Television series continue to evolve and viewers have a bevy of options at their disposal, whether it’s drama, comedy, dramedy, action, and so on. There are likely numerous series yet to be uncovered by the average viewer that will provide hours upon hours of heart-racing entertainment. In the end, that thrill is what drives us to invest so much time into these television shows. It’s escapism in its truest form, especially when it’s done right and you feel as though the characters are living, breathing people—well, besides the actors playing them.
Lists such as these are always subjective because different television series touch us in different ways. Series finales, especially, can make or break the opinions of many viewers. For a movie, that’s understandable, but for a television series, that’s just wrong. The quality of the viewing experience should be judged based on the journey and the lengthy development process of the characters we chose to invest in. The ending, whether it is good or bad, is simply a way to wrap it up and is nothing more than a bonus. That being said, series like Dexter took that notion to such a drastic extent that it’s difficult not to criticize the writers involved for what is truly one of the worst endings in television history.
There are a select few series, however, that are so good it’s really a matter of where you rank them, not whether they’re good enough to be there. This article will focus on the 11 best television series of all time, a difficult and frankly constantly evolving task. That being said, here are this writer’s personal favourites:
11. Orange is the New Black
Orange is the New Black is a drama derived from the simple premise of having its lead female character struggling to adapt to life in an all-female prison. The series could have easily generated views with a cheap soap opera format, but it opted to form a compelling narrative grounded in characterization. It seamlessly tackles gender stereotypes while pushing the story forward and making the viewers fall in love with a bevy of interesting characters. The second season, in particular, brought the series to new heights and bodes well for its future on Netflix. If you haven’t watched this one yet or don’t have a Netflix account for whatever reason, stop reading this and rectify that unforgivable mistake.
BBC’s Sherlock is the amalgamation of the cohesive writing regularly found on television and the high production value typically seen in big budget films. Each episode clocks in at an hour and a half, making each season essentially a movie trilogy. It’s a unique twist on the standard format for television series that pays dividends. The chemistry between Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch is undeniable and infectious on the overall quality of the series. Andrew Scott’s depiction of the villainous Moriarty is so well done you actually find yourself wanting him to survive every encounter with Sherlock. Every aspect of the series is of the highest quality and is deserving of your undivided attention.
9. The Walking Dead
Lots of people watch this show. So much, in fact, that it broke cable television records. There’s even a spinoff series in development, cementing society’s zombie fetish for the foreseeable future. As many The Walking Dead fans are privy of, though, the show isn’t really about zombies. It’s about the survivors and their struggle in a world without borders. Humans are the biggest threat in this post-apocalypse, while zombies are nothing but minor obstacles in later episodes. The acting is mostly solid, the writing keeps on improving, and the characterization is top notch. Whether you love it or hate it, The Walking Dead will go down as one of the most popular and successful television series ever.
8. The Sopranos
What an ending. The Sopranos had an 86-episode run of mob-related drama. Its abrupt finale is still a source of debate to this day, with many viewers deriving different conclusions from its ambiguous end. The series is lauded for its excellent writing, character development, comedy and countless themes. At its core, The Sopranos tackled many issues within society that are still prevalent today—religion, the American dream, politics, gender inequalities, and so on. The key to compelling writing is creating a world in which nothing is black and white, moral ambiguities are aplenty and characters reflect our greatest and darkest desires. The Sopranos had this in spades.
7. True Detective
Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson brought True Detective critical acclaim during its eight-episode run on HBO. Character development and thrilling drama were at the forefront in its brief opening season—by television series standards. The amount of depth and attention to detail is widely believed to only be matched or surpassed by shows like Breaking Bad or The Wire. Considering a second season is in development, it’s possible the series will only grow from here and cement itself as one of the best ever. The decision to focus on a new partnership every season is a bold and potentially revolutionary concept that could prolong True Detective’s shelf life.
6. Sons of Anarchy
When I was first informed of this series, I had dismissed it as a superficial motorcycle gang drama. On the surface, it does revolve around the motorcycle gang, the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, but there’s much more to it than that, whether it’s the perils of that lifestyle or the complicated responsibilities that accompany it. This is especially true in the fantastic final season, which expertly displays how destructive Jax Teller’s lifestyle becomes and its poisonous effect on those around him. Like many of the great series on this list, Sons of Anarchy’s characters are complex and far from righteous or morally correct.
The finale of this series is seriously underappreciated. Lost was a terrific show about a band of survivors on a mysterious, untraceable island. The show was renowned for its farfetched, sci-fi twists that kept viewers guessing until the very end. The characters are relatable and their on-screen interaction kept us glued to the television. The overarching theme of religion versus science was also intriguing and one of the series’ greatest strengths. Considering the wacky plot points throughout its lengthy run, it’s shocking the ending spurred as much controversy as it did. The real question is whether you’re on Team Jack Shepard or Team John Locke?
4. The Wire
The Wire is a crime drama much in the same mould as Breaking Bad—albeit the latter came afterwards—in that it boasts complex characters that defy generic, unambiguous archetypes. The series revolves around Baltimore’s drug trade, experienced from the side of law enforcement as well as drug dealers, which is a refreshing change from simply spoon feeding the viewers what is morally acceptable. The series is renowned for its refusal to portray black and white characters and its unique approach to have the featured city a living, breathing entity controlled by complex and vastly different characters. What makes it so compelling is that it’s grounded in real-life storylines.
3. House of Cards
House of Cards is one of the greats, and the best part is that it’s ongoing. Francis Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, is one the best characters to grace our television screens. He’s part villain and part politician, and his slick demeanor and intelligent plots makes him easy to root for as he slyly speaks to the viewers through monologues. It’s a brilliant touch that makes him all the more likeable and simplifies the sometimes heavy political topics. You really can’t help but support his heinous acts so he can climb atop the political ladder and continue his reign in The White House.
2. Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones has it all: action, drama, characterization, plot twists, sex scenes, gore scenes, political intrigue – just everything. If you’re not a fan of this series you likely don’t have a pulse. The seasons seem to get better with time as the stakes increase and the body count rises. Lots of people bite the bullet, er, sword, in this George R.R. Martin adaption and yet viewers never seem to be desensitized from the brutal deaths. That’s because the characters are so well written that it’s impossible not to get invested in them despite what book readers insist. Even the damn pet wolves are likeable.
1. Breaking Bad
Behold the greatest television series ever. Breaking Bad is a classic. This is writing and acting at its absolute best. This is the pinnacle of television series drama and a prime example of why writing, not torrid plot twists, are integral to the success of any well-respected series. Not many shows can get away with having its two main characters chase a housefly around a meth lab throughout the entirety of a whole episode. But Breaking Bad pulled it off and displayed what great writing truly entails…character development. Each season seemed better than the last as actions from long past episodes were expertly interwoven to form a compelling and frankly mind-blowing narrative.