gone but not forgotten

Ranking All 13 of FX’s Excellent Retired Dramas

Photo: Maya Robinson and Photos by Prashant Gupta/FX

This article contains spoilers for the series finale of Justified.

Justified finished its six-season run last night not with the explosion-filled deathfest some came to expect, but rather with an explosion-filled survivalfest. (When Boyd Crowder has dynamite, Boyd Crowder will use dynamite, thank you.) The episode was filled with callbacks and allusions, which crystallized the sense of completion and conclusion that any finale would aspire to.

Now Justified joins the hallowed ranks of former FX dramas — as good a lineup as one can picture, really; HBO has more duds, Showtime fewer hits. FX’s lineup over the years has been remarkably solid, creatively speaking, even if plenty of these excellent shows failed to find the audience they needed or deserved. In honor of Justified’s finale, here’s a ranking of all of FX’s retired dramas, from best to worst. (Though think of it as least-best — even the worst show on this list is not bad, somehow.)

1. The Shield (2002–2008)
As good as Justified’s finale was last night (pretty good!), The Shield’s finale is one of the best finales of all time — of all time! Prestige cop shows sometimes struggle with switching the pace between short weekly stories and bigger, season-long arcs, but The Shield stands out for how evenly woven the show feels: No one season is the season, and few villains stay gone forever. One arc’s horrific cover-up turns into another story’s bargaining chip; one professional misstep from two seasons ago still has ripple effects later, and the show’s central antihero has a very long memory, both for slights and for favors. Dark and brutal, yes, but also meticulously modulated: “Gritty” shows sometimes don’t know when enough’s enough, but The Shield knew how to dole out its gruesomeness. One of the greats.

2. Terriers, 2010
There are plenty of shows out there about washed-up cops who are recovering alcoholics. Enjoy. But Terriers had a more specific view of sobriety: Hank (Donal Logue) isn’t an alcoholic because he loves drinking so much — he’s an alcoholic because he hates himself, and drinking’s an easy way to have a reprieve from that. So his sobriety feels less like a miraculous second chance at life and more like a nasty punishment. Instead of being a sad, bleak drama, though, Terriers had buoyancy, thanks in large part to Logue’s raggedy charm, plus the chemistry between him and Michael Raymond-James as his partner, Britt. Because Hank and Britt are scrappy private investigators and not official officers, the show also has a goofy vibe, and a much beachier aesthetic than other shows on this list. Terriers is an example of how far richly constructed characters will get you. (Far!)

3. Justified, 2010–2015
Man, FX loves a cop show. And if you’re making them like Justified, why not? Because Terriers only had one season, it never got a chance to hit a lull, and the lovely Justified, alas, did — but a show that can combine humor, action, caper stories, and a salty spin on stories of American rural poverty as well as Justified did gets a pass once in a while for hitting a dull stretch. Season two is still the standout among the bunch, but other than the off-game season five, things are solid.

4. Damages, 2007–2010
It’s a legal drama that’s almost never a courtroom drama, with a central female antihero who wears pastel twinsets instead of the more predictable “power suit,” and the show uses a fractured timeline to tease its big mystery. Damages would be worth it for its row-against-the-tide style alone, but luckily it’s also twisted and smart. Did you know all humans are monsters, capable of profound betrayal? Well, Damages knew. Season one was the best by far, but downhill from superb is still pretty good.

5. Thief, 2005
Thief winds up being classified as a miniseries, since there are only six episodes of it, but it could have been a full-on series had it performed better, ratings-wise. Alas! A nation of dinguses ignored this, just as our nation of dinguses has ignored many a great series. Andre Braugher starred as a New Orleans–based career criminal trying to pull off a major heist while also raising his very petulant, grieving stepdaughter (Mae Whitman, as amazing as you’d expect). There is no shortage of physical fights on television, particularly on FX. But Thief has truly some of the most grueling, savage, and emotional screaming fights I’ve ever seen. Thanks for nothing, dinguses.

6. The Riches, 2007–2008
This is the kind of show that might do better nowadays: Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver starred as the parents of a “traveler” family who winds up assuming the identity of a rich family in a prim Southern community. The various grifts were fun and intriguing, but the real draw was the deep bonds of the Malloy family, how ironclad their solidarity was, and the tension of what happened when that lapsed.

7. Sons of Anarchy, 2008–2014
Don’t let the show’s often overwhelming use of brutality — sometimes cartoonishly elaborate, sometimes as primitive as drowning someone in a sink — overshadow how emotional the show could be. There’s a lot of just pure agony on SoA. For better or worse. As dazzling as SoA could be, though, there’s a bloat factor here, too, with several episodes stretching to 90 minutes or more for no good reason.

8. Over There, 2005
Maybe audiences weren’t quite ready for a dramatization of the War in Iraq, or maybe they wanted a more clearly articulated good-or-bad take from the show, which the one-season series tried to avoid. But there was something compelling here, too, something distinctive about the ways its characters were drawn and performed — maybe not a show for the time capsule, but definitely underappreciated.

9. Nip/Tuck, 2003–2010
At its peak, Nip/Tuck was one of the most stylish, intriguing shows on TV. Slinky and sultry and mysterious, naughty and unapologetic. And hell, if the show had ended after season three or four, this would be No. 2 on this list. However, Nip/Tuck did not end when it ought to have and instead dragged its sorry bones to L.A., where it crapped away all its story integrity and became both boring and redundant. Beauty is a curse on the world, though; the Carver was right.

10. Dirt, 2007–2008
FX is almost all cop shows, with a lawyer show, a doctor show, and two criminal shows thrown in. Dirt was about a tabloid editor and the sick sad Hollywood world she covered, replete with addict starlets and closeted movie hunks. The show was grimy as hell, but it also indulged in schizophrenic hallucination sequences (like a woman giving birth to a litter of kittens) that set it apart from a straight-up riff. Not good good, ever, but absolutely trash-good.

11. The Bridge, 2013–2014
The Bridge
’s motto could have been, “we swear, it’s not just another serial-killer show!” Even though it was a serial-killer show, and an opposites-attract buddy-cop drama. But then in the second season, the show picked up its game so hard! And the promise of being a show with something to say was truly realized! Unfortunately, too little too late.

12. Rescue Me, 2004–2011
Maybe FX should start a new rule that everything has to be on the American Horror Story anthology model. Because for a while there, both Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me were fantastic — and then both overstayed their welcomes by many, many years. Early Rescue Me is one of very few shows to ever depict the magical thinking of grief, how truly disorienting it feels, but also how real some of those crazy denial-ideas can be. (I mean, maybe he could come waltzing back through that door! Miracles happen …) The masculine posturing on the series was okay for a while, too, but by the time Tommy raped his estranged wife, there was not a lot left to recommend. The incestuous love webs? The constant character deaths, including children? On and on and on with the same old Tommy/Janet/Sheila stuff, as if Tommy is some great catch? Two-and-a-half fantastic seasons; seven seasons total.

13. Lights Out, 2011
Even the worst show on this list isn’t a bad show. It was mostly just an unnecessary one, and a badly timed one. By the time we met Lights Leary, the boxer, America was pretty maxed out on gruff antiheroes who want to go straight — except this dark underbelly life, see, it calls to them. They’ve got responsibilities, you know. Like their wife — man, she can be a piece of work. And the kids. It’s tough out there, unless you know some guys. One season of respectable but unthrilling drama is enough to land you at the bottom of this list. Sorry, Lights Out.