I have been meaning to write this blog post for a while now, ranking what I consider to be the top 10 TV dramas of all time. First, some caveats: (a) this list is 100% my opinion based on shows that I have watched; I am not trying to be a TV critic here, so there is absolutely NO weight given to how the public perceives a show or how trendy a show might be; (b) I have watched very few TV dramas that took place primarily in the 1990s or earlier, so you’ll see that reflected in the rankings; (c) I am ranking the top 10 in order, and then will have a “Next Best” post later in the week that will touch on shows that, in many cases I really loved, but couldn’t fit into the top 10 and also shows that are new(er) and have shown promise, but they will need to sustain that promise for a few seasons before they come close to cracking the Top 10 or even the Next Best list; (d) this is not intended to be a review/recap of each series – I am going to avoid spoilers and just give a brief thought on each show and why it ranks where it does; and (e) I’m going to include a video clip for each show, most likely a scene that I would consider to be one of the show’s best/most fun scenes. Some of them may contain spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the show and plan to watch it, don’t click on the video!
So, without further ado, I present the Shots of Jame-O Top 10 TV Dramas.
#10: Game of Thrones
This is likely to be the most controversial of the shows that are ranked. Some people would probably have this show ranked in the top 5 no doubt about it. And some refuse to watch a “fantasy” show with dragons. The bottom line is that Game of Thrones is really, really good show that has a chance to be great if it continues to improve. I was firmly in the “won’t watch a dragon show” camp after the first season or two. But there was enough buzz about the show being great that I gave it a shot, and all the great things I had heard were right on the money. I’m not sure I know a single person who started watching GoT (more than a couple episodes) and didn’t enjoy it.
#9: Boardwalk Empire
Boardwalk Empire is another show that I could have left off the top 10 list, but I like it just a touch more than some of the “Next Best”, mostly for the setting (1920’s Atlantic City gangster drama) and the characters/actors/performances. Steve Buscemi is great as the “lead”, but he arguably takes a back seat to some supporting characters throughout each season (including Michael Kenneth Williams aka Omar from “The Wire”). If you were looking for BE to be the next Sopranos, then you probably have been disappointed with it. Now in its final season, Boardwalk Empire has a chance to move up a spot or two if it really sticks the landing.
#8: Friday Night Lights
Friday Night Lights is probably the most out of place show on this list. Not because it is bad or undeserving, but because it is the only show here that could be described as a “family drama”, with virtually no violence or any need for a TV-MA rating. For anyone who has avoided watching FNL because you think it’s a “football show”, you are sorely mistaken. It’s truly a fantastic look at high school football in Texas (and really, high school in general), mostly through the eyes of the head coach’s family. Great, great performances by all the “kids”, and even better by “Coach and Mrs. Coach”, Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton.
There was a time when I thought 24 would be my favorite show of all time (“Jack Bauer” as a name for a cat?). That was during law school when I “caught up” with 24 – and by caught up I mean binge-watched 4 seasons (24 episodes in a season, about 17 hours of running time) in the span of maybe 6-8 months. If 24 had ended after season 5, it would almost definitely be in the top 5 on this list. But it didn’t, and seasons 6-8 were average at best; still fun though, and I watched almost every episode live. 24 returned again this past summer, and while it wasn’t quite up to the standards of seasons 1-5, it was pretty darn great and I was glad to have Jack Bauer in my life again. Hopefully it continues.
#6: The Shield
If Game of Thrones is the most controversial show on the list, then The Shield is likely a close 2nd and probably the most unknown. I recommend The Shield to pretty much everyone I know that is looking for a “new” show to watch, and I use quotes there because the final season of The Shield aired 6 years ago! It was an FX cop drama, and frankly, maybe the best pure cop drama ever (depending on how you classify my #1 show). Just do yourself a favor – if you are looking for a show to catch up on, rent/buy/borrow The Shield, and thank me later.
#5: Mad Men
Mad Men can often be labeled as “boring,” simply because the show doesn’t involve anything that most people would classify as “action.” Mad Men is not boring. It’s great. Set in the 1960s NYC advertising world, and created by former Sopranos staff writer Matthew Weiner, the show has a lot of the same elements as The Sopranos, just without the whackings. Of all the antiheros on TV these days, Don Draper might just be my favorite. The things he does are loathsome, and yet for some reason you root for him every step of the way; most likely because of Jon Hamm’s magnetic presence on screen. I’m going to repeat this principle again later on, but if you give Mad Men a chance, watch at least 4-5 episodes. You can’t judge a show based on 1 or 2 episodes, and too often I hear “I watched the first episode and it just didn’t really interest me.” Mad Men will interest you. I promise.
Another show here that most people I talk to have yet to watch, and what a big mistake that is. I think Deadwood gets overshadowed by the other HBO stalwarts, The Sopranos and The Wire, and unfairly so. This is maybe the most unique show on the list, blending an interesting time period (1800s gold rush) with some of the most vulgar and unique language of any show that has ever aired on TV. Also, Deadwood might be the most violent show on the list, despite not really having a reputation for violence. The two main characters, Al Swearingen (Ian McShane – you might recognize his voice as the voiceover during the British Open telecasts) and Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant – his best role ever) are both incredible and have incredibly combustible tempers that create a fun and thrilling partnership. Deadwood, like all HBO shows, is available on HBOGo, a free service for all HBO subscribers (and allows unlimited “log ins” if you want to borrow someone else’s password). There were only 3 seasons of Deadwood before it was abruptly cancelled. So if you are one of those people who feel overwhelmed starting a new series that has 4, 5, 6 seasons, Deadwood is the show for you.
#3: The Sopranos
It’s kinda crazy to me that a show as amazing as The Sopranos ranks 3rd on my list. I am in the middle of a re-watch right now (starting from episode 1 and continuing through the entire series) with Kait (my wife, who is watching it for the first time), and I am even more blown away by its greatness than I was when I originally watched the series. The Sopranos is so great that no one has even attempted to create another mafia series since. Sure, Boardwalk Empire is generally about the mafia and organized crime, but that is a historical piece with real life Mafiosos created by a guy (Terrance Winter) who wrote for The Sopranos. It has virtually no other similarities. The Sopranos is also likely the one show on this list that has been watched, at least in parts, by the most people. While it may be surprising to see it ranked “only” 3rd, I never (even for a second) considered moving it up. That’s because my top 2 are basically perfect TV shows.
(These last 3 shows need multiple clips each)
#2: Breaking Bad
I know the trendy thing right now would be to put Breaking Bad #1 and call it the greatest TV show ever. And frankly, I couldn’t argue with that assessment. I can’t really think of a single negative thing I could say about this show. Maybe, MAYBE you could say that the first season is a little slow. That it really doesn’t become the Breaking Bad we all know and love until the last episode or two of the first season (you might recall that the first season of Breaking Bad aired during the writer’s strike, and thus it was only 7 episodes long, as opposed to the 13 episodes most of the future seasons had). But that is a minor quibble, and really, every show is slower and a little more boring during the first few episodes while it settles in and finds it voice. Once it found its voice though? Wow. Breaking Bad became a non-stop thrill ride, without a doubt the tensest show on this list (and maybe of all time). And Bryan Cranston as Walter White puts on the performance of a lifetime. Has there ever been a better character on TV? I don’t think so. However, I do think there has been a better show….
#1: The Wire
The Wire is the greatest TV drama, probably TV show in general, of all time. That is my opinion. You can argue with me about it, you can make the case for Breaking Bad or for The Sopranos, but my opinion will stand. I don’t remember how I got into The Wire initially. Most likely it was from reading Alan Sepinwall, TV critic for the website Hitfix and formerly a TV critic for the New Jersey Star Ledger (the newspaper that Tony Soprano famously walks to the end of his driveway to retrieve in so many episodes of The Sopranos). At the time, no one that I regularly discussed TV shows with had seen The Wire. I became so enthralled with it that I bought all the seasons on DVD and immediately began lending them out to friends and family members, hoping that someone else would see the brilliance in this show. Thankfully, almost everyone I loaned the DVDs to enjoyed the show as much as I did. And I would bet that The Wire would rank somewhere in their top 3 TV shows of all-time list as well. Borrow my DVDs, watch on HBOGo, or find the episodes On Demand. Whatever you do, please make it a point to watch The Wire if you have not done so already, so that you can enjoy the decay of the city of Baltimore from the viewpoint of drug dealers, druggies, police officers and politicians alike. I’m almost positive there will never be another show quite like it.
So, what do you think? Did I leave off your favorite show? Did I rank a show too high or too low in your opinion? Be sure to check back sometime over the next week when I break down my “Next Best” list, which includes 10 shows that I really, really liked, but for one reason or another couldn’t crack the top 10.