Warning: Contains very mild spoilers for all series mentioned.
I have watched quite a bit of series. Many of them I finished or don't see myself stopping to watch soon, and since I made this marvelous post about Series I Stopped Watching, I feel that a counterweight is in order. Not of all of it is good, but at least I finished it and didn't stop in the middle. The order in which they come doesn't say anything about preference, only my memory. Some of the shows are still running, so in fact, the jury is out whether I'll finish them. If not, I'll move them. I noted how many seasons constitutes "finished" at the time of this writing. So, there comes the stuff I did finish, and now I will take the time to tell you why, and you may stop reading anytime and consider what you've read up to this point as wasted time. Let's go.
Battlestar Galactica. Four seasons. The one SiFi-show you need to watch, Battlestar Galactica combines great (although short) space battles with much politicking and, unfortunately, mystery seeking on board a space aircraft carrier. The show consciously parallels many features and developments of early 21st century American politics, including the invasion of Iraq and the influence of religious extremism, avoiding to take a too clear-cut position on the issues and resolving them firmly set in the BSG universe, therefore giving food for thought without patronizing the viewer, a feat Aaron Sorkin seems incapable of.
Breaking Bad. Five seasons. Breaking Bad is one of the best series ever, period. It has a great cast of characters with real and credible development, the most cohesive storylines ever, going through the logical conclusions with incredible determination. It's filming style is impressive, providing unique perspectives and interesting compositions. If you haven't watched it yet, go out today and start to do it. I mean it.
Boardwalk Empire. Five seasons. Boardwalk Empire is a period piece, revelling in the costumes and set design. What suffers from it are obviously the characters, who are more functions than real persons, as well as the suspense. Like so many mafia stories, Boardwalk Empire has a rather slow pace in telling its stories, but it's worth it. Again, we have a multitude of characters interwoven with each other and going on their business, creating a really good feeling of a connected, existing and breathing world that is not only there for the characters to inhabit.
Caprica. One season. The prequel to Battlestar Galactica only made it to one season of running time after being cancelled, and it's easy to understand why. The story is all over the place, the characters are very moody and broody and difficult to sympathize with, the style is bleak and some of it looks like from a 90s MTV video. On the other hand, the show explores some great questions and themes and commands interesting characters, although their arcs are sometimes a bit mishandled.
Carnivale. Two Seasons. I really, really liked the setting of the series in the
30s dustbowle, although the mundane parts always connected more with
them me than the mystic stuff about prophecies and special powers. The
sets are great, the characters interesting, and the mood and ambience
almost unparalleled. From today's standpoint, the series - which was cancelled after the second season - is a clear forerunner of things to come later, but like Rome or Deadwood, HBO wasn't really sure about the market back in the day.
|If this looks strange, wait for what's within.|
Deadwood. Three Seasons. The Western series mirrors the historical development of the small town Deadwood in today's South Dakota, where the pioneeres build up their own fortunes or dig their own graves outside US jurisdiction in the closing days of what is today known as the Wild West. Far from simply idealizing "ye olden times", the show grapples with difficult themes such as prostitution, violence and local politics in this unique setting. There are many characters whose attitudes (and language) are difficult to undertand, but many of them command a charisma that make it compelling to watch even if you lost track of who wants to achieve what before they catch a bullet in the belly.
Fargo. Three seasons. Really great series with a weird and surreal edge, true to the spirit of the Coen brother's original. I found the first season to be better than the second, but both of them really are worth the watch. In both, you have criminals entering the everyday lives of everyday people in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. The series has great acting and is stunning in its portrayal of stupid people, which is harder than it sounds.
Firefly. 14 episodes. Joss Whedon's classic SiFi series was unfortunately cancelled after only 14 episodes. It's not that it was perfect and really great material; the show has many flaws, such as the very low budget, the lack of development over more than one episode, the only superficial worldbuilding and others. But it's teeming with fresh ideas and a swaggering bravado that has no equal in the genre. Firefly is a fun ride, nothing like the serious dramas mentioned above, and it excels at just being fun. Not every episode reaches this goal, but enough to make it great.
Game of Thrones. Eight seasons. The adaptation of the "A Song of Ice and Fire" series has its problems (especially the handling of Catelyn and Jon comes to mind) and can only be really enjoyed as one really, really large movie rather than a series of episodes, but the sprawling cast of great characters, really good actors, good production design and genuinely clever ideas in deviating from the original plot make this series highly recommendable. For more information I advise to read into Blue Buddha Press' "It Is Known" series, to which I contributed one book myself.
John Adams. One season. It's not a big accomplishment to finish a series that has only seven episodes, of course, but they feel like at least fourteen. That's not to say that they are bad, but I think it wasn't the best call of HBO to really depict all of John Adam's political life. The sequences in Europe are dragging on endlessly, especially since Adams is sick a very long time, and dignified people talking only rescues so much, no matter what great actors portray them. I really love the first two episodes that concern themselves with the Boston Massacre and the Declaration of Independence, but it's somewhat downhill from there.
Lost. Six seasons. Lost is surely the one show that I regret finishing. My wife and I really did want to know how it ended, despairing more and more about the new and totally unmotivated characters (the Japanese guy, the demigods, etc.) and especially the deranged plotlines that the creators were starting to heap onto each other in a desperate attempt to avoid resolving the old ones. Look, a hatch with numbers! Look, a camp of the Others! Look, time travel! Look, another dimension! Look, the afterlife! Eh, what? And still we don't know anything. It doesn't help that the show has some really sucking characters that will strain your nerves by repeating themselves over and over and over and over and over again. Looking at you, Shepard and Kat.
Mad Men. Seven seasons. The series covers the 1960s as kind of a bourgeois panorama shot, following the fortunes and misfortunes of a group of ad men (the titular "Mad Men") through the social upheaval of the decade. The show is fascinating for its multi-layered focus on themes, carefully constructing set, costumes, character and plot to fit it, elevating it to literature levels. It is also interesting for the lack of change in the characters who are stuck in a changing world and utterly fail to cope with it - getting overrun by the changes of the 1960s is no fun experience for these 1950s-style wannabe-patriarchs growing old.
Rome. Two seasons. Like Deadwood, Rome mirrors historical developments, in this case the rises of Caesar and Augustus. Unlike Deadwood, however, the plot is faster paced and easier to understand, in large parts thanks to an almost ridiculous amount of gratious violence and nudity. Historians agree that the show is not as faithful as it tries to be by far, but it is certainly one that comes closest to actual Classical Rome. It helps that it has interesting and in the case of Pullo even likeable characters, another thing that Deadwood lacked (which made it difficult, not bad, mind you). There's no reason at all not to check out Rome. It is a great series, and it's unfortunate that it was shelved by HBO after only two seasons due to the unparalleled production cost of about 100 million dollar per series.
The Sopranos. Six Seasons. The classic that started it all remains inherently watchable to this day, giving you a portrait of mobster life that really doesn't glamourize it too much. At times it's more a series about mental health that happens to include mobsters - those parts are weakest, I feel, because they feel VERY unscientific and made-up - but the study in violence that in my mind penetrates every second of this show is mesmerizing.
|In black and white, classic style, to remind you of the good old days.|
The West Wing. Seven seasons. While The West Wing suffers from much of the problems that many Sorkin productions have: a tendency of underdeveloping characters, a serious incapability of creating female characters and an overzealous celebration of workaholicism and elitism. But on the other hand it offers well researched and realistically feeling political machinations, clever plots, grand dialogue and a genuine idealism. And that makes up for a lot.
The Wire. Five seasons. Another HBO classic, The Wire takes you into urban Baltimore and deep into the bowels of the city, to the real bad neighbourhoods where gangs sling drugs and the police is unable to get in control. So far, it's your average crime-and-police-show, but you'll quickly notice that in reality, it's far more than that. It's a sociological study, taking you deep into the subcultures it explores, widening the scope with every season and refraining from easy black-and-white-patterns that make so many of these shows so primitive. The Wire is also difficult, but rewarding, at least if you discount the fifth season which is kind of stupid.
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Also check out "Series I stopped watching".