I’m not taking this project lightly.
Sad as it may sound, a majority of my adult life has revolved around watching television and ranking which shows are better than others. To make it less sad, television in the 21st century is far different from television in the 20th century. The 2000-2003 zenith of HBO dramas is widely considered the “golden age” of television, but we’re still very much so in a golden age. Television shows now have a distinct advantage over films, as they’re now able to tell developed, serialized stories over a period of time, adding numerous dimensions to characters in a span of more than two hours, increasingly with a budge to match. Whereas we once had to wait months for a film like 28 Days Later to come out, we now have a new episode of The Walking Dead airing every week. While we keep awaiting the next great American novel, we fail to realize that great novels are progressing on television daily, as seen by shows like The Wire and Justified (to namedrop two shows that will be appearing on this list.) With every passing day, there are fewer reasons to go to the cinema and more reasons to buy a DVR.
So today, I start my week-long journey of chronicling my 50 favorite television shows since the day I was born (1988 – present). Obviously, the 2000’s take up the majority of this list, though you will find find at least five shows that enjoyed the prime of their runs in the 90’s (promise). I’m not saying they’re the best shows made during this time period, though I do consider many (especially inside the top 20) completely masterful. This is merely one man’s take on his favorite shows since he’s been born.
Today is 50-41. Tomorrow will be 40-31. Wednesday… well, you get the drill. Top ten will be revealed on Friday.
Let’s start off ten some honorable mentions. Ten shows that landed just outside the bubble, in March Madness terms.
Dexter: the first two seasons (the second especially) are masterful in terms of suspense. The longer the show went on, however, the fewer risks it took, until each season devolved into reset mode.
Dog Bites Man: A fantastic ensemble did Borat before Borat, with Matt Walsh, Andrea Savage, a pre-Hangover Zack Galifianakis and A.D. Miles posing as a fake news team interviewing real people for hilariously ludicrous stories. Galifianakis was apparently relieved when the show ended after only one season because he “hated messing with people.” His gain is our loss.
Enlightened: I’ve just finished (and greatly enjoyed) the first season of this Laura Dern vehicle, and the second season is supposed to be even better. We’ll see how good this HBO comedy becomes, but as of now, it may be a casualty of me doing this list this week.
Fringe: One of those shows I lost track of but always mean to pick back up again. I stopped midway through the second season, when Fringe‘s concept of parallel universes was just starting to get interesting. I hope to see it through eventually.
Futurama: Anyone who says Matt Groening’s “other” series is superior to The Simpsons is out of their mind. But the first few seasons were inspired, and Fry will forever be an underrated, inspired protagonist. “Luck of the Fryish,” “Jurassic Bark,” crying, etc.
Misfits: A wonderful British series about superheroes that doesn’t particularly care it’s about superheroes. Addictively cheeky and full of great twists (and a great turn by Robert Sheehan in the first two seasons as rebel without a cause Nathan Young) make it worth checking out on Hulu.
The O.C.: Though it would be impossible for the later seasons to maintain character motivation, given how the entire series hinged on escalating “oh no they didn’t!” moments, The O.C. (aka the show my girlfriend forced me to get into but I got into) once did soapy, pulp fiction like nothing else at the time.
The Office (U.S.): The American Office should, and has been, commended for taking an already great series and making it its own. It didn’t aim as high as its sister series, but Steve Carrel’s brilliant performance essentially hid all shortcomings. The first few seasons are definitely inspired (and I’ll absolutely recommend seasons four and five to whoever liked the first three), but the last few years have dimmed the glow considerably, especially in lieu of a show that borrowed its format and did it considerably better (Parks and Recreation– yeah, that’ll be on the list.)
Seth Macfarlane Comedies: Though I’ve never particularly been in love with either, the early seasons of Family Guy and the latter seasons of American Dad make me laugh, particularly on rainy afternoons when there’s nothing else on. Common consensus seems to point at Macarlane being a douche. I just think he’s just a pretty funny guy wasting his time on a few pretty funny cartoons (and The Clevealand Show) while busy being really really fucking rich on the side.
Undeclared: Unessential compared to Freaks and Geeks. Completely essential if you just finished Freaks and Geeks and you’re packing your bags for college (as I was when I first watched the series. It scared the fuck out of me.)
On to the top 50.
50. Shark Tank
A reality show about bartering for the equity of an invention hundreds of dudes could have thought of themselves? Boring as fuck, right? Nope. I’d say more, but there is a GIANT essay on Shark Tank coming in a few weeks on this very blog that has cost me a lot of sleep over the past few months. Suffice to say this is one of a very select few reality shows that I’ve become enamored with.
49. Flight of the Conchords
Everyone points to Flight of the Conchords‘ songs as being the highlight of any given episode. I respectfully disagree. Don’t get me wrong: the songs are wonderful, totally worthy of any iPod, including my own. But the deadpan delivery during conversations between stars Jemaine Clement, Bret McKenzie, and Rhys Darby makes the show vastly rewatchable (especially its superior first season). The more casual the stakes were in Flight of the Conchords, the funnier it was.
Sure, the finale of Rubicon never quite synced with its premise- a hard thing to do when your show-runner and primary writer is bumped after the pilot- but AMC’s Rubicon nevertheless overachieved with making us feel right at home with Miles, Grant, Tanya, and the rest of the API squad in a remarkably short span of time. Once The Walking Dead and its massive ratings came along, it was impossible for the show to survive; still, I’d trade any number of zombie fights for one more shot of James Badge Dale thinking.
47. The West Wing
Aaron Sorkin’s masterpiece (if you don’t include the film The Social Network, which actually is Aaron Sorkin’s masterpiece) is probably the most honest depiction of life inside the White House as we’re ever going to get (especially in lieu of House of Cards’ recent attempt to convince us that every ambitious politician must be a MURDERER.) But none of it would work without a cast that could convincingly deliver Sorkin’s manic dialogue, and Rob Lowe, Alison Janney, Bradley Whitford and the rest more than meet the challenge.
Before Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuss, there was Spaced, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s sitcom that deals with issues like what it means to be friends with an aspiring writer, a crazed artist, a clinically lonely landlord, and a disgraced Army commando. As it’s only 14 episodes long, you’d be wise to check it out: it’s just as good as it sounds.
Ricky Gervais doesn’t get enough credit for this one. After The Office, a bonafide masterpiece, Gervais went the opposite route and played a character every bit as insecure as David Brent was attention-starved. As an extra with dreams of being a star, Andy Millman’s arc was realistic from the start, culminating in a heartwarming finale in which he recognized how little sitcom stardom translated to his personal life. It didn’t hurt that each episode enlisted an A-calibur celebrity, ranging from Kate Winslet to Daniel Radcliffe to Chris Martin. An episode in which Ian McKellan casts Andy as the lead in a play in which he has to play a gay man- in front of a group of his old school buddies- is cringe comedy mastered.
I haven’t yet finished Chuck, which seems like a no-no for this list (though I promise it’s the only show on the list I haven’t seen the entirety of), but I’m kind of glad of that. At its peek in season two, Chuck was simply a rollercoaster of fun, a spy show that seemed to make a drinking game of the amount of times a character could say the word “spy” in each episode. It established a world that promised action each week, had a will-they-or-won’t-they romance you actually cared about, and developed a supporting cast of characters that both rounded out the Buy More (i.e., Best Buy) universe while adding layers of humor to it. Whenever I get to seeing how Chuck ended, it’ll be comforting to ease back into that wildly fun world.
In many ways, Newsradio paved the way for Community, 30 Rock, and many other of the comedy staples on NBC’s Thursday night. It featured a tightly wound but expansive cast, callback jokes, and premises that could still be absurdist whilst set in the grounds of a singular workplace. Everyone from Joe Rogan to Phil Hartman is on the top of their game, and it’s one of the few sitcoms (I believe there’s only one other on this list) that overcomes the burden of a laugh track. They should have known even back then that you didn’t need a laugh track to genuinely laugh at Dave finally admitting (and Dave Foley breaking) that he was the one who stole Bill’s cane. That one of the funniest show’s from the 90’s ended in such real-life tragedy is unspeakably sad- but the show itself will live on.
42. Andy Richter Controls The Universe
From going from Conan’s sidekick, to Quintuplets, to Andy Barker P.I. back to Conan’s sidekick, Andy Richter has had a strange television career (fun fact: he was in my uncle’s wedding!) But amidst all that, he helped develop Andy Richter Controls The Universe, a small, strange comedy that was mercilessly cut down in its prime. It was a workplace sitcom on acid, a show that did cutaways as effectively as Scrubs always strived to, focusing on a technical writer (Andy Richter, played by Andy Richter) with an imagination that stretched beyond the bounds of reality. Richter was perfectly suited to the lead role, but his supporting cast (James Patrick Stuart, Paget Brewster, seemingly doomed to cop dramas forever) really fleshed out the world. Conan O’Brian did appear in one episode, and he was hilarious, and it was easily the best episode they ever did. Overall, it was one of those shows that was ahead of its time, and although creator Victor Fresco would go on to do good things (Better Off Ted), he never matched this one.
Lena Dunham’s HBO project tells, in just 17 episodes (thus far), a story that needs to be told about a group of people no one outside of their demographic has any patience for. They are the white 20-somethings, privileged but not rich, poor but never lacking, enjoying life but unsure of what they want out of it. To the rest of the world, it comes off as white people problems. To the group that watches and relates to Dunham, it’s a problem that seems small on paper but can consume you in reality. Depression is a problem that inflicts more people than they care to admit. Dunham finds a way not only to embody it, but to have fun with it. Girls isn’t a show that can go on for six more years; by then, it would be disgusted with itself, probably sobbing at the same time.