A few months ago, The A.V. Club gave you 26 great, currently running shows to watch over a long weekend. But since this holiday weekend is even longer, we thought we’d give you the binge list containing 33 completed—sometimes long completed—shows. After you’re done filling yourself with turkey, fill yourself with some classic TV, most of which are shows you’re probably not familiar with—no The Wire or Arrested Development here. These are programs you may have missed and the shows that slipped through the cracks. Give one of them a try between football games—you might love what you find. Don’t see something you like below? Find more shows in our TV Club 10 archives, or just tell us what you’ll be binging on in the comments.
Bewitched (1964-1972; 254 episodes)
What it’s about: A witch marries a muggle—okay, the show never calls him a muggle—and then the two of them fight the battle of the sexes ’60s style, with plenty of metaphorical consideration of women’s role in society and the evolving American marriage.
Why you should watch it: Yes, 254 episodes is a lot, but you can probably check out of the series somewhere around the halfway point (unless you’re really into it). The first two seasons, which were under the auspices of Danny Arnold and Jerry Davis, however, are some of the best of the ’60s gimmick sitcoms, offering up some of the same metaphorical resonance that Buffy The Vampire Slayer later would, only about the lives of housewives in the ’60s, who were slowly realizing all of the power they actually had. And the performers—particularly Elizabeth Montgomery and Agnes Moorehead—were a hoot.
Who it’s for: People disappointed that Jessica Lange’s performance in American Horror Story: Coven isn’t more like Moorehead’s Endora; nosy neighbors; ’60s couples trying to understand the gender divide.
Availability: Though many episodes are on YouTube, a brand-new complete series DVD is well worth a purchase for anyone with even a passing interest in the show. [TV]
Black Books (2000-2004; 18 episodes)
What’s it about: Misanthropic Londoner Bernard Black (Dylan Moran) owns and operates his own bookshop, though he’s primarily interested in the first half of that equation. The entire enterprise would collapse if it weren’t for the efforts of Bernard’s optimistic clerk Manny Bianco (Bill Bailey) and their friend and fellow retailer, Fran Katzenjammer (Tamsin Greig). The workplace setting is largely a red herring, however. The true meat rests in the character’s attempts to improve their lives and escape the retail whirlpool, only to be sucked back down into a pit of booze, cigarettes, and cynicism—for which the wretched state of Bernard’s shop is the best symbol.
Why you should watch it: Black Books stills flies under the radar when it comes to Britcoms from the past 15 years, lacking as it does the stylistic innovation of Spaced or the meme-ready geekiness of The IT Crowd. But it shouldn’t be overlooked by fans of either program: It’s considered a sister show to the former (Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Jessica Hynes all make cameo appearances), while the latter’s Graham Linehan teamed with Moran to create Black Books. And for all its caustic wit, the cracking trio of Moran, Bailey (whom Spaced devotees will recognize as Pegg’s comic-store boss), and Greig does a fine job of clearing some of the darker clouds—emphasis on some.
Who it’s for: Curmudgeons; physical media junkies; hungover Anglophiles; appreciators of immaculately manufactured filth; anyone who’s set out to write a children’s book and come back with 1,000 pages about Joseph Stalin.
Availability: All major streaming services and available on DVD. [EA]
Baseball (1994, 2010; 10 episodes)
What it’s about: A little sport you may have heard of called baseball. Documentarian Ken Burns’ epic 18-hour documentary covers the sport’s origins in the 19th century up to 1993. (An additional episode, called “The Tenth Inning,” aired in 2010 and filled in the following 15 years.)
Why you should watch it: If you like baseball, it’s the ultimate nostalgia factory, presented in classic Burns’ style with talking heads and re-enactors waxing lyrical over yellowed pictures and archived footage. Even if you don’t care for the sport, Burns is such an involving filmmaker that you’ll likely gain an appreciation. It’s slow going and best taken in on a lazy Sunday afternoon, much like the game itself.
Who it’s for: Anyone who tears up thinking about Field Of Dreams; people who want to hear a lot of dull crowd roar as they watch TV; people who watch sports and complain about all the advertising hurting “the beautiful game.”
Availability: All major streaming services and available on DVD. [DS]
The Bernie Mac Show (2001-2006; 104 episodes)
What it’s about: The late, lamented Bernie Mac plays an exaggerated version of himself, a married, successful comedian with no kids. His sister enters rehab, so he’s suddenly stuck with three tykes: a snippy teen, a hopelessly nerdy boy, and an adorable little girl. Luckily, he has a gem of a wife (Kellita Smith), who’s happy to help any way she can.
Why you should watch it: Especially in its early seasons, this Larry Wilmore-created, Emmy-winning show was a surprisingly perceptive, often devastatingly funny deconstruction of Mac’s persona. Playing himself as a bossy, masculine know-it-all who delivered furious rants to the camera, the development of his tough-love relationship with his young charges was perfectly handled. At its best, The Bernie Mac Show had shades of All In The Family and could be just as bluntly funny.
Who it’s for: Everyone bemoaning the death of the classic sitcom; people trying to erase the memory of Soul Men; people who think they can tell it how it is.
Availability: Streaming on Netflix and available on DVD. [DS]
Cheers (1982-1993; 270 episodes)
What it’s about: Come on. You know this one. Sam Malone (the magnetic Ted Danson) spars with a blonde (Shelley Long) then a brunette (Kirstie Alley) at a Boston bar where one’s name is well known.
Why you should watch it: Because it’s the best-calibrated, best-conceived, and best-acted multi-camera sitcom, top to bottom, of all time. The show was good for 11 years, which is an eternity in TV time, and it was able to be at once screamingly funny and unexpectedly poignant in the space of a single scene. For those who doubt the ability of the multi-camera sitcom—the stage-bound comedy usually featuring a live studio audience—to transcend its admittedly constrictive cinematic trappings, Cheers will prove the perfect antidote.
Who it’s for: Anyone who’d rather go out for a drink than visit their family Thanksgiving night; those who make sure to close their yearly feast with a food fight; bickering would-be couples and the sad sacks who love them.
Availability: Streaming on Netflix and Amazon; also available for digital purchase and on DVD. [TV]
Coupling (2000-2004; 28 episodes)
What it’s about: Six thirtysomething Londoners examine the steamy side of relationships in a show that’s like one of those innumerable Friends clones launched in the States in the ’90s, except, you know, good.
Why you should watch it: Many on this side of the pond may only know Coupling from the deplorable American remake. Wipe the horrific memory of that sinking ship from the mind and embrace this witty, wonderful series. The show started out examining the relationship between Steve (based on show creator and writer Steven Moffat) and Susan (based on Moffat’s wife, producer Sue Vertue) and eventually branched out to develop an even more interesting relationship between self-deprecating Sally and arrogant Patrick. Sure, it’s reminiscent of Friends, but Coupling is a bit darker, and usually delves more deeply into sex than romance. Fans of How I Met Your Mother will appreciate the show’s experiments with concurrent plotlines and flashbacks.
Who it’s for: Singletons; smug marrieds; Anglophiles; viewers who thought Friends was too tame and are already gearing up to miss How I Met Your Mother when it finally draws to a close this season.
Availability: Streaming on Hulu, Amazon, and Netflix; also available for digital purchase and on DVD. [GI]
Deadwood (2004-2006; 36 episodes)
What it’s about: Rigid lawman Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and reprobate saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane, in one of TV’s greatest performances) join a cast of dozens to carve civilization out of the muck and mud of the Western frontier in HBO’s inversion of TV Westerns.
Why you should watch it: The Wire and The Sopranos are still widely watched, but the third leg of HBO’s trilogy of great dramas from the last decade is increasingly falling into obscurity, due to an abrupt cancellation that kept viewers from the planned ending (which would have involved the town burning to the ground). Deadwood, however, is one of a handful of shows with a legitimate claim to the best series ever made, and in its portrayal of the birth of civilization via the construction of a small town and David Milch’s beautifully ornate dialogue, the show is surprisingly hopeful about the American experiment.
Who it’s for: Hoopleheads and cocksuckers.
Availability: The entire run is available on both DVD and Blu-ray, and like most HBO series, it’s on HBO Go as well. [TV]
The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966; 158 episodes)
What it’s about: Forty-five years before Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, series creator Carl Reiner used his experiences as a writer-performer on Your Show Of Shows for the basis of the most sophisticated situation comedy of its day. For five seasons, beginning in 1961, Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) brainstormed with his fellow writers over the script of the next “Alan Brady Show,” braved the raging tantrums of his fire-breathing boss (played by Reiner himself), then came home to the suburban Eden presided over by his ex-dancer wife, Laura (Mary Tyler Moore).
Why you should watch it: The first great upper-middle-class sitcom, The Dick Van Dyke Show still feels fresh, thanks to smart writing and the talent and teamwork of a perfectly balanced cast of young up-and-comers and hammy old pros. The chemistry between Van Dyke and Moore set the standard for later sitcom couples: They were probably the first husband and wife on a TV comedy who were really sexy together.
Who it’s for: People who’d like to sample the flavor of the “New Frontier” era of the Kennedy presidency, without the tragic ending.
Availability: Streaming at all major streaming services. Also available for digital purchase, on DVD, and on Blu-ray. [PDN]
Father Ted (1995-1998; 25 episodes)
What it’s about: Three priests being punished by the Catholic Church for various incidents in their pasts live together in a small house on Craggy Island, just off the coast of Ireland. A unique blend of warm small-town sitcom and mid-’90s surrealism, Father Ted offers big laughs with an underlying melancholy.
Why you should watch it: Creators Graham Linehan and Andrew Mathews based Father Ted on a character Mathews introduced in his stand-up routines, and the hip sitcoms winding their way across the Atlantic in the ’90s, including Seinfeld, influenced the show’s humor. Despite all of this, the show maintains a wistful sweetness that keeps its surrealistic gags from becoming too much, while the weird jokes keep that sweetness from becoming too cloying. It’s an almost accidental combination of elements that make for one of the great Britcoms of its era. Plus its theme song, The Divine Comedy’s “Songs Of Love,” belongs on the list of great TV tunes.
Who it’s for: Lapsed Catholics; practicing Catholics; non-Catholics; people who just really want to escape to a goofy, friendly place for a few hours.
Availability: Though many episodes are on YouTube, the best way to watch is via the complete series DVD. [TV]
Fawlty Towers (1975-1979; 12 episodes)
What it’s about: A beleaguered British hotel manager tries to raise his establishment’s profile while dealing with a multitude of annoyances, including but not limited to his domineering and gossipy wife; a Spanish waiter with a terminal language barrier; an endless sea of demeaning, deceitful and (occasionally) deceased guests; and his own elitism and short-sightedness.
Why you should watch it: Sometimes cited as the greatest sitcom ever made, Fawlty Towers has only gotten better with age in the nearly 40 years since it aired. Its 12 episodes are a master class of farce and comedy of errors, its theatrical staging is one of the best arguments for the virtues of the multi-camera sitcom, and its creative DNA is tied into many successful comedies—Taxi, Cheers, and The Office all owe it a debt for its execution of cringe comedy and situational humor. John Cleese has never been better than his portrayal of Basil Fawlty, and the supporting cast of Prunella Scales, Connie Booth, and Andrew Sachs provide a terrific plate of characters that can serve as both straight men and antagonists depending on the situation.
Who it’s for: Past and present service-industry workers who’ve choked on the urge to explode on co-workers or patrons; frequent travelers looking for a “this could be worse” example the next time they’re staying in a bad location; anyone who finds institutional British politeness even vaguely amusing.
Availability: Streaming on Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime, and available for digital purchase and on DVD. [LC]
Hill Street Blues (1981-1987; 146 episodes)
What it’s about: Police officers (or blues) in a nameless American city work the beat bringing together issues of everyday crime-fighting and domestic strife into the precinct. It’s the first major success of Steven Bochco who, along with Law & Order creator Dick Wolf, has defined crime dramas on television for the last several decades.
Why you should watch it: Since it aired in the ’80s, countless shows have copped Hill Street Blues’ style. It’s weird to call elements of the show, like an interracial cast, groundbreaking. But at the time, they certainly were, as were the combination of both serial and episodic arcs, discussion of not-ready-for-primetime issues like alcoholism, and plots without the black-and-white morality of previous cop shows.
Who it’s for: People who want to see the blueprint for many a network drama, and not just ones about cops; Dennis Franz fetishists.
Availability: The first three seasons are streaming on Hulu. Many subsequent episodes are currently available on YouTube, and the first two seasons are on DVD. [ME]
Homicide: Life On The Street (1993-1999; 122 episodes)
What it’s about: You know those people who rave about how The Wire is the greatest television show ever produced? Meet The Wire’s proud papa. Less complicated in execution, but with the same affecting episodes and deeply felt characters, Homicide: Life On The Street is adapted from Wire creator David Simon’s book Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets. The television iteration follows the many personalities of Baltimore Police Department’s Homicide Unit, depicting them not as white knights doing well among the wretched, but as regular guys who crack wise to keep from having the tragedies that pervade their workdays bleed into their nights.
Why you should watch it: Detective John Munch turned in his badge this October after 20 years on television on 10 different shows and five different networks—including stints on Arrested Development and Sesame Street—moving from detective to special investigator for the district attorney. Munch, based off a real detective Simon knew, endured in so many different environments in part because of actor and comedian Richard Belzer, but mainly because Munch was the type of lovable weirdo that’s still good at his job. He’s one of the fantastic characters you get to know on this show. But if you come for any one character, it should be Andre Braugher’s lone wolf Detective Frank Pembleton, who is at the heart of the series’ greatest episodes.
Who it’s for: People who like cop shows, even when those cops aren’t paragons of good.
Availability: The complete series is available on DVD. [ME]
House Of Cards (1990; four episodes)
To Play The King (1993; four episodes)
The Final Cut (1995; four episodes)
What it’s about: In the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation, veteran Conservative MP Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) plots to destroy his rivals and enemies while rising to fill the leadership vacuum. His methods include seducing a tabloid reporter and killing one of his pawns by poisoning his cocaine. (Urquhart’s story, which starts in the four-part miniseries House Of Cards, is continued in the sequels To Play The King and The Final Cut.)
Why you should watch it: This series provided the inspiration for this year’s Netflix Original starring Kevin Spacey, but the British series is superior in every way: wittier, more daring, more satirically sophisticated, and with a magnetic, regally icy performance from Richardson that leaves Spacey eating dust. The U.K. version just makes it all look easy, in marked contrast to the Netflix remake’s sweaty desperation to appear sufficiently ruthless and cutting edge.
Who it’s for: Americans looking to feel better about U.S. politics, if maybe a little worse about Stateside TV.
Availability: Streaming on Hulu, and for purchase at Amazon, iTunes, and on DVD. [PDN]
I, Claudius (1976; 13 episodes)
What it’s about: Fifty years in the history of the Roman Empire, as seen through the eyes of the best and wisest emperor of his lifetime: Claudius (Derek Jacobi), who, at a time when everyone was scheming and plotting and jockeying for position and murdering anyone perceived as a threat, survived long enough to take the throne, because he was generally mistaken for a half-wit.
Why you should watch it: Well, not for its visual dynamics, that’s for sure. Seen today, it looks remarkably like a filmed play, which, despite being adapted by Jack Pulman from Robert Graves’ Claudius novels, is basically what it is. But not many plays have dialogue as biting and hilarious, delivered by so many actors firing on all cylinders. Besides Jacobi, the classic performances continue with Siân Phillips’ Livia, the scheming bitch to end all scheming bitches (and a likely inspiration for that other fearsome Livia, Mama Soprano), and John Hurt’s legendary turn as Caligula. Never has any actor provided a more flamboyantly convincing demonstration of why it’s a bad idea to hand a psychopath with a God complex the keys to the car.
Who it’s for: Fans of shows like Scandal or Reign, who’d like to see what cutthroat political melodrama and historical soap opera done to the extreme really looks like.
Availability: Streaming on Hulu, and for purchase at iTunes and on DVD. [PDN]
Invasion (2005-2006; 22 episodes)
What it’s about: Though it ran for only one season, Shaun Cassidy’s unnerving alien invasion tale took its time to get going before building into one of the great “woulda, coulda, shoulda,” one-season sci-fi wonders of the last 10 years. Opening with a frightening hurricane that conceals an unusual infestation of strange, glowing underwater creatures, the series wraps questions of divorce, remarriage, and new beginnings in the middle of a surprisingly well-thought-out riff on Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.
Why you should watch it: When it debuted after the second-season premiere of Lost in 2005, Invasion had a lot of hype, but failed to capitalize on that hype with an immediately arresting pilot. The first handful of episodes mosey about too much, before the show finds its momentum and builds nicely through season’s end, with devastating twists and a great understanding of family dynamics filtered through a sci-fi context. Plus, it boasts great performances from the likes of Kari Matchett, Elisabeth Moss, and William Fichtner.
Who it’s for: Sci-fi fans looking for another ’00s show to obsess over; children of broken marriages; underwater aliens that glow ever so prettily.
Availability: The complete series is available on DVD and for digital purchase. It pops up on various streaming services from time to time, and many episodes are on YouTube. [TV]
The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998; 89 episodes)
What it’s about: Against an ever-shifting late-night talk-show scene, veteran TV host Larry Sanders (Garry Shandling) struggles to keep his footing in the face of fickle audiences, threats from new faces, and the demands of network weasels. He also has to find the right balance between appeasing the correct people to keep his career afloat and fulfilling his own desires.
Why you should watch it: Everyone’s heard that you should write what you know, and the razor-edged Larry Sanders is the funniest insider satire of TV imaginable. (It was conceived by Shandling at a time when he really was being courted by the networks as a possible late-night host, and although he had no intention of taking such a job, he kept public speculation over his career plans alive in order to generate publicity for the show.) Larry Sanders is also a time capsule buried at the nexus point where just about every ’90s new-style comic and show-business maverick making a name for themselves in the came together: Rip Torn, Jeffrey Tambor, Janeane Garofalo, Jeremy Piven, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Scott Thompson, and Sarah Silverman all had regular or recurring roles on it at one point or another.
Who it’s for: Anyone who’s ever wished to hear a detailed (and, if at all possible, hilarious) explanation, from one who knows, of why network TV sucks.
Availability: Streaming on Hulu, and for purchase at Amazon and on DVD. [PDN]
The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis (1959-1963; 147 episodes)
What’s it about: Quoth the theme song: “Dobie wants a little cutie / Dobie wants a little beauty / Dobie wants a gal to call his own.” Dwayne Hickman plays the eponymous lover boy, a TV everyman for the ages who busted down the fourth wall nearly three decades before Ferris Bueller invited moviegoers to play hooky. Eternally at his side are the characters who’d eventually upstage the program’s nominal star: unshaven jazzbo Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver) and the one girl who’ll give Dobie the time of day, pesky know-it-all Zelda Gilroy (Sheila James Kuehl).
Why you should watch it: Max Shulman didn’t invent the myth of the American teenager when he introduced Dobie in a series of short stories. Still, the TV series based on those stories went a long way toward defining the type: heartsick, strapped for cash, and so willing to find an identity that they’d join the army for the better part of a season. Dobie also portrays the adolescence of the TV sitcom, indulging in flights of fancy that move away from the stage-bound realism of ’50s comedies without lapsing into the full-blown fantasies that defined the genre in the ’60s. It’s no longer considered daring to feature a beatnik in primetime, but the playfulness of Dobie Gillis keeps the show vital as ever.
Who it’s for: Richie Cunninghams, Cory Matthewses, and Eric Foremans in search of their roots; catchphrase etymologists; laugh-track skeptics; fans of Rodin reproductions.
Availability: Complete series available on DVD. [EA]
The Monkees (1966-1968; 58 episodes)
What it’s about: Four young musicians hang out in a beach house and enjoy a series of zany adventures.
Why you should watch it: Kicked off in 1966 to capitalize on Beatlemania by offering a U.S. version of the Fab Four, The Monkees quickly came into its own with four performers (two musicians, two actors) who had off-the-wall chemistry and were ready to take American TV into the hippie era. The first sitcom to not feature any adult authority figures with plots that veered into “madcap” territory, it also helped preview MTV 20 years ahead of time by offering filmed versions of the group’s extremely catchy pop songs. The short-lived Emmy-award-winning series got a bit more psychedelic as it went on, but it never stopped being a blast, and there’s been no TV show like it before or since.
Who it’s for: Pop-music historians; beach house admirers; perpetual adolescents; members of the Davy Jones Fan Club.
Availability: The series is on DVD. [GI]
Moonlighting (1985-1989; 66 episodes)
What it’s about: Former model Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) is forced to work at the private detective agency she once owned as a tax write-off, and is thrown into the whirlwind orbit of David Addison (Bruce Willis at his most charming). The two solve mysteries, banter, and dance around the question of just when they’ll stop hating each other and start sleeping together.
Why you should watch it: Fans of Community’s flair for experimental episodes will likely enjoy this series, which frequently went against expectations by dropping the characters into Shakespearean homages and film-noir tributes, then breaking the fourth wall and slinging rat-a-tat dialogue back and forth at obscene speeds. The show could be quirky to a fault, but when it was on, there was nothing like it, and it’s one of the groundbreaking ’80s dramas that holds up best to modern eyes. Plus, it’s wickedly funny and surprisingly romantic.
Who it’s for: Anyone who wakes up in the morning and says, “I think I’ll only speak in iambic pentameter today”; will-they/won’t-they fans who’ve gotten past Sam and Diane.
Availability: The complete series is available on DVD. [TV]
Naked City (1958-1963; 138 episodes)
What it’s about: Manhattan police detectives. Actually, no, scratch that. It’s a panoramic collection of lyrical, tragic, absurd short stories about all the losers and dreamers of New York City (those “8 million stories”), penned by some of early television’s finest wordsmiths (Stirling Silliphant, Howard Rodman, Abram S. Ginnes). Since it was technically a police drama, the writers reluctantly worked a crime and some cops into the margins of each episode. It comes in two flavors, though: The first is a film noir-like, half-hour, action-centric version (starring James Franciscus), and the second is an even better, character-driven, hour-long reboot (starring Paul Burke).
Why you should watch it: An independent production shot in the real streets of New York, it was as eccentric and non-commercial as anything broadcast on a network before Twin Peaks. Plus, it’s crowded with great guest stars, including a fistful of future movie stars (Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight, Christopher Walken) fumbling in front of a camera for the first time.
Who it’s for: Vintage New York City nostalgia buffs; commie pinkos who like their cops solving random strangers’ problems instead of clubbing protesters; anyone who thinks TV shows should have really long episode titles and those titles should be printed on the screen, dammit.
Availability: DVD. [SB]
Peter Gunn (1958-1961; 114 episodes)
What it’s about: Plugged-in private eye Peter Gunn (Craig Stevens), who works out of a waterfront jazz club called Mother’s, regularly takes a break from snapping his fingers to the house band and flirting with the singer (Lola Albright) to accept cases and run down bad guys.
Why you should watch it: Compared to the run of older crime shows, which mostly took their cues from such intense producers as Jack Webb or Quinn Martin, the relaxed, cool-jazz vibe of the half-hour Peter Gunn retains its low-key charms. The series’ roster of directors included series creator Blake Edwards, Lamont Johnson (The Last American Hero), and Jack Arnold (The Incredible Shrinking Man), and its best episodes are deft little examples of sunlit noir, circa 1959. Much of the atmosphere comes from the supporting cast—especially Albright, one of the most talented and underappreciated actresses of the ’50s and ’60s, and the sexiest “Are they seeing each other or what?” girl Friday a TV detective ever had.
Who it’s for: Anyone who’s ever lost sleep from wondering what kind of movie career Chet Baker might have had if he’d stayed straight, or who’s ever wondered just what the hell the immortal “Peter Gunn Theme” is the theme for.
Availability: Streaming on Hulu and available on DVD. [PDN]
The Rifleman (1958-1963; 168 episodes)
What it’s about: A widower trying to raise his son right on a ranch in the New Mexico territory while dealing with the various people and problems that come to town each week.
Why you should watch it: Even debuting at the height of the TV Western in the late ’50s, The Rifleman stands out. It isn’t about a marshal or a bounty hunter. It’s about a father, a Western with as much in common with the family sitcoms of the day as the adventures. Chuck Connors’ quick draw Lucas McCain tries to do the right thing, because of his son, not because of the law. Not even Nielsen hotshot Gunsmoke has as deep a bench of recurring townspeople, giving the show an unusually lived-in quality. That sense of not quite continuity, but consequence, fits right in with series developer Sam Peckinpah’s preoccupations with violence, power, and moral justice. And with about a third of the episodes directed by black-and-white trash-art stylist Joseph H. Lewis, The Rifleman has one hell of a kick.
Who it’s for: People who like something bigger than a revolver; Civil War vets; anyone whose only frame of reference for ’50s parenting is Leave It To Beaver.
Availability: Fifty episodes from the first four seasons are streaming on Hulu, and many episodes are on DVD. [BN]
The Rockford Files (1974-1980; 122 episodes)
What it’s about: Ex-con turned private detective Jim Rockford solves crimes, meets beautiful women, and struggles with his bank account.
Why you should watch it: In the 1970s, no TV show pulled off the private eye sitcom quite as well as The Rockford Files. When the show debuted in 1974, James Garner’s Jim Rockford was the perfect stand-in for America, a country that was still trying to exit an extremely unpopular war and had recently seen its crooked president resign: He was world-weary, pessimistic, and sardonic, but still attempting to fight the good fight. TRF continued through the ’70s, featuring standard detective conventions like femme fatales, cop buddies, and old flames, while adding some key modern aspects like disillusion with authority. The show was also noteworthy as an early series created by the prolific Stephen J. Cannell and a training ground for many future creators of legendary television, including The Sopranos’ David Chase.
Who it’s for: Muscle-car fans; ’70s nostalgia buffs who appreciate Linda Evans and Joan Van Ark guest spots; readers of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Availability: Hulu and Netflix, as well as DVD. [GI]
Rubicon (2010; 13 episodes)
What it’s about: Employees of a government think-tank search for patterns in government intelligence to prevent terrorist attacks, while trying not to fall apart under the weight of the information they analyze daily.
Why you should watch it: Although it failed to break out in the same way fellow AMC shows Mad Men and Breaking Bad did, Rubicon was in its own way as beautifully executed as either of those two shows. Its conspiracy elements often fell apart under analysis, but showrunner Henry Bromell and his team made up for it with terrifically human moments as characters weighed giving the okay on drone strikes and dealt with the uncertainty of lie detector tests. It was the rare show where it was compelling just to watch people think, and it expertly built a sense of claustrophobic dread as the season progressed. It also contained one of most memorable performances in recent years in Michael Cristofer’s Truxton Spangler, a man who could make eating cornflakes and discussing ties into moments of remarkable weight.
Who it’s for: Aficionados of disquieting espionage films like Three Days Of The Condor and All The President’s Men; former Homeland fans frustrated by the show’s current trajectory; jaded office employees who like to imagine something bigger tied to what they do.
Availability: The first and only season is streaming on Amazon Prime. [LC]
Six Feet Under (2001-2005; 63 episodes)
What it’s about: Southern California’s Fisher family deals with life and death while running a funeral home.
Why you should watch it: Instead of navigating your own family drama over Thanksgiving, take a break with the Fishers. For five thoughtful seasons, the HBO show explored why people have to die. Every episode started with a death, with the corpse usually ending up at Fisher & Sons funeral home. The corpse’s story often reflected the various issues the Fisher family—reluctant funeral director/former free spirit Nate (Peter Krause), longstanding good son and eventually out-of the-closet David (Michael C. Hall), long-suffering meek matriarch Ruth (Frances Conroy), and searching art student Claire (Lauren Ambrose)—was dealing with that week. Screenwriter Alan Ball created a show with such intimate portrayals of this family, viewers felt like they knew it as well as their own.
Who it’s for: Commitmentphobes; aspiring morticians; anyone who’d like to spend time with a family even weirder than theirs over Thanksgiving; Parenthood and Dexter fans curious about a show in which Peter Krause and Michael C. Hall are brothers.
Availability: Digital purchase on Amazon; DVD; streaming on HBO Go. [GI]
Spaced (1999-2001; 14 episodes)
What it’s about: Comic-book artist Tim and freelance writer Daisy meet cute when she thinks he’s a weed dealer. They pose as a couple in order to rent their dream flat and have to navigate their relationship, a cast of misfit friends, and a conveyor belt of pop-culture references.
Why you should watch it: The easy chemistry of writers and stars Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes, with an assist from Nick Frost as Pegg’s gun-nut bestie, makes the perfect platform for the show’s running jokes, stunt cameos, pop-culture homages, and cutaway gags. (Style-wise, it’s essentially an intro course on the developing style of director Edgar Wright, who would soon merge with Pegg and Frost to create an unstoppable nerd juggernaut). But while the usual sitcom elements are in play, there’s room for beats of earnestness, a refreshingly messy leading lady, and one of the best finger-gun fights in TV history.
Who it’s for: People who love their roommates; people who can’t stand their roommates; pop-culture completists; your friend who secretly misses their rave days, but doesn’t dare admit it.
Availability: Streaming on Hulu and Netflix; also available on DVD. [GV]
The Thick Of It (2005-2012; 24 episodes)
What it’s about: The foibles of British government, exposed with painful clarity. The show follows a fictional ministry—The Department Of Social Affairs And Citizenship—as it manages to accomplish exactly nothing, but participates in the spin, manipulation, and grandstanding that characterizes the modern political process.
Why you should watch it: It’s bitingly funny and alarmingly prescient—so much so that the it actually predicted a few real-life political kerfuffles in Britain. Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker is a foul-mouthed spin-doctor who delights in excoriating stupidity. Fortunately for viewers, in DOSAC, that stupidity is everywhere. Despite its general look as a workplace comedy, it’s a complex, intelligent satire of bureaucracy, and it spares no one in its path. Creator Armando Iannucci went on to create Veep for HBO after the success of this show.
Who it’s for: Political junkies; anyone who thought that this moment at the Emmys was priceless; curmudgeons who pretend to be cynical, because they’re instead very idealistic.
Availability: Available for streaming at Hulu Plus; also available for purchase on Amazon and iTunes, as well as on DVD. [SS]
Thirtysomething (1987-1991; 85 episodes)
What it’s about: One of the most influential drama series of all time, Thirtysomething took the concerns of creators Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick and their baby boomer friends and filtered them into poignant stories of trying to hang onto youthful idealism, while also hoping to have it all.
Why you should watch it: Thirtysomething was the original series people argued about, because the characters were too whiny and unsympathetic. Herskovitz and Zwick channeled their hopes and dreams and frustrations with life in the Reagan and Bush ’80s and turned them into stories where the stakes might be as small as which holiday to celebrate at year’s end in a mixed-faith family. The show is not for everyone, but those who can get on its wavelength will find beautiful, small-scale drama, as well as some surprisingly spritely business plots that suggest things Mad Men would do decades later.
Who it’s for: Look at the title.
Availability: The entire series is available on DVD, and it streams at Amazon. [TV]
The Twilight Zone (1959-1964; 156 episodes)
What it’s about: Rod Serling presents a kaleidoscopic portrait of Cold War America by way of a series of speculative fables about the concerns of the day.
Why you should watch it: To this day, The Twilight Zone is one of the greatest—most beautiful, intelligent, horrifying—television dramas ever. The stories range from an Old West saloon to a UFO in the future to a Nazi sub to a then-contemporary suburb to a Salvation Army bin—all of them deeply haunted. There’s a sense of national exorcism in Serling’s merciless hammering. But it isn’t just narrative twists and thematic power. A number of uncanny luminaries passed through, like writers Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury, directors Ida Lupino and Jacques Tourneur, and actors Agnes Moorehead and Burgess Meredith, making the series as much a feat of performance and mood as anything else. Most of all, it’s a time capsule—a freakily subjective one, but one of the greatest American works of its era nonetheless.
Who it’s for: Obsolete men; people living in fear of nuclear war; anyone looking to title an adventurous cookbook.
Availability: The complete series is streaming on Amazon and iTunes. The first two seasons are streaming on Netflix, and 38 episodes from the first three seasons are streaming on CBS.com. The whole thing is on DVD and Blu-ray. [BN]
Twin Peaks (1990-1991; 30 episodes)
What it’s about: An FBI agent comes to a strange Washington town when the body of the homecoming queen washes up on a riverbank, and that’s just the beginning of the town’s violent mysteries.
Why you should watch it: Hill Street Blues writer Mark Frost and Blue Velvet auteur David Lynch came together to create this weird mystery show, but there’s so much more to Twin Peaks than weirdness and mystery. It’s a small-town drama, a soap opera parody, and above all, a nightmare. As Kyle MacLachlan’s Special Agent Dale Cooper explores the town, common threads emerge about domineering men and brutalized women. Like its heir, Top Of The Lake, Twin Peaks sees patriarchy itself as a horror. With Lynch setting the stage in the pilot, the series is full of unsettling details like off-kilter performances and the screech of buzz saws, the look so terrifyingly stylized that even a meta moment becomes laced with danger. Come for the mystery, stay for the parody, and keep the lights on for the horror.
Who it’s for: Connoisseurs of pie and coffee; log ladies; people named Bob.
Availability: The complete series is streaming on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and iTunes. It’s also on DVD. [BN]
UFO (1970-1971; 26 episodes)
What it’s about: In the near future of 1980, Ed Straker is the steadfast yet tortured commander of SHADO, a top-secret paramilitary organization dedicated to winning the war against mysterious alien invaders, all while keeping the public in the dark about the UFO threat and fighting against budget cuts.
Why you should watch it: Gerry Anderson’s live-action follow-up to Supermarionation cult classics like Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet, UFO features the producer’s typical, top-notch special effects and the kind of gloriously surreal sense of style one would expect from people in 1970 imagining what the world 10 years into the future. But it’s in the thought-provoking storytelling where UFO really shines; while there are some bumpy moments in the early going as the creative team figures out how to work with humans instead of puppets, the show explores all the remarkable possibilities of its premise in its brief run. Some episodes present its characters with truly brutal moral dilemmas, while others unfold as bonkers, frequently groovy hour-long sci-fi thrillers.
Who it’s for: Retro-futurists; crackpot conspiracy theorists and the perpetrators of said crackpot conspiracies; anyone who believes a purple wig is a vital part of proper military dress.
Availability: All but one of the show’s 26 episodes are available on Hulu. The complete series is available on DVD. [AW]
Wiseguy (1987-1990; 75 episodes)
What it’s about: Vinnie Terranova (Ken Wahl), a federal agent working deep undercover, insinuates himself with all manner of criminal scum—mobsters, white supremacists, rogue government agents—in order to bring them down, but not without some cost to his soul.
Why you should watch it: An unusually dark and gritty series from the prolific producer-creator Stephen J. Cannell, Wiseguy broke its seasons up into longer story arcs that enabled the writers to sink their teeth into the different thriller milieus the hero was dropped into. It also allowed for phenomenal performances by some of its guest stars, such as the late Ray Sharkey, in the role of his life as the likable mob boss Sonny Steelgrave, and a then-unknown Kevin Spacey as the deranged, genius-level sociopath Mel Profitt. Both those actors appear in the first season; the later seasons are more uneven, but do include such unlikely attractions as Jerry Lewis as a garment manufacturer besieged by the mob (in the person of the young Stanley Tucci) and a small-town serial-killer storyline that predates Twin Peaks, which premiered months later.
Who it’s for: Breaking Bad fans whose withdrawal period would be eased by a solid dose of Jonathan Banks. (He plays Vinnie’s contact man, who is full of the milk of human kindness, except it’s gone sour.)
Availability: Streaming on Hulu, and for purchase on Amazon and iTunes. [PDN]
The X-Files (1993-2002; 202 episodes)
What it’s about: The ultimate binge, The X-Files traces FBI Agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) as they crisscross their way through America, in search of an all-encompassing alien conspiracy and assorted things that go bump in the night. But it’s really about the United States’ uneasy transition from a series of regions to one mass culture. Sort of.
Why you should watch it: This is the perfect missing link between the sorts of funky case-of-the-week shows that defined ’70s drama and the more sprawling, serialized shows that define modern TV drama. It’s also frequently scary, just as often funny, and wildly inventive and experimental, taking its status as a big hit at its height as an excuse to come up with crazy experimental episodes. The serialized storyline may eventually fall apart, but the vast majority of its monster-of-the-week episodes hold up.
Who it’s for: Your uncle, who thinks “they’re” coming to take him away to a re-education camp; your cousin, who may be a human-alien hybrid; your sister, who just might be a clone.
Availability: All major streaming services, digital purchase, and DVD. [TV]