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The Best Television Shows of All-Time: A List
Having been a film critic for numerous years, television was not my thing. However, over the last couple of decades, I've increasingly filled my media diet with television. Back in the old days, I used to watch programs like "Hill St. Blues" and "St. Elsewhere". At the time, they were some of the best television programs around. However, with the rise of cable television, the traditional television series has taken off.
I am arguing, by making this list, that the best television programs ever made have occurred within the last two decades. This is primarily because the ability of creative people to tell their stories has changed. Almost anything can be done now and almost anything can be shown. Thirty years ago, a show like "The Wire" or "Breaking Bad" simply could not have been made.
If I made a list of the greatest movies of all-time, it would include movies from all eras. Not so with a list of the greatest television shows. We're living in a true renaissance for television and anybody who hasn't seen these television series, is doing themselves a disservice.
The Wire (2002-2008)
What makes a great television show?
In my opinion, the thing that distinguishes a great television show from a merely good one is complexity - complexity of story, character, and especially writing. A great television show challenges the viewer. It's unpredictable and never afraid to take chances.
"The Wire" did this and more. It was, and still is, the greatest television show ever made.
One of the reasons I ascribe this honor to "The Wire" is because the show was also one of the most challenging shows. "The Wire" examined the drug trade in Baltimore and how it affected various groups. It followed each of those groups of people and told their stories. Sometimes those stories were linear and sometimes they weren't.
"The Wire" had good guys that were bad guys and bad guys that were good guys. It made you care about characters no matter what their occupation. The writing was so authentic that people often mistook it for a documentary. Each of its five seasons followed a different story arc and each was incredibly compelling, though I would argue that season four was the pinnacle of the series.
This is where rankings get a bit murky. There's no question in my mind that "Deadwood" ranks as my personal second favorite, but I'm not willing to argue about it with somebody who might argue for "The Sopranos" or "Breaking Bad". I am willing to go to bat for "The Wire" as the clear number one.
That being said, "Deadwood", which tells the tale of the settling of the town of Deadwood, South Dakota in the late 1800s, is one of the most engaging series ever. It's particularly noteworthy for the amount of profanity that occurred in the show. However, if you're able to get past this characteristic, "Deadwood" features some of the most memorable characters in tv history, particularly Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), the town's eventual sheriff, and Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), the town's principal business owner, whose business is mostly booze and whores and has a particular fondness for a certain c-word.
Prior to watching "Breaking Bad" I heard people comparing it to "The Wire" and even going so far as to say it was better than "The Wire". Of course, I was indignant. And then I watched the series. In fact, I binge-watched the entire series in a pretty short period of time and I can say that it definitely is a rare breed and if somebody wanted to argue really hard that it was the best show of all-time, I wouldn't call them names.
"Breaking Bad" is about a lot of things, but one of its main themes is the conflict between traditional notions of masculinity and the changing role of men in today's culture. Throughout the entire series, you can see Walter White (Bryan Cranston) struggling to find his place in the world and the disconnect between what it is and what he thinks it should be. Ultimately, the price Walter pays to gain the power and respect he thinks he deserves is extraordinarily high. It costs him his soul, basically.
There's so much more to this show than that, so I'm probably selling it short. Great performances. Great writing and storytelling.
Video Spoiler Alert!!
No list of great television shows is complete without "The Sopranos". There are a couple of other shows that fall into the same category: groundbreaking. "The Sopranos" was truly groundbreaking. Creator David Chase introduced a show with a main character, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), who was despicable in many ways, but also had the same problems as any other family man. Sure, it was a show about the mob, but it mixed mob violence with domestic frustration. Tony was a man in constant conflict between the man he was professionally and the man he was at home: husband to his wife and father to his children.
Some might argue that the show's ending detracted from its ultimate place in history, but I disagree. "The Sopranos" was a show that disrupted television and influenced almost every show that followed. That it ended the way it did spoke to David Chase's desire to continue that anti-television vibe. Closure in life is rarely possible. The abrupt cut to black just reinforces that. It's the absence of closure. Want closure? Too bad.
The Larry Sanders Show
Perhaps you're thinking that I'm something of an HBO shill given how many of the shows on my list originated on HBO.
I guess it's true that HBO has revolutionized television and raised the bar for quality television. It's definitely true that a tremendous number of the greatest shows of all-time were HBO shows. It's also true that by raising the bar, many of the greatest shows are now originating in places other than HBO.
"The Larry Sanders Show" was a very early television show on HBO, beginning in 1992 and running for six seasons to 1998. Like "The Sopranos", it influenced many shows after it. It was the first show that melded fiction and reality in a way where it was sometimes hard to separate the two. Series star and creator, Garry Shandling, was both a real talk show host and a fictional talk show host. The interviews he did were both real and fake. The show itself is a brilliant examination of what goes on in front and behind the cameras of the fictional talk show.
The platform provided by "The Larry Sanders Show" for actors who would later go on to be major stars in major television shows reads like a who's who list: Jeffrey Tambor, Penny Johnson, Janeane Garofalo, Sarah Silverman, Jeremy Piven, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Bob Odenkirk.
"The Larry Sanders Show" is more than twenty years old and is still just as funny as it ever was. A great show to rewatch or watch for the first time.
One of the things that made "The Shield" so unbelievable was that it was on basic cable ("FX") while shows like "The Sopranos" were on paid cable, so "The Shield" was always at something of a disadvantage in terms of what it could show and what its characters could say. Yet, "The Shield" in many ways was more groundbreaking than any other show. Creator Shawn Ryan pushed the envelope of what could be shown on basic cable so many times it was literally hard to believe. Viewers were always aware that a show like "The Sopranos" could show whatever it wanted so it was expected to be shocking. "The Shield" had considerably more jaw-dropping episodes, most often because of what it implied than what it actually showed (one man performing fellatio on another man is hard to imagine even on paid cable, but "The Shield" did just that).
The tale of Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) is not unlike the tale of Tony Soprano. Both are anti-heroes who break the rules in part of their life and try desperately to follow it in their roles as fathers and husbands and friends.
Other Shows in the Conversation
- The Good Wife
- Mad Men
- The Simpsons
- Arrested Development
- Hill St. Blues
- Six Feet Under
- Friday Night Lights
- Twin Peaks
- Battlestar Galactica
- Game of Thrones
- 101 Best Written TV Series List
As the world leader in online screenplay registration, the WGAW represents writers in the motion picture, broadcast, cable and new media industries.
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