Every year, I reveal an updated list of my favourite films ever, but I’ve never before announced my most beloved TV shows. So here’s my Top 15, as of today. Feel free to mock and argue with my choices. I’m just being honest…
1. THE WALTONS (1971-1981)
Yes, it’s schmaltzy. Yes, its titular family would likely be uber-conservative Republicans in reality. But Earl Hamner’s timeless poem on family and community, set in the beautiful Virginia Mountains, is a powerful piece of American television: exploring faith (and lack of it), tolerance, love and loss from the perspective of young writer John-Boy and his large family. It may seem old-fashioned, but the best of The Waltons will never lose relevance. For me, this is the defining American television show.
2. THE WEST WING (1999-2006)
If The Waltons is about the goodness of Americans, Aaron Sorkin’s government opus depicts the ability of the U.S. to produce greatness: President Bartlet (Martin Sheen)’s administration face trials and tribulations in their efforts to create a better society, providing moments of profound insight and dazzling wit, inventing a new method of filming dialogue scenes (Thomas Shlamme’s infamous ‘Walk & Talk’) and assaulting the audience with unforgettable zingers from a cast of immeasurable charisma. Through the Bush, and now Trump, administrations, The West Wing is a beacon of political idealism for every generation of aspirational liberals.
3. SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS (1999-)
Using 2D animation to create a visual wonderland of undersea surprises, Stephen Hillenburg’s Nickelodeon comedy is a vast and undying triumph of cross-generational comedy, incorporating both Cronenbergian body-horror and clichés of the live-action sitcom (the grumpy neighbour, the demanding boss) but rejecting predictability with constant invention and flair.
4. COMMUNITY (2009-2015)
No comedy has ever balanced joyfulness and existential discomfort as perfectly as Dan Harmon’s meditation on adulthood and- yes- the creation of a community. Community deconstructs every sitcom trope, examining its own place on television through the eyes of the delightfully self-aware Abed (Danny Pudi), but it’s his eclectic group of misfit friends- Joel McHale’s Jeff, Alison Brie’s Annie, Donald Glover’s Troy, Jim Rash’s Dean Pelton- who provide Community‘s enormous heart. A show that doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of being a grown-up, Community is nonetheless a living antidepressant for those who fall in love with its characters.
5. LOST (2004-2010)
For the best of “Shock and Awe” serialised drama, look no further than Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse’s island mystery, a sprawling epic of secrets, lies and smoke monsters that unfolds over six gripping seasons and sends its audience spiralling into a lunacy of uncertainty and suspicion.
6. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (2004-2013)
Arrested Development, Mitch Hurwitz’s madcap masterpiece, created its own brand of comedy with such a uniquely-colourful aesthetic that networks have spent a decade trying to recreate the magic. But nothing, not even the Netflix-funded fourth season, can reignite the spark of the original three years and the chemistry of the ensemble cast.
7. STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP (2006-2007)
Aaron Sorkin turns his gaze from Washington, DC, to the more familiar ground of the Hollywood writer’s room. S60‘s single season is a brilliantly-structured depiction of TV-making, with Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford and Sarah Paulson leading a flawless cast through the ups and downs of a year of comedy production. Endlessly rewatchable.
8. 30 ROCK (2006-2013)
A lighter, jollier and commercially more successful companion piece to Studio 60, Tina Fey’s zany comedy brought out the best in Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan, and gave us some of the century’s most lovable characters.
9. GET SMART (1965-1970)
Mel Brooks’ feature films are overrated, but this ingenious spy spoof, co-created by Buck Henry, is undeniably a feat of comedic brilliance. Don Adams’ Maxwell Smart is a complete moron; he’s also one of the American government’s top spies, navigating the Cold War with a bumbling charm while wooding Barbara Gordon’s Agent 99. Silly, sexy and absolutely sensational.
10. PARENTHOOD (2010-2015)
Rooted in the realities of family dynamic, but embellished with inspiring optimism, Jason Katims’ ensemble dramedy is as fun and unpredictable as it is quiet and thoughtful. Adam and Kristina (Peter Krause and Monica Potter) struggle with their son’s Asperger’s diagnosis, Crosby (Dax Shepherd) is greeted with a 5-year old son he’s never met, Sarah (Lauren Graham) moves home after a divorce, while Grandpa Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) confronts his mortality. A 21st-century spin on the Waltons formula, Parenthood is deeply moving and movingly deep.
11. BREAKING BAD (2008-2013)
The dawn of a new era of extremely cinematic television, Breaking Bad depicts the stunning character arc of teacher-turned-kingpin Walter White (the terrific Bryan Cranston) with depth and directorial creativity.
12. THE NEWSROOM (2012-2014)
Aaron Sorkin’s move to HBO brought with it frustrating levels of self-indulgence, but his three-season run of The Newsroom is still a marvellous piece of contemporary television: Sorkin tackles real news stories from the perspective of a New York news team, led by Jeff Daniels’ Howard Beale-lite anchor, and the resulting episodes are smart, timely and often heartbreaking/
13. PARKS & RECREATION (2009-2015)
Uncynical sweetness has been in short supply since the turn of the millennium, but Parks comes pretty close to purity in that regard. Its cast are uniformly delightful, its depiction of local government a micro-version of The West Wing‘s idealism (both star Rob Lowe). Yet Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), one of the greatest comic creations of all time, is always on hand to insert some snark into proceedings.
14. HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER (2005-2014)
The only series in recent TV history to transcend the multi-camera format to be really, really funny and clever, HIMYM merges the friendly banter of Friends with a Woody Allen-esque New York wit and attacks our hearts with its central gang of characters.
15. BOJACK HORSEMAN (2014-)
A Netflix cartoon about a horse who’s a terrible actor may not sound promising, but that’s exactly why Bojack Horseman– the creation of Raphael Bob Waksberg- is so triumphant in its brilliance. One only starts to appreciate Bojack when one realises that, though often hilarious, it isn’t trying to be a comedy. This show is dark, tragic, philosophically-literate and utterly compelling.