The Best Television Dramas of all Time

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Catchfire Catchfire's picture
The Best Television Dramas of all Time

The Guardian's top 50 television dramas of all time

Quote:
The overall winner was The ­Sopranos, the compelling tale of New Jersey mobsters created by David Chase. They almost all raved about this show, praising it as an ­original, absorbing and affectionate study of complicated family values. But it only made the top spot by a ­fraction. Their second favourite was Brideshead Revisited, the 1981 ITV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel about religion, nobility and paisley dressing gowns. The Wire – HBO's widely praised series about Baltimore – attracted plenty of praise, but only ranked at No 14. Mad Men, the tale of 60s New York ad men, made the No 4 slot, just behind Our Friends in the North, an epic 1996 BBC2 ­series that traced the fates of four ­people across several decades.

Here's an interesting thing, though: ahead of some great US drama that has attracted such praise and attention in the last 10 years – The West Wing, Six Feet Under, Buffy the Vampire Slayer – comes a raft of British drama from the 1980s. A Very Peculiar Practice, Talking Heads, The Singing Detective, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Boys From the Blackstuff – these are among the "national treasure" series that have seared themselves into our critics' imaginations. "BBC4 and UK Gold should be repeating them but instead they're playing Coast 24 hours a day and bloody Silent Witness," complained Grace Dent.

 

Their top fifteen:

1. The Sopranos
2. Brideshead Revisited
3. Our Friends in the North
4. Mad Men
5. A Very Peculiar Practice
6. Talking Heads
7. The Singing Detective
8. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
9. State of Play
10. Boys From the Blackstuff
11. The West Wing
12. Twin Peaks
13. Queer as Folk
14. The Wire
15. Six Feet Under

Ok. So maybe The Sopranos is number one, but for my money, the list has the only one that comes close to it--The Wire--way down at number 14! Outrage! And how Twin Peaks can find itself outside of the top five is mindboggling. I love Our Friends in the North at number 3, though--for anyone interested in the class history of Britain, or class history in general, it's a must see; and it stars a young Daniel Craig, a young Christopher Eccleston and a young Gina McKee! Mad Men at 4 seems a bit premature, and while I'm a bit miffed that Battlestar isn't further up the list (25!), I have to agree that it really fell off in the later seasons. Prime Suspect (19) is also underrated on this list imo.

Also, this list is clearly British. Any changes we might make for a Born in North America version?

Fidel

What no Emmerdale? A Touch of Frost? Heartbeat? No CSI Vegas? Oh bugger it.

Tommy_Paine

 

I think the list was specifically engineered to get people mad, and spout off at the Gaurdian. 

 

Why else would you totally ignore "I Claudius" or "Roots"?  The "X Files"  make it in, but they don't. 

 

Please.  

 

There's only so many stories, and they've all been told before.  The question is, which ones told those stories in a ground breaking way in their time.   In that context, "Hill Street Blues"  should probably be on top.  And, "Roots"  was supposed to be a resounding failure, but it was a huge success in its day. 

Sopranos?  Mad Men?  Good shows, good writting.  But essentially, hardly different.

 

And, "Wojeck"  didn't get a mention.  Which shows the age and Brito-centric view of the Gaurdian critics, eh what?

 

 

al-Qa'bong

The Forsyte Saga, which I watched during the spring and summer of 1970, should have been on the list.

bagkitty bagkitty's picture

Queer as Folk (either the British or the American version) should have ranked higher... both were brilliant.

As to putting the Sopranos up at number one... are these the same great critical minds that always put "The Godfather" movies and "The French Connection" movies up in top spot when talking about best dramatic movies? Frankly these "mob" dramas make me want to puke, in my mind all they do is reinforce some twisted defintion of masculinity that suggests that the proper model for any male is to be profoundly inarticulate and willing to resort to violence. Hell, I would prefer even John Wayne as role model over the characters in these mob dramas, at least Wayne had the occasional flash of self-deprecating humour in the roles he played.

Big thumbs down on their top choice.

Pogo Pogo's picture

I don't think mini-series qualify.

al-Qa'bong

Wouldn't Brideshead Revisited (I've never seen it) be similar in structure to Forsyte?

 

Quote:
Frankly these "mob" dramas make me want to puke, in my mind all they do is reinforce some twisted defintion of masculinity that suggests that the proper model for any male is to be profoundly inarticulate and willing to resort to violence.

 

You're completely missing the point of The Godfather (where we watch Mikey transform from a nice, clean-cut all-American kid to a psychopathic monster - or maybe he didn't transform at all)...and The French Connection is a cop movie.

Fidel

I think Mikey said things became even more corrupt for the mob the higher they went. One of my favourute scenes is when they are in Havana. Mikey says to Hyman Roth that the rebels were getting closer. Roth says something like, there have always been rebels in Cuba since he and Mike's father started doing business on the island. Mikey interjects with, but today I saw a rebel being arrested by Batista's men. And sooner than be taken alive, he blew himself up along with the soldier.

bagkitty bagkitty's picture

So sorry I missed the distinction between a mob movie and a cop movie... I guess it is sterotyping to consider all profoundly inarticulate males with a propensity for violence to be mobsters, I forgot they could be cops or cowboys too. I will try to remember the distinction in the future, and not fall prey to the fallacy that because they all smell the same, there are no distinctions amongst outhouses. I still maintain the adulation such movies seem to generate amongst (predominantly male) entertainment critics says a lot more about the critics than it does about the product they are reviewing... I guess Woody Allen is not the only male in North America suffering from [his words] penis envy.

al-Qa'bong

Yeah, whatever.

 

Quote:
Roth says something like, there have always been rebels in Cuba since he and Mike's father started doing business on the island. Mikey interjects with, but today I saw a rebel being arrested by Batista's men. And sooner than be taken alive, he blew himself up along with the soldier.
    

My take on that scene was that it demonstrated Mikey's political acumen.  He said that he thought the rebels would win because they were willing to blow themselves, taking army officers with them, rather than surrendering.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

I see The Godfather and The Sopranos as allegories for gangster (ha!) capitalism--indeed, this connection is made clear in Godfather II through the twin narrative. So too does the first episode of The Sopranos with Tony's famous lament:

Quote:
It's good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately I'm getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.

And thence the American dream...

But I'm willing to accept bagkitty's critique too--it's hard to argue that a large part of these texts' attraction isn't their flawed and violent masculinity. What would you have up there instead, bk?

Fidel

I think movies like the Godfather and Scarface with Al Pacino et al were not very complimentary of the socio-political system under which they thrived. With accepting the tired, oppressed and huddled massess, they also accepted many of the dregs of various old world societies. Everyone from the likes of honest Joe Average looking for an even break to Lucky Luciano to WWII criminals to crooked exiled leaders from all over the world absconding with national wealth of the countries they fled. Ellis Island and states like Florida welcomed them all with open arms. And in my chauvanistic leftwing mind, Tony Montana was just another entrepreneur and opportunist in a society that would embrace him and others like him sooner than accept socialism.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Talking about this with some colleagues, we thought, even though it only ever had one (delicious, magical) season: where is Freaks & Geeks?

James Franco=Legend

wage zombie

Yeah Freaks was really special.

Firefly is also not on the list.  They were both canned midway through the 1st season, too bad.

500_Apples

These people are lacking in credibility, check out what they wrote about Battlestar Galactica:

Quote:
To call it the greatest modern sci-fi series would be to damn it with faint praise - it's so much more. With towering performances all round, anchored by Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell (two people you'd really like to be running things if we're ever facing apocalypse) it was some of the most breathtaking, passionate and emotional drama that TV has ever given us. The plots were deft essays that touched on heavyweight topics such as the division between church and state, or the balance between faith and destiny, without ever forgetting to be anything less than totally entertaining. It also proved the scope of its relevance with one of the most articulate depictions of the war on terror that TV has ever dared to approach. But yes, it has mean-looking robots so it will probably always be filed under geek. Still, it's genius - so say we all. RV

Oh right, science fiction is for them stupid nerds, we're sophisticates we prefer the relationship drama of Six Feet Under !!!

Doctor Who, The original outer limits, star trek, B5, Firefly, Dollhouse, Sarah Connor Chronicles, X-Files ... those shows are not interesting at all. They're for losers.

PS Mad Men is a good show, but it's definitely not that good. I think people who rank it that high, a top 5 show of all time, must have too much fun vicariously experiencing the privileges men had in the 1960s.

E.Tamaran

One of my favorites is Rome. Others are

Sopranos

BSG

X-Files

Law and Order

Northern Exposure

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Rome! Yes! And while I love it, I'm not sure it belongs on a best-of (although it beats the sand out of crapfest 24), but Deadwood was also a personal fave of mine. Firefly is another that would would fit into that latter category for me.

I also just noticed that they picked Pride & Prejudice, of Colin Firth wet-T-shirt fame. Should that qualify? It's only six hours long! I think I'm with Pogo on that one, although it is amazing.

I was also thinking, and this kind of aligns with bagkitty's point, that there are basically four kind of shows: cop/crime show, hospital show, politics show, neighbourhood show. The "best" television is basically variations on these themes. For my money, it's what makes shows like Our Friends in the North so good: they don't fit in to these conventional television genres, but still haul ass. It's also why more fringe genres, like Deadwood (Western) and Battlestar Galactica (SciFi) don't do as well.

Oh yeah! And what about the school genre? Whither Degrassi Junior High?! Even Veronica Mars?!

500_Apples

I thought Deadwood was a law show, and that the creator said in his original pitch that he wanted to show the emergence of law in a lawless society.

clersal

Morse

Wexford

Frost

Prime Suspect

Dalziel and Pascoe

Pogo Pogo's picture

Maybe it isn't polished enough to be top ten, but Rabbit Falls is can't miss TV in our house.

bagkitty bagkitty's picture

Catchfire wrote:

But I'm willing to accept bagkitty's critique too--it's hard to argue that a large part of these texts' attraction isn't their flawed and violent masculinity. What would you have up there instead, bk?

I saw your posting the evening it went up catchfire, but because have waited to reply cause I actually wanted to put some thought into my response. (Damn, there goes my reputation)

As I stated in my original posting, of the titles mentioned, I would put Queer As Folk much higher up the list (and this applies to both the original British and the longer American version). Of course there are a number of shows mentioned in the list that I have never heard of, much less seen (and here is wishing CBC would purchase more British product). Part of my support for QAF might just be team loyalty, but I consider both versions of QAF to have a lot more to say about the human condition than what I refer to as "mobster" entertainment. The protagonists in the QAF series evolve over time, and develop some understanding of themselves often recognizing the need to change themselves rather than simply continuing to act in the roles established at the outset of the series... there is actual growth in the characters, something I don't really see happening in the the various mob series. I am also surprised that neither Homicide: Life on the Street, nor Oz made the top ten list. I think both are far superior to the Sopranos. I realize that my proposing that Oz be on the list might seem a bit odd given my objections to inarticulate and violent male role models, but again, I find that the characters in that drama evolve significantly over the run of the show and, to some extent, attempt to address their own flaws. For sheer entertainment value, I would have also suggested including Dexter on the list, and perhaps a couple of the science fiction dramas that have been raised by other posters (Firefly for sure, probably Babylon 5 also).

bagkitty bagkitty's picture

Oh crap, I forgot to mention A Very British Coup, that should be compulsory watching.

Unionist

Oh Lord, here's where I embarrass myself.

I never understood Twin Peaks (sorry), or indeed most other of that man's products.

I watched a couple Mad Men. Smoking and sexism and shafting each other to climb the ladder? Not charming, not clever, don't like the main character(s). Sorry.

Battlestar Galactica - I found the themes trite, not profound. I thought drama was for entertainment, not a sci-fi not-that-well-acted substitute for reading news and political analysis.

What I like:

Deadwood.

Spooks.

Waking the Dead.

 

Diogenes Diogenes's picture

<thread drift>

Unionist, you're back!  Getting warmed up on fluff topics before doing some heavy hitting? Can't wait to hear what you say about prorogies.

</thread drift>

Deadwood? Spooks? Waking the dead? Never heard of them.

Stargazer

Shows I think should be there:

 

- My So-Called Life

- The L Word

- Carnivale

- Dead Like Me

- Felicity

 

al-Qa'bong

Unionist wrote:

I watched a couple Mad Men. Smoking and sexism and shafting each other to climb the ladder? Not charming, not clever, don't like the main character(s). Sorry.

After seeing all the pre-release hype, I tuned into Mad Men...for about ten minutes.  I found the show so full of predictable feminist clichés as to be unwatchable.

I watched the first episode of the similarly-hyped Sopranos, but didn't make it through the first five minutes.  I found all the cuss words too off-putting.  Once the series was finished, I caught an episode (from around the time that Ralphie killed his girlfriend in the parking lot) on A&E that had the swearing edited out.  I love that line, "Forget You!"

Anyway, I got into the show, then watched the whole series when the Italian channel aired it.

Unionist

Diogenes wrote:

Deadwood? Spooks? Waking the dead? Never heard of them.

Where've ya been?

[url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deadwood_%28TV_series%29]Deadwood[/url]

[url=http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006mf4b]Spooks[/url]

[url=http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006r9ys]Waking the Dead[/url]

 

Fidel

Seeing Things was a wonderful low budget Canadian series with Louis Del Grande and his real life wife Martha Gibson(1981-87)

King of Kensington with Al Waxman, head writer Louis Del Grande

I suppose that for Northerners like me,  TV shows set in big Canadian cities were a novelty at the time. Toronto always seemed to be such a friendly, or at least interesting and even an exotic place to be as depicted in those TV shows. I'd sometimes find myself watching The Beachcombers, too.

 

 

ceti ceti's picture

For me, Battlestar Galactica has been overrated for reasons beyond me  -- you have wholly unlikeable characters doing stupid things and trolling in self-absorption and self-destructive behaviour, while the story arc careens from interesting to outlandish amidst a nonsensical background of yet another 21st century American cultural clone. While the end contradicted the whole mythos of the whole show just to add unpredictability into the mix, the entire 3rd and 4th seasons were barely watchable.

I would put LOST, yes LOST, at the top. I only started watching the show in the 3rd season, until I realized I was watching something very special. I would throw Carnivale and the short-run Nowhere Man in there as well. And geez, for it's sheer influence, Star Trek should have been up there.

ceti ceti's picture

Also, never saw the Sopranos and there are far too many seasons to get into now nor am I too interested in yet another treatment of the mob story. Six Feet Under was great, and Breaking Bad just leaves you devestated episode after episode. Both are far more novel in their themes than Sopranos or even Mad Men whose themes have indeed been touched upon before.

I see State of Play, a miniseries was up there. As such I would suggest A Very British Coup -- one of the greatest British dramas ever, and not only because of the politics. I, Claudius as well, but there have been some other dramas I can't recall at this time.

So this list is odd, I wonder how it was rated.

500_Apples

Stargazer wrote:

Shows I think should be there:

 

- My So-Called Life

- The L Word

- Carnivale

- Dead Like Me

- Felicity

Is the L-word an fair portrayal of urban American lesbians in that age group?

I remember the promotional posters for it, they all looked very attractive, feminine-looking, and they were wearing dresses, and I thought it was kind of like those novels from the 1950s, which were secretly aimed at lesbians, but were also openly aimed at men so they could break even financially.

A comment I read somewhere it that shw show is about a dozen Los Angeles lipstick lesbians, not one of whom is masculine, or something I like that, I forget the exact wording so I'm probably making it look worse?

500_Apples

ceti wrote:

For me, Battlestar Galactica has been overrated for reasons beyond me  -- you have wholly unlikeable characters doing stupid things and trolling in self-absorption and self-destructive behaviour, while the story arc careens from interesting to outlandish amidst a nonsensical background of yet another 21st century American cultural clone. While the end contradicted the whole mythos of the whole show just to add unpredictability into the mix, the entire 3rd and 4th seasons were barely watchable.

I have to agree. I enjoyed BSG, but imo it is vastly overrated. It doesn't hold up well when compared to B5, X-Files, Firefly, Sarah Connor, etc.

There were 2 premises to Battlestar Galactica:

1) How civilization would behave if it were 40,000 people lost in space and fighting for survival, have just survived a nuclear holocaust.

2) Romantic "ships" between Lee and Kara, Baltar and Six, Roslyn and Adama.

The creator of this clone would actually make frequent comparisons to the 1980s soap opera Dallas. To be fair, the ships do serve a role with respect to priority number 1, they allowed an avenue for the psychological breakdown of the characters, for example Lee marrying Dualla because she's pretty much the only woman there. Overtime I think they lost track of point number 1, which showed with their horrible retcons. I don't think they ever retconned the romantic relationships however.

It's not surprising the ignorant reviewer at the Guardian would say that calling BSG the greatest sci fi of all time is damning faint praise. He doesn't like sci fi. He doesn't like explorations of society, technology, culture, etc. He's interested in romantic relationships and their evolution. Hence the fact a show over-focused on relationships like Six Feet Under makes it to 14, and Mad Men, a depraved wish-fulfillment fantasy of 1960s sexual and gender norms, makes it to number 4.

Jaku

What about MI5?

Stargazer

500_Apples wrote:

Stargazer wrote:

Shows I think should be there:

 

- My So-Called Life

- The L Word

- Carnivale

- Dead Like Me

- Felicity

Is the L-word an fair portrayal of urban American lesbians in that age group?

I remember the promotional posters for it, they all looked very attractive, feminine-looking, and they were wearing dresses, and I thought it was kind of like those novels from the 1950s, which were secretly aimed at lesbians, but were also openly aimed at men so they could break even financially.

A comment I read somewhere it that shw show is about a dozen Los Angeles lipstick lesbians, not one of whom is masculine, or something I like that, I forget the exact wording so I'm probably making it look worse?

No, it wasn't an honest portrayal for the average lesbian woman, but the show wasn't really about average lesbians. It was about upwardly mobile lesbians. Most of the woman were lipstick lesbians but there were subplots, such as Max's transition to a man and issues surrounding bisexuality. All in all I thought it was an excellent show. First of it's kind that I'm aware of and it was about time a show for lesbians was produced.

I have no doubt that there were a lot of men who watched the show for the woman on woman action but I think at heart it was made for women who like women. Just my opinion. Frankly I liked the most of the characters and the plot lines for most of the show.

Unionist

Jaku wrote:

What about MI5?

Agreed, but I already mentioned it above. BBC's Spooks was re-named "MI-5" for U.S. consumption.

Ghislaine

Catchfire wrote:

Talking about this with some colleagues, we thought, even though it only ever had one (delicious, magical) season: where is Freaks & Geeks?

James Franco=Legend

 

I agree - I so wanted another season of Freaks and Geeks!  

I would add Dexter onto the list and Big Love. Chloe Sevigny is amazing in Big Love.   I love all the suggestions here of good shows to try - Deadwood has been on my list for awhile. 

Unionist

Ghislaine wrote:
  I love all the suggestions here of good shows to try - Deadwood has been on my list for awhile. 

As long as you don't mind a wee bit of profanity... Smile

 

Fidel

Heroes sci-fi TV series.

wiki says:

Quote:
On November 12, 2007, the "Create Your Own Hero" promotion was unveiled. Heroes fans can go online on their computer or mobile phone and select characteristics for a new "hero", who will be built based on the most-picked traits. Each week, the character will evolve based on the fans' input, and he or she will be shown on air every Monday during the series airing

My sister likes it and had to have seasons series on DVD to watch when it fitted her busy schedule. I liked watching some of the first season about a totally evil conspiracy of the forces of darkness to rig the presidential election, explode a nuclear device in NYC and setup an elaborate fascist police state as a result. For me it was an artistic interpretation of pre-emptive terrorist attacks at a time when conspiracy theories of pre-emptive covert military attacks ran amok in alternative news media.

N.Beltov N.Beltov's picture

I remember `Roots`which was the first important mini-series. A new genre, perhaps. The subject matter was important as well.

 

The other one that I remember was `Fall of Eagles` ... which was memorable for having a young Patrick Stewart sympathetically playing one Vladimir Lenin. It was the first drama I saw in which Communists were not depicted - literally - as baby-eating serial killers.

 

Oh yea. The TV dramatization of The National Dream and The Last Spike (based on Pierre Burton`s books) were great and I followed them closely. History matters, eh.

al-Qa'bong

Soap was a radical new TV idea at the time.

N.Beltov N.Beltov's picture

As was Fernwood 2 Night with Martin Mull. But that wasn't really a drama.

Stargazer

The new show - it's in it's third season beginning Sept. - Sons of Anarchy.

I get depressed when this show is over.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1124373/

 

Star Spangled C...

Great thread. I need to check out some of these shows I haven't seen yet, especially the British ones I didn't know before.

My Top TV Dramas of All Time:

1. The West Wing

2. The Wire

3. Mad Men

4. Dexter (The last season was brilliant)

5. Six Feet Under (though it went downhill pretty quickly)

6. House (my wife and I are both doctors)

7. Freaks and Geeks

8. 24

9. The Sopranos

10. Sleeper Cell (there were only 2 seasons and it didn't get much attention but it was great. Find the DVDs if you can)

Michelle

I'm really enjoying Battlestar Galactica - just working my way through it now and I think I'm in season 3.  I think it deserves to be on the list, even if it does have robots.  Somehow, I don't mind that the characters aren't very likeable (and they're not) - I still want to know what happens!

Babylon 5 was an amazing series that I never saw to the end due to having moved out of a home with cable television into a new place without it.  I'm dying to watch it from the beginning, and will probably do so after I get through BSG.  But I definitely think B5 deserves a place there somewhere.

Oh, and the Sopranos richly deserves that number one spot, in my opinion.  What an amazing series!

N.Beltov N.Beltov's picture

I really don't understand this Sopranos thing. I made a decision not to watch a show that portrayed gangsters in a positive light, even after it was clear to me that the show would be very popular, and I still stick to my decision. To each their own.

Mind you, i still watch Canucks hockey... and that's a kind of male soap opera I suppose. But i actually played ice hockey at one time, still skate, and (very rarely) play a game of pick up as well.

fellowtraveller

Agree with the OP that The Wire at #14 is a travesty.

Should be #2 at worst, duking it out with the Sopranos.

Great show.

 

Not surprisingly, the list overlooks a fine Canadian offering: Intelligence.

N.Beltov N.Beltov's picture

If you haven't seen it already, take a look at CBC wants 'Intelligence' dead says show's creator.

Near as I can make out, Intelligence was replaced by another loathsome "War on Terror" franchise called The Border. Blechhh!

Polunatic2

Quote:
The "X Files"  make it in, but they don't.  Please.  
Hey, the X-Files was one of my favorite all time shows. I guess MASH didn't make the cut because it's a "comedy"? 

Ken Burch Ken Burch's picture

I would have added the BBC production of "War and Peace" from the early 70's, with Anthony Hopkins as Pierre Bezukhov.  My family watched it on Sunday nights on PBS for months, and found it riveting.

500_Apples

The Battlestar Galactica prequel series Caprica is launching this Friday.

It's about the political, economic and moral decline of the 12 colonies and the concurrent development of Cylon technology.

I have the Pilot on DVD, It was absolutely excellent.

bagkitty bagkitty's picture

N.Beltov wrote:

I really don't understand this Sopranos thing. I made a decision not to watch a show that portrayed gangsters in a positive light, even after it was clear to me that the show would be very popular, and I still stick to my decision. To each their own.

Mind you, i still watch Canucks hockey... and that's a kind of male soap opera I suppose. But i actually played ice hockey at one time, still skate, and (very rarely) play a game of pick up as well.

With you on this N.Beltov (well the Sopranos thing anyway, watching the Canucks would be taking things a little too far). Not suggesting that it should have been made, but applauding the decision not to get sucked into it.

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