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Times Online: The 50 best US tv-shows

2009.04.16

50. Reaper

A fine example of slacker comedy with a hint of Ghostbusters and a little bit of Kevin Smith thrown in for good measure.

49. The Office

They took our show, changed it, and now they’re selling it back to us. To be honest, it’s a different beast entirely, but laugh out loud funny.

48. The Mentalist

I suspect Derren Brown is the second coming of Christ - if he turns water into wine at the next Channel 4 Christmas party I’m off to join his flock.

But surely he should be using his Jedi mind tricks for more than bewildering the masses. With great power comes great responsibility. Shouldn't Brown be campaigning for world peace, smoothing proceedings at the G20 or supporting Madge's latest adoption attempt? He could even help the police, exactly the premise behind this surprisingly decent hit US crime show.

47. Desperate Housewives

I’d personally rather smother my face in road kill than watch this dross. But having surpassed its 100th episode I begrudgingly admit Desperate Housewives makes the grade? just.

46. Californication

The show’s title says it all really as it’s set in the Sunshine State and David Duchovny shags pretty much anything that moves in an attempt to shake off Mulder's shackles. Beyond the filth (the show was received with outrage by some), it’s funny stuff with a superb performance from Mr X-Files himself.

45. Family Guy

The jokes are as tired as your granny after a particularly gruelling round of Bingo; but Seth MacFarlane’s pop-culture fuelled, low-brow animation has gained a cult following in UK, where DVD sales alone resurrected it from the network graveyard.

44. How I Met Your Mother

A personal favourite, the show doesn’t break any boundaries but sees Neil Patrick Harris, better known as Doogie Howser MD, on fine form.

43. Jericho

Commissioned in the post-Lost euphoria for all things serialised and kooky, this apocalyptic drama about a small Kansas town cut off from society after witnessing a series of nuclear explosions was a fan favourite. A viewer led campaign convinced execs to commission a second season.

42. Dead Like Me

Dark comedy that will have you laughing all the way to the gallows.

41. Damages

Ted Danson’s Arthur Frobisher, morally corrupt heart of this brilliant show, is about as complex and ambiguous a character as you’ll find in the current resurgence of US drama.

40. Weeds

An engaging comedy about a suburban widow who deals marijuana to support her family’s middle-class lifestyle after her husband’s demise; Weeds doesn’t pull the same kind of crowds as some of the other shows on our list, but it’s still worthy stuff.

39. Sex and the City

Women the world over worship at this cathedral to credit cards, Jimmy Choos and lunchtime Manhattans. Personally, I can’t see the show’s appeal, but then its fairytale isn’t designed for me, it’s designed for women who want to lunch, talk about sex and end up with guys called ‘Big’. What kind of name is ‘Big’ anyway? I’ve not watched much of the influential later work, but one imagines Carrie must have worked her way through tiny, sneazy, skinny, fatty and probably a whole host of similarly named men on her way to true love. What’s that? This one’s rich? Makes perfect sense now.

38. Chuck

Consistently funny, NBC’s spy drama has a sweet centre, which like all good chocolates, is the key to its success.

37. Pushing Daisies

Uniquely, Bryan Fuller’s sugar-coated drama is a mile away from almost anything else you’re likely to be served up on the small screen. It was a little too sickly to some though and sadly the axe fell earlier this year.

36. The Colbert Report

The presidential election proved rich pickings for both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. But where Jon Stewart has tailed off after Obama’s inauguration Colbert (the show’s fake host) continues to deliver armour-piercing satire at 50 paces.

35. Dollhouse

At first the new show from the brain of the brilliant Joss Whedon was a little disappointing as it struggled to hit its stride. But now it’s there, it’s shaping up to be a real hit so long as it can dodge the chop of the all too eager executioners over at Fox.

34. Nip Tuck

Sex, drugs, debauchery and a few facelifts thrown in for good measure. Over stylised, over thought and over the top it may be, but by God it’s good.

33. Scrubs

Apart from offering one of the best soundtracks this side of the jukebox in Happy Days, Scrubs is a beautifully heartfelt comedy with pathos and punchlines prescribed in equal measure. It’s been sullied by endless re-runs as E4 attempts to fill the time between series of Big Brother, but the show is proof, if evidence was needed, of the type of cerebral sitcom that America does best.

32. Friday Night Lights

How this show fails to get larger audiences is still beyond me. It isn’t your usual soppy teen soap opera and those that look beyond the football are rewarded with a dollop of enthralling drama about a community obsessed with the national sport.

31. Bones

If you struggle to find the line where TV stops and real life begins you’ll watch the endless supply of forensic police dramas in the innate belief that this is a sassy profession full of beautiful, brilliant sciencey action types. In the real world, you’re more likely to find a middle-aged cardigan wearer spending his nine to five swabbing for evidence. Back in Tellyland things are much more interesting, and this CSI / Time Team mash up is a step ahead of its contemporaries.

30. Heroes

The show’s recently got lost under the tsunami of its own stupidity; but its first season was a triumph. It wowed audiences the world over and gave birth to the pantomime villainy of Sylar (played superbly by future Spock Zachary Quinto) and Ando and Hiro, a sort of Japanese Morecambe and Wise except with superpowers.

29. Law & Order

Stands apart by showing us the process in its entirety from discovery of crime to outcome of trial. It’s been running 19 years now and has become somewhat of a phenomenon, spawning two spin offs and now a UK version, starring Bradley Walsh. A far cry from the grime and glamour of its Manhattan roots.

28. Gossip Girl

Some shows don’t put on heirs and graces; they know exactly what they are. Gossip Girl is a vacuous strumpet decked to the nines in her Gucci rags as she sidles along the high society of the Lower East Side. We know this and we still love it, which is why the show should be everyone’s guilty little secret.

27. Flight of the Conchords

"Formerly New Zealand's fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo accapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo", Flight of the Conchords’ comedy concoction was originally part of a BBC radio show before becoming an American TV hit. The second season has just finished in the States and will hit our screens later this year - complete with the best song about an epileptic dog you are ever likely to hear.

26. Breaking Bad

This is a curious but brilliant show about a chemistry teacher with inoperable lung cancer who turns to meth production as a means of breaking free from the shackles of life. There’s action aplenty, but the show’s melancholic, often-intelligent observations on life’s little details are what makes it worth the watch.

25. ER

Like Casualty on steroids. The emergency room drama was an on-screen birthing pool for the likes of George Clooney and Goran Visnjic. ER once broadcast a live episode and then did it again three hours later so west coast audiences wouldn’t miss out.

24. True Blood

If you like your vampires, HBO’s superb drama, based on the books of Charlaine Harris, is certainly something to sink your teeth into. Best of all, there’s not a pale Emo/Twilight type in sight.

23. House

Hugh Laurie is brilliant in a drama that has as much to do with mystery as it does with medicine. It’s a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic (including France). Did you know it’s partially based on Sherlock Holmes?

22. CSI

The most successful US export since McDonalds, Coca Cola and armed conflict. Even though the science is about as plausible as magic beans, CSI is hugely popular and has spawned an entire genre of procedural dramas.

21. 30 Rock

Both side-splittingly funny and wryly intelligent; Tina Fey’s look behind the scenes of a ‘Saturday Night Live’ style show is superb value. That the show survives at the cost of the equally enjoyable Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, is a shame, but an acceptable price to pay in these times of collateral damage and competitive schedules.

20. Entourage

I’d call it Sex and the City for men, which it is, only more interesting, better written, funnier, with notably less Sarah Jessica Parker. Even if you don’t like the sound of that, stop by for Jeremy Piven, whose supercharged portrayal of slimeball agent Ari Gold is one of the best characters on the box.

19. Brotherhood

Another walk on the dark side from America’s gritty drama production line.

18. John Adams

So who says Americans can’t do period drama? That’s what you hear from the great and the good of UK tellyland as they huddle together for safety in the halls of British terrestrial programming. Except, with John Adams, the American's showed they could do period pretty well. Period.

17. Six Feet Under

A weekly saga about the everyday lives of a family of undertakers doesn’t sound too gripping right? Wrong.

16. Deadwood

For a man who curses so much he’s got a Direct Debit to the swear jar, even I found the profanity on show in this gritty HBO western startling. But get past the language and Lovejoy (who stars), and you’ve got a gem of a show. With engaging characters, superb period features and a striking exploration of modern society, this western offers a whole lot more than showdowns and bar brawls, although it’s got a few of those too.

15. Dexter

A superb premise and a real post modern take on the current swathe of crime dramas.

14. Mad Men

I defy anyone to get through a single effortlessly cool episode without wanting to light up a smoke, or resist the urge to neck a Scotch. Those days are gone, except of course for the employees of Sterling Cooper, the fictional advertising agency in which Mad Men is based. Made by the relatively obscure AMC network, pointing to the depth of quality across schedules.

13. Arrested Development

The show that launched Michael Cera to awkward teenage fame is unlike any other sitcom that you’ve ever watched. Completely off the wall, and a wonderful way to waste half an hour.

12. Generation Kill

Iraq-set war drama from the makers of The Wire. Enough said.

11. Supernatural

The best thing to hit ITV2 since the last power cut: if you’re not watching this show, you really should be.

10. Curb Your Enthusiasm

The on rushing juggernaut that is Larry David’s comical ineptness provides entertainment one part hilarious, one part jaw clenchingly awkward. If you found David Brent difficult to watch in The Office, you’ll probably chew your own face off watching the former Seinfeld man’s fictional portrayal of himself. Look out for guest turns by Ted Danson and Steve Coogan and a superb episode starring Mel Brooks in one of the most over dramatic Broadway productions you’re ever likely to see.

9. The Shield

If you're not shocked by the sheer immortality and corruption of modern society, tune into The Shield to get up to speed. The Wire has often overshadowed The Shield, a gritty, dark and often disturbing show based on a notorious case of LAPD corruption, but it’s great stuff that deserves to be spoken in the same terms as David Simon’s masterpiece. There are no good guys in The Shield, no code of honour to live by; only brutal, shocking acts of violence conducted in a clapped out Los Angeles unrecognisable from The City of Angels Hollywood would have us believe.

8. South Park

The badly drawn boys of Colorado provide the canvas onto which Trey Parker and Matt Stone continue to spew the fettered musings of their politically incorrect minds. No stone is left unturned in their relentless satirisation of society and the show remains laugh out loud funny with a refreshing edginess even after nearly 200 episodes.

7. Lost

I don’t really know what’s going on, and to be honest neither do you. Nevermind, because J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi, mystery, conundrum thingamajig is pure water cooler entertainment.

6. The Simpsons

After all these years, new episodes of The Simpsons are still a joy to behold. Unless you’re watching Channel 4, in which case the pop culture references are probably as out dated as Betamax.

5. The West Wing

At one particular point television stopped becoming a dirty word for American actors. Rather than seeing TV as a career graveyard, leading talents were actively seeking out roles on the small screen. That moment was the critically acclaimed first season of The West Wing. Intelligent, fast paced and challenging, the show rewards you just for keeping up.

4. 24

Innovative in every sense of the word, 24 gave us ‘real-time’ drama and re-introduced split-screen decades after the technique was considered old hat. It was also one of the first major shows to disprove the widely held theory that US TV viewers had attention spans shorter than an episode of Friends spin-off Joey.

3. The Sopranos

While Britain provided a tidal wave of Cockney gangsters, America was busy producing one of the most critically and commercially successful shows in history. One of the key drivers behind the recent surge in brilliant drama on American networks, there is more quality packed into every second of The Sopranos minute-long title sequence than an eternity of Shane Ritchie Minder re-makes could ever hope to accomplish.

2. Battlestar Galactica

There are two types of viewer when it comes to Battlestar Galactica, those who think it’s brilliant and those who haven’t seen it yet. From unlikely beginnings, the show has given us four seasons of entertainment both epic and intimate, in the process bringing sci-fi back into the mainstream again. I’ve run out of superlatives for this brilliant show, which is every bit as rich and challenging as the best US dramas, but with explosions. Lots and lots of explosions.

1. The Wire

The Baltimore based cop show has received widespread praise from critics who fawn at its very mention. Believe the hype, it’s as good as you think it’s going to be, probably better, and well worth checking out (The Wire is currently showing on BBC2 every night). Be warned, episodes are like Pringles, and perfectly reasonable people have been debilitated into muttering “just one more” as they rock back and forth in their pyjamas after an extended Baltimore-fest.

 

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