What are the top 10 TV shows ever made?
The West Wing, largely for its stylistic exploration of US politics. My list is not in order, but were it so, this show would not be out of place.
For overseas watchers, West Wing is the best dramatic introduction to what makes American politics tick (it might not be - in which case the shows which are need to be better... much better). West Wing didn't just deliver believable political drama; it's a show which elevated intelligence and integrity over expediency and self interest in the political domain. Sorkin's one of America's most talented screenwriters, and The West Wing cemented his reputation. Many of my favorite TV moments can be found in these episodes. Even with the inevitable flaws of a seven season run, I adore it. If I could, I'd hang it like a oil painting on my wall.
More Sorkin is required.
In the history of late 20th century British TV drama, there are quite a few names which stand out. "Potter" comes later in my answer, but here is Alan Bleasdale with G.B.H., a show which deserves a US remake right now - more so than House of Cards in hindsight.
Bleasdale became popular following his Boys from the Blackstuff - especially the part of Yosser "give us a job" Hughes . But GBH stands out for me. See if this plot sounds familiar:
A populist politician, Michael Murray, wins power supported by the working class and minority groups, on a promise to turn the city around. A shadowy and extreme organisation with links to white-supremacists latch onto his success like parasites. They manipulate football hooligans to dress up as UK Bobbies and randomly attack black men in the city; leaving police helmets or IDs at the scene of their violence. The city explodes as racial tensions spiral out of control. An increasingly volatile Murray is unable to prevent the riots from happening, distracted by a dark past which threatens to expose him post-election
Ok... Murray is left wing and the position is Mayor of a northern UK city, not president of a nation. Doesn't matter. Trump has Michael Murray written all over him and American TV producers need to check this series out if they wanted to have some fun.
Oh... and Michael Palin and Juliet Walters and Lindsey Davis and Robert Lindsey and Andrew Schofield...
Even three seasons in, I would never have predicted how competently South Park would mature over the next 17 years. I was a teacher in its infancy, and watched with amusement at the behest of my preteen, mostly male students who adored it for the same reason I liked Blackeyes (see below). But while other animated comedies became stale and unwatchable parodies of their previous selves (that's why The Simpsons is not in this list, but would have easily been here instead of South Park in 1997) ; this show - from Trey Parker and Matt Stone - manages to stay fresh 20 years later with an eye on current events and some of the best comedy satire in the business.
Respect their athoratay.
Enough has already been said about The Wire on this page. I include it my list not least for it's nuanced examination of race, US drug culture, and modern policing. 15 years on the show has never been more socially relevant.
(Breaking Bad will never be socially relevant).
Deadwood ticks loads of boxes for me; dark, comic theatrical performances, ambiguously moral, beautifully shot; all while avoiding character stereotypes entirely and bringing some of the filthiest language to the small screen. The show delivered several connected story arcs over three perfect seasons.
You cocksuckers should upvote this answer for being the only one to mention the show.
Talking of the perfect number of seasons, Rome gets on this list with no hesitation. Like Deadwood, Rome manages to burst through its own genre and plots a fresh, modern look at well-documented historical events. Shakespeare did this stuff pretty well already - so you'd better know what you're doing to tackle this material afresh! Notably this is another joint channel production, with the BBC and HBO teaming up with an Italian production company you've never heard of. Class, power, revenge, deceit, and the value of friendships are key themes.
Sexy as fuck - Rome lives up to its amazing pedigree.
Talking of breaking through genre, The Sopranos needs a place on my list if only for the astonishing character of Tony Soprano, a delicate flower of a thug, totally incapable of dealing with his better self; a monster struggling to contain the decent person inside ...
Enough people have slobbered over this series already - moving on...
In theatre terms, Curb Your Enthusiasm would be called a comedy of manners. It's one of the best. The show documents the excruciating awkwardness of navigating - as we all must do - a host of unfamiliar faces and situations every day. That's right...it's a proper "situation comedy" where the comedy isn't the situation - it's what comes out of it. Larry David took the core premise of his more successful show Seinfeld - a show about nothing - and turned it into a semi-improvised masterpiece. Larry David is (perhaps) the most British of American characters - so fearful of offence he'll attend a house party with knowledge of an imminent terrorist attack.
<insert "pretty pretty good" here>
Wiki describes Jam as a horror-comedy. I've never thought of it that way, but I understand the sentiment. Normally we just say "dark" but Jam is so dark it's a black hole to outright chuckles. Unsettling, unorthodox, and offensive (if you're looking). Nevertheless Jam is visual, comic brilliance.
Chris Morris really is god. And I'm an atheist. That's just how good he is.
You won't like it. This is my list. Fuck off.
Cold Lazarus is part two of a two part series written by Dennis Potter. Potter was facing his own death from pancreatic cancer when he wrote both plays, and it shows.
Being jointly produced by the BBC and Channel 4 is enough to make those plays notable; Potter insisted on it. One writer insisted that the awesome, yet cumbersome British Broadcasting Corporation and the UK's newest, (and next to last) terrestrial channel - work on his play together - and they did. It's hard to imagine an artist who could ever make that happen again.
Cold Lazurus is perhaps Potter's most self-reflective writing - an artist's introspective on immortality on the cusp of his own death. That's right, Gilligan, you just wrote a show featuring a character dying of cancer. Next time bring your A game.
If this list were in reverse order ...
Blackeyes, like many of Dennis Potter's plays, tackles adult themes with an unflinching eye decades before some of the other gritty shows listed on this page had been conceived. Controversial - Blackeyes was considered shocking at the time - even by European standards. Everything Potter did pushed boundaries. If the critics had given as much of a fuck about the nudity in it as they did the sexual violence in Prime Suspect, or the gun play in Starsky and Hutch, they might have liked it. I haven't put Potter's The Singing Detective in this list either and it also needs a mention - and it should probably be here instead of Blackeyes; but when it first came out I was a bit too young for it to have the same impact on me. As a recently-backslid-evangelical-Christian-theatre-student in my early 20s, Blackeyes stood out as something unique and special. I felt deliciously naughty liking it. (Just like my preteen students did of South Park... remember? I mentioned this earlier. Are you even paying attention? ... and this is why you don't like great TV shows).
Cracker - Robbie Coltrane was born to play this arrogant, self-absorb addick [sic]... nuff said.
Fawlty Towers - despite the unadulterated celebration of a British farce brought to the small, prime-time screen under the expertise of an ex-parrot and an ex-pat, this comedy was simultaneously restrained and disciplined - 12 episodes of pure magic which must never be reattempted. Never! Don't make me do another swear.
Black Books, Blackadder, Absolutely Fabulous, Spaced, Yes Minister, The League of Gentlemen, The IT Crowd, Father Ted, The Young Ones and Green Wing; all mentioned to honour 10 UK comedies which could run their own answer. I'll mention A Very Peculiar Practice just in case you were cynical enough think a person would struggle to reach 10 UK comedies which could run their own answer. Red Dwarf. Bam! One Foot in the Grave. Kazow! Only Fools and Horses. Pidong! Had enough? Monty Python. Stay down mf.
Brass Eye and The Day Today mentioned to honour the only god I'd recognise.
The Crown: Lets not make any hasty judgments, but here's a TV show to keep your eye on.
Further notes: Sure... Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Fargo, Expanse, Rick and Morty, ... all watchable and notable shows. But I largely agree their current popularity is due to what Dan Holliday's answer: What are the top 10 TV shows ever made? describes, knowingly and honestly, as "recency biase". I have tried to answer as if from a future so distant all shows mentioned are equally old. Truth is - if I'd never seen Expanse (and having read the books) I'd choose them over Potter right now (no - not Harry Potter idiot - although I would - pay attention!).
I might choose Expanse right now, even if I'd already seen it. But I don't think I'll be choosing Expanse over Potter or GBH in another 30 years.
Mine are the shows I think students of ancient media will study when flat screens are as antiquated as a puppet show. 10 are far too few.
However... I know I can't escape my own recency biased - I doubt West Wing will be one of those shows. If I'm honest.
The rest? I hope so - otherwise climate change is the least of our problems.
Final observation: The zombie-dragon apocalypse; a melodramatic love story between alien species; a convoluted political thriller which opens with Alaska sinking into the Mediterranean; or the exploits of a detective with Tourettes investigating half a body - the entire left side of a man found in a dumpster; or a comedy featuring a White gay and an Asian feminist and a Muslim terrorist and a Black ballet dancer and a single Eskimo mother sharing flat in Dafar - you can have them all.
Drop me on an island with a TV. Give me all the output of the BBC, Channel 4 and HBO . Keep Abrams away. I'll be happy.