ot long ago we looked at the greatest films of the 21st century as a way of showing boomers that even though the 70s was arguably the best decade for films, they’re still doing great things in the cinema. But it’s a different story for the small screen as we are undoubtedly in the Golden Age of TV. Gone are the days of I Dream of Jeannie and Mork and Mindy, we are in a time of high quality filmmaking, A-list actors, and compelling stories that are often missing from the movie theatres. And with the numerous streaming services, it’s easier than ever to catch up on shows you’ve missed. So if you’re in a binging mood, check out our list of the greatest television shows of the 21st century.
15. MAD MEN
Starring Jon Hamm, Elizabeth Moss, John Slattery.
Created by Matthew Weiner
Here is a show that transports us to a time some of us may indeed have memories of, and the examination of this time can simultaneously have you feeling nostalgia for a simpler time and feeling glad we’ve moved beyond this type of thinking. It’s a drama about one of New York’s most prestigious ad agencies at the beginning of the 1960s, focusing on one of the firm’s most mysterious but extremely talented ad executives, Donald Draper. It’s funny at times and tragic at others, filled with characters some of which you may not like but can watch endlessly. It’s a fascinating depiction of people who were all class on the outside, but much more complicated on the inside.
14. CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM
Starring Larry David, Cheryl Hines, Jeff Garlin
Created by Larry David
For those who don’t know the name, Larry David was the guy who created the wildly successful 90s sitcom, Seinfeld, along with Jerry Seinfeld, as well as serving as the inspiration for the character of George Costanza on that show. This series was his turn at the spotlight and in it he plays himself (i.e. the co-creator of Seinfeld) and if you thought he’d take a flattering view of himself you couldn’t be more wrong. Fans of Seinfeld will find a lot to love here as it too is sort of a show about nothing and simply follows the unlikable caricature of David around as he commits countless social faux pas. You’ll be cringing as much as you’re laughing.
13. HOUSE OF CARDS
Starring Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly
Created by Beau Willimon
4 season (so far)
The is the show that helped make Netflix the entertainment giant it is today. It was one of the first original series for the streaming platform and with a legitimate movie star like Kevin Spacey leading the cast, it was hard not to sit up and take notice. In the show, Spacey stars as Frank Underwood, a politician who will literally stop at nothing to reach his ultimate goal of becoming president of the United States. Underwood is a master manipulator, and it’s both thrilling and chilling to watch him scheme and back-stab his way through the Washington elite. Spacey chews the scenery with villainous charm and Robin Wright is excellent as his wife, who is at times the show’s moral compass and other times the Lady Macbeth to her husband’s twisted ambition. The show has a cinematic look to it that few other series can compete with, and while the third season sagged a little, the show rarely fails to deliver some moments that will give you goosebumps.
12. FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
Starring Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton, Taylor Kitsch
Created by Peter Berg
High school football in Texas goes beyond being a sport– it’s a religion. The young teens who play on the field are regarded as heroes to the locals and when they lose they become pariahs. It’s a strange and fascinating world to be thrown into and this series gives you the best look at this life you’re likely to ever find. At the center of the drama is the coach of the Dillon Panthers high school team, a man who chases victory but knows he has a responsibility to turn these boys into something more than athletes. If you’re worried about this being a ‘teen show’, rest assured the drama is dealt with in a mature and realistic way. The characters are fully developed and stakes are surprisingly high. But be warned, even though it’s a show about football, you’ll be surprised how often you shed some tears.
11. TRUE DETECTIVE
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Monaghan
Created by Nic Pizzolatto
2 seasons (so far)
This show is only two seasons old at this point and the second season was a bit of a stinker. The fact that it still makes this list is a testament to how amazing that first season was. A self-contained plot, the first season of this anthology series dealt with two detectives, played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, investigate a satanic murder in Louisiana. While the mystery draws you in, it becomes clear that this is really the story two men whose lives are in shambles and whose redemption seems to rely on solving this murder. Both actors are amazing in their roles but McConaughey especially has created a character that will be studied for years to come. The show is dark, brooding and probably too philosophical for some, but you are guaranteed to not find anything like it on television again.
10. THE OFFICE
Starring Steve Carell, Rain Wilson, John Krasinski
Created by Greg Daniels
There will be fans of the original UK version of The Office who are perplexed about the inclusion of the American version, but alas the UK version was hard to track down on this side of the pond, so here we are. But even though this series was a remake, it still stands on its own two feet as a hilarious mockumentary-style comedy about the life of those who work at a paper sales company in Pennsylvania. The character of Michael Scott (played by Steve Carell), the boss/wannabe-comedian of the office is one of the best comedic characters in a long time. While the later Scott-less seasons don’t offer much, the show is a truly binge-worthy treat that will have you rolling with laughter.
9. BAND OF BROTHERS
Starring Damian Lewis, Ron Livingston, Donnie Wahlberg
Created by Steven Speilberg & Tom Hanks
This may be a controversial choice as it is technically a mini-series, but considering that it contain 10 episodes, more than some seasons of regular series, we include it here. This is an incredible achievement for television as it is on a scale larger than most movies. It tells the true story of Easy Company, a paratrooper division in WWII. Each episode begins with actually surviving members of Easy Company talking about the horrors they faced before being transported back to 1940s Europe during war. It’s a harsh, uncensored look at war that is soemtimes hard to watch but always an important reminder of what was sacrificed. The story handles its many characters extremely well and the battle scenes are rattling. And if you’re craving more once you’ve blown through the 10 episodes, check out The Pacific, the inferior but still solid sequel.
8. PARKS AND RECREATION
Starring Amy Poehler, Adam Scott, Chris Pratt
Created by Greg Daniels & Michael Schur
While Parks and Recreation owes a lot to The Office and can even be seen as a spin-off of sorts, but it’s a more solid and fully-rounded show overall. Taking the mockumentary format to the political sphere, the story follows Leslie Knope, an ambitions and optimistic mid-level bureaucrat in the parks department of a small Indiana town. Unlike The Office‘s Michael Scott, Leslie is very competent and it’s her enthusiasm for her job that makes people roll their eyes at her. It’s a refreshing protagonist who is backed by hilariously absurd cast of characters like Ron Swanson, her anti-government mustachioed boss, Tom Haverford, the trend-setting shopaholic stuck in the least trendy town, and Perd Hapley, the to-the-point local newsman. You’ll fall in love with all of them throughout the seven seasons and will miss them all when it’s over.
7. 30 ROCK
Starring Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan
Created by Tina Fey
Tina Fey once served as headwriter for Saturday Night Live, and then used that experience to make one of the funniest TV shows you’ll ever likely to see. She also stars in the show as Liz Lemon, the creator of a late-night sketch show, whose new boss Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) forces her to hire a crazed stand-up comedian to star in the show (played by Tracy Morgan). The world of the show is a heightened reality making the humor all the more insane and Fey’s satirical writing on subjects like politics, celebrity and the dating world are so spot-on. There’s also weekly guest appearances from some huge stars with Steve Martin, Matt Damon and Oprah standing out among the best.
Starring Billy Bob Thorton, Martin Freeman, Alison Lohman, Patrick Wilson, Kirsten Dunst, Ted Danson
Created by Noah Hawley
2 seasons (so far)
Yes, this show is based off of the 1996 Coen Brothers’ film Fargo but if you are worried it suffers a similar fate to most movie-to-television adaptions, worry not. Each season follows a new cast and new story based in the usually unseen world of murder and crime in the titular North Dakota town. The first season follows a plot which bares a passing resembles to the original film’s story, while the second season takes a major detour going into some truly unexpected places. This is really an homage to the world of the Coen Brothers, which is violence and pitch black humour. The cast for both seasons are great but the real star of the show is the writing. The show has the discipline to allow it’s characters to chew on some long speeches, shaping both the bleakness and the potential for the violent world they live in. A worthy successor to a great film.
Starring Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins, Joelle Carter
Created by Graham Yost
Elmore Leonard is one of the greatest crime writer to ever put pen to paper and what made his work so unique was his desire to humanize the villains along with the heroes. This series, based off of Leonard’s work, carries on that tradition. The show follows a US Marshal (played by Timothy Olyphant) who, after a controversial shooting, is sent to his hometown in Kentucky where he collides with local criminals, including his childhood friend (Walton Goggins). This modern-day Western is infused with some great dialogue, memorable characters, and a surprisingly biting sense of humour. It’s a fascinating look at both sides of the law, with these two former friends heading down a path of inevitable clash, and it features maybe the most satisfying conclusion to a series in this new millennium.
4. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT
Starring Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Jeffrey Tambour
Created by Mitchell Hurwitz
Put quite simply, Arrested Development is the funniest show of all time. It’s a tale of the most dysfunctional family, the Bluths, which includes a wannabe magician, an alcholic matriarch, a psycho-therapist-turned-actor, a con artist niece and the one son who is trying desperately to hold it all together. The show is laugh-out loud funny in just about every scene as we watch this self-centered family claw to get back to their former prestige. The real brilliance of the show is how they play the long-game, setting up a joke for an entire season so you’ll constantly being finding new hidden gems every time you revisit.
3. GAMES OF THRONES
Starring Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke, Kit Harrington
Created by David Benioff & D.B Weiss
6 seasons (so far)
Game of Thrones is no longer a TV show– at this point, it’s become a legitimate phenomenon. This fantasy series is set in a fictional medieval world in which various noble houses jostle for control over the kingdom while an unseen enemy grows in strength and threatens to lie the world to ruin. This is show that places itself in the type of fantasy world we’ve seen many times before, then subverts every expectation for how you think the story will be told. Heroes fail, villains become heroes and death claims many. It’s a violent show with a lot of intertwining stories and dozens of characters, but you will be wrapped up in the thrilling story in no time. This is not just a show to love, it’s a show to obsess over.
2. BREAKING BAD
Starring Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn
Created by Vince Gilligan
Breaking Bad was a show that not too many people saw coming. Even after it premiered with an incredible and gripping first episode, it was hard to predict that the show wold end up where it finally did. The show stars Bryan Cranston as high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with a terminal illness and starts cooking meth with a low-level drug dealer in order to leave some money for his family. It’s a alluring premise but it slowly becomes a violent and dark story about a power-hungry man who lost his way. Cranston, who was mostly known as comedic actor, gives a remarkable performance as this family man who awakens something dark in himself and starts on a quest to build a drug empire. This show features some of the most tense and thrilling action sequences of any show and it all builds to a epic climax.
1. THE WIRE
Starring Starring Dominic West, Idris Elba, Michael K. Williams
Created by David Simon
Never before has a show so depicted the war on drugs in such a brilliant, layered and realistic way. Set in Baltimore, the series follows the police trying to clean up the streets, the drug dealers trying to get rich and all the collateral left in their wake. It’s an anti-love letter to Baltimore, with each season focusing on a different aspect of the struggling town, such as schools, city hall, and the newspaper industry– all of it is surrounded by the complex world of drugs. It’s a tale of race, poverty and justice where the police are no saints, the drug dealers are ambitious, and the outlaws have a code. Quite simply one of the greatest constructed crime-dramas to ever hit the small screen.