TV SPECIAL: The Top Ten Best US TV Dramas
With the astronomic success of Marvel’s Avengers Assemble signalling the arrival of another season of big-screen summer blockbusters, it’s worth remembering just how important a role television has played within popular culture over the course of its illustrious lifetime. Gone are the days of cheesy cop-shows and ill-made soap operas; instead, American television is now an exciting and endlessly-inventive source of inspiration for many filmmakers and directors, where creative freedom and longer story-arcs have the potential to provide results that even the most successful movies could only hope for. So, below is ten of the best (and one with the potential to be the best) that American television has to offer, from outlaw bikers and smiling serial killers, to dancing midgets and little green men from outer space. Forget ill-fitting 3D glasses and gallon-cartons of soft drinks; all you need is that trusty remote and a great deal of free time.
(Honourable Mention) Game of Thrones (2011-)
Creators: David Benioff, D. B. Weiss, George R. R. Martin
Cast: Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Michelle Fairley
Although this small-screen adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is still relatively young (only one full season has aired to date, although the second has just passed the mid-way mark), HBO’s latest flagship programme has really raised the bar for what is expected from a TV show. Set in the fantastical land of Westeros (a place where greed, lust, betrayal and murder are simply the names of the local whores), Game of Thrones is a remarkable achievement; impressive set-designs, highly-detailed costumes, and spot-on casting all contribute to a successful transportation of Martin’s epic world from text to screen. Peter Dinklage has never been better as Tyrion Lannister, the much-maligned yet endlessly-entertaining ‘half-man’, and the rest of the cast remain equally impressive. It’s still got a long way to go in depicting the whole of Martin’s sprawling masterpiece (not even the series of novels has been concluded yet), but judging by its first season, HBO are more than up to the task.
10. Sons of Anarchy (2008-)
Creator: Kurt Sutter
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Katey Sagal, Ron Perlman, Mark Boone Junior
When FX’s The Shield concluded in 2008, the network turned to Kurt Sutter, one of the show’s chief writers, in an effort to find something that could fill the void left by Vic Mackey and the Strike Team. Sutter’s response was to craft Sons of Anarchy, a hard-hitting action drama that follows the criminal and familial exploits of Californian biker outfit SAMCRO. Set in the fictional town of Charming, the show focuses on the young Jackson Teller (Charlie Hunnam) and the constant power struggle between this young pretender and his dangerously ruthless stepfather, Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman). As a modern-day reworking of Hamlet, Sons of Anarchy is a master-class in tension, combining fast-paced plotlines with characters that we really shouldn’t like, yet can’t help rooting for. Perlman is great as the villainous president of the club, and Katey Sagal puts in a terrific turn as the strong and controlling matriarch of the family. Gritty, violent, yet often blackly-comic, Sons of Anarchy remains the network’s most watched show, and over the course of four explosive seasons, has proved to be compulsive viewing throughout.
9. Dexter (2006-)
Creator: Jeff Lindsay
Cast: Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, Lauren Vélez, David Zayas
Dexter is a show that could easily get by on its premise alone, and a lesser production might have done just that. Dexter Morgan is a Miami blood-spatter analyst who moonlights as a vengeance-seeking serial killer, vigorously applying a warped code of conduct that he has inherited from his similarly-minded father. The fact that Showtime’s popular drama is so much more than this is a testament to its writers and cast, and for over six years, Dexter has remained one of America’s most-watched TV shows. Littered with great characterisation, tense storylines, and a sense of humour that is as wicked as Dexter’s surgical scalpel, the show is a stylish and edgy drama that manages the difficult task of creating empathy for a character that is so indefensible. The line between good and evil has never been so overtly explored on the small-screen, and Michael C. Hall is a magnetic and charismatic force as the titular character. Whilst the show has had its fair share of missteps (the third season being a particular disappointment), it has never once been allowed to stagnate, and the introduction of new characters and villains has proved vital in retaining the show’s immediacy and originality.
8. Oz (1997-2003)
Creator: Tom Fontana
Cast: Ernie Hudson, J.K. Simmons, Lee Tergesen, Dean Winters
Although it was never one of America’s most mainstream TV shows, Oz is certainly one of the most unflinching. Set almost entirely within the walls of the maximum-security Oswald State Correctional Facility, HBO’s grittily-realistic prison drama is a brooding colossus of claustrophobia and paranoia. Tom Fontana expertly weaves his various narratives across six seasons that explore all manner of controversial storylines, and the show never shies away from asking difficult and troubling questions. The ensemble cast do a great job of portraying a vast array of characters, from murderers, drug-dealers and lowlifes, to guards, officials and bureaucrats, and the whole production benefits from a formally-daring approach that sees Harold Perrineau Jr. provide a contemporary Greek chorus for events. Lee Tergeson is memorable as lawyer-turned-madman, Tobias Beecher, and J. K. Simmons gives a brutal turn as the Aryan Brotherhood leader, Vernon Schillinger. Bold, brutal and unforgettable, Oz remains one of the most challenging TV shows to date, and continues to gather widespread acclaim from those who missed it first time around.
7. Deadwood (2004-2006)
Creator: David Milch
Cast: Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker, Brad Dourif
Although HBO’s big-budget western TV show was a relatively short-lived affair, Deadwood provided more than its fair-share of corruption, intrigue and debauchery. Set in the late 1800s, the show focuses on the newly-formed tin-pot town of Deadwood, South Dakota, and its various inhabitants. Deadwood’s lead, Timothy Olyphant, provides a solid portrayal of Seth Bullock, a former lawman who migrates to Deadwood to find fame and fortune of a different kind. Yet at nearly every turn, Olyphant is upstaged by a brutally-unflinching Ian McShane, whose role as Al Swearengen, the town’s dangerously-corrupt saloon owner, remains the most memorable element of the show. McShane is simply outstanding as the foul-mouthed villain, delivering shockingly-profane insults and threats as if they were no more than passing observations. Thanks to the impressively-built sets, the show looks and feels like the real thing, where mud, dirt and bilge are only a footstep away, and its inclusion of real-life characters and events only adds to proceedings. Unfortunately, the sheer magnitude of Deadwood’s expenses meant that it never made it past the third season mark, yet it remains an original and remarkably authentic TV show that gave us one of the most memorable villains in American television history.
6. The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)
Creator: Rod Serling
Cast: Rod Serling, Robert McCord, Jay Overholts
Over fifty years since it debuted on American television, The Twilight Zone remains the ultimate anthology series and a creative landmark in super-smart and carefully-constructed episodic drama. Rod Serling’s sci-fi masterpiece is now such a part of American culture that it appears everywhere, from Simpsons episodes and Rush albums, to theme park rides and greetings cards. Ahead of its time in nearly every way, The Twilight Zone is so much more than a simple parade of planets, aliens, and monsters; instead, the show’s plotlines often function as contemporary morality tales that are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago. Whilst there are certainly indicators of the show’s cultural setting – the ‘space-race’ dominates many of the episodes from the opening seasons – these are interspersed with human stories about uncertainty, identity, and alienation. The opening and closing monologues that accompany each episode are one of the show’s greatest strengths, with Serling displaying a talent for posing questions and evoking issues that leave you endlessly longing for a road, any road, to take you from the ordinary to the unusual; from the mundane to the unpredictable. A road without markings, but with only a simple hand-painted sign that reads: ‘”This way, to the Twilight Zone”.
5. Columbo (1971-2003)
Creators: Richard Levinson, William Link
Cast: Peter Falk, Mike Lally, John Finnegan
The central conceit behind Columbo is as risky and as daring as pretty much anything attempted on television; take the age-old detective formula – one that has graced countless works of fiction since the time of Poe – and turn it on its head. The trick of letting the audience discover the identity of the killer from the outset is a unique one, but it could so easily have been an uninspiring one. It works here because of Peter Falk, who is so effective in his role that we watch for the process, rather than the answer. Witnessing just how the crumpled and shabby detective will catch his man never gets tiring because Falk is such a charismatic screen presence. From the shows repetitive quirks – “there’s er, just one more thing” – to its endless parade of smarter-than-thou villains, Levinson and Link’s detective drama is an inventive and remarkably consistent show that has rightfully earned its place in the annals of American television. The later episodes that aired on NBC may never have achieved the heights of those from the 1970s, but there is more than enough charm and wit in Falk’s portrayal to keep us watching.
4. The X Files (1993-2002)
Creator: Chris Carter
Cast: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Mitch Pileggi
Nearly twenty years since its inception, it’s extremely easy to overlook the cultural importance and sheer popularity of Chris Carter’s sci-fi series. For much of the 1990s, The X Files was one of the most talked about shows on television; internet fan sites sprung up on a daily basis, and Mulder and Scully became bywords for ‘hip’ and ‘cool’. From the outset, the show functioned as a small-screen ‘what if?’; one that pitched Mulder’s acceptance against Scully’s scepticism among a weekly parade of little green men, sewer-dwelling monsters, and shape-shifting serial killers. Sure, some episodes are nearly unwatchable (John Shiban, I’m looking at you), and the inconsistent nature of combining stand-alone ‘monster of the week’ episodes with mythology-arc storylines was often difficult to follow, but for the most part, The X Files was a smart and endlessly-watchable show that dared to believe. The early seasons remain the best, with Darin Morgan-penned episodes such as ‘Humbug’, ‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose’ and ‘Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’’ proving that the show was completely capable of self-parody and humour. Duchovny and Anderson have never been better than as the competing FBI agents, and the show remains one of the highest points in American television.
3. Twin Peaks (1990-1991)
Creators: David Lynch, Mark Frost
Cast: Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Ontkean, Mädchen Amick, Richard Beymer
Taking its title from the fictional logging town in which it is set, Twin Peaks remains one of the most-loved and most unusual of American dramas; a show that despite running for only two seasons, managed to successfully combine small-town intrigue with a level of surrealism rarely seen on primetime American television. Chronicling the investigation of FBI agent Dale Cooper into the murder of popular homecoming queen, Laura Palmer, the show operates as both a carefully-crafted soap opera, and a fantastically-dreamlike drama of loose-ends, unanswered questions and ambiguities. The show’s various characters are as memorable as its dancing-midget scene; a scene that demonstrates the sheer power of Lynch’s suggestive imagery. At the start of the 1990s, there was only one question on the lips of any self-respecting television viewer: “Who killed Laura Palmer?” It was a question that should never have been answered, and the second season suffers greatly from the reveal that occurs midway through. Studio pressure and a decline in ratings are cited as factors in this rather contrived revelation, and unfortunately, the show never recovers from it. Nevertheless, for over a season and a half, Twin Peaks defied classification to reign supreme as one of the most original dramas on TV.
2. The Wire (2002-2008)
Creator: David Simon
Cast: Dominic West, Wendell Pierce, Lance Reddick, Clarke Peters
Quite simply, The Wire is one of the greatest achievements in television history, and it could easily have topped this list. David Simon’s ultra-realistic portrayal of the American city of Baltimore encompasses every aspect of the city, from its drug-infested housing projects and blue-collar dockyards, to an overstretched police department, a failing education system and a press office bursting at the seams. Across five distinctly different seasons, and through hundreds of varying viewpoints and perspectives, we witness the highs and lows of a city at breaking point. Whether we’re watching the trials and tribulations of resident junkie, Bubbles, as he searches for redemption at the end of a needle, or the power-struggle between drug kingpin, Avon Barksdale and his right-hand man, Stringer Bell, it’s hard not to let the show completely absorb you. Dominic West is involved in many of the show’s high-points as the oft-drunk detective, Jimmy McNulty, and much of the show’s humour derives from the relationship between McNulty and fellow detective, William ‘Bunk’ Moreland (Wendell Pierce). Yet with The Wire, it is often the little details that make the show such a staggering accomplishment; just witness the heart-breaking scenes involving Bodie Broadus if you’re in any doubt. At times, it feels like you’re deliberately being thrown head-first into the lion’s den, without the necessary knowledge to understand the subtleties of the show’s linguistic complexities, but after a while you realise that this is one of its greatest strengths; an approach that makes you work for your pleasure. As realistic as anything seen on American television, The Wire is a true masterpiece and an important part of America’s cultural history.
1. The Sopranos (1999-2007)
Creator: David Chase
Cast: James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Lorraine Bracco, Michael Imperioli
Back at the turn of the century, HBO took a gamble on a show that would come to change the entire landscape of American television. Without The Sopranos, many of the complex dramas that adorn the networks today may never have been commissioned. The Wire, Six Feet Under, Boardwalk Empire, Treme; all of these owe some kind of a debt to The Sopranos, a show that demonstrated the necessity for something more than simply fast-paced plotlines and police procedurals. In a television landscape that was drowning in its own superficiality, The Sopranos offered unparalleled drama, complex characters, and lashings of black humour, all set against the backdrop of New Jersey mob activity. As Tony Soprano, the head of two equally-demanding families, James Gandolfini gives one of the most focused and versatile performances in television history. Able to move from intimidating gangster to sweetly affectionate animal lover in a heartbeat, Gandolfini is simply outstanding in his role, and whether he is foaming at the mouth with rage or discussing the psychoanalytical meanings of his dreams with his therapist, you can’t help but feel a warmth for the overweight, slightly-balding, grizzly bear of a man. Every season of The Sopranos is as fresh as the last, with new characters and plotlines developing at such a pace that it’s remarkable just how focused the whole show feels. The supporting cast is equally impressive, with Edie Falco really shining as Tony’s long-suffering wife, Carmela, and Michael Imperioli putting in a once-in-a-lifetime performance as Tony’s nephew, Christopher. The humour in the show is as subtle and as developed as the greatest of comedies, with Paulie ‘Walnuts’ Gualtieri (Tony Sirico) and Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt) responsible for much of the show’s laughs, yet The Sopranos is also remarkably daring in its formal approach; surreal dream-sequences, troubling flash-backs, and a near-death experience that lasts for two entire episodes, all contribute to a television show that for style, class and sheer drama, stands alone as American’s greatest television drama.
With any top ten list, there is always going to be a fair share of notable absentees. They haven’t been overlooked; they’re either simply not as good as the ones above, or I’m yet to finish watching them. Nevertheless, this list was particularly difficult to devise because of the sheer amount of critically-lauded and commercially-successful American television shows to choose from. Both The Shield and 24 are guilty pleasures of mine, and only narrowly missed out, whilst Breaking Bad, Six Feet Under, Lost, Boardwalk Empire, House, and Treme all deserve some recognition. Feature films may be the dominant form of non-interactive visual entertainment, and there’s nothing that comes close to the sheer thrill of visiting the cinema, yet over the years the small-screen has proven remarkably versatile with regards to creativity and originality. Shows like The Sopranos and The Wire are as complex and as engaging as anything you’ll find at the cinema; they simply develop at a different place, and on a different level. In a world where reality shows and talent contests are doing everything they can to undermine the medium of television, it’s worth remembering the power and the beauty of the small-screen; a place where mafia bosses are allowed to be sensitive thinkers, where endearing serial killers hide behind their police badges, and where your own personal twilight zone is only the click of a remote away.