As a child of the 80s and 90s, I bore witness to the tail end of the so-called Golden Age of broadcast TV, when sitcoms, cop dramas, and (later) reality TV ruled the free airwaves. These shows routinely garnered sky-high ratings at a time when original cable shows were still far inferior in quality and certainly viewership.
But a strange thing happened once the new millennium turned. Some of the most creative minds in television—future pioneers such as David Simon (The Wire), David Chase (The Sopranos), Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men)—started looking beyond the traditional formulaic TV formats and looked to films for inspiration. Instead of creating 24 essentially standalone episodes of a show spread out over 6 months, these and other early pioneers began creating what essentially amounted to 13-hour movies that rewarded careful viewing and attention to detail. And here’s the thing, even the most viewed shows’ ratings paled in comparison to some of the astronomical numbers of broadcast TV’s salad days. And I think TV is all the better for it. Once cable gained traction and writers were able to flee the FCC’s broadcast strictures, I believe a new Golden Age emerged, an age where quality trumps viewership numbers. So without further ado, here is my list of my top 10 TV series since 2000. Ranked. No copping out behind, “No, I can’t rank them,” blah blah blah.
1. The Wire (HBO, 2002 – 2007) – This show turned the cop show formula on its head. An unfiltered look at villainous heroes and heroic villains. Possibly the greatest anti-hero in TV history (Omar Little). Small characters routinely had big moments—a true ensemble cast. Rewarded careful watching. Underrated humor that helped soften some of the harder moments. For my money, I put season 4, which looked at a broken education system and the kids struggling within it, against any season of any show in the history of TV.
2. Mad Men (AMC, 2007 – ) – Started slowly for me, but once it picked up steam, it showed a relentless, almost fastidious devotion to subtlety and detail. Each episode was like a peeling off a few more layers. Some of the best writing you’ll see on any medium. Even if you remove the surrounding stories, I’d watch this show just to see the creative process take shape and how these iconic ad campaigns evolve from kernels of ideas.
3. Six Feet Under – (HBO, 2001 – 2006) – The pilot pulled you down into the dark underbelly, and the ensuing 5 seasons confirmed exactly why you didn’t mind being there. Dark humor (a family-owned funeral home at its center), complex relationships, family dynamics, and a unique cold-open gimmick were just some of the reasons to tune in. Some of the most emotionally wrenching moments I’ve ever experience watching a show. Death literally followed you in every episode, yet the writers infused enough humanity and genuine characters to make it all palatable. And strangely intoxicating.
4. Breaking Bad – (AMC, 2007 – 2013) – The final eight episodes of the two-part final season will run this Summer, but this show has already secured its place in the pantheon. Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of Walter White—an underachieving, cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher turned meth-cooker—is possibly the single greatest acting performance in TV history. Witnessing his slow yet calculated evolution (or devolution) over five seasons is reason enough to tune in. The full experience is a consistent source of tension, a complete mind job at times.
5. Curb Your Enthusiasm – (HBO, 2000 – ) – Imagine an R-rated Seinfeld. No FCC. No filters. No topic is off limits. Uncomfortable moments galore. Absurdity to the nth power. Sublime ensemble cast of gifted actors with a matchless sense of rhythm and comedic timing. A truly quotable water cooler show. Episodes to watch: “Crazy Eyez Killa” and “Palestinian Chicken.”
6. Deadwood (HBO, 2003 – 2006) – At only three seasons, it’s tied for the shortest run on this list, but guess what? I don’t think Deadwood had any throwaway episodes. Al Swearengen, played by Ian McShane, is on the short list of TV history’s greatest badasses; Rasputin of the Old West. Brilliant dialogue and excellent period wardrobe and mannerisms. Much like in The Wire, the setting was also a primary character. Had one of the best TV fights I’ve ever seen.
7. Dexter (Showtime, 2007 – ) – Yes, I know there have been some subpar seasons (3, 5, & 6), but when this show has been on its game, namely in seasons 1, 2, and 4, it’s been a fascinating character study with Michael C. Hall’s title character at its deep dark twisted center. There is strange artificiality in the setting—L.A. unconvincingly posing as South Florida—but the formulaic ‘victim’-in-every-episode somehow worked.
8. Brotherhood (Showtime, 2006 – 2008) – Part Sopranos, part The Wire, this fascinating look at crime and politics in Providence, R.I. was watched by few but lauded by many. As the title suggests, the show revolves around two brothers who outwardly live different lives, but traditional Irish family dynamics and binding guilt ensure that their dark and light paths intersect. Subtle acting and an underrated ensemble cast. Carried less humor than other heavyweight crime shows, which made it tougher to watch at times.
9. Boardwalk Empire (HBO, 2010 – ) – I had my doubts about career character actor Steve Buscemi’s ability to carry a show on his own, but he put those doubts to rest early on. Martin Scorsese directed the pilot and the show has maintained its momentum ever since. Prohibition is a seldom explored era in TV, and creator Terence Winter (another Sopranos writing alum) executes the period flawlessly, including a faithful recreation of the 1920s Atlantic City boardwalk as its crown jewel. May move up further on this list in two or three more seasons.
10. Justified (FX, 2010 – ) – As far as opening theme songs go, no show can match the uniquely paradoxical ‘Gangstagrass’ tune that revs up each episode. Set in fictional Harlan County, Kentucky (but apparently shot in California), this show features regular badass Timothy Olyphant (of Deadwood and Hitman fame) as Raylan Givens, a deputy U.S. Marshall who is reassigned back to his home county after a fugitive capture gone awry. Justified has some of the most well-spoken yet ruthless criminals you’ll ever see—and also some of the dumbest backwards buffoons. Ambiguous characters who hop across sides of the law, crime families who terrorize entire counties, and one flawed, denim-on-denim, ten-gallon-hat-wearing hero looking to foil them. Raylan’s recent moral ambiguity has made the show even better. This one may also move up this list yet.