I talk about TV shows a lot with my friend Marty. If he says I should check out a TV show, I check it out, and vice versa. Somewhere along the line through the years, we started ranking the shows that we both watched. It provided us with an easy gauge for how we felt about certain shows. Marty has other responsibilities now- his infant daughter, for instance- and those conversations almost never happen far less frequently. But I never really stopped ranking TV shows in my head. Call it the great, big TV scoreboard. Just for grins, this is how I rank all of my favorite cable TV dramas. Understand that a lot of this stuff changes almost weekly.
Comedies are excluded because comedy and drama are apples and oranges. And of course, before beginning, this is, like, just my opinion, man.
The Bottom Tier
The bottom tier is full of shows that I watch, but I know that I shouldn’t. Or I’m at least aware that it’s occasionally bad TV, even if I enjoy it. These shows are a lot like drinking 10 shots of tequila. It’s often a regrettable experience, but I’ll be damned if it’s not fun at times.
12. True Blood
After the 2011 season of True Blood, I was so repulsed by how awful it had become that I swore I’d never watch it again. And then 2012 rolled around. It was Sunday and I had nothing better to do. And there, sitting in front of me, was an episode of True Blood. And I watched it, and then I watched the next week, and I eventually saw the whole season. It’s horrible TV for giant chunks of the individual seasons, full of tawdry plots, absurd additions to the show (werepanthers? really?!?!), and terrible writing. But… I find myself watching anyway. If I were to stop watching just one show on this list, True Blood would be the obvious choice.
11. American Horror Story
I didn’t even watch season one. But Marty said I should check it out, if for no other reason than it was gothic horror. In fact, he went out of his way to sell it as a very, very flawed show, but one that he enjoyed anyway. I’m halfway through season two (I still haven’t bothered with season one yet), and he sold it just right. It’s ridiculous, full of sexy sex sex sexy sexety sex sex sexy sex to drive every single plot point. But it does indeed have a neat gothic horror vibe. Is it good? Not by a long shot. Although it’s not as bad as True Blood.
People love this show, and I understand the attraction. The concept is a grand slam- a serial killer who cleans the garbage out of society. It feeds right into the American vigilante attitude. Dexter is a really great character. The only reason this show falls into the bottom tier is the miserable writing, which is lazy beyond words. It’s embarrassing. How many times must we see Dexter acquire a new serial killer buddy? How many times does he magically find his way out of a jam in a way that suspends all reasonable belief? How many times has his regular life been threatened by his moonlighting? How many times must Debra Morgan fall in love with a murderer? Any one of these themes is fine, even very good, when executed once. But they’ve all been used many times. I still watch it, I still love it, I still look forward to it each and every week, and I’ll see it through to the end. But I do so in spite of the lazy writing.
The Middle Tier
The middle tier is populated with a lot of very good shows. At various points in time for every one of these shows, I’ve wanted to put them in the top tier. But they’re just flawed enough that I can’t give them the loftiest of lofty ratings. Make no mistake, I think very highly of all of these.
9. Six Feet Under
Six Feet Under never resonated with me the way it did with a lot of people I know, not from episode to episode. However, there was an awful lot to like. The show’s weekly cold open was such a tremendously unique way to pull viewers into each episode. The family’s exploits were very satisfying and it was easy to find yourself claiming multiple characters as favorites. I feel like my opinion of the show is hurt, at least partially, by Alan Ball’s later work on True Blood, which of course isn’t fair to Six Feet Under at all. And admittedly, it didn’t resonate with me the same way other shows have. That’s why it’s here instead of further on up the ladder.
8. The Walking Dead
I’m a relative newcomer to The Walking Dead. I watched season one and wasn’t exactly impressed. Then I heard the news that they’d parted ways with Frank Darabont. Darabont’s involvment was one of the few reasons I wanted to continue to watch the show. So I abandoned it when he left. But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. I gave up on the show after one season while Marty kept watching. He told me I should give season two a chance. It took me a full year after season two debuted, but I finally got around to it. As it turns out, I enjoyed season two a ton. The barn moment in the seventh episode dropped my jaw and I was hooked from that point on. I’m still sort of waffling on season three. I think the problem is that they rifle through so many characters that by the time you identify with any of them, they’re gone and you have to learn to identify with other, lesser-known characters. Still, of all the TV shows on this list, this is the one with the most potential to rise depending how future seasons play out.
Much like The Walking Dead, I gobbled up an entire season of Justified and wasn’t sure if I should continue. I plugged on. Halfway through season two, I still had my doubts. It felt like a slightly edgy police procedural lacking in character development. But then the show found Mags Bennett and stopped relying exclusively on Raylan Givens’ aw-shucksy morality. It’s still basically the bastard child of The Dukes of Hazzard and CSI, but it’s the absolute best combination of those two things you could ever find because it started to move characters forward. Timothy Olyphant owns the role of Raylan, and the supporting cast is stellar. Neal McDonough, in particular, is amazing as Robert Quarles.
6. Mad Men
I have an odd relationship with Mad Men. I admire a lot of aspects of the show. Don Draper is the epitome of cool; the 1960s motif is right up my alley; the show’s creators channel the era flawlessly; the show is dripping with subtle intelligence; and few shows treat their female characters with as much thoughtful respect as Mad Men, presenting the female perspective of the 1960s in a refreshingly honest way. The women on the show have real and realistic stories to tell. The big “but” here is that the writers have spent so much of the show lapsing into sloppy plotlines. Don Draper’s Double Super Secret Past Life™ drove me insane. It’s something you’d find in a daytime soap opera, not in a premium cable drama. And the question “What should we do with this character that we haven’t mentioned much lately?” is too often answered with “Adultery!!!,” which is just lazy. Fortunately, the show is separating from that a little bit and I feel like the most recent season was the best yet. I don’t think it’s been nearly as good as the acclaim that it gets, but it’s still damned good.
5. Boardwalk Empire
This is where personal preference rears its ugly head. If you like mob history at all, then you have to love Boardwalk Empire. The group that makes the show- executive producer Martin Scorsese and Sopranos writer Terence Winter- know a hell of a lot about the entertaining aspect of organized crime. When viewed on the whole (all 13 episodes), each season plays out like a feature-length mafia movie, with clearly defined structure. My concession here is that season 2 lagged a bit for my tastes. But there’s no denying that it’s top-quality TV.
The Top Tier
I won’t go so far as to say that all of these shows are flawless. But their flaws are minor- the positives are so amazing as to render the negatives completely moot. Barring something odd or catastrophic, I’ll go to bat for these shows for as long as people are willing to talk about them.
4. Game of Thrones
If you’ve seen the first season, then you know it’s the ballsiest show on TV, crawling with “oh shit!” moments. And therein lies the charm with Game of Thrones- as viewers, we have absolutely no clue what will happen next. The fact that nothing is sacred creates TV magic. Few shows are as effective at stitching together so many character stories in a compelling way. It’d be so easy to lose interest in any of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, but it never happens because the writers keep audiences engaged with all of them. I’m far from a fantasy nerd and yet, here I am singing the praises of the show. They’ve only made two seasons so far. As such, my opinion may change as it progresses. It’s the opposite of The Walking Dead- it has the loftiest position with the most room to fall.
3. The Wire
The ultimate testament to The Wire is that you could ask 20 Wire-watchers who their favorite character was, and you could get 20 different answers. My favorite was Bunk Moreland, but I digress. There was so much that made The Wire special. It was clearly a labor of love for creator David Simon, who took his own reality and made it into something greater. The Wire presented the totality of a very specific subject (the drug trade in Baltimore), covering every single nook and cranny. It reached teachers, lawyers, politicians, drug dealers, bandits (Omar’s comin’!), police, the FBI, community activists and organizers… The whole thing leaves you breathless. I won’t deny that The Wire fumbled on the goal line with a goofy season 5 based around McNulty’s lie. But so many amazing things had been accomplished before that point that all is forgiven.
2. The Sopranos
Combine the subtle intelligence of Mad Men with the army of compelling characters in The Wire, and throw in my devotion to almost everything mafia. That was The Sopranos. Tony Soprano and most of the show’s characters were classic anti-heroes. They were rotten to the core, yet we all loved them for their chicanery. The show was a Swiss army knife, capable at any given moment of jaw-dropping violence, W-era metaphor, or hilarious stupidity. It’s one of two shows on this list in which I’ve felt compelled to re-watch all of the episodes. And unfortunately, it’s the re-watches that have robbed it of the top slot. I feel that the final few seasons don’t hold up nearly as well as the first four or five. Using a character like Vito as the launching point for the final character arc of one of TV’s greatest characters was an unfitting way for the show to end. That’s not to say that those weren’t solid seasons. But they weigh the series down enough that it comes in at number two for me, just below…
1. Breaking Bad
And then there was one. Nothing tops Breaking Bad. Nothing even comes close. Screenwriting books should be written about the way Vince Gilligan and crew have treated their characters. No character avoids reality, and that’s most importantly true about Walter White, the show’s protagonist. Everything that might seem implausible is covered months and years in advance, when some tiny part of their scripts make the whole thing seem completely reasonable. The economy of the show is breath-taking. Not an ounce of screen time is wasted. Everything is done for a reason, and everything comes back in a meaningful way. The acting is brilliant, the episodes are riddled with dark humor, and nothing on TV right now is as tense as Breaking Bad‘s best moments. When describing the top tier, I said that these shows weren’t flawless, and yet I can’t find a single flaw in Breaking Bad. And that’s why it’s #1.
There’s a fourth category- the shows that were cancelled after only a few seasons. It’s almost impossible to compare them to the rest of the list because there’s no telling how well they may have done with further seasons. Strangely enough, I feel the same way about all three shows in this category. I thought they were great and I would’ve loved to see where they were headed. If they were still active and there were more episodes coming, I’d place all three towards the top of the middle tier.
The amazing thing about Rome is that, if you know your history, you knew exactly how everything would play out. Somehow, that was never a hinderance. It still managed to find a way to fascinate viewers every week by bringing iconic historical figures to life. Using Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus as the R2D2 and C3PO of the universe- two minor characters who held the whole show together- was brilliant.
Carnivale was a delicious combination of the surreal, the supernatural, and the apocalyptic, set amidst the backdrop of Depression-era desperation. The show takes an episode or four to really hit its stride, but it’s a runaway train once it does. Too bad HBO knocked it off the tracks. Of these three “incomplete” shows, Carnivale is the one I most wish had been allowed to continue.
I enjoyed the tar out of Deadwood, although it’s not hard to see why it couldn’t find an audience. Showrunner David Milch infused his semi-historical look at Deadwood, South Dakota with a Shakespearean flair, which is a bold, potentially alienating move. Obviously, I didn’t have any problem with it. In fact, I thought that was part of what made it great, even if it did go a little overboard sometimes. The saddest part of the cancellation of Deadwood is that it ended my dreams of seeing a spinoff sitcom about the highjinx of Wu and Al.