“It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end.” — Tony Soprano
You’re wrong about that one, Tony. It may be that no TV show does anything entirely new — change always builds on change. But “The Sopranos” was as clear a marker of the beginning of an era (even if I hate the term “Golden Age”) as anything in TV.
Before “The Sopranos,” yes, TV dramas could take risks (“Twin Peaks”) and tell stories about difficult people (“NYPD Blue”). But after the ducks landed in Tony’s backyard pool in January 1999, an immense flock followed. TV series, we saw, could rely on audiences to pay close attention to a long-running story. They could have high visual and narrative ambitions. They could resist quick answers and tidy moral conclusions.
If “The Sopranos,” which debuted 20 years ago this week, built the ground floor, this list looks at what TV erected on top of it. These are the 20 best drama series to emerge since “The Sopranos,” arranged in chronological order.
For the sake of focus and sanity, Mike Hale, Margaret Lyons and I limited our debates to American series TV drama. What is American? (Shows made specifically for the United States TV market rather than acquired.) What is a series? (Shows that were meant to continue more than one season.) What is TV? (What isn’t, these days? Anything broadcast, cable or streaming was fair game.)
The trickiest question, though, was, What is a drama? Episode length isn’t an absolute guide, and awards nominations are no help. (“Orange Is the New Black,” say, has been Emmy-nominated as both comedy and drama.)
I’d like to say we came up with some bulletproof formula — length plus tears divided by jokes — but truth is, we went by feel. If our resulting list stretches the definition of drama, good: “The Sopranos” certainly did. (It was the funniest show on TV most weeks it was on.) But step back, and this list broadly tells the story of what American TV drama has become over two decades.
“The Sopranos,” we all remember, ended with a cut to black. The genre that followed, though, takes its cue from the lyrics of Tony’s final jukebox selection, “Don’t Stop Believin'”: It goes on and on and on and on.
— JAMES PONIEWOZIK
‘The West Wing’ (1999-2006)
Because they say joy cometh in the morning.
“The West Wing” is one of the great loves of my life, a show I obsessed over before I became a TV critic, and maybe one of the reasons I did. I love Toby. I love Leo. I love Marion Coatsworth Hay. I love the little rocket ship gesture. This means something good has happened.
People complain that it’s a smug fantasy. But I love a fantasy where everyone is smart, no one wants a forever war and integrity exists. I love a fantasy where characters have such a strong sense of purpose it rubs off on you just from watching them. My fantasy is that people are trustworthy, and that when they let me down, they notice and they’re sorry. Let’s all fantasize about having ethics — wouldn’t that be such a wild world? Keep your swords-and-magic epics. I’ve got the Bartlet administration to dream about.
— MARGARET LYONS
‘The Shield’ (2002-08)
Because it defined the antihero cop.
“The Shield” has a perfect pilot and a perfect finale. And everything in between is pretty great, too.
Michael Chiklis stars as Vic Mackey, a vicious dirty cop — racist, sexist, violent, conceited and he never met a civil right he wasn’t interested in violating. Shawn Ryan didn’t invent the morally bankrupt cop archetype, certainly, but he managed to reinvent him in the modern antihero image, in ways that were often surprising not only in their depravity but in how they defined the narrative curve of the show. Vic kills a fellow cop right in the pilot, as clear an announcement as you’ll ever see on television of what a show plans to do and be.
In its final episodes, “The Shield” forever locked in its spot on these kinds of lists when it brought every corrupt chicken home to roost. It’s masterly storytelling at its most gripping.
— MARGARET LYONS
‘The Wire’ (2002-08)
Michael K. Williams, who portrayed Omar Little (as told to Aisha Harris):
It was a social story told on an American tapestry. Just happened to be in the hood.
I saw a lot of homophobia in my community. Omar definitely helped soften the blow of homophobia in my community and it opened up a dialogue, definitely. There’s been more of a tolerance for alternative lifestyles in the community than prior to “The Wire.” Kima Greggs [Sonja Sohn], Felicia Pearson. It wasn’t just Omar, man.
[The essence of my character is in] the speech that he gave just before he pulled the trigger on Stringer Bell [Idris Elba]. String tries to offer him money for his life. Omar says: “You still don’t get it. It ain’t about your money, bro. It’s about loyalty.” His boy gave him up. You know what I’m saying? Money can’t buy loyalty, man.
Omar had a code of ethics. You may not agree with his morals or his ideals, however, you could set your watch by him that he was not gonna break codes for anything or anybody, or no amount of money. It’s code.
Man’s gotta have a code, right?
‘Battlestar Galactica’ (2004-09)
Because it reduced humanity to essentials.
Even in our current age of reboots, no show has surpassed its original incarnation as spectacularly as “Battlestar Galactica.” Ronald D. Moore and David Eick reimagined a mystical 1970s space opera as a dark and epic tale of survival that for several seasons was a seamless combination of large-scale action, close-quarters character drama and pop-political philosophy.
The premise would have been provocative at any time: A bitter race of robots gets the drop on humanity (with the help of a human traitor) and nearly extincts us, killing all but about 50,000 survivors, who spend the series fleeing through space on a motley collection of ships led by the titular battleship. That the show came along at the height of the post-9/11 “war on terror” gave an extra resonance to its pervasive mood of existential dread, and made its depictions of religious fanaticism (on the part of the robots!), torture and massacre particularly topical.
— MIKE HALE
Because it knew the border between civilization and savagery was porous, and patrolled by opportunists.
Anna Gunn, who portrayed Martha Bullock (as told to Jeremy Egner):
David [Milch, the creator] always said, “This is the way they talked,” down to the obscenities. There was a formality to the language.
I’ve done Shakespeare, so it was in my wheelhouse. But it is a different thing to be dealing with a mouthful of that kind of stuff on camera — rather than standing on stage and projecting it to 3,000 people — to make it tumble out and be as effortless as possible.
As Martha, unfortunately, I did not get to indulge in the obscenity. She’s a woman of not as many words, but they are very carefully chosen. There was a scene in the Bullocks’ house, after Martha becomes aware that Seth [Timothy Olyphant] has been messing around with Alma [Molly Parker], and she’s very angry. And I’m going up the stairs and I say something like, “I repudiate you.”
It was so formal. But what she’s saying is “[expletive] you.”
Because at its best, it was the most fun you could have watching TV.
Damon Lindelof, co-creator and co-showrunner (as told to Jeremy Egner):
I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time talking about the beginning of “Lost” — the pilot and first season — and then the final episode, an ending for which I still make no apologies. But I now have more perspective on the 119 hours that happened between those two poles.
After the pilot, the thing that most people were saying, myself included, was, “How do you keep these people on an island, and make that interesting to watch?” The lesson is to keep running, and I give myself a little latitude for just finishing the marathon. The theory that continues to drive me bonkers is the idea that they were dead the whole time. That makes no sense to me because in the finale, as the characters all come together in this church before they move on to whatever their next life is, there are characters there who were not on the plane — Desmond and Penny, Benjamin Linus, Juliet. If they were dead the whole time, how would they have met characters who were not even on Oceanic 815?
It definitely creates some brow furrowing. But I’ve decided that on my tombstone it will say: “Here lies Damon Lindelof. He was dead the whole time.”
‘Veronica Mars’ (2004-07)
Because tough and vulnerable never went together so well.
Premiering on UPN a year after “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” left the air, “Veronica Mars” continued to prove that TV for a younger audience could be smart, sophisticated in its storytelling and emotionally complex. Its run was short, and its third and final season on CW, post merger, sagged a little. But while it lasted, it was a peerless blend of neo-noir mystery and teenage romantic drama, each addictive in its own right — a type of synthesis that’s frequently attempted and seldom perfected.
— MIKE HALE
‘Grey’s Anatomy’ (2005-present)
Because we all need our “person.”
“Grey’s Anatomy” isn’t just one of the best dramas. It is also the most drama.
Plane crashes. Ferry crashes. A crazed gunman. A train derailment. Grieving parents, frightened children, abuse survivors, traumatic births. But also sex and romance and love triangles, quadrangles and irregular polygons. “Grey’s Anatomy” elevates female friendship above all bonds and sees professional excellence as a baseline qualification. It understands grief.
“Grey’s Anatomy” was the first Shonda Rhimes show, and it remains her best (as a creator or as an executive producer). And try as they might, no other contemporary doctor show comes close to the emotional depth or clever dialogue of early “Grey’s,” or to the sustained melodrama and potency of its current incarnation.
— MARGARET LYONS
‘Friday Night Lights’ (2006-11)
Because it had clear eyes and a full heart.
As those of us who have evangelized for this show for years constantly tell people, “Friday Night Lights” is not really about high school football. It’s about Dillon, Texas.
Dillon, Texas, in turn, is totally about high school football. Football is on the radio and in the yard signs and at the barbecues. Dillon reminisces about football past and dreams about football future. It comes together over football, it falls apart over football. The way “FNL” understood this — why a game can be so consuming to a working-class small town, how the need for hope can be both sustaining and dangerous — is what made it one of TV’s best dramas, not just about high school but about community.
Of course, there’s football, too, with hard hits and sidelines drama and more than the statistically likely percentage of games decided on the last play. But the most memorable moments are Coach Taylor’s [Kyle Chandler] locker-room speeches, which bring it back to honor, faith and the family watching from the stands: “Those are the people I want in your minds. Those are the people I want in your hearts.”
This is a football story that cares as much about the spectators as the players, because it knows that none of them got where they are by themselves.
— JAMES PONIEWOZIK
‘Mad Men’ (2007-15)
Because the sleekest surfaces can mask the deepest wounds.
Matthew Weiner, creator (as told to Jeremy Egner):
I wrote the pilot of “Mad Men” before I started as a writer on “The Sopranos,” so there’s seven years between the pilot and writing the second episode of “Mad Men.” Whatever I had intended the show to be when I wrote that pilot was very different after seeing how seriously David Chase took human behavior. Real human behavior.
So instead of having a potboiler with people stealing each other’s folders and trying to get each other fired, and that sort of office intrigue — not that “Mad Men” didn’t have any of that — you have Peggy [Elisabeth Moss] with a psychic scar for the entire show, after giving away that baby. That’s the kind of thing that would have never occurred to me before I was on “The Sopranos.”
“Maidenform,” in the second season, is the first episode of the show where I was like, “This cannot be done on any other show.” Because it’s so psychological and it’s about an idea, which is, “How am I perceived by other people?”
At the time, I was like, “Is anybody going to understand this?” Because we’re telling a story here that probably looks like something about Don’s [Jon Hamm] busted romance, and conflict in the office, and Peggy trying to get ahead. But what it really is, is “I look in the mirror and I don’t like what I see. What do other people see?” And that’s because I’ve created this false self.
Just that sentence that I gave you right there — I would have never thought that was the subject of a TV show if I hadn’t sat in a room with David Chase for four years. Even though it is the substance of our lives.
‘Breaking Bad’ (2008-13)
Because on some level, we all want to be the one who knocks.
Anna Gunn, who portrayed Skyler White (as told to Jeremy Egner):
Every character broke bad in his or her own way.
Skyler’s ability to lie, to don the persona of the ditsy accountant to get what she wanted — she’s really good at it. As the show goes along, everybody has those kinds of things revealed. It’s always in moments of crisis that human beings show their true character.
In the beginning, Vince [Gilligan, the creator] told me, “I see her as Carmela Soprano, but in on the crime.” He was going to have her take a similar path to Walt [Bryan Cranston], in that she would become her own Heisenberg. She did in some ways but she didn’t fully, and that was really smart to keep her on her own trajectory. She continued to catch herself and go “Wait, what? No, no, no. This is not who I want to be.”
The first time we saw a screening of the “Breaking Bad” pilot, as a group, we sat in a stunned silence for a second afterward, thinking “This is extraordinary.” But you still wonder: It’s so out there, are people going to connect to it? Is it actually going to see the light of day? And then it did.
‘The Good Wife’ (2009-16)
Because it turned a victim cliché into a treatise on power.
Michelle and Robert King, creators (edited from a joint interview with Jeremy Egner):
“The Good Wife” was about soft power — the use of power that is not announcing itself as power. I think Alicia [Julianna Margulies] got really distraught about power and how she utilized it over the seven seasons, and I think by the end she needed a rebirth of some kind. She probably went on to be involved in the MeToo movement, and on the front lines of the political resistance.
When we were starting the series, all of these wives were forced to stand by their misbehaving men. Then as the show took off, they kind of stopped needing to do that — by turning a TV spotlight on it, we pointed out what a cliché it was. If the show has a positive legacy, it’s probably that we helped women not have to stand by their scandalized husbands.
‘Adventure Time’ (2010-18)
Because it made magic.
You might well ask, why put a cartoon on a best drama list? I would answer, why not? If Pendleton Ward’s sprawling, postapocalyptic saga were live-action, rather than gorgeously rendered animation, it would be classified with “Lost,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and other dramas that balance fantastical story lines with humor and bursting heart. That it did so in kaleidoscopic, 11-minute episodes for audiences of all ages is a credit, not a demerit.
The story of Finn, a foundling in the magical and once-devastated Land of Ooo, “Adventure Time” evolved from a whimsical action-adventure into a sprawling story of abandoned children, surrogate families and self-discovery. It grew up as its protagonist did, teaching its viewers that while the battle of good against evil can be thrilling, it’s rarely simple. It had the vast, well-imagined cast of a saga like “Game of Thrones,” along with a stunning visual language and a through sense of empathy.
Surreal, wise and often heartbreaking, “Adventure Time” may look like kids’ stuff. (It is, in fact, outstanding kids’ stuff.) But under its confectionery surface lies the material of great drama. It’s a wonderland of broken, misfit toys learning to fix one another.
— JAMES PONIEWOZIK
Because it knew that being good is hard work.
Many of the post-"Sopranos” dramas listed here attempted to understand evil (“The Shield”) or people sliding toward evil (“Breaking Bad”) or the moral conflicts of people engaged in evil deeds (“The Americans”). This entire era of drama, in a way, was a response to an earlier era of TV in which moral issues were simple, clear and settled in an hour with commercials.
“Enlightened,” in its 18 half hours, stood apart by engaging with what it means to be good, and the difficulty of getting there.
We meet Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern), a low-level office worker for a slickly exploitative megacorporation, on the rebound from a nervous breakdown. She’s embraced the language of conscience and consciousness, but she’s still racked with resentment and envy. She wants to change the world but do well for herself in the process, and, at first, she uses her do-gooderism passive-aggressively, as a cudgel.
But that’s life; that’s morality. The urge to do right doesn’t just drop from heaven. It can come from ego and regret and anger as much as from altruism and self-denial. If the world is to get better, it has to come through the fumbling efforts of those of us, who, like Amy, are no bodhisattvas.
— JAMES PONIEWOZIK
‘The Americans’ (2013-18)
Because it made even the unsexy details of espionage — and marriage — thrilling.
Alison Wright, who played Martha (as told to Jeremy Egner):
Personally, I see my friends in situations every day where I say, “How can she not see what’s going on here?” We all have denial and blind spots about loads of things, especially when it comes to our love lives. Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields [the showrunners] did a great job of writing a complicated woman, and they obviously made it believable at some point. It felt like most people were eventually on her side.
I like to imagine that somehow she met up with Anton Baklanov [Michael Aronov]. Remember him? The physicist who was kidnapped? I always thought he and Martha would make a great couple. Sitting depressed together.
But if she saw Clark in Moscow, I’d like to think she would stop and stare at him for a little while, and turn around and walk the other way. Especially since he’d probably be there with his wife.
Because it understood patience.
“Rectify” isn’t like any other show. Unlike lots of thematically dark shows, it’s visually bright and sunshine-y, with a humidity that borders on fecundity. Its slowness is ethereal — Season 1 takes place over just six days — but its plot does move forward, more than some other more traditionally paced dramas out there.
The criminally underseen series, created by Ray McKinnon, stars Aden Young as Daniel Holden, who was wrongly convicted as a teenager of raping and murdering his girlfriend.
As with all human tragedy, Daniel’s story isn’t only his. His siblings and stepsiblings have spun into individualized realms of dysfunction, and sometimes it feels like the entire small town where they live has a raw and unresolved central wound.
“Rectify” puts its characters under a powerful but loving microscope, and we get to see their full humanity, from the way they say or don’t say “I love you” to the way they impatiently and loudly chug water. This meticulous, miraculous sense of specificity is sharp and dense enough to cast a powerful shadow, and the bigger tale becomes one about what fills in society in the absence of justice.
— MARGARET LYONS
‘The Leftovers’ (2014-17)
Because it pondered the big questions without feeling ponderous.
Damon Lindelof, creator (as told to Jeremy Egner):
Showrunners do have favorite episodes, they just won’t admit it. I’m very partial to the first “International Assassin” episode.
We started with a version that was very trippy and Kubrickian, and a little obtuse. It was feeling super self-serious and not fun to watch. The only thing that survived that version was the manifestation of Patti as a little girl. Then it was like: Oh, Kevin’s got to kill that little girl in order to get rid of the adult Patti.
That’s a good challenge for him, but the world and its rules were so artsy fartsy. We just couldn’t get invested in it.
So we were in the writers’ room and someone said, “I wish it was just like ‘Three Days of the Condor,’ and someone told him he had to assassinate Senator Patti Levin.” And everybody laughed. Then there was a five-second moment where everyone was looking at each other like: “Wait a minute, can we do that? What does that look like?” And then we were off to the races.
Because it redefined the TV family.
Jill Soloway, creator (as told to Aisha Harris):
We’re working on the finale so I’m asking this question of, “What does it need to wrap up this story?” A few things have always been present. One is this big question: Will you still love me if ...? And this question that people and families ask each other: “Will you still love me if I come out? Will you still love me if I’m an alcoholic? Will you still love me if I have an affair? Will you still love me if I set a boundary?”
I think the action of this family, for me, has always been this idea [that] the secret is the boundary. Now that the secret is gone, where do you start, where do I end?
In the pilot they think Maura is giving them the house. They showed up at that barbecue dinner in the pilot to say “We want our inheritance.” But it turns out their inheritance is one of queerness, and trans-ness.
‘Jane the Virgin’ (2014-present)
Because its loving sendup of telenovelas paired shocking plot twists with political bite.
Jennie Snyder Urman, creator (as told to Aisha Harris):
I really think of it as a true hybrid. We make sure that every episode has comic set pieces, but the big beating heart underneath the show is dramatic. I think our seasons really take shape around the more dramatic elements of the show.
The greatest pain comes with a lot of laughter and vice versa.
Jane, Xiomara and Alba — that’s 100 percent the central relationship that we’re tracking and that I think changes and evolves the most. Who Jane’s going to end up with is certainly a central thread and central to the genre and central to romance, the telenovela and all of that. But the central love story in the show is the three women.
Because it pushes TV’s boundaries through keen cultural observations, layered characters and inventive absurdism.
Zazie Beetz, who plays Vanessa (as told to Aisha Harris):
I definitely think of it as a drama; it’s how I approach it. I found it interesting that it was billed as a comedy, initially. There is a lot more tonal nuance to the show than I think what we associate with sitcoms or the general definition of comedy. And I find when I watch the show on my own, I don’t laugh that much. The show doesn’t have to land jokes, it just has to land truth.
People have been raised to generally associate black TV shows with comedy. And because our show is being advertised as a comedy, it might not have the same commercial weight as being evaluated as a dramatic performance. But it is both. Life is both, and I think that “Atlanta” is trying to capture elements of both of those things.
THE TOUGHEST OMISSIONS
Spoiler alert! Our critics and editors didn’t agree on every entry on the list. Here are the ones they wish had made the cut, and why.
“Halt and Catch Fire”: It’s one of TV’s best stories about work, the medium through which its characters communicate, fall apart and come together again. — James Poniewozik
“Queen Sugar”: A slow-burner centered on multiple generations of a black southern family that expertly walks the line between high art and sudsy melodrama. — Aisha Harris
“Justified”: This clever and literate crime drama is a pungent celebration of regional folkways and humor, and showcases one of the most talented, idiosyncratic acting ensembles TV has offered. — Mike Hale
“Southland”: The only worthy heir to “The Shield.” — Margaret Lyons
“Game of Thrones”: This grimy allegory about the world-shattering wages of unchecked ambition and cycles of vengeance is presented at a scale and with a technical virtuosity that demolished the previous parameters of television like a zombie dragon laying waste to an ice wall. — Jeremy Egner
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.