The current era of Peak TV started with The Sopranos in 1999. Since then, I’ve watched a sizable number of critically-acclaimed shows from across the spectrum of cable channels and streaming platforms — plus my fair share of guilty pleasures.
For anyone who feels lost about which shows to watch, below is a long list of shows I’d recommend as well as a few to avoid. As I mentioned in my post, Peak TV Show Recommendations, where I introduced this list, my tastes gravitate toward comedy, sci-fi, fantasy, and post-apocalyptic dramas
Moving forward, I will try to maintain this list and note my updates in a log at the bottom of the page.
I’ve broken my recommendations into several different categories. Within each category, the shows are listed in alphabetical order.
Hall of Fame Classics
The first category consists of shows which I (and most TV critics) would consider to be among the best series in the history of television (with the exception of one controversial choice).
This gripping drama revolves around a typical family of four living a suburban life near Washington D.C. in the 1980s during the Cold War. The parents in the family (played to perfection by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) are travel agents and also, unbeknownst to their kids, natives of Russia and lethal spies. On top of the travails of raising teenagers and running covert operations, their lives become even more complicated when they befriend their new neighbor (the excellent Noah Emmerich) who turns out to be an FBI agent.
The show provides periodic action and thrills as the spies execute their missions for Mother Russia and play cat and mouse with their FBI pursuers. But overall, the show is deliberate in its pace, and the hallmark of its excellence is the nuanced and deeply developed characters. (FX)
Breaking Bad is a slow-burning comic drama in which the stakes escalate exponentially each season for its protagonist. Walter White is a chemistry teacher suffering from terminal cancer who begins manufacturing methamphetamine to support his family. Bryan Cranston turns in one of the greatest TV performances of all time in the lead role, and the supporting cast is sterling.
The first time I tried the series I gave up on it after a handful of episodes because I thought its pace was too slow and deliberate. The second time I tried the show (after the hype around it exploded) I persisted, made it through the first season and became absolutely hooked. If you have not tried it yet, watch the entire first season before you pass judgment. (AMC)
Game of Thrones
I don’t think I need to say much by way of introduction for this one. Arguably the show was over-hyped, but even so, it stands as a stunning evolution of television spectacle, exceeding the scale, impact, and artistry of typical cinema blockbusters. At the end of the day, despite the dragons, witches, white walkers, and giants, the show was a soap opera following the political machinations of the power-hungry. The show was probably too leisurely in its storytelling in early seasons and too rushed towards the end, but it always provided a gripping and absorbing ride with iconic characters representing good, evil and everything in between. (HBO)
The Larry Sanders Show
Back-stage show biz comedy does not get more sublime than The Larry Sanders Show. Garry Shandling plays a late-night TV host who competes with Jay Leno and David Letterman. In probably their most iconic roles, Jeffrey Tambor plays his nebbish sidekick and Rip Torn his bombastic producer. A gaggle of gifted comic actors is in supporting roles as writers, office staff, etc.
On each episode, the action cross-cuts between video footage of the fictitious late-night show and (filmed) behind the scenes shenanigans in the show’s production office and Larry’s personal life. Real-life celebrities appear as themselves as guests making appearances on the show. (HBO)
The Walking Dead
Few TV critics would classify The Walking Dead (TWD) as a television classic, but I would. I have no special affinity for the zombie movie genre (or graphic novel) which inspired TWD, but I find the show to be an absolutely gripping survival tale in which the secret sauce is not the zombies but the compelling living characters (both heroic and villainous). I like the show despite the zombies, not because of them, although I have come to appreciate walkers as a persistent threat.
TWD is an addicting serial and its creators do a masterful job of varying the pace of the show, mixing together fast-paced action-packed episodes with more leisurely paced ones which focus on character development. The show is more suspenseful than most because any character can die at any time, even fan favorites. In fact, the high mortality rate in the zombie apocalypse means the show has frequent cast turnover, and the producers keep the show fresh by regularly introducing new characters. (AMC)
I usually am not interested in crime dramas. However, The Wire (from genius TV producer David Simon) is an extraordinarily nuanced and realistic portrayal of the lives of criminals and law enforcement officers in an inner-city (Baltimore). Nothing is black and white in The Wire. The cop characters are not all “good guys,” and the gang members are not all “bad guys.”
Each of the five seasons focuses on a different theme. The first season examined Baltimore’s illegal drug trade and was followed by seasons exploring the seaport system, the city government and bureaucracy, the school system (maybe my favorite), and the print news media (my least favorite). Many of the characters appeared in multiple seasons, and the cast of the show was uniformly outstanding. Idris Elba is particularly memorable as Striker Bell, second-in-command to a drug kingpin, but whip-smart with ambitious plans of his own. (HBO)
These shows are exceptional and stand out among the crowd.
An under-appreciated dramatic gem from HBO revolving around a bigamist family which has broken away from a fundamentalist Mormon sect. (HBO)
This anthology series features imaginative, insightful and sometimes frightening cautionary tales about how technology advances may threaten or damage humanity in the future. Like any anthology series, the episodes are inconsistent, but the best ones are true masterpieces. A word of caution: the series premiere (episode 1) is not representative of the show and scares some people off, so you may want to skip it and come back to it later if you become a fan. (Netflix)
The progenitor to The Wire in which producer David Simon provides a hyper-realistic glimpse into the trials and tribulations of the residents of an inner-city. If you didn’t know better, you would probably think this show was a non-fiction documentary. (HBO)
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Larry David (who co-created Seinfeld) plays an exaggerated version of himself in this improvised comedy in which his selfish and insensitive nature leads to inspired comic mayhem. David populates his life with colorful regulars and guest stars, and he brings out the best in his terrific cast. The show is wildly inconsistent from episode to episode and season to season, which is why in my book it does not qualify as a classic. (HBO)
The first season of Legion may be my favorite entry in the entire Marvel universe of movies and TV shows. More psychological horror-thriller than superhero yarn, the show (set loosely in the X-Men universe) is aimed squarely at adults. The second season did not quite live up to the stunning first season, but it was still excellent. Surprisingly, the show is also a compelling love story. As of the time I am writing this, the third (and final) season is in progress, but I have not yet started watching it. (FX)
Sex and the City
I’m not sure if this comedy about four thirty-something girlfriends living and dating in New York City will become a timeless classic (like Seinfeld or Friends) or whether it will feel dated to future generations. Either way, the show was great fun to watch and a must-see, water cooler show in its day. (HBO)
Many TV critics and fans would probably put this series in the top five hall of fame. Mafia stories are not really my cup of tea, so it took me two tries to finally get into this series. It’s a great show which adeptly mixes comedy and drama, but your mileage may vary depending on how much you invest in the anti-hero characters. (HBO)
You can’t go wrong with these shows, which achieve consistent excellence.
A wild mix of comedy and drama about a tortured army vet turned assassin who accidentally falls into acting while on a hit in Los Angeles. (HBO)
BBC Nature Documentaries
Life / Planet Earth / Blue Planet / Dynasties – these extraordinary docu-series set a new bar for nature documentaries every time the latest mini-series is released. Be sure to watch them on a large screen in full HD at minimum and in 4K HDR if possible.
From producer Judd Apatow, a charming story about a devout Christian discovering his true self while pursuing a career in stand-up comedy in New York. (HBO)
Dear White People
Based on the movie of the same name, colorful and endearing characters populate this satirical series about racism, sexism, and identity at a prestigious and primarily black university. I thought the movie was OK, but the TV series is a knockout due to its outstanding cast and clever storylines. (Netflix)
David Simon shines a light on the nascent porn film industry in Times Square during the late 1970s. As is customary for a Simon show, The Deuce features a huge cast of colorful characters from all walks of life, including pimps, prostitutes, barkeeps, cops, social reformers, and the mafia. (HBO)
Eastbound & Down
I would have predicted Danny McBride’s humor to be too broad and crude for my tastes. And yet, so far, I have found his HBO TV series to be comedy gems with a surprising amount of heart. This one revolves around a washed-up baseball player trying to make his comeback in the minor leagues.
An under the radar and under-appreciated drama from director Mike White which stars Laura Dern as a woman driven to a nervous breakdown by the emptiness of the corporate world. (HBO)
If you are a fan of The Walking Dead, then you’ll likely enjoy this under-rated show which has basically the same premise, themes, and pacing, except that the characters fight for survival in an alien-invasion apocalypse instead of a zombie one. (TNT)
Fear the Walking Dead
The first spin-off series in the Walking Dead universe got off to a slow start and paled in comparison to the original during its first couple of seasons. But over time, the show has consistently improved to the point where the characters are nearly as iconic and the show is arguably fresher and more imaginative. (AMC)
For me, the British series Humans, and not Westworld, is the superior show about how artificial intelligence in the form of human-realistic androids may impact the future of humanity. The cast is excellent and features Grace Chan in a breakout performance (AMC).
In the Flesh
This British series is set after a zombie virus outbreak, but unlike most zombie stories, the dead retain their full mental facilities and integrate back into society. The show is not a thriller but instead a contemplative drama. (BBC America)
After seeing mixed reviews, I didn’t expect to like this Showtime series starring Jim Carey as a beloved but deeply troubled kids TV star modeled after Mr. Rogers. But with a deeply nuanced performance from Carey and a sublime supporting cast featuring Judy Greer, Catherine Keener, and Frank Langella, the show is a masterpiece of comic melancholy. (Showtime)
Maybe I’m just a sucker for Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, but I fully bought into this sci-fi love story which explores themes of memory and mental illness. (Netflix)
Man Seeking Woman
I originally gave up on this fantastical satire of love and dating after the first season, as I found it too inconsistent. After taking it back up years later and binge-watching its second and third seasons, I would now name this creative masterpiece as one of my favorite comedies of the last decade. (FXX)
Master of None
Stand-up comic Aziz Ansari either rubs you the wrong way or not. If you are a fan of his comic persona, then this show in which he essentially plays himself is a comic gem about love and dating in the current age. The second season features one of the most gripping love stories I’ve ever seen on TV. (Netflix)
This slow-burn sci-fi drama really gets under your skin as you get to know the characters and the mythology slowly emerges. The first season ended on a note of delicious ambiguity, which left me frantically searching the web for the meaning of it all. The second season answered most of the core questions, expanded its world-building and set the stage for even wilder new horizons. (Netflix)
Orange is the New Black
This show, set in a women’s prison, is great for its rich and diverse characters and incredibly talented cash. On the downside, the show is sometimes tough viewing and watching it started feeling like homework to me. After the slow-moving fifth season, I lost my patience and abandoned the series.
Mix together Dr. Frankenstein (and his monster), werewolves, witches, and Dorian Gray in Victorian London and you have a moody horror thriller, but one focused more on character development and psychological anguish than on plot machinations or blood and guts. (Showtime)
A spot-on satire of tech industry culture about a start-up competing with a Google-like competitor for talent and technological supremacy. The show features a cast of inspired comic actors, both young and old. (HBO)
A creepy horror tale and loving homage to the 1980s set in a small town which turns upside down when supernatural disruptions start happening. (Netflix)
Danny Bride and Walter Goggins play rival school administrators and frenemies in this audacious and inspired comedy about greed, ambition, and love. (HBO)
Based on the Michael Crichton novel, Westworld revolves around an amusement park where lifelike androids engage human visitors in Wild West cowboys and Indians fantasies. Morality becomes a central theme for both the hedonistic human patrons and their android hosts especially when the latter begins to exceed the intended limits of their programming. The show is sometimes a bit ponderous and pretentious, but it’s also incredibly ambitious in the scope and spectacle of its storytelling. (HBO)
These series are well above average and worth your time, especially if you like the show’s genre.
The A Word
This British drama revolves around a family in a small town which must face the reality that their five-year-old son, Joe, is on the Autism spectrum. One appeal of the show is that it expands beyond this premise to include a large cast of supporting characters who face their own personal challenges unrelated to Joe. (Amazon)
Duane Johnson plays a football star turned sports agent in this slick, breezy and funny comedy. (HBO)
Big Little Lies
After initially avoiding this show, I enthusiastically binge-watched it and found it to be surprisingly compelling. Regardless of how much you get into the central murder mystery (in which the victim is kept secret until the end), the all-star cast of Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Adam Scott and Alexander Skarsgård (along with lesser-knowns, Shailene Woodley and Zoë Kravitz) is a pure joy to watch. (HBO)
Bored to Death
A comedy about a struggling writer who pretends to be a private investigator. This gem had the delectable cast of Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis, and Ted Danson and should have lasted more than its precious three seasons on HBO.
David Duchovny seems to be playing a loose version of himself in this Showtime comedy about an adulterous writer struggling to keep his family together. The character could not be more different from Ducovny’s iconic role as Fox Mulder on The X-Files and that is part of the fun. With Evan Handler and Pamela Aldon in key supporting roles and an endless stream of inspired guest stars (e.g. Maggie Grace in one of her best roles), the show has a breezy charm that is hard to resist.
This comedy offers a realistic view of the ups and downs of marriage (between and Brit and a Yank). The show is funny and the cast is charming, but I didn’t love it as much as many TV critics. It’s perfect for binge-watching while traveling, which is how I watched it. (Amazon)
Da Ali G Show
Sacha Baron Cohen perfected his most famous characters — Ali G, Borat, and Brüno — on this HBO comedy which was groundbreaking at the time for its ambush interviews where politicians and other guests were not in on the joke that their interviewer was an actor. I was never a big fan of the Brüno segments, but some of the Ali G and Borat sequences are among the most hysterically funny things I have ever seen on TV.
Dead to Me
Inspired performances from Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini anchor this dramatic comedy about grief, friendship, and betrayal. Some critics knocked the plot machinations of the first season, but I quite enjoyed the twists and turns. (Netflix)
I’ve sometimes characterized Entourage as Sex and the City for men. The show revolves around the love life and careers of four men (a famous actor and his entourage) in Los Angeles. The show is light and entertaining with endearing characters and a surprising amount of heart. For added fun, Jeremy Piven hams it up as a bombastic Hollywood agent. (HBO)
This short-lived cult classic is a fun sci-fi yarn about the misadventures of a group of space mercenaries trying to make a buck while evading law enforcement and avoiding warring political factions. (FOX)
I was not sure I liked this British series because initially, I found the main character unappealing. But I stuck with it and the show eventually got under my skin, thanks to appealing performances from the entire cast. In two short seasons, the show evocatively explores themes of grief and maturation and also offers a remarkably nuanced portrayal of how sisters can love and hate each other at the same time. (Amazon)
You don’t have to be a fan of wrestling (which I’m not) to succumb to the charms of this fun and sometimes dramatic series which tells the true story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. WTF fans should note that Marc Maron is excellent as the seedy director recruited to oversee the league. (Netflix)
A comic drama about a high school coach (Thomas Jane) who becomes a gigolo to help pay his bills. Jane Adams and Anne Heche add spice to the show as his “pimp” and his ex-wife, respectively. (HBO)
A comedy which follows the misadventures of a struggling stand-up comic, his muscular dystrophy-addled brother and his recently divorced best friend. I don’t recall the series all that vividly, but I do remember increasingly appreciating the show with each new episode and desperately wanting more after its short two-season run (FX)
WTF podcast host Marc Maron plays himself in his first real (and sometimes) awkward foray into TV acting. If you enjoy Marc’s persona from his stand-up or podcast, or from his excellent performance on GLOW, then you should like this show. (IFC)
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
This show provides good popcorn entertainment for fans of the Marvel cinematic universe. The show does not find its footing until towards the end of the first season. After that, it shifts into serial storytelling about the on-going adventures of a ragtag team of misfits and Inhumans who battle villains of all kinds. Each season usually offers two story arcs and some of them are more fun than others. By season 6, the show had long since started feeling monotonous and I hopped off the plane. (ABC)
One of the few network comedies I’ve watched during the Peak TV era. The show was fresh, fun and charming in its first few seasons. I stopped watching it after the show because too predictable and formulaic. (ABC)
This is a relatively obscure comedy from Starz, which I accidentally stumbled upon much to my delight. The show, which lasted two seasons, revolves around a bunch of wannabe Hollywood misfits who share the day job of working for the same catering company. The incredibly lovable cast included Adam Scott, Ken Marino, Jane Lynch, Martin Starr and Lizzy Caplan with guest-starring roles from the likes of Kristen Bell and J.K. Simmons.
People of Earth
An understated and under-rated comedy about a support group for alien abductees and a journalist assigned to write a piece about them. Their alien abductors provide much of the humor as they are essentially low-level worker bees caught up in “office politics.” The show ran for just two short seasons but creatively had enough inspiration to run for several more. (TBS)
In a variation of Groundhog Day, Natasha Lyonne keeps reliving the last few hours of her life in a continual loop and must figure out how to break the cycle. Despite the well-worn premise, the show feels fresh and inventive — and offers a compelling character study of a woman trying to find herself. (Netflix)
A comic drama from the Duplass brothers which explored marriage, family, friendship, and love. Not a top tier HBO show but one which was consistently improving before HBO canceled it after two seasons.
A struggling widow living in a cookie-cutter housing community with her two sons becomes a marijuana dealer in this Showtime comedy. The first two seasons were fabulous before the show spun wildly and increasingly out of control. Still, I watched to the end because I had invested in the characters and enjoyed the cast.
These shows without question have merit but most of them have some profound flaws. In some cases, they just weren’t my “cup of tea.”
The visuals are superior to the story in this Blade Runner-like sci-fi thriller from Netflix. I watched partially to enjoy the 4K HDR picture quality on my OLED TV.
Part space adventure, part political drama, part supernatural mystery, I really enjoyed the complexity of this sci-fi drama for its first season or two (on SyFy). I was not fully on board for some of the plot direction in season 3. I am curious to see where the story heads when the show returns for season 4 on Amazon.
Gillian Anderson plays a detective pursuing Jamie Dornan as an elusive serial killer in the British crime drama. As mentioned, I am not a fan of this genre which is why I have not rated this show higher. (Netflix)
Although it was a little too slow-moving for me, I appreciated the first season of the TV reboot of the classic Coen brothers’ film. But I did not find it compelling enough to stick with it for its subsequent seasons. (FX)
The Handmaid’s Tale
If nothing else, this post-apocalyptic drama set in the former U.S. after environmental collapse and a totalitarian coup is worth watching for the exceptional performance from Elisabeth Moss. Overall, the show is slow-moving but gripping — and also so relentlessly bleak that it can be excruciating to watch. Lauded in season one, the show experienced some critical backlash in season two for its monotonous misery, and I am undecided whether to continue watching it. (Hulu)
Imagine the Harry Potter Movies but with horny college students and mix in a healthy dose of Narnia and you have this fantasy series from the SyFy Channel. I mostly enjoyed the first two seasons before getting tired of the soap opera plot twists.
The main reason to watch this show is to savor the tour de force performance by Tatiana Maslany who plays multiple characters in this sci-fi series about cloning. For me, the twists and turns of the conspiracy-mystery plot eventually grew tiresome, and I bailed out after three seasons in the show’s five-season run. (BBC America)
The cast is great in this modern adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic mystery series, but I have found most of the storylines disappointing. (PBS)
Star Trek: Discovery
As a lifelong fan, I have a hard time being objective about Star Trek. Even so, I can easily recognize that Discovery is a deeply flawed show, with a dubious premise (inconsistent with previous canon) and oftentimes sloppy storytelling. Happily, on the plus side, the show is highly entertaining with cinematic production values, lovable characters, and a diverse and talented cast. If you have been hungry for Star Trek since its last worthy series (Voyager), then Discovery will satiate your appetite. (CBS All Access)
You’re the Worst
This is a show I always wanted to love but which I enjoyed only in fits and starts. Some episodes are absolutely brilliant but too many are forced and eventually, the characters wore thin for me. (FXX)
Overrated & Rejects
These are shows which I have found overrated after watching a substantial number of episodes or which I rejected after sampling just a few.
A show I liked more in spirit than execution. This zany comedy was occasionally brilliant but hit the mark only about 10-20% of the time and was often tedious to watch during the rest. (FOX and Netflix)
What can I say? I expected to like this critically-acclaimed comedy from Donald Glover about life on the streets in Atlanta. As hard as I tried, the show did not click for me, and I could not make it to the end of the first season. (FX)
Better Call Saul
Even though I put Breaking Bad in my top-most tier classic list, this spin-off prequel did not gel for me by the end of the first season. I know the show is supposed to have achieved its own greatness, but I think I got my fill of its milieu in Breaking Bad. (AMC)
I stuck with this show for two seasons before concluding that Lena Dunham’s sensibility is not for me. I wanted to like the show but could not glom onto it. That said, I don’t think I was remotely in the show’s intended demographic. (HBO)
Period dramas are definitely out my thing which may explain why I didn’t make it past the first few episodes of this critically acclaimed and much-beloved show. (AMC)
I watched the first season but generally found the show to be pretentious and over-clever. Plus, the big plot twist at the end completely turned me off. (USA)
Somehow I made it through the first five seasons of this show despite conflicting feelings about whether I liked or hated it. The performances are outstanding even though many, if not most, of the characters are unappealing. In particular, the central character of Ray learns so little from the consequences of his alcoholism and violent temper that he becomes completely repulsive. (Showtime)
An atmospheric French zombie mystery which moved too slowly and did not offer enough payoff for those who had the patience to make it to the end of its second and final season. (Netflix)
This post-apocalyptic drama portrays life in the former United States after a permanent worldwide power outage. The mystery thriller was fun at first but eventually became repetitive and monotonous. (NBC)
This acclaimed comedy from Amazon never lived up to its hype for me despite its appealing cast. (Amazon)
I watched and enjoyed the first season despite my usual aversion to crime dramas. The abysmal reviews of season 2 scared me off, and I have no motivation to check out the reportedly improved third season. (HBO)
Twin Peaks: The Return
The original incarnation of this show was one of my all-time favorites when it initially aired on ABC (even the maligned second season). I enjoyed only about 25% of the Showtime sequel which was mostly incoherent and tedious.
These are shows which I have not watched enough of yet to fully evaluate.
The Good Place
After abandoning the show during its first season run on NBC, I later binge-watched the first two seasons on Netflix and now immensely appreciate its comic performances and clever plot twists.
Another show which I rejected when it first premiered on TV, largely in part because I am not fond of political satire. After watching two seasons on Amazon Prime, I am now warming up to it and certainly appreciate the comic genius of Julia Louis-Dreyfus. (HBO)
What We Do in the Shadows
The first season of this vampire mockumentary was inconsistent but offered inspired satire and juicy characters. (FX)
In My Backlog
These shows are in my backlog watch queue. Based on their reputations, some or all of them may eventually qualify for my list of recommended shows.
- Brooklyn Nine-Nine
- Good Omens
- Killing Eve
- The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
I’d love to hear your comments about any agreements or disagreements you have with my list, as well as suggestions for any shows you think I should check out. (Please note: I moderate all comments.)