A few weeks ago, I posted my list of my all time favorite TV comedies. Now I am going to offer up my all favorite TV dramas. This list was actually harder than the first. Dramas, as a television genre, have changed so much over the decades. With the emergence of cable and premium cable, the creators of dramas have so much more leeway in what they can get away with. Raw, gritty, sometimes brutal, realism is the norm as opposed to the campy, dated dramas of the past.
Dramas also are more difficult to follow than comedies. Unlike their funny counterparts, dramas don’t sell as well on DVDs, especially the older programs. It is not near as easy to go back and watch episodes of older dramas in syndication. The options are slimmer.
One more consideration – my age. I just don’t remember many dramas prior to 1980. I was too young to stay up and watch the 9 p.m. (Central Time) programs. I remember my parents watching detective shows like Mannix, Columbo, and Kojak, but remember few specifics. Programs like The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie were about as dramatic as I got as a young child. Also, I was in high school and college for the whole decade of the1980s and watched very little television during that time, except for some very specific shows. Unlike comedies, some of those older dramas weren’t being shown on late night TV for me to see and enjoy for the first time. Therefore, almost all of my entries are post-1990. I also believe modern dramas are just better, especially those on cable and premium cable. They have a sense of realism that just hasn’t been copied as well on network television.
With all of these things in mind, here is my baker’s dozen.
Honorable Mention – Hill Street Blues – I only watched a few episodes of this pioneer drama but everyone knew at the time that this show was changing network television. It was gritty and realistic and proved that TV dramas could be more than cheesy and campy. I wish I could have seen more episodes.
13) Magnum, P.I. – One of the few shows in the 80s I hated to miss. Who couldn’t love the charming Thomas Magnum who lived for free in a Hawaiian mansion’s awesome guest house and got to drive a Ferrari? There was some camp value for sure, but there was also a lot of heart, fun, and action. A great locale, good cast chemistry, and a terrific hero played with aplomb by Tom Selleck made this one of my early favorites. Plus, who can forget the iconic theme song?
12) Parenthood – The poignant family dramas follows the joys and tribulations of three generations of one family. Brilliant veteran actors meld with talented young actors to portray issues that many of us are familiar with on a day to day basis. The writers on this provide believable storylines we can all relate to. Issues such as unemployment, adoption, cancer, young love, Asperger’s, alcoholism, and the plight of veterans are just a few topics this program has tackled over its four year run. This is as realistic of a family show as has ever been aired and it continues to get better and better. Viewers can truly believe these people are all part of the family as they fight and love just like all real families I’ve ever known. This one is a gem.
11) Justified – Despite Timothy Oliphant’s quiet, subtle portrayal of the “hillbilly whisperer”, he is not the reason this currant drama ranks so high. That reason is a series of truly villainous villains. Each season has been filled with intelligent, evil, bad guys for Olyphant’s Raylan Givens to battle, not just physically, but intellectually as well. Who knew the rural hills of Kentucky was filled with such shenanigans. I can’t wait for the next batch villains to emerge in season four. Kudos as well to the one continuous nemesis, Boyd Crowder, played to perfection by Walter Goggins.
10) ER – I was a late comer to ER. I am not sure why I waited so long to add it to my viewing list. It wasn’t until I was laid up after rupturing my Achilles tendon in 2000 that I started watching reruns and became addicted to the life in this Chicago emergency room. Brilliant writing was the rule, overcoming several complete cast turnovers, without seeming to miss a beat. ER helped launch numerous careers and made stars out of such actors as George Clooney, Julianna Margulies, and Noah Wylie. There was always a great mixture of work and personal storylines and the character development was superb. I still miss my weekly trips to the ER.
9) NYPD Blue – To me, the program’s essential and continual theme was the growth of a single character, Andy Sipowicz. This is one of my favorite television characters of all time, played with genius by Dennis Franz. Sipowicz was a hard nosed detective whose attitude about the people and the world around him was out dated with prejudice and racism. The program was a twelve year journey of self realization and growth for Sipowicz. Franz’s portrayal of Sipowicz was magnificent; this was not an easy role. As hateful and backward Sipowicz was at times, deep down in his heart, he knew he was wrong and he had to change and overcome a lifetime of behavior. The show had warts though – the bad guys always seemed to confess under questioning and never requested lawyers. I always felt the weekly investigations wrapped up too nicely but this was Sipowicz’s story and the police work was just the back drop.
8) Rescue Me – This is one program that will probably won’t not be on many radars. There was always something that clicked with me about this Denis Leary vehicle. I loved Leary’s incredibly flawed and weak hero, firefighter Tommy Gavin. There were few vices in which he did not indulge. Despite this, viewers always hoped he would finally do the rights things but he seldom did. I also really liked the firehouse scenes. I have read many critiques of Rescue Me over the years and the biggest complaint about it was the barbaric and childish language and behavior of the firefighters. I always felt these were some of the most realistic scenes. Believe or not, for better or worse, a lot of men, in groups of other men, behave in this manner. Gavin’s life was tragic, insane, dangerous and heroic all at the same time. It was a good mix.
7) Mad Men – Who knew the 1960’s were so fun? John Hamm is incredible as the dour Don Draper, a creative genius ad agent in New York City. Another flawed hero, Draper is brilliant at work but a mess personally. He lives his daily life with one heck of a secret and most of his personal troubles are due to his wondering eye for the ladies. This program finds ways to draw out drama from innocuous situations, often making them intense and uncomfortable. The audience is drawn into their world of high stakes, high stress advertising. Viewers find themselves rooting for their relatively small ad agency to find success and to compete with the bigger boys. In their private lives, we wait to see if they will straighten out their lives outside of work and if the characters will do the right things. They seldom do. Draper, in particular, never seems to do his best work when his home life is calm. He needs conflict to excel. Incredible writing, directing, and acting place Mad Men firmly on my list.
6) Freaks & Geeks – probably the most surprising entry. This sweet period piece only has 18 episodes, a few of them not even aired originally. There is a nostalgic reason for my love of this show. The main characters are brother and sister and the boy is entering high school as a freshman in 1980, just as I did. The pop culture references and the music that filled this program really take me back in the best possible way but it the realistic trials and tribulations of kids trying to find their way in the jungles of high school that really is where Freaks & Geeks is special. Through the eyes of kids who are not jocks or in the cool cliques, we get a look the lives of the normal, average high school student rather than the stuff portrayed on television more often. The angst is more relatable because more of us fit into these niches than the normal Hollywood version of high school. This program is funny, sweet, nostalgic, realistic, and brilliant, from the home lives to the issues of every day life in high school. It also features one of the most brilliant casts of all time. This show launched the careers of James Franco, Seth Rogen, Busy Phillips, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daly, Ben Foster, Johanna Garcia Swisher, Lizzy Caplan, Martin Starr, and others. It also put writers Judd Apatow and Mike White on the fast track to success as well. If you get the chance, get the series on DVD and enjoy. I often wonder if NBC ever regrets canceling this show so quickly. I doubt they knew what a treasure they had.
5) The Shield – There are a few programs I think have changed the history of television in that they changed what programming was aired. The Shield was one of these programs. It was a pioneer as to how far an envelop could be pushed on basic cable as far as language and violence were concerned. This program, along with my #3 entry, really set the bar for the flawed, not-so-good hero. Michael Chiklis was sublime as the vicious Detective Vic Mackey. Mackey was very good at what he did – get scum bags off the street – but his methods were brutal and corrupt. Murder, theft, intimidation, assault, and blackmail were just a few of Mackey and his Strike Team’s tactics to accomplish their goals. The Shield was an intense action drama that left viewers on edge during the show and anxious with anticipation for the next episode as soon as the ending credits popped onto the screen. For seven terrific seasons, Mackey crushed the law and the constitution, as well as many a criminal, as various fellow cops and detectives worked to bring him and his Strike Team down. CCH Pounder and Jay Karnes each played fellow detectives who worked to bring Mackey to justice. Walter Goggins, a Justified staple, got his start as Mackey’s loose cannon and right hand. Forest Whitaker had an awesome turn for a season as an Internal Affairs officer driven to the brink in his effort to bring Mackey down. Chiklis’ portrayal of Mackey was absolutely spot on. He was as bad a guy as any criminal he ever pursued, yet the viewers never wanted him brought down. This also featured one of my favorite series finales of all time. F/X has done a great job coming up with these popular shows anchored by the anti-hero and this was just the first (see # 11, 8, & 4).
4) Sons of Anarchy – Sons owes its success to my previous entry. The criminal hero (anti-hero?) is in center stage in this magnificent story of a California motorcycle club that makes its money traditionally by running guns. The main character, a modern day Hamlet with a little Godfather sprinkled in for good measure, is Jax Teller, played in a subtle and down to earth manner by Charlie Hunnam. Jax wants his club to return to its days as a profitable entity based on more legitimate, socially acceptable means of business, as per his murdered father’s dreams. Unfortunately, Jax’s world is filled with greed and violence. Jax battles rival gangs, determined law enforcement officials, fellow club comrades, family members, and international drug and gun dealers. In its fifth season, Sons continue to pile up a shocking body count, both series regulars and brief guests. Jax ultimate goals are to extract his club from its dangerous business dealings and he wants to get his family away by riding off with them safe and sound. Protect his family and friends – that’s it. The violent world around him keeps him ensnared and he is forced to retaliate with brutality for brutality. Unlike Vic Mackey in The Shield, I don’t get a sense that Jax is evil – he is just willing to do what is necessary. Ultimately, he just wants what is best for his family and his club. Creator, director, producer, writer, and occasional guest star Kurt Sutter is an absolute (and unapologetic) genius. Everything about this show hits the perfect note, even down do to an incredible sound track week in and week out. Sutter likes to do things his own way and seems to battle Hollywood executive types. My advise to them it get the heck out of his way and let him just do what he does. I would be remiss in not mentioning Sutter’s real life wife, the former Peg Bundy, Katey Sagal. Her mantle should be filled with golden trinkets for her work on this program, week in and week out, every single season. The fact she is not even getting nominations is utterly ridiculous.
3) The Sopranos – the showed that made mobsters cool again. This HBO classic is the pioneer of the modern genre of violent anti-hero’s we love but shouldn’t. What is more original than a mob boss with an anxiety disorder and suffers anxiety attacks. What a brilliant premise! When it began, this series’ violence and storylines probably could have only been aired on premium cable but soon cable networks, mainly F/X, were following HBO’s lead, as did the other premium movie networks. Now, these programs are prevalent. The Sopranos started it all, and luckily, they did it the right way to set the example. Great writing and direction, coupled with terrific acting, is the formula still used to produce these programs today, 13 years later. James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, and Michael Imperioli were the stalwarts on a great cast but this show always had great acting throughout the seven seasons. Unlike mob movies, where we just get a 2-to-3 hour glimpse of mafia operations, in this series, we get to see the mundane, every day life of our mobsters. We see that no matter where their violent lifestyles may lead them, these bad guy bosses have many of the same issues in life as the rest of the population. Factitious wives, troublesome children, crazy relatives, and incompetent employees are just a few of the every day issues Tony Soprano had to deal with, plus there was always the threat of being wacked – no wonder Tony had some anxiety. I loved this show and I believe it started the whole cable genre of the anti-hero.
2) Law & Order and Law & Order: SVU - I’ve cheated here. I have put these two together even though they are really two completely different shows with somewhat different premises. L&O classic spent half of each episode dealing with the criminal investigations and the other half on the prosecutions. It was a very successful formula as the program ran for twenty seasons (should have been more). It wasted little time on the personal lives of the characters, leaving more time for the storylines. This also made it easier to market the show in syndication because it has few continuous storylines, unusual for dramas. The original suffered through many cast turnovers but that never affected the quality. The show also focused on relevant social issues and showed both sides of the story. I often found myself on one side of an issue but realized I was on the other side by the end of the program. SVU didn’t split up their episodes near as clearly as the original and didn’t have as much “Order”. It focused more on the “Law” part of the equation, more and more so as the series has gone on. This spin off focused more on the sexual crimes rather than homicides. SVU also avoided continuous storylines. Sam Waterston, S. Epatha Merkerson, Jerry Orbach, Chris Merloni, and Mariska Hargitay are just a few stellar performers from these series. There are many, many more. These series are also well known for their incredible guest star performances and nearly every non-superstar has made an appearance on one of these shows. These two programs have also been on television a combined 34 years and there are darn few bad episodes. They easily could be 1-2 on people’s list with little argument. I combined them to save time.
1) Friday Night Lights – I don’t think there was a single bad episode in the 5-season, 76-episode run. That is not to say there weren’t a couple of storylines I didn’t think were very good or dragged on a bit too long, but the writers seem to know what wasn’t working and ended those quickly. I also think this program had the most realistic characters and relationships in television history. Coach Taylor and his wife Tami, played flawlessly by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, could have been married. Their interaction was so real and believable and relatable. Coach’s relationship with his players struck true and played a key part in the success of this show. FNL was never a ratings horse. I always thought that too many people associated the show with the movie. The movie was a football movie. The TV show used football merely as a backdrop to the lives in a small Texas town. In fact, after the first season, very little screen time was allotted to football. We got some brief glimpses of games and practices but the focus was on the characters themselves. Some outstanding performances were put in by Zach Gilford, Michael B. Jordan, Taylor Kitsch, in addition to the Chandler and Britton. I think this was a heartfelt, realistic, touching look at life in a small town. There has been nothing like it on television – ever. There were few just outright villains. For most of us, life is complicated enough without villains and FNL writers got this. I loved this show and wish it was still on. I miss it and the characters. Go back and watch season one and you will be hooked. You do not have to be a sports fan to enjoy it. If you are a fan human drama, this is the series for you.
There you have it. I know this got quite long and I apologize. Keep in my mind this is my personal list. I know my brother loves NCIS but I never watched it. I got tired of CSI and hated the spin offs. Grey’s Anatomy is too soapy, though I like it. There are several cable shows I could have included – Shameless, Broadwalk Empire, Trieme, The Walking Dead, Homeland, Game of Thrones, and Suits are some of my favorites and all are very good. At another time, any of those could make my list.
I had a lot of fun writing this and I thank you for reading.