A comprehensive ranking of the 50 best tv series ever made, including The Bear, Black Mirror, True Detective, and more
Make sure to read Jason Hess’ exposition and preface to his entire list, as well as selections 50 through 31 here. Also be sure to subscribe to Cinephile Corner Newsletter to be notified via email when new movie reviews, lists, and other features go live on the website.
30. Reservation Dogs
This being a newer entry, I’ve recommended this series to a number of people since I started watching it (two seasons are done, a third is on its way). Reservation Dogs tells the stories of four Indigenous youths in Oklahoma’s Native American territory who have recently suffered a loss of one of their friends (and are just beginning the coping process). Through its episodes, the show covers a lot of ground about the social and economic factors that are endured on a regular basis. The four main characters (Bear, Elora, Willie Jack [my favorite], and Cheese) have a lot to navigate.
Some of the best episodes of Reservation Dogs are the ones where they focus on an individual character – when we get to follow them around for the majority of it. But their time together should not be overlooked – there is so much to like about these kids. Their dialogue and wit really will crack you up; more smart writing in this show. You can transition from a laugh-out-loud moment to something that really moves you in a mere matter of minutes. Oh, and there is a ‘spirit’ that follows Bear around that you may want to see in its own spinoff. They have reinstituted the use of the word “sh*t-a*s” into my vocabulary again. It’s used by about 75% of the characters in this show when someone annoys or amuses them. A lot to like here. (Hulu)
My (so far) lone foreign entry into this TV series list. Time travel has been mixed and mastered on so many different platforms and in so many different ways. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much. Dark was incredibly original with what they accomplished in three bingeworthy seasons. To write a successful recap would take more room than I am allowed here, but Dark is quite dark (sorry for the shameful pun), and it will have you guessing whether a character is good or bad pretty much straight through to the finale.
I really liked this one. Russian Doll has probably made a lot of lists (a recent time travel entry as well), and while Natasha Lyonne’s work is great in that one, it doesn’t come anywhere near Dark. The fact that I watched 26 hours of subtitles and couldn’t stop should be all I need to write here. It was quite nostalgic hearing all that German as I took three years of it back in my school days, but if anyone says regaining a foreign dialect when it’s not been used for 30 years is like riding a bike, they are dead wrong. (Netflix)
The first two (of three total) seasons of Bloodline are edge-of-your-seat material. The family will lull you into believing (not for long) that the closely-knit appearance was genuine. From there, you’ll be let in on family secret after family secret. The work done by Kyle Chandler and Ben Mendelsohn was excellent here. There is drama, a puzzle to solve, some humor (thank you for that Norbert Leo Butz as Kevin Rayburn), and violence.
Frequently when a random person asks me “what do you recommend on Netflix?” Bloodline is one of the first shows I throw out. I don’t know a lot of people that didn’t enjoy it. The last season went out in a little bit of a whimper, but not nearly enough to tarnish occupying a space on this list. (Netflix)
Ramy stars (and is written and directed by) Ramy Youssef and centers around an Egyptian-Muslim family (Ramy being the son and first generation Egyptian-American) and the trials and tribulations they go through as a family living in New Jersey. They are constantly challenged with navigating the culture they are now surrounded by, all the while still maintaining and growing their spiritual journey. There are some episodes that will bust your gut (he also has some very funny friends and a colorful uncle), but just as many that are hard to watch while they deal with emotional pain trying to find their way.
Ramy got me right away, it is VERY well-written. Ramy Youssef won a best actor Emmy in 2020 for it. My favorite episodes (by far) are the ones that occasionally center on Ramy’s mom (Hiam Abbass), who makes me start to smile just by watching her facial expressions, and Ramy’s sister (May Calamawy), a very witty and incredibly smart character. There is a lot going on in a short 30-minute episode – they go fast. Here’s to hoping for a Season 4. (Hulu)
26. Mad Men
It’s been a spell since I’ve finished Mad Men, but watching the rise and fall of Don Draper was really, really good TV (thank you Jon Hamm). And we got to see what propelled Elisabeth Moss into a very successful TV and movie career as well. I loved how they perfectly intertwined all the social and political commentary happening in the 1960s right alongside their plotlines. Centered in the advertising world in New York, it’s hard to digest that those things happened in professional workplaces back in the day (naps, scotch, cigarettes).
Watching everyone light up in the office in Mad Men was the equivalent to what you might have found walking into an American Legion on Bingo night prior to the ban on indoor smoking. Also, it was quite eye-opening to watch the brutal sexism and racism that was so prevalent back then – if someone really wants to see just how far the business world has come (not saying it’s complete yet by any means) you’ll get a pretty good drift of where it started back in the chaos of Mad Men. Such great writing too – quite a few Emmy Awards were collected by the crew of the Sterling Cooper agency. (Amazon Prime)
This older drama (dare I say dramedy? I think I do) has aged well. The writers proved that even in something as dark as Dexter, you could still find a well-timed laugh. This role was made for Michael C. Hall. The conundrum of “should we really be cheering for a serial killer as long as we believe he is killing the right people for the right reasons” really left one wondering about morals even as a TV viewer. And they really nailed the casting on the bad guys every year (Jimmy Smits, John Lithgow, Colin Hanks). Before there was “why is Skyler so annoying?” in a series yet to come on this list, there was Rita in Dexter. (Paramount Plus)
I had referenced Jean Smart earlier in this list, and her skills are really showcased in this smart comedy that began a few years ago. The Deborah Vance vs Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder) verbal jousting that accompanies most episodes of Hacks is entertainment in and of itself. Deborah kind of fills the roll of an aging comedian (think Joan Rivers) that is fighting for the old ways while being pressured to submit to something new.
She had tremendous success with her own show in Vegas (love the backdrop) for years. An assigned (and talented) protégé with very little experience comes forward to help write new material for Deb – what could possibly go wrong? The relationship between these two witty characters really takes center stage and my guess is there’s plenty of seasons to come of this gem. (HBO Max)
23. The Bear
The newest series on this list, and only one season in – but what a season that was. Jeremy Allen White is incredible (I know, duh! He has a Golden Globe and a Critics Choice Award to confirm it). A television show almost entirely filmed within the chaos of a sandwich shop in downtown Chicago. There is more than one episode of The Bear where the credits are rolling and you’re simply out of breath still.
The pace, the unexpected catastrophes, the crazy customers, the co-worker relationships, the family relationships – it’s all breached at one point or another, often simultaneously. Shoutout to Ebon Moss-Bachrach (Richie) and Ayo Edebiri (Sydney) as well. Certainly in the conversation as best series of 2022. Can’t wait to see more in mid-2023. (Hulu)
22. Friday Night Lights
Friday Night Lights premiered in 2006 and showcased just how good Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton could be (and led to many more opportunities thereafter). I mean, who possibly could not have been cheering for the success of Coach Taylor and his family? They were very relatable characters. Juggling careers, raising kids, dealing with drama, and winning football games – the American dream?
Friday Night Lights also helped put Jesse Plemons on the map (how many times do I have him listed in here). The Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) storyline – again, who can’t cheer for the underdog there? It was also heart-wrenching and then uplifting following the Smash Williams’ storyline on the courageous way to handle adversity. The storylines in all seasons were quite addictive. It slightly faded a little towards the very end, but this was good television. It’s critically acclaimed for good reason. (Netflix)
21. BoJack Horseman
Many have declared BoJack Horseman the best animated series of all time (it certainly has the smartest writing – by far). Yes, I know, it’s animated. But if you get into this experience like I suspect you might, you won’t even realize it. There are a number of shows on this list that have some sort of self-destructive character involved where you really can’t believe they make the decisions they do. BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett by the way), is certainly one of those experiences. Every time he seems to have a path to do something right and get himself out of a hole, he seems to manage (intentionally?) to do the opposite.
What follows are all the colors of the emotion rainbow – elation, joy, success, failure, depression, there’s an episode for all of it. BoJack Horseman is kind of classified as a dramedy, meaning you WILL be laughing in this as well. It’s a darker comedy at times, but there are plenty of laughs in here, which I enjoyed.
Side note, Aaron Paul voices Bojack’s best friend, in case that sweetens the pot a little and you’d like to hear Jesse Pinkman’s voice again. Watch this, I dare you. Because once you’re in, 77 episodes goes very quickly. (Netflix)
While Enlightened is most certainly high on many critic lists, it will probably be the one series on this list that nearly everyone will say “huh, I’ve not heard of that one.” And that is totally okay. I didn’t watch this 2012 series until years later when I read it on many a “top 50 list” such as this one. And boy am I glad I listened. Laura Dern does some of the best work of her career in this much-too-short two seasons.
Maybe it’s because I’m in a similar office setting, but watching the dynamics of the interactions that happened in her company just made me chuckle. But you just can’t look away from Dern in Enlightened (the Emmy she won for it confirms it); her dialogue, her plans/schemes, and her self-destructive decision making, you’ll be laughing some episodes and watching others with your fingers covering your eyes and peeking through. It’s not “slapping your knee” funny, it’s “did she really just do that? Good for her” funny. It’s a much smarter version of Office Space with Laura Dern on full display. And Mike White (who, oh by the way, created the series) as her empathetic co-worker. (HBO Max)
19. The Killing
The Killing follows homicide detectives Linden and Holder (Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman, respectively) as they solve a handful of puzzling (and violent) murders in Seattle. This was released in 2011, so it’s been some time since I have seen it, but I remember vividly how good The Killing was at taking you down roads where you felt you had a handle on how it would be resolved, but a last-minute curveball sent you back to the drawing board. Love the interaction between detectives as they really offset each other’s strengths.
The Killing didn’t just focus on the case – it was equally interested in what was happening with each character. The first two seasons covered the first crime and were by far the best of the series. It’s described as a darker kind of drama – the city, the music, the weather, it all takes you there. I think there was an 8 consecutive episode stretch where it was raining for the duration of the episode. Does that really happen in Seattle? I KNOW they have sun. (Hulu)
18. Parks and Recreation
How can Ron Swanson not land on anyone’s list? Parks and Recreation inadvertently was years ahead of its time by creating a character that says “Government? Bureaucracy? They are both dumb” on a regular basis. You want to talk about foresight! Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) is obviously fantastic as the antithesis of Ron – an aspiring, glass-half-full city employee that thinks all can be repaired in the Parks Department with a little hard work.
I’m certain everyone has their own favorite character (and there are several to pick from, which is part of the allure of the series). There is *literally* someone for everyone to point to and say, yup, that’s me. This was the take-off point for Chris Pratt, and of course a rejuvenated (and hyperactive) Rob Lowe made a great comeback here. Sometimes the the best laughs are found in the characters that are more subtle and have less screen time. I’m talking Jean-Ralphio (Ben Schwartz) and Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd). But my favorite episode is in the fourth season. “Ron and Tammys,” which focuses on Ron’s first ex-wife Tammy (Patricia Clarkson) and the hold she has over him. When he shaves his mustache and proclaims “anywho, back to the old grindstone, these emails aren’t going to send themselves,” you know he’s been hijacked. Oh, and that’s also the episode Jean-Ralphio names Adam Scott’s character “Jello Shot.” Happy viewing. (Peacock)
Catastrophe was one of the earlier original Amazon Prime television shows. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. They are quick watches and incredibly funny. Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney wrote and starred in this smart and witty comedy. It begins with Sharon (their characters’ first names are the same as their real ones) meeting Rob while he travels from Boston to London for business (she resides in London).
Simply put, a single night fling turns into an unexpected pregnancy. They decide to make a go of it in London, and watching them try to get to know each other as Rob learns the English way is laugh-out-loud material. This was one of Carrie Fisher’s last projects before she passed – she was well-casted here. Catastrophe was just good fun from start to finish. My ratio of laughs to episode length is one of the higher ratios on this list. (Amazon Prime)
16. Black Mirror
Five series and 22 episodes of different sci-fi scenarios, but not the sci-fi that you think of when you hear the words. Many times, you will think “that could totally happen, or at least they sure make me feel like it could.” There are some really good episodes of Black Mirror (San Junipero and Be Right Back being two of my favorites – both of those truly show the heart of this series). An “ehhhhh” episode is very difficult to find as there are only a few (sorry, Miley Cyrus). We also get another Jesse Plemons sighting in USS Callister. I love the statement some of these make: is technology always truly improving things for us? In some cases demonstrated on Black Mirror, most certainly not. But there are some very good watches in here. (Netflix)
Fargo came out around the same time as some of the True Detective seasons. I wasn’t as much of a fan of the movie as the critics were (even though I love everything Frances McDormand). Maybe it was the way-overdone Minnesotan accent. The TV Series was a different story. The first three seasons of Fargo are some of the best television ever produced.
Fargo is often described as a darker comedy, and I think that’s fitting. There are many laughable moments, but don’t be mistaken – some of the violence you saw in the movie (and suspense), carries right on through. I just love the mix of it. Characters run the gamut, from state troopers to the mafia (hello AGAIN Jean Smart – a mob boss this time!), to insurance salesman, to hit men. This show has it all. It (rightly so) won two Best Limited Series Emmys (2014 and 2016).
Season 1 features the likes of Billy Bob Thornton and Allison Tolman. Season 2 brings us Kirsten Dunst and an always-amazing Jesse Plemons. And season 3 brings one of my favorite actresses of my generation – Carrie Coon (you’ll see her again on this list also). The fact that a big chunk of a season two’s storyline takes place in good ole Luverne, Minn., is only icing on the cake. This will absolutely be on anyone’s list that chooses to put it in their queue. (Hulu)
14. True Detective
Season 1 as a stand-alone piece (there are three seasons with three different casts and storylines) could have been an entry in and of itself. The work of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey was something special True Detective. It follows an old murder case that gets brought to the forefront many years later. To say that these two homicide investigators don’t have their own baggage would be quite inaccurate.
Watching them navigate the cases at hand while dealing with countless distractions in their own personal lives was one of the best watches I’ve ever had. The incredible cinematography makes you feel that you are right in the middle of swampy Louisiana from the first day. This debuted in 2014 and was arguably the best series on TV that year. The work in True Detective is simply amazing. Eight episodes and you will absolutely want to binge it. Oh and might I add that Season 3 has Mahershala Ali and some of his best work (which is saying something), and he was awarded with his own Emmy nomination that year. I just read there will be a Season 4 soon – can’t wait. (HBO Max)
I remember watching Rectify and just how engaging it was. I read a lot of “but it’s a slow burn” reviews. I guess one could call it just that, but then count me in as one of those people that like “slow burns” then. The concept of the crime and Daniel (Aden Young) trying to assimilate back into his old (small town) community and the judgments that went with it was so heart wrenching (whether you believed he did it or not).
The relationship he had with his family was so dynamic. I remember this as the first time I saw J. Smith-Cameron in a series (Daniel’s mom), and man, was she good. She is also a character you can’t look away from in Succession either. The spitfire sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) and their interactions (Amantha had plenty of her own small-town obstacles) were also something that evolved with every episode.
It’s just a set of people that you really started to care about and you want to see it through to the end, just hoping something positive can happen for everyone. The second time I watched Rectify through was just as engaging as the first. Not too many people have heard of this series, but they really need to see it. It’s got a lot of emotion and heart in it, and you’ll leave it differently than you started. (AMC Plus)
12. The Office (US)
Kind of like the Seinfeld conundrum down the list, when you have all these intense dramas, psychological thrillers, and epic storytelling displays to pick from, where do you place a light-hearted 30 minutes of television that has made you laugh so much through the years? The Office, to this day, is still the series we’ll flip on in the background when the kids are home – even if we’re visiting or just filling a gap before the next social event, you can never have too much of it. The early seasons are probably higher on the “popularity” list, and for good reasons.
Such episodes as Fun Run (after Michael hits Meredith with his car, he ends up doing a charity run to help fight rabies – it takes too long to explain how he got there), and of course Dinner Party (Michael and Jan at their best), and The Injury (foot injury = Foreman grill) stand out as some of the highlights. How do you pick the next “Michael Scott” when he leaves the show?
I know there are mixed opinions on the “pre-Michael” and “post-Michael” views, but I had zero issues with Robert California. James Spader was so great in his own way. The physical acting he did in that role (body language, eye contact) made me laugh all by itself a lot of the time. His first interaction with Dwight summed it up: Dwight: “Stop trying to figure me out.” Robert: “Too late, I already did.” Loved The Office from start to finish, and it still occupies a lot of time on my TV. (Peacock)
11. The White Lotus
It’s extremely difficult to know where to place The White Lotus as it’s pretty new in its existence. I really didn’t know what I was dealing with until I got a handful of episodes in. It has that Severance feel to it at first where you’re asking yourself just exactly what is this. But I think what I enjoy most was just how much this made me laugh in ways I had no idea I could be made to laugh. I couldn’t get my arms around it at first, but this series could quite possibly be the antithesis of Shameless.
Instead of watching dysfunction breeding where you’d most expect it, The White Lotus finds a way to make all of us simpletons realize that dysfunction becomes even more entertaining at the highest levels of society. These entitled people who stroll into the resort and experience all this (self-inflicted) chaos provide hours of entertainment. The choice on cast thus far has been spot on. The manager (played by Murray Bartlett) on the first season was just one of those characters that made me laugh even when he wasn’t even angling for one. Jennifer Coolidge – well, you know she’ll be good. So good, in fact, that a stint in Season 2 was awarded.
Speaking of Season 2, if anyone hasn’t watched Aubrey Plaza since Parks and Recreation (she’s done a bunch of independent movie work since then), then I strongly encourage them to watch Season 2. She just plays suppressed (and sometimes not-so-suppressed) emotion better than anyone I’ve seen – I hope we see more of her in future years. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that the viewer gets to try and figure out who gets murdered all the way until the last episode of each season as well. You know a show has vaulted to the top of the spectrum when they are spoofed on SNL. The White Lotus punched its ticket last week. (HBO Max)
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