I like watching TV and I watch quite a lot of it. I decided to only include series which have finished in this list. This means some of the best TV I have seen has not been included. It is also only fictional series because I did not really want to have to compare Dexter to BBC News 24. I also have not seen all of BBC News 24 (I will get to it on catch-up). I have also excluded mini-series or single dramas.
So the likes of The Americans and Black Mirror are not included as I had to draw a line somewhere. For instance, do I include the two seasons of The Good Place, a series I think is thematically and visually ground-breaking? Is it fair to compare that with twelve seasons of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia? So…for better or for worse, those are my criteria.
However, not everybody is going to like every TV series. People read books, watch TV and watch films for different reasons. For instance, if I go to the cinema, it’s usually to watch an action flick. Anything else, I just see as a waste of money.
So I’ve included reasons you might like it and reasons you might not.
Without further ado….
1999-2004, 5 seasons, 110 episodes
Starting with controversy…Buffy The Vampire Slayer is more original than Angel. Buffy is more important in terms of TV history. Buffy broke more boundaries, has had greater cultural influence and is more fondly remembered.
I still like Angel better.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Buffy The Vampire Slayer but if forced to rewatch one, I’d pick Angel every time. The first show I watched as a proper box set (on VHS, no less), its exploration of darkness and moral ambiguity was something I had never seen before on TV. Sure, Buffy touches on and explores these concepts; it is Angel‘s raison d’être.
The show has an entire storyline (apparently known as “beige Angel”) where Angel having a soul does not prevent him from doing at best the morally questionable and at worst the morally inexcusable, despite the premise of the show and the character being his desire to seek redemption for his past transgressions as a vampire. Though S1 is largely “monster-of-the-week”, S2-4 are largely parts of wider story arcs. Its cancellation means the second half of S5 is an almost amusingly abbreviated albeit unfitting finale.
Angel S1 runs concurrently with Buffy the Vampire Slayer S4. The show takes certainties within the Buffyverse – the soul guaranteeing good, its absence guaranteeing evil, the incontrovertible truth of ancient texts – and either bends or breaks them. Since Buffy The Vampire Slayer starts off as a show about teenagers, it is perhaps inevitable that when the Scooby gang become young adults, the tone of show felt strange and, at times, alien.
Possibly, the most striking change is that of Wesley, a supporting character and all-round wimp in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. His transformation over the course of the show is a slow burn made all the more remarkable as each episode-to-episode adjustment is rather unremarkable. It is only in hindsight one can see how much happens to him.
The only teenage character when Angel starts is Cordelia (also in Buffy). The show is undoubtedly about adults and benefits from being set in Los Angeles. The motif of darkness is emphasised by taking place largely at night in ropey-looking parts of the city. These differences make for a less iconic but to my mind more compelling watch than its predecessor.
Why to watch it: the snappy Whedon dialogue of Buffy with darker and more adult themes.
Why NOT to watch it: the annoying Whedon dialogue of Buffy with darker and more adult themes.
9. Peep Show
2003-2015, 9 series, 54 episodes
So…this is a bit different to the above. I really, really struggled with how I fit the comedy into here. How do you compare Peep Show to Angel?
The conceit of the series is relatively simple. All camera shots are taken from the point-of-view of a person in the show. from main characters to random passers-by. The two main characters are Mark and Jeremy. Mark has a stable job at an insurance company whilst Jeremy is a layabout who lives in Mark’s apartment whilst constantly borrowing money.
Neither are particularly well-adjusted. Their inability to form stable relationships whilst placing on a pedestal those whom they love or lust after leads to actions which are both pathetic and petty as they try and dig themselves out of holes they are in largely because they are pathetic and petty.
From trying to dispose of a dead dog to escaping to KFC whilst ostensibly being a birth partner, the slow but sure build not so much in plot but in the ever-increasing lengths to which the two go due to their insecurities means the series consistently surprises. Both are simultaneously terrible people and yet weirdly relatable characters. The wider cast of supporting characters – the stand-out being Jeremy’s addict-friend Super Hans – are varied, whilst equally morally ambigious and immature.
The series never tries to sell an overarching idea. There is no grand finale. To its credit, it is just two reasonably shabby but very human, human beings trying to “adult” and never really living up to societal, anybody else’s or even their own expectations.
Why to watch it: the large cast of selfish yet relatable characters finding themselves in increasingly ridiculous situations through their own patheticness is hilarious.
Why NOT to watch it: the large cast of selfish yet relatable characters finding themselves in increasingly ridiculous situations through their own patheticness is cringeworthy and far too immature to be funny.
8. House Of Cards
1990-1995, 3 series, 12 episodes
I tried watching the American House Of Cards – it is rubbish. Sorry. The British version is shorter, sharper and simply gets to the heart of the matter without any unnecessary posturing.
The monologues which break the fourth wall in the US version are essentially glorified plot exposition. They are there to explain things to viewers. The British monologues achieve more; they make you complicit. Frank Underwood is trying to tell you what he is doing. Francis Urquhart convinces you that it is the right thing to do.
Although Francis Urquhart’s rise in the first series is the best of the three, the whole thing is still worth watching. This is not a series about moral ambiguity so much as how much amorality one can get away with.
And if you’re feeling queasy about watching allegedly rapey Kevin Spacey, remember that this is a better and shorter series.
(Technically, House of Cards is one series followed by sequels, To Play The King and The Final Cut. Were this series released today, I think this would all be considered part of one show so that is what I have done too.)
Why to watch it: Machiavelli if he was a Conservative in a parallel post-Thatcher 1990s UK.
Why NOT to watch it: you liked the American one and something subtler is not for you. Or you do not really want to watch some creepy old British dude trying to get a better job in politics; is that not just real life?
2001-2010, 9 seasons, 182 episodes
Scrubs has the weird privilege (if that is the word) of having the worst final season of a good television show. Once described as “half as long as ER and twice as funny” (not that I can actually find a reference for that), when one first watches it, the intentionally jarring juxtaposition of humour and emotion takes a little getting used to.
There are a plethora of medical dramas out there on both sides of the pond. With the exception of the little-known mid-1990s UK series Cardiac Arrest, the general tedium of being a junior doctor is best portrayed by Scrubs. Since it is a comedy, it has less of an obligation to dramatise medicine. Further, it portrays pretty well, how the nature of fear changes with seniority from one of simply not knowing what you are doing to the known unknown that medicine is so uncertain.
It does not shy away from the horror of medicine. Patients die. People screw-up. Relationships are strained. The law is always around the corner. And healthcare breaks doctors and nurses as often as it fails its patients. Whilst the medicine itself may not be particularly accurate, the bit that matters for a TV show – the characters – feel real enough that as a junior doctor, it is (aside from Cardiac Arrest) the only show worth watching about my job.
In the final season, Scrubs attempted to add a series of new characters and set it in a medical school. It makes no sense. It is very very bad. It is not funny. It pisses on the legacy of the finale of season 8 and achieves nothing.
So watch the series but avoid the abomination of S9.
Why to watch it: a unique mix of off-the-wall humour with a nuance and emotional depth unexpected in a wacky comedy.
Why NOT to watch it: you hate the whole “Zach Braff is weird” thing. We get it. You are weird. How have they made 9 seasons of this?
6. Battlestar Galactica
2004-09, 4 seasons, 76 episodes
As a teenager, too old to be watching kids’ TV, at 6pm every weekday on BBC Two, there were shows that were just right for me. A double-bill of The Simpsons most days followed by a mixture of Star Trek, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Heartbreak High and the original Battlestar Galactica (1979). They also showed Buck Rogers in the 25th Century but that was where I drew the line of awfulness.
Battlestar Galactica was not much better. The acting was bad. The dialogue was bad. The effects were bad (even for the 70s). Since it was a kids’ show, it was weirdly light-hearted given the premise was that 12 planets’ worth of humans had been annihilated by sentient robots they had created now led by a human whilst the crew of Battlestar Galactica were the species’ only surviving members.
When in 2003, I found out they were planning a mini-series, my expectations were very, very low. I was not only astonished when I watched it, I could not fathom how, whilst looking at the same theme, two different sets of writers (albeit with a handful of crossover) had managed to create such different visions in tone and scope.
The series explores everything. The breaking point of those in desperation and its effect on one’s moral compass. The nature of humanity and what it is to be human. The importance of a neutral judicial process. Why democracies matter. And perhaps least surprisingly of all in a series about sentient robots which look like humans, the blurred line between artificial and biological intelligence. It was, bizarrely, a series that made me understand suicide bombing not simply on a theoretical but on an emotional level too.
Even if you dislike spaceships and science-fiction, this series has so much to offer. Although sci-fi geeks love it, I know a number of folks who could not care less about lasers and faster-than-light travel who also hold this show in the highest regard.
Why to watch it: a groundbreaking show that raised the bar for how you build story arcs and characters, particularly in the world of sci-fi on TV, much of which had been notoriously bad. Not being a sci-fi fan should be no barrier to entry.
Why NOT to watch it: since 2004, the standard of television across the board has risen dramatically. Whilst it is still very good, much of the mini-series and the first season is not as well put together as it seemed at the time. So don’t get your hopes up too much.
5. Yes Minister/Yes, Prime Minster
1980-84/1986-88, 3/2 series, 22/16 episodes (38 total)
I watched this decades after it was originally shown. One would think that the jokes would be outdated or the references lost. And yet the masterful portrayals of minister (later Prime Minister) Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington) and his senior civil servant Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne) conveyed the constant friction between political goals, and the civil service’s inertia to change and its desire to maintain stability.
Neither can be said to necessarily be working for the greater good even if both Hacker and Appleby both like to think they are. Given the current turmoil within British politics, this series perhaps provides some insight into how incompetent politicians make it to the top.
Having never worked in Parliament or Whitehall, I cannot comment on how accurate a portrayal of the civil service this is. I do know that strange traditions persist in the civil service and that like any large organisation, inertia against positive change is an issue not just for politicians but for many civil servants themselves.
But even if you do not care about politics or current affairs, this show is still very entertaining. In the end, it has the distinct advantage that it has a lot of very good jokes.
(I have ignored the 2013 series and some random two-minute sketch because, well, I only found out they existed recently, I cannot be bothered to rewrite this list and I am not sure how much they count as “canon”.)
Why to watch it: astonishing that a show could write so many jokes and so much satire that still remains relevant today, especially given how easy it is for political comedy to date.
Why NOT to watch it: jokes about privileged rich old white men taking advantage of the stupidity of other privileged rich old white men for the entertainment of an audience of probably mostly privileged rich old white men.
4. The West Wing
1999-2006, 7 seasons, 156 episodes
“Words when spoken out loud for the sake of performance are music. They have rhythm and pitch and timbre and volume. These are the properties of music and music has the ability to find us and move us and lift us up in ways that literal meaning can’t.”
The West Wing S3E06 (War Crimes)
Few write like Aaron Sorkin. He has all but admitted he has written for the likes Barack Obama and Steven Jobs, among the finest orators of recent years, and this is Sorkin’s magnum opus. His ability to write monologues and dialogue that move from funny to sharp to incisive to mind-bogglingly moving is second-to-none. It takes some gall to have a character refer to the brilliance of a speech made by another character – essentially Aaron Sorkin praising himself – and have it remain convincing.
It conveyed a positive vision of politics where most politicians, most of the time are genuinely trying to be good public servants. It largely sacrifices creating personal backstories to emphasise everything which happens in the White House. One might assume this detracts from the depth of the characters; instead it adds to the importance of what they do and conveys the all-encompassing chaos of the more than full-time job of White House staffers.
When Sorkin leaves at the end of S4, the tone changes and although in S5 the writers spend much time finding their voice to the detriment of the show (though it is still by no stretch bad), by S6 they find a new rhythm telling the story of an election in what effectively becomes a one-and-a-half season arc.
The West Wing is a
very unique experience and a n extremely historic show (sorry, in-jokes for once you watch it). If Battlestar Galactica raised the bar for science-fiction, this show and its 4 Emmys raised the bar for TV across the board.
Why watch it: wonderful dialogue and oratory, excellent story-telling and fits an ideal of what politics in so many ways ought to be.
Why NOT watch it: the dialogue is…nobody speaks like that! Why are they speaking like that? The hypercompetence of the characters is on occasion such a stretch it pushes the suspense of disbelief. Also, I know it was 20 years but that is a lot of low-key sexism and few good female characters, particularly during the Sorkin years (learn to write women, man!).
3. The Wire
2002-2008, 5 seasons, 60 episodes
I can hear it now. All the people reading this, unclear why The Wire is not number one. And their arguments are not without merit.
Largely a commercial flop when originally released, The Wire slowly built up sales towards the end of its run and after it had finished, once DVD box sets became cheaper and more common. It still sits at the top of many lists of Best Ever TV Show.
It was a breakthrough show for a number of actors including, oddly, two British actors Dominic West and Idris Elba who play a Baltimore cop and drug kingpin respectively. Elba received many plaudits for his American accent with many acknowledging West as having done an accent as well.
Ostensibly, it is a cop show where in S1, the police are after a drug kingpin called Avon Barksdale. Yet this is not goodies and baddies. Over the course of the series, your sympathy and empathy for the police matches that for the gangsters in its ebbs and flows. The same is true as the show explores the unions, secondary school education, local politics and the newspapers, bringing these all together in one very human web of tangled morality.
The creators of the show intended for it to be binge-watched, describing it as a visual novel, an approach which perhaps explains its lack of success with the traditional weekly TV format. Had DVD box sets and streaming been more prevalent at its inception, it perhaps would have gained earlier the commercial and critical success it now enjoys and deserves.
This a show where you have to pay attention. Key plot points can be dropped in as minor asides in dialogue. And unless you happen to be from Baltimore, in can take a little time to “tune in” to the accent and the slang.
Although the first season is the probably the best, the whole series feels at times more like a documentary. Indeed, in one interview with a man from Baltimore, he said he had stopped watching the series because why watch something he lives everyday?
Perhaps this is hyperbole but the exploration of how and why people commit crime, why police commit in acts of brutality, or why politicians lie is second-to-none; this all comes together to explain how institutions fail those they were designed to serve. That the show creators were from Baltimore (a police officer and a journalist) is clear. Its legitimacy is further bolstered by those born and brought up in the city who make up a significant part of the cast.
It is the most innovative show on this list and deserves its place in TV history.
Why watch it: there are no shows like it. Its worst episodes have more depth than entire seasons of some of the best TV shows.
Why NOT watch it: it is a slow, slow, slow burn. More modern shows like Mad Men and The Man In The High Castle are possibly slower but if you watch TV for escapism and light entertainment, this is not the show for you. And frankly, like the bloke I refer to, it can sometimes feel like a commentary rather than a story.
2. The Bridge
2011-2018, 4 Series, 38 episodes
A body is found across the national border on the Øresund bridge connecting Copenhagen, Denmark and Malmö, Sweden. Saga Norén, in a consistently fine performance from Sofia Helin, is a detective with the Malmö police department. She ends up working with Martin Rohde of the Copenhagen police to solve the case.
It is beyond me to diagnose Saga with Asperger’s/autism spectrum disorder though I do know her associations with it have largely been positive. Although it is a source of – I hope sympathetic – humour, the bond between Martin and Saga over the course of the show is clearly frustrating to both of them as it is heart-warming to the viewer.
It might seem strange to put a show which is essentially a bunch of whodunnits above The Wire with all the latter’s innovation and originality. It is an old format, the likes of which one sees in Poirot or Inspector Morse in 1980-1990s dramas, at one time seen as the height of intellectual TV and where eccentric protagonists reveal themselves through their investigations.
Yet The Bridge just does this well, the formula is barely recognisable. Arguably a plot-driven show rather than a character-driven one, to describe it as such is to do it an immense disservice. It does both as well as (almost (see below)) any other show on TV.
Somehow it coalesces perfectly: each episode pushes the overall story yet ends with a brilliant cliffhanger; each series tells a story-long arc about characters which may exist only within that series; but there is the overarching story of Saga and her struggle to find happiness whilst navigating the already difficult task of human relationships without the tools that most of us are given.
It is a story about a weirdo trying to find her place in the world mixed with stories of friends and colleagues and murderers and criminals plus the simple thrill of wanting to know what happens next.
So, The Bridge may not be particularly original in concept. It is a show about a police officer trying to catch a murderer; in that sense it is not as innovative as The Wire. Its innovation, and I think why it stands above The Wire, is that it brings together so many different ideas to tell so many different stories for a denouement that The Wire does not achieve in 60.
It is perhaps unfair given it is not something The Wire is particularly trying to achieve (indeed it is probably trying to do the opposite) but by the end of The Wire you feel you understand more of the failings of Baltimore. By the end of The Bridge you have gone through the trial of trying to make sense of who you are and what your purpose is.
Why watch it: exciting, funny, heartwarming, dark, wonderfully unpredictable with story layered on story layered on story.
Why NOT watch it: you hate the depiction of neurodivergent women on TV (and are thus a terrible person) or you dislike reading subtitles.
1. The Shield
2002-2008, 7 seasons, 88 episodes
When I started watching The Shield, I had little in the way of expectation. I had been told it was a good. It was fairly early on in my Netflix membership. I had a vague recollection of my brothers watching it when I was younger and sort of knew it involved dirty cops.
The series centres around the fictional Farmington district of Los Angeles, its police department and particularly its Strike Team, headed up by Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis). From the get-go Mackey and his fellow team members are dirty cops who break the rules and the law to achieve whatever it is they want to achieve. Their seeming success means though a number of people through the series are suspicious, any investigation is high-stakes and has to be airtight.
Though Mackey is the primary protagonist, the show is an ensemble piece. Every significant character has depth, nuance and very few can be said to be outwardly good or outwardly bad. Some big names – Glenn Close and Forest Whitaker – have long arcs which only heighten the show’s high-stakes plots.
It is at times unclear if the series has one plot made of multiple components or multiple plots which all come together in its finale. Whilst The Bridge manages to tell its story largely through one central character, The Shield tells an equally gripping yarn but through the eyes of multiple characters whose individual actions and reactions ripple out and influence one another.
What is so striking about The Shield and what puts it above all the other series I have seen is the feeling that over seven seasons it has been telling one brilliantly crafted story. Yes, The Wire has myriad interlacing plots but there is no particular need or obligation to bring those strands of story together at the end – part of the message of the show is how little things change.
The Bridge brings together a number of plots together but is largely about one character. The Shield manages to achieve what The Bridge does but with almost all its primary characters and yet has as many different plots as The Wire. The constant jocking for position between Mackey, Claudette Wyms (a detective), Dutch (another detective and her partner), Acaveda (the head of the department, also planning a mayoral bid), and multiple other characters builds towards a dark and climactic finale.
Given that complexity, it is almost astonishing that the show manages to tie up so many loose ends by its finale. I am certain that even if folks do not agree that it is the best show on TV, it certainly has the finest ending of any dramatic television show.
Why watch it: the most complete TV show of the lot, in terms of its combination of character arcs, story arcs and the interlacing of all to bring about wonderful conculsion.
Why NOT watch it: there is one bad episode in the 88 (well, not that bad). It has violence and sexual violence – not one to watch if you are looking for light entertainment. Otherwise…I cannot recommend it enough.
What I left behind
I just never thought it was that good. The A.V. Club published an excellent article which summarises my feelings (The case against Breaking Bad). In short, it is a series about one character; most of the others are surprisingly one-dimensional. Whilst the premise is fascinating, it lacks subtlety and there a large number of frankly dull episodes.
The original series, whilst of historical importance, is strangely paced for today and to be honest, even I struggle to watch it. The Next Generation varies wildly. My favourite – Deep Space Nine – was originally on this list but was beaten to the punch when I remembered House of Cards and Scrubs. I have not seen all of Voyager and Enterprise and have seen Discovery but the less said about all three (in descending order of rubbishness) the better.
Arguably, it gave The Bridge all its ideas but ultimately it has been superseded. The Bridge does what The Killing does but even better. It is absolutely worth watching (and probably before The Bridge) but once I had seen The Bridge, I just felt I could not include it.
The Thick Of It
Once Yes Minister/Yes, Prime Minister was included, I realised that The Thick Of It whilst brilliant just seems so much less subtle. It is very entertaining but it just does not have the longevity of 1980s series.
Often described as the Danish West Wing, I think the description is a little wide of the mark. Part of what made The West Wing fascinating is its exclusion of personal stories to concentrate on politics. Borgen does not do this. Still good, it is not The West Wing.
Miscellaneous ones that do not fit
Dexter is way too variable after its first series. Just watch that. Nip/Tuck is weird though entertaining but I do not know if it is worth the effort really. Rick & Morty is entertaining ridiculous animated comedy but not as good as those in the list. The Good Wife starts slow but goes on to become a topical and fascinating series but lacks the subtlety of the drams included.
Firefly misses out because it never really had the chance to become brilliant (argh!). Babylon 5 has a handful of decent actors but the dialogue, S1 and S5, and even the special effects are atrocious; only worth watching for historical value if you are a big sci-fi fan because the story arc is, to be fair, quite something.
Ongoing series I like
In no particular order – The Americans, Archer, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Bojack Horseman, Goliath, Bosch, The Man In The High Castle, The Good Place…I think that is it.
Watch Bojack Horseman though. It goes from Rick & Morty ridiculousness to some genuinely affecting an incisive drama.
Stuff I have not seen
The Sopranos and Seinfeld did not make the list because I have not seen them.