With the Sopranos final season winding to a close, a friend recently suggested that it has been the best show in the history of television. That’s a bit of a stretch. Sopranos is a great show, but in my mind, not even top five. The argument did get me thinking about what are best shows I’ve ever watched. Pop culture geek that I am, I started making notes on the subway the other night and ranking shows I’ve watched regularly in my lifetime. Which leads to this, my official list of the ten best TV shows ever to hit the screen:
Honorable Mention: Two recent HBO classics and two, forgotten, overlooked comedy gems: Deadwood, Rome, Get a Life, and TV Funhouse. Deadwood and Rome were both superb historical dramas with complex characters, great writing, brutal realism, and incredible acting. With both, it was easy to lose yourself in semi-historical events and believe you were seeing ancient Rome or South Dakota in the 19th century. Titus Pullo, Lucius Vorenus, and Al Swearengen, all real historical figures, were brought to life as fascinating, complex, and memorable characters. Meanwhile, Chris Elliot’s 1990 sitcom, Get a Life and Comedy Central’s TV Funhouse were short-lived, one-season-and-done shows that were brilliant, tragically overlooked comedies. Both comedies were random, surreal, bizarre, and hilarious. The oddball humor of both shows was way too unconventional to ever sustain a wide enough audience to survive. Sadly, I think I was one of about fifty people who watched either show.
10. South Park. Comedy often seems to do a much better job tackling the difficult political and cultural issue of our times than the news media or “serious” drama. South Park might be the best example of this, with foul-mouth grade-schoolers taking on everything from consumerism, religion, political correctness, war, homelessness, drugs, and celebrity culture. South Park pushes the edge of what’s tasteful or appropriate week after week. It’s not easy to do that and be funny at the same time, yet South Park is consistently funny, relevant, and amazingly timely. One recent episode parodied the Terry Schaivo controversy and the release of the Sony PSP in the same week that Schaivo died and the PSP hit the market. I’ll never know how they managed to combine these unrelated topics, within days of being in the news, animate the show, and make it one of their best, funniest episodes. And finally, there may be no better animated character ever than Eric Cartman, the most horrible nine-year-old on the planet.
9. The X-Files. It’s easy to forget that before the show ran out of gas, having gone on for about three too many seasons, X-Files was one of the most original, compelling, and entertaining science fiction shows ever made. Fox and Scully, the believer and the skeptic, made for a fantastic dynamic each week as the two FBI agents explored UFO’s, the paranormal, and supernatural phenomenon. X-Files was well-written, suspenseful, and peppered with enough humor to lighten up the show. For those of us grew up fascinated with UFO’s, the Loch Ness Monster, the Bermuda Triangle, Bigfoot, and countless other paranormal myths, Fox Mulder’s “I Want to Believe” office poster spoke for us. Mulder stood in for us would-be believers and relentlessly sought “the truth,” week after week, even though it always seems just out of his grasp. After the fifth or sixth season, sadly, the endless mysteries and unresolved plot twists began to get too tangled and complex to keep many of us interested. (Lost producers, please take note…). After half a decade, the never-ending teases and hints at the bigger conspiracy storylines stopped being interesting and just became tiresome. And after David Duchovny (Mulder) left the show following the seventh season, the X-Files lost whatever heart and soul that was left. Still, for the first four or five seasons, X-Files was a hell of a good show. Few shows ever had as many “did you just see that?!?” moments as the X-Files. The best two dozen X-Files episodes are still classics that stand the test of time.
8. The Sopranos. While I don’t agree with those who put Sopranos on the highest pantheon of television shows, it was, and is, a classic show. Sopranos was the first truly great HBO show that showed how much better television could be when unshackled by the limitations of network censorship and commercial breaks. In typical HBO fashion, the show delivered complex, multi-layered characters that straddle the notions of good and evil. Taking some of the best elements of Goodfellas, the Godfather films, and Donnie Brasco, Sopranos mixed themes of family, loyalty, and morality to tell a Mafia story that was simultaneously familiar and shocking. In one scene, Tony Soprano is a likable, flawed father with whom we can identify with, in the next, he’s a cruel, calculating sociopath you’d hope to never meet. And that’s always been the brilliance of the show — on one hand, the Sopranos remind us of every day family life and personal challenges, while on the other hand, we see a world that’s cruel, shockingly violent, and governed by a dark, unfamiliar moral code. The audience wants to root for Tony, but he and his “family” don’t make it easy.
7. The Simpsons. Eighteen years on the air and still running, the Simpsons has become a fixture of American pop culture. Creator Matt Groening, whose brilliant Life in Hell comics sparked some of the early concepts for the Simpsons, managed to create a show that rivals any “real” sitcom on television. Before South Park came along, the Simpsons paved the way with rich cartoon humor that poked fun at every facet of American life — politics, religion, work, family life, you name it. There’s almost no facet of modern life that the show hasn’t addressed, parodied, or winked at in an episode. Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie have become iconic characters to a generation of Americans. Although the show’s writers and producers may struggle with new ideas now and then after nearly 400 shows, the Simpsons has been a clever, funny look at American life for nearly two decades. Homerisms have worked their way into our vocabulary. The countless characters that populate Springfield are as familiar to most Americans as anyone who has lived on Sesame Street or Mayberry.
6. Seinfeld. Very few sitcoms deserve to be considered “great.” Rarely does a studio-filmed comedy with canned laugh-tracks elevate to the level of greatness. Most sitcoms are formulaic, predictable, and filled with cookie-cutter characters, recycled plot elements, cheeseball humor, and bad child actors. Some classic sitcoms, like All in the Family, M*A*S*H*, and Cosby, stand out for their innovation and impact on popular culture in their day. But, honestly, how often do you want to watch an old episode of M*A*S*H* or Cosby these days? My bias may be a generational one, but to me, Seinfeld stands out apart from these highly-regarded sitcoms. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David created a show “about nothing” — a post-modern sitcom that emphasized that its characters would abide by unofficial “no hugging, no learning” rules. There was never “a very special episode” of Seinfeld, where the producers would force some heavy-handed theme or issue on its audience. The show was about four self-absorbed, superficial thirty-somethings who lived in New York. And freed from all the typical expectations of what a sitcom should be about, the show delivered episode after episode of great comedy about little, stupid everyday things like people who talk too softly, long waits at restaurants, parking problems, dry cleaners who shrink clothes, bad dates, pants that make swooshing noises, rude salespeople, annoying relatives, and hundreds of other mundane things. Mix in the comedic talents of Seinfeld, Michael Richards, Julia Louise-Dreyfuss, and Jason Alexander, and Seinfeld delivered nine seasons of original, unconventional, and memorable comedy.
5. Star Trek: The Next Generation. Sequels rarely improve upon originals, but when Star Trek: The Next Generation was launched nearly twenty years after the original cult classic Star Trek had been canceled, it was the start of something special. Patrick Stewart, a bald, middle-aged British stage actor, seemed to be an odd choice as the star of a second Trek series, stepping into the shadow of William Shatner’s iconic Captain James T. Kirk. But what made ST:TNG a truly great show is that it took the core ideas and themes of Gene Roddenberry’s original show and made it smarter, better, and much more interesting. The idea to make Patrick’s Captain Jean Luc Picard vastly different than Kirk was a stroke of brilliance. Picard was thoughtful, literate, and disciplined. He could handle himself in a fistfight, but that was rarely his first, second, or third option to solve a problem. And Stewart set the tone for a show that featured vastly superior acting and writing to the original ’60s series. Some of the best episodes were quiet and thoughtful, exploring fascinating ideas of understanding, belief, self-identity, and facing one’s own fears. “Darmok“, “Family,” and “The Inner Light” were all powerful, moving episodes that easily exceeded anything from the original series. At the same time, the show featured some of the most dramatic, exciting sequences in sci-fi history. The final moments of the third season cliff-hanger, “The Best of Both Worlds” remains perhaps the most jaw-dropping moment of television I’ve ever seen. The Star Trek franchise tried three more series after ST:TNG came to a close in 1994, but none of them managed to re-create the balance of great acting, writing, and storytelling that made this show truly classic.
4. Twilight Zone. Although this show originally aired before I was born, as a kid, it was constantly on the air in syndication. And no show sparked my sense of imagination and wonder as a child more than Rod Serling’s classic Twilight Zone. Talking dolls. Aliens. Monsters. Time travel. Alternate dimensions. Angels. Devils. Magic wishes. Evil kids with special powers. It’s probably not fair to describe the show as “science fiction,” since Twilight Zone was more than that. It was a creative, amazingly original series that explored countless “what if” scenarios and possibilities. Twilight Zone used metaphor and symbolism to touch on political and social issues during the 1950’s, when censorship was crushing Hollywood. The show explored ideas of fear, morality, social change, and death though short, gripping 30-minute stories. Rod Serling was also a master of the twist ending. So many episodes led viewers one way for twenty-five minutes, only to shock the audience in the final moments with an unexpected, stunning twist. There’s a reason that more than fifty years after the series was originally aired, marathon showings of the Twilight Zone are still popular on holiday weekends on American television. Serling’s classic show remains timeless, relevant, and thrilling.
3. Monty Python’s Flying Circus. No show has forever altered my sense of humor in the way Monty Python has over the years. I still dream of eavesdropping on a session where these guys came up with some of the ideas they created for this show. The All-England Summarize Proust Competition. Self-defense against fresh fruit. Albatross vendors. News for Parrots. Olympic Hide-and-Seek. I honestly view all five of the original Python cast members — John Cleese, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, and Terry Jones — as geniuses. Those five Brits created a silly, absurd, stream-of-consciousness brand of humor that shattered all conventions for how comedy was supposed to work. They did it all — clever wordplay, physical humor, absurd situations — and mixed it all up in unpredictable episodes that had no real beginning, middle, or end. Sketches were tied together through surreal cartoons by Terry Gilliam or random connections that came out of nowhere. Monty Python was to comedy what the Beatles were to pop music. They changed the rules and did things no one had done before.
2. The Wire. Each season of this HBO drama feels like a great novel. The show looks at life in Baltimore, from the highest halls of government to the lowest level of the streets — cops, drug dealers, kids, teachers, blue-collar workers, and politicians. It’s one part cop show, one part urban drama, one part Greek tragedy. Brilliantly written and acted, few shows have ever created so many rich, complex characters and woven such engaging storylines as The Wire. The show does everything that the Sopranos does, but better. Almost all of the characters, even the drug dealers, are interesting and, at some level, sympathetic. There are no absolute good guys or bad guys. Episodes rarely wander into random plot holes or side-stories that go nowhere. From the street corners, to the docks, to city hall, to the public schools, The Wire looks at struggles over power, greed, ambition, and pride. It’s a dark show, but not without moments of triumph, humor, and hope. And The Wire has never been more powerful and moving than in Season Four, which focused on four young boys, struggling to survive the streets and public schools, against a system that seems to fail them each step they take. From the first episode to the nail-biting finale each season, producers David Simon and Edward Burns tell a powerful story that is hard to forget. I’d be quick to call The Wire the best TV show I’ve ever seen, if not for the number one show on my list.
1. Six Feet Under. 99% of the time, television is just entertainment. It exists to amuse you, to take your mind off of other concerns and worries, or to make you laugh. It’s hard to imagine a show that can change the way you view life altogether, but that’s exactly how I see HBO’s Six Feet Under. Following the lives of the Fishers, a family that runs a Los Angeles funeral home, the show explored issues of life, death, and the decisions people make in between. What was always brilliant about Six Feet Under is that unlike Sopranos, or The Wire, or Rome, it was never about big things — wars, turf battles, an FBI investigation. Instead, Six Feet Under was about the little things in every day life — decisions about relationships, career dilemmas, tensions with family — that everyone can relate to. It showed how painful those small things could be to individuals, and how they often added up to larger problems.
With death as an over-arching theme in the show, there was always a looming reminder that life is short, often shorter than we expect. While that would seem like a depressing theme, ultimately Six Feet Under felt like an affirmation for living life as best you could. The closing moments of the fourth season embodied this key idea as David, who had recently experienced a horrible trauma, imagines a conversation with his late father:
Nate Sr.: You hang on to your pain like it means something. Like it’s worth something. Well, let me tell you – it’s not worth shit. Let it go! Infinite possibilities, and all he can do is whine.
David: Well, what am I supposed to do?
Nate Sr.: What do you think? You can do anything you lucky bastard – you’re alive! What’s a little pain compared to that?
David: It can’t be that simple.
Nate Sr.: What if it is?
That quiet exchange captured a simple, key message of the show: life it short, so make it count. Yes, maybe it is that simple.
After the five seasons of the series, you watched various characters struggle with big and small life decisions, and the consequences of those choices. And when it was all over, it was hard not to think about your own life and wonder if it should be something different, something better.
Not bad for a TV show.