Today a few students asked me what my all-time top five favorite TV shows were, and I was unexpectedly stumped. Yes, a couple of them occurred to me, but instead a whole lot of inadequate possibilities swam before me. How could this be? I’m not constantly watching shows, but I’ve certainly see enough TV in the past decade that I should be able to come up with five shows that at least could be in my top five. But nothing. Blank. Even after leaving school at the end of the day, I was haunted by the question.
Lists of this kind are always hopeless. What would be the criteria? Is it about how much I loved it at whatever age I was at at the time I watched it? Or would it just be today, what do I think are the best five shows? Is it about the writing? How groundbreaking they are? Do I put dramas and comedies on the same list? How can I compare a show with a mind-blowing first season that fell off a cliff after that with a show that was steadily really good for five seasons? What if it was good at the time, but it doesn’t hold up to viewing in 2022? Or what if I haven’t ever re-watched it, or don’t even have any interest in re-watching it? Taking all these questions together, I came up with two solutions.
Solution 1: Don’t think about it too hard. And so I present to you:
My Top Five Shows Of All Time
5. Mad Men
This is one of the very few zeitgeist shows that Jen and I were actually in on from the beginning. I remember hearing an NPR story about it the day before it aired, watching the pilot, and, like many others, falling in love with it right away. Jon Hamm was made to play Don Draper (and maybe little else, based on what I’ve seen since), and the entire first season is so beautifully written and plotted. Historical dramas set in the mid-20th century have become popular during the content glut of the past ten years (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, The Queen’s Gambit, The Crown), but nothing I’ve seen has come close to Mad Men‘s combination of period, character, costuming, music, and design. Yes, the show faded toward the end as many do, but it recovered enough in the final season — unlike some other notable candidates for this list — that the show as a whole wasn’t tarnished.
(Note: This should not be construed as a recommendation to watch Mad Men, or any of the other shows on this list, until you’re adults.)
4. The Sopranos
I have a few mixed feelings about this one because, having watched the first couple of seasons again over the summer, some aspects of this legendary David Chase drama don’t translate well to 2022. It’s not just that the loathsome personal views of Tony Soprano, already tone-deaf in 1999, now render such a character borderline-unforgivable almost a quarter-century later. That was always baked in. Tony’s a sociopath, after all. He’s also extremely lovable, in a way that should deeply trouble us, which is just another way this show paved the way for characters in the decades to come. Could we have had Al Swearengen, Dexter Morgan, or the TV version of Hannibal Lecter without first being given permission to root for Tony?
No, my problem with The Sopranos now winds up being that the director’s lens doesn’t handle the violence perpetrated on the powerless with enough care. Meditating on that here will turn this into a 2,000-word post, so I’ll skip that for the moment. But this show changed so much, and the writing and acting remain so good, that it’s impossible to leave it outside my top 5.
3. The Wire
If this were a list of the Top Five Shows with Amazing Second and Third Seasons, David Simon’s crime drama would be a couple of spots higher. The Wire is discussed somewhat less since the conclusion of Breaking Bad, perhaps because both offered what felt like a behind-the-scenes look of both the “good guys” and “bad guys” in the drug trade. But for the uninitiated, during its run the consensus view became that it was the best show that had ever been on television.
The scope of The Wire was unlike anything before or since: Each season took on a different institutional aspect of this complex sociological problem. Even just the fact that it was dealt with as a complex sociological problem distinguishes it from everything else, and makes it, to my eyes, a much more moral approach than any other show has taken. Yes, like Mad Men, late in the game this show slipped; the fifth season was somewhere between awkward and embarrassing. But just the introduction of Stringer Bell and Omar Little should put this in any viewer’s Top Five.
What a stupid thing to put on a Top Five list. This is like putting The Bible in your top five books of all time, at number two, behind, say, Toni Morrison. Yes, Toni Morrison is brilliant, but… but…
Well, but nothing. Seinfeld is probably the only show that, when channel-surfing was still a thing not long ago, I would stop if I saw it was on 100% of the time. It was hilarious and weird, and I would still happily watch an episode at any point.
1. Breaking Bad / Better Call Saul
I don’t want to hear it. Is this cheating? Yes! But it’s my list! If you don’t like it, get out! I can’t possibly put either Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul here on its own. BCS couldn’t do what it did without BB coming first; and yet, BCS arguably had a much harder job to do, and did it better. Best, then, to treat them as two halves of the Albuquerque Cinematic Universe.
The point should be that Vince Gilligan put together two of the greatest shows of all time, comprising 11 seasons of television. More impressively, among those there are no “down” seasons, no seasons you’d rather just skip on a re-watch. This an accomplishment none of the other shows on this list can touch.
Beyond even that, most impressive is that these are vastly different shows. It would have been so easy for Gilligan, fresh off the successful conclusion of Breaking Bad, to come back with more of the old ultra-violence in Better Call Saul. That’s certainly what I expected. Breaking Bad started, after all, with a cold-open, in medias res police chase, and by the second episode was introducing viewers to gruesome uses for hydrofluoric acid. Instead, BCS was all about slow character development and slow-burn plot arcs, with no BB-style violence to be seen for a long time. (Indeed, Gilligan brilliantly capitalized on BCS viewers’ anticipation of that violence, counting on their familiarity with the original and knowledge of the dangerous world Saul was bumping up against, almost never having to actually follow through with the blood and gore. This is why you can’t look at Better Call Saul on its own.)
I could write about these two shows for a very long time, and maybe I’ll find an excuse to revisit them. But in spite of their popularity, and although I’d love to think of something more original or niche to put at the top of my list, it’s the trio of Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, and Saul Goodman who sit at number one for me.