If the boom of Netflix is any indication, we’re rolling into a new golden age of television. Notions of film as a superior medium are now outmoded, as is the idea of it being wasteful vice rather than an enriching pastime steeped in cultural wealth. But as with any excess, even the good kind, we are then apt to miss a few good apples here and there in the cornucopia. Here are but a few of the must-see series that may have fallen by the wayside in your TV consumption, many of which have contributed vitally in gilding and ushering in the new golden age.
Twin Peaks (1990–1991)
“I’ll see you again in 25 years,” Laura Palmer tells Agent Dale Cooper as they sit in the extradimensional Red Room during the series’ finale. 25 years on, fans will find themselves rejoicing over the show’s continuation in a limited series slated to premiere next year. Twin Peaks takes the unassuming plotline of the small-town murder of Laura Palmer, only to slowly sink you into David Lynch’s hauntingly beautiful and surreal (or hyperreal) world of horror and mystery. With the death of Laura Palmer, TV has never been the same, as Lynch’s thrilling and intelligent masterpiece finds its influence unfold in successive generations of TV – from The Sopranos and Veronica Mars to Bates Motel and Hannibal. But, as with any auteur, no one can truly out-‘Lynch’ the man himself, and his opus is writ large, so make sure you’re primed and ready for Twin Peaks’ 2017 revival.
Ozexplores the dynamics of power, sexuality, and religion through the lens of the prison system. Not only is it incredibly dark, gripping, and unforgiving, the series defied a whole slew of conventions for its time – it prominently depicts African American and Muslim communities, a deep look at the prism of male sexuality (even before shows like Will & Grace or Queer As Folk, and with arguably more nuance), and portrays the chilling dysfunction and grim reality of prison life. No other show has approximated the depth of its bleak themes, and it still stands as one of the greatest TV shows of all time.
The Sopranos (1999–2007)
A lobster in therapy? David Chase takes the deceptively simple idea of a New Jersey Italian American mafioso in counselling and develops it into one of the most acclaimed TV dramas ever made. The Soprano family has long been a household name, and viewers have been gripped by how the series delves into exploring the tensions between organized crime and the requirements of family life, and how it cloaks the ongoing drama with the pathos and gravitas of Greek myth. With its enduring cultural appeal and its seamless blending of the two masks of drama, the series continues to stand as one of the most entertaining and significant TV shows in recent history.
Freaks And Geeks (1999–2000)
Freaks And Geeksis arguably the birthplace of the Apatow Frat Pack, kick-starting the careers of the likes of James Franco, Seth Rogan, and Jason Segel. An American teen comedy-drama set in the ’80s, and framed as the antithesis to Dawson’s Creek which was also airing at the time, Freaks was a heartbreakingly honest and authentic look at the high school experience, without the usual reductive stereotypes set up for the same tired punch lines. A decade and a half on, few shows have matched both how funny and how emotionally nuanced and penetrating Freaks And Geeks has been in capturing those difficult teenage years.
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000–Present)
From the comic mind that brought us Seinfield, is an equally, if not funnier series from Larry David, acerbically titled Curb Your Enthusiasm. Currently on hiatus, but slated for a much-anticipated possible ninth season, Curb chronicles the life of a semi-fictionalised version of Larry David, following his various mishaps and predicaments, all coloured with David’s established brand of off-kilter humour and self-deprecating comic genius. Curb is an undisputed must-see for anyone who found themselves agreeing with the morally disagreeable spiels of Seinfield, where one half of the deeply missed duo brings it back with characteristic comic verve.
Band of Brothers (2001)
Perhaps we can never fully capture the scale of war, but Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks have come pretty darn close with their 10-part miniseries, Band of Brothers, which follows Easy Company of the US Army 101st Airborne Division across their WWII campaign through Europe. Lauded for its realism and authenticity, Band of Brothers has received acclaim for both its technical direction and its balanced portrayal of the heroism and valour in war against its violence and horror. If you’re looking for an extended look into the world painted by films like Saving Private Ryan, then look no further.
A genre-twisting sci-fi space Western by Joss Whedon, the genius who brought us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse, and more recently, Agents of Shield, Firefly is the tragically short-lived series that explores a ragtag crew of characters aboard the spaceship Serenity, which Whedon describes as “nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things”. Regarded as one of the best, if not greatest, sci-fi shows made to date (even by die-hard fans of other franchises), Firefly, despite its short run, earns that title. It commits to a consistently intelligent, interesting and nuanced portrayal of its characters, dialogue, setting, and the moral greyscale of its universe. Few can argue against the cardinal sin committed here in cancelling the series.
The Wire (2002–2008)
Featuring a predominantly black cast, a dense and complex storyline, and an unflinching realism, The Wire is an unforgiving attack on institutions, ranging from the illegal drug trade, the seaport system, the city government and bureaucracy, the school system, and the print media, set in the state of Baltimore, Maryland. Hailed as one of the greatest TV shows of all time, The Wire reveals to us ‘a dark corner of the American experiment,’ the forces that generate urban decay and rampant crime, and the impotence of institutions that govern our society, when other generic cop shows chose to do little, and accomplished much less, other than reinforce recycled notions and narratives about crime and violence.
The Office (2005–2013)
The Office remains one of the most beloved American sitcoms in recent memory, despite its English origins (frequently revisited by the show’s creator, Ricky Gervais). Adapted from the BBC’s series of the name, The Office explores the banality of corporate ennui by elevating the mockumentary style into a distinct art form, paving the way for spiritual successors such as Parks And Recreation and Modern Family. Steve Carell unleashes his comedic chops in full force starring as the ‘World’s Best Boss’, Michael Scott, alongside an ensemble cast which might possibly boast the best chemistry for a group of actors this large in television history. Through the familiar frame of the workplace, you will laugh and cry as The Office bumbles along with its antics, and delight in its irreverent mirth.
Generation Kill (2008)
It’s difficult to expect anything less from the people who brought us The Wire. Adapted from Evan Wright’s book of the same name, Generation Kill chronicles Wright’s experiences as an embedded reporter with the U.S. Marine Corps’ 1st Reconnaissance Battalion during the first phases of the Iraq War. While the seven-part miniseries receives critical acclaim across the board, what is more salient is how is it has been received by the Marines and soldiers who served in the war, who all attest to the series’ accuracy and authenticity in its portrayal. It is a veritable testimonial by the very men who fought of a wartime drama’s success in showcasing the nuances and realities of war without any of the usual heavy-handed moralising of either pro- or anti-war agendas, accomplishing the same aspirations to unflinching realism as The Wire.