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Top 15 Serialized TV Shows

Updated on June 28, 2015
TheGutterMonkey profile image

Nerd, cinephile, TV-junky, research-loving, left-leaning, science-fiending, atheist from the gutter. Follow me on Twitter @TheGutterMonkey.

What are TV serials?

For those who have never had the pleasure of experiencing a good serialized television series, you are truly missing out on some of the most riveting TV ever devised. Much of which far surpasses anything a feature film is capable of offering.

As oppose to episodic TV shows, where each episode is standalone and there's a beginning, middle and ending all contained within one episode (a "story-of-the-week," as they say) serials stretch out their plots over seasons and, many times, years. During this time much focus is put on character development and a slow and steady progression of one long continuing plot that unfolds in an episode by episode fashion. The outcome is something similar to one extremely long movie.

The allure of a well made serialized television show is quite similar to the allure of a well made novel. Spread out over years, with each season acting as a chapter and each episode as a subchapter, nothing is rushed and all is explored. You have time to get to know the characters as you watch them grow, change, and develop, and, with the longer story arcs, the plots become more layered, complex, and suspenseful; often due to the fact that most episodes end in cliffhangers -- causing the eager viewer to wait a week or longer in anticipation for a resolution.

Since serials obligate the viewer to watch the entire series, from beginning to end, to fully understand the plot, they do require a certain amount of patience and dedication. If you miss one episode you may likely be completely lost during the next. But if the show is good, the investment is well worth it.

The fandom of serials

Serials have by far the most dedicated of fanbases of all TV shows. While it may be difficult for a new viewer to begin tuning into a serial after it's already been on the air for a while, those who have been watching from the beginning tend to become hooked immediately and then, in turn, seek out other fans of the show to form a community known as a "following" or a "cult following".

Unlike story-of-the-week shows, where once one episode is over all is resolved, serials rely on keeping the full nature of their stories hidden so that the viewer is forced to tune in each week to learn new elements the story has to reveal. This causes the shows loyal viewers to grow a particular bond where they can discuss the show together and share their theories and speculations about the shows possible outcomes, themes, and meanings.

These fanbases are especially big online, usually on internet message boards. They also gather at conventions such a Comic-Con, where fans dress up as their favorite characters, discuss their shows with each other, and involve themselves in seminars, workshops, and even panel discussions with the shows creators and cast.

The relationships formed due to peoples shared passion of these shows are on par with relationships acquired of those with a similar religion. While it may sound odd to the outsiders, when your flock congregates, the feeling is truly divine.

Heroes
Heroes

Why aren't there more serials?

Networks see serials as risk, so they're extremely hesitant about airing them. Their fear is that if a viewer doesn't start watching from the get-go, they most likely won't tune in later on. And if they do tune in midway through the series, chances are they won't know what the heck is going on and will change the channel before you can say frakk.

Another problem the networks have with serials is that they're not likely to do well in reruns. As a rule, serials are meant to be watch in chronological order where each episode is a continuation of the last to understand what's going on. If random reruns are shown in equally random timeslots chances are that even the fans won't stick around to watch them -- no one likes walking into a movie midway through, and that's essentially what one does when they walk into a serial after the first episode.

And while the DVD sells of serials often perform much better than episodic shows, many people prefer to just wait till the show has already aired before they buy them (so that they can watch the show straight through without commercials) and as well all know, if people aren't watching the commercials, the networks aren't getting paid.

As a result of these problems, networks sometimes ask show runners to reduce serialization, believing that if they had more standalone episodes new viewers would have a better jumping on point and be more likely to watch. Shows such as Alias, Damages, Heroes, and Battlestar Galactica have suffered from this kind of network pressure -- the aforementioned Battlestar episodes were criticized very badly for this change by both critics and fans and immediately (thankfully) changed back to their former serialized format, and recovered from the initial negative responses... Heroes, unfortunately, wasn't so lucky.

15.) The Walking Dead (2010-)

Based on the popular comic book series of the same name, The Walking Dead is a stand out show to say the least. Zombies and gore galore, the series follows a group of survivors of a zombie apocalypse who struggle to stay alive in a world that may not be worth living in.

The show started off slow with its first season (mostly due to its short allotted amount of time for character development that the 6 episode season allowed), but quickly picked up in the second. If this series continues in the direction it's going and keeps "fleshing out" its characters, it has the potential to eventually become one of the greats.

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14.) Twin Peaks (1990-1991)

In 1990, David Lynch, the famed cult director of weirdly captivating films such as Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, brought us the hauntingly eccentric Twin Peaks.

Kyle MacLachlan plays the meticulous FBI agent, Dale Cooper, who's come to the quaint Northwest town of Twin Peaks to investigate the murder of small-town homecoming queen, Laura Palmer, whose corpse was found washed ashore "wrapped in plastic." With eerie dream sequences of a backward talking dwarf, bizarre characters such as the lady who walks around carrying a log (appropriately named Log Lady), Twin Peaks was an unconventional show, to say the least.

After the first season the momentum (and quality) of the show died down a bit, but, nevertheless, it's a show that begs to be seen -- if only to be believed.

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13.) Carnivale (2003-2005)

Set during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in 1934-1935, Carnivale is an odd show with religious undertones of good versus evil which follows two disparate groups of people. The first group consists of a traveling carnival full of freaks and geeks (led by the same dwarf from Twin Peaks) who have picked up a mysterious, irritable young man (Nick Stahl) who may or may not have supernatural powers. The second group revolves around a minister (Clancy Brown) who makes migrants regurgitate change and beats himself with a horse whip.

As you can probably tell from that brief description, Carnivale isn't the easiest of shows to explain to people. All I can say is that it's a shame that it never made it to a third season (especially since the second season ended with a CLIFFHANGER!). Normally I wouldn't recommend a show that was never given the chance to come to a complete conclusion, but for Carnivale I'll make an exception. It wraps up enough to satisfy the mind. And, besides, the mythology is just way too good to pass up.

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12.) The Prisoner (1967-1968)

The Prisoner was a strange and one-of-a-kind series which followed an unnamed British agent who, after abruptly resigning his job, is abducted and held captive in a mysterious seaside "village" which is isolated from the rest of the world by mountains and sea. Monitored by security forces and weird devices, the village itself is a complete enigma where nothing and no one are quite what they seem.

Even though it only aired 17 episodes between the years 1967 and 1968, this surreal British spy/science fiction series left one bugger of a jolly good impact (that's how the British talk, right?) whose influence can still be seen in popular culture today; including being the inspiration for the name Number Six given to the beautiful Cylon from the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, and being cited as being one of the major influences for the TV show LOST.

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11.) Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014)

Inspired by actual events and set in the Prohibition era, the show revolves around Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), a corrupt politician who controls Atlantic City, mingles with the likes of Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, and struggles to keep both his business and personal life in line.

With a pilot directed by gangster-movie-king, Martin Scorsese, and Sopranos writer-producer Terence Winter, Boardwalk Empire was, and is, destined for the kind of greatness typically reserved only for holy saviors and whoever it was that invented the Tommy gun.

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10.) Mad Men (2007-2015)

AMC's critically acclaimed stylish drama series, Mad Men, is about ad men living out their lives in 1960s New York, where they smoke cigarettes, drink often, and dress sharply. More than that, it's about the 1960s itself. The primary story revolves around one Mad Man in particular, named Don Draper. It's through him, his life, his friends, family, and workplace that we see how beneath that seemingly classy atmosphere lurks a lot of problems; such as the sexism, misogyny, social hypocrisy, and racism of the time.

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9.) OZ (1997-2003)

OZ was the first serialized drama series ever to come from the now serial drama masters of television, HBO. And what a start it was!

Set in the Oswald Maximum Security Penitentiary (OZ, for short), OZ revolves around the prisoners who live there (many of which with life sentences) and the guards, politicians, and wardens who manage them. OZ is a surreal show full of unique well-developed characters who you grow to both love and hate (and often times, fear for).

Full of sex, violence, drugs, Nazi's, and more cold-blooded murder than you can shake a shank at, it may surprise you of the level intelligence of the show. Oftentimes it's even poetic, with its wonderfully dream-like narrations from crippled inmate Harold Perrineau, and its undertones of Shakespearean symbolism (not to mention the surprisingly effective, offbeat love-stories).

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8.) Deadwood (2004-2006)

Bringing together real life, historical characters and events and turning them into a fictionalized TV drama, this realistic, potty-mouthed western set in the infamous South Dakota camp-town of Deadwood in 1876 was nothing less than a masterpiece of modern television. And although it only aired for a mere three glorious seasons, Deadwood managed to meet and surpass the quality of pretty much every other Wild West movie and TV show that came before it, while raising the bar for all new ones to come.

It's not just cool shootouts and cowboys that give this show top marks, though. With complex and deeply flawed characters whose line between good and evil is thin at best, and a story which plays out in an almost Shakespearean fashion (even down to the use of foul and complicated dialogue, which itself is poetic in many ways), Deadwood transformed what could have been a typical American western into an art form of its very own.

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7.) Friday Night Lights (2006-2011)

I know many who have been turned off from watching this show simply due to the fact that they aren't big fans of "sports shows" or who take a brief look at Friday Night Lights and assume that it's nothing more than a teenage melodrama, pandering to a preppy, high school MTV audience. However, when you actually sit down and watch this critically acclaimed series about a small, football-obsessed town in Texas (which is not unlike many small towns all across America), you'll find that it's really a show about real people growing up and trying to deal with all the same life struggles we all had to cope with at one time or another.

The shows characters are amazingly well-developed and complex, and their personal lives are explored in an outstandingly realistic manner. And while there was no fantasy, no action, and no story-book romances, the show nevertheless manages to pull you in and demand your attention. If there ever was a show that best represented real life Americana, Friday Night Lights would have to be it.

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6.) The Sopranos (1999-2007)

The Sopranos isn't your typical "family" drama. It revolves around mafia boss, Tony Soprano -- a tough but sensitive type -- who has bouts of depression in between mob hits, beating people senseless, philandering, dealing with his truculent kids, bickering with his wife, trying to make sense of his overbearing mother, and constantly looking over his shoulder for the next stoolie or rival Mafioso who may do him in... it's really no wonder he sees a psychiatrist.

With a fantastic cast, a great soundtrack (the world will never listen to Journey quite the same again), and intelligent scripts, this look into New Jerseys criminal underbelly is really one of the finest, well crafted serial dramas to ever to blast its way onto television.

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5.) LOST (2004-2010)

Lost is about a group of plane crash survivors who land on a mysterious tropical island where many -- many -- unusual circumstances arise. It's difficult to fully explain the plot of the show without spoiling it, but with polar bears, time travel, ghostly visions, monsters, biblical symbolism, and quite possibly the greatest ensemble cast ever to be delivered, Lost rightly deserves the label of greatest fantasy drama ever to be conceived.

Lost literally changed the way television is made. With complex puzzles and a fascinating mythology, Lost will have the viewer scratching their head, theorizing, and speculating from the very first episode. As far as addictions go, Lost makes crack look like soda pop -- you'll be hooked, fiending, and craving from the get-go.

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4.) Breaking Bad (2008- 2013)

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is an exhausted, well-mannered, slightly geeky, over-qualified high school chemistry teacher. Struggling to support his pregnant wife and his cerebral palsy-effected teenage son, Walter also moonlights at a local car wash. Weary, disillusioned, and stressed, the last thing he needed was to find out that he also has an inoperable form of lung cancer. This was his breaking point.

Not wanting to put anymore undue pressure on his barely-getting-by family, Walter keeps his cancer secret. And, desperate to leave them with something before he dies, Walter comes to the conclusion that he needs to make money -- and make it fast. So, after going on a ride-along with his DEA agent brother-in-law and seeing the enormous amounts of cash that can be made in the drug-trade, Walter decides to put his skills in chemistry to action and start making crystal meth... this is where the story begins.

AMC's Breaking Bad shows how easily one man can be driven from the mundane to the extreme.

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3.) The Wire (2002-2008)

Gritty, unsympathetic, unafraid, and real -- unnervingly real.

The Wire, is a definite contender by most critics for the best serialized television series ever made. You may think that you've seen the cops and criminals crime show before but, trust me, you've never seen anything remotely like The Wire. As I not so subtly hinted to, realism is king here. Well-studied and perfectly executed, The Wire doesn't hold back from showcasing the true image of crime in America. With each season acting as a chapter, the story tells it like it really is; showing how crime, schools, politics, poverty, and the police force are all woven together.

The Wire isn't a show about cops and robbers; it's an education.

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2.) Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)

The story begins with a miniseries (which can be found below) that sets the stage for the next 4 seasons to come. The basic plot is that after an old, robotic enemy known as the Cylons resurfaces and obliterates the Twelve Colonies, only a small group of the planets population make it out alive on a team of ships lead by an old but powerful warship known as the Battlestar Galactica. From there on, these last of mankind's refugees must struggle to survive not only the Cylons who continue to pursue them, but also their own political, social, and relational disputes along the way, as they attempt to find a long-lost, fabled "thirteenth colony" known as Earth.

First and foremost, do not be fooled by the shows title or that brief plot outline; this is NOT Star Trek, there are no aliens (not in the typical sense), and there is no fluff. This reimagined version of Battlestar Galactica is an intense, gritty, no holds barred fantasy drama with a socio-political commentary and an epic cinematic value that puts most featured films to shame. It's chock-full of mythology, action, mysteries, and gripping, realistic, multidimensional characters that you'll find yourself loving, hating, and questioning all at the same time. When this show came onto the scene in 2004 it blew both critics and fans everywhere away.

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1.) Six Feet Under (2001-2005)

From the Oscar winning screenwriter of American Beauty came the stylish, intelligent serial drama Six Feet Under; a show about life, death, and everything in between.

The show revolves around the Fishers, their family-run funeral home, and the everyday struggles they deal with. With each episode beginning with the death of a soon to be resident of the Fishers autopsy table, we watch as the characters examine their own lives through conscience (usually in the form of spirits), and grow into the people they want to be and need to be.

Six Feet Under is the most intelligent serial drama I have ever seen. You not only observe the lives of the Fishers, you become emotionally involved in them. The show explores all of our fears, touches on all of our secret thoughts, and, through the Fishers, helps us better understand our own lives as well.

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Honorable mention...

While the television show Heroes was unfortunately lacking in many respects in its later seasons, their first season was amazing. It's also really worth watching on its own, as it wraps up pretty well (without worry of leaving you with a cliffhanger) if you chose to opt out of the crap-fest that follows it.

Just do as I do and pretend only the one season exists and you'll be blown away.

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    • charliecrews38 profile image

      charliecrews38 2 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

      other suggestions include the shield and game of thrones, my favourites are mad men, the wire, and lost, and more recently the americans and the leftovers

    • profile image

      Eric 2 years ago

      Sons of Anarchy is a good one too.

    • NickHerc profile image

      NickHerc 3 years ago

      Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, Mad Men, art of television.

    • profile image

      electrolion 4 years ago

      I was a devoted fan of LOST, and I've got to admit I watched the original Battlestar Galactica and loved that.

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 4 years ago

      Loved Lost and now I'm hooked on The Walking Dead.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      The walking dead and the wire are great shows, I enjoyed your lens

    • Dickstucki1 profile image

      Dickstucki1 4 years ago

      I like the information you have shared with us. Thank you for a good job.

    • MarcStorm LM profile image

      MarcStorm LM 5 years ago

      I wish heroes didn't end, one of the biggest let downs ever! I love The Walking Dead, can't wait, the new season starts October 19th, 2012 i think it is. Love It!

      Great article!

    • Mark Shirbroun profile image

      Mark Shirbroun 5 years ago

      Seen many of these - I love a good serialized show! The Wire is my favorite with BSG and LOST close behind. Another I liked a lot (that didn't get to complete it's run) was Jericho.

    • Menu Shoppe profile image

      Menu Shoppe 5 years ago

      In my opinion, "The King Stay The King." The Wire is the best of them all.

    • Jadelynx-HP profile image

      Tracey Boyer 5 years ago from Michigan

      *grins* I could not disagree more on your choices, other than maybe Lost. It would be fun to write a duel lens to yours, with my choices. I may not agree with you, but the lens was well done. :)

    • Wedding-Music profile image

      Matt Warren 5 years ago from Cheshire, UK

      Breaking Bad... TOPS! :) Great lens

    • Mim Art profile image

      Mim Art 5 years ago

      Brilliant writing - Unique topics - I like your style. You truly are a rare find which I will have to bookmark and return to.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Babylon 5! Yes it has aliens, yes it has a few monster episodes and the first season is weak, but, it is really a morality play about two characters, one that wants to be good but always makes the wrong decision and one that starts off bad but while trying to save his people learns to be good.

    • oxfordian profile image

      oxfordian 5 years ago

      What's going on with Mad Men? Hasn't it been on hiatus for an awfully long time? It is coming back, isn't it? And whatever happened to Rubicon???? That was a great serial and it just disappeared! I LOVED that show!

    • LabKittyDesign profile image

      LabKittyDesign 5 years ago

      Thumbs-up for the criminally underrated Carnivale (we hardly knew ye). Speaking of bizarre and died before it's time: Frisky Dingo.

    • profile image

      JoshK47 5 years ago

      Definitely some excellent picks - I personally prefer Lost to Six Feet Under, but that's just my preference. Blessed by a SquidAngel! :)

    • profile image

      PreorderMoviesTV 5 years ago

      I am more excited about the Boardwalk Empire on DVD and Blu-ray format. Its complete first season will be available next year on January 10, 2012.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Totally agree with you about Lost and Battlestar Galactica. I haven't seen Six Feet Under. I do love good character development. For me though, what made Lost and BSG stick out was the sense of adventure. Working in a funeral home doesn't sound very adventurous.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Great Lens! I can't argue with you about listing Six Feet Under as #1. It was a remarkable series. One serial drama that you didn't list that I loved was Deadwood. Thanks for the terrific lens.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Yup, serials are a risk but the ones that catch on make it a risk worth taking, very impressively done. Serials are like stepping into life and I like catching the little hints of things I may have missed and putting the pieces together.

    • grandma deal profile image

      grandma deal 6 years ago

      I seriously enjoyed watching "Carnivale!" I also enjoyed reading this lens. It's a real pleasure to read such an intelligently worded page. I even read the parts I wasn't interested in. Now i know I want to read more of your work. Thank you for sharing. Excellent job!