Movies and TV shows have been a great interest of Kelley's since he was a kid, and he's written many articles about them.
Some enthusiasts and critics consider the turn of the 21st century as the new Golden Age of TV.
All of these series have won at least one award and most are (or were) broadcast by showing scores of episodes. Series are rated by the total of their awards, which usually equates with critical acclaim, praise, and popularity.
Now let’s begin the countdown!
22. Ray Donovan
Years: 2013 to 2020
Liev Schreiber plays Ray Donovan, a fixer who works in the Los Angeles area, and then moves to NYC for seasons six and seven. Stoic and laconic, in the ilk of such cinematic tough guys as Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood, Donovan seems capable of “fixing” just about any task, particularly if it involves threatening people, damaging property, cleaning up a crime scene or collecting debts, and if he ever comes at you wielding a baseball bat—you better run! John Voight plays Mickey Donovan, Ray’s father who, once he’s unexpectedly released from prison, must partake of just about every vice. And, while the FBI tries to return Mickey to prison, Ray must do what he can to protect his wayward dad. After all, family trumps the law, right?
Little Known Fact: In an interview on Stephen Colbert’s late-night TV show in 2019, Liev Schreiber said he sometimes apologizes to his two children when he brings home his Ray Donovan persona, essentially becoming an a-hole around the house.
Years: 2007 to 2014
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Californication shows life in California as it really is! Well, maybe not how it really is, but perhaps how people would like to think it is in the reputed land of decadence, where at least some eccentric, hedonistic folks behave as if every day were their last. The show stars David Duchovny as Hank Moody, a troublesome, hard partying writer who writes well when he can write what he wants, but refuses to be a hack in the Hollywood script mill. By the way, Hank tries to be a good role model for his daughter Becca, but nearly always fails, naturally. The series is filled with instances of sex, drugs, f-word laced dialogue and the rock and roll culture, providing titillation for enthusiasts of such TV fare.
Little Known Fact: The Red Hot Chili Peppers released the hit single “Californication” in 1999, and when the Showtime series premiered in 2007, the band filed a lawsuit saying Showtime couldn’t use that name for their series. But Showtime proved the word was used in 1972, when Time published the article, “The Great Wild Californicated West.” The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court.
20. Black Sails
Years: 2014 to 2017
Written as a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Treasure Island, this series takes place in the early 1700s, when real life pirates such as Ann Bonny, Jack Rackham, Charles Vane and Blackbeard—all of whom fictionalized on the series—vie for control of New Providence Island in the Bahamas. British actor Toby Stephens plays Captain J. Flint, a former British naval officer turned pirate. The plot revolves around Flint’s seizure of the treasure from the Urca de Lima, a Spanish treasure galleon. Flint tries to keep the treasure for himself and his cohorts and also avoid being hanged by the Spanish or British. "Not even a guilty pleasure, Black Sails is arrrrrr-estingly good," wrote Jeff Jensen of Entertainment Weekly.
Little Known Fact: Considered a very authentic show solidly based on historical fact, it required an army of 300 workers just to build one ship, though some ships were rendered using CGI techniques, a much cheaper option, it seems.
Years: 2004 to 2011
Entourage is a dramedy about four young men from Queens, New York City, who move to Hollywood hoping to pursue their dreams of acting in movies and/or helping actors and writers get work. Of course, they also hope to chase hot chicks and attend every party. Adrian Grenier plays Vincent Chase, a handsome, suave, debonair, young man with the talent to star in movies. By the way, virtually every shot in the series includes beautiful women, and the number of celebrity cameos on the show is very impressive. The series is loosely based on the experiences of executive producer Mark Wahlberg. The show won four Primetime Emmy Awards, three of which by Jeremy Pevin, who plays Ari Gold, the manager of the largest talent agency in LA.
Little Known Fact: In 2015, after multiple delays going back to 2012, Entourage, the movie, was released. But the film—produced, written and directed by Doug Ellin (creator of the series)—was generally panned by critics and made only $10 million more than it cost to produce it.
18. Band of Brothers
Based on a nonfiction book by Stephen B. Ambrose, and created with the help of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, both of whom worked on Saving Private Ryan (1998), Band of Brothers dramatizes the battle exploits of Easy Company in the 101st First Airborne Division during the European theater of WWII. With the help of veterans from Easy Company to provide firsthand experiences and accuracy, and using a cast of scores of actors, the miniseries follows the action during parachute training at Camp Toccoa in Georgia, and then the Normandy Invasion, the liberation of a Nazi death camp, the capture of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest in Germany and many other battles and gut-wrenching encounters. The miniseries won seven Primetime Emmy Awards and is perhaps the greatest WWII drama to appear on TV.
Little Known Fact: At the time, Band of Brothers cost more to make than any TV miniseries ever produced by any network; it had a total budget of $125 million— $12.5 million per episode!
17. Curb Your Enthusiasm
Years: 2000 to 2011 and 2017 to present
Writer Larry David plays himself in a sitcom that explores the aggravation and frustration of living in contemporary in L.A. On the show, David has many ideas, misconceptions and convictions that often irritate others. He is also very outspoken and opinionated, especially when criticizing people and voicing complaints in mundane situations, an attitude that seems to get him into constant trouble. The co-creator of Seinfeld, a similar kind of sitcom, David outlines each story and then the episodes are filmed using a single-camera, cinéma vérité technique, and only improvised dialogue is exercised. David Gillota penned: “As a true schlemiel, Larry's failures serve as a direct challenge to the status quo and encourages viewers to question the myriad unwritten rules that we follow in our everyday lives.”
Little Known Fact: Galus Australis magazine, published in Australia, praised the show for being even more Jewish than the Seinfeld series, a feat of some magnitude indeed. However, on Curb, the Larry David character, a Jewish man, hates going to church and never prays.
Years: 2005 to 2012
Weeds is a comedy-drama starring Mary Louise-Parker as Nancy Botwin, a mother of two boys who grows and sells pot in order to pay the bills. Appearing as a kind of antihero, Botwin tries to maintain a middle class lifestyle just like all the other people living in suburbia’s “little boxes,” as they’re called in the series. As the episodes roll on, Botwin become more and more involved in unlawful activity. At first, the series takes place in the fictitious city of Agrestic in L.A., and then Botwin moves about the country when law enforcement gets close to shutting down her “business.” Weeds is a controversial show—since it seems to encourage drug use. Be that as it may, back in the day, it and Dexter, were considered the most popular series on Showtime.
Little Known Fact: Jenji Kohan, creator of Weeds, said this about leaked episodes of Weeds and other Showtime Series illegally shown on the internet: "Revenue aside, I don't expect to get rich on Weeds. I'm excited it's out there. Showtime is great, but it does have a limited audience.”
15. The Wire
Years: 2002 to 2008
Written by police reporter David Simon, this series is about the crime-ridden sections of Baltimore, Maryland. It concentrates on various aspects of law enforcement in the city, particularly fighting the war on drugs. The title of the series refers to what evidence police have to provide for a judge to approve wire taps or other surveillance techniques needed to bust drug lords and their subordinates. The show stars Dominic West as Detective Jimmy McNulty, whose rebellious attitude and personal problems often lead to trouble. The show also uses scores of every day citizens, many of whom African Americans who try to survive in Baltimore’s bleak, inner-city environment. Entertainment Weekly named The Wire the best TV show of 2004, calling it "the smartest, deepest and most resonant drama on TV."
Little Known Fact: The creator of the show, David Simon, thinks the war on drugs will fail because it has become a war against America’s underclass, such as many of Baltimore’s civilians portrayed on The Wire. He also claims that “raw capitalism in the absence of social change is destined to serve the few at the expense of the many.”
14. Tracey Takes On
Years: 1996 to 1999
Tracey Ullman starred on The Tracey Ullman Show, broadcast by Fox on standard cable from 1987 to 1990—but she didn’t like the format. Tracey Takes On was Tracey Ullman’s first American sketch comedy series produced on HBO, which gave Ullman a chance to appear with a continuing cast of characters and express a point of view; and she could also do so by playing multiple characters—all by herself, surprising numerous folks! HBO also gave Ullman much more artistic freedom than she’d had before; she could now play gay characters, for instance. No matter what program or network is involved, Tracey Ullman can impersonate an astonishing range of characters, a talent that seems to have few equals in the present TV comedy industry.
Little Known Fact: Having makeup applied to one’s face can be tedious and even dangerous. Ullman said, “Once I inhaled so much remover that I passed out on the makeup room floor. I was resuscitated and went out to give a terrific performance, even though I can't remember being there." She’s described having large amounts of makeup applied her face as being buried alive.
Years: 2018 to present
The latest installment of TV Drama 101, if you will, is Succession, starring Brian Cox as Logan Roy, the head of Waystar RoyCo, a billion-dollar multinational entertainment and media conglomerate. Roy rules the company like an autocrat and isn’t afraid to browbeat anyone, while slinging profanity and insults as if they were rocks aimed at one’s head. Logan Roy has four children, all of whom vie for the favoritism of their tyrannical father, whose health is in decline and probably should be replaced ASAP—but only heir-apparent Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) seems ready to square off with Dad and try to seize control of the company. In general, critics love the show’s byzantine machinations, backstabbing tactics, snarky remarks and the exotic locales of the filthy rich.
Little Known Fact: Jesse Armstrong, the show’s creator, made the Waystar RoyCo appear as one of many financial powerhouses located on Wall Street in Lower Manhattan. He also fictionalized the Roy family so they’d resemble super rich families such as the Murdochs, Redstones or Sulzbergers.
Years: 2016 to present
This show is a science-fiction TV series based on a movie written and directed by Michael Crichton. The series takes place in an AI-controlled world where rich guests have Wild-West adventures with androids or “hosts.” The guests can do whatever they want with the androids, including destroy them; but the androids can’t harm or kill people. Gradually, some of the androids develop advanced intelligence and may use telepathy and/or telekinesis. The quest of these extraordinary androids is to escape to the outside world. Unfortunately, at times the plot is hard to follow. James Poniewozik of The New York Times said, "It's an ambitious, if not entirely coherent, sci-fi shoot-’em-up that questions nihilistic entertainment impulses while indulging them."
Little Known Fact: Created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Roy, the series generally takes the point of view of the hosts, whose minds resemble those of humans, whose brains have separate hemispheres controlling thought and action. And, for inspiration, Nolan and Roy have studied video games such as the Grand Theft Auto games, BioShock Infinite and Red Dead Redemption.
Years: 2014 to present
Based on a series of novels by Diana Gabaldon, this historical fantasy is led by Caitriona Balfe, who plays Claire Randall, a nurse during WWII who, while visiting Scotland, touches a standing stone that transports her back to England in 1745. Then Randall meets and falls in love with Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), a Highland warrior from the Clan Fraser of Lovat that’s fighting in the Jacobite rising. Randall marries Fraser but warns him the rebellion will fail. Randall and Fraser, aided by time travel, find themselves enmeshed in various conflicts—even the American Revolutionary War. The show has received generally good reviews and has been favorably compared to Game of Thrones. The Independent wrote: “It’s a time-travelling, wish-fulfillment fantasy, but it's done with such flair and attention to detail that it's impossible not to hop on board for the ride.”
Little Known Fact: In 2015, Caitriona Balfe won a Saturn Award for Best Actress on Television; and, in 2017, Sam Heughan won a People’s Choice Award for Favorite Sci-Fi Fantasy TV Actor.
Years: 2006 to 2013
Dexter begins with a twist: The protagonist is a vigilante serial killer! Michael C. Hall plays Dexter Morgan, a forensic technician working for the Miami Police Dept. Dexter hunts and kills series killers that have avoided capture or punishment because of corruption or legal technicalities. In perhaps the show’s greatest season, John Lithgow plays Arthur Mitchell, a deacon and family man, who lives a double life as the Trinity Killer, who kills his victims three at a time by subjecting them to bizarre, sadistic torture and death. But Dexter eventually tracks down Mitchell and—in order to trick Mitchell into lowering his guard—tells Mitchell that he, Dexter, is also a serial killer! It could be said the show is so authentic and compelling it has influenced many real life serial killers who speak of that “Dexter character.”
Little Known Fact: Despite protests by the Parents Television Council (PTC), CBS has shown an edited TV-14 version of Dexter. The president of PTC said, “It should remain on a premium subscription cable network, because the series compels viewers to empathize with a serial killer, to root for him to prevail, to hope he doesn't get discovered.”
Years: 2011 to 2020
Homeland is an espionage thriller based on the Israeli series Prisoners of War. Claire Danes stars as Carrie Mathison, a CIA officer with bipolar disorder and various emotional issues, who works in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center; and Damian Lewis stars as Nicholas Brody, a congressman and former Marine Corps gunnery sergeant held hostage by al-Qaeda for eight years. Mathison thinks Brody was converted to Islamic terrorism and threatens the US. Both characters experience harrowing scenarios, particularly in season three, perhaps the best of the series. Reviews for the show have been excellent; IGN TV called it an “ace thriller” and wrote that it had something of substance to say about the War on Terror.
Little Known Fact: Former President Barrack Obama is reportedly a fan of the show; and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while still in office, studied first season episodes of the show.
8. The Larry Sanders Show
Years: 1992 to 1998
An offshoot of It’s Gary Shandling’s Show appearing on Showtime from 1986 to 1990, in which Gary Shandling portrays a stand-up comic, The Larry Sanders Show stars Gary Shandling as a late-night talk show host who interviews some of the most popular actors, celebrities and comedians on contemporary TV. Having worked as a host on The Tonight Show in the 1980s, this idea fascinated Shandling, who wanted to provide a satirical take on the issues a talk show host might encounter while hosting a show on national TV. But it wouldn’t be about the show; it would be about the people behind it. The series raked in numerous accolades; critics thought it was one of the greatest comedy shows ever. “Very close to comic perfection,” Mark Monahan in The Telegraph wrote of it.
Little Known Fact: Episodes of the show were written by more than 40 different writers; Gary Shandling wrote 38, while Peter Tolan, writer, director and screenwriter, penned 23 episodes. Both Shandling and Tolan won Primetime Emmy Awards for writing “Flip,” the series finale.
7. Six Feet Under
Years: 2001 to 2005
The Fisher Family operates a funeral home in L.A, and two brothers Nate Fisher (Peter Krause) and David Fisher (Michael C. Hall), star as funeral directors for the business. Episodes deal with the somber issues of running a funeral home and how that affects family members, friends or lovers. Each episode begins with the demise of a person, who often dies in a tragic, though often preventable or even comedic fashion, after which family members and employees of the funeral home interact with bereaved folks. At times, family members imagine having a conversation with deceased people, particularly Nathaniel Fisher, Sr. (father of the Fisher brothers), who often flings vitriolic criticism at family members. Interestingly, Nate Fisher often cries on the show, perhaps more than any other male TV character ever!
Little Known Fact: The show was created by Executive Producer Alan Ball, who said when he first presented the show to HBO, President of Entertainment Carolyn Strauss said she really liked the show’s characterizations and situations—but it seemed too safe. Then Ball proceeded to “screw up” the characters, which would be somewhat easier on a premium channel such as HBO, where writers are given more creative options.
6. Sex in the City
Years: 1998 to 2004
Starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis and Cynthia Nixon, Sex in the City is a dramedy about the lives of four women living in NYC. The show emphasizes the sexual and romantic aspects of their lives and was (or is) almost certainly one of the most sexually explicit programs on contemporary TV. The series has spawned two movies: Sex in the City (2008) and Sex in the City 2 (2010). Considered a classic of sorts by Entertainment Weekly, the series has generated many accolades—as well as criticism, particularly from feminists who think the principals are bad role models for young women. But Rebecca Nicholson of The Guardian wrote that in spite of the show’s flaws, "it was, and is, a brilliant, daring, pioneering show."
Little Known Fact: The series is based on the content of Candace Bushnell’s “Sex in the City” essays, from which the character—Carrie Bradshaw, a writer living in NYC—sprang as Bushnell’s alter ego. When Sarah Jessica Parker played the part of Bradshaw in the series pilot, she didn’t like how her character looked, but once the series began filming episodes, she began to like her part. “I never thought, though, that the show would become what it has become,” she said.
Years: 2012 to 2019
Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars as Selina Meyer, a fictitious Vice President of the US. Eventually President Hughes suddenly resigns, making Meyer president for months; and then she runs for the presidency in 2016, but loses to a—pretty young woman! Then Meyer runs for the presidency again in 2020 but loses to—another woman! This show fires a killer jokes every 15 seconds, and the number of jaw-droppingly raunchy insults have probably never been equaled by any other TV comedy show. (You may want to record some of them and use them on your enemies!) In general, critics loved the show. Ben Travers of Indiewire wrote, "Veep is incomparable in comedy" and then added, "the HBO comedy has crafted a style so unique the series itself is entirely its own beast.”
Little Known Fact: Veep is based on The Thick of it, a British TV sitcom about a fictional department in the British government. The show won many awards, and then a pilot with the same name was produced by ABC, but this adaptation didn’t generate a series. Then HBO developed Veep, which opened with mediocre ratings, though during its second and third seasons, the show found its creative vibe, one critic calling it “savagely hilarious.”
4. Mad Men
Years: 2007 to 2015
Based on the fictional experiences of an advertising agency in NYC during the 1960s, Mad Men features Jon Hamm as Don Draper, an advertising executive at Sterling Cooper. Considered an advertising genius because of his history of successful campaigns, Draper becomes a partner at Sterling Cooper, after which his sterling identity dips into a downward spiral, as his shadowy past becomes evident. The show takes place during the so-called Swinging Sixties, when “the pill” was invented, thereby making premarital sex more acceptable. Don Draper knew what people wanted and how to give it to them, but he didn’t know who he was, so he tried transcendental meditation. Writing for Rolling Stone, Rob Sheffield called the series the “greatest TV drama of all time.”
Little Known Fact: The visual style of the show was developed to appear similar to that of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), hence people on the show smoke cigarettes, drink cocktails at work and women are treated in a sexist fashion. Anthony Weiner, the show’s creator said, "Doing this show without smoking would've been a joke. It would've been sanitary and it would've been phony."
3. The Sopranos
Years: 1999 to 2007
America’s fascination with mobsters—particularly Italian ones living in NYC or New Jersey—seems to have no bounds, so it’s no surprise that The Sopranos became so popular. The show stars James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano who plays the “maintenance manager,” as he calls himself, in a crime drama that’s very close to being a dramedy because the violence is so heavy at times as to be laughable. Tony Soprano, who suffers from panic attacks and undergoes regular therapy sessions, tries to balance his family life with the demands of being a mob boss who can order the injury or death of just about anyone. Praise has been high for the show: Peter Biskind of Vanity Fair called the show “the greatest pop-culture masterpiece of its day”; and in 2007 Channel 4 in the UK named it the greatest TV series of all time.
Little Known Fact: The Sopranos could be the quintessential show in the so-called new Golden Age of TV. In 2007, James Poniewozik of Time magazine wrote: “This mafia saga showed just how complex and involving TV storytelling could be, inspiring an explosion of ambitious dramas on cable and off.”
2. Breaking Bad
Years: 2008 to 2013
Bryan Cranston plays Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who’s diagnosed with stage-three lung cancer. To provide for his wife and children after his inevitable demise, White and Jessie Pinkman (Aaron Paul), a former student of his, must turn to crime to make many thousands of dollars quickly. So they cook up their own “sky blue” meth in back of White’s RV. Soon they run afoul of the DEA, Mexican drug cartels and local dealers, against which they must use violent tactics or die. In Addition to White’s ability with chemistry, he’s also good at making devices that can blow up property and/or kill large numbers of people. Critic Nick Harley summed up the show’s accomplishments: “Expertly written, virtuosic with its direction, and flawlessly performed, Breaking Bad is everything you could want in a drama.”
Little Known Fact: Mythbusters disproved some of Walter White’s feats of chemistry and electrical engineering. Hydrofluoric acid will not fully dissolve metal, ceramic or flesh. Fulminated mercury could be thrown against the floor to cause an explosion, but White would have needed a much larger quantity than he had to do much damage. An electromagnet cannot attract metallic objects from the other side of a room. But an automated machine gun firing from the trunk of a car would be a feasible weapon of mass destruction!
1. Game of Thrones
Years: 2011 to 2019
The fantasy drama Game of Thrones was considered the most popular TV show in the world; it was simulcast to 170 countries in 2015 and, understandably, was one of the most pirated TV programs in history. But, fortunately, the high piracy rate didn’t greatly diminish the number of subscriptions. People loved its graphic violence, nudity, terrifying monsters, mythic locales and fascinating characters—though they may have thought one too many people were torched to death! The show won 59 Primetime Emmy Awards, the most of any TV drama in history. Critic Alan Sepinwall writing for Rolling Stone said, “Its ability to most of the time keep all of its disparate threads feeling vital and tied to one another, remains a staggering achievement.”
Little Known Fact: Author Neil Gaiman, whose novels have been adapted for television, said Game of Thrones led the way for the viability of showing epic fantasy on TV; and it, along with The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter movies, have greatly increased the popularity of adapting fantasy novels to produce movies or TV series.
© 2021 Kelley Marks