode of TV I’ve seen. It’s not an easy claim to make because of how hyperbolic it is but I think the entire show builds up to that episode and then the final two are something of an immensely strong epilogue.
Cranston went from being a goofy irreverent sitcom dad to a four-time Emmy winning, two-time Tony winning, and Oscar nominated actor who wowed the world and had other actors, like Sir Anthony Hopkins, calling him to tell him that his work was the best he had ever seen.
You never know what an actor may be capable of…and we should also all bow down to Vince Gilligan.
Lastly, a special shout-out to my sister Rachel who is quite possibly the biggest super fan of that show out there…so much so that one year, her family Christmas card was inspired by the show.
With her persistence, I finally watched and finished the show as I, admittedly, wasn’t really responding to the show during its first season. I did finally make it to season 2 and that was when my admiration kept building. So thank you, Rachel!
I feel okay with my list. I certainly don’t want to go on for hours about 20-30 shows and I feel like I was able to narrow down a list to shows that I respect, admire, and am entertained by. I think I’ve said enough for now so I will leave it at that. Coming up next (hopefully): FAVORITE FILM DIRECTORS