Television: A Definitive Guide to What You Should (and Shouldn’t!) Be Watching

I realize that this post is ENTIRELY subjective, and that different people have different tastes. Which is ok! But since I’ve had a Netflix subscription (ok, my parents have had a Netflix subscription) for the past 6+ years, and I’ve intermittently had access to HBO Go, I’ve watched a fair number of the hyped-up shows. I also like to joke that I’m a serial quitter… get it? (Strained laugh). So I’ll tell you about both the shows that I love as well as those that I either couldn’t stand right away or that took a couple of seasons to go sour on me.

In general, this post is organized from Best → Worst. For my top recommendations, read the first portion, and to discover which shows I utterly loathe, skip to the very bottom.

My #1 TV show of all time: The Wire
The Wire
My opinion here is nothing unique; The Wire has been praised countless times as the best show that’s ever appeared on air. Set in Baltimore, this gritty police drama is an incredibly accurate and depressingly realistic portrayal of inner-city life in contemporary America. I never felt like I was wasting my time when I was watching this show; on the contrary, I always felt like I was learning something. Each season has a unique narrative arc and thematic focus; colloquially, they are referred to as  Season 1, drugs; Season 2, unions; Season 3, politics; Season 4, schools; and Season 5, media. Fair warning: there is an inordinate amount of cursing in this show. I’m 100% OK with foul language, but the pilot episode still managed to shock me. Just power through episode one, accept that Bunk is a hilarious character, and make it over the “season two hump” (the only slightly weak season in the whole series), and you’ll be extremely grateful to yourself.  Just wait until you meet Omar and his shotgun!

The Other Incredible Drama: Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad
Like many people, I was initially skeptical about Breaking Bad, not least because my parents told me I had to watch it. Well mom & dad, you were right: It is phenomenal. I’d been watching it for a couple of years when, suddenly, somewhere around the end of season three/beginning of season four, the show exploded in popularity. I was both astonished and extremely pleased that this amazing character drama was finally getting the recognition it deserved from critics and mass audiences alike.

You’re probably all familiar with the story by now: lovable and kind high school Chemistry teacher Walter White is diagnosed with lung cancer. Understandably, he panics at the thought of dying and leaving behind his pregnant wife and disabled son. Mr. White puts his Chemistry knowledge to the test and quickly becomes an accomplished methamphetamine cook. He recruits his former student and general low-life Jessie to be his partner. Though some people complained that the show took a long time to establish itself, I’ve never been fussy about pacing, and thoroughly enjoyed the first two seasons. Others claimed that the show took a deep dive in quality midway through; I couldn’t disagree more. Every single episode in the last season ends on a cliffhanger. Waiting an entire year to see Hank’s reaction was excruciating! It’s another show that I can’t recommend enough.

The Fabulously Funny Shows

I thought I had more entries in the drama category, but I guess not. Of the eight shows I’d call “incredible,” six are comedies (well, I suppose Louie is about half-and-half). I’ll just run through these quickly, as you can’t go wrong with any of them.

Flight of the Conchords

Flight of the Conchords is a campy, fabulously corny, and quirky to a fault. Created by New Zealand comedy duo Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, each episode features two or three outrageously bad, and therefore outrageously funny, song spoofs. My favorite? The pseudo-rap “Hipphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros.”
Another show that has me rolling on the floor, but which I think is comparatively less well-known, is Extras by Ricky Gervais. It’s chock-full of celebrity guest stars making fools out of themselves. The main character, played by Gervais, is an unlucky, slightly porky, middle-aged actor who’s never caught his big break—and thus has resigned himself to always being cast as an “extra” in TV shows and films. When he finally gets the fame he craves, he manages to do an excellent job destroying his entire life.

Arrested Development

Arrested Development is a cult classic at this point. It’s about a rich white family that has become stupendously backwards after years of living like parasitic beings. Michael Bluth is the only reasonably sane one, and even then he’s constantly making bad decisions. The show can be frustrating, but it’s also witty, incredibly entertaining, and dizzyingly self-referential. My favorite subplot is the multi-episode arc starring Charlize Theron as a British spy.
Louie is probably the most depressing comedy out there. But it’s amazing, in part, for precisely that reason. Louis C.K. has a biting sense of humor and a solidly unhealthy outlook on life. Peppered with bits from his standup routines, Louie is a show about a normal guy living a lonely, divorced life in New York and struggling to make it through the everyday absurdities that seem to affect him more than most.

The Boondocks Chappelle's Show

And now for the comedies infused with social criticism. The Boondocks, created by Aaron McGruder and based on his comic strip of the same name, is the only animated show on this list. Narrated by Huey, an intelligent and well-reasoned African-American boy growing up in a wealthy, predominately white suburb, The Boondocks is sharp, shocking, and satirical. Likewise, Dave Chappelle’s enormously popular Comedy Central show Chappelle’s Show has attained legendary status because of its unforgiving skits about racism, sexism, and pop culture figures. Famously canceled after just two years on the air, it’s well-worth investing in the box set.

Worth the Hype

Orange is the New Black

Yes, it really is as good as everyone says! Don’t let the first couple of episodes turn you off, because they are the weakest episodes in the series’ two-season run. Women, prison, relationships, drama, corruption, racism, empathy, and lesbian sex galore. It has it all.
Game of Thrones
With incredibly high production values, complex characters, a medieval setting, and incredible actors, Game of Thrones is just as good as everyone says. See My 5 Reasons for liking the series.

Office, House of Cards, Parks and Rec

Also deserving of the popularity that has been lobbed their way: The Office (a shockingly accurate portrayal of the sluggish corporate lives that many Americans lead), House of Cards (dark, ruthless, and twisted), and Parks and Recreation (cheesy, quirky, and substantially better starting with season 2).

Honorable Mentions

Coming directly after the “Incredible” and “Worth the Hype” categories are the TV shows that are still very, very good, but not quite great.

Treme is set in post-hurricane Katrina New Orleans. While I sometimes get tired of the excessive “city pride” that saturates the show, it’s an amazing way to learn about the city’s unique music scene. It took me a few episodes before I was hooked.
True Detective
True Detective became a smash hit almost instantly. I was enamored of the first few episodes, but thought the series ended on a weak note. Nonetheless, the cinematography is gorgeous, and if you want an eerie, haunting look into the psychoses of the American South, then HBO’s latest crime drama is a solid choice.

Shows that Started Strong / Shows that are Decent

TV that went sour

You know how I said that I tend to give up on TV shows? Well, I loved all six of these shows at one point, but after a while they just weren’t worth watching anymore. Seasons 1 & 2 of Mad Men contain some of the best TV that’s ever been produced; season 3 was still good, and then Megan appeared in season 4 and it was all downhill from there. The West Wing has amazing characterization, but the unquestionably patriotic overtones get old very quickly. The first two seasons of The Walking Dead are absolutely terrifying, but then it starts deteriorating — just like the rotting zombies. I watched House, M.D. religiously in high school, only to realize that it was making me slightly depressed. Scrubs was the lighthearted medical show that went bananas around season 5/6. And finally, Boardwalk Empire was excellent for the first two seasons, before descending into an aimless bloodbath in season 3. Basically, the bottom line here is that many TV shows only stay good for the first 1-2 seasons. To quote Batman: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain.”

Also in this category, but weren’t as good to begin with: Bones, Glee (though past season two it’s pure tripe), True Blood, and Weeds.
Ok shows
This next group of shows I consider decent. They aren’t masterpieces by any means, but they have their quality moments and you don’t need to feel embarrassed to admit that you watch them. The Middle is about an utterly average family of four and their amusing monetary woes. I think everybody knows about Modern Family by now; I don’t really watch it much anymore because the Sofia hype got to be a bit much, but it had some genuinely funny moments in the first couple of seasons. Downton Abbey is ridiculously dramatic, but somehow quite addicting, and I feel like the actors do a surprisingly good job considering the material they’re given to work with. Finally, Bored to Death is a funny little show starring Jason Schwartzman as a cowardly pseudo-detective. Utterly unrealistic (there are never any consequences), but that’s part of its charm. I almost forgot 30 Rock and South Park! But they belong in this category, too.

The shows I just didn’t get along with

Shows I didn't get along with
And then there are the shows that just didn’t sit well with me, for whatever reason: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Homeland, Veep, Doctor Who, Heroes, Curb Your Enthusiasm, American Horror Story, The Big Bang Theory, Law & Order, How I Met Your Mother,and Portlandia. Some of these shows are considered classics; others could probably be placed in the “Disgustingly Terrible” category (see below). Then again, I don’t think these shows necessarily deserve condemnation, but I do think that you’re wasting your time by watching them since there’s much better stuff out there.

The Disgustingly Terrible Ones that You Should be Ashamed of Yourself for Watching


Long subtitle, but I obviously feel strongly about this. My most-hated TV show of all time is Girls, followed closely by The Vampire Diaries and Sex and the CityGirls makes me ashamed of my generation. The show is an exercise in sloppy nepotism, and none of the characters have any redeeming qualities. That’s right; they aren’t “complex” or “realistic” because they “have problems” (Oh, woe is me, I live in New York City in my early 20s!); they’re simply spoiled, foolish, and, as a result, bordering on misanthropic.

Sex and the City
My dislike for Sex and the City also knows no bounds. It’s supposed to be a show about female liberation, when really it’s a textbook on corporate feminism (see: Sheryl Sandberg). Independence, intelligence, utility, and femininity do not depend on one’s ability to pop into Saks and pick up a pair of Manolo Blahniks. And for all of the credit that the show gets for supporting the concept of friendship, there’s an astonishing amount of inconsistency, detachment, and even manipulation among the four so-called friends. (Imagine if one of them suddenly couldn’t afford to dine out for brunch anymore. Would she still be included in “the circle”? I think not). Don’t even get me started on the show’s dysfunctional attitude toward relationships.

The other shows in this category are just… bad. I reserve special vehemence for Girls and Sex and the City mostly because they often get praised for being something they’re not: feminist. The same goes for Scandal. (See my full review of that shameful show here). The remainder of the shows — Vampire Diaries, Nip/Tuck, Little Britain, Pretty Little Liars, Drop Dead Diva, 2 Broke Girls, Supernatural, and Alphas — are the kind that actively kill your brain cells as you watch. Please, do yourself a favor and watch something that makes sense. Even Downton Abbey is miles better than this detritus!

Shows I Want to Watch / Shows I’ll Probably Never Watch

There are some canonical TV shows that I’ve never watched for one reason or another. These include: Seinfeld, Lost, The Simpsons, 24, Everybody Loves Raymond, Entourage, The Sopranos, Sherlock, and Family Guy. I’ve already decided that I probably won’t like these shows, with the possible exception of Sherlock. So… don’t bother trying to convince me.

The Good Wife

As for shows that I would like to start watching… Masters of SexNathan For You, Hung, The Good Wife, and Pushing Daisies are currently on the list. Is there anything else that I’m missing? Something that would appeal to my extremely high standards? Let me know in the comments below!

And this, ladies and gentlemen, concludes my thesis.
THANK YOU for reading, and congratulations if you made it all the way through!

House of Cards: First Impressions

Yes, I realize I’m late to the party. But the advantage is that I’m able to judge not only the television show, but also the hype around it. Plus, there are a full 26 episodes to watch, and I’m only 2 in.

When David Fincher’s name flashed during the pilot’s opening credits, I thought, What?! David Fincher? This is going to be good. Among cinephiles, he’s well-known for his recent successes The Social Network and the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Oh, and let’s not forget the dark and visceral Fight Club back in the 1990s, or that twisted movie Se7en–in which, wouldn’t you know it, Kevin Spacey played a clever and calculating murderer. He’s also responsible for  Zodiac, based on the real-life serial killer of the same name, as well as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. All movies that I very much enjoyed, with the exception of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button–and that was largely because of the sentimental script.

Because it’s late, and because numbered lists are easy to read, here are 5 things about House of Cards that have impressed me so far:

1). It’s brooding.
I would include an image to illustrate my point, but in the process of trying to find an appropriate one, I uncovered a major plot spoiler so I’m going to have to just express myself verbally without using screen shots from the show. As I would expect from a Fincher-backed series, House of Cards is dark, melancholy, and bordering on funereal. Often, half the screen will be obscured; the color palette is mostly black, white, and gray. The lack of illumination, coupled with the drab depictions of national monuments and stately buildings, makes everything seem as though it’s taking place in shadow in the vampiric underworld of Washington D.C.

2). The characters are cruel, calculating, and complex.
By this I’m referring mostly to Frank Underwood–a dangerously intelligent and revengeful Congressman–as well as his wife, depicted by the fabulous Robin Wright, whose cruelty and regimentation seemingly know no boundaries. (Anyone recognize Wright as editor Erika Berger from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?) But these characteristics apply to more than just the top-billed actors; no one in Washington D.C. is to be trusted. I mentioned a while ago that I had to stop watching The West Wing because I got sick of its pomposity and unquestioning patriotism. While I’m not heavily involved in politics by any means, I suspect that House of Cards is a much more accurate depiction of the capital.

3). The unified, series-long plot.
There are no dangling threads here: all conversations contain a clue, and the smallest gestures and facial expressions can be used as fodder for blackmail. Characters may disappear, yes, but not accidentally, and certainly not through the inattention of a drowsy screenwriter. The strongest TV shows, in my opinion, tend follow this complex format: The Wire, whose 5 seasons are now famously known by monikers; Breaking Bad, where each season was another chapter in Walter White’s moral de-evolution; and even Game of Thrones, largely because it’s based on a series of neatly-divided books. I’m already looking forward to the implosion that’s sure to take place at the end of season one!

4). The beautiful cinematography.
You might think I covered this in point #1, but what I’m referring to here is not the lighting, but rather the placement of the camera and the mise-en-scène with which the camera interacts. We’re only about a minute into the first episode when Frank Underwood breaks the 4th wall, turning to and addressing the camera directly. It’s unsettling, and while I question its effectiveness–for whom, exactly, is Underwood narrating his actions?–it certainly does a good job of distinguishing the series. The framing of each shot feels very intentional, in such a way as to underscore the chess-like maneuvers of its subjects. I realize “intentional framing” probably sounds redundant, but House of Cards is quite reminiscent of American Psycho in that regard. The audience is more aware than usual of what is, and what isn’t, revealed in each frame, and the timing, choreography, and motion are quick, calculating, precise.

5). The score.
I had a goal to pay better attention to music in film, so how auspicious that I’ve decided to start with House of Cards! To put it simply, the score is fantastic. Quite a lot of the music sounds classical, and since I get more excited about orchestral music than any other genre, I find that the sometimes lush, sometimes enigmatic, strings greatly enhance Underwood’s delicate manipulations. Much of the time, though, the screen seems to pulsate with a deep, echoey electric cello, or an artificially low, sustained piano note. I even like the darkly majestic theme song. Hats off to composer Jeff Beal.

Cheers, Netflix, on another quality original series! (Orange is the New Black is also very, very good). I can’t wait to watch the house of cards come tumbling down.