Once upon a time, you had to wait an entire week for the next episode of your favourite TV series to arrive. Then the DVD box set came along, and bingeing a whole season of quality telly became the perfect way to spend a weekend. In fact, the only problem was deciding what you wanted to watch next...
As everyone's list of “shows they want to watch but haven't found the time yet” grows at a relentless rate, we've assembled a list of the 20 best box sets – in no particular order – to make your life that little bit easier. And with much of the world isolating right now, it's unlikely you'll find a better time to make a sizeable dent on that viewing agenda.
There's detective drama, epic fantasy, sci-fi action, vampires, comedy, gangsters, and more in this collection of the best box sets to binge-watch right now – and we can guarantee that, as you read on, you'll find plenty of valuable ways to fill a lot of hours. We'll also tell you where you can find every box set – whether it's on physical formats or streaming. So take a seat on the sofa, turn the telly on, and settle back for the best box sets in existence.
Sherlock: seasons 1-4
We thought Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce would be the definitive Holmes and Watson forever, but then Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman swooped in and made the roles their own. The League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss and former Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat put a fun, modern spin on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic detective stories, with devilishly complex cases, a memorable Moriarty, and a death-defying cliffhanger that kept fans on tenterhooks for two whole years.
In fact, the long gaps between seasons – the key players had such busy schedules that getting them all in one place was a logistical nightmare – made the waits for new stories unbearable. It's a relief, then, that it's now possible to watch all 13 Sherlock mysteries as a box set.
Futurama: seasons 1-8
How do you follow an all-conquering, animated classic like The Simpsons? Co-creator Matt Groening made a beeline for the 31st century with his brilliantly inventive sci-fi comedy, as pizza delivery boy Philip J Fry found himself in the distant future.
With The Simpsons no longer the creative force it once was, Futurama took over its mantle as the cleverest animated show around, with gags about quantum physics and complex mathematics mingling with satire on modern life. Despite the show being cancelled (for the first time) after four seasons, we were fortunate enough to get four more – which is good, because it's impossible to have too much Futurama.
Breaking Bad: seasons 1-5
Breaking Bad wasn't just a game-changer because it transformed the bumbling dad from Malcolm in the Middle into a ruthless crystal meth-dealing kingpin. Over its run, Vince Gilligan's gripping drama about a good man's descent into evil evolved into one of the greatest character studies ever seen on TV.
Cranston gives a performance for the ages as terminally-ill-teacher-turned-drug baron Walter White, but he is more than matched by Aaron Paul as White's unlikely stoner sidekick Jesse Pinkman. A true one-off – though prequel series Better Call Saul (focused on White's morally flexible lawyer, Saul Goodman) is also essential viewing.
Luther: seasons 1-5
From Morse to Frost; Cracker’s Fitz to Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison, British audiences have long had a thing for a loner detective. Even so, they'd never encountered anyone quite like DCI John Luther.
Charismatically played by a post-The Wire, pre-Thor Idris Elba, Luther's so obsessed with his work for the Serious Crimes Unit that it has a habit of spilling over into his personal life. The show's also driven by Luther's relationship with murderer Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), who’s both an antagonist and an unlikely ally. Undoubtedly one of the best drama series of the decade.
DVD/Blu-ray: Amazon (UK) (opens in new tab)/Amazon (US) (opens in new tab).
Streaming: BBC iPlayer, Netflix (seasons 1-4 only)/Hulu, Amazon Prime Video (seasons 1-4 only) (US).
Read more: The 15 best British shows (opens in new tab) of all time
Game of Thrones: seasons 1-8
Possibly the most epic TV show of all time, HBO's mega-budget adaptation of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels redefined what was possible on the small screen. With its compelling mix of shades-of-grey characters, massive battles and complex political machinations, Game of Thrones introduced fantastical elements like dragons and ice zombies by stealth, pulling in millions who'd never even have contemplated watching The Lord of the Rings.
Yes, the show lost its way in later seasons as it overtook the books (hurry up, George!), but it remains the pinnacle of fantasy storytelling on TV.
The West Wing: seasons 1-7
The show that made walking and talking a way of life, The West Wing introduced us to a US president that pretty much everyone would vote for. Created by Aaron Sorkin
– who wrote or co-wrote almost every episode in the first four seasons – the White House-set drama transformed dialogue-heavy episodes into an artform as it went behind the curtain of American politics.
Beyond the amazing drama, it was a show packed with memorable characters, from Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlett, to Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) and press secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney). There was also an early role for The Handmaid's Tale star Elisabeth Moss as one of Bartlett's kids.
The X-Files: seasons 1-11
If you're under 40, you may not realise how big a deal The X-Files was when it arrived on US screens in 1993. Until a pair of good-looking FBI agents by the names of Mulder and Scully showed up, sci-fi TV had rarely been cool, but their investigations into the paranormal took aliens and monsters into the mainstream.
While the show got more convoluted towards the end of its original nine-season run – it made a patchy two-season comeback in 2016 and 2018 – at its best, The X-Files was inventive, scary, essential viewing. And the chemistry between David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson was legendary.
Mad Men: seasons 1-7
Very few shows are consistently brilliant, but Mad Men managed to avoid any major shark-jumping moments over the course of its majestic seven-season run. Fans tend to point to season three of the ’60s-set advertising drama as a particular highlight, but with the fantastic ensemble cast – Jon Hamm, Elisabethe Moss, and Christina Hendricks – it's hard not to love the lot. There's a reason Mad Men remains near the top of almost every "best TV shows of all time list". And the tailoring's pretty stylish, too.
Boardwalk Empire: seasons 1-5
This Martin Scorsese-produced crime drama was the talk of the town when it aired from 2010 to 2014. If you’ve never seen the opening credits, here’s what you need to know: the year's 1920, and Atlantic City's on the eve of Prohibition. Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (Steve Buscemi) is the part-politician, part-gangster ruling the whole scene. Things are anything but smooth running.
A large part of the show's success was down to the acting talents of Buscemi, Michael Shannon, Bobby Cannavale, and Kelly Macdonald, who deserved to take home a lot more awards than they did.
Line of Duty: seasons 1-5
There's no greater measure of a British TV show's popularity than moving from BBC Two to the more mainstream BBC One. In 2017, Line of Duty's fourth season followed in the footsteps of Torchwood, Little Britain, and Gavin & Stacey to cement its place as the hottest cop drama on TV.
Created by Jed Mercurio (whose impressive resumé includes Bodies and 2018 hit Bodyguard), Line of Duty is a trip into the shadowy world of a police anti-corruption unit, as the men and women of AC-12 investigate dodgy officers. Tense, morally ambiguous and twisty as hell, Line of Duty is essential, arresting viewing.
Battlestar Galactica: seasons 1-4
The original '70s Battlestar Galactica got a hell of a lot wrong – there's a reason disco and space opera didn't prolong their relationship – yet, it was always ripe for a remake. And so, 25 years later, Star Trek veteran Ronald D. Moore found the perfect way to tell the story of a race of humans on the run from machines who had all-but wiped out their civilisation.
Loaded with post-9/11 allegory, it got away with bold storytelling choices that Earth-based dramas would never have touched – heroes as suicide bombers? – and maximised the tension of the chase with one of the best ensembles in sci-fi TV history.
The Trip: seasons 1-3
On paper, The Trip sounds like a self-indulgent disaster, as top comic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play fictionalised versions of themselves on a road trip reviewing restaurants in England's Lake District. They improvise, eat food, chat, and duel via the medium of celebrity impressions. It shouldn't work, but strangely, it does.
Not only is the series incredibly funny, but director Michael Winterbottom makes sure the two men are brilliant fun to hang out with, artfully skirting the line between drama and caricature. Further trips to Italy and Spain follow, while their current jaunt to Greece (season 4) is available on Now TV.
DVD/Blu-ray: Amazon (UK) (opens in new tab).
Streaming: BritBox (seasons 1-2), NowTV (seasons 3-4) (UK).
Twin Peaks: seasons 1-2, plus limited series
You may just about remember who murdered Laura Palmer (or maybe you don't – David Lynch has never been a fan of making things easy for viewers), but that shouldn’t stop you rediscovering the quirky joy of this super-weird serial noir. And, let's be honest, Twin Peaks was never about the murder anyway, as Lynch was much more interested in seeing how far he could push the limits of TV drama.
Where else will you find log ladies, evil spirits, cross-dressing DEA agents, nightmares about backwards-speaking dwarves, and damn fine coffee all in one place? Twin Peaks returned for an unexpected limited series in 2017 and, yes, the series is still really odd – but damn fine nonetheless.
Peaky Blinders: seasons 1-5
Imagine The Godfather set in the Midlands in the aftermath of World War I, and you’re getting close to the money. Couple that with the real-life aspect of the gritty urban drama (the Peaky Blinders were an actual gang who sewed razor blades into their caps for use as covert weapons) and the result is one of the finest gangster dramas of the decade.
Shot with cinematic flair, full of violent (often slow-mo) action, with an A-list cast (Cillian Murphy, Sam Neill, Tom Hardy) – and given a stylistic boost by some anachronistic but oddly-fitting modern music – Peaky Blinders has delivered five seasons of Brummie brilliance. And there's more to come...
The Expanse: seasons 1-4
Star Trek’s always made space travel look like a doddle – as simple as nipping down the road to post a letter. In The Expanse, however, getting around the Solar System is such a challenging, time-consuming business that it's no wonder Earthers, Martians, and Belters tend to keep themselves to themselves...
Based on James S.A. Corey's hit novel series, The Expanse tells the story of a quartet of reluctant heroes thrown into a maelstrom of political intrigue, war, and the alien parasite that threatens to wipe out life as we know it. Despite being cancelled by original network Syfy after three seasons, The Expanse is still going strong (and constantly evolving) on Amazon – long may this spiritual successor to Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica continue.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: seasons 1-7
While the 1992 movie version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer made little impact on popular culture, the TV version stakes a claim on being one of the most influential shows in history. Taking the idea of school being hell incredibly literally – Sunnydale High sits on top of an actual Hellmouth – its mix of vamps, demons, and teens proves an addictive mix.
But more important is the brilliant ensemble and creator Joss Whedon's witty, pop-culture literate scripts that gleefully push the boundaries of network TV. These days musical episodes are ten a penny, but "Once More, With Feeling" still feels like nothing else.
Fargo: seasons 1-3
Screenwriters and directors often claim that when it comes to adapting material from one medium to another, it’s capturing the spirit of the original that’s the key. That’s certainly been true of the TV version of Fargo, as series creator Noah Hawley captured the essence of the Coen brothers' classic 1996 movie. P
lot-wise the three seasons have very little to with the film aside from the Midwestern setting, their tales of unlikely criminals in over their head and some very loose shared plot threads. But each self-contained story arc has been a masterclass of drama and black comedy, populated by memorable, eccentric characters you'd love to spend more time with – if only they didn't keep dying.
As long as you're not looking for feelgood viewing, you won't find a more compelling story than this dramatisation of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The scenes of the accident – where a power station's reactor exploded, spewing tons of radioactive material into the atmosphere – and the subsequent aftermath are harrowing enough, but it's as much the story of government cover-ups, and the brave individuals prepared to speak against the authorities in the former Soviet Union. TV doesn't come more hard-hitting than this.
The Sopranos: seasons 1-6
Widely credited as the show that kickstarted the era of prestige TV, David Chase's superlative drama brought Scorsese-style gangster drama to the small screen – with the added twist that mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is in therapy (with a psychiatrist played by GoodFellas’ Lorraine Bracco). Violent, multi-layered, and brilliantly played, The Sopranos raised the bar for all television drama that followed.
The Wire: seasons 1-5
For a certain kind of person, finding out whether you've seen The Wire or not can shape their entire opinion of you as a human being. We're not quite so judgemental, however – in fact, we're even a little bit envious of anyone yet to watch the seminal Baltimore-set crime drama, given the treat they have in store.
While The Wire was neither a ratings smash nor an awards-botherer – and the show's take-no-prisoners storytelling makes sure it's not always the easiest watch – it is ambitious, perfectly cast, and groundbreaking enough to rank among the best shows ever made.