You can't create a list of the best TV shows in history without factoring in the essential HBO drama.
As peak television rolls along, and shows like “American Gods” take off, it’s a good time to reflect on how we got to this point of endless bounty.
Thank “The Sopranos.”
The HBO mob drama had such an impact that there’s literally a demarcation line between television that came before and after it.
Much has been written about the lasting impact of David Chase’s sensation. No need to go into it here at length. Suffice to say producers and networks are no longer afraid of smart television in the show’s wake.
Artists suddenly could challenge audiences, and themselves, because they weren’t tied to the “mass” in mass media. The bar was forever raised. Once that happened, a whole new era of television arrived.
(BTW — I’m always for raising the bar as a general life philosophy because I believe people will rise to the occasion.)
It’s unfair to evaluate television programs that came after “The Sopranos” with ones that came before. It’s just a different class of TV. With that in mind, here is my list of the best of television before and after “The Sopranos.”
The Best Before The Sopranos
(10) “The Dick Van Dyke Show” — This was one of my favorite after school programs to watch, and who didn’t have a crush on Laura Petrie? The show is formulaic, and if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. Like with pizza and brownies, it’s okay to have more than one of a good thing. Who eats one really great pizza and is done with pizza?
(9) “I Love Lucy” — The brilliance of this show is that while it’s unbearably sexist in retrospect, Lucile Ball ran the studio that produced the show.
(8) “All In The Family” — You rarely find this sitcom in reruns today, possibly because it’s out of step with today’s politics. The show’s racism can be cringe worthy, too. Back then, it brought dialogue into the home like no other show. Shows like “Black-ish” and “Master of None” are more akin to “All In The Family” than anything that’s currently out there.
(7) “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” — What made this show so powerful, in part, was the callback to “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Here’s Laura Petrie at her place of work and finding herself as a woman.
(6) “M*A*S*H*” — Shows like “The West Wing” and “House of Cards” can thank “M*A*S*H” for crafting the template for how to do brilliant episodic TV. “M*A*S*H” had anti-war sentiments, but it’s really a workplace comedy at its core. Shows like “The Office” also can trace their roots back to Cpl. Klinger and co.
(5) “Star Trek” [The Original Series] — I could write a book about how important “Star Trek” is to our culture. It was revolutionary in its positivity and love of humanity. Can you think of any show in the last 50 years that has had such a hopeful view of humanity? In the dark cynicism of the times here was a bright spot. The writing drew from the best science fiction writers of the ’50s and ’60s to create excellent genre TV.
(4) “The X-Files” — The recently rebooted series makes this list because it mastered blending episodic television with the “monster of the week” show. That enhanced complexity changed what audiences could handle. You could argue “The X-Files” formed a bridge between shows like “M*A*S*H” and “The Sopranos.”
(3) “The Twilight Zone” — The anthology series proved that great writing can carry a show across time. Most episodes feel like they were written yesterday. Many still carry that sting of relevancy.
(2) “Cheers” — Ted Danson is seriously underrated. From “Cheers” to “Damages” to “Bored to Death” this guy crushes it. He’s the king of comedy to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s queen. What made “Cheers” work is not the Sam and Diane chemistry, although that’s in its favor. It’s how Diane had fallen so far from grace that she found herself working in a bar. This formula could be just as relevant today… just imagine a show about a former Stanford professor who’s now waitstaff at a bar in Milwaukee.
(1) “Seinfeld” — To say that women aren’t funny is to fly in the face of television history. The funniest person ever to grace a TV screen remains Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Anytime I’m on a train and it stops I can’t help but laugh thinking about Elaine’s “Seinfeld” meltdown. We can all picture her dancing and breaking up with Patrick Warbuton’s Puddy. Then there’s HBO’s “Veep,” proving anew she’s TV’s funniest performer.
The ‘Sopranos’ Effect
NBC’s old “Must See TV” campaign was simply marketing hype. “The Sopranos” was the first real must see TV show. Nothing had been on air like it before. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what made the show so revolutionary. We already had crime shows and antiheroes (J.R. Ewing, anyone?). Even programs like “Frasier” and “The Bob Newhart Show” dabbled in on-screen therapy. Yet this show had an emotional pull like none before it.
Television always had a vaudevillian feel to it, featuring an ensemble cast of characters. “The Sopranos” is all Tony. It’s a character study, a first-person POV that we identified with even when it shocked us.
“The Sopranos” is brilliant because it connects us to our neglected and rejected contents. It introduced us to our shadow. We were mesmerized. It exposed the bare bones of a corruption that’s in all of us and we loved the show for it.
The Best Shows Post ‘Sopranos’
(1) Mad Men — It’s not surprising that a “Sopranos” writer/producer would create what I think is the best show ever created for television. “Mad Men” has everything “The Sopranos” had … and more.
It’s a deep expose on the American Dream and of critically important decades in U.S. history. It’s so painstakingly, historically accurate that those details just blend seamlessly into the drama and so we unfortunately forget about them.
There were “Mad Men” viewing parties, something unheard of prior to this show, and its ever evolving sexual politics should be mandatory viewing for Millennials and Zs in business school.
(2) Game of Thrones — Would HBO have taken a risk on “Game of Thrones” if not for the success of “The Sopranos?” Here’s the deal, sometimes after “The Sopranos” or “Mad Men” I’d be happy the show was over so I could catch a break from the intensity.
That isn’t so with “Game of Thrones.” I could watch hours and hours of that world. I hate it when each episode ends. It wouldn’t even have to be scripted for me to enjoy, just being in the world with episodes like “Arya Stark and The Hound Sit By a Campfire” or “Bronn Shares A Beer” would be just fine with me.
To call this show “television” seems a bit of an insult because it is world building like we’ve never seen before. It is a “SIM City” as television.
(3) Peaky Blinders — “Peaky Blinders” might be a throwback to pre “Sopranos” television. Out of all the shows on the post-Sopranos list “Peaky” could also be on the pre-sopranos list as well.
It’s just good, old-fashioned TV.
So good that if you haven’t yet caught an episode I’m envious of your virginity. The show is about WWI veterans, prohibition, and the rise of a crime boss. Sure that’s nothing new, but what makes this show special is the time period.
There are two shows that I “two-screen” it — “Archer” and “Peaky Blinders” — because of the references and complex content. That is the extra bit of goodness that comes with this show.
(4) Breaking Bad — “The Sopranos” might have fathered shows like “Weeds” “Peaky Blinders” and “Boardwalk Empire” but “Breaking Bad” is pure genius all on its own. It feels like a biblical story if I’m being honest.
It’s about a man who’s pushed beyond all limits, both physically and mentally, and somehow survives. The humor is unexpected and so is the raw emotion. Walter’s “MacGyver”-like solutions are fun. “The Sopranos” dared to show us all we have a “Tony” within us and “Breaking Bad” just had fun with it.
(5) The Leftovers — Carrie Coon’s Nora Durst is a big reason why I love this show, but there’s something about the deftly held way it deals with the serious issues of loss, faith, religion, love and rebirth that is deeply compelling.
It feels like the most real and most serious show I’ve ever watched on television in terms of those themes. Episodes like “International Assassin” are why the very medium was invented. Yet the show is still fun and has a sense of humor. That’s hard to do.
(6) The Americans — I hope this FX drama will produce a spinoff that focuses on spying right after the fall of the Berlin Wall. That time of transition from the Soviet Union to Russia is a fascinating period that could easily host a successful spinoff.
If you don’t know about “The Americans” or have it on your list but haven’t watched yet I encourage you to dive in. It’s not too late, and it would be relatively easy to catch up to Season 5 with some binge watching.
What an amazing five seasons it has been. What makes this show work is the storytelling and acting and the juxtaposition of normal family life with that of international spy.
(7) Homeland — The Showtime series is the most uneven show (in terms of seasons and episodes) on this list. When it’s good … it’s great television.
What makes “Homeland” so compelling is the clairvoyance with which this show tackles themes straight from the headlines and even more importantly the characters: Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) and Carrie Mathison (Clare Danes) have to be the most fascinating partnership since Holmes and Watson.
The reason this show can find portage over bad episodes or season is because the chemistry is that good.
(8) Billions — How this show continues to fly under the radar is beyond me because it so damn good. I’ve written about its place in the current TV landscape before.
(9) The Walking Dead — I’ll admit that I dropped this show after the infamous “bat” episode that kicked off the recent season. It wasn’t the violence or the realism (this is a show about zombies after all) it was the toying and sadism that bugged me.
I want to feel like the writers and procures are working with me to create an experience not screw with me.
That said, Seasons 1-5 were nearly perfect and some of the best TV ever produced. If this had been at the BBC they would’ve capped it and forced an endgame, instead it keeps shambling on like a zombie. Shame.
(10) The Affair/Masters of Sex — Am I cheating by putting two shows in one slot? Maybe, but I love both and have written about how “The Affair” is much more than mere titillation. I’ll just add that these are shows you have to give a full season. I know that’s a big ask, but like the canceled way too soon “Penny Dreadful” and “Deadwood” these shows too time to find themselves as they moved from concept to execution.
What’s Your List?
As you navigate Peak TV think about your own “Best of All Time” list… what shows would be on it and why? The great thing about Peak TV is that there’s enough for everyone to enjoy. Heck, you could probably come up with an equally viable list with entirely different shows on it.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed the dates referenced in the “Star Trek” section.
Photo credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO