So far, the 21st century has been a golden age for TV lovers. Over the past few decades we’ve been treated to some of the most gripping dramas and hilarious comedies of all time. It’s no surprise that renowned filmmakers have embraced the small screen for the long form storytelling it offers. The box-set TV format gives showrunners the opportunity to let epic sagas play out at their own pace with the financial resources to match many blockbuster movies.
The 90s was also undoubtedly a great period for TV, with the likes of The Simpsons, Friends, The West Wing, The X-Files, ER and Seinfeld all standing out as landmark shows that left a lasting impact. However, while the 90s was arguably the decade where the sitcom was king, the 21st Century has seen a definite move towards high quality TV drama.
The change in how we consume TV, with a shift first to the box-set and more recently to online content providers such as Netflix, has seen a marked rise in both the quantity and quality of scripted TV shows.
Some shows have left a far greater mark than others however. These are the ones that will stand the test of time and have made a lasting impact on their own genre and beyond.
With that in mind, here are the ten most important shows of the modern era:
10. Lost (2004-2010)
It speaks volumes of Lost’s confounding nature that even eight years on from its finale, fan opinion is still so wildly split over how it concluded. It was after all a show that entertained and frustrated in equal measure. Nevertheless, at its peak, the show was an engrossing and challenging mystery that made a sensational impact on TV audiences.
Bringing mythology and riddle-laden plotlines to the fore, Lost’s labyrinthine central mysteries may not have all been fully explained, but it wasn’t intended to be a show that wrapped everything up nice and neatly. Loose-ends and head-scratchers were very much part of its dynamic.
Lost put its huge budget to great use and always looked particularly striking. Thanks to its strong ensemble cast, it also managed to tell a host of compelling personal stories within its dense narrative. Its main legacy however lies in the impact it had upon its fanbase, forcing them to act as detective and try to piece together what its various reveals and misdirects (smoke monsters and all) truly meant.
The use of flashes forwards, back and even sideways also broke new ground in a show that may not have been conventional, but whose unpredictable nature kept fans coming back week after week.
9. Band of Brothers (2001)
Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ World War Two drama was HBO at its very best. The ten-part miniseries was an utterly immersive look at the experiences of American soldiers during the Second World War. The show stuck with the paratroopers of Easy Company from their formation and jump training, through their fierce combat experience and on to the final days of the war. Harrowing and powerful, the show remains arguably the finest piece of TV war drama to date.
The show was wonderfully put together, not just in terms of its cast and gripping interconnecting plotlines, but also on a practical level, the production design and cinematography was spectacular. The use of real-life Easy Company survivors as talking heads at the start of each episode was also a masterstroke.
One area where the show really excels is its attempts to convey the sheer terror of battle. Episodes such as ‘Bastogne’ and ‘Breaking Point’ pull no punches and show the horrific conditions these young soldiers faced.
The “miniseries” is undoubtedly a very different beast to a regular ongoing multi-season show and by its very nature they tend to deliver a far tighter story. Band of Brothers truly raised the bar for this format however and showed just how powerful such a series could be. With its incredible scope and distinctly cinematic sensibilities, it a true one-of-a-kind show.
8. The Daily Show (1996-)
Under Jon Stewart’s leadership, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show redefined late night TV in America. Bringing cutting edge satire firmly to the fore, the show blended humour with wry social comment and in the process became a trusted political voice.
While it started initially as a spoof news show, The Daily Show grew into a bastion of trusted comment that, at its best, could be utterly devastating. Coming into its own during the Bush years, Stewart and his team became a much needed liberal voice that doggedly held the nation’s leaders to account.
Another telling aspect of the show’s legacy is the fact that a huge number of current high-profile satirists and presenters got their break as part of The Daily Show’s news team with Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Steve Carrell and Samantha Bee being just four of its notable alumni.
The Daily Show brought hard-hitting social commentary into the mainstream, and in the process played a significant role in re-engaging an entire generation with politics.
7. Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009)
Ronald D. Moore’s reimagining of the popular 1970s show of the same name proved that not only was there still a market for innovative new space adventures, but also, if done right, a reboot could actually far surpass an original.
Forged in post-9/11, Bush-era America, this Battlestar wasn’t just well-crafted sci-fi, but also a pointed critique of American foreign policy. Questions over the moral rights and wrongs of warfare, from torture to suicide bombings, were keenly utilised throughout. With the deadly ‘Cylons’ now designed to resemble humans, it also tapped into broader philosophical questions of consciousness and existence itself.
Battlestar Galactica was also remarkably grounded given its premise. This was gritty futuristic drama with little or no sheen or glamour involved. Despite tailing off slightly towards its end, Battlestar demonstrated that a sci-fi show could not only be new and inventive, but also still make a powerful comment on our own society.
6. Mad Men (2007-2015)
AMC’s flagship drama was a sumptuously designed look at the advertising industry set against the backdrop of a rapidly changing 1960s America. The sense of change and progress that swept across American society at that time, with dramatic shifts in mentality towards family values and women’s rights, was utilised perfectly by showrunner Matthew Weiner.
The show’s production design and cinematography was also exemplary, with its sense of period style, complete with copious amounts of sex, liquor and cigarettes, a huge selling point. Mad Men is also blessed with superb lead performances from the likes of Jon Hamm as Don Draper, the arch ad-man with a shady past, and Elisabeth Moss’s driven trend-setter Peggy Moss.
While the slow pace may have put some people off, for fans it merely allowed for more time to revel in the subtle nuances of each minor character development. It could be pensive and poignant and then thrilling and shocking, all in the blink of an eye. Mad Men was a captivating look at how the American dream was sold to a generation.
5. The Office – UK (2001-2003)
Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s hilarious sitcom can make a pretty solid case for being the most influential comedy series of the 21st century thus far. It honed an entire new format of comedy show, the so called mockumentary style, and perfected the use of “cringe” comedy in the process. It was also an undoubtedly exaggerated but nevertheless entirely relatable slice of real life for anyone who has ever worked in an office environment.
The Office took an innovative new format and combined it with an uncanny ability to be both incredibly witty and unapologetically silly at the same time. What made it really stand out from the crowd however was that it also managed to deliver poignant moments the likes of which few other comedy shows could hope to deliver.
The Christmas specials in particular were filled with amazing moments, but perhaps none more so than the spine-tingling resolution of one of TV’s greatest ever love stories. Fresh, funny and incredibly rewatchable, The Office forever raised the bar as to what a sitcom could be.
4. Breaking Bad (2008-2013)
One of the most addictive shows of the modern era , Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad delivered nail-biting tension on a frighteningly regular basis. Much like The Sopranos before it, the show focused squarely on a conflicted anti-hero making their money and protecting their family in whatever way they could. In this case, it was Bryan Cranston’s Walter White and his turbulent shift from cancer-stricken family man to fearsome drugs kingpin.
Part of what made the show so compelling was watching exactly how far Walt is willing to go in order to cement his legacy. With almost every episode, the stakes were raised and he pulled everyone around him further into the mire. Cranston is phenomenal in the lead role, delivering a career-best performance which sees him veer from affable family man to terrifying criminal in seconds.
Few shows mastered the art of the cliffhanger like Breaking Bad. In the binge-watch era, it repeatedly shifted you to the edge of your seat and implored you to just watch one more episode before calling it a day. Tension, twists and crackling dialogue all combined to produce perfect box-set TV.
3. The Wire (2002-2008)
David Simon’s The Wire was an expansive five season saga, with each season offering a new focus point in the story of Baltimore’s war on crime. Thanks to this format, the show painted an incredibly immersive portrait of an entire city’s worth of good guys, bad guys and morally questionable antiheroes. Everyone from determined cops and crooked politicians to dutiful journalists and streetwise thugs played their part. It was these different viewpoints that were so integral in making The Wire such a distinctive crime drama.
No punches were pulled in the drama that unfolded and The Wire was a show where nobody escaped justice forever; no matter which side of the law they found themselves on. The show’s commitment to realism ensured its stinging critiques of the American justice system resonated all the more powerfully. The vast interconnecting story arcs and huge ensemble cast gave the show a depth and completeness that few others can hope to match.
A decade on, The Wire remains as fresh, unique and vital as ever.
2. Game of Thrones (2011-)
Season-spanning plotlines, gripping twists and an enormous cast filled with vicious antiheroes and warring families. Game Of Thrones took the blueprint of the likes of The Sopranos and uniquely transported the action over to the fantasy genre.
Based on George R R Martin’s immensely popular book series, ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’, HBO’s big budget gamble paid off handsomely and demonstrated that there was unquestionably a market for a large-scale fantasy series. In its wake, a run of similarly styled swords-and-sorcery shows has followed, but none have come close to Game Of Thrones for sheer gripping drama.
It can’t be underestimated just how popular Game Of Thrones is at this stage. Over the course of seven seasons it has gone from cult favourite to a bona fide global phenomenon. The show has become so popular, it’s now a firm part of the modern cultural zeitgeist, arguably even more so than any other show on this list.
Game of Thrones is primarily a twisting political thriller, filled with the expected maneuverings and betrayals. However, it’s also a great action-adventure story which has set an impressive new benchmark when it comes to large-scale action sequences on TV. The show also deserves great credit for firmly instilling in viewers a sense that any character, no matter how major they appear and how famous the actor is who plays them, is expendable.
1. The Sopranos (1999-2007)
Perhaps more than any other show, The Sopranos helped to usher in the current era of high quality, grand-scale TV drama. David Chase’s crime epic was a sprawling six season saga that combined incredible performances with deftly plotted season-spanning storylines.
Benefiting from appearing on cable-channel HBO, The Sopranos could take far more risks than its rivals on network television. Chase was able to create a show that was unflinching in its depiction of the violent nature of mob life. At the centre of it all of course was James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. The late actor gave an incredible performance and in the process created one of the greatest TV characters of all time. The show delivers a masterful study into Tony’s conflicted life in which he is permanently torn between his two families.
The Sopranos demonstrated that there was an audience for a thoughtful and character-driven crime drama rather than simply another conventional weekly procedural. It also provided a new spin on the life of the mobster compared to that typically seen in the movies. In The Sopranos, the day-to-day side of the gangster lifestyle, complete with the pressures of family life, was brought to the fore.
A one-of-a-kind show, The Sopranos was a glorious trailblazer for complex and intricately plotted TV drama.