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The Ten Best Television Shows Since 1990

Updated on January 9, 2014
The Sopranos ran on HBO from 1997 through 2007
The Sopranos ran on HBO from 1997 through 2007 | Source

The Author's Top Ten

1. The Sopranos

2. Lost

3. Mad Men

4. Dexter

5. Breaking Bad

6. Chappelle's Show

7. Weeds

8. The Wire

9. The Real World

10. Man Vs. Wild

A Matter of Taste

Since the dawn of time man has been telling stories. The form of these stories has changed over time, but their essence has remained the same. Like it or not, the most common medium for our tales has become the television. Stories with pictures have invaded our lives over the last hundred years, and as a result our culture has been changed forever. The last twenty years has seen satellite television infiltrate the American living room with more programming than ever before. Television shows have morphed into engrossing sagas about a life most of us can only fantasize about. Networks like HBO and Showtime can take us even further into these narratives due to their lack of content restrictions on language and adult situations. This is not to say that network television, with their censure-ship, does not put out some great shows, however I maintain that a more graphic depiction of life is not only more believable but also more intriguing. Show me the gory details, the racy situations, and tell me in the language we all speak when the grown ups aren't around. Taking these factors into consideration one must remember that not everyone wants to watch the same things. Therefore when I talk about the best shows over the last twenty years keep in mind that it is all a matter of taste. Consider I'm a white male in his early thirties with no religious associations, and my list will probably make more sense considering these factors of influence. I understand the allure of a cheap laugh from shows like Seinfeld and Friends, but there is no sense of extraordinary from these shows. Living in an apartment in New York with friends coming over just doesn't seem all that great. Running a crime syndicate while balancing a family and several mistresses just has a better ring to it. A vigilante serial killer who works forensics with Miami homicide or a widow becoming a weed king pin while raising a family just screams of originality and loaded story. Plot, character development, arch, these are the features that make a great story!

Who's Your Favorite Character?

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Tony Soprano and The Island

The best television show of all time is The Sopranos. The late James Gandolfini plays a supremely complex character in Tony Soprano, to which there is no comparison. It's one of those roles where you can never see the actor as another character. Tony Soprano encompasses the entire gamut of emotion one can feel about a character. In one sense he is a deplorable human who participates in murder, adultery, and any host of other activities deemed morally improper. Yet somehow we love him, we identify with him, an untouchable mob boss we probably could not understand, but a man who struggles with emotional and family issues we can definitely believe. Tony sees a psychiatrist throughout the duration of the show, which not only lays a concrete foundation for the basis of Tony's character, but it puts the audience on a level playing field with a mafia crime boss. The other characters of the show complete the picture of a modern American family with ties to present day crime families. Supporting cast members like Steve Buscemi and Joe Pantoliano ensure that the acting in this series could not be better. The Sopranos is not everyone's cup of tea, my wife can't keep up with the dialogue or the talking in "code" between the characters. A line like, "Hey did you take care of that thing for our friend in New York?" Leaves my wife with questions like "What thing? Who's friend? I'm confused." The Sopranos however remains the king in my book.

Despite a few loose ends and several unanswered questions, ABC's Lost comes in number two on our list. Maybe the most unique story line I have ever seen in a television show. While Lost did not have the best acting or dialogue, the suspense between episodes and seasons was unparalleled. Fortunately I waited until several years after the show started to begin watching, and was able to power through entire seasons in a matter of days. But the story was so intriguing that it was very hard to go to work, or bed for that matter. Another aspect of Lost that sets it apart from other shows was the fact that it always had two story lines going simultaneously in every episode. The story of what was happening on the island and the flash back stories of the characters made it feel like you were watching two different shows. What really made Lost so good though, was that element of the supernatural unknown that came be explained somewhat naturally. As is the case with many shows Lost experienced it best seasons early on in its life. The first two seasons held the most suspense and had the best cast of characters before several were killed off. The island was a much more intense place of mystery in these seasons as well, what's behind the curtain usually doesn't live up to the anticipation. Like The Sopranos however, the characters grow on you until you can't see their actors in other roles. Any time we see Matthew Fox in another role its always "hey look its Jack". The character's flaws make them easy to identify with and leaves the audience imagining themselves stranded on a mystical island with this largely until now, unknown cast.

Bryan Cranston is Walter White in AMC's Breaking Bad
Bryan Cranston is Walter White in AMC's Breaking Bad | Source

Three Leading Men for the Ages

The next three shows on our list feature strong male leads and fantastically unique story lines. Mad Men on AMC's cable network brings the audience back to 1960s New York City in an advertising agency ran by the enigmatic Don Draper. Draper is fiercely brilliant in his work, and is an award winning ad man but this success comes at the expense of his personal life and family. Draper also has an eye for the ladies bouncing from one love interest to the next, despite being married throughout the show, twice. The thing that really sets Mad Men apart however is the set, wardrobe, and seemingly accurate portrayal of the times. In one episode we see Don's wife pregnant, eating raw hamburger, smoking a cigarette, and drinking a glass of wine shamelessly. Drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes is in almost every scene of the show, especially in the ad agency where sobriety has no place in this fast pace highly competitive environment. The show encompasses several years in the late 1950s and early 60's incorporating actual historic events such as the Kennedy and King assassinations. Relationships between older men and their young secretaries give glimpses into the mood of the times where divorces started to lose their taboo status and women were gaining ground in the work place however slowly. Mad Men is a one of kind hit that takes a limited story line and makes the most of dialogue and situational drama to keep viewers entranced.

Stepping into a completely different genre Dexter is a serial killer. But not just any serial killer, he has a code. Dexter Morgan works blood spatter forensics for Miami Metro Homicide and in his free time he hunts down, and kills criminals that have slipped through the cracks of the justice department. Dexter is a psychopath dealing with trying to balance out his public life with his private one. The show is intensely unique making its viewers fall in love with a serial killing vigilante. Throughout the show Dexter starts a family and has a child of his own leading to a whole new set of encounters. His relationships with his sister and dead father (who still speaks with him) lead Dexter to many life altering decisions about whether to save himself or his family. The complicated relationships are further marred by the fact that he and his sister both work in the homicide department that inevitably is chasing Dexter without even knowing it. Dexter's unique story line and intense dramatic conclusions coupled with the raw story telling available on a network like Showtime make it a must watch and our number four show on the list.

In at number five AMC strikes again with the pop culture breakout show Breaking Bad. Bryan Cranston plays Walter White, a high school teacher who finds out he his dying from lung cancer. Contemplating leaving behind his soon to be pregnant wife and high school aged son, Walt hears from his DEA brother in law about the amounts of money being made by crystal meth dealers, and soon begins making and selling his own brand. Walt starts out by partnering up with a small time dealer, one of his former students, Jesse Pinkman. Using his extensive background in chemistry Walt comes up with purest meth in the country. Jesse and Walt go through the trials of fighting cancer, making meth, and selling it, all the while hiding in plain sight from his brother in law. Jesse and Walt fight themselves and several rival drug dealers, and individually their own consciences when murder becomes a part of their business. Walt tries to maintain some semblance of family life as Jesse deals with sobriety and the weight of his murders. Breaking Bad ran on AMC from 2008-2013 when it came to its dramatic conclusion. AMC will have its hands full replacing this fan favorite and will especially be rebuilding its repertoire when Mad Men reaches its finale in 2014.

The Best of the Rest

Which Show Should have Made the Cut?

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Two Comedies and a Crime Epic

In at number six we take a look at another type of show. Sketch comedy has been a tried and true format for decades, but Chappelle's Show took it to a whole new level. With sketches exploring the hilarity of racial stereotypes, drug use, and sexual proclivity, Chappelle's Show caught fire with an entire generation of twenty something's in the the early 2000s. Dave Chappelle gained popularity in the counter-culture with his stand up comedy and a starring role in the cult classic Half Baked. Capitalizing on his popularity, Dave brought in guest stars such as Wayne Brady, Paul Moody and John Mayer to add to the outrageous nature of his sketches. Sketches included a story a blind African American white supremacist, (catch all that?), mockeries of Prince and Rick James (played of course by Dave Chappelle) and an ongoing NFL films spoof called "Great Moments in Hook Up History". The show's staying power proved to be it's memorable one-liners that are still being quoted today, eight years after the final episode; I'm Rick James bitch!" Think Saturday Night Live with less filter and a younger target audience.

Every story has at least five points of view, just ask HBO's The Wire. Each of the shows five seasons gave a different point of view into the illegal drug trade in inner-city Baltimore. Raw and gritty, The Wire gives an equal side of the record to the police and the criminals, the reporters and the shipping docks, ( the source of the drugs entrance into the country) and behind the scenes with the government dealing with the drug problem. Social and political themes dominate this lesser known HBO drama, which never broke the ratings box. Conflict between individuals and their organizations, who tend have conflicting agendas, makes the audience question each institution in the show, police, government, school system etc.

Enjoy a precarious situational comedy? Meet Nancy Botwin, suburban widow turned pot dealer in Showtime's hit Weeds. This dark comedy follows the hilarious world of Nancy, her two sons, her brother in law, and a cast of characters who just can't smoke, sell, or grow enough weed to make life normal. This dark comedy starring Mary- Louise Parker may have seen its best seasons early on while Nancy encountered a variety of problems being a local pot dealer. From a DEA boyfriend to rival dealers, Nancy maneuvers her way eventually into cahoots with a Mexican drug lord/mayor who she incidentally marries. The show goes a little off the deep end in its later seasons, but the premise and lighthearted attitude towards marijuana is priceless and has attracted a large audience even outside of the typical stoner we love anything about weed folks.

No show captured the darkside of American imagination better than Dexter
No show captured the darkside of American imagination better than Dexter | Source

Two For the Road

Television has come to be dominated by a new type of show all together, and our final two shows make the list largely based on falling into this genre. Reality television is based on just turning on a camera in a set situation and watching what happens. Now most of these situations are manipulated into creating drama and then edited into the most dramatic clips, but reality TV is a hit and here to stay. MTV more or less started the genre with its ongoing hit series The Real World. The show's premise: put seven strangers from diverse backgrounds in a house, make them work, live and play together, and watch what happens. The show is set in a new city every season and is now on its 29th season making it the longest running reality based television show in history. The show may not share the broad audiences of some of the other shows on this list but its originality, and the trend in television that it has started puts it firmly in our top ten. From alcohol fueled debauchery to racial and sexual themes, this show has all of the ingredients needed to make a hit.

The final show on our list combines reality television, nature and survival. Throw in a wildly charismatic host with a British accent and you get Man vs Wild. Bear Grylls is a former British SAS man who has explored the vast reaches of the planet. Grylls has summited Mt Everest, climbed peaks in Antarctica and taken countless ocean voyages in everything from a dingy to a bathtub. In Man vs. Wild Grylls demonstrates his vast survival knowledge by putting himself and a camera crew in various survival situations in remote places around the planet. Covering every type of terrain from deserts to glaciers, jungles to frozen tundra, Bear shows the audience not only how to survive in the wild wilderness, but also how to escape to safety. Bear eats anything he can find on his travels; bugs, snakes, and goat eyes are just the tip of the menu. The battle against various climates and terrains rages all while sharing in his witty British commentary about life and survival. Despite controversy of the the true "reality" in the show, it still makes our list for its uniquely diverse elements and the watchability of its star.

Chappelle's Show ran 3 seasons on Comedy Central
Chappelle's Show ran 3 seasons on Comedy Central | Source

Future Considerations

Inevitably this list will change with time when the next epic comes to the small screen. Some shows out now that could eventually crack the list include: "Scandal" ABC's political thriller, "Californication" a witty comedy on Showtime, and "Game of Thrones" the epic fantasy on HBO. Of the three "Game of Thrones" is by far my favorite, but I'm equally hooked on watching the other two. Well with all of this talking about awesome shows its high time I went and watched some! Happy watching everyone!

Kerry Washington stars as the vivacious Olivia Pope in ABC's hit show Scandal
Kerry Washington stars as the vivacious Olivia Pope in ABC's hit show Scandal | Source


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    • philabustah profile image


      4 years ago from Boston, MA.

      I only watched Lost a couple times. Both times, I was lost. I saw the initial Breaking Bad, it was pretty good, but the story line was depressing. Weeds, I haven't seen don't have Showtime. Dexter was good. I watched for a few seasons. I saw one Sopranos episode, I couldn't get into it. The Shield, I saw one. It was O.K. but cops and robbers is done to death. Chappelle, once, O.K., not great. The problem with a lot of these shows is that after a couple seasons, they start getting stale, like a loaf of bread. You start to see the same scenarios play out with a dialogue you could predict to 90% accuracy. I'm a harsh critic. But, maybe I haven't watched enough. How about silly secret agents like "Get Smart"? A POW show like "Hogan's Heroes"? You want serious? "Kung Fu". Today's shows un-original, too much drama, no suspense, too many repetitive unworthy ads, too unrealistic, (even in the reality shows), too decadent. But, I've been around a little longer than you. I like your perspective anyway. It's hard for me to excited about much nowadays.

    • Thief12 profile image


      4 years ago from Puerto Rico

      I agree with lions44, The Shield would probably be my #1 show. The Wire would be #2. As it is now, Game of Thrones would probably be #3 and Breaking Bad #4... or something like that. I'm probably forgetting one.

      Anyway, there are some that I haven't seen but I'm planning to sooner or later: Mad Men, Dexter, The Sopranos... Lost? meh, that one "lost" me during its last season.

      Good hub anyway. Voted Up, Interesting, and Useful.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 

      5 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Can I give a shout out to The Shield? Definitely on my Top Ten. But I like your list a lot. I have not seen The Wire, but will soon. Chappelle is a genius and I hope he gets back into TV full time. Voted up.


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