1 – The Sopranos
An awe-inspiring piece of TV drama, this show took obvious influences from the likes of Goodfellas and proceeded to spend six seasons bettering them in every way. A great cast – augmented by guest appearances from people like Joey Pantoliano and Steve Buscemi – and a great story told with style and class made for a show that redefined what kind of quality you could get on television. And its uncompromising approach lasted right up to the gloriously gutsy and controversial ending. Watching it through a second time (four seasons so far) has reminded me of the quality and has lifted it just above The Wire.
2 – The Wire
Those who love The Wire, REALLY love it, and while it has become almost a cliche to say ‘it’s the best thing on telly’ in the last year, it’s a rare example of something that more than deserves the hype. Fans compare it to Dickens, Tolstoy and Greek tragedies, which all sounds very pompous, but in the case of this show, it’s the only way to describe it. The Wire tells the stories of a wide cast of characters in Baltimore, from the Mayor down to a homeless junkie, and it does so at its own pace and by its own rules. With some of America’s top crime authors joining the show’s creators (an ex-cop and an ex-journalist) each series is like a chapter in a novel, with a theme to each – the war on drugs, the plight of the working man, the machinations at City Hall, the failing school system and the media. The Wire really does live up to the hype and makes almost everything else on the small or big screen look a bit cheap, easy and hollow by comparison.
3 – Six Feet Under
The third HBO show in our top three, Six Feet Under is about death. People die in every episode and there’s a funeral in pretty much all of them too, which probably makes it sound very morbid, but yet the first season had some very funny moments as the recently deceased offered advice (or abuse) to the members of the Fisher family (or at least, they did in their imaginations, there were no ghosts in Six Feet Under). Gradually, this faded out as it became more and more driven by the characters and their lives, but the black humour was still as important as the more emotional scenes in a show that could make anyone with a soul cry at least once an episode.
4 – The West Wing
Compared to the three shows above, The West Wing looks a bit cosy and old-fashioned, but that doesn’t take away from how great it was, particularly at its peak. The first few seasons were a masterclass in snappy dialogue and ‘making politics interesting’, rattling along at such a pace that even if you didn’t understand the minutae of American domestic politics, that didn’t matter. With Martin Sheen as the ultimate liberal president and a welcome antidote to the real person doing the job, The West Wing may have gone into decline after creator Aaron Sorkin left, but even then it was still better than most.
5 – The Simpsons
There’s not a lot new that can be said about The Simpsons, and even though the quality has slipped over the years and the likes of South Park and Family Guy have offered challenges to its supremacy, it’s still the best comedy on TV, animated or otherwise. Most importantly, it’s also one of the most endlessly watchable shows around, a quick half hour of genius that can mostly be seen hundreds of times without losing its appeal or its laughs.
6 – Mad Men
There’s a Charlie Brooker clip that shows on More4 at the moment where he talks about how unimportant it was that he used to miss all the philosophical and literary references in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and Mad Men runs along the same lines. It’s chock full of highbrow stuff, but it really doesn’t matter if you don’t recognise them, because there’s plenty to enjoy on the side. It’s the epitome of cool, has fantastic characters, great music and intelligent storylines. What else do you need?
7 – The Shield
On the face of it, The Shield is just another of those cop shows that are ten-a-penny on TV, but this is no CSI, NCIS or, indeed, The Bill. How many of those would be brave enough to have their hero shoot a fellow policeman dead in cold blood in the first episode? Vic Mackey treads a precarious moral line, fighting the bad guys and bloodthirsty gangs while not being afraid to get his hands dirty when it comes to dodgy dealings. Guest stars like Glenn Close and Forest Whittaker only served to provide extra gravitas as the series raced towards a typically impressive finale.
8 – Homicide: Life On The Street
Based on David Simon’s book about the Baltimore Homicide department, you could see this as a precursor to The Wire, but that is not a particularly fair analysis. Made for a regular network channel, Homicide wasn’t given the free rein that HBO shows get, and it was messed around with far too much, but it still managed to rise above such issues with tough, gritty storylines, memorable characters and great acting. It may have looked like a police procedural, but was so much more than that.
9 – True Blood
I’ve only seen about eight or so episodes of the first series of this show, but it’s already well on its way to classic status. It may never reach the levels of Alan Ball’s last show (Six Feet Under), but there’s just so much to enjoy about his tale of vampires in Deep South America, with the love story of Sookie Stackhouse and Bill Compton having more depth in any single episode than that of Bella Swan and Edward Cullen across both Twilight films so far.
10 – The X-Files
Unfortunately, The X-Files did go on too long for its own good, and Chris Carter and his creative team have to take the blame for including so many twists and turns in the show’s alien mythology that you sense not even they knew what was going on at the end. However, the X-Files was often at its best when ignoring the aliens and letting Mulder and Scully investigate the darker fringes of American society, like the Fluke Man, the Peacock Family and Eugene Tooms, one of the scariest characters in any TV show anywhere, ever.
Opening credits do more than tell you who the actors are in a TV show, they tell you what to expect from it too. Some great shows have had lousy credits and some great credits have gone before lousy shows, but here's our Top 10, with video clips where YouTube will allow...