My Top 10 All-Time Favorite Television Shows
At forty years of age I’m old enough to remember certain things regarding television. Old enough to remember what it was like watching the last five minutes of a show and realizing they weren’t going to be able to wrap it up and that “to be continued” was going to blaze across the screen. Old enough to remember what it was like to run to the bathroom during a commercial break and have your sibling yell, “It’s back on!” and come rushing back into the room on a dead sprint. Old enough to remember not realizing a show was canceled until you sat down in September and it wasn’t on its normal time slot. Old enough to remember when reality television consisted mostly of The Real World and where Survivor was a novel concept.
Now we live in the Golden Age of television. It’s a time when you can get a whole season and binge it at a go. A time when (with some exceptions) network television pales in comparison to what you can find on HBO, Netflix, HULU, or Amazon. A time when famous movie stars doing television shows is NOT considered a step down. A time when laugh tracks are…well…laughable. Indeed so much quality television abounds that it’s damn near impossible to keep up with it all. At this point if you don’t hook me within the first few episodes, chances are I’m going to toss it by the wayside.
While I’ve previously written about my favorite films of all time, I thought now was as good a time as any to explore my favorite television shows. Having said that, here are my top ten favorite television shows of all time.
HONORABLE MENTION: The Simpsons
Certain television shows define your childhood. I had just turned eleven when The Simpsons debuted on December 17, 1989 with a Christmas special. Up until this point I’d never even seen the small skits on The Tracy Ullman Show. Little did I know that this show would become an integral part of my television experience for the next fifteen years. While the first few seasons were a little shaky, the program really grew into its own when the focus shifted from Bart to Homer. An animated show that consists literally of stereotypes from the slacker son to the donut eating chief of police, The Simpsons was a well written sitcom full of razor-sharp wit and often subversive commentary on everything from politics, to religion, to professional football. While I stopped watching several years ago, there’s no doubt that this show remains a juggernaut as Fox just renewed it for its 31st and 32 seasons. With over 650 episodes to date, there’s no sign of the Simpson train slowing down anytime soon.
The literal show “about nothing” Seinfeld, much like The Simpsons, helped define my formative years. What made this show so great was the chemistry between all four actors. Each possessed a distinct personality that somehow meshed with the others. While I’ve never been one for slap-stick, Kramer, played by the brilliant Michael Richards, was always my favorite. I was always amazed by his physical comedy. No one could take a fall like him. Whether it was Elaine’s ridiculous dance moves, the “summer of George,” or Jerry’s smelly car, the cast of Seinfeld never failed to entertain. To this day it remains a compulsively re-watchable show on syndication. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Not at all.
#9 The X-Files
The first of four science-fiction shows on my list (what do you expect I’m a nerd), I LIVED for The X-Flies as a kid. Chris Carter’s brilliant show about aliens and the paranormal paired a believer and a skeptic together. I count Mulder and Scully as two of the most iconic pairings ever to grace the small screen. It’s the first show I can remember where government conspiracies became really intriguing for me. It was also a show that seemed to draw in people who weren’t necessarily sci-fi fans either, as my parents were both avid fans of the show. This show checked all the right boxes for me and I was thrilled when they revived it a few years ago. While it’s possible a new X-Files could emerge, it will never top the dynamic chemistry between David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. After more than a quarter century since it debuted, the truth is still out there.
#8 Quantum Leap
Quantum Leap was perhaps the first television show I really fell in love with. Created by one of the greatest television producers of all time, Donald P. Bellisario, the show revolves around the adventures of scientist and time traveler Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula), a man tasked with putting right what once went wrong. While there were some occasional goofy episodes, the science fiction aspect of the show wasn’t always at the forefront. Instead Quantum Leap focuses much more on the human element. Over the course of five seasons, the show addressed numerous issues such as race, homosexuality, and women’s rights. Quantum Leap also explored various historical incidents like the Watts Riots, the Kennedy assassination, the Jim Crow south of the 1960s, and the Vietnam War. It was the first show as well that genuinely moved me to tears on several occasions. It’s just too bad it had such a terrible series finale. In a television age where science-fiction is hotter than its ever been, this show is ripe for a revival.
#7 Battlestar Galactica
Arguably the best television show the SyFy channel has ever had, Battlestar Galactica ran from 2004 to 2009. It centers around the last remnants of humanity surviving on the spaceship Galactica after their home is destroyed by cybernetic beings called Cylons. Great science fiction always addresses some of the key questions of humanity. Over the course of four seasons, Battlestar Galactica explored the idea of what it means to be human, class warfare, environmental concerns, religion, and more. However, what makes this show great (and very rewatchable) was the excellent cast led by Oscar nominee Edward James Olmos as Commander William Adama, Katee Sackoff as Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, and Mary McDonnell as President Laura Roslin. The writing on this show is some of the best I’ve ever witnessed and it’s no wonder it won numerous accolades including a Peabody Award. I could easily have watched this show for another ten seasons.
#6 Breaking Bad
“Say my name.”
Even today these words evoke the seminal television show and its titular character Walter White, played by the brilliant Bryan Cranston. Set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, it follows the rise and fall of chemistry teacher White who after getting cancer, turns to making meth in order to make money for his treatments. Alongside, former student and drug dealer Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) what originally starts out as a side business to save Walter’s life evolves into so much more. It’s fascinating to watch Walter’s arc from reluctant drug dealer to power-hungry and ego driven drug mogul. Brilliantly shot, impeccably written, and touting some amazing acting performances, Breaking Bad is considered one of the best television shows of all-time and rightly so. It doesn’t hurt that the show offers one of the most touching and poignant series finales of all time either.
#5 Sons of Anarchy
I couldn’t have cared less about motorcycles or motorcycle gangs before watching this show. Technically, I still don’t so it’s kind of surprise that I started watching this show at all. Yet I was right there from the beginning and from the first episode I was hooked. Sons of Anarchy, a VERY loose interpretation of the Hamlet story, follows a fictional motorcycle club, the Sons of Anarchy and its member Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam). What’s fascinating about this show, besides how well written and acted it is, is that creator Kurt Sutter somehow illicits empathy for this band of outlaws. From an objective perspective none of the members of SAMCRO are good people. Yet that doesn’t seem to matter. When club members, sometimes vital club members, die, you feel it at a fundamental level. The season three finale “NS” remains one of the best season finales I’ve ever seen. And while many hated the series finale, I thought it brought the show to a bittersweet but satisfying conclusion.
Aw man back in the day HBO’s Rome was my jam. One of the most expensive television shows HBO ever produced, it only lasted for two short seasons. But damn it if those twenty-two episodes weren’t all top-notch. Blending the spectacle of open warfare and the Senate floor with human drama, creators John Milius, William J. MacDonald, and Bruno Heller brought audiences a look into the Roman Empire heretofore unseen. The set production on this show is a sight to behold, to the point where you can almost smell the leather or feel the sand of Egypt. From a narrative standpoint Rome blends real historical characters such as Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) and Mark Antony (James Purefoy) with fictional soldiers Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson). The audience is able to experience the world of Rome from both the eyes of the elite and the regular citizens of Rome. It’s a show that just was not cost beneficial and unfortunately ended way before its time.
Aside from a few select films, I don’t consider myself much of a Western guy. But HBO’s Deadwood was unlike any Western I’d ever seen. Dark, rough, visceral, hilarious, and utilizing the word “cocksucker” more than could reasonably be expected for a show set in the 1870s, I loved Deadwood from the get go. Deadwood is unique in that the dialogue possesses its own cadence and rhythm, something that takes a little while to get used to. However, once you do it’s impossible not to get wrapped up in the intricacies and machinations of a Western town that once averaged a murder a day. Ian McShane brings one of the most fascinating characters to life in Al Swearengen, owner of the Gem Saloon. He’s a force of nature, a vile human being that is somehow likeable. Unfortunately Deadwood‘s series finale left much to be desired as it ended with no real resolution. Thankfully for fans of the show, a Deadwood television movie is heading back to HBO later this year. Hoopleheads rejoice!
I came pretty late to the party in regards to LOST. I didn’t start watching the dynamic sci-fi show from creators J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, and Jeffery Lieber in real-time until just before the final season debuted. At the insistence of my parents I started getting the show on DVD through Netflix (remember when we all used to do that kids??) and power watched the first five seasons over a course of two months. Aside from the intricate and brilliant writing, the heart and soul of LOST comes from its characters. This may sound corny but after a while it began to feel like Jack, Kate, Hurley, Jin, Sun, and the rest were like family. LOST was one of the few shows that moved me to tears on multiple occasions, especially the end of the penultimate episode, “What They Died For.” At its heart, LOST is so much more than a story of strangers abandoned on an island where bizarre things starts to happen. LOST represents the very best of what great science fiction can be, in that it addresses our essential humanity, our truths and our triumphs, our weaknesses and our inadequacies. In point of fact LOST used to be my favorite television show of all-time. Until…
#1 Game of Thrones
I hate to be that hipster douche who says, “I liked Game of Thrones before it was cool,” but in this case it’s kind of true. (Not the hipster douche part.) I started reading George R. R. Martin’s books back in 2005 and was immediately enthralled. Never had I read a fantasy series where none of the standard fantasy rules seemed to apply. When it was first announced that Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire would be adapted into a television show I was beyond excited. However, I was also a little trepidatious. Would HBO be able to bring this world full of dragons, political intrigue, religious intricacy, and military might to life? The answer was a resounding “YES!” I have never watched a show where everyone was so perfectly cast, and the source material translates beautifully from one medium to another. The show subverts all expectations when it comes to fantasy tropes where no characters are safe. Even though I knew certain events were going to transpire, to see them on the small screen carried just as much an emotional impact as when I read them on the printed page. And for my money the season six finale “The Winds of Winter” is the best season finale in the history of television. Full stop. In less than two months audiences will experience the final season of, in my opinion, the best television show of all-time. Brace yourself because Winter is here.
You can follow me on Twitter at @DarthGandalf1
An excellent list! Maybe I’m a bit weird, but I also miss watching those quirky obscure late-night British comedy reruns that only aired on PBS.
Red Dwarf was my jam back in the day
Deadwood is on my wishlist