- The Office (UK) - This two-season (plus the two-episode finale) mockumentary is the most sublime, satisfying television ever produced. The British export won attention on both sides of the pond for its droll portrayal of the workplace from hell. Creator Ricky Gervais stars as the slime ball manager of a paper merchant in Slough, England who sees himself as less of a boss and more of a “chilled out entertainer.” His awkward social style borders on the painful. The antics of Gervais’s David Brent will at first horrify, then amuse, and then endear you. The American version is certainly fun (although I’ve only seen an episode or two), but I can’t help but feel it’s merely a shadow of its UK predecessor.
- The Simpsons – Quite possibly the most consistently laser-accurate satire of the US and its institutions in the last 25 years. The episodes of seasons 3-7 are jam- packed with intelligent and deftly delivered allusions to pop culture, high art and social boodle bags. The show has run far too long, and has had more success spoofing itself than its culture of late, but in light of the excellence it achieved for so long, perhaps it deserves a few victory laps.
- Battlestar Galactica (2003- ) - Easily the smartest writing on television currently. This compelling resurrection of the 1970’s campy sci-fi show is more of a complete re-imagining than a continuation of it. Its doomsday scenario for another race of humans in a galaxy far, far away has suspense, action, political intrigue, family drama and spy game chess moves to keep even the least Sci-fi minded folks enthralled. Just when you believe the show is merely a brilliant story, you start to sense timely correlations between a war with seemingly soulless Cylons and a war with seemingly soulless “Muslim fanatics.”
- Firefly – In some ways, this series, which died at the hand of an impatient TV network, is the polar opposite of Battlestar even though it is a comrade in reviving the near-dead sci-fi genre. Where Battlestar shines in the scope of its story and the overarching implications of its plot, Firefly shines in the intimate space of its characters. Clever, endearing and consistently drawn, each of the members of this rag-tag crew upon a smuggler spacecraft feels immediately familiar and yet, rife with deep secrets. The pain of the premature ending to the series is remedied a bit by Serenity (2005), an action-packed feature film that spills in 100 minutes the long-term story arch the show’s makers would’ve preferred to see blossom over several seasons.
- Lost – This entry may change quickly depending on the turns this series makes over the next season. In a story that, so far, has raised far more questions than answers, its hard not to get caught up in the water-cooler theories about what exactly is happening on this show. With wild allusions to world religions, literature and ancient societies, the show has set itself up as a mystery and given the impression that it’s the audience’s job to solve it. If the solution is too far-fetched or even too elaborate, the whole show will be immensely dissatisfying. However, as suspense, and serial TV goes, this show has set the bar high. Lost, along with shows like 24, Grey’s Anatomy, House, and Prison Break, marks a renaissance of TV writing, which I believe is the fallout of Reality TV’s continued popularity. Written shows must be sharp to compete with American Idol.
- House – Forumlaic, occasionally. But the title character’s vitriolic brilliance would be mesmerizing if he was a toll booth operator doing the same thing episode after episode. There are however, a smattering of out-of-the-box episodes that play with narrative format and delve deeper into the characters’ lives. House occasionally goes a little too far into “gross out” territory, but overall it’s ability to play comedy and tragedy alongside each other makes it shine past its weaknesses.
- King of the Hill – Perhaps one of the more under-appreciated shows on television, it has long been painting a convincing portrait of life in the American south. King of the Hill certainly lives in the shadow of the house on Evergreen Terrace (The Simpson’s), but where The Simpson’s is the American Revolution of satire, King of the Hill is the Canadian democratic evolution of satire. (Now that’s a metaphor to chew on!) It manages to both challenge societal pillars, and simultaneously affirms the good in them. Hank Hill, stands out as one of the most moral and yet, three dimensional, family men to grace the small screen. Ironic that it takes a cartoon to find a realistic portrayal of a dad. The show is probably looking at its last few good seasons, but it’s been a great ride.
- M*A*S*H - A rare show that stands in the genre gap between comedy and drama. Often moving into abstract and experimental episodes, it was a show ahead of its time. The characters were so familiar they would’ve been welcome guests at most American dinner tables. The finale stands as one of the most moving television events in history. It's importna to note that this show was so successful that its run on television was actully longer than the Korean War it portrayed.
- Friends – Much-maligned for its casual attitude toward sex and its dizzying ride at the top of the ratings charts, it was always a stalwart example of top-notch comedy writing. Calling upon its well-drawn characters, it let us laugh at truth. It found it’s funny not in the wacky or outrageous, but in the familiar and the true space of friendships. The theme song was maddening, and the tabloid hype around the actors was annoying, but it was the cast that gave it its power. They so clearly liked each other and liked working with each other it translated onto the screen.
- King of Queens – This is just a toss-in as I try to round out the list with 10. Kevin James, is consistently very funny, and casting Jerry Stiller as the maddeningly-eccentric father-in-law was inspired. He’s better here than he ever was in Seinfeld. Leah Remini works in her cynical role well. The show too frequently goes for the absurd scenario, and trying to pretend Remini wasn’t pregnant always felt a bit like an insult of the audience’s intelligence. But I laugh out loud at least once at almost every episode I see.
Without a Trace – Clever and emotionally charged. A strong cast really helps this one along,
Prison Break – Again, a strong cast and a fantastic shooting location give this one its grit, we’ll see how it holds up now that the prisoners are free.
Survivor – I’m not as religiously opposed to reality TV as some, and this show is not only the flagship, but was truly a precedent-setter in terms of creativity and production value. The games (“challenges”), cinematography, editing and even the music were always a boon to the spirit of the show. Ultimately, its concept merely ran out of steam. That’s the inherent problem with most reality TV, the concept is a large portion of its draw and when it gets tired...
The Family Guy - This show is a comedy train wreck. Horrifying and impossible to look away from.
Alias (first three seasons) – one of the first shows to take a gamble on its audience’s intelligence and win, this started out as a smart, fast moving spy thriller, the loss of the actress who played “Irina,” marked the beginning of the end for the show, and when Sydney had to battle city full of Zombies in the fourth season, it was clear Alias had jumped the shark.