When we published our first TV Power Rankings in 2005 listing the best shows on television, the revolution in TV viewing habits was well underway with cable shows like “The Sopranos” raising the bar for TV dramas. Meanwhile, DVDs and on-demand viewing started to change the way we watched our favorite programs and discovered new ones. Since then, the changes have only accelerated, and now many teenagers and people of all ages are addicted to streaming TV, watching everything by their own schedules. Many have even “cut the cord” and eliminated their cable TV subscriptions altogether. Water-cooler discussions about “must-see TV” have given way to shows aimed at niche audiences.
With these developments, the quality of the shows has improved dramatically. That may not be true for sitcoms and most of the stuff on network TV, but many have called this the new “golden era of television,” as the cable networks in particular have given talented writers and directors the freedom to create masterpieces like “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad.” Now with Netflix triumphantly entering the fray with the excellent “House of Cards,” the bar keeps getting raised even higher. I watch fewer movies these days as the quality rarely matches that of the best TV shows, which also have the advantage of developing characters over a much longer time period.
“Breaking Bad” has been one of our favorites for years, and it tops our list again as it completes its final season. When it’s all said and done, it will be part of every conversation of the best TV shows ever. Our list is dominated by cable TV dramas and we’ve left off reality shows. Some are entertaining, but none match the quality of the programs on our list.
We’ve kept spoilers to a minimum, but you might want to avoid some of the write-ups if you want to avoid learning about plot developments.
1. Breaking Bad
Expectations for the fifth season of Vince Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad” would’ve been running high anyway, given that Season 4 concluded with Walter White (Bryan Cranston) bringing an explosive end to Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) while also revealing just how far he was willing to sink to get things his way. It doesn’t get much lower than poisoning a child to trick your former partner into working for you again, but the knowledge that it truly was the beginning of the end (i.e. the final season) really amped up the adrenaline. With posters for Season 5 showing Walt surrounded by stacks of cash and emblazoned with the tagline “Hail to the King,” the question at hand was whether or not Mr. White would be able to keep his ego in check successfully enough to take over Gus’s meth empire. The answer: not entirely. Although Mike (Jonathan Banks) agreed to join the operation more out of an attempt to help keep Jesse (Aaron Paul) safe, he quickly grew frustrated and tried to bail out, only to end up in a terminal tussle with Walt. Meanwhile, the domestic situation in the White house has reached all new levels of tension, thanks to a power struggle of sorts between Walt and Skyler (Anna Gunn). As the first half of Season 5 wrapped up, however, the biggest reveal of all took place, with Walt’s DEA-agent brother-in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), finally discovering that he’s the infamous Heisenberg. This show has yet to disappoint, and there’s no reason to think it’s going to start now. – Will Harris. Check out our “Breaking Bad” blog here and our Fan Hub page here.
I’ve had my share of “binge TV” watching with all the new platforms at our disposal, and so I wasn’t surprised when I blew through the first season and a half of “Homeland” over a long weekend. I’d heard all the buzz but had missed out on Season 1, but like most viewers, I was hooked after the first episode. The power of the cliffhanger at the end of the first season was blunted a bit, however, as I quickly hit the button to start the first episode of Season 2. When you power your way through a series like this, sometimes the impact of a single episode isn’t felt as deeply, as you quickly move on to the resolution. On the other hand, immersing yourself in a show over a short period of time also has its rewards. With Season 2, we’re left with another mind-blowing finale after more twists and turns for Carrie’s unlikely relationship with Brodie. Some have argued that the events have gotten too unbelievable, but given the topic of terrorism and the CIA, little seems too far-fetched these days. With Carrie, Claire Danes has created a character that we’ll remember for a long time, and I suspect this show will be near the top of our list for years to come.
3. The Walking Dead
Fans of Robert Kirkman’s comic book series have been patiently awaiting the arrival of The Governor ever since it was announced that AMC was adapting “The Walking Dead” for TV, and if you were unfamiliar with the source material prior to Season Three, then you probably know by now why it was such a big deal. Though the new season has been plagued by many of the same problems as previous years (namely, dragging out subplots longer than necessary), the addition of David Morrissey as The Governor has made for some great television. And while you can’t say the same about Rick and Andrea’s respective character arcs, others have stepped up in their place, including Norman Reedus as fan favorite Daryl and Chandler Riggs as the rapidly maturing Carl. The zombie quota has also been increased exponentially, which is never a bad thing, and now that Danai Gurira has joined the cast as sword-carrying Michonne, the zombie kills have become more inventive by the week. It hasn’t quite lived up to its excellent debut season, but “The Walking Dead” is still one of the best things on TV. – Jason Zingale
4. Game of Thrones
Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom” may have been HBO’s best freshman series of last year, but “Game of Thrones” is still king of the premium channel. There’s nothing else quite like it on television, and though Season Two wasn’t as good as its debut season on a purely episode-to-episode basis, the payoff was arguably better, showing the full complexity and richness of the universe that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss inherited from George R.R. Martin. The third season expanded that scope even further, with several new characters quickly making their mark, and old ones (like Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s Jamie Lannister) continuing to evolve within that moral gray area where “Game of Thrones” thrives. It also featured some of the most shocking story developments to date, perhaps none more so than Episode 9’s infamous Red Wedding, which made Ned Stark’s beheading look like child’s play in comparison and will likely go down as one of the biggest television events of the year. The audience reaction to that episode is very telling of the show’s pop cultural footprint, and when the writing and acting is this good, it’s no surprise why its popularity continues to grow. – JZ. Check out our “Games of Thrones” blog here.
5. The Newsroom
Along with “Girls,” this HBO drama probably received more negative criticism and mockery that any other show on our list. Anything produced by Aaron Sorkin will bring out plenty of haters given the political topics he often chooses, but many journalists weren’t too happy to have Sorkin shine a critical light on their industry. But we all know that cable news sucks with its emphasis on ratings and manufactured controversy, so Sorkin had a target worthy of his scorn. Anyone who is tired of the dumbing down of debate and those who make money exploiting the divisions in our country in the name of delivering the “news” will love the tone of “The Newsroom.” Yes, it’s preachy at times and many of the characters are oh so earnest, but you’ll find yourself rooting for them. Sorkin has created another set of fascinating but flawed characters, with Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) as the perfect vehicle to shake up the cable news business after his epic rant that goes viral, and MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) as his ex-girlfriend and producer who pushes him to take a stand. The romantic tension between them is very intense and it seems Sorkin will milk that for all its worth. The lovely Olivia Munn also shows she has some serious acting chops as the brilliant but socially awkward Sloan Sabbith.
Tags: Arrested Development, best TV shows, Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Californication, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Dexter, Family Guy, Game of Thrones, Girls, Hannibal, Homeland, House of Cards, Justified, Key and Peele, Louie, mad men, Magic City, New Girl, Orange is the New Black, Parks and Recreation, Shameless, Sons of Anarchy, The Americans, The Big Bang Theory, The Colbert Report, The Daily Show, The Killing, The League, The Newsroom, The Walking Dead, True Blood, TV Power Rankings, Veep