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
I’ve broken my recommendations into several different categories. Within each category, the shows are listed in alphabetical order.
- Hall of Fame Classics
- BBC Nature Documentaries
- Better Things
- Dear White People
- The Deuce
- Eastbound & Down
- Falling Skies
- Fear the Walking Dead
- Good Omens
- The Good Place
- In the Flesh
- The Mandalorian
- Man Seeking Woman
- The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
- Master of None
- The OA
- Orange Is the New Black
- Penny Dreadful
- The Righteous Gemstones
- Sex Education
- Silicon Valley
- Stranger Things
- Vice Principals
- What We Do in the Shadows
- Very Good
- The A Word
- Big Little Lies
- Bored to Death
- Da Ali G Show
- Dead to Me
- The End of the F***ing World
- The Expanse
- Freaks And Geeks
- Killing Eve
- Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
- Modern Family
- Parks and Recreation
- Party Down
- People of Earth
- Russian Doll
- Fairly Good
- Also Recommended
- Overrated & Rejects
- Under Evaluation
- Your Turn
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 nuanced and deeply developed characters are the hallmark of its excellence. (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 that 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. The third and final season brought the show to a satisfying conclusion, but I felt that the rich supporting characters were sidelined and given too little to do as compared to previous seasons. The show is weird, trippy and psychedelic at times but in a much more effective way than something like the Twin Peaks reboot. Surprisingly, Legion also features a genuinely compelling love story at its core. (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)
If you’re not intimately familiar with the source material (a graphic novel from 1986), Watchmen might prove to be a confusing viewing experience. However, if you’re already steeped in Watchmen mythology, then the show is an ambitious, thrilling and ultimately satisfying “sequel” to the original story. As the 9-episode first season gets rolling, the show seems only remotely connected to the original mythology, but as the story progresses, the series integrates more and more elements from the original in clever and unexpected ways. Regina King is riveting in the lead role. (HBO)
Years And Years
This HBO series projects how the world might change in the next twenty years if the worst of today’s trends continue (e.g. climate change, xenophobia, government corruption, social conservatism, etc.). The story is filtered through the lens of one extended family living in Manchester, England and chronicles how local, national, and world events impact their everyday lives. The limited six-episode series is absolutely stunning, gripping and horrifying, but — thankfully — ends on a hopeful note. The large cast is outstanding across the board, and the evocative musical score is haunting.
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.
After reading great things for years about this FX series, I binge-watched the first four seasons on Hulu. Pamela Adlon created this semi-autobiographical “dramedy” with Louis C.K. — about an actress and single mother raising three daughters in L.A. A dynamo, Adlon writes the show, directs it, and stars in it. I was a fan of her work from Californication and Louie, but her subtle, natural performance in Better Things is a revelation. Louie C.K. stepped away as Adlon’s co-writer after the first two seasons. I enjoyed those seasons, which were more story-driven, more than the later seasons, which feel more like mood pieces. Nonetheless, this unique series is unlike anything else on television (at least that I’ve seen).
From producer Judd Apatow, Crashing is a charming story about a devout Christian (Pete Holmes playing a loose version of himself) discovering his true self while pursuing a career in stand-up comedy in New York. The show features fun cameos by and guest-starring roles for a ton of notable stand-up comics. (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 ivy league 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)
This Amazon series chronicles how a group of angels, demons, witches, witch hunters, and regular human kids conflict (or collaborate) with one another to either fend off the end of the world or precipitate it. The tale sounds ponderous, but, in fact, the series is delightfully whimsical, and the intricate, interweaving storylines are mostly played for comedy. The cast is superb and features Michael Sheen, David Tenant, Adria Arjona, John Hamm Miranda Richardson, Michael McKean, and Frances McDormand (as the omniscient and almighty narrator).
The Good Place
I initially abandoned this series about the afterlife after watching a few episodes and concluding it was too conventional for me. However, after the hype continued to build around it, I tried the show again. If you’re going to try The Good Place, you should definitely watch the entire first season before passing judgment. Without spoiling any specifics, the first season concludes with a major twist, and, in fact, unexpected twists and turns are a hallmark of the wildly creative series. The show features a large ensemble cast, with the core parts delectably played by Kristen Bell, newcomer Jameela Jamil, Ted Danson (in perhaps his best role since Cheers), William Jackson Harper, Manny Jacito, and D’Arcy Carden (who is remarkably inspired as an AI-based character). (NBC).
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 faculties 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. The second season is perhaps more inconsistent but also even more daring as the show steps further into magical realism. (Showtime)
I’m not a big enough Star Wars fanatic to have watched the previous TV series in the franchise (the fairly well-regarded animated shows, Clone Wars and Rebels). However, the first live-action Star Wars TV series, from a super talent like writer/director Jon Favreau … well, that is another matter altogether. I binge-watched the show over a few nights with my kids, and it not only lived up to its hype but exceeded my substantial expectations. The storytelling is simple, spare, impactful and entertaining. The production values easily meet what you’d expect from a prestigious streaming show in the era of peak TV. The musical score is stirring. The characters are endearing, particularly “Baby Yoda” who is an amazing feat of puppetry. It’s hard to ask for much more from popcorn entertainment. (Disney+)
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)
Related Post: How Long Should You Watch a TV Show Before Judging It?
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
I normally don’t like period pieces, but The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is too charming to resist, partially because I have a predilection towards showbiz stories and a soft spot for stand-up comedy. Also, the characters are larger than life (maybe sometimes too much so), and the cast is generally excellent. But the biggest revelation is Rachel Brosnahan, who is a force of nature (dare I say a “marvel”?) in the title role. Even if I didn’t like the rest of the show, I would watch just for her bravura performance. (Amazon)
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. Unfortunately, in August 2019, Netflix canceled the show. (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 eventually started feeling like homework to me. After the slow-moving fifth season, I lost my patience and abandoned the series. I sat out the sixth season but resumed watching for the seventh and final season. Season seven was a return to form and reminded me why I loved the show so much during its initial few seasons. If you similarly gave up on the show somewhere along the way, I highly recommend reading or viewing some synopses for a catchup and then watching the final season.
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)
The Righteous Gemstones
Danny McBride strikes again with a black comedy about a family of famous televangelists in South Carolina. McBride assembles many of his regulars (e.g. Walter Goggins) as well as some newcomers (e.g. John Goodman) to spin a delicious tale of blackmail and family squabbling. As with many of McBride’s series, the show improves significantly as the season wears on. So, if you’re not sure after the first episode or two, keep watching. (HBO)
This Netflix original chronicles the lives and loves of students at a suburban British high school and features plenty of classic coming-of-age themes (especially around sexual maturity). The premise sounds generic, but the series is 1,000 times more inspired than you might expect it to be. The characters are quirky and endearing, and the young, diverse cast is extremely appealing. As a huge added bonus, Gillian Anderson shines in one of her juiciest roles as the sex therapist mother of the show’s main protagonist.
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)
What We Do in the Shadows
The first season of this vampire mockumentary (based on the 2014 movie of the same name) was uneven but offered inspired satire and juicy characters. In its second season, the series hit its stride and offered consistently delicious lunacy over all ten episodes (not a clunker among them). To its benefit, season two expanded the presence of human familiar Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) and energy vampire Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch). The Office-style comedies are now a tired trope, but Shadows breathes vital new life into the genre. (FX)
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. Overall, the second season was less compelling but still worth watching — especially to see Meryl Streep disappear into a juicy character who creates fireworks with the heroines from season one. (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. The second season becomes even more contrived and outlandish. But if you went along for the ride the first time and are invested in the characters, then you should enjoy the sophomore season nearly as much. (Netflix)
The End of the F***ing World
A romance of sorts between two teen social outcasts, both psychologically damaged in various ways, is at the heart of this exceptionally dark “dramedy” from Netflix. The first season has the couple on the run from the law after a tragic event further shatters their already broken lives. The somewhat less intense second season deals with the psychological aftermath and introduces a third major character with her own compelling backstory. Jessica Barden and Alex Lawther are outstanding in the lead roles, and the show’s writers give them substantial character arcs to portray.
I’ve sometimes characterized Entourage as Sex and the City for men. The show revolves around the love lives 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)
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. I was not fully on board for some of the plot direction in season 3, but I was still disappointed when SyFy canceled the show. Happily, Amazon rescued the series, and its season 4 as an Amazon original marked a return to form with gripping storylines for its multitude of characters.
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)
Freaks And Geeks
I finally got around to binge-watching this cult classic almost 20 years after its debut on NBC. The show (which lasted just one season) portrays the daily drama of high school life in a small-town in 1980. Freaks And Geeks centers around a nerdy Freshman boy and his older sister (a smart Junior in an identity crisis who starts hanging out with the stoner losers at the school). Freaks And Geeks deftly mixes comedy and drama and is fun for its nostalgia factor. However, the most remarkable thing about the show is its ensemble cast, nearly all of whom became luminaries in later shows and movies. Regulars included Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, James Franco, Seth Rogan, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, and Busy Philipps. Look out for guest star appearances from Lizzy Caplan and Rashida Jones.
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)
Adapted from a popular podcast (which I never listened to), this haunting psychological thriller is about a secret government research group pioneering a new form of post-traumatic stress therapy for returning war veterans. The show mines solid performances from Julia Roberts, Stephan James, and Bobby Cannavale and gets better with each episode. (Amazon)
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)
I binge-watched both seasons one and two on Hulu and really enjoyed the fast pace, intriguing characters, and cat and mouse antics between an MI6 operative (Sandra Oh) and an eccentric assassin (Jodie Comer). The two lead actresses are phenomenal, and both have been nominated and/or won several well-deserved awards for their performances in the show. Killing Eve is popcorn entertainment at its best but with more character depth than you might expect. Note: I did not enjoy the third season nearly as much and fear at the series may have “jumped the shark.” (BBC America/streaming on Hulu)
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)
Parks and Recreation
Looking for something fun to binge during the COVID-19 pandemic, I finally decided to try out Parks and Recreation (NBC) which I had heard raves about for years. I had always resisted the show, even though I was a fan of the British version of The Office as well as the early seasons of the American adaptation. More recently, I’ve become a huge fan of What We Do in the Shadows (which uses the same documentary style as all of these shows).
Even though I am generally tired of the documentary sitcom format, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Parks and Rec. The show creates a universe of people and places that is more expansive and far richer than its forerunner, The Office. I’m not the first to make this comparison, but the show is in some respects like a live-action version of The Simpsons. The amazingly talented ensemble cast is supported by a huge collection of recurring bit characters (oddball residents of the fictitious town of Pawnee, Indiana), not to mention tons of fun cameo appearances (by politicians and other celebrities).
My main knock on Parks and Recreation is that, for me, the series too frequently crossed the line from inspired caricature and satire into the realm of cheesy, cringe-worthy network sitcom exaggeration. My other criticism is that the cruelty of the Parks and Recreation staff towards their coworker Garry Gingrich was too mean-spirited and uncomfortable to watch (and would likely constitute hostile environment harassment in a real workplace). I think the relentless mockery of his character was a major misstep by the producers.
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)
Egyptian-American stand-up comic Ramy Youssef explores the identity confusion around being a young Muslim man in current-day America in this Hulu original. The show is as much drama as comedy and proves to be increasingly compelling as the first season progresses. Season two builds on the strengths of its predecessor and avoids the sophomore jinx.
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)
I usually shy away from shows where most (if not all) of the characters are unlikable. Succession is an exception. This tale of an uber-rich family that runs a media conglomerate (think the Murdochs and Fox) is strangely compelling. Over its first two seasons, the constant corporate maneuvering grew a bit tiresome, but the family dynamics remained riveting. I binged watched the show, but I think I would have enjoyed it more in smaller doses had I watched week to week as it initially aired. (HBO)
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.
In order of success, the Amazon series Upload is one part romance, one part satirical vision of future, and one part murder mystery. The show (from Greg Daniels, one of the creative forces behind The Office and Parks and Recreation) has an engaging and novel premise: people can choose to upload to virtual worlds before they die and stay in communication with friends and family who are still alive in the real world. In the lead roles, Robbie Amell and Andy Allo have genuine chemistry. Allo, in particular, is immensely appealing and gives a breakout performance. The supporting cast is also fun, even though some of their characters are rather one-dimensional.
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.”
In season one of this Blade Runner-like sci-fi thriller from Netflix, the visuals were superior to the story. I watched partially to enjoy the 4K HDR picture quality on my OLED TV. Season two was an improvement, with a more cohesive storyline, deeper worldbuilding, and a new actor (Anthony Mackie) in the lead role. However, overall, the series still is stronger on style than substance.
Brockmire is an engaging character study of an alcoholic baseball announcer (played by Hank Azaria) who finds his way to recovery. I’m not much of a baseball fan, but I do enjoy the occasional baseball-themed movie or TV show (e.g. Eastbound & Down). I’m also not the biggest fan of stories centered around alcoholic or depressed characters. Even so, Brockmire slowly won me over during its first couple of seasons before becoming something truly special in its third season (in which the character achieves sobriety). Sadly, the show lost my goodwill in its ill-conceived fourth and final season. The show flashes forwards ten years from present-day and provides a horrifying glimpse of the future. I’m all for dystopian fantasies and satires, but I think it was the wrong choice (and felt out of character) for this series. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a show “jump the shark” so badly. (IFC)
Gillian Anderson plays a detective pursuing Jamie Dornan as an elusive serial killer in this 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)
This series is a prequel to Batman and chronicles Bruce Wayne’s transformation from a teen into the caped crusader, as well as the origin stories of many of his classic villains. That said, the main character is actually James Gordon, and the show portrays his days as a new Detective on the Gotham police force. The first season was stylish and entertaining, but it didn’t leave me with an appetite for more, in large part because Ben McKenzie (as Gordon) rubbed me the wrong way as an actor. (FOX)
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 watch season three and beyond. (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)
Star Trek: Picard
Star Trek: Picard is a gift for fans of The Next Generation. The series revisits one of the most beloved characters in Star Trek history and updates his story and character arc in satisfying ways. Patrick Stewart is at the top of his game and everything you would expect (and more) in the title role. The series introduces several intriguing new characters and also features guest-starring roles for some familiar faces. Although the episodes are uneven, the villains are cartoonish, and some of the storylines are questionable, the journey is worth taking and the final destination is one that most fans should greatly appreciate. (CBS All Access)
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that over the years, I’ve watched a few seasons of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette as guilty pleasures. For anyone who is a fan of those shows, UnREAL is great fun and highly entertaining. The show provides a humorous (and sometimes dramatic) behind the scenes look at “Everlasting” — a fictionalized version of The Bachelor. I tremendously enjoyed the first season (particularly Constance Zimmer’s performance as the main showrunner). The second season was less inspired, and I jumped ship after the first episode of season three. (Lifetime)
Veep is a well-crafted and very funny workplace comedy. However, for two reasons, I don’t rate the show higher: 1) I don’t gravitate towards shows set in the political milieu; 2) I think the show “jumped the shark” to some extent in the sixth season after Selina Meyer left office and the characters dispersed to separate (but overlapping) storylines. Even so, the large, ensemble cast gives uniformly inspired comic performances (particularly, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tony Hale in iconic roles). (HBO)
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)
I recommend these shows, even though I haven’t spent the time to analyze them deeply or to write a capsule review.
- Back to Life – In the same vein as Fleabag and This Way Up, this is a dark and quirky British character dramedy from Daisy Haggard (who also stars) about a woman returning to her small hometown after serving 18 years for murder. (Showtime)
- Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee – inconsistent but fun to watch if you are a fan of Jerry Seinfeld or the world of stand-up comics. (Netflix)
- This Way Up – a British character dramedy similar in sensibility to Fleabag. (Hulu)
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.
Precocious high school students investigate an indecent graffiti crime in this Netflix satire. For me, the premise would have worked better as a comedy sketch or short film. After three episodes, the joke wore thin, and I lost interest in the series.
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)
This sci-fil thriller seemingly had all of the ingredients to pique my interest: an intriguing premise, a compelling actor in the lead role (J.K. Simmons), ample critical acclaim, and a cult following. I watched two episodes before the Starz channel dropped from my DIRECTV contract. Surprisingly, the first two episodes left me cold and without motivation to seek out the rest of the series.
My brother and nephew highly recommended Dark to me, especially since I like Stranger Things. Unfortunately, I found the first two episodes tedious to watch, and the characters were not appealing to me. Sometimes I give a show more time to win me over, but in this case, I trusted my instincts and aborted. (Netflix)
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, and I stopped watching after the first two of its five seasons. (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.
His Dark Materials
I am a big fan of the Philip Pullman book series of the same name, which was the source material for this HBO series. Season one (which covers book one, “The Golden Compass”) was well-executed with solid acting and high production values. I enjoyed the show, but so far, I feel it’s missing some x-factor that would make it a great show. The most obvious shortcoming is that the show lacks a certain urgency or momentum in its storytelling as compared to Game of Thrones or other fantasy shows in the peak TV era.
Schitt’s Creek is yet another TV series that I prematurely aborted the first time I tried it. After watching nearly 3 seasons on my second go-round, I still wouldn’t put it in my upper pantheon of peak TV comedies. That said, the show is a fun and tasty trifle and the twenty-minute episodes go by in a flash. The talented cast, from the leads down to the smaller supporting roles, creates inspired lunacy on a consistent basis (although, for me, a little of Catherine O’Hara’s cartoonish character goes a long way).
I’ll need more than one season to evaluate Undone (an Amazon original). The first few episodes were a bit slow-moving for me. But eventually, I got hooked on the characters and story. The show features rotoscope animation where live-action actors are filmed and then overlayed with animation. The technique is particularly effective for the story, which explores the thin boundary between mental illness and mystic abilities as a young woman (Rosa Salazar) tries to solve the mystery behind the death of her father (Bob Odenkirk).
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.)