Proof Recommends the Best of the Best: TV Shows

In this new Proof series, one man—a professor of digital culture and experimental lit—assesses television shows, films, novels, graphic novels, console and Android games, installation art, and more.

{Note: Listings are alphabetical by category. While all these cultural artifacts are worthwhile, tastes can and will vary—so caveat lector, cave videntium, and caveat emptor. That said, if I listed a work here, you can rest assured that I do earnestly consider it to be badass and say so without any inducement whatsoever from any party. These opinions are mine and mine alone. To quote Donovan by way of poet C.E. Chaffin, all this is “one man’s opinion of moonlight.” Works that appear with a star (⭐) alongside are regarded as “the best of the best of the best.”}

Introduction

For years I was a professional reviewer of television shows, films, graphic novels, video games, poetry collections and more at Indiewire and The Huffington Post (now BuzzFeed). Then I entered academia, where I began teaching courses in these and other genres and media. While none of this means my opinion is more valuable than anyone else’s, I mention my background—which you can read more about here—to give you a sense of where I’m coming from with the recommendations in this series, and moreover of the professional consideration behind them. I suspect that, if you try some of my picks out, you’ll start to get a good sense of my preferred aesthetics and poetics. And if these match yours, well, you might just find some incredible new gems in the lists below.

Before I get to the lists, I thought I’d offer some notes about how they were compiled, in the event you’re planning to—and I do encourage it!—comment on these lists in the comment section below.

Ground Rules: Television Shows

(1) Most shows have stronger and weaker seasons, but I have not included any shows with seasons I consider not worth watching at all. It’s one reason why The Simpsons is not listed here—because so many seasons of it are sadly disposable. Of course, it’s also fair to note that under this rule Sons of Anarchy, Billions, and The OA just barely make the lists below—and I mean barely—even as shows like Entourage, Prison Break, Heroes, The Newsroom, Hanna, and The Last Man on Earth don’t make it at all. And some shows were uneven at the episode level, like Da Ali G Show, Who Is America?, Little Britain, or other sketch comedies, so they likewise do not appear here. I realize that this seems to penalize long-running shows, but I look at it this way: the purpose of these lists is to answer the question, “Would you recommend this show to someone?” If the answer is, “Yes, but only the first six seasons of over twenty,” that seems to me far too conditional a reply to consider it an answer in the affirmative. By comparison, a program with four seasons, three of which are well worth watching and the fourth of which is good but not great is one you can recommend without any particularly extensive further comment. I think we all know, in any case, that The Simpsons is a landmark program in TV history.

(2) This list will be updated over time, either through this article or a new article. There are, needless to say, many programs I haven’t read or seen—the lists below make no claim of being exhaustive—so while of course you can and certainly should quibble with any of the entries below (and/or suggest additional ones) in the comment section here, there’s a good chance that if something isn’t listed here and you desperately feel that it should be I just haven’t seen it or (far more commonly) I haven’t seen enough of it yet to make a judgment. I mention a few such shows below. In any case, my point is that to the extent this is a “best of the best” list, it’s also very much a work-in-progress, and should be read that way.

(3) With a list like this one there has to be, and here there is, a temporal cutoff point. If there weren’t one, this would become a fairly useless list of (say) which Atari 2600 video games would have been considered great approximately forty years ago. Indeed, if I even open this up to the last century these lists swell markedly, with acknowledged classics (for instance, in the TV category shown below) including Seinfeld, Friends, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Freaks and Geeks, Quantum Leap, Frasier, Twin Peaks, and The Wonder Years among many others far older like All in the Family, as well as a whole new contingent of borderline calls like Cheers, Taxi, Family Ties, Golden Girls, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, NewsRadio, Picket Fences and on and on. And of course the older a show is, the better the chance that events in the intervening years have made the selection more than a bit problematic; consider, for instance, The Cosby Show or (to a far lesser degree) Roseanne. I’m already torn about what to do with Louie; the show has been universally reviewed as a work of genius—approaching a “must-watch” for anyone learning how to innovate in television—and in watching it many years ago I always thought of it as a show capable of making its viewers into more empathetic, fully self-actualized people, but now that we know its titular star committed an unknown number of unprosecuted and now-past-their-statute-of-limitations acts that may have constituted misdemeanor sex crimes (counts of indecent exposure) over 15 years, with his victims always women on the disadvantaged end of a power differential with him, I think it’s preferable that I acknowledge the artistic value of Louie (a show that preceded the revelations about its odious creator by some years) without recommending it, below. I don’t claim to be an expert on how professional critics should handle situations like this, but I’m certainly able to distinguish between acknowledging the value of a work and recommending that readers financially support its creator. Ultimately, the latter decision is going to be up to each reader on their own terms and for their own reasons.

(4) There are many artworks that you can enjoy without feeling comfortable putting them on lists like this. Cobra Kai or Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency are examples. Heck, I was even briefly sucked in—I’m going to admit to something awful here—by both Poldark and Outlander, though in my defense, so were many unfortunate souls. The primary goal of these lists is to distinguish transient pleasure from lasting value, however, so for that reason avowed guilty pleasures have almost entirely been avoided.

(5) There are some artworks I have read or seen but still need time to decide about. Some examples include It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Modern Family, This Is Us, His Dark Materials, The Mindy Project, and Eastbound & Down. This is distinct from works I’ve seen—and know many love—but that I know I will never be able to stomach (let alone recommend) for reasons relating to my own aesthetics. Examples include Glee, 24, The Witcher, How I Met Your Mother, Grey’s Anatomy, and most courtroom dramas and police procedurals, which feel instantly preposterous to anyone who’s practiced criminal law. Note that I may change my mind on The Witcher—which I desperately want to watch—if someone can convince me that I won’t find the gore and the horror elements excessive.

As a final note, I want to make particular note of a short list of popular shows that I’ve never seen at all but already expect I’ll be asked about. I figured I would cut off at the pass any questions about Fargo, Empire, Weeds, Six Feet Under, Supernatural, Adventure Time, Doom Patrol, or Parks & Recreation, as I’ve simply never yet encountered or had a chance to schedule encountering them due to my other watching habits. Again, this isn’t exactly a matter of preferences but just a lack of time, given all the other shows I’ve “had” to watch as an ardent consumer of American culture. There are simply some limits to how much culture one can consume. While I’m sure some readers will doubt my choices here, I hope we can all agree that any survey of culture is necessarily going to be incomplete. The field is vast, and you can tell that certain categories (for instance shows geared specifically toward children) are absent here entirely.

Happy reading, and even more so, happy disagreeing! I earnestly invite your comments in the comment section below.


Television Shows

Animated and Puppetry

Archer
Big Mouth
BoJack Horseman

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance
Futurama
The Midnight Gospel
Rick & Morty

Solar Opposites
South Park

Comedy

30 Rock
Arrested Development
Chapelle’s Show

The Colbert Report
Community

The Daily Show
Extras

Flight of the Conchords
Inside Amy Schumer
John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch
Key & Peele

New Girl
The Office (UK)
The Office (US)

Portlandia
Scrubs
Silicon Valley
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Veep

Drama

Better Call Saul
Breaking Bad

Downton Abbey
The End of the Fucking World
The Good Wife
Halt and Catch Fire

Mad Men

The Plot Against America
Rescue Me
Sneaky Pete
Succession
Treme
The Wire

Dramedy

Atlanta
Bored to Death
Girls
The Good Fight
The Good Place
The Great
High Maintenance

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Orange Is the New Black
UnReal

Dystopian

Black Mirror
The Handmaid’s Tale
The Leftovers

Lost

Mr. Robot

Experimental

How to with John Wilson

Fantasy

Angel
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Game of Thrones

Horror

Stranger Things
The Walking Dead
True Blood

Mob

Boardwalk Empire
Justified

The Sopranos

Mystery

Borgen
The Killing
Lupin
Luther

Monk
Sherlock (2013)

True Detective
Veronica Mars

Political and Political Comedy

Alpha House
The Crown
House of Cards
The West Wing

Pulp Drama

Billions
Sons of Anarchy

Reality

Project Runway
Top Chef

Science Fiction

Battlestar Galactica (2003)
Dark
The Expanse
Firefly

For All Mankind
The Mandalorian
Russian Doll
Westworld

Sports

Ted Lasso

Superheroes

The Boys
The Punisher
WandaVision
Watchmen

Thriller

The Americans
Dexter
Homecoming
The OA
Ozark
You

War

Band of Brothers
Generation Kill
Rome
Vikings

Western

Deadwood
Hell on Wheels


Currently Watching

The Bad Batch
Mare of Easttown
Rectify


Planned Future Viewing

Bosch
Chernobyl
Doom Patrol
Fargo
The Mindy Project
Parks & Recreation
Peaky Blinders
The Witcher*

*Depending upon my ability to adequately confirm that there isn’t excessive gore in it.