1. The Wire (HBO, 2002-08)
Taking full advantage of the generous breadth of the television format—and HBO’s commitment to ambitious, form-expanding programming—The Wire unfolded like a great American novel, trusting viewers to pick up on the intricate connections between seasons, characters, and myriad details. Starting as an impressively scrupulous, evenhanded depiction of the Baltimore drug trade, the show opened up into an ever-expanding portrait of a city, one weakened institution at a time, from the unions to the schools to the newspaper business. At every turn, Simon and his crack team of writers (including crime novelists George Pelacanos, Richard Price, and Dennis Lehane) revealed how the corrupt and often grossly incompetent acts of the powerful consistently preyed on the city’s most defenseless residents. Rooted in Greek tragedy, this grim series was mitigated by moments of profound redemption, a penchant for gallows humor, and an abiding respect for the quietly heroic men and women who try to make a difference.
Essential episodes: “Bad Dreams,” “Final Grades,” “Late Editions”
2. The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007)
The depiction of evil in storytelling has been complicated ever since Lucifer became the breakout character in Milton’s Paradise Lost. It would be a mistake to say all 86 episodes of The Sopranos are a commentary on the relationship between storytellers and their wicked characters, but that was definitely on the mind of show creator David Chase. Over the course of its six seasons, the series followed the misadventures of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), a charismatic multiple murderer who uses psychotherapy to help him balance his relationships with his wife and children, and to deal with the stress of his position as a powerful figure in the New Jersey mafia. Chase and other writers used Tony’s dual life as means to examine consumerist culture, the lasting impact of violence, Italian-American identity, and dozens of other themes. With a strong cast anchored by Gandolfini’s brilliant leading turn, each season served up soap opera, mob intrigue, and surrealist digressions, all tied together by the main character’s quest for self-realization. The dark inevitability of that quest’s end will be forever debated by fans, but one lesson is clear: having sympathy for the Devil doesn’t make him any less monstrous, no matter how much we might wish otherwise.
Essential episodes: “Employee Of The Month,” “Whoever Did This,” “Made In America”
3. Arrested Development (Fox, 2003-06)
As Ron Howard explains at the beginning of every Arrested Development episode, “This is the story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together.” That’s a deceptively simple way of explaining Arrested Development, but the complexity of the show’s writing is what kept fans enamored. In short, AD not only makes viewers laugh, it makes them feel smart. What other TV comedy so richly rewarded a vigilant audience with inside jokes, subtle callbacks, and long-form farce? Of course the spoiled, obnoxious characters (especially those played by Jessica Walters, Will Arnett, and David Cross) are entertaining as they are, but the writing around them makes the show a classic. Arrested Development’s gags run the gamut from puns (Sunday brunch places named “Skip Church’s” and “Miss Temple’s”) to the sweet (George Michael’s homage to Charlie Brown) to the nearly profane (the word “cunt” is referenced a surprising number of times for a network TV show) to the ridiculous (“Bob Loblaw’s law blog”), yet it all ties together. The series demands attention and repays it with bits that don’t even register until the second, third, or even fourth viewing. And the telltale sign of Arrested Development’s greatness: it looks like it was fun as hell to make.
Essential episodes: “Pier Pressure,” “Mr. F,” “Righteous Brothers”
4. Freaks And Geeks (NBC, 1999-2000)
The Judd Apatow juggernaut—surely the most understated, genial media movement ever to deserve the title—began with the one-season-and-out teen drama Freaks And Geeks, produced by Apatow and created by Paul Feig. Following the varied outcasts of an early-’80s suburban Detroit high school, Freaks And Geeks features Linda Cardellini as a geek (a “mathlete,” to be precise) who migrates to the stoner crowd, and John Francis Daley as her nerdy younger brother, simultaneously worried about his sister’s future and fighting his own adolescent battles. The show not only captured in 18 scant episodes the miasma of heady freedom and sickening chaos that defines the high-school years, it also provided breakout roles for Sam Levine, Martin Starr, James Franco, Busy Phillips, Jason Segel, and Seth Rogen. NBC didn’t necessarily know what to do with this critically acclaimed ratings disaster, but rarely has a canceled show's brilliance been so immediately evident. Before the final three aired episodes were burned off in the summer of 2000, the cast and crew received a scholarly fête at The Museum Of The Moving Image; then Apatow went on to the almost-as-good sitcom Undeclared, and a huge movie career.
Essential episodes: “We've Got Spirit,” “Looks And Books,” “Discos And Dragons”
5. Mad Men (AMC, 2007-present)
TV period pieces rarely work. The production design usually pales in comparison to period films, the characters are often only empty vessels through which to experience major historical moments, and a modern sensibility ultimately prevails, in spite of the era-specific trappings. Mad Men has turned that last weakness into an advantage with its deliberately cool, distanced look at ’60s advertising executives, unaware of the tidal wave of change soon to sweep them away. Matthew Weiner’s series apes films of the period, offering shots held for ages, moments of supreme quiet, and a glacial pace, even as the characters roil with emotions they barely knew how to express. Mad Men is about hanging out in a meticulously recreated bygone world with the handsome rogue Don Draper (played by the great Jon Hamm) and company, but it’s also about using our knowledge against us, and making us realize that the people who lived in the mythical ’60s were real individuals, struggling to comprehend just how thoroughly the world could be upended.
Essential episodes: “The Wheel,” “The Jet Set,” “Seven Twenty Three”
6. Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008-present)
Few shows have proven as skillful as Breaking Bad at stringing together memorable scenes. In fact, the show’s first pre-credits sequence is a flash-forward to a thundering chase scene so jaw-dropping, it’s amazing that the hour of television which follows earns every moment. Creator Vince Gilligan begins with the tale of a high-school chemistry teacher who turns to meth-dealing to provide for his family when he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer, and stretches the story out so he can explore the quiet moments between its mind-blowing setpieces. Bryan Cranston perfectly inhabits the role of a man who chooses doomed action over helpless inaction, and he’s ably served by a terrific supporting cast, including Aaron Paul as his junkie partner, Anna Gunn as his suspicious wife, and—turning around a role that could have become mawkish—RJ Mitte as his cerebral-palsy-afflicted son. The actors help imbue the life and times of a dying man with the sort of powerful drama that keeps viewers rapt between big moments that can take a whole season to play out. But as Breaking Bad showed with its masterful second season, it’s always worth the wait.
Essential episodes: “Pilot,” “Cat’s In The Bag,” “ABQ”
7. The Office UK (BBC 2, 2001-03)
When Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant first conceived a mockumentary about a gloriously self-deluded boss who fancies himself a “friend first, an entertainer second, and a boss third,” they couldn’t have imagined they’d concoct an international pop-culture phenomenon that would spawn adaptations around the world, including the rightly revered American version starring Steve Carell. Gervais and Merchant’s groundbreaking, wildly influential hit garnered huge laughs from awkward silence, tension, and the everyday humiliations and defeats of life as a wage slave. Underneath the comedy lay an unblinking take on middle-class ennui and frustration that bordered on tragic.
Essential episodes: “Training,” “Motivation,” “Christmas Specials”
8. Lost (ABC, 2004-present)
No series risked more over the past decade than Lost, which has asked its viewers to be patient as the show’s creators have withheld information, killed characters, divided the cast and—in the ultimate potential deal-breaker—toyed with time travel. To some extent, frustration with Lost has become part of the pleasure of watching the show, as fans gather to grumble about dangling plot threads and conflicts that could be easily resolved if characters ever used some of the time they’re spending cast away on a desert island to, y’know, have conversations. But Lost’s payoffs have been well worth its head-slappers. Showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have presided over a story that’s spanned continents and genres, all while crafting a dense mythology with a human core. Lost is a show about unexpected connections and the search for meaning in our shared cultural arcana. It’s also been a showcase for a sprawling cast of memorable characters, each learning the lesson that if they’re patient enough to wait out the changes, their tragic life stories just might have a happy ending.
Essential episodes: “Walkabout,” “Greatest Hits,” “The Constant”
9. Deadwood (HBO, 2004-06)
The earliest TV-drama hits were Westerns, so when HBO unleashed David Milch’s Deadwood on the world in 2004, it seemed at first like the latest in the channel’s long series of TV genre-reclamation projects. Instead, the series quickly abandoned the Wild West archetypes of its first handful of episodes and turned into a show about how communities come to be, how civilization springs from blood and gold, and how chaos is imperfectly knit into order. Featuring grandly theatrical dialogue, at least five dozen major recurring characters, and an unforgettable lead performance from Ian McShane, Deadwood was the temperamental Milch’s love letter to such timeless virtues as common decency, free societies, and creatively deployed profanity. Though the series only lasted three seasons and never reached a natural endpoint, the seasons are so packed with Milch’s richly humanistic view of the world that they trump 10 seasons of more common shows.
Essential episodes: “A Lie Agreed Upon, Pts. 1 and 2,” “The Whores Can Come,” “Boy The Earth Talks To”
10. The Shield (FX, 2002-08)
There’s never been a TV cop like Vic Mackey, who painted a blue uniform the most frustrating, vigorous, incredible shades of grey. In Shawn Ryan’s version of Los Angeles, the leader of an anti-gang unit—played expertly by Michael Chiklis—was a man to be admired, feared, loved, hated, and sometimes pitied. The Shield allowed viewers to cheer Mackey while he committed heinous acts in the pursuit of justice (and illegal cash for himself), but made us feel dirty by depicting the consequences, too. It didn’t hurt that Chiklis was surrounded by a cast whose stories got richer (and often more horrifying) as the series went on: His fellow Strike Teamers became the biggest part of the story in the series’ amazing, harrowing final seasons, when it seemed that in every episode, life truly was on the line. Walton Goggins, who at first seemed to be playing a stereotypical hick sidekick, proved himself an emotional lynchpin, and the side characters—other cops, plus terrific guest turns from Forest Whitaker and Glenn Close, among others—developed full personalities. And those stories: Like The Wire, The Shield plays like a classic tragedy taken as a whole, a massive web of badness that made for incredible television.
Essential episodes: “Cherrypoppers,” “Postpartum,” “Family Meeting.”
[pagebreak]11. The Office US (NBC, 2005-present)
America may always be imitating our British forebears, but the U.S. version of Ricky Gervais' astounding comedy of cruelty managed to make the original’s single-camera mockumentary premise its own. Key to the translation’s success: a more sympathetic boss played by Steve Carell, a more confident (and competent) relationship between co-workers Jim and Pam, and a divergence from the plots provided by its predecessor. By the second episode, when Michael Scott assigns each employee with an ethnic identity to teach a lesson about diversity—but leaves out “Arab” because “It’s too soon”—it was abundantly clear that creator Greg Daniels was pointing the show in its own direction. As the seasons have piled up, the writers have innovated to delightful effect; witness last season’s Michael Scott Paper Company arc, which revealed new facets of the main characters without throwing any of the show’s ample investments away.
Essential episodes: “Casino Night,” “Dinner Party,” “Dream Team”
12. Battlestar Galactica (2004-09)
In traditional narratives, escape from disaster is about trying to return to the old life as quickly as possible. Once the worst has happened, rebuilding what was lost becomes the survivors’ main goal. That’s nominally the goal of the miserable remnants of humanity left in Battlestar Galactica, but one of the series’ most effectively subversive elements is how it questions just what it means to “rebuild.” In a more traditional show, humanity’s leaders (Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell) would’ve guided Jamie Bamber, James Callis, Katee Sackhoff and the rest to some haven where they could take cover and eventually defeat the Cylon race bent on exterminating them. Instead, creator Ronald Moore gave audiences the fumbling of two species bent on discovering grace, with all the confusion and terror that implies. The show’s often-tortured mythology doesn’t always work, especially in a final season that tried too hard to tie up threads that weren’t loose so much as irrelevant. But the end result is still a powerful meditation on grief, loss, and the responsibilities of consciousness.
Essential episodes: “Final Cut,” “Lay Down Your Burdens, Part 2,” “Unfinished Business”
13. 30 Rock (2006-present)
It’s hard to believe that back in 2006, a future three-time Emmy-winner for Best Comedy would be considered a likely flop, doomed to languish in the long shadow of Aaron Sorkin’s high-profile inside-TV drama Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. Instead, Studio 60 proved drippy and self-important, while 30 Rock is in the middle of its fourth season as a reliable gag-generating machine. Tina Fey’s look behind the scenes of a Saturday Night Live-like sketch-comedy series has almost nothing to do with what it’s actually like to throw together a TV show, and more to do with the ridiculousness that ensues when vain creative types and arrogant corporate lackeys try to collaborate. Mainly, 30 Rock is a sight-gag-and-punchline factory. When Fey and company are on a roll, the show generates more quotable lines and memorable moments per 22 minutes than any sitcom since Arrested Development.
Essential episodes: “The Rural Juror,” “Subway Hero,” “The One With The Cast Of Night Court”
14. Futurama (Fox, 1999-2003)
Science fiction teaches that the future will either resemble the rainy misery of Blade Runner or the upbeat togetherness of Star Trek, without many options between them, but what happens if tomorrow is pretty much like today? That’s one of the driving ideas behind Futurama¸ the brainchild of Matt Groening and David X. Cohen. Futurama posits a year 3000 in which the robots are surly, the suicide booths are plentiful, and the person with the clearest vision only has one eye. In its original run, the series walked the high wire of high-concept and slapstick humor, delivering gags based around Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle without ever talking down to its audience. That uncompromising standard led to an emotional depth that never took the easy road toward affecting an audience. It’s no surprise that this standard also led to a premature cancellation; it’s more surprising that the show lasted as long as it did. Thankfully, fan interest and DVD sales restored the series to life, but regardless of what the future brings, the original 72 episodes remain impeccable evidence that there’s no such thing as too smart for the room.
Essential episodes: “Roswell That Ends Well,” “Jurassic Bark,” “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings”
15. Veronica Mars (UPN/The CW, 2004-07)
The first season of the Rob Thomas-created Veronica Mars is one of the singular achievements of ‘00s television: a season-long murder mystery that doubles as an inquiry into the class divisions in and around a Southern California high school. The second season upped the ambition level, adding a denser plot that was often hard to follow, but which paid off brilliantly. And then the third season—set at college—aimed for shorter stories and a lighter tone, and suffered significantly from the creative compromise. But throughout, star Kristen Bell grounded the twisty stories and soapy romances in a real character: a formerly popular teenager who uses her ability to slip between cliques to help make her classmates’ adolescences less confusing and unfair.
Essential episodes: “You Think You Know Somebody,” “Ain’t No Magic Mountain High Enough,” “The Bitch Is Back”
16. Friday Night Lights (NBC, 2006-present)
Proving that nepotism isn’t always a bad thing, Peter Berg parlayed a distant relation to H.G. Bissinger, author of the acclaimed non-fiction book Friday Night Lights, into a film and television adaptation. And as good as its source material is, the TV series has became one of the most distinctive hours on broadcast or cable. FNL’s well-deserved acclaim led to an unusual release strategy starting in the third season, with original episodes airing first on DirecTV, then months later on NBC. Anchored by the monumental yet understated performance of Kyle Chandler as the coach of a Texas high-school football powerhouse, the show has explored a sports-saturated culture on and off the field. Its naturalistic style highlights the relationships between Dillon High’s jocks, their families and girlfriends, the team’s well-heeled boosters, and the football-mad community. Yet there’s a bleakness underlying Berg’s portrayal; when the spotlight fades, what’s left are struggling families, glass ceilings, and unclear priorities.
Essential episodes: “Best Laid Plans,” “May The Best Man Win,” “New York, New York”
17. Firefly (Fox, 2002-2003)
Like Joss Whedon’s other shows, Firefly sported some serious flaws. And like Whedon’s other shows, it fought to stay on the air long enough to address them. But unlike Whedon’s other shows, Firefly failed, and given how good it was apart from those flaws, it seems churlish now to focus on what could’ve been. Instead, let’s stick with what was: a clever, funny, exciting, original outer-space Western with an unforgettable cast of characters and a palpable sense of fun. Whedon assembled what may be his best-ever group of actors, created a compelling (albeit unfinished) fictional universe, and wore his heart on his sleeve in creating one of the best science-fiction shows in a decade crammed with them. Buffy achieved its own Peter Principle, and Dollhouse bought itself a second chance; mourn Firefly as the great Whedon that wasn’t.
Essential episodes: “Jaynestown,” “Out Of Gas,” “Objects In Space”
18. How I Met Your Mother (CBS, 2005-present)
The traditional three-camera sitcom (with laugh track) may be considered a dead format—though they still rule the ratings, for the most part—but with How I Met Your Mother, creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas have expanded its limitations while keeping the gags a-coming. Where most sitcoms hit the reset button on the same basic dynamics week after week, season after season, HIMYM has the continuity of a more novelistic series, and loves to play around with time, paying off jokes with flashbacks, asides, and wildly inventive structural trickery. The immensely gifted cast helps: Neil Patrick Harris as an unrepentant skirt-chaser; Cobie Smulders as a woman whose conventional beauty is undermined by her gawky Canadian-ness; Jason Segel and Alyson Hannigan as a teddy-bear-adorable couple; and Josh Radnor as the mildly douchey hero in search of the ever-elusive “mother” of the title. The show can do sitcom silliness like nobody’s business, but it has surprising emotional depth, too, and it rewards its fans for their close attention.
Essential episodes: “Slap Bet,” “Showdown,” “How I Met Everyone Else”
19. Big Love (HBO, 2006-present)
For a show that was originally marketed as a smirking, adults-only look inside a polygamist cult, Big Love has proved to be one of the most oddly clean-cut shows to air on HBO, and one of the most earnest studies of religion and morality ever to air on television. In extracting relatable drama and comedy from the problems of a successful businessman with cult associations, Big Love deals smartly with the troubles faced by people of faith who try to seize their part of the American dream without being sullied by the secular. It’s an impossible situation, illustrated well by this not-so-sexy show about a man with three wives.
Essential episodes: “The Baptism,” “Kingdom Come,” “Come, Ye Saints”
20. Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! (Cartoon Network, 2007-present)
It’s no exaggeration to claim that Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim have invented a completely new kind of television show: Their Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!—from that title on down—filters the idea of sketch comedy through public-access TV, Dadaism, and poop jokes. One minute, it’s a commercial parody poking at consumerism, the next a rabid commercial for rentable child clowns, the next a story arc about a kidnapped public-access singer. But every single minute bears the stamp of two really smart minds, unafraid to examine the outermost bounds of acceptability. The surface begs to be scratched, and there’s real artistry to be found underneath. No wonder guest stars (John C. Reilly, Patton Oswalt, David Cross, Zach Galifianakis, Jeff Goldblum, the list goes on) have lined up to join in.
Essential episodes: “Chunky,” “Missing,” “Forest”
[pagebreak]21. Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO, 2000-present)
At first blush, it sounds like an easy show to get into: a comedy about the fabulously wealthy crotchety man who created Seinfeld. But what makes Curb Your Enthusiasm more than just an amusing sitcom is that it forces its audience to accept a reality not quite similar to our own. Curb Your Enthusiasm might be set in the real world with real people, but it isn’t a realistic show; its people are driven by their ids, saying what’s on their minds and feeling so constrained by social niceties that they rip them apart like petulant children. Via creator/star Larry David, we root for a guy we’d probably want to punch in real life.
Essential episodes: “Krazee Eyez Killa,” “Club Soda And Salt,” “Trick Or Treat”
22. Six Feet Under (HBO, 2001-05)
It might be easy to magnify Six Feet Under’s occasional mid-run plot stumbles into worse flaws than they actually were, but the bumpy moments shouldn’t overshadow the real pathos that this five-season HBO drama delivered. Playing the unwilling heir to his family’s funeral home, Nate Fisher was often unlikeable, but the shitstorms that followed him around made him a hero just the same. Delicate performances from the many women in his life buoyed the show: Frances Conroy, Lauren Ambrose, Rachel Griffiths, and Lili Taylor offered some of TV’s most complex female characters. A nuanced gay couple (Dexter’s Michael C. Hall and Mathew St. Patrick) broadened the show, too. And though it could seem soapy at times, no other drama featured Six Feet Under’s depth of plot and talking dead people.
Essential episodes: “Pilot,” “The Last Time,” “Everyone’s Waiting”
23. Undeclared (Fox, 2001-02)
Before Judd Apatow became the bountiful wellspring of Hollywood comedy hits he is today, he was the king of noble failures on television (see also Freaks And Geeks, above)—none more cursed than Undeclared, a half-hour campus comedy that Fox began airing two weeks after 9/11, when no one was in the mood to laugh. Sixteen episodes and repeated schedule changes and preemptions later, Undeclared was finally put out of its misery, but the DVD box set that followed makes a strong argument for a show that deftly balanced comic hijinks and pranks with a real affection for underclassmen trying to cope with the independence and uncertainty of being on their own for the first time. Jay Baruchel makes a winning nerd hero, Loudon Wainwright III steals scenes as his recently divorced and eager-to-party father, Carla Gallo and Monica Keena play wonderfully daffy objects of desire, Freaks And Geeks holdovers Seth Rogen and Jason Segel contribute big laughs, and it’s all delivered with the underlying sweetness that viewers have come to expect from Apatow.
Essential episodes: “Addicts,” “Truth Or Dare,” “The Perfect Date”
24. Dexter (2006-present)
Though uneven, Showtime’s first genuine drama hit showed the dark flipside of the crime procedurals littering the TV landscape through most of the decade. Michael C. Hall’s riveting work as Dexter Morgan—a serial killer who kills other criminals—introduces queasy questions about just how far Americans are willing to go to feel safe, and just which crimes deserve which punishments. The series’ master plotting has rarely misstepped, especially in its first two seasons, which delved into Dexter’s backstory and the morality of his extracurricular activities. And always at the center is Hall, playing one of TV’s most fascinating characters: a bumbling everyman with a jack-o’-lantern smile that conceals more than anyone would ever want to know.
Essential episodes: “Morning Comes,” “Resistance Is Futile,” “There’s Something About Harry”
25. Buffy The Vampire Slayer (The WB/UPN, 1997-2003)
Heading into the decade in the middle of its fourth season, Buffy The Vampire Slayer was one of TV’s most acclaimed series, even after it left the high-school setting of its earlier seasons behind. In the first few years of the ’00s, though, Buffy and her friends wandered through dreamscapes, battled a god, lost people dear to them, and sang and danced. While more uneven in those seasons than it had been in high school, Joss Whedon’s series would still get at truths about the pain of growing up, the sheer struggle of mere living, and the formation of ad hoc families. And in its willingness to innovate stylistically, the series also proved itself a surprisingly adept chameleon: a ribald comedy one week, a musical the next, and a quiet art film the week after.
Essential episodes: “Restless,” “The Body,” “Once More With Feeling”
26. The Venture Bros. (Cartoon Network, 2003-present)
If The Venture Bros. wasn’t the best show of the 2000s, it was at least the most unexpected: Debuting on a network best known for funny-but-dust-thin stoner comedy, it quickly evolved into one of the most emotionally involving shows on television, showing real character growth, genuine depth of feeling, and a hefty thematic obsession with failure and disappointment. Occupying territory alongside cheaply produced junk-store animation, Venture Bros. came through with gorgeous character design, a lovely array of color and movement, and some of the best original music on television. Even its humor transcended its origins; though still a source of immense geek-recognition laughter, the show goes beyond mere reference and invites viewers to contemplate what their nostalgia means, not just that it exists. Oh, and it’s also funny as hell.
Essential episodes: “Tag Sale—You’re It!”, “Powerless In The Face Of Death,” “The Family That Slays Together, Stays Together”
27. Flight Of The Conchords (HBO, 2007-2009)
When HBO announced that it was building a sitcom around the New Zealand folk-comedy duo Flight Of The Conchords, many doubted whether what was essentially a musical act would translate well to filmed, scripted comedy. But the series has shown unique strengths: Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie are able to play low-key in front of a camera, toning down their stage personas to a pleasantly awkward degree. And by arranging for support from a wide range of alt-comedy stars (Kristen Schaal, Aziz Ansari, Eugene Mirman, Demetri Martin and others), they concocted plenty of situation for their comedy. Flight is also delightfully New York-y, with lots of charming location shots to augment the scenes shot in the duo’s cramped pad. The show went a bit too broad in its second season, but even when the comedy faltered, there was always a winning song just around the corner.
Essential episodes: “Bret Gives Up The Dream,” “Girlfriends,” “Unnatural Love”
28. Eastbound & Down (HBO, 2009-present)
HBO’s Eastbound & Down doesn’t entirely fit in with the “comedy of discomfort” scene epitomized by the British Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, nor is it as broadly farcical as other projects featuring its star, Danny McBride. Instead, it finds a sweet spot between outlandish and authentic. McBride plays a washed-up baseball player, Kenny Powers, who has none of the fans he once did, yet retains all of his swagger. He’s a chauvinist pig and the ugliest of ugly Americans, and Eastbound at first invites viewers to laugh mostly at him, but the six-episode first season—half of which was directed by indie auteur David Gordon Green, tellingly—also allowed audiences to feel a little sympathy. Even though Kenny Powers says things like “I’ve been blessed with many things in this life: an arm like a damn rocket, a cock like a Burmese python, and the mind of a fucking scientist,” he’s hard not to love.
Essential episodes: “Chapter 3,” “Chapter 5,” “Chapter 6.”
29. Wonder Showzen (MTV2, 2005-06)
John Lee and Vernon Chatman’s “kids show for adults” Wonder Showzen started off dark, then grew increasingly bleak, until it wasn’t contemplating the void so much as plunging audiences inside it. Part kid-show parody, part Dadaist provocation, Wonder Showzen took the convention of children’s shows—puppets, cartoons, busy graphics, children interviewers—into evisceratingly dark places. The second season in particular dared audiences to turn away, most notoriously in the series finale, “Clarence Special Report On Compelling Television,” which featured 30 minutes of a hand puppet ambushing people in the park and challenging them to create compelling television, right there on the spot. (At the end of the episode/series, the puppet kills himself by leaping from a helicopter.) The show amply lived up to an opening crawl promising “OFFENSIVE, DESPICABLE CONTENT THAT IS TOO CONTROVERSIAL AND TOO AWESOME FOR ACTUAL CHILDREN.”
Essential episodes: “Diversity,” “Patience,” “Cooperation”
30. The West Wing (NBC, 1999-2006)
Aaron Sorkin’s mixture of starry-eyed idealism and wit seems so suited for the fictional White House of The West Wing that’s it hard to accept that the show lasted three seasons after he left. Even more surprising is that those seasons weren’t a complete wreck. Still, the first half of the show’s run is undeniably its best, pitching lofty goals against the government grind, and seeing which came out on top. The aspirations of the staff, led by president Martin Sheen, didn’t always lead to victory, but that was one of the series’ strengths: managing, at its finest, to maintain its optimism without completely disregarding the endless compromise of politics. That strength even endured in Sorkin’s absence, with a depiction of a presidential campaign that eerily predicted the realities of 2008. West Wing had the occasional misstep, but at its best, it suggested a world where smart people could do dumb things, but still find the right way in the end.
Essential episodes: “The Stackhouse Filibuster,” “The Two Cathedrals,” “Game On”