10. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
The show: Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino hits another home run with a show that’s, on the surface, cut from an entirely different cloth. The late 1950s are a tough time for women everywhere, including those like Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) on the Upper West Side, who remains under the thumb of her husband. A devoted wife who supports her husband’s desire to be a stand-up comic, it’s soon revealed that Midge herself has quite a gift for the gag on-stage. The show won five Emmys and two Golden Globes in its first year, with Brosnahan snagging the same Globe the following year.
Why it’s worth a watch: There is so much to love about Maisel. If you’re a fan of rich storytelling that’s not gloomy and doesn’t involve murder (c’mon, a LOT of prestige television is pretty downbeat) then you’ll get a kick out of this. Brosnahan is one of the best actors working today, bringing heart, warmth, humour and a fire in her belly to the role of Midge. The best scenes are the after-hours debriefs with her friend/manager Susie, played by Family Guy’s Alex Borstein. But make no mistake: this isn’t a fluffy series. It’s an R-rated show, with swears and nudity.
The show: Feeling a little glum that Glenn Close didn’t bag the Oscar? Console yourself with her sublime performance as Patty Hewes, a criminal prosecutor with no scruples, who’d happily sell out her own grandmother if it meant getting a leg up. The series starts as Patty’s company, Hewes and Associates, hires Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), fresh out of law school with plans to change the world. Every season charts the relationship between teacher and protegee alongside a season-long criminal case. It’s unlike any crime show you’ve watched.
Why it’s worth a watch: Continuing to get better with each season, the pure, babbling madness of Damages is that it’s impossible to lock down who’s good and who’s bad. With moral compasses this thoroughly skewed, that’s not even the point, as the real joy comes from watching Close and Byrne go head-to-head as one of the small screen’s best pair of frenemies.
8. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The show: When his 1992 movie about a cheerleading vampire slayer flopped, writer Joss Whedon couldn’t let Buffy languish in pop culture history in its campy coffin. So he did what any genre-loving creator would do! He revived it, and spawned one of the most successful female-led fantasy shows of all time, with Sarah Michelle Gellar taking over as the vamp-stabbin’, monster-huntin’ badass. Not only is Buffy tasked with saving the world from the apocalypse (multiple times) and preventing several baddies from destroying her hometown of Sunnydale, she also grapples with typical teen angst.
Why it’s worth a watch: While the “monster of the week” format stakes its claim in earlier seasons, Buffy’s complex life and those of her best friends, Xander and Willow, extend beyond that into rich, layered storytelling that is brilliant serial television. Without a doubt a genre staple, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a must-see for anyone with a love of good vs. tales that give the middle finger to convention.
The show: Anthony Hopkins brought a terrifying Hannibal Lecter to the public's attention, only for subsequent sequels to make him a boring caricature. In the hands of creator Bryan Fuller, Mads Mikkelsen twists that perception back toward pure evil. This version of events goes back to the beginning, with Lecter working in cahoots with the FBI and in particular, forensic profiler Will Graham to crack cases.
Why it's worth a watch: With some breathtaking cinematography, and a hyper-stylised set design, Hannibal transcends the guff that came before. Interspersed with the more traditional police work is Lecter’s penchant for haute cuisine, which was telegraphed in the movie, yet here it becomes a key component of his lifestyle. His cooking skills are shown in such intricate detail that you’ll be utterly fascinated and absolutely horrified by their implications. Its central villain is someone to truly fear.
6. The X-Files
The show: The adventures of Special Agents Mulder and Scully took the early '90s by storm, as the pair investigated a broad spectrum of bizarre cases deemed unsolvable by the FBI. Scully's skepticism toward Mulder's haphazard belief in the otherworldly provides viewers with an in-road to the oddities in store. Those weird happenings vary from typical monster-of-the-week episodes to the show's bigger mythology arc stories.
Why it's worth a watch: A game-changer in the realm of genre television. The fresh story, characters and situation elevated the show from a sci-fi must-watch into a mainstream serial that paved the way for the likes of Fringe, Supernatural, Buffy, Warehouse 13, and Grimm.
5. The Expanse
The show: Sci-fi with a gritty edge. That’s what ALL good sci-fi is like, right? The Expanse is worlds apart from every other show in the genre. Set hundreds of years in the future, it tackles the reality of a future where mankind sprawls into the universe, taking command of everything it lays its hands on. Mars is now its own military power, and at odds with Earth. Their squabbles lay the foundation for an imminent war, which forms a tense backdrop for the show’s main story, of a ship’s captain (Steven Strait) and a detective (Thomas Jane), who unite to solve the case of a missing young woman.
Why it’s worth a watch: The world-building is as close to realistic as you can imagine. Forget the typical sci-fi signifiers; there’s no weird portals to other dimensions, mad extraterrestrials, or weaponry that defies physics. What you’re left with is a damn good story that’s set to receive a season 4, courtesy of Amazon who picked it up for a final season. I know, season 3 isn’t available right now - but it will be next month!
4. The Wire
The show: Uncompromising in its premise, David Simon constructs a densely-plotted, thematically-rich morality play that takes place in the U.S. murder capital, Baltimore. What sets it apart from other police dramas is its relentless investigation of what justice truly means; does the cop holding the gun and wearing the badge stake a claim in righteousness more so than the crook? It's in this blurry grey area that the show has its strongest components.
Why it's worth a watch: That fine line between good and bad is slowly unpacked throughout each successive season, which delves into different aspects of Baltimore’s corrupt cityscape. No other show has ever come close to accomplishing this with such balls.
The show: Starring an award-winning Ian McShane as the foul-mouthed Al Swearengen, the old west gets the R-rated revamp you never knew it needed. Much like Thrones brings violence and nudity to fantasy, Deadwood does the same to the lawless post-Civil War era of the west. David Milch's canceled-too-soon series takes place in the town of Deadwood, South Dakota at a time when every man took matters into his own hands. Misfits, thieves, weirdos, they’re all eager to make their fortune, or even better, steal it. Swearengen is at the centre of things as the owner of the Gem Saloon.
Why it's worth a watch: This richly-textured drama might bungle the historical accuracy of its 1870s pilfering, but more than makes up for it with attention to detail. Characters this well-drawn don't come around that often, even if they’re not exact replicas of their real-life counterparts.
2. The Americans
Region: UK, US
Season(s): 1-5 (UK), 1-6 (US)
The show: All good art is never appreciated in its own time. The Americans seemed to be headed that way, snubbed repeatedly at the Emmys, the Globes, until it finally nabbed two of the former for its show-stopping series finale. It’s not like the FX show needed awards: its devout fanbase continued to tune in week-after-week for this thrilling tale of a soviet family living undercover in the US as a regular American family. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys star as the KGB officers posing as the married couple, whose suburban homestead happens to be next door to an FBI counterintelligence officer.
Why it’s worth a watch: When society looks back at some of its greatest ever TV shows, The Americans will be near the top of the list. A deep-rooted look at marriage, it’s also a damn good thriller that traces the couple throughout the 1980s, with career-best performances from Russell and Rhys. Seriously, if you haven’t watched this, drop everything and get going.
1. The Sopranos
The show: A pioneer in the golden age of television, The Sopranos threw out the rulebook when it came to hard-hitting drama. How will viewers sympathise with a mob boss who's also a serial murderer, cheater, and extortionist? Easily, because he's also quite charming, funny, and likeable despite his vast shortcomings and shady moralising, unlike some of his co-workers, who range from idiotic to scheming.
Why it's worth a watch: What sets this apart from other mob shows is the attention to detail. The traditions of the gang will draw you in, because it all seems so unusual. They’re crooks, philanderers, thieves... but they know loyalty. James Gandolfini breathes life into the Soprano family lynchpin, Tony, a grizzled anti-hero who ties together this epic modern tale of what it means to be family.