I’m not a big fan of procedurals, but if Justified was a procedural, I’d still probably watch it every week. Everything’s already in place for a perfectly satisfying hour: a cool-as-ice protagonist whose one-liners are outdone only by the inventive new ways he finds to kill people at the end of each episode… a fully-realized setting in the backwoods of Kentucky, comprised roughly 80 percent out of criminals… and dialogue that’s nearly as entertaining as the plots themselves. Indeed, for much of its first season, that’s what Justified was, its serial elements existing on the fringes of very efficient case-of-the-week storytelling. But what elevates Justified from “good” to “great” is its refusal to stay content. The second season, still its best, saw Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant, essentially playing a Seth Bullock who grew up enamored with James Bond and became that much more of a wiseass because of it) in an all-out turf war with the Bennett family. The bloodlines in Harlen, Kentucky go way back, and all the more blood is spilled in the present as a result. Margo Martindale scored a much-deserved Emmy for her work as matriarch Mags Bennett, and Justified showed that, at its best, its backwoods town could be just as dark and disturbing as depicted in Oscar-winning films like Winter’s Bone. Though the third season tried to do a little TOO much with constant alliances, twists, and allegiance shifts, even weaker episodes of Justified (now in it’s fourth, excellent year) remain intoxicatingly entertaining.
Before Jack Bauer became more or less a parody of the action heroes he had initially set out to replace, 24 was as clever as network dramas came. The premise is taken for granted so much (and parodied) now that it’s hard to remember how ground-breaking it was at the time: an entire season of television done in real time, so that it covered exactly one day (okay, minus commercial time, where nothing of consequence ever seemed to happen.) And holy hell, a lot of stuff happened in those days. We’re talking about multiple assassination attempts/ bomb threats/ air-born toxin contaminations/ government moles per day. And yeah, it’s kind of an easy show to make fun of now. The country was saved in the nick of time on countless occasions by one man. That man eventually became an unstoppable killing machine as the show went on. He also faked his death a few times. CTU was really bad at doing their background checks. The last three seasons were, for the most part, a complete mess (though I’ll defend season seven, aka Evil Tony Almeida season, to some extent). When did anyone have time to go to the bathroom? Racial profiling. Questionable presidential choices. Cubs mug. Cougar traps. Etc. But for the first few seasons, 24 didn’t have time to acknowledge its own absurdity. From “damn it, Chloe” to “get me a hacksaw” to the shocking season one finale to season five’s “everyone dies” premiere, the show was too busy spending all of its allotted 24 hours having a complete blast. (an important note: don’t try to actually watch a whole season in one day. I’ve tried it and made it 13 hours in through sheer force of will. You eventually start contemplating what you’re doing with your life. Trust me, it’ll happen.)
Alias was probably one of the first shows I “binge-watched.” As in, my mom owned the first two seasons on DVD and I went through them in a matter of weeks back in high school. It was, in hindsight, a perfect binge-watching experience. JJ Abrams’ precursor to Lost is often forgotten in the grand scheme of his work, but the early seasons are near flawless examples of serialized network television. It contained weekly spy action, mysterious and complex characterizations, a young Bradley Cooper showing why he would one day go on to become Bradley Cooper, and a mission introduced in the pilot episode that you desperately wanted to see resolved. I’m a bit ambivalent towards “Phase One,” the season two episode praised by many to be the series’ finest hour. It was a little too out of nowhere for me, as I was promised that the inevitable takedown of CTU would be a thorough, complex one. Instead, it all suddenly went down in the hour following the Super Bowl. And with the fall of SD-6, the show became a bit directionless, as the spy stuff took an increased backseat to the Ramboldi mythology (to date, Alias is still the weirdest show to feature magical elements. The first season doesn’t really point to the ancient magical scriptures Sydney and company procure as actual, viable presences in the real world). I’ll still defend the third and fourth seasons as dumbed-down entertainment, but the fifth and final season, in which they had to find a surrogate (Rachel Nichols, not of ESPN) for a pregnant Jennifer Gardner for most of the year, is mostly a mess. Alias gets a spot in the top 40 though, because it did what no other show has done as well to this point: season-ending cliff hangers. I’m looking at seasons two (two years?!) and four (CRASH) in particular.
If each season of The Wire was structured like a novel, then David Simon’s follow-up series is constructed like an intricate oil painting. There’s very little linearity to the narrative (though claims that there’s no story whatsoever are deeply exaggerated); rather, its a series of beautiful moments to get lost in. Like the city it’s based in, Treme is one of the least apologetic shows ever made. If you don’t like hanging out with these people- if your time is really that damn valuable that you can’t take an hour to soak in the sights and sounds of New Orleans every week- then you’re free to pack your bags and take off anytime you want. If you decide to stay, you’ll find that Treme is full of quiet riches. The subtlety in which the city has slowly galvanized itself since the aftermath of Katrina at the series’ beginning is understated but resplendent. That’s the other major difference between Treme and The Wire. If The Wire was one of the more cynical works of art ever made, Treme dares to wish that maybe, as long as the music never stops, hope isn’t completely lost yet.
36. Hey Arnold!
I only wanted to spend one slot on the list acknowledging one kids’ show to represent them all. So after consideration for Spongebob Squarepants, Adventure Time, Recess, and The Powerpuff Girls, I decided to go with Hey Arnold! There was simply no other kids’ show so casually, compulsively watchable, and it gradually transformed from a wide-eyed show about kids investigating urban legends around New York City to kids simply trying to live in it. The mythology built was huge, with fringe characters like the residents of Arnold’s boarding house becoming bigger players as the show went on. The only kids’ show of the time that came close to matching the density of its world, albeit on a smaller scale, was Recess. In many ways, Arnold was a junior version of the large-scale dramas to come in the 2000’s (though very much a comedy). And it also gave us the first great female co-star in a kids’ show in Helga Patacki, the tomboy with a secret, burning romantic side. Above all, it taught us that we’re all capable of taking that first big step off the stoop and into a bigger, scarier world.
35. Six Feet Under
I feel like a contrarian when I talk about Six Feet Under. The third season was my favorite, rather than either of the first two. The finale that brought a nation to tears didn’t do all that much for me (hey, let’s see how they all die, why not!). I’m somehow in the middle on “That’s My Dog.” I crack up at Nate nearly having a stroke at the take-out window. On days when I’m not totally with it I’ll tell people that True Blood is the better Alan Ball show. But for all the complaints I sometimes level against it (a catatonic fourth season, David being defined as a character solely by his sexuality), it’s hard to disavow SFU for what it is: a soap opera with HBO production quality at the height of HBO’s golden years- and a damn good one at that. The funeral home setting was appropriately morbid window dressing to get to the heart of who the Fisher family was (again, sans David for the most part). The early seasons were especially great at building tension within the bizarre (love?) triangle between Nate, Brenda Chenowith, and her weirdo brother Billy. (The Chenowiths remain one of my favorite television families, sex addictions be damned.) When SFU hits your gut- the last stretch of episodes in the third season for me- it lingers for a while. Plus, who wouldn’t watch a show with recurring roles for Kathy Bates AND James Cromwell?
34. Veronica Mars
Like it or not, we’re stuck in the age of the “manic pixie dream girl.” Veronica Mars asked the question of what would happen if one of those girls tried to do something productive with all that energy. Like, say, try to solve the mysteries of who raped her and killed her best friend. (Two different people, as it turned out). The premise is simple: Veronica plays a spunky, quick-witted teenager who solves mysteries, mostly at her school in Neptune, California (home to the country’s most egregious class divide), occasionally with her detective single father (Enrico Colantoni, completely badass). Throughout the first season, she’s investigating case-of-the-week mysteries, wrestling between the affections of two bad boys, and trying to figure out who offed her BFF, Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried before she was cool! Though she was cool in the show. Presumably. Before she got murdered). It’s an expertly plotted and paced first season, the rare long-form mystery where the clues actually add up and start to make sense. (The second season is nearly as good. The third ends with her dating a guy named Piz who ditches her to take an internship at Pitchfork, so let’s not talk about that one as much.) But it’s Kirsten Bell’s breakthrough performance that makes the whole thing work. One part Buffy, one part Sherlock Holmes, she’s a heroine worth rooting for until each case is solved. Apparently, 3 million dollars of fandom and counting agreed.
33. The Mole
I rarely watch a lot of reality television, but from what I’ve seen, The Mole is so head-and-shoulders above anything else that it seems unfair. The premise is unbeatable: a group of people compete in a series of games for up to a million dollars. One of those people is secretly a mole, trying to sabotage as many games as they can without giving up their identity to the other players. At the end of each week, the players are given a quiz to try to identify the mole. Whoever stays on the trail the longest gets the money at the end. Oh, and why not get Anderson Cooper to be the host? The only thing that could sink that premise is the mole cracking and giving up his/her identity early into the game. Remarkably, that didn’t happen (in the two regular seasons and the two Ahmad Rashad-hosted celebrity seasons, which weren’t as good as the Cooper seasons but infinitely funnier.) But what really made The Mole work was the people it found. Lovably dorky Mets fan Al. Cool-as-ice gay dude Jim. Fucking Kate. Casting agents are too lazy throughout much of the reality television spectrum. The Mole went above and beyond to make sure it got personalities. And trying to identify who the mole was was both insanely difficult and ridiculous fun. (Though, true to legend, I drunkenly predicted the mole in the first episode of the first season when we watched in college. Ask Bryan.) That The Mole couldn’t last more than a few years makes sense, sadly. It was way too smart for reality television.
32. Curb Your Enthusiasm
Some people will tell you that Curb is better than Seinfeld for the sake of a bold claim, even though Seinfeld is one of the most perfectly plotted and hilarious sitcoms of all time, whereas Curb‘s improvisational structure will inherently lead to hit and miss moments. But when Curb is on, it’s easily one of the funniest things out there. Though Larry David’s character is often described as an exaggerated version of himself, after witnessing what he’s like in real life (at the 2011 Paleyfest), I’m pretty sure he’s basically playing himself. Thank goodness for that. Simply put, there’s no one funnier state of being on the planet than “aggravated Larry David.” This manifests itself in standouts like “The Doll,” “The Carpool Lane” and “Palestinian Chicken”, any of which could easily stand next to any classic Seinfeld episode. It’s telling, though, that the Seinfeld season (season seven) was the best one, which remarkably boasted strong episodes (“Vehicular Fellatio,” “The Black Swan”) even when they had nothing to do with the faux reunion.
31. MTV’s The State
I could write a couple paragraphs about how The State was one of the most inspired sketch comedy shows ever made and the unquestionable apex of generation X-era MTV. I could go on about how even when it was to the show’s detriment, a young Thomas Lennon, Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black, Kerri Kenney, Ken Marino and company’s determination to throw whatever made them laugh into a sketch, even when it made little to zero sense, made it all the more cool. I could keep typing “I wanna dip my balls in it!” until I’m bored of it, but that could take all night. Instead, I’ll just leave you with Taco Mailman.