Almost a year ago to the day (ok, within 2 weeks), I wrote about my weird obsession with ranking TV shows. It’s a side effect of the discussions I have with my friend, Marty. A lot has changed in the last year. Some shows have taken a step forward, I’ve become familiar with others, and some shows have taken horrible steps into the abyss. It’s time to update the Great Big TV Scoreboard.
As you may recall from last year, this is all about the premium cable drama. Comedies and network shows are excluded.
Off the Cliff
I finally gave up on True Blood, and I should have done so a few seasons sooner than I actually did. It came in at #12 last year, but I feel like it’s almost an insult to even include it with the other shows on this list.
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.
Sweet chocolate Jesus, what a horrible ending for this show. Without the first four seasons, I’d have it in the same category as True Blood- falling off the cliff. There’s only so much goodwill that those first four seasons can buy and I assure you that it’s not enough to justify ending your character arc with a sharknado and a lumberjack job. The signs were all there for us viewers. It had been getting progressively worse and worse, but the hope was that Showtime had one more bullet in the chamber. They did not. If you gave up on the show before it ended and want to know how everything wrapped up, it was a lot like this.
11. The Walking Dead
I almost feel guilty for having The Walking Dead this low. It’s not that it’s inherently awful in the way that Dexter was at the end. It’s just that we’re 3.5 years into the show, as of this writing, and I still don’t give a good goddamn about any of the characters. If you’re a fan of the show- not a zombie cultist who will watch the show at all costs, but just a normal fan- ask yourself one question. Would you actually care if any of the characters died? There are two or three that might (MIGHT) make me a little disappointed, and even that’s a stretch. By and large, the show might as well be called Zombie Targets. The action is fun and every few episodes, I feel like they’re taking a turn for the better with character development… until they fumble it almost immediately. The banishment of a certain major character this season is a perfect summation of what’s wrong with the show. That character (you all know who I’m talking about) had just done something really wild, really interesting, really cool in a way that could establish several character’s motivations, and then he/she was gone within 2 episodes. And that particular character isn’t the only one. The show simply doesn’t understand how to create and nurse tension, introducing it and then blowing it up almost immediately time and again. It’s the fatal flaw.
The Middle Tier
The middle tier is populated with a lot of very good shows. At various points in time for most 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.
10. American Horror Story
Last year, I identified The Walking Dead- ironically- as the show with the most potential to climb the list. This year’s potential riser is American Horror Story. Season 2 was fun, if far from great. Season 3 has been a whole barrel full of fun so far. There’s no doubt that it dabbles in the bizarre, and takes some insane risks. But I admire the show for embracing exactly what it is- a supersexed version of the supernatural that doesn’t neuter itself. And for what it is, the writing is good. The people who make American Horror Story could easily punt, relying on their sex appeal and army of supernatural beings to create just another dumbass soap opera. But they do better than that quite frequently. The street cred of the cast provides a hell of an anchor. Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, and Danny Huston are assets that most of these shows don’t have, and they make shaky plotlines work when they otherwise would not.
9. Boardwalk Empire
This show, combined with #8, proves that both Terrence Winter and Matthew Weiner were a tremendous team on The Sopranos and also that they desperately needed what the other provided to truly succeed. I want to like Boardwalk more than I do. I really do. But it’s gotten so dry in the last few seasons. Since I last made this list, BWE has had 1.5 seasons. Every time it seems to pick up steam, it gets bogged down in politics or boring personal lives. It’s at its best when they focus on the classic gangsters- Capone, Luciano, Lansky, Torrio, Masseria, and Siegel (speaking of which, where is Siegel?). I’m even willing to concede that season 3 had its moments thanks to Gyp Rosetti. But the most recently completed season was a drag until the finale. The early sizzle of the show is gone and its getting progressively worse. Boardwalk Empire is the five-tool baseball player with tantalizing star potential and subpar production. It pains me to compare it to, say, the J.D. Drews of the world, but there you have it.
8. Mad Men
“HEY, EVERYONE! DID YOU SEE WHAT WE JUST DID? ISN’T IT SOOOOO SMART?” seems to be the standard modus operandi of Mad Men. And a lot of what they do with their characters IS smart. But it’s a tawdry soap opera at heart. I’ve been waiting for it to break away from that mould for years. It succeeded very briefly in seasons 4 and 5, but season 6 saw the show revert back to its old horrible habits. Characters are getting boring? Throw in some adultery. Problem solved. I know its every critic’s darling, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out why. The characters have barely moved the needle in their own lives. It’s stale. The sleek, dazzling veneer of the 1960s is now several years old to us viewers and the commentary lacks the teeth that it once had. Apparently, Mad Men‘s famed “wheel” was a gerbil wheel, we’re the gerbil, and we’re running over the same scenery again and again. (ok, apologies… that was a stretch)
7. The Shield
Here’s the first (and I guess only) new show on the list. When the #1 show on this list concluded, I needed my very own methadone to wean me off of the addiction. The Shield has admirably filled that role thus far. For context, I’m done with six of the seven seasons. Even using the word “gritty” is a cliché; actually making something “gritty” is triply so. But I can’t think of a single show that does it better than The Shield. Similarly, TV shows have probably reached the saturation point for anti-heroes. But Vic Mackey takes it to a whole other level, a darker place where even Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Don Draper don’t reside. It’s because Mackey is completely unlikable. There is no justification whatsoever for his actions. He is relentlessly bad, and wholly unapologetic about it. And that’s refreshing, believe it or not. Nobody is trying to convince me that I should like him despite his criminal activity and that’s so very different from most anything I’ve seen. The show itself has had its high points- the Glenn Close season was spectacular- and Michael Chiklis is amazing in the role. Ultimately, it’s short-circuited by a few bad actors and Mackey’s absurd ability to constantly slip out of administrative danger. Still, it’s a very good show, and was a heck of a forerunner in some ways for every show at the top of this list.
6. Six Feet Under
The longer some of these other shows go into their respective runs on TV, the more I’m coming to appreciate Six Feet Under. It was consistently a very good show and they knew when to cut themselves off. And, of course, they knew HOW to cut themselves off, as well, with arguably the best series finale ever made.
Justified just keeps getting better and better. At one point, I said that Justified was the best possible combination of CSI and The Dukes of Hazzard. That may have been true during seasons 1 and parts of 2, but it has since moved well beyond that. The characters are all fully developed, and Raylan constantly gives audiences just the right dose of aw-shucksiness. Each season has a solid plan that the writers execute, buttressed by a brilliant supporting cast. Guest spots from Patton Oswalt and Jim Beaver last season, for instance, were particularly inspired. The anchor of the show is the back and forth between Raylan and his perfect foil, Boyd Crowder. In fact, I dare you to find a more perfect set of foils on TV. You can’t. I’m not sure Justified can go much higher on this list, but it’s a testament to the talents involved that it’s in the ballpark with numbers 1 through 4.
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
Speaking of shows that keep getting better and better, Game of Thrones doled out a heaping helping of amazing entertainment last season. I still haven’t gotten “The Rains of Castamere” out of my head (ok, they kind of hammered it home all year, but whatever- that’s insignificant). The Rains of Castamere episode is an all-timer and further emphasizes a huge part of what I love about the show- nobody is safe. If you want character development, think back to where Jaime Lannister was two seasons ago. Think of where Daenerys began. Or Jon Snow and the trials by fire that he’s had to endure. Other than Hodor, there isn’t a single character that hasn’t undergone a really interesting arc. And if you want story, GoT has it in buckets, often as a slow burn with a tremendous payoff. As of right now, it’s at #4 but it’s the one show on TV right now that can crack my top three depending on how the series plays out.
3. The Sopranos
It’s probably unfair, since there hasn’t been an episode of either The Sopranos or The Wire for over 5 years now, but I think I’ve finally decided that The Wire was better. Again, it comes back to knowing when to end the series. The Sopranos lumbered and lurched at the end, staying on for too long and not having an escape plan. Hey, I get it. Everyone wants a good party to last forever. But nobody wants to be there at 3 am when people are puking in the bushes and the ugliest people there are taking off each other’s clothes in the living room. Vito Spatafore was the bush-puker in The Sopranos. It had done so well for so long, and had built Tony’s potential fall from grace up brilliantly. And then suddenly, the entire series hinged on a gay mobster who was a completely insignificant character for more than half of the show’s run. It was sloppy in what was otherwise perfect.
2. The Wire
There’s nothing that’s changed in my opinion of The Wire. That is to say, The Wire is still the same amazing show that I thought it was 12 months ago. Any show that unseats it from this slot has its work cut out.
1. Breaking Bad
For the record, I realize this is the least surprising reveal in the world- that I’d have Breaking Bad in the #1 slot. Hell, it was #1 on this list last year, and all they did was polish the crown. The final eight episodes of the series presented one gut punch episode after another, leading in a fever pitch all the way up to the instant classic episode Ozymandias. It was breathtaking. Breaking Bad didn’t just take the top slot here. It dropped the mic on the capacity for quality of premium cable TV.
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. They are Rome, Carnivale, and Deadwood. Find my thoughts on those shows here.