Welcome back to Stay Tuned, Vulture’s TV advice column. Each Wednesday, Margaret Lyons answers your questions about your various TV triumphs and woes. Need help? Have a theory? Want a recommendation? Submit a question! You can email firstname.lastname@example.org, leave a comment, or tweet @margeincharge with the hashtag #staytuned.
What TV dramas should every person watch? —Elizabeth
There’s no one list. There are so, so many dramas, and so many good ones, and so many sorta-good ones that still bring people joy and emotional development. I’ve been thinking about this question since I got it a few weeks ago, especially in the midst of the “peak TV” conversations that have been happening recently. There’s no real way to start at the beginning and hit every single good drama that’s ever aired, so this list only includes shows that aired in the last 20 years. It skews heavily toward American series, even though lots of great dramas have aired overseas, and it’s light on teen shows, even though I love them, because we recently covered teen shows pretty thoroughly in this space. If you’re attempting television literacy, here are 100 recent-ish dramas that are worth at least trying:
THE OBVIOUS MEGAPRESTIGE ONES
When people try to make claims about a “golden age” of TV, this is what they’re talking about, usually. These are the straight-up masterpieces.
Battlestar Galactica, even if you claim to hate sci-fi. (Also, consider broadening your horizons.) BSG is as close as we’re gonna get to The Crucible for the War on Terror.
Breaking Bad is easily the most tightly told story on this list. Oftentimes stories of depravity or violence lose sight of what makes characters specific and unique, but BB never gave up on finding the most human parts of its monsters.
Deadwood, an oftentimes knotty, difficult show that secretly contains so much human tenderness and compassion. Warning: You cannot half-ass watching Deadwood. Just commit, and then be glad.
ER changed the way TV looks and feels, how shows pace themselves, and how big a role Steadicams play in our viewing lives. It’s also, particularly in its first seven or so years, a precise orchestra: so many moving parts, so many small things done just right, so many places for your eye and ear to drift to.
Friday Night Lights, the only show that could possibly make me care about football. A lot of the shows on this list will leave you with a sense of rot and decay, but FNL will make you want to be a better human.
Homicide: Life on the Streets, the cop show that never quite gets its due. (Except in Stay Tuned, where I sing its praises every five seconds.) If this show debuted now, the internet would melt in its attempt to analyze the tense, intellectual Frank Pembleton.
In Treatment isn’t like any other show on this list. Gabriel Byrne plays a therapist who should heal thyself, and each episode is more or less one session with a patient. The scenes are all just two people talking, but between the superb performances, the precise dialogue, the careful pacing, and the gimmickless direction, the show feels unbelievably rich.
Mad Men, the show that crystallized just how artful TV could be. Personally, I will never really stop missing this show.
My So-Called Life shouldn’t be on this list because it aired 21 years ago, but I can’t not include it. The show feels very timeless, and yet also so tied to how old you are when you first encounter it; the show doesn’t age, but you do.
NYPD Blue is proof that procedural shows can still be hugely character-driven.
Six Feet Under is somehow not drowning in tragedy. Sure, none of us get out of this alive — but while you’re here, endeavor to be yourself. It’s hard but gratifying work.
The Shield, like Homicide, is a Stay Tuned favorite if not a cultural one. It’s everything there is to like about modern cop dramas, plus, arguably, the best series finale of all time.
The Sopranos is a basic part of television literacy. We should all give The Sopranos at least a no-thank-you portion.
The Wire is, somehow, as good as everyone says it is.
The West Wing struggled after Aaron Sorkin’s departure, but my God, those first four seasons.
Twin Peaks is another cheat since it’s from the early ‘90s, but it’s too good not to include here. Watch Twin Peaks, friends.
THE PRECIOUS WEIRDOS
Not just the characters (though sometimes them, too), but the shows that are a little off the traditional path, maybe a little too delicate for this harsh world.
Carnivàle is spooky and twisty and so beautifully composed. What if every show were this committed to its vision of itself? Ah, the dream.
Chuck is proof that dramas can be charming and fun and substantive and on NBC. Somehow.
Dead Like Me’s internal mythology is so gently but fully realized that you almost don’t notice how high-concept the show is. You do notice, though, that it’s one of very few coming-of-age stories about a girl that isn’t a story about falling in love.
Enlightened is a half-hour show, though drama feels more right than comedy. Honestly, no category seems quite right for this delicate treasure, a beautifully gentle depiction of the human heart’s capacity for pain and capacity for growth.
Fargo is technically a mini-series, but this is a recommendation list, not a deposition.
Hannibal is the new frontier for TV storytelling. R.I.P., show.
Joan of Arcadia never made much of a splash, which is a real shame: The show is a beautiful, enduring snapshot of how hard it is to be good and alive at the same time. Even though the show is about a teen girl who talks to God, it’s somehow not preachy at all. (Bring tissues.)
Picket Fences reminds us all that when David E. Kelley is good, he’s really damn good. A doctor show, a lawyer show, a weirdo-townies show, and a family drama in one!
Pushing Daisies is another gone-too-soon Bryan Fuller show, lovely and daring and destined to be treasured only by a select few.
Wonderfalls. See above.
CURRENT SHOWS THAT ARE GOOD BUT WHOSE LEGACIES ARE STILL TBD
These shows have high highs, often, and also some bumpy patches. But who knows how things will shake out? Maybe they will walk among the greats! Maybe they will not.
American Horror Story can be trash, but it isn’t (usually) garbage. It is not always my cup of tea, but I do always want more shows to have a strong vision, even if that means a vision I don’t care for.
Downton Abbey burned so bright and has refused to fade away. Next time, take us with you, Cousin Matthew.
Doctor Who, in its modern revived incarnation, can be cheeky and playful sometimes, and sad and soulful other times. It can also be a little uneven.
Grey’s Anatomy suffers a bit from on-too-long-itis, but at its best, it’s as soaring and emotional as shows can be. I’m a sink with an open drain. There is no enough.
Homeland started out as well as any show in recent memory, and then shit the bed about as hard as it can get shat. Can it be good again someday? Better call Saul.
Orphan Black, when it’s hitting its mark, is hypnotic and thoughtful and impressive. And when it’s not, it can seem a little convoluted and slapdash.
THE UNDER-THE-RADAR SECRET GREATS
Gems! Gems! As far as the eye can see! Unfortunately, no one’s eyes were looking in these shows’ directions.
Boomtown had the unfortunate fate of debuting in 2002, somewhat of a dark time for network television. Too bad, so sad. It’s a solid cop show.
Brotherhood aired on Showtime pre-Dexter, when no one cared what was on Showtime. It’s as dark and violent and operatic as you could wish for, though your mileage on the show will vary depending on how you appreciate (or don’t) a variety of attempts at Rhode Island accents.
Kings was sort of a modern revamping of biblical epics, a phrase that makes it clear why it died an inglorious death after 13 episodes. Ah, well. Fun while it lasted.
Medium is a quietly radical show disguised as a perfunctory crime procedural. Patricia Arquette’s Allison Dubois is a psychic or whatever, but the interesting part of the show is that it’s about a middle-class working mom who’s in a happy marriage and still seeks personal gratification through work. Bonus points for acknowledging that adults often talk about and even fight about finances.
Men of a Certain Age just could not find an audience, which is a real pity, since it was one of the more fleshed-out, pensive shows of its time. Ray Romano, Andre Braugher (again), Scott Bakula, and a lot of natural dialogue. I love shows about people who actually like each other.
Once and Again will knock you over with its earnestness, and then, once you’re lying on the floor, it’s like, well, might as well watch every single episode of this family ensemble drama about divorce. Probably time to get Sela Ward back on TV somewhere.
Profit is one of the great “how did this get to TV — and thank God it did” shows of the ‘90s. Adrian Pasdar as a sociopath who sleeps in a box! Wonders never cease.
Sleeper Cell is another Showtime also-ran. Look around, Homeland! You did not invent terrorism-oriented television!
Southland is the true successor to ER in that it portrayed a wide range of people in a variety of circumstances, from boring and ordinary to life-altering and catastrophic, without judgment. There are threads that run through the whole series, and characters we just see once, in passing. Streaming gods, hear my cry: Make this show more available.
Terriers shows us the importance of texture within any given episode. People can be sad and funny at the same time!
The Riches never broke out, which is a shame. A family drama that’s also a wry look at America’s constant class panic? More, please.
Thief is the third FX show in a row in this category. They sure were doing something right/wrong over there! Thief’s technically a mini-series, but only because it got canceled after six episodes. Andre Braugher, Mae Whitman, lots of emotional screaming matches.
MAYBE NOT THE GREATEST OF THE GREAT, BUT HAVE PLENTY GOING FOR THEM
Hey, we all contain multitudes.
24 felt revolutionary when it debuted. Then it kept going, and started to feel a lot less revolutionary. Beep. Beep.
The 4400, unlike most shows in this category, stayed pretty good for its entire run. But it never got great.
Army Wives isn’t going to light the world on fire, but it’s a show that chugged along, doing a better job of telling poignant stories than plenty of its higher-profile brethren. Not a masterpiece, but better than it gets remembered as being.
Big Love took a while to find its mojo but then couldn’t figure out where its most interesting stories lived.
Boardwalk Empire would probably be in the bests-of-the-bests category for other people. Not me, though! Some strong characters and interesting attitudes don’t make up for how often the show felt like a slog.
Boss exists in that tough spot where a show’s ambition outpaces its execution. But Kelsey Grammer as a King Lear–ish mayor of Chicago is a good thing to aspire to. Plus, some of the best opening titles.
Chicago Hope is always a bridesmaid when it comes to doctor shows, David E. Kelley shows, even Mandy Patinkin shows. But some people like being bridesmaids! Bridesmaid is not a bad gig.
Dexter’s first season is so stinking good, it’s hard to believe how the show ended up.
Dirt was odd and murky and provocative, often in great ways, sometimes in less great ways.
House is another guest who stayed too long at the party, but my God, you should have seen us all right when he got here.
Lost secretly benefited from how off-the-rails it became because that’s what’s kept it in the popular imagination, versus, say, Desperate Housewives, which no one cares about anymore. Plus, it started out great.
Melrose Place will have to serve as the stand-in for all prime-time soaps on this list. It’s a heavy burden, but Amanda Woodward doesn’t quit.
Nip/Tuck, even more than The Shield, put FX (and Ryan Murphy) on the map. The show could be so sexy and scary and thrilling, but it could also be so ridiculous and self-indulgent and repetitive.
Nowhere Man was before its time. Hell, it was before its network: 1995, on UPN? The Bruce Greenberg conspiracy thriller didn’t stand a chance. Parenthood tugged on the heartstrings like none other, but it also grated on the brainstrings eventually. Hey, everyone’s arguing all at once about crapola rich-people stuff! Oof.
Rescue Me contains some of the richest depictions of grief and despair TV ever bothered to write. But it’s another example on this list of a show that just went on for way too long and eventually lost sight of what made it special.
Saving Grace was widely rejected by every person … except me. Holly Hunter, supernatural angelic forces, a central and powerful female friendship, plus a bulldog? Sold. Sold. Sold. A thousand times sold. I don’t care if I’m the only person who ever cared for this series, I cared for it a lot.
Sons of Anarchy, too. Come for the ultraviolence, stay for the oh-my-God-even-more-ultraviolence.
Spartacus is remembered by its dozens of fans as being both a swords-and-sandals blast, a lusty romance, and sometimes a decent maneuverings drama.
Tell Me You Love Me could also have been called Tell Me You’ll Fuck Me, but that would have given too much away. The short-lived HBO series is one of vanishingly few shows to address sex candidly, completely, and authentically. It’s a weird one, for sure, but just being a person is weird.
True Blood has some excellent romance, some really A+ erotica, and a fun and salty attitude. Well, it did for a few years. And then it just slid into full-on garbage. Canceling shows is healthy! Drawing shows out is bad! Please, television, come around on this.
THE STILL-WONDERFUL TIER TWO
Great shows still!
Buffy the Vampire Slayer manages to be about way more than slaying vampires.
Damages’ first season is as aggressive and captivating as any mystery show since. Even though subsequent seasons weren’t quite as good, there was still a lot of tension and intrigue — and some pretty legit lawyering.
Freaks and Geeks could be in the prestige category, but it feels so tonally different from those other hard-core dramas. Punch-for-punch, as good a show as anything on this list, though.
Gilmore Girls combines the dizzying, densely crafted dialogue of fancier-schmancier shows with the infinite rewatchability of lower-brow fare. Consistently underappreciated, especially considering how good the show was for six seasons.
Justified’s panache sometimes distracted from how serious the show was when it came to its philosophies about how one’s place and one’s past affect her.
Law & Order might not seem as snazzy as other shows on this list, but week in, week out? That is some solid storytelling.
Northern Exposure just barely makes the 20-year cutoff, and yet there’s still nothing quite like it on TV.
Sisters is finally out on DVD! Family dramas are out of style right now, which makes this even more engrossing.
Slings and Arrows serves as a shining beacon that, yes, smart people can and do make smart TV. Often, they make it in Canada.
Oz is the bleakest, most spiritually damaging show I have ever seen.
Veronica Mars should teach True Detective how to noir.
The X-Files feels as relevant now as it did when it debuted, which is why it’s coming back (and why it might be one of very few shows where that’s a good thing). It’s able to uniquely balance its mythology episodes with non-mythology stand-alones.
OKAY, A FEW INTERNATIONAL SHOWS
There could be more, obviously.
Black Mirror is today’s Twilight Zone, only much more disturbing.
Borgen — now on iTunes! — is a Danish political drama that feels grounded in reality rather than melodrama or soap.
Bron/Broen, a Danish/Swedish* serial-killer drama and precursor to The Bridge, is the last cop show that truly surprised me.
Luther gives Idris Elba a chance to be the sad-cop hero, and gives all of us the chance to be absolutely terrified. Do not watch Luther alone.
Sherlock might better qualify as a series of made-for-TV movies, but that’s a mystery — ho, ho — for another time. There’s not a huge need for more pompous-genius shows, but Sherlock is so dazzling, it deserves an exception.
Utopia is megaviolent but also mega-absorbing: Fans of a cult graphic novel find themselves embroiled in an international criminal conspiracy. Or so it seems. Sadly, Utopia was canceled in the U.K., and the American version apparently stalled out.
Again, this list could have a lot more teen shows on it.
Everwood fits in with Gilmore Girls, Northern Exposure, and Picket Fences in terms of its love of small-town quirks, but it’s way more heartfelt and sincere.
Felicity is even more sincere, and so intensely focused, the show almost aches. It is hard to be young and beautiful!
Gossip Girl struggled there at the end, but the ride was worth it.
Grosse Pointe has that Darren Star sudsiness without being cynical. Well, without being too cynical.
The OC’s ear for patter and eye for spectacle make it the perfect summer show.
Party of Five is way more thoughtful and patient than you remember; it was on Fox back in the day, sure, but it wasn’t actually like 90210 or Melrose Place.
CURRENT AND EXCELLENT SHOWS
Please stay good, please stay good, please stay good …
The 100 combines decent sci-fi with strong emotional choices and surprisingly grounded performances that give everything a much realer sensibility than the material always warrants.
The Americans started good and then got stronger — and then got even stronger. The show plays with tempo better than almost anything else out there: Long, slow, dread-filled stares are as effective as its brutal action or hand-to-hand combat sequences, and deliberate, controlled spy moments give way to chaotic family dinner-table ones.
The Fosters is right at the brink of getting to cornball and soapy, but let’s hold out hope that TV’s most progressive show finds its way home.
The Good Wife is losing Kalinda, its queen of leather-clad mystery, but the show survived killing off its central love interest and managed not to have its two most interesting characters share a scene for the last few years. Maybe TGW is, unlike Will Gardner, bulletproof?
The Knick sets everyone else’s hearts aflutter, so I’m including it here, but I actually don’t care for it. Different strokes!
Mr. Robot’s first-season finale airs tonight (after being postponed last week), and it caps a staggeringly inventive freshman season. Complicated, but not convoluted.
Orange Is the New Black is the best Netflix show and one of the best current shows, period.
Rectify might be TV’s most poetic show, using dreamy cinematography and languid — borderline glacial — pacing to give us all a meditation on justice and purpose.
Top of the Lake didn’t seem like the kind of mini-series that would morph into a returning show, but okay. Haunting, visually stunning, and beautifully acted. If season two is even half as good as season one, it’ll be fantastic.
Transparent is not a drama by Amazon’s standards, but it operates so much more like a drama than like a comedy, even if plenty of the show is often funny. Transparent can sometimes feel like a portrait that’s zoomed in too close — in some light, so unflattering, but in other light, so revealing.
UnREAL was the big surprise of the summer: A gutsy drama on Lifetime. Viva Shiri Appleby.
That’s just the start. I left off so many shows! I left off some shows I love, and some shows I’m sure you will like, too, and some shows that are good to try, just to see. We didn’t even talk about Alias, Being Erica, Better Call Saul, Boston Legal, The Closer, CSI, Deutschland 83, Elementary, Firefly, Game of Thrones, Halt and Catch Fire, House of Cards, Huff, Life Unexpected, Lights Out, Luck, Masters of Sex, Narcos, Outlander, Penny Dreadful, Person of Interest, Prison Break, Queer As Folk, Rome, Scandal, Suits, Switched at Birth, The Affair, The Borgias, The Bridge, The Leftovers, The Practice, The Tudors, and Treme. Next time.
* Swedish, not Swiss. Duh. Vulture regrets the error.