1) The simpsons season 5
Its a shame that the Simpsons refused to die with dignity, because if it ended somewhere around season 12 it would have been pretty much untouchably the best TV show ever made. Everything you think is good about TV the Simpsons was doing it 10 years earlier. It was satirical without being elitist, referential without being smug and above all very, very funny. Season 5 was the peak, although it wins by a whisker over season 4. Season 5 was particurlarly prime for Mr Burns too, who for me is the best thing to come out of the Simpsons and quite possibly anything else.
Best episode: Cape Feare - Sideshow Bob + Rake = funniest thing you will ever see.
Best Character: Mr Burns - Because you know why.
2) 24, season 1
People forget, because of the force of self-parody that 24 became over the years, how pimped out the first season was. This is TV at its most electrifying. Ingeniously structured and with a gimmick that's pure genius, You'll be on the edge of your seat for every single one of the 18 plus hours it takes to watch this and this show invented the 'anything can happen to anyone' concept, which lesser shows thrive upon these days. But aside from the thrills, there's some proper quality here to. Of course there's Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, in a performance more intense then it is often given credit for. But Dennis Haysbert's President Palmer is just as good, and was unfairly overlooked in most awards. He brings dignity and sensitivity to an otherwise blockbusting show. Elisha Cuthbert looks hot and runs a lot, what else is there to say. The season has some quality villains too, Michael Massee' Ira Gaines will stay with you for a long time, ditto Zeljko Ivanek's more intelligent villainy. But most props go to Penny Johnson Jerald's Lady Macbeth type Sherry Palmer, who's all about the manipulation and back-stabbing and she works particularly well off Haysbert and their scenes are a treat.
Best episode: 11:00 P.M to 12:00 A.M - One devastating finale. It will own you.
Arrested Development was either ahead of its time or simply to good to be around for too long. Probably both. Hilarious in ways I couldn't begin to describe, this maybe the funniest live action show in existence, why more people don't rip it off I don't know. The second season is the best, for while the first year occassionally made attempts to appeal to a wider audience, season 2 just says fuck it and rolls with its own inaccessability, otherwise known as genius. In the straight man role, Jason Bateman manages to be as funny as the more colourful supporting cast, and no-one in the history of anything sells awesomely condescending sarcasm quite like Michael Bluth. He turned exasperated smart-assery into an art. But the spark is with the writing, always creative and innovative whilst being funny all the while. Watch this and it'll make any other show seem lazy in comparison. Bring on the movie!
4) Frasier, season 4
I could quite happily watch Frasier from beginning to end for the rest of my life, but that's my damage. This is how dialogue should be written, and no show has ever done upper-class literate comic-genius quite like this. Featuring two astonishingly consistent and deservedly legendary performances from Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce, its classy, high quality entertainment of the highest order. Season 4 featured too many all out classics to ignore, from Love bites Dog, which inspired the awesome 'like a guy' speech. To the equally quality 'three dates and a break-up'. But the best episode is undeniably the one you see below.
Yes, it has a stupid name. Lets all acknowlege that shall we. Right, now thats done with this is one of the most subtle, dark tinged dramas of recent years and it features a terrific ensemble cast, in which some may be better then others, but all are great to watch. Complex writing, plenty of allegory and class to burn, it even gives a great role to Xena the warrior the princess. For me, and I know opinion is split that many people prefer Starbuck or Tigh, the show is all about Gaius Baltar, the cowardly scientist who pretty much traded all of humanity to save his own ass. And from these ignoble beginnings he kind of secretly becomes the show's hero, villain and comic-relief at the same time. Its such a terrific characterization, that if it weren't in a sci-fi show, James Callis would have won an emmy by now.
Best episode: Six degrees of separation - In which Gaius gets enough screentime.
6) The Wire, season 1
The best reviewed show in town isn't quite Shakespeare, but its most definately something to see. We see both sides of the law struggling against and for an epic drugs case, and the good guys aren't always the ones with the badge. Or so it says on the DVD. But its fantastically complex and detailed portrayal of it all make it the TV equivalent of All the President's men or Zodiac. Witha plot 13 hours more dense. But it's all in the game. Season 1 feels the best to me because it was the tightest, you felt the organization and realism of the thing to your core. But it has a sense a fun also and will even make you laugh in places. Rarely though.
7) Lost season 1
A popular show, to be sure but back in the day when one didn't need either a photographic memory or an almanac to follow what was going on, it was a great character show. It actually starts out quite shakily, as an impressive crash sequence aside, the pilot is actually quite cliched and dull. The moment you realise this is much better then you first thought is the 4th episode, Walkabout. It takes the show to a more interesting place with a more interesting character, John Locke. Who stands as the only non-archetype in cast that otherwise features the Doctor, the criminal, the southern hick, the repressed Korean woman, the junkie rockstar etc. Yet as time passes each character grows in depth and becomes more rewarding to watch. But aside from the contrivinces this is how large, broad mainstream entertainment is done. Very addictive too, so much so that you (I) end up watching episode like 15 times to search for clues. Or just for fun.
8) South Park, season 10
You can say what you want about the nihilism, the distastefulness, the excessive toilet humor, the deliberate offensiveness etc. But you can't say that its not funny. Because its so fucking funny it hurts sometimes. Plus, its the show that says what it thiks no matter the impact and feedback and that alone makes it something to say. In the beginning it was a little bit more about offending you then making you laugh, but as time passed it matured and benefited greatly from it. Season 10 features more great shows then the average year, particularly Stanley Cup and and two parte Go God go, which sees Cartman travel to the future to avoid waiting for the Nintendo Wii, and Cartman, like the show, got better with age and became funnier each year and if he's not the funniest character currently on TV then I don't know what is.
9) Six Feet Under, season 2
This helped establish HBO as the place to go for adult orientated, quality driven drama. And quite right too. Features smart characterization, wit and enough edginess and intellectualism to make it the college professor's dream. But its more then future college fodder, it has a lot of heart and isn't afraid to take our basically decent characters down some dark paths. Nate, the lead, is particularly surrounded in tragedy and his arc in this terrific second season has as much pathos as you can expect to see on television. Or in most films for that matter. But it really works as an ensemble, without a single character becoming overly dominant or overly neglected. Until later years maybe, but in the 2nd year evrything clicked from the writing to the acting and it still stands as the most mature show you may ever see.
Best Episode: The last time - Six feet under had some terrific finales, but this was probably the best of them, everything comes together so perfectly.
Best Character: David Fisher - The repressed funeral director wins, but its very close, and really everyone is as good as each other.
10) Curb Your enthusiasm, Season 4
I'm not the biggest Seinfeld fan in the world, so it took me sometime to finally getting around to see Curb Your Enthusiasm, but it turns out the only person I was really burning was myself since this maybe the best meta-show yet seen on television, and boy are their a few. From 30 Rock and Studio 60 on the sunset strip to The Larry Sanders show and Extras, TV is an industry obsessed with itself, but none do it so crushingly and self-deprecatingly as Curb Yor Enthusiasm. The whole concept seems to be Larry David finding new and creative ways to humiliate himself and it is fantastic viewing. If not for how funny it all is then to make one feel better about one's own problems. Season 4 sees Larry land the role of Max Bialystock for the Broadway production of the Producers, and as you can imagine things do not go quite according to plan. The best season arc thus far.
Best Episode: Opening Night - when we finally get on stage, all the stuff we'd previously seen becomes child's play. Features one of the most painfully awkward moens of comedy ever.
Best Character: Larry David - A anti-hero for our politically correct times. Plus is funny.
11) The West Wing, Season 1
You either love Aaron Sorkin or you hate him, but his unique brand of self-superior liberal propaganda and wish-fulfilment is such that if it wasn't as good as it is, it would be the most unbearable show in the world. But luckily, the terrific dialogue rattles along as good as anything out there, the storylines manage to be educational whilst gripping - something that is most definately no mean feat - and the acting is good, which is vital, seeing as the high-speed of the writing would backfire painfully in lesser hands. Martin Sheen is a suitably stoic president and someone I would definately vote for, if I were the the right nationality that is. A classic example of a show that took something that no-one cou;d possibly conceive as interesting and made it so. The 1st season is perhaps the best, but it by no means decreases in quality as it goes on.
12) Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 3
Ah, another victim of it has a silly name, thus it must be awful theorem. Ironically if you watch the first season its exactly what you thought it would be, kind of cheesy with OTT story lines and the stench of tween hanging all over it. But the second season came back a different show, stronger and a million times better and the third year continued in that rhythm. No show, past or present was more imaginative then BTVS, and has been ripped off to the extreme. It paved the way for supernatural shows to be taken seriously and without it, Lost and Heroes would not be where they are today. The third year featured it's best year long arc too, something that was quite often the thing that went awry on the show in favour of episode by episode storytelling. This is mostly thanks to the Mayor, the season-long villain, best described as Ned Flanders if he were a seriously twisted psycho. He is entertaining every second he's on screen and even lends a genuine menace to proceedings as the year progresses. He is the pinncale of the show's great knack for bad guys. But there are plenty of episodes to marvel at, from The Wish, to the terrific Dopplegangland. The acting may not be the strongest thing on show here, and at times the tween factor cannot be stopped, but this, put simply the most enjoyable show I have ever seen.
Best Episode - The Zeppo School's coming to end via hell, a bomb and a street-gang of jock zombies. And it's up to the comic relief to save every one. Plus someone gets decapitated by a mailbox. Fun in its purest form.
Best Character- The Mayor - The public official who's corrupt in nastier ways then the usual.
13) Dexter, Season 1
Dexter came so close to being a terrible show. It had a convoluted and borderline ridiculous premise that had no right to work, it was on a network nobody watched. It was about a serial killer with a moral code. But then they cast Michael C. Hall and all was fine. He makes every moment an absolute joy, from his sardonic voice-over to both the nicer and darker elements of his character. It is a classic case of an actor not rising above the material but taking it with him. This list is in great danger above becoming a Michael C Hall love-in, what with Six Feet Under only a few paragraphs above. But I can't help it. It's such a terrific performance. As far as the supporting cast goes, its mostly hit and miss with people varying from no mark to annoying. With the glaring exception of Christian Camargo as Rudy, in a performance that got swallowed up and neglected on account of Hall, but he lends it a real quality that future series lacked. Sadly, it seems that the show's got a bad case of the diminishing returns with each year being slightly worse then the previous. Bu we'll always have this 1st year.
Best episode - Born Free - In which tales of sickos are suprisingly moving, thanks to Hall and Camargo.
14) Friends, season 3
This might well be the most popular show ever. Still showing in prime-time slots 5 years after cancellation, you've seen it so many times you can say the words along with the characters. Whether you intend to or not. Its no longer you're decision. But the good news is the popularity is not unfounded. Last couple of years notwithstanding, it was consistently funny and entertaining. Never getting lazy and simply taking the money, so to speak. The third year features enough great episodes for several shows from the one with the football, to the now infamous break-up episode the one with the morning after. This is classic feel-good TV featuring a suprisingly deft ensemble. All handle the pratfalls and lines with great aplomb.
Best Episode: The one where no-one's ready - In which Joey takes the essence of the chair.
I don't love this show as much as the rest of the world, but there is denying that it has to be on this list. A mafia show that for the most part takes away the boyish action fantasy that exists in the genre and replaces it with complex psychology and mommy issues. The killings and illegal happenings are almost an afterthought in comparison to the tense family issues and character drama. James Gandolfini is a terrific anchor for the show, his performance is in turns frightening ad sympathetic, and follows the show's lead in maintaining an enormous amount of complexity. Its slower then you think it will be going in, but once you adjust to the pace everything works just fine. A classic in terms of classiness, and it laid down the format seemingly for all cable dramas of the future.
Best Episode: I dream of Jeannie Cusamano - Suitably fitting close to an excellent 1st season
Best Character: Tony Soprano - He's just like you, only in the mafia. And cooler.
I was close to abandoning the shield after season 3, it was good but it was beginning to ramble and lack focus. Then season 4 came along, with two terrific additions; Glenn Close's Monica Rawling and Anthony Anderson's Antwon Mitchell. Both lend the show new life, but also seem to reinvigorate existing characters. Particularly Walton Goggins' Shane who as the series went on really began to out-Vic Vic, becoming a darker and more amoral version of our central corrupt cop figure. Vic himself, fantastically portrayed by Michael Chiklis as kind of an overtly masculine monster, is arguably at his most sympathetic this season with Shane and Antwon Mitchell up to much darker business. Anderson really knocks this out of he park, and as an actor I only previously knew from Kangeroo Jack, this was an awesome surprise. Close is as good as you'd expect she would be, lending a real fierceness to her role. Out of the ashes of a seemingly cooked show came one of the best season's I'd ever seen. Who knew.
Best Episode: Back in the Hole - Mitchell's interrogation with enough on line, such as Shane's future outside a jail cell and the body of a little girl. Riveting television
Best Character: Vic Mackey - A bent cop we all want to get away with it.
17) House, season 2
Medical shows come every few minutes, and leave just as quickly. But there was something different about House, which incorparated the mystery of a cop show with the procedure of a medical one. And while the cases are usually interesting they're not why House is on this list. That would be Hugh Laurie, in a fantastically grandstanding turn as eternally ticked off Dr House, in which he mangages to have pathos, but also be much more funny then you'd expect and for a while before it became slightly more miserable it was one of the funniest shows you could see, which may say something about the state of comedy shows. The second season, lacking the occassional nervousness of the first year, really sets out its stall as we go from case to case, the supporting cast doing all the expository scenes whilst Laurie gets to repeatedly and unflinchingly steal every single episode. This may be a little harsh on Robert Sean Leonard, who as Dr Wilson is immensely under-rated. But hey, who's complaining if we get to see more of Laurie.
Best Episode: No Reason - House gets shot! Doesn't die though. Now thats a spoiler.
Best Character: Gregory House - For all the reason mentioned above and many more.
18) Desperate Housewives, season 1
Finally, a female orientated show appears on this list. I wish there were more, I really do. Alas, I'm a man and I like manly things. Or female-aimed TV should top trying to rip-off Sex and the city and do something new, like this show did. Kind of like a trashy charity shop novel come to live, only with better writing, better acting and an interestingly wide sadistic streak. The lesser prepared may be irritated by Teri Hatcher, but Marcia Cross' bree is a characterization as good as any previously mentioned on this list and its a shame she keeps losing awards to the still good but slightly less so Felicity Huffman. Who here plays a working woman beaten down by her own fertility. Eva Longoria keeps up well on the acting stakes, delivering snide lines with glee and molding her character into a terrificly neurotic bitch. She also is in Lingerie a lot so take from that what you will. Overall a kind of Oestrogenised soap/film-noir but on TV.
Best Episode: Guilty - Where blowing your brains out is a preferable alternative to taking care of 4 kids. Dark stuff.
Best Character: Bree Van Der Kamp - Hilarious and slightly unnerving rendition of one woman's need to be perfect.
19) Carnivale, season 2
Criminally under-seen show, but is a more adult spin on the supernatural chosen-one theme we see so often in lesser works. First of all this thing looks amazing, making great use of the southern deserts and has cinematography to put many movies to shame. It also features some impressively twisted story-telling, most notably in its seperate narrative tale of Brother Justin Crowe, who is as far as I can tell a good man chosen to be evil. His nature as a villain doesn't entirely seem to be his choice, and his struggle with these dark supernatural forces is something to watch. Its very much an ensemble show, though. And we see this through the main narrative of the Carnivale itself and the many characters that make-up its staff. If you want a more adult alternative to Heroes then look no further then this.
Best Episode: The day that was the day - twisted finale to a twisted season. A lot of night scenes .
Best Character: Brother Justin Crowe - Your friendly neighbourhood evil preacher.
20) Breaking Bad, season 1
This is perhaps a curveball for this list, as its relatively new and seen by no-one. But we strive to be original in the blogging community, and thus I have chosen this which currently only has 7 episodes in existence. Its main sell is the terrific and now emmy-winning performance from Bryan Cranston, who some of you may know as the Dad from Malcolm in the middle. But let it be known that that award was no coincidence, as Cranston is terrific here which he had to be given what he had to sell, which is a college science professor who upon discovering he has cancer teams up with a scummy neighbourhood teenage drug-dealer to cook Meth. Hilarity ensues. Actually darkness ensues, with everything turning from bad to worse all the while held together by a central performance for the ages. Go see.
Best episode: Pilot: The first and best so far, sets up everything with true quality.
Best Character: Walter H.White Your friendly neighourhood science professor turned meth dealer.