NOTE: This list features TV shows that either began or ended between 2011 to 2021
1. “Mad Men” (2007-2015) — The AMC drama might be the best television show of all time. What makes the show so stinkin’ good (beyond the writing, acting and aesthetics) is the generational conflict.
- World War II
“Mad Men,” in some ways, explored veterans even more than it did Madison Avenue in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.
If you watch “Mad Men” and think it’s glorifying the halcyon days of those eras, you’ve missed what the show is ultimately about: the change. How memories help us understand it and resist it.
2. “Game of Thrones” (2011-2019) — The last season (which wasn’t as horrible as we remember) will always cast a dragon-sized shadow on what was the most riveting and must-see TV in a generation.
3. “Breaking Bad” (2008-2013) — Walter White and Jessie. The everyman turned into drug king. It’s a subversive telling of the Hero’s Journey (monomyth), but what makes it so remarkable is how real it all feels. It’s deeply tragic in a relatable way that “Hamlet” and “Romeo and Juliet” were back in their day.
4. “The Walking Dead” (2010-present) — I dropped out during season six with Glenn’s false death subplot. True to form, the show keeps shambling on with new characters and adventures, but for the first six seasons this was brilliant television. Much has been written about what the zombie symbolizes to our psychology (racism, mortality, poverty, fear of the masses, technology). To my mind, it was always simpler… the absolute fear of being bit by something. I don’t care how tough you are, nobody likes to be bit by a snake, dog, cat, spider, ant, tick … or zombie.
5. “Better Call Saul” (2015-present) — Would this show be what it is without “Breaking Bad” is a good question, and one that’s impossible to answer. I think so. There’s so much going on that in many ways it’s far superior to “Breaking Bad.” The show’s world building had already been done, so we’re able to do a deep character study into a single character… and it’s amazing. Just amazing.
6. “Peaky Blinders” (2013-present) — Last season was a bit of a “filler” as they build towards the Great Depression and start of World War II, but the British import has consistently been one of the best shows on television.
7. “Babylon Berlin” (2017-present) — Speaking of building towards World War II, this show is profound in the parallels it draws to current times and the social upheaval going on between the agentic and social bias. Being in Berlin in the 1930s is both magical and terrifying, and that it’s a hard-boiled detective story, like something from Raymond Chandler, makes it all the better.
8. “Rick and Morty” (2013-present) — This show is many things: a dark exploration of childhood sexual abuse (a running theme throughout the seasons), a family comedy and one of the best science-fiction shows ever produced. It’s meta-commentary on television itself, much like its forbearer, “Community,” comes with much more self awareness.
9. “Stranger Things” (2016-present) — The show’s magic lies in how it managed to capture both the wonder and terror of the ’80s. I really don’t know how they do it… that mood is what makes it so unbelievably good. The ’80s can become cliche: malls, D&D, first kisses, Russians, Ghostbusters, Reagan’s Austerity, neighborhood pools, but somehow it nails exactly how it all “felt” to live it.
I’m not sure if you didn’t grow up in the ’80s if this show means as much and I pray they get this same mood with my favorite book of that era, “The Talisman” by Stephen King and Peter Straub, right.
10. “The Expanse” (2015-present) — The best science fiction show since “The X-Files,” and the best “Star Trek” show since “The Next Generation.” Hardcore science fiction lovers love to love “The Expanse,” but the story and relationships make it worth watching for everyone else.
11. “The Americans” (2013-2018) — One of the all-time best endings of any show, behind “Mad Men” and “The Leftovers.” Six great seasons followed a family of Soviet Spies who dedicate and risk their lives for the “Motherland” only to find themselves as Americans and the Soviet Union in tatters.
12. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (2017-present) — One of the things I love most about “Mrs. Maisel” is that it’s basically the same show as “Weeds,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos.” We’re seeing a person become an empire, but it’s far more innocent than those shows. It’s about comedy and show business. It’s funny. Lovable. Watchable.
13. “The Leftovers” (2014-2017) — The HBO drama explored the collective grief we experienced post 9-11 and the rabbit holes that grief took us down, as well as how it impacts our closest relationships and our relationship to faith. It’s one of the first shows to risk that challenging material, and also one of the best.
14. “Hanna” (2019-present) — Both the movie and the television show it spawned was a family drama about a daughter and her father and the mother waiting in the wings to snatch her up… turn her into a weapon against the world. The archetypal drama aside, it’s always been a really fun action show to boot.
15. “Fleabag” (2016-2019) — Two seasons of comedic gold.
16. “Altered Carbon” (2018-2020) — Season one was maybe my favorite season of television of any show ever… Cyberpunk is my favorite subgenera in my favorite genre and based on one of my favorite books of all time, so I was all in and it didn’t disappoint. There are a few odd moments here or there that can distract you right out of the show… but it’s simply great cyberpunk.
17. “Homeland” (2011-2020) — I’ll admit I dropped out midway through the last season. I just had lost all interest in the show, but those first three-four seasons … wow.
18. “The Affair” (2014-2019) — This show starts off wanting to tell a story that literally is the basis of five books that come out each summer about sex, some beach on the East Coast, and a murder.
It’s a “beach read,” but the twist was they were going to tell the same story but each episode would be told from the different character’s POV. It was gimmicky to a point and fun at first as you had to track down how each character saw themselves and each other, and then triangulate as best you could what the truth actually was.
The show eventually morphed into something so much more than a summer read.
With the “me too” movement and this show being about sex… it delved into all kinds of weighty topics like dominant sex in the age of consent, power equivalency issues between men and women, and how the media can be manipulated to assassinate someone’s character. Through it all, the story was really about the wife. She had the most interesting character arc and who she became as a person across five seasons makes this show must-watch television.
19. “The Boys” (2019-present) — This show must exist. It’s counter to Marvel and Disney and everything they stand for.
20. “Utopia” — (British 2013-2014, U.S. 2020) — Both the British and U.S. version are mind blowing and so far ahead of their time in terms of understand virus, vaccinations and world events. It’s amazing this show was even allowed to air given its premise that a virus is released on purpose so the vacations can take place. And the British version is just so British and why we love the Brits.
21. “Sex Education” (2019-present) — Speaking of Brits… this look at a sex therapist and her son who becomes the sex therapist for his school is funny, caring and ethical.
22. “Big Mouth” (2017-present) — Much more raw and dirty than “Sex Education,” this animated tale is deeply funny with the same good heart and intentions. Both “Sex Education” and “Big Mouth” aren’t made for kids. They’re for adults to both remind you what your own puberty was like AND give you some pointers on how to be a better parent to your own kids going through puberty.
23. “BoJack Horseman” (2014-2020) — One of my professors was fond of saying, “The best movies in Hollywood are when they turn the cameras in on themselves…” and that is certainly true of this show which skewers Hollywood in a way that few people are… the narcissism and the nihilism.
24. “Killing Eve” (2018-present) — The love affair between a British MI-5 agent and international assassin is both funny, sexy, and full of intrigue, but it’s the acting between the two leads that pour jet fuel on the story. The chemistry between them is the stuff of television magic.
25. “The Crown” (2016-present) — Queen Elizabeth II is a fascinating human being and the world events seen through her eyes makes for brilliant television. Be interesting to see if they dare do a next season and cover Meghan Markle.
26. “True Detective” (2014-present) — Three very different seasons, each different in its own way, but they’re all brilliant.
27. “Succession” (2018-present) — The show that “Billions” started to be and then got lost (just as the movie, “The Wolf of Wall Street” got lost). It’s a morality tale about the corruption and dangers of money and they people who pursue it.
28. “Billions (2016-present) — The first three seasons are brilliant.
29. “Orphan Black” (2013-2017) — The idea of meeting your clone is a great premise to start a TV show, that there would be many clones of you out there running around and that there is an entire global intrigue behind it is brilliant.
30. “Black Mirror” (2011-2019) — No show gets the horrors of the immediate future better than “Black Mirror.”