The Great Big TV Scoreboard

I talk about TV shows a lot with my friend Marty. If he says I should check out a TV show, I check it out, and vice versa. Somewhere along the line through the years, we started ranking the shows that we both watched. It provided us with an easy gauge for how we felt about certain shows. Marty has other responsibilities now- his infant daughter, for instance- and those conversations almost never happen far less frequently. But I never really stopped ranking TV shows in my head. Call it the great, big TV scoreboard. Just for grins, this is how I rank all of my favorite cable TV dramas. Understand that a lot of this stuff changes almost weekly.

Comedies are excluded because comedy and drama are apples and oranges. And of course, before beginning, this is, like, just my opinion, man.

The Bottom Tier
The bottom tier is full of shows that I watch, but I know that I shouldn’t. Or I’m at least aware that it’s occasionally bad TV, even if I enjoy it. These shows are a lot like drinking 10 shots of tequila. It’s often a regrettable experience, but I’ll be damned if it’s not fun at times.

12. True Blood
After the 2011 season of True Blood, I was so repulsed by how awful it had become that I swore I’d never watch it again. And then 2012 rolled around. It was Sunday and I had nothing better to do. And there, sitting in front of me, was an episode of True Blood. And I watched it, and then I watched the next week, and I eventually saw the whole season. It’s horrible TV for giant chunks of the individual seasons, full of tawdry plots, absurd additions to the show (werepanthers? really?!?!), and terrible writing. But… I find myself watching anyway. If I were to stop watching just one show on this list, True Blood would be the obvious choice.

11. American Horror Story
I didn’t even watch season one. But Marty said I should check it out, if for no other reason than it was gothic horror. In fact, he went out of his way to sell it as a very, very flawed show, but one that he enjoyed anyway. I’m halfway through season two (I still haven’t bothered with season one yet), and he sold it just right. It’s ridiculous, full of sexy sex sex sexy sexety sex sex sexy sex to drive every single plot point. But it does indeed have a neat gothic horror vibe. Is it good? Not by a long shot. Although it’s not as bad as True Blood.

We’ve seen this before. Many times.

10. Dexter
People love this show, and I understand the attraction. The concept is a grand slam- a serial killer who cleans the garbage out of society. It feeds right into the American vigilante attitude. Dexter is a really great character. The only reason this show falls into the bottom tier is the miserable writing, which is lazy beyond words. It’s embarrassing. How many times must we see Dexter acquire a new serial killer buddy? How many times does he magically find his way out of a jam in a way that suspends all reasonable belief? How many times has his regular life been threatened by his moonlighting? How many times must Debra Morgan fall in love with a murderer? Any one of these themes is fine, even very good, when executed once. But they’ve all been used many times. I still watch it, I still love it, I still look forward to it each and every week, and I’ll see it through to the end. But I do so in spite of the lazy writing.

The Middle Tier
The middle tier is populated with a lot of very good shows. At various points in time for every one of these shows, I’ve wanted to put them in the top tier. But they’re just flawed enough that I can’t give them the loftiest of lofty ratings. Make no mistake, I think very highly of all of these.

9. Six Feet Under
Six Feet Under never resonated with me the way it did with a lot of people I know, not from episode to episode. However, there was an awful lot to like. The show’s weekly cold open was such a tremendously unique way to pull viewers into each episode. The family’s exploits were very satisfying and it was easy to find yourself claiming multiple characters as favorites. I feel like my opinion of the show is hurt, at least partially, by Alan Ball’s later work on True Blood, which of course isn’t fair to Six Feet Under at all. And admittedly, it didn’t resonate with me the same way other shows have. That’s why it’s here instead of further on up the ladder.

This barn drastically altered my opinion of The Walking Dead for the better.

8. The Walking Dead
I’m a relative newcomer to The Walking Dead. I watched season one and wasn’t exactly impressed. Then I heard the news that they’d parted ways with Frank Darabont. Darabont’s involvment was one of the few reasons I wanted to continue to watch the show. So I abandoned it when he left. But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. I gave up on the show after one season while Marty kept watching. He told me I should give season two a chance. It took me a full year after season two debuted, but I finally got around to it. As it turns out, I enjoyed season two a ton. The barn moment in the seventh episode dropped my jaw and I was hooked from that point on. I’m still sort of waffling on season three. I think the problem is that they rifle through so many characters that by the time you identify with any of them, they’re gone and you have to learn to identify with other, lesser-known characters. Still, of all the TV shows on this list, this is the one with the most potential to rise depending how future seasons play out.

7. Justfied
Much like The Walking Dead, I gobbled up an entire season of Justified and wasn’t sure if I should continue. I plugged on. Halfway through season two, I still had my doubts. It felt like a slightly edgy police procedural lacking in character development. But then the show found Mags Bennett and stopped relying exclusively on Raylan Givens’ aw-shucksy morality. It’s still basically the bastard child of The Dukes of Hazzard and CSI, but it’s the absolute best combination of those two things you could ever find because it started to move characters forward. Timothy Olyphant owns the role of Raylan, and the supporting cast is stellar. Neal McDonough, in particular, is amazing as Robert Quarles.

No other show offers stuff like Zou Bisou as effectively as Mad Men did this past season, a quintessential sexy 60s moment in a show dripping with them.

6. Mad Men
I have an odd relationship with Mad Men. I admire a lot of aspects of the show. Don Draper is the epitome of cool; the 1960s motif is right up my alley; the show’s creators channel the era flawlessly;  the show is dripping with subtle intelligence; and few shows treat their female characters with as much thoughtful respect as Mad Men, presenting the female perspective of the 1960s in a refreshingly honest way. The women on the show have real and realistic stories to tell. The big “but” here is that the writers have spent so much of the show lapsing into sloppy plotlines. Don Draper’s Double Super Secret Past Life™ drove me insane. It’s something you’d find in a daytime soap opera, not in a premium cable drama. And the question “What should we do with this character that we haven’t mentioned much lately?” is too often answered with “Adultery!!!,” which is just lazy. Fortunately, the show is separating from that a little bit and I feel like the most recent season was the best yet. I don’t think it’s been nearly as good as the acclaim that it gets, but it’s still damned good.

5. Boardwalk Empire
This is where personal preference rears its ugly head. If you like mob history at all, then you have to love Boardwalk Empire. The group that makes the show- executive producer Martin Scorsese and Sopranos writer Terence Winter- know a hell of a lot about the entertaining aspect of organized crime. When viewed on the whole (all 13 episodes), each season plays out like a feature-length mafia movie, with clearly defined structure. My concession here is that season 2 lagged a bit for my tastes. But there’s no denying that it’s top-quality TV.

The Top Tier
I won’t go so far as to say that all of these shows are flawless. But their flaws are minor- the positives are so amazing as to render the negatives completely moot. Barring something odd or catastrophic, I’ll go to bat for these shows for as long as people are willing to talk about them.

4. Game of Thrones
If you’ve seen the first season, then you know it’s the ballsiest show on TV, crawling with “oh shit!” moments. And therein lies the charm with Game of Thrones– as viewers, we have absolutely no clue what will happen next. The fact that nothing is sacred creates TV magic. Few shows are as effective at stitching together so many character stories in a compelling way. It’d be so easy to lose interest in any of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, but it never happens because the writers keep audiences engaged with all of them. I’m far from a fantasy nerd and yet, here I am singing the praises of the show. They’ve only made two seasons so far. As such, my opinion may change as it progresses. It’s the opposite of The Walking Dead– it has the loftiest position with the most room to fall. 

Bubbles, just one of a galaxy of brilliant characters on The Wire

3. The Wire
The ultimate testament to The Wire is that you could ask 20 Wire-watchers who their favorite character was, and you could get 20 different answers. My favorite was Bunk Moreland, but I digress. There was so much that made The Wire special. It was clearly a labor of love for creator David Simon, who took his own reality and made it into something greater. The Wire presented the totality of a very specific subject (the drug trade in Baltimore), covering every single nook and cranny. It reached teachers, lawyers, politicians, drug dealers, bandits (Omar’s comin’!), police, the FBI, community activists and organizers… The whole thing leaves you breathless. I won’t deny that The Wire fumbled on the goal line with a goofy season 5 based around McNulty’s lie. But so many amazing things had been accomplished before that point that all is forgiven.

2. The Sopranos
Combine the subtle intelligence of Mad Men with the army of compelling characters in The Wire, and throw in my devotion to almost everything mafia. That was The Sopranos. Tony Soprano and most of the show’s characters were classic anti-heroes. They were rotten to the core, yet we all loved them for their chicanery. The show was a Swiss army knife, capable at any given moment of jaw-dropping violence, W-era metaphor, or hilarious stupidity. It’s one of two shows on this list in which I’ve felt compelled to re-watch all of the episodes. And unfortunately, it’s the re-watches that have robbed it of the top slot. I feel that the final few seasons don’t hold up nearly as well as the first four or five. Using a character like Vito as the launching point for the final character arc of one of TV’s greatest characters was an unfitting way for the show to end. That’s not to say that those weren’t solid seasons. But they weigh the series down enough that it comes in at number two for me, just below…

1. Breaking Bad
And then there was one. Nothing tops Breaking Bad. Nothing even comes close. Screenwriting books should be written about the way Vince Gilligan and crew have treated their characters. No character avoids reality, and that’s most importantly true about Walter White, the show’s protagonist. Everything that might seem implausible is covered months and years in advance, when some tiny part of their scripts make the whole thing seem completely reasonable. The economy of the show is breath-taking. Not an ounce of screen time is wasted. Everything is done for a reason, and everything comes back in a meaningful way. The acting is brilliant, the episodes are riddled with dark humor, and nothing on TV right now is as tense as Breaking Bad‘s best moments. When describing the top tier, I said that these shows weren’t flawless, and yet I can’t find a single flaw in Breaking Bad. And that’s why it’s #1.

There’s a fourth category- the shows that were cancelled after only a few seasons. It’s almost impossible to compare them to the rest of the list because there’s no telling how well they may have done with further seasons. Strangely enough, I feel the same way about all three shows in this category. I thought they were great and I would’ve loved to see where they were headed. If they were still active and there were more episodes coming, I’d place all three towards the top of the middle tier.

The R2D2 and C3PO of the Rome universe

The amazing thing about Rome is that, if you know your history, you knew exactly how everything would play out. Somehow, that was never a hinderance. It still managed to find a way to fascinate viewers every week by bringing iconic historical figures to life. Using Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus as the R2D2 and C3PO of the universe- two minor characters who held the whole show together- was brilliant. 

Carnivale was a delicious combination of the surreal, the supernatural, and the apocalyptic, set amidst the backdrop of Depression-era desperation. The show takes an episode or four to really hit its stride, but it’s a runaway train once it does. Too bad HBO knocked it off the tracks. Of these three “incomplete” shows, Carnivale is the one I most wish had been allowed to continue.

I enjoyed the tar out of Deadwood, although it’s not hard to see why it couldn’t find an audience. Showrunner David Milch infused his semi-historical look at Deadwood, South Dakota with a Shakespearean flair, which is a bold, potentially alienating move. Obviously, I didn’t have any problem with it. In fact, I thought that was part of what made it great, even if it did go a little overboard sometimes. The saddest part of the cancellation of Deadwood is that it ended my dreams of seeing a spinoff sitcom about the highjinx of Wu and Al.


Filed under Boardwalk Empire, Television, TV Shows

27 responses to “The Great Big TV Scoreboard

  1. Some really great shows here. I haven’t actually got round to seeing The Sopranos or Breaking Bad yet but am a big fan of The Wire, Game of Thrones and Mad Men. I’m currently half way through the first season of American Horror Story and it’s one of those that I think is actually pretty bad but I keep watching anyway. It’s more like a soap opera with a Gothic twist.

    • “A soap opera with a Gothic twist” is a great way of saying it.

      The Sopranos is pretty great. It was really the first one that I saw on this list, and it’s the one that inspired me to watch all of the rest.

  2. Wow lots of TV hours! I watched the irst season of Dexter and I couldn’t continue ’cause I didn’t liked it very much… Rome was awesome, too bad it got canceled. I need to catch on Game of thrones, The Sopranos, and Mad Men. The other shows don’t really interest me since I don,t like TV shows that much…

    • Mad Men has a strong French-Canadian influence. And by “strong French-Canadian influence”, I mean “There’s a French-Canadian character on the show who’s really, really hot”.

  3. Vladdy

    I’ve always admired Breaking Bad more than I actually liked it, but I would agree that it was virtually flawless–until this most recent season. The whole train heist thing was completely ridiculous, and it was not remotely believable that he would have that stupid kid helping them with it. I have less trouble believing in werepanthers.

    • Awwwww…. you broke my heart, Vladdy.

      I took his inclusion of Landry or whatever as an indication of how egotistical Walt had become and how sloppy he’d become. I took it as Walt figuring that he was smart enough to do something so ridiculously bold.

  4. The guy who met Kevin Meany

    I can only guess that the obvious omission of Mr. Belvedere is only because a show of that magnitude cannot be contained to a single post. Also, just wondered which tier you thought Big Love belonged to. I’m thinking it goes in the Middle Tier.

    • I never watched a single episode of Big Love. Not for any reason, really. I just never watched it.

      There’s Mr. Belvedere, then there’s Perfect Strangers… and then there’s everything else. It’s simply not fair to compare the others to those two shows.

  5. aleksa

    THAT SCENE with the barn in “Walking Dead”, and the “Baelor” episode of “Game of Thrones” sent home the same message: *no one* in this world is safe. I actually appreciate that kind of “realism”, for lack of a better word, out of those shows. As for “Boardwalk Empire”, I think I like the show DESPITE it being about gangsters, rather than because of it.

    • There are absolutely times where I feel like Boardwalk Empire is a “better” show more than I like it. Although I have to say, I liked season 3 as much as ever. But I totally love the gangster stuff. I’m a geek for it.

  6. I love movies, but TV is my JAM! I have Breaking Bad in my Netflix queue. Just finished Downton Abbey and caught up to current episode with Sons of Anarchy. Do you watch either of those?

    • Nope, but Sons of Anarchy is a contender for one of the next ones I’ll tackle. The same goes for Downton Abbey. I’ve especially heard a LOT of great things about Downton Abbey.

  7. Hello there and thank you for that great list. I enjoyed or enjoy most of the shows you mentioned but miss the great UK series Skins and Luther. You should especially give Skins a chance, although it can ne quite teenagery sometimes!

    • I’ve thought about doing this exact same thing for UK series, but I’ve only seen so many. And most of what I’ve seen are comedies from the late 90s/early 00s. Spaced, Black Books, The Office, Big Train, The League of Gentlemen, Knowing Me, Knowing You, I’m Alan Partridge… There’s not much more. But Sherlock and Luther are both on my radar.

      My sister-in-law is from the Netherlands and knows the BBC like the back of her hand, so she always has great recommendations.

  8. Phil

    I recently started catching up with Homeland, and it is a top-tier show with great writing and acting. Sherlock also has top-tier acting although season 2 disappointed me a bit.

    • Sherlock is on my radar for sure. I’m also toying with the idea of watching Sons of Anarchy and Treme.

      Homeland… I know I suck for this, but the concept really does nothing for me. Feel free to shame me for it.

  9. What a well written blog. Well you KNOW I agree with you when it comes to THE WIRE. If there was ever a season of TV that I loved but also found so incredibly difficult to watch it’s the “Education” season. Those of us in Baltimore who are directly involved with our community’s educational challenges often find this season in particular, soul-crushing to watch, because we “watch” it all the time. I also totally agree with you on DEXTER. I loved the first three seasons…and then I just couldn’t do it anymore. Ultimately, it’s a one trick pony. We are of the same mind when it comes to TRUE BLOOD. I am afraid to say this, but I hate, GAME OF THRONES. I can’t take it. My wife loves it. I dunno, maybe I’m missing something. The embarrassing part of this is that I have never seen a single episode of, BREAKING BAD. I know it’s great. I can feel and sense its’ greatness and someday, I will be a grown up boy and watch it. Thanks for another great blog, John.

    • I can imagine how crazy it’d be to watch The Wire having lived there. Have you read the books the show was based on?

      One of the biggest reasons the show is so good is that you could just as easily say the same for politicians, journalists, community organizers, as you did for educators.

      My biggest fear with Breaking Bad is that I sell it so hard. By the time people watch it based on my recommendation, it’s been built up to an almost impossible standard.

      Do you mind if I ask what turns or turned you off about Game of Thrones? Out of curiosity.

      • Well I admittedly have a “block” when it comes to fantasy types of books and shows. Just not my cup of tea. I also have to admit that the previous sentences are turned upside down when it comes to space/science fiction stuff. Let’s face it, Star Wars is fantasy, isn’t it? Game of Thrones suffers from HBO-itis. Gratuitous boobage! Have you seen the SNL skit that has Bobby Moynihan as George R.Martin. He plays him as a creepy middle-aged man with a teenagers’ inability to not leer/snicker at girlie parts. It sometimes feels as if Monty Python’s Holy Grail was making fun of this show 30+ years ago. “A spanking, a spanking!!”

  10. That’s a lot of great television you listed there. You know I’m a huge fan of Breaking Bad, but for me there’s The Wire and then there’s everything else. Since I’m a huge sucker for lists, too, here is my ranking of the shows I have seen:

    1) The Wire
    2) Breaking Bad
    3) The Sopranos (though I still need to see season five)
    4) Six Feet Under
    5) Game of Thrones (though that could reach as high as #3 on a given week)
    6) Mad Men
    7) Dexter (still haven’t finished the season with Mos Def yet)

    I also watched the first season of The Walking Dead and absolutely hated it. The first episode was terrific, but it went downhill FAST after that.

    I really need to start watching Boardwalk Empire.

    • If you can, I’d recommend giving season 2 of Walking Dead a chance. It really flipped me on the whole show.

      If Mad Men focused more on client meetings and what actually goes on in their workplace, I’d enjoy it so much more.

  11. As much as I love Breaking Bad nothing for me will ever top The Wire as my favorite TV show.

    • Wow, I’m surprised to hear you say that, if only because I know how much you dig Breaking Bad. But I can totally respect the opinion. The Wire is amazing.

  12. Jess

    I am working on a list of TV shows I’ve been meaning to watch and there’s A LOT of overlap with this list here. I do watch True Blood, AHS, and Game of Thrones as well as loving Six Feet Under which I watched entirely over a few months last year.

  13. Pingback: The Great Big TV Scoreboard 2 |

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