A few nights ago I felt the desire to make this list. I’m evaluating them in terms of how much I enjoy watching the show today, and I try to minimize nostalgia. This means that when I watch old episodes of Seinfeld or The Simpsons and find the humor stale, I evaluate it as such; I do not give the show bonus points for being groundbreaking or really good at the time. After making the list, I went back and compared it to a few online and there is a bunch of overlap, so I’m not that crazy. Note that the height of my TV watching habit was 2004-09, so I may be biased on that margin.
20. Futurama. Very creative and its peak episodes are as good as people say they are. Early episodes are still watchable. The last season before its cancellation is not. I haven’t watched the new episodes.
19. Star Trek: The Next Generation. This might be a nostalgia pick, but that is counterbalanced a bit by the fact that I know the series so well that I get disappointed when I watch it and realize I am watching “that” episode. But lots of iconic elements were developed and best used in TNG – holodecks, Data, Q. In contrast to Futurama, some of the most acclaimed episodes of the series (e.g. this one) I find boring.
18. Sons of Anarchy. To be honest, I stopped following the show during the third season, but that had more to do with my growing lack of interest in following TV shows than anything. But really it was solid the whole time I watched it, with good acting and good plots.
17. Psych. Another show still on the air that I stopped watching. It is very inconsistent, both from episode to episode and in tone within the episode. Some of the jokes fall completely flat. Nonetheless I found the cultural references to be very amusing, and the plots are surprisingly unpredictable.
16. Aqua Teen Hunger Force. I remember back when this first came on the air, and a friend of mine telling everyone that you just need to keep watching it until it becomes funny. I didn’t get it, but eventually I did. I count the Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past From The Future as a personal role model, and who doesn’t like Boxxy Brown? Even if the new episodes aren’t very funny.
15. Star Trek: Deep Space 9. The first season is 90% wince-inducing and 10% good. Seasons 2-6 are 60% wince-inducing and 40% good. Seasons 7 is amazing.
14. Firefly. I don’t know why people act like this is the best show ever made, but it’s very good.
13. No Reservations. Anthony Bourdain can make anything interesting.
12. Law & Order (the original series). A friend of mine complains that he can’t stand the show, because if he watches five minutes of an episode, he feels compelled to watch the whole thing. That is a feature, not a bug. Also, if Jack McCoy told me socialism could work, I would believe him. Don’t forget to renew your robot attack insurance. I have strong opinions about the spinoffs of Law & Order, namely that they suck. I’ve seen enough episodes of SVU to annoy people with my knowledge of the show, but I’m fairly convinced its popularity stems from its ability to gross people out and its self-righteous protagonists. Criminal Intent is a bad serialized detective novella, which goes out of its way to spoil the plot in the opening to cheaply hold onto the audience’s attention.
11. Caprica. Executive meddling and not knowing what it wanted to be hurt its ability to reach its potential, but the show feels less adrift if you watch the episodes in succession.
10. Robot Chicken. I dunno. I think it is funny, but probably because I’m a bad person who doesn’t buy local.
9. Dexter. I don’t have any praise for the show that isn’t made elsewhere. Ever notice its tabula rasa interpretation of psychopaths? The soundtrack is very good. The books it is based on apparently suck. Take that, reading!
8. The Shield. The Wire before The Wire was cool. Also, public choice.
7. Burn Notice. The show is popular, but do people realize how good it is? The show’s producers are basically making thirteen above average 42 minute-long action films every year. Let me reiterate – the average episode of Burn Notice is BETTER than the average Hollywood action movie. People complain about the main character monologuing, which I guess is considered bad form and it sounds kinda goofy. But the information in the monologue is genuinely interesting, and they wouldn’t have a good way of getting it across otherwise.
6. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I rewatched the entire series in Summer 2010 when I should have been studying for comprehensive exams. Aspects of the show have not aged well, and I get the impression single episodes watched individually are very corny. The season finale of season five is on a short list of best episodes of any series ever. Its spinoff Angel narrowly missed the list.
5. House. Is it surprising that I should love a character who is hyper-rationalistic on many margins I am hyper-rationalistic? I got annoyed when I found out that the way they jump from diagnosis from diagnosis made no sense even if the medicine in the show was as good as any on television. As has been pointed out by critics, the show is very formulaic, though that is muted a bit by how striking of a character House is, at least for a few seasons. And there is the tendency to play anti-Aesop, which is well-executed. On the other hand (and what ultimately led me to stop watching the show before it was cancelled), the show is also formulaic in terms of the arc of an entire season. I think this is because the show is about a character, so each season needed to be about something happening to the character, but they couldn’t fundamentally change the character either. So they just ran in circles.
4. Family Guy. The first scene of the first episode of the first season featured a joke about Aunt Jemima’s Witnesses. That joke is still very funny. Something the show has done to keep reinventing itself is to kill off bit players and replace them with new bit players, which allows you to not make the same joke for 20 years. If the older episodes didn’t hold up as well, I wouldn’t rated it nearly as high, but the fall in the quality of later seasons is greatly overstated.
3. South Park. Stupidly brilliant and brilliantly stupid.
2. Good Eats. Yes, a cooking show. I don’t know of anything ever that combines humor and information better than Good Eats does. When I wanted to be a professor, I planned on emulating Alton Brown’s approach until I realized I’m terrible at teaching. If someone hired Alton Brown to make a TV show conveying the benefits of free markets, the United States would be libertarian in less than two years.
1. Battlestar Galactica. Best storytelling in the history of everything. Excellent characters. Amazing soundtrack. Watch it.