Whether you missed it when it first came out, or it’s just been a while, some shows are worth returning to, even after they’ve concluded their run. Sometimes it feels oddly revolutionary to watch a show long after “everyone” is talking about it – but a great show is a great show, regardless of when you watch it. So I’m thrilled to share this list of shows that are done and yet always great – and if it is your first time watching this show, I am so jealous! I’ve tried to include a mix of genres and feels, so even if the dark anti-hero of Breaking Bad (for example) isn’t for you. You can instead turn to something like the feel-good Friday Night Lights! Or…vice versa.
15 Shows Worth (Re)Discovering
- Friday Night Lights (Netflix, 5 Seasons, 13-22 episodes/season, 2006): Sometimes, I think of this as the show that prepared me to be a good mom to my son. Friday Night Lights refers to the lights on the football field and the small town often-high stakes dramas that play out there every Friday night. Except that the real game isn’t about touchdowns. It is about poverty, racism, school funding, and abortion. It is about trying to help kids in rural Texas find a future and what it takes to have a real marriage (as seen in the still-enviable couple, Eric and Tami Taylor).
- The Wire (HBO/Max, 5 Seasons, 10-13 episodes/season, 2002): One of the best shows exploring both the strengths of community policing and the real and lasting pitfalls, and one of the best shows ever, period. The Wire is set in Baltimore and explores with real complexity and humanity narratives about police, drug dealers, teachers, dockworkers, politicians, and journalists. It humanizes and complexifies whatever stereotypes you might have about these characters and systems. It repeatedly reveals how these systems may have good intentions and yet fail to solve the issues they mean to address – whether due to corruption, ineptitude, or a lack of money, or pure bad luck. The actors and the characters they portrayed have stayed with me over the years – I’ll never forget the terrifying and yet tender Omar, played with fierce authenticity by Michael K. Williams. Even though this show is now 20 years old, it remains incredibly relevant and real.
- Breaking Bad (Netflix, 5 Seasons, 7-13 episodes/season, 2008): Usually, when people tell me they haven’t watched this show, it’s with an acknowledgment that they just found the premise too difficult to watch, which makes sense. This is a show about a high school math teacher who gets a terminal cancer diagnosis, and so to provide for his family after he is gone, he starts cooking meth. As a result, there are plenty of scenes showing the horrific impact of drugs on families and whole communities, and there is violence and there is the very real impact on his own family in his continued and increasing lies. So I get it if it isn’t for you. However….embedded in this difficult and sometimes all-too-real material is a story about human nature, our will to power, and what becomes acceptable to us after we cross that first moral line. I haven’t watched Breaking Bad since it ended in 2013, but having just finished its (brilliant) spin-off Better Call Saul, I’m getting ready to start it again.
- Six Feet Under (HBO/Max, 5 Seasons, 13 episodes/season, 2001): More than 20 years later, this show based around a family that runs a funeral home and that begins every episode with a death, remains groundbreaking. First, because we still don’t talk about grief and death as a society and the show offers an unflinching account of some of the practicalities, the laughter, the fear, the loss, and the very real decisions that must be made through it all. And second, because of the issues they tackled throughout the series in many cases remain underexplored all these years later. For example, even though we’ve had a lot of gay characters since then, the character David’s coming out still remains one of the most nuanced portrayals of later in-life coming out that I’ve seen on tv.
- The Americans (Hulu, 6 Seasons, 13 episodes/season, 2013): I’m surprised more people don’t talk about this fascinating show about two undercover Russian KGB agents who have made a family in the US, set in the early 80s / Cold War prime time. Keri Russell is brilliant and emotionally available even while playing an often emotionally inaccessible character. Matthew Rhys portrays a complex loyalty between country and family in every scene. It’s a spy show, but it’s really about marriage, trust, and how much truth we ever tell the people we love. Bonus fun: the series leads are married in real life.
- The Newsroom (HBO/Max, 3 Seasons, 6-10 episodes/season, 2012): Made by Aaron Sorkin (who also made The West Wing), the Newsroom is a smart, fast-talking inside look at cable tv news in the 21st century. Although, in some ways, it is limited by the fact that it lives in a world that is both pre-Trump and pre-pandemic, it also serves as a good reminder that even though everything has changed, there are some core threads that we can follow through and that Sorkin attempts to critique and engage through this series. Fair warning, this show has a way-too-short run, and, basically, as soon as it really starts to find its rhythm, it got canceled. Boo.
- Arrested Development (Netflix, 5 Seasons, 13-22 episodes/season, 2003): Here’s another “it’s not for everyone” show. But in this case, it’s a matter of just how bizarre you like your dysfunctional family comedies. The Bluths are maximum bizarre and completely dysfunctional. And also, this show is brilliantly hilarious and weirdly endearing. Every member of the Bluth family is self-involved and inept, yet their loyalty to one another allows them to muddle their way through their father’s fraud case and the loss of the wealth they have come to rely on. The show had a too-short run from 2003-2006 (because it was just too out there to get much traction), and so a revival was attempted on Netflix by Netflix in 2015. Personally, I’d skip the later two seasons and just rewatch (on repeat) the first three….they are not horrible. They just aren’t nearly as amazing as the first three original series, now all available on Netflix.
- Transparent (Amazon Prime, 4 Seasons (plus a musical finale), 10 episodes/season, 2014): This show about a parent who comes out as trans late in life, still feels incredibly ahead of its time nearly 10 years later. While later seasons were not quite as cohesive, the first two seasons of this show remain some of the best television I’ve ever seen, which is not really about the trans parent storyline. It’s actually more about the complex family dynamics, the strange and singular characters that are the children and ex-wife, and most of all, the Jewishness of the storyline, which I feel like we so rarely see portrayed on tv. As this show was ending, allegations were made about its star Jeffrey Tambor, which adds some complexity to watching it back, and I do appreciate the apologies he has made since. Nothing is simple, which is a lot of what this show explores.
- Mad Men (Amazon Prime, 7 Seasons, 13 episodes/season, 2007): Sometimes, when I hear the MAGA slogan, I flash on episodes of this series and wonder if this is what they are talking about. Because, at least from appearances, life for a certain class of white men in the 1960s seemed to be pretty great. Power, money, and a wife to cook you dinner sort of great. All this and absolutely zero emails to answer. Except that, even for these privileged few, behind the fancy clothes and long business lunches, there is also loneliness, alcoholism, insecurity, and emptiness. That’s the moral tale of Mad Men, which explores the world of a 1960s Manhattan-based advertising firm. What helps make this world actually a place you want to spend time in, though, are the characters, who are complex, funny, and entirely unique. You want to spend time with Peggy, the one woman who is trying to make a go at being an “ad man,” and you want to spend time with Joan, the powerhouse female secretary who comes into her own voice and her own place throughout the series. And despite all of his flaws, you want to spend time with Don Draper, the main protagonist, whose story you’re never sure is actually the truth, or just a really great pitch for a product you can’t wait to buy.
- The X-Files (Amazon Prime, 11 Seasons, 20-25 episodes/season, 1993): For those of you who heard my sermon to kick off our Time Well Wasted series, you know I have a special place in my heart for The X-Files. In case you don’t know, this show is set in a special division of the FBI that investigates paranormal activity. There’s a whole complex (aka often convoluted) conspiracy theory embedded in the show about aliens and UFOs, but my favorite part of the series was always the stand-alone episodes, especially those written by Vince Gilligan, who went on to write and produce Breaking Bad. The heart of this show for me, will always be the dynamic between Scully (Gillian Anderson in her breakthrough role) and Mulder (David Duchovny) so that when Duchovny left at the end of season 7, the show just never made much sense for me after that. There was also an attempt to revive the show in 2016, but they relied too heavily on nostalgia for the original series, which by then had been outdone by a number of shows who had built on its original ideas and taken the technology and concepts even further. So….stick to those original, glorious seven seasons, caught in the 90s though they might be – and revel in the chemistry between the leads, laugh at the limited tech we all had access to, and appreciate what was and remains a singular original voice of science fiction and social commentary.
- Girls (HBO/Max, 6 Seasons, 10-12 episodes/season, 2012): The most important thing you can know about this show going in is that it is mostly commentary. It is funny, raw, brave, and sometimes uneven and occasionally not great, and then, often, it is singularly brilliant. There are at least three episodes in its run I think everyone should watch multiple times. Hannah, the main character (played by creator/writer/director Lena Dunham) is often unlikable, clueless, and selfish and is also trying (or not trying) to grow up. Despite friendship being the show’s central organizing device, the main arc is a deterioration of the girls’ relationships. Many of the scenes are funny and original, and portray millennial young adulthood with such clarity you start to believe creator Lena Dunham, like the character she portrays, claims about herself, might be the voice of her generation after all. “Or at least, a voice of a generation…” Rewatching it a decade later, I am struck by how many scenes are played for awkward and honest as their main intent. Not beautiful or brilliant. Definitely not flattering to Dunham herself. Honest. Awkward. Complicated. Messy. Human.
- Big Love (HBO/Max, 5 Seasons, 9-12 episodes/season, 2006): While there is plenty to criticize in the LDS church, especially the fundamentalist version, this show attempts to humanize at least one expression of the faith: the polygamist family. Big Love centers on the Henricksons, including patriarch Bill and his three wives, Barb, Nicki, and Margene. In this family, you can see the benefits of having more adults to tend to the inevitable complexities of parenthood and tending a household. You can see how many more complexities arrive when you add in two other relationships. This show offers a sincere exploration of what it means to be faithful – to your spouse, family, and religious beliefs- and how these things change over your life. Because they must keep their family secret (polygamy being illegal) there are also a lot of interesting parallels to gay families and the overall question about what right the state has to say who you have decided to call family.
- United States of Tara (Hulu, 3 Seasons, 12 episodes/season, 2009): I’m pretty sure this is the first show where I really got a sense of Toni Collette, and I was immediately sold. Today I’ll basically watch anything she’s in. In United States of Tara, Collette plays Tara Gregson, a wife and mother with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). This means that Tara’s other personalities (she calls them alters) – distinctive personalities like the sassy T, the meticulous Alice, or the impulsive Buck – each take over her life at various points as she/they navigate the challenges of her condition. This is all a pretty serious topic, but most of the time, the show is funny and plays like a regular sitcom/dramedy. All while exploring the complexities of mental health and the impact of Tara’s disorder on her relationships. This show deals with family, identity, boundaries, and resilience. It asks where the line is between acceptance and being overly accommodating. It’s a too-short run of episodes, but it is still worth investing in these brave and unique characters. Besides, if you’re a Captain Marvel fan, this show is where Brie Larson got her start as Tara’s funny, smart, creative daughter.
- Dead Like Me (Amazon Prime, 2 Seasons, 15 episodes/season, 2003): For such a short run, this show has had a really long-lasting impression on me. The premise itself isn’t what does it – even though it is clever and interesting. The main character, 18-year-old George, experiences a tragic accident in the first episode, and she dies. She is immediately recruited into being a Grim Reaper, a select group of those who help people who have died transition into the afterlife. More, it is the presence of a profoundly talented supporting cast – including Mandy Patinkin as George’s mentor and Cynthia Stevenson as George’s mom. There’s a kind of Our Town feel to this show, as George wakes up to her life’s meaning and the relationships that matter, but only after she is able to look back at them from her death. Two decades after it began its short run, I still find this show funny, insightful, and definitely worth returning to.
- 24 (Hulu, 9 Seasons, 24 episodes/season, 2001): When this show came out, Carri and I were so obsessed with it we named our dog after one of its characters. You should watch it and try to guess which one. Every episode in a season of this series represents one hour, so the whole show represents 9 whole days spread out over the course of multiple years. Each episode displayed a clock, counting down the hour in real-time. This was just one way that this show kept the adrenalin pumping and, at least in the age of streaming, have you continued to press Next Episode. Main character Jack Bauer works out of the counter-terrorism unit, which in 2001, was a very high-profile storyline to explore. The stakes at that time were not a distant fantasy, they felt very real, as did the decisions he and others had to make about what was ethical when it came to getting to the information we’d need to stop attacks. Personally, I’d suggest watching the first five seasons and then jump ship. The later seasons feel a little unnecessary like they are trying to recreate the magic of those first few years. But…those first few years were truly glorious high-energy television, even if it made you question what we should, or should not do, in order to stop potential problems in the future, and the reality that we really cannot make the world entirely safe for everyone, no matter what we do, or even if you have Jack Bauer on your side. And this is something we understand now even better than we did 22 years ago.