List: my favourite TV shows of all time

This list is about my favourite TV shows of all time. You know, the ones you watch and then have to watch from the beginning right away as soon as you finish them. And then over the years you watch them again and again and again and again. And you’re not interested in watching anything else because everything else is not this TV show, which you are obsessed with. That is what this list is about.

Some notes on the criteria of this list:

  • There really isn’t one, it’s entirely subjective and down to my personal taste
  • I have chosen an individual series from each TV show because we all know that quality can vary series to series and this is a better representation of why each is great. However, if I was to recreate the list again on the strength of the entire show, I don’t think the list would change much
  • Yes, I am saying series not season. I am English. I’m sure you can manage
  • There are many shows that I know are meant to be great but I haven’t yet seen (The Wire, The Sopranos, The West Wing, to name but a few). One day I will, and it is possible they will usurp a worthy entry on this list. Who knows
  • Some entries may be surprising, shocking, or even upsetting to the casual reader. Feel free to shout at me in the comments or on social media

10. Fleabag (Series 2)

I fretted over kicking off a certain McConaughey-led detective series to include Fleabag on this prestigious list instead. Not because Fleabag isn’t fantastic – it is one of the funniest, clever and moving TV series I have seen in a very long time (and hitting all three points simultaneously is no mean feat). I fretted because I have watched it so recently and what if I am placing it on this list with rose tinted glasses? But it is so good I feel confident that, in fact, if I come back to this list in a year’s time I am sure I will not only not regret putting Fleabag on this list but I will regret not putting it higher. Now I am fretting about that.

Created by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge – and based on her original play – Fleabag centres around a woman trying to cope with the guilt of a recent tragedy and her less-than-helpful family. Series 2 sees the introduction of Andrew Scott as the “hot priest”.

Key achievements:
The funniest recent comedy on TV. Use of breaking the fourth wall that is both hilarious and – at times – unsettling, in a way that even Deadpool would be jealous of. Best representation of guilt on TV. The only time Catholicism has been sexy. Best use of Olivia Coleman in anything. Only UK TV show to make this list (the shame!).

9. The Simpsons (Series 6)

By all rights, The Simpsons should be #1 on this list, and every list. For the first ten series alone, it is probably the greatest show of all time. I am now having serious doubts about this list. OK, I am sticking with it at #9 because this is my *current* favourite shows. I am making this up as I go along.

I’m not sure if Series 6 is the best series of The Simpsons, all of the early series are in pretty tough competition. I chose it because it has my favourite episode, Treehouse of Horror V (the one with The Shinning). But looking through, this series has plenty of classic episodes to make a strong case for it being the best, like Itchy and Scratchy Land, Homer Badman, Fear of Flying, And Maggie Makes Three and of course Who Shot Mr. Burns? Part One.

If you haven’t watched The Simpsons, I don’t even want you to read any further.

Key achievements:
The best animated TV series of all time. The origin of a large portion of my sense of humour and the jokes I make day-to-day.

8. Daredevil (Series 1)

I have strongly considered doing a seperate “in defence of the Netflix-Marvel TV shows” blog. But honestly, I can’t bring myself to watch Series 2 of Luke Cage or The Punisher so I’d feel like a hypocrite. It is a crying shame that none of the series that followed ever lived up to the promise of the first series of Daredevil. But taken on its own, Daredevil Series 1 is by far the best superhero adaptation that has ever graced the small screen AND if I were to include Marvel TV shows in my ranking of the MCU, Daredevil Series 1 would make the top five. For context, that would place it above all of the Avengers films. I am just totally there for a superhero whose greatest enemy is Catholic guilt.

Matt Murdock, a blind lawyer from Hell’s Kitchen (NYC) fights for justice with his wits in the courts by day and with his fists in dark alleys at night. The next day, he usually contemplates his soul with a priest.

Key achievements:
The first series of Daredevil was everything a Marvel TV show should be:
1. It was the origin of a likeable, complex and empathetic superhero who has actual superpowers but is resoundingly human. Matt bleeds, he struggles, he doubts himself, all portrayed brilliantly and utterly convincingly by Charlie Cox
2. It had a fantastic villain in Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk (Kingpin) who the showrunners rightly brought back as the main antagonist for Series 3, realising that 100 million ninjas would never be as terrifying as Fisk in a mood
3. It took advantage of being on Netflix and did things that the Marvel films cannot do – like have proper blood, gore and death and, therefore, real stakes – introducing us to a darker, more gritty corner of the MCU
4. On the same lines, it used the smaller scale of its format to its advantage with a wholly different type of action sequence. Rather than airships falling from the sky, whole cities collapsing, and CGI creatures pounding on each other, Daredevil delivered something altogether more visually compelling with boxing and martial arts. The pinnacle of which is, of course, the infamous hallway sequence:

7. House (Series 2)

The greatness of House is only undermined by the fact that I can only watch so many episodes in a row before convincing myself that I am dying of some mysterious, undiagnosed disease. House was elevated by Hugh Laurie, the amazing supporting cast (I am going to give a special shout out here to the under-appreciated Robert Sean Leonard as Wilson), and writing that went beyond the call of duty for the “mystery an episode” format. I chose Series 2 firstly, because I prefer the original team of Cameron, Chase and Foreman and secondly, because it has my favourite episodes – Euphoria 1 & 2.

Gregory House is a medical genius/arsehole who diagnoses out-of-the-ordinary illnesses with the help of his team.

Key achievements:
The only “procedural” on this list. Most sarcastic character. “Taught” me about a lot of diseases I should fear. Thanks to House, I can explain Lupus to a degree of proficiency.

6. Friday Night Lights (Series 1)

I find Friday Night Lights a hard one to sell into people. A TV show about a Texan high school football team, the Dillon Panthers, doesn’t sound like something many people (especially British people) would be into. Hell, it doesn’t sound like something I’d be into. But what you have to know is that Friday Night Lights is about much more than that. It’s about living in a small town. It’s about living in the bible belt. It’s about ambition. It’s about disability. It’s about social responsibility. It tackles racism, sexism, traditional family dynamics. Dillon, Texas is just the setting.

It’s also one of those TV shows where everyone involved was at the top of their game – Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton, Taylor Kitsch as Big Tim Riggins (Texas forever), Brian “smash” Williams played by Gaius Charles and then of course there are the likes of Jesse Plemons and Michael B. Jordan who FNL set up to be massive stars.

A small Texas town obsessed with the high school football team becomes unravelled when the star quarterback breaks his neck during a game.

Key achievements:
The State Championship. Filled a spot in my heart that The OC left. A show about sports that is good.

5. Dollhouse (Series 2)

I had to think long and hard about which Whedon show I’d put on this list, as I decided I should only have one. I’ve chosen Dollhouse because it gets none of the revere Firefly does, which it rightly deserves. For any listeners of the Pilot TV podcast – this would be my Banshee.

Dollhouse is the TV programme I evangelise to people. And everyone I have shown it to, no matter what their TV preferences, has loved it. The premise is genius in itself (see synopsis below) and could well have been gold for 7-8 more series (but of course, because it is Whedon, it was cancelled after one and they were allowed to conclude a second). But the fundamental reason why it is so good is because it is Joss Whedon doing what he does best: an ensemble story. Echo, Boyd, Topher, Victor, Sierra, Adelle, Paul, Dr Saunders, even Alpha. I can think of no characters I love more in a TV show. And I can’t even begin to tell you what all of these characters go through in just two series. Do yourself a favour and just watch it.

Brace yourself: an organisation has the technology to wipe human minds and implant different personalities and skills. The “dolls” in the “dollhouse” voluntarily sign up their bodies for two years, in exchange for vast sums of money, where they are rented out to paying clients for everything from sexual fantasies to bank robberies. But how much of the human soul remains?

Key achievements:
Taught me the US military alphabet code. Brought a horrifying idea to its logical conclusion. A vastly superior version of the Westworld TV series (but long before that came out).

4. The Haunting of Hill House (Series 1)

My ravings on why The Haunting of Hill House is so good have their own dedicated blog, which you can read here. As with Fleabag, I am nervous to put such a recent series this high up on this list. But, this whole list was inspired by me wondering what TV shows I have enjoyed as much as The Haunting of Hill House, so that has to count for something.

A young family move into a house. The house is haunted. As adults, the grown up children try to understand the trauma of their past. The house is still haunted.

Key achievements:
A horror TV series that was genuinely scary and made sense within its own internal logic. A one shot sequence better than Daredevil. I now look for hidden ghosts in every TV show I watch. I haven’t slept soundly for weeks.

3. Stranger Things (Series 1)

A coming of age story? That’s also a sci-fi horror? Set in the ‘80s? In small-town America? And Series 1 features a Joy Division cover? If Stranger Things is the product of some sinister Netflix data analytics that has been tracking my every movement, purchase and opinion from birth – I am not even mad about it.

With a spate of child disappearances in a small town, a police chief and a group of teens become suspicious that something unusually and sinister is afoot.

Key achievements:
Makes me feel nostalgic for a decade I didn’t live through. Best use of Christmas lights. Out It-ed It. Out Spielberg-ed Spielberg.

2. Game of Thrones (Series 1)

No points for guessing that this would be on this list but really, how could I not. When I talk about shows that I watch again and again and again, this is really what I mean. But I do think a lot of people wouldn’t pick out series 1 as their favourite(?). As you might have already gathered from this list – I am a fan of the first series of shows. For me, it is almost always the best because it has the fun of establishing the character dynamics, the story lines are fresh, and the characters have not yet fallen into their tropes.

Beyond that, I think we just can’t forget that Series 1 made Game of Thrones the phenomenon it became. All the things people like most about Game of Thrones – the political intrigue, the subtlety, the high production value, the action sequences and the fact that it was unpredictable – were all there from day one. While some of those aspects have heightened over the preceding series (action and production value) others, I would argue, have decreased (political intrigue, subtlety, unpredictability). And for my money, those were the more virtuous attributes. So I urge you, if you haven’t already, to go back and enjoy that first series again. The North remembers.

A tiff between two noble families bring the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros to war.

Key achievements:
Most shocking character death(s). Best Direwolves. Best Drogo. Best world-building. Best phrase-making (Winter is Coming).

1. The OC (Series 1)

If you’ve made it this far, The OC may not have been what you expected to see. You probably thought Breaking Bad didn’t you. Not today my friend.

I was 13 when my friend lent me his DVD copy of Series 1 of The OC. I played it in my Playstation 2, and had to lie with my head at the foot of my bed to watch it, as that was the only way I could see the bulky black TV/VHS I had on a bracket in the top corner of my room. No idea why we decided to put it in that corner. I watched the whole thing in about 24 hours are have done so again many, many times since.

With that picture painted, you may imagine why The OC is such an important TV show, seeing my through my formative teen years. And the great thing about The OC was that it was a cultural phenomenon, not just a TV show. It was famous for its soundtrack and having live bands on the show, which introduced us to the likes of Death Cab for Cutie, Bright Eyes, The Killers, Rooney, The Walkmen, Imogen Heap, to name just a very few. It made comic books cool many years before the first MCU film. It encouraged me to get rid of the awful short haircut everyone was rocking in the early 2000s and grow my hair. It’s where I first heard of On the Road.

Bar the fourth, forgotten, black sheep series, it was also an outstanding achievement in writing. Sure, there were the usual teen drama tropes. There was an overdose, prison, alcoholism, afairs, teen suicide, murder, stalkers. Sure. But I say with not a hint of irony that framed against the backdrop of Orange County, and the brilliantly drawn out characters, these storylines made absolute sense. The idea of dropping a disadvantaged kid in one of the richest and most privileged environments in the world, and watching the ripples this stone on the surface makes in the water, is such a good one. And the Oliver ark from Series 1 is probably my favourite TV storyline of all time.

When the Cohens take a juvenile delinquent into their home in the OC, it becomes apparent that Newport beach is not as perfect as it seems on the surface

Key achievements:
Made indie music loving, comic book nerds sexy for a short period of time (for some reason that is harder than Catholicism). Invented a national holiday (Christmukkah). Had some cracking lines that just give you the shivers:

Honourable mentions to:

Black Mirror, Breaking Bad, Castle, Doctor Who, Fargo, Firefly, Friends, Life on Mars, Modern Family, The Office (US), True Detective and tens of other great shows I have watched but forgotten or not mentioned here: I salute you!

Did you enjoy this blog, a TV show that features on it, or have opinions of your own? Please share on your social medium of choice! @Shoot_thePoets

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