Fair warning, this list most definitely includes spoilers, so if you are in the process of or intend to watch any of these shows, please skip segments of the countdown accordingly.
Honorable Mention: Ally McBeal Season 1; Angel Season 5; Arrested Development Seasons 1 and 2; Battlestar Galactica Season 1; Breaking Bad Seasons 2, 4, and 5; Buffy the Vampire Slayer Seasons 3, 5, and 7; Community Season 2; Dollhouse Season 2; Entourage Seasons 2 and 3; Felicity Season 1; Heroes Season 1; Lost Season 1; The Office Seasons 2 and 3; Picket Fences Season 1; The Practice Season 4; The Wire Season 3; The X-Files Season 2 and 3.
10. Entourage Season 6 In terms of objective quality, Entourage peaked over the course of seasons two through five. I’ve always enjoyed the HBO series most, however, for its escapist qualities. Vinnie Chase, E, Turtle, and Drama have the personalities of average Joes, and the circumstances of the average Joe’s day dreams and fantasies, wheeling and dealing in Hollywood, engaging with beautiful women, and all the while staying true to their roots. Though it was widely dismissed by critics, season six was not about the struggle or the climb, but about the good life and achieving new heights, culminating in the sublime finale, “Give A Little Bit.” While I enjoyed bits of seasons seven and eight, I’d actually contend this episode should have been the series finale, resolving just about every storyline, if not entirely realistically, far more authentically than season eight’s abrupt flights of fancy.
Best Episode: “Give A Little Bit”
Best Episode: “Digital Estate Planning”
8. American Horror Story Season 1 I’ve written about American Horror Story before on this blog, and though the second season ended up a little bloated for its own good and the jury's still out on season three, season one stands out to me as one of the tightest, boldest pieces of television I’ve ever seen. The casting is superb, the tone consistently both macabre and sexual, the plot constantly whirring in unexpected directions, including a better-than-Sixth Sense revelation that one of the core characters is actually a ghost (not the first, slow-burn reveal, but the more sudden reveal later in the season). The shrewdest choice of the season, though, was to create a horror story in which human behavior itself was far more horrifying than what any supernatural creature did, with infidelity, mass murder, and manipulation at the core of the cast of characters who, against all odds, do arrive at a pretty happy ending (on their own terms).
Best Episode: “Smoldering Children”
Best Episode: “The Leap”
6. Firefly Season 1 A live action space western with Chinese dialect sprinkled into the dialog and cannibals roaming the fringe of the series may not have seemed like a promising mainstream television concept. Indeed, Firefly only lasted for one season on network TV. Just the same, in a mere 14 episodes, Joss Whedon developed his most unique take on the world in the interplanetary tale of Serenity, a spaceship staffed with a crew of misfits and losers, the captain of which ended up on the wrong side of a war for independence, and is subsequently doing his best to make ends meet, keep moving, and do right where he sees the opportunity. The cast of characters is truly exceptional and exceptionally diverse, offering each voice unique opportunities to make new statements. Never has a show better encapsulated both old-fashioned ideals and the very best of science fiction drama than in this imaginative tour de force.
Best Episode: “Objects in Space”
5. Breaking Bad Season 3 It’s tremendously difficult to isolate just one season (much less one episode) of Breaking Bad as it may be the most cohesive multi-year show I’ve ever seen. In creative writing classes, we learn that stories should be character driven and each moment should follow from the one to precede it, presenting clear causal relationships and logical series of events. Breaking Bad follows this model to near perfection. Season three just happens to be the point at which so much of the show’s simmering comes to a boil--a positively sensational bloodbath between DEA Agent Hank and the sibling assassins who pursue him with an axe; Walt crossing several lines when he runs over and shoots a pair of drug dealers, then orders Jesse to murder the chemist who will otherwise replace them as cooks in their meth lab. This is a show that’s largely about dealing with consequences and the revelation survivors don’t necessarily rise above circumstances so much as become their circumstances, and thrive as the worst versions of themselves. This particular season contains the most conscious, most diabolical choices of the show’s five season run. It’s truly a melancholy marvel.
Best Episode: “One Minute”
4. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Season 7 Over the years, I’ve been hard pressed to find many folks who agree with me, but I will argue to no end that the following two statements are true:
1. Deep Space Nine is far and away the best series of the Star Trek franchise.
2. Season seven isn’t just the best season of any Star Trek series, but one of the best constructed seasons in the history of television.
Though DS9 may lack some of the charm of the original Star Trek series and Next Generation, it more than makes up for charm with complex storytelling and positively artful planning--the first Star Trek series built on a core, continuous narrative, rather than stand-alone episodes. DS9 is more than a sci-fi romp; it’s a complex and unbelievably cohesive commentary on human nature, religion, war, politics, prejudice, and even economics. The poetic arc of the Cardassian occupation of Bajor, as it connects to the Bajorans mentoring the Cardassians to overthrow a Dominion regime is pure brilliance--not only clever but startlingly authentic and organic to the material at hand. Though the series finale episode itself was a bit of a letdown, it’s more useful to look at season seven on the whole as a 26-part finale, wrapping up one of the most courageous and compelling stories ever told in space.
Best Episode: “When It Rains…”
3. Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 2 Buffy the Vampire Slayer is my favorite television series of all time, and singling out season two for the purposes of this countdown is an especially difficult pick. After all, season three was, without question more consistently strong and polished than season two, and if we’re going to focus on the style of long-term, overarching storytelling that I love, season five and even season seven are arguably better.
But when I return to my DVDs of BtVS I become, for those moments of viewership, a teenager again, and in my teenage heart of hearts no season packs the emotional resonance of season two. Once the show clears its throat and gets past the lackluster baggage of a flawed first season, we get the introduction of the show’s first cool villains: Spike and Drusilla. From there, we get one the most dramatic, profound, and gratifying heel turns in TV history when Angel goes bad. Truth be told, I never got into BtVS until midway through season two when I saw Surprise out of context. I liked it, but also found it painfully melodramatic enough that I was uncertain about watching the next episode when it originally aired the very next night. Boy, am I glad that I did as Innocence set the show off and running for a positively inspired eight episode run to close out the season. Passion is a sublime piece of television, and widely recognized as one of the best episodes of the show. Less celebrated, but comparably good was “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” a comedic episode that offered solace amidst a bleak series of events as hapless Xander inadvertently casts a love spell that makes every woman in town fall in love with him except for the girl he actually likes.
Then there’s Becoming (parts one and two), in which we travel back a couple centuries to get the full history of Angel’s character as the present day villain does his darnedest to catalyze an apocalypse. Joss Whedon would revisit the flashback-heavy formula often on BtVS and spin off Angel but would never again achieve a masterpiece of quite this level. As a demonstration of just how profoundly these episodes affected my psyche: 15 years after the episodes originally aired, I had a nightmare about heartbreak and loss, and in my dream, I listened to the very same ballad that overlays the final scenes of “Becoming (Part 2)”—Sarah McLachlan’s “Full of Grace.” Sometimes you watch just the right show at just the right time in your life and it transcends entertainment--it truly affects you. Season two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer did just that.
Best Episode: “Becoming (Part 2)”
2. My So-Called Life Season 1 Talk about watching the right show at the right time. My So-Called Life originally aired from 1994 to 1995. The astute reader may observe that I was, thus, only a middle schooler when I first watched this high school drama. The show was valuable to me then not so much because I could relate to it, but because it felt as though it were a window into what the next five years of my life might look like, besides a peak at my older sister’s world, since she was, in fact, in high school, had her first boyfriend, and was spending less and less time with me.
MSCL was also the first show that I grew to love based on re-watching. First MTV acquired the rights to the show and would air it on marathon format, allowing me to relive my many favorite moments in rapid succession (in a sense, a precursor to the Netflix approach to binge TV consumption). Then, MSCL was the first TV show of which I bought episodes on VHS to watch over and over again throughout my high school years; then the full DVD set in college.
MSCL benefited from sharp dialog and high caliber acting. Perhaps most important of all, though, was the decidedly un-sugar-coated nature of the show. Before MSCL I watched some of Saved by the Bell and 90210, in which the casts may have been prettier, but I never had the sense that any of their adventures would actually happen to me. Similarly, post-MSCL, I watched a sizable portion of Dawson’s Creek. While compelling in a soap opera kind of way, shows like this never got teenage life the way it seemed MSCL intrinsically did. To be fair, neither I, nor anyone especially close to me, dealt with issues like teenage alcoholism or abuse at the level the show portrayed, and pretty few in my social circle had sex lives to speak of before college. All of that said, the core themes of teenage loneliness, otherness, infatuation, and the essential nature of music were indelible parts of my own coming of age experience, and I couldn’t escape the sensation that Brian, Angela, Rickie, Jordan, and Rayanne (more or less in that order) each represented distinct facets of my own identity and psyche throughout my teenage years.
Best Episode: “Life of Brian”
1. The Wire Season 4 The Wire is not a fun show to watch, and I’d be lying if I wrote that I have the same level of emotional connection to it as some of the other top shows on the list. Though I have lived in Baltimore for over six years, I’ve rarely done more than drive through the parts of the city the show focuses on. Just the same, I’ve never questioned the verity of the show, nor of this particular season of it. And I know greatness when I see it.
Each season of The Wire focused on a particular aspect of Baltimore, and for season four that focus was the youths: their friendships, their rites of passage, their choices, and the choices left outside their hands--experiences with the Baltimore school system and a drug culture that threatens to swallow their young souls.
I have a teacher friend who didn’t care for this season of the show, balking at the success of first-time teacher Prez in getting through to his students. I understand what she’s saying, and have to kowtow to her opinion to an extent, since she actually has experience teaching in a setting like the school portrayed on this show. That said, I also feel that it’s that short-lived triumph on the show that makes the heartbreak to follow all the more crushing and all the more real.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of this season, focusing on one school year, is that it the characters change in profound ways, but the setting around them never does. The conclusion to be drawn: the young people we come to know and love over a span of 13 episodes are not unique, but just another iteration of a tragic cycle.
Best Episode: “Final Grades”