Television is probably my biggest love in life, after my dog (sorry Josh, family, and friends). In fact, my dog was named Peggy after my deep infatuation with Mad Men (combined with my love of Peggy Schuyler in Hamilton – but we’ll save Musical Theatre for another post). Alternative names included: Lorelai Gilmore, Leslie Knope, Betty Draper, and Hummus – not strictly television related, just sharing my enthusiasm for Middle Eastern chickpea-based dips.
For the past couple of years I have inadvertently become the go-to gal for friends, colleagues, foes, and everyone in between who are looking for a new television series to watch. After three separate people messaged me on the same day this week, each asking for recommendations, I decided I should keep my list in one, easily accessible location.
Whilst I named this post as the ‘Definitive guide’, that was more for the clickbait than because I actually believe myself to be the ultimate TV guru – gurudom is a way off at this point. However, I am an enthusiast, and this post is only part I – I am open to suggestions, comments, and feedback.
I will also be doing a “notable exceptions” post, to highlight major shows that are missing from this list. Sometimes this is because they just aren’t for me (as much as reviewers like to believe they are objective, and can recognise a good show in spite of its personal appeal – there are some shows I know are probably great, which I just find unwatchable), and sometimes it is because I actively despise them, and am deeply confused by their popularity.
There will also be a “Definitive guide to TV shows you probably haven’t realised you should watching” – so your favourites may appear on there instead. The two categories are mainly separated by how many of my friends and colleagues watch the shows – there will certainly be shows in there that have mass appeal, but are perhaps relatively unwatched in my little social sphere and corner of rainy England.
On that point, it’s also worth considering that I am in the UK, so my access to shows is sometimes more limited, and my taste is largely formed by the curation of the great gods of Netflix and Amazon Prime. We don’t get Hulu over here (*tiny violins play*) – yet…
Anyway, enough preamble – on with the first part of my (not so) definitive list.
1. Breaking Bad
This is obvious. Even on a list of obvious tv shows that you know you should be watching, Breaking Bad is the most obvious of all the choices – so much so I almost considered not putting it first.
From the compelling premise, to the beautiful shots, to the phenomenal acting – Breaking Bad is undoubtedly the greatest show of all time. You don’t need me to tell you that, you definitely know that. I’m sure countless co-workers, family members, and friends have told you with a shocked expression, upon hearing that you haven’t seen it, that you simply must finish it. Well, they are right.
I’m not even going to bother explaining the premise (cancer-stricken science teacher starts selling meth) fully, because you just.need.to.watch.it.
I totally get that it’s hard to start a series with quite as much hype as Breaking Bad – absolutely. I started watching it shortly before the first half of the fifth season aired, so Breaking Bad mania was well underway, but that was a fraction of what it is now.
My father first introduced me to Breaking Bad (this is a running theme, he has been gently guiding my television viewing for as long as I can remember – although there are a few key shows we still vehemently disagree on), and I watched the first episode after he hounded me to watch it for months. I thought it was boring, too hard to get into, and ignored his pleas to continue. A few years later, a New Zealand podcast I listened to were raving about it, and I decided to return to it. Upon watching the first episode, I didn’t understand how I found it boring the first time. I was immediately hooked, and never looked back.
Yes, at times it is hellishly slow (see: s3 e10 – “Fly”), but the pay-off is always worth it. From the pink teddy bear, to the iconic Gus Fring scene, to the tumble weed rolling through the stunning New Mexico backdrop – this show is so, so worth the commitment.
If you have started, and not finished it – for the love of God, finish it. If you haven’t started yet, I am incredibly envious that you get to enjoy the beauty of the show afresh.
Even if you hate the entire show, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) deserves your time, love, and affection. Never has a character made me weep so many times.
2. The Good Wife
Maybe a rogue second choice, I’m sure you were expecting me to put The Wire on here – but alas, I’ve gone for a show that I think is a genuine crowd-pleaser.
Whenever a friend has asked for a television recommendation, I always start them on The Good Wife. Off the top of my head, over the past three years I’ve turned upwards of 20 people onto this show – none of whom have complained. In fact when *the* incident happens, I’ve had no fewer than five of those friends call me. One rang me at about 1am, sobbing, and it took me a good few minutes to realise what was going on. After that I laughed uproariously at her, and hung up.
The premise is simple: a woman returns to practising law, having given up her career to raise her two children, and support her (now disgraced, and imprisoned) husband pursue his career as a State Attorney in Chicago. Seems pretty fun, and like an interesting enough premise – right? However the show quickly transforms into something else entirely – 7 seasons of Alicia Florrick struggling to cope with returning to work, and looking mournful when someone mentions her husband would be unbelievably tiresome. Instead it shifts massively, eventually becoming a much more ensemble piece (Christine Baranski, Alan Cumming, and Cush Jumbo are absolute delights – quickly becoming fan favourites).
For a few seasons it operates as a procedural drama, with a good level of success. There are some fascinating episodes around BitCoin, state secrets, a faux-Google company which permeates the show, sexual assault in the military, and a brilliant story-line around the NSA. However, the creators, Michelle and Robert King, know how to construct a compelling world, as they weave our favourite characters’ lives in and out of each other, across real-life events, and around the legal world of Chicago.
It’s a welcome break from legal dramas set in New York (I’m looking at you Suits), and whilst the show is not perfect, it makes for fantastic viewing. The show is wonderfully feminist, without overtly being so, and covers polemic topics without being too preachy – Alicia’s conflict with her daughter’s conversion to Christianity is a fantastic example of this.
The reason this show is quite so high up my list, however, is that I want you all to watch it so you can watch The Good Fight. This is the spin-off show starring Christine Baranski, Cush Jumbo, and newcomer Rose ‘you-know-nothing-Jon-Snow’ Leslie. It finished its first season this year, and was truly one of the best pieces of television I have ever seen. I loved The Good Wife, but The Good Fight knocks it out of the park in every episode.
For Christ’s sake don’t research anything about The Good Wife before watching though, as there is a major game-changing, almost-shark-jumping twist a few series in. I’ve told all my friends to talk to me after they reach this moment (hence the 1am sobs), and it’s been hilarious watching them come to me day after day asking if “insert-minor-plot-point-here” is the Big Twist. You’ll know. It will break you. Trust me though, it is for the better.
Watch The Good Wife, and thank me later. If you’ve already seen it – get on it with The Good Fight – I’ll be dedicating many words to this stunning spin-off another time though.
3. Gilmore Girls
I know. The list has shifted enormously in quality already. I apologise.
Gilmore Girls has been an enormous part of my life for so long though, and is such a key facet of my identity. However, I won’t dedicate too much time to it here (it deserves its own post, so people can take it or leave it).
All seasons are on Netflix, including the divisive reunion series, and I highly recommend trying them. They are old – absolutely – but have aged pretty well. There are a couple of key uses of unpleasantly ableist terms to look out for, but I think I have totted up three uses of those across 7 full-length series. It’s things like this which date the show, which is otherwise utterly charming.
The concept is that Lorelai Gilmore, an inn-owner in the small, quirky town of Star’s Hollow in Connecticut, gave birth to her daughter Rory when she was 16 – having shunned her parents’ extraordinary wealth and a life of privilege. Rory is now 16, and has been accepted to a prestigious private school. In order to pay for this Lorelai asks her parents for a loan, which they agree to, in exchange for weekly Friday night dinners. Over the course of seven seasons, we see Rory fly through school, off to an Ivy-league school, and out the other side – with a couple of hiccups along the way.
It’s worth watching for two characters in particular: Paris Geller, and Emily Gilmore. Both start as the world’s most obnoxious women, yet become compelling, hilarious, and unbelievably entertaining parts of your world. In fact, both of them got by far the best storylines in the reboot – and my god was I delighted by this.
The show is known for its speedy dialogue, pop-culture references (don’t worry about the age – the references were already dated when the show aired), and wonderfully well-constructed universe. The characters are richly written, and go towards forming a truly warm and giving show.
Do not watch the episodes when Rory graduates, as you are graduating though. It will trigger an existential breakdown of the utmost proportion. Sorry, again, to all those who had to deal with me that week.
You’ll also finally know if you are #TeamDean, #TeamJess, or #TeamLogan. If you are #TeamDean you can gtfo though. I, personally, used to be a #TeamJess – but I think adult Jess can do way better than Rory. Although, I actually don’t mind Logan, certainly not as much as most people hate him. A friend recently convinced me that actually we should have been #TeamParis all along, and I’ve never been more sure of anything.
I lied, I spent way longer on this show than I meant to.
4. Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Our first entrant of non-drama length, instead being a cool 22 minutes, functioning as a perfect sitcom.
This is another of my father’s recommendations, and I have to be grateful to him every time I watch this show. It’s all on Netflix too, so there’s no excuse.
It’s a police sitcom, which is actually probably my least favourite aspect of the show. What makes it such a brilliant show is the depth of the characters, and how well they fit together as an ensemble. First there’s the openly-gay African-American Captain Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher), whose position as the straight-man (no pun intended) in most of the set-ups ends up becoming the joke itself, in the most wonderfully subversive way. Then there’s the immature, yet surprisingly enlightened and perceptive Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg – winning a Golden Globe for his first season appearance) who serves as the main protagonist. Joining Braugher and Samberg are Joe Lo Truglio, Terry Crews, Melissa Fumero, Chelsea Peretti, and Stephanie Beatriz as the other colourful and complexly constructed characters, who make up the chaos of the show.
It’s worth noting that the show has been nominated for multiple GLAAD Media Awards and NAACP Image Awards – celebrating the diversity of both the cast and characters. Nobody feels tokenistic in the show, which is a credit to the skillful and actually quite subtle writing, in a show which can often be (wonderfully) base in its humour.
5. Arrested Development
I am sure this show’s inclusion comes as no surprise – and I really must emphasise quite how brilliant it is.
A wealthy, and quite frankly horrendous, family lose all their money, and sort of have to live together whilst they figure it out. But it’s so much more than that.
The show is utterly absurd, creating a universe where the straight-man characters would be too out there for other shows. I tried to write a list of my favourite weird features of the show (denim cut-offs, Korean adoptees, offensive puppets) – but the list became too long, disparate, and stopped really making my point. Basically, this show is an absolute killer.
For nothing else, it is worth watching for the star-studded cast: Jason Bateman, Michael Cera, Jessica Walter, Tony Hale, Jeffrey Tambor, Portia de Rossi, David Cross, Alia Shawkat, Henry Winkler, LIZA FREAKING MINNELLI, Mae Whitman, Charlize Theron, Judy Greer, Amy Poehler, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Ben Stiller, Jane Lynch, Isla Fisher, Maria Bamford, Ron Howards – and so, so, so many more. Most of these appearances were in the original three seasons, so before the show became the true cult hit it is today – however lots of stars (Kristen Wiig and Seth Rogen for example) made an appearance in the season 4 reboot.
The show’s genius lies in the craft that goes behind it. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a show where the intelligence in the writing only becomes truly apparent in rewatches. From cleverly positioned hand-themed items throughout an entire season, to unbelievably subtle running gags, to complicated and incredibly satisfying call-backs – the show’s writing, tight structure, and commitment to its tone and identity is key to its success. The surprise cancellation at the end of season three is all the more frustrating because of this – how many jokes were set up across seasons 1-3 that we never got to see pay off? Even when the show was recommissioned some years later, I don’t think we ever got the brilliance of whatever the writers were planning for us. Fortunately though, the show has been commissioned for a new fifth season as well – so there’s all the more reason to watch it.
As a warning, the fourth season is totally unlike the first three. It still comes with the quintissential Arrested Development essence, but due to the cast’s schedules, it is strangely structured. It’s actually an incredibly clever and complex season, very tightly woven with even more call-backs than in previous seasons, but it has strange beats – and actually works better on a rewatch. Fortunately, the producers have promised that the new (hotly awaited) season 5 will be more akin to the original seasons.
It’s another older season, but it’s aged incredibly well. It’s also a fantastic one to start, because I think it has one of the strongest pilots out there. There’s no awkwardness or fumbling moments, as the characters arrive fully formed (unlike Parks and Recreation, for instance – who [rightly] rewrote the lead character for the second season). The pilot also includes my favourite line of the entire show:
Okay – that’s the first five in this list. I’m going to jump between the well-known shows, and not-so well-known shows lists, until I’ve got through the 50-odd shows I have written down to talk about.
There will be so many more instalments of this, and if you have ideas – please, please share them with me. The worst thing that will happen is that I will mock your suggestion endlessly for its ridiculousness – so, nothing to lose really.
Next up will be five shows that you might not know very much about, but absolutely need to watch immediately.