Shows currently on the air were not considered here. Why? True Blood, that’s why. If I made this list soon after True Blood finished its third season, it would be near the top. But as it stands now, True Blood wouldn’t crack the Top 30. A show isn’t over ‘til it’s over.
10. K Street (2003)
Created by Steven Soderbergh
I fully admit that much of the reason I love K Street is because of the ingenuity in which it was made. The show focused on up to date political events, so in order to keep up with topical headlines, Soderbergh would film from Monday–Wednesday, edit on Thursday, complete sound editing and final touches on Friday, send the episode to the studio on Saturday, and the show would air on Sunday. Ten straight weeks with that schedule. Damn impressive.
The show was a fly on the wall capture of the inner workings of the Washington political system. Many politicians (including stars James Carville and Mary Matalin) played versions of themselves, while other fictional characters were written in to flesh things out. The result was a critical success that was respected among Washington elites, but regrettably failed to gain a wider audience.
9. Tell Me You Love Me (2007)
Created by Cynthia Mort
Tell Me You Love Me is perhaps best known for its graphic depiction of realistic sex. For a long while, the actual content of the show was trumped by speculation that the actors involved were partaking in unsimulated fornication. It’s a shame that viewers were so distracted, as Tell Me You Love Me was a brutally honest portrayal of domestic love gone array. By depicting three different couples going through a host of individual problems, Mort and her cast created a landscape unlike anything I’ve seen before or since. Sadly, the show only lasted for one season, which was enough time for overly curious viewers to realize the actors were acting, not fucking.
8. Six Feet Under (2001-2005)
Created by Alan Ball
Creating and sustaining a show that aims to perfectly mix comedy and drama is certainly no easy feat. But it’s a delicate balance that Six Feet Under handled so well. So often during this show, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry; to be enraged or feel hopeful. Also, props must be given to the show for locking itself into such a gimmicky introductory concept for each episode. Those opening deaths never grew tired.
7. Entourage (2004-2011)
Created by Doug Ellin
I’ve always loved Entourage, even those seasons toward the end there. But I never knew how much I loved it until I moved to L.A. and rewatched the entire series. This show is so L.A.
6. Da Ali G Show (2003-2004)
Created by Sacha Baron Cohen
For a while, it looked like Sacha Baron Cohen was all but going to own comedy. All comedy. This monumentally ballsy HBO show lead to three separate feature film spinoffs, which were met with varying degrees of success. And although Cohen’s unique brand of humor has been dormant for a while, I so love revisiting episodes of this show and laughing my ass off. Impossible to pick a favorite interview.
5. In Treatment (2008-2010)
Developed by Rodrigo Garcia, based on BeTipul by Hagai Levi
Similar to my fondness for K Street, much of my appreciation for In Treatment is credited to the way in which the world saw it. Thirty-minute sessions, five times a week. Every Monday, we saw the same patient suffer through their life traumas. Every Tuesday was owned by the same character. Wednesday, Thursday, and so on. This very audacious structure allowed the viewer to feel like they were actually sitting in on a person’s therapy session. And because every episode was written so compellingly, the time always flew by. All of that, coupled with a starring performance by a career-best Gabriel Byrne, makes In Treatment one of the finest shows I’ve ever seen.
4. Deadwood (2004-2006)
Created by David Milch
In what may be the most heavily discussed cancellation of all time, the masterful Deadwood was unceremoniously scrapped after its third season. Milch and his crew weren’t expecting to get shit canned, which meant that the Season 3 finale wasn’t intended to be the show ender.
Yet it works. It shouldn’t, but it does. Don’t get me wrong, I would’ve loved to have seen Milch rip up the Old West for many (many, many) additional seasons, but I’m certainly thankful that we got to see at least a portion of Deadwood come alive.
3. Oz (1997-2003)
Created by Tom Fontana
Oz is the show that started it all. Set inside the unforgiving walls of a maximum penitentiary, everything featured on Oz was completely new. It’s as if Fontana was making up the rules as he went along. But the show was more than gratuitous sex, violence, and language. It was a goddamn experience. Fontana and his dedicated cast did a perfect job of immersing us in this horrific world.
2. The Sopranos (1999-2007)
Created by David Chase
Now we’re in inarguable landmark status. By so expertly capturing the wheelings and dealings of Tony Soprano and his two families, David Chase created something otherworldly. He created a place that is indistinguishable from all others, and a tone that was as funny as it was horrifying. It’s shows like The Sopranos that will forever hold my respect for HBO. If they never create another hit TV show again, we all would still marvel at the lasting impact of this series.
1. The Wire (2002-2008)
Created by David Simon
The Wire is the finest show to ever appear on television. That’s a comment tossed around a lot that has, unfortunately, lost a bit of its meaning. But the fact remains, David Simon’s Baltimore-set drug epic is simply unparalleled. Similar to Oz (which was created by Simon’s good friend, Tom Fontana), The Wire felt like it was making up the rules of television as it went along. And some of that is actually true. When Simon wrapped the first season, it was his idea to set the second season in a completely new area, thereby introducing us to fresh horrors of the drug game. It was an unprecedented move that Simon was able to convincingly pull off for five straight seasons.
People like to debate which season is best and which faltered noticeably. Me, I opt out of such debates. While some seasons may have been stronger than others, there certainly was not a weak moment among any of them. At least not through my eyes. It’s all in the game.