As a result of cable raising their standards (and Hollywood dropping theirs) television programming improved remarkably in this century. So, we divide all TV programs by those that started before 1999, and those after…what we would call “Binge TV.”
What follows is our list of the ten best television shows that have finished airing. A number of shows started out well but declined too precipitously over their run to make our list (Sons of Anarchy and Prison Break for example). We make one exception.
Our list is eclectic, so it will not be for every viewer, but you can usually tell if a series is for you after three episodes, so give them a try. Our recommendations are based on a combination of excellent story arcs and well-drawn characters we thoroughly enjoyed watching (Tony Soprano we just wanted dead from about episode three…making it a long wait).
Therefore, if you’re looking for a show to binge and get hooked on, here is our list in order:
Downton Abbey (2010-15) Episodes: 52: Having finished it’s run in the UK (it plays delayed in the U.S.), this show qualifies as complete and may be the finest drama ever to air on television. The quality of the writing is that good. Dame Maggie Smith plays the family matriarch, The Dowager Countess, whose biting one-liners (brilliantly supplied by writer Julian Fellows) make her one of the greatest television characters of all time. Viewers will become attached to at least two or three characters in this drama about the lives and loves of an aristocratic English family and their servants from 1914 to 1926.
24 (2001-10) [Seasons 1-4, 96 Episodes only]: This is the action/suspense show starring Kiefer Sutherland that changed television forever with a frantic pace and unsafe main characters that had never been seen before. Although it ran for 204 episodes, we only recommend the first 96, or through season four. Each season is not quite as good as the last, but 24 starts so spectacularly that the loss doesn’t begin to truly show until season five. Each season can stand alone, and episode 96 ends perfectly, but if you’re too hooked to stop watching…well, you were warned.
The Wire (2002-08) Episodes: 60: This is the show that shamed the stacks of television cop shows that came before it. Dominic West stars as a Baltimore homicide detective (who’s a better cop than human being) navigating the politics and corruption of his various employers. The storyline follows the careers of the cops and the criminals, and features the most realistic portrayal of both that you will ever see. Give this show six episodes before you judge it. The Wire is extremely well-written and contains characters you won’t soon forget.
Breaking Bad (2008-13) Episodes: 62: Vince Gilligan’s Shakespearian-style drama about a high school chemistry teacher who becomes a major drug kingpin takes the viewer on quite a journey. Bryan Cranston masterfully plays the lead character who descends by steps into the darkest places of his soul, yet remains somehow endearing. The most difficult element to a show with this much stroy arc is to “stick the landing,” something done here exceptionally well.
Dexter (2006-13) Episodes: 96: You wouldn’t think a series about a crimes-scene investigator who is also a vigilante serial killer in his free time would be appealing, but Dexter Morgan, as imagined by novelist Jeff Lindsay and played by Michael C. Hall, is likely the most lovable murderer in television history. Set in Miami, the show has just enough twinkle to off-set the blood spatter. Viewers will find it almost impossible not to root for Dexter and his equally star-crossed sister Debra, played by Jennifer Carpenter.
Nip/Tuck (2003-10) Episodes: 100: Producer Ryan Murphy made it big with this outrageous series about two Miami plastic surgeons whose lives orbit just outside of chaos at all times. One is a family man, the other a sex-addicted playboy. Each desperately envies the other. Murphy’s show entertains while pluming the darker sides of power, money and beauty.
Justified (2010-15) Episodes: 78: This show, about a U.S. Marshal in Kentucky, works for one reason: Timothy Olyphant. Watching this smooth talking gunslinger navigate the treacherous hills and criminal element of Harlan County makes for captivating television. As with other shows on this list, the storyline plays with duality, and here it’s Marshal Givens’ alter ego and childhood friend, gangster Boyd Crowder, played by Walter Goggins.
True Blood (2008-14) Episodes: 80: Vampires, werewolves, pixies and shape shifters interrupt the peaceful and innocent bayou life of Sookie Stackhouse, played by Anna Paquin, in this much sexier version of Twilight. All the action is driven by Sookie’s many loves affairs, and the herculean efforts required of her friends and family to keep her safe. This show is fun.
Deadwood (2004-06) Episodes: 36: Canceled after only three seasons, Timothy Oliphant once again stars as the gunslinger, but this time in a true western. However, Ian McShane steals the show as the ruthless saloon owner with a twinkle in his eye. Creator/writer David Milch mixes language from the period with modern profanities to create a dialogue that feels authentic in tone. In fact, the entire lawless frontier town depicted here feels authentic and brutal, which drives much of the show’s appeal.
Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-08) Episodes: 61: This is an animated series and certain works for kids, but it’s a good show for the whole family. The fantasy plot mixes eastern and western symbolism and centers around a race of humans who can manipulate the four basic elements. The characters feel real and the morality never overwhelms the excellent story-telling. [If you enjoy it, check out the sequel The Legend of Korra (2012-14) and the outstanding Japanese anime Attack on Titan (2013)]
Honorable Mention: The Tudors (2007-10) 38 Episodes.