There was a stretch of time — a very long stretch — that gave all of us every reason to abandon television. Every hour of programming, whether sitcom or drama, seemed to pander to the lowest common denominator. Devoid of meaning, it made sense to encourage kids (and adults) to turn off the television to find something meaningful to do.
But at last, that season is behind us. Now the opposite is true: there’s not enough time in the day to get through the staggering amount of recommendations on network television, cable, Netflix, Amazon or even web-based series. We’re in a golden age of television, one in which characters are fleshed out, plotlines are complicated, and more is demanded of the viewer than ever before. We polled some of our RR contributors to get their recommendations, even as we realize that a dozen more could be discussed and highlighted. Add your own in the comments. We want to hear what you’re watching.
Doctor Who I’ve been a sci-fi and fantasy fan from an early age, and loving Doctor Who is a logical outcome. The Doctor, as scriptwriter Stephen Moffat has said, “. . . is an angel trying to be a man.” Doctor Who is a Time Lord, a time-traveling human-like alien with the ability to regenerate at death. Long ago he stole a Tardis (a time machine disguised as a British police box) and now uses it for the good of others, continually getting himself into situations requiring hard ethical decisions. The Doctor loves people, and saves them even at the expense of having to regenerate and use up another of his own lives.
One of the best things about the Doctor, the thing in him to which viewers relate, is his intense loneliness; it is just there, unsaid but seen. His relationships, usually a female companion traveling with him for one or two seasons, give him respite. Some of the most moving episodes happen as his companion is torn from him by circumstance. This recurring theme of the series is as important as the actual story lines.
I started with Season Two with the David Tennant Doctor on the advice of Rebecca Reynolds, and it was sound advice. The first season feels like they were still trying to get their feet—worth watching later if one becomes a fan. [Ron Block]
Homeland Let me get this out of the way before a close friend points this out: I’ve had a crush on Claire Danes since the dawn of time. Trust me when I say, however, that I would be addicted to Homeland sans crush. Ask Arthur Alligood who told me he watched every season in a matter of days after I told him it was the best thing around.
Homeland is a Showtime series focused largely on Carrie Mathison (Danes), a CIA officer with a history of mental illness. Early seasons feature an ongoing plotline involving the rescue of an American prisoner of war who Mathison believes has been turned by al-Qaeda. Future seasons stand on their own.
Homeland’s ability to give perspective and voice to unAmerican characters is almost as impressive as the way it handles issues of mental illness. Yet as strong as these elements are, Homeland was created to be a suspenseful drama about the perilous times in which we live. Given the smart set of actors involved (Danes has won several Emmys here), it succeeds in every respect. [Matt Conner]
Agents of Shield As an extension of my sci-fi fondness, I love watching superhero movies with my teens. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is an extension of the Marvel comics and movies—Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Captain America, and The Avengers. S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division) is the secret government entity behind the Avengers. The show is concerned with a particular team of agents headed by Phil Coulson, an agent seen in the various Marvel movies. These agents don’t have superpowers, but they are heroes in doing good in the world, fighting against evil using more “common” means — martial arts, hacker knowledge, guns, technology, and—most of all—brains. Like the Doctor, these folks fight for the good of all, often at their own expense. And again, like the Doctor Who series, the relationships are often the centerpiece of the drama. The themes of love, kindness, goodness, loyalty, deception, and betrayal run throughout. [Ron Block]
Breaking Bad I know, I know—it’s over. But that show raised the bar, elevating mere TV to the level of literature. When I finished the last episode, I felt like I’d just put down a great, great book about morality and greed and the consequences of the way we treat the people around us. It’s like someone put Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky into a sandwich with some chipotle sauce and bacon. I loved eating that sandwich. [Pete Peterson]
Person of Interest Not only does it have some great actors in Michael Emerson, Jim Caviezel (probably a career saving role), and Amy Acker, but it’s spent four seasons delving into the moral complexities of government spying, counter terrorism, and the ethical challenges of increasingly powerful artificial intelligence. Plus, it does this Whedon-esque thing of taking a bunch of brilliant-but-damaged people and putting them together as a team in order to achieve something greater. [Chris Yokel]
Sherlock I am not a big TV watcher. It’s not a snobby thing . . . it’s more like an adding-shows-to-my-Netflix-queue-and-never-getting-around-to-them thing. (My biggest accomplishment was finishing Firefly a year or so ago, if that tells you anything.) So for all I know Sherlock is old news, but I watched all three seasons in the span of a few weeks, and it’s pretty much my new favorite thing.
It’s a remarkable show. For one thing, it updates—but respects—the source material. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are legendary, but in this 21st century update, they feel like they could belong in our world of tech crimes, terrorism, and media-powered celebrity culture. On a technical level, the series is beautifully crafted and makes excellent use of visual storytelling, creatively showing the inner workings of Sherlock’s mind as the episodes go on.
But most compelling, I’d say, is how the heart of the show is less about solving mysteries and more about the redeeming relationship between two flawed heroes. In the first episode, Watson walks with a literal and figurative limp, and Sherlock, for all his genius, lives in isolation. By the last, their friendship has made them—and is continuing to make them—better men. I’m hooked—and waiting a whole year for new episodes like the rest of the world. [Jen Rose Yokel]
Master Chef Jr. I know, I know. It’s not a TV show in the “great characters and plot” sense of the word, but I love it anyway. Little chefs, ages 8-13, plating dishes that, when I was their age, I wouldn’t have ever dreamed existed. The creativity runs high, and the über-dramatic antics of the show’s adult counterpart (the regular Master Chef) are almost non-existent. Sure, things happen in the kitchen—the occasional cut finger, or the miniature nervous breakdown—but in place of the conniving commentary of the adult competitors, the kids on Master Chef Jr. are prone to a kind of compassion that’s often missing in similar shows. Someone gets sent home and the rest of them gather around him or her and offer hugs and encouragement. Another kid forgets a key ingredient, and someone else has extra and decides to share.
As a full-time MFA student and English teacher, I am up to my ears in character and plot. This show gives my brain a break while giving me a glimpse of some intense creativity at work. So, instead of following intricate plot lines, I can watch immense young minds at work—bringing to my older mind the same desire that comes to me when I listen to good music or read a good story: I want to grow younger. I want to see supposed obstacles as opportunities to make something really beautiful. [Barbara Lane]
The Walking Dead This started out as a guilty pleasure. I gave it a shot mainly because it was produced by Frank Darabont and I like most of his stuff (Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Mist), and just let me say from the outset that this isn’t for everyone. It’s over-the-top gruesome sometimes, and it’s got some downright awful dialogue at others. In fact my assessment of the show fluctuates wildly from episode to episode and season to season. But what keeps me coming back is the idea that yes, it’s a monster movie, but the zombies aren’t the monsters—the humans are. The show is at its best when it’s pitting its characters against each other in complex and interesting ways—all amid an apocalypse of undead, of course. Whether it’s watching Shane and Rick tick like time-bombs or itching to see why the Governor is just as bad as you suspect he is, I love it. And I also love the ways in which it explores the societal ramifications of something as ludicrous as a world fallen to a zombie horde. Watching how the world’s social constructs evolve and devolve is fascinating. Also, it’s a modern-day western.[Pete Peterson]
Black Mirror Take this recommendation with the strongest possible warning. The content of this BBC speculative-fiction series is mature—and I don’t necessarily mean “mature” in the lots-of-explicit sex sense (though that certainly figures in at times). Do NOT let your kids watch this one. That said, the show is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of television as literature. The aptly-named show is basically a set of unconnected short stories, each of which takes a cold, hard look at the crumbling morality of our culture. If Flannery O’Conner and Phillip K. Dick had lived to write for television, the result might have been something like this. Each episode is disturbing, but in the best ways (for me, at least). The stories leave me thinking for days and weeks afterward and force me to look at the world in new and ever more complex ways. That’s the job art is in the world to do, and Black Mirror excels at it. It’s especially interesting to watch the show carry on such a vital conversation about morality in the context of a post-Christian world that’s struggling to figure out which way is up in a sea of moral subjectivism.
What is it about British television. It’s so darned good! I read something a while back (I can’t recall where) making the point that in Britain, the BBC has the mission of creating excellent works of literature that enrich the British culture—the result being that they strive for excellence and depth in writing, storytelling, and filmmaking. So in Britain the TV culture is one of striving to create the next well-done thing. Contrast that with America where the primary thing networks seem to care about is money (I’m making generalizations, I know). In our country we strive for whatever nets the most viewers, and as a result we lean on the titillation of violence and sex to draw in the highest profit. That doesn’t exactly make me proud to be an American.
And another thing: look at the actors on the BBC. They seem to be cast based on their ability in the craft and their suitability to the role. Now look at an American show. Why do they all look like models instead of real people? Seems to me some folks are getting roles based on criteria other than ability and suitability. It’s a sad commentary on value judgments of our culture.
All that said, I know there’s some excellent stuff on American television (hence a lot of the shows on this list), and I applaud it, but the BBC elevates the whole craft. For that, I’m thankful. I love every one of the shows listed up there in the header of this entry, and any new show with the BBC stamp on it instantly merits a closer look in my house.[Pete Peterson]