BFTV's 12 Best TV Drama Series Ever

March 1st, 2013 1:46pm EST

24 This week's issue of TV Guide featured that magazine's picks for the best dramas of all time. It's not a simple discussion, because there are and have been so many fantastic drama series on TV over the ages - some of which have gotten recognition and others that have flown largely under the radar. Here, then, is BFTV's list of the 12 best drama series I've seen over the last three decades - and why they've earned that recognition.
The following were the criteria for inclusion:
01) It had to be a series that I'd seen at least one full season of. It's not really fair to call something the "best ever" when it was only on for a handful of episodes (no matter how much I love Lone Star), and I can't accurately judge a show if I've only seen three episodes (sorry, Breaking Bad).
02) The list was composed strictly on personal opinion. This is not a list of the most popular drama series or the ones that are great right now or anything other than the 12 shows that I'm going to look back on in 20 years and say, "I'm really glad I watched that." Don't berate me if I excluded your favorite - because I may not like it as much as you do or I may not have seen it (see Rule 01).
03) It had to be a show that was consistently good. There are even more shows that I've liked half of, or certain seasons of, or certain episodes of. That doesn't make a show the "best ever."
In alphabetical order, the 12 Best Drama Series Ever...

When 24 hit the airwaves, it really did change the way audiences looked at television - not just because of its "events occur in real time" concept, but also because of its sharp and unpredictable scripts. From the very first episode, the FOX drama showed audiences that it was unafraid to break the conventions of normal TV. Things didn't get neatly wrapped up within each episode. Main characters were constantly at legitimate risk. Heroes became villains and villains became heroes. It was a series that actually deserved to be called "edge of your seat." Add one career-redefining performance by Kiefer Sutherland as super-agent Jack Bauer, plus a whole host of wonderful supporting players and guest actors - including Dennis Haysbert, Penny Johnson Jerald (Castle), Gina Torres (Suits), Reiko Aylesworth (Hawaii Five-O) and Xander Berkeley (Nikita) - and it was almost always can't-miss television. Now will we ever see that long-rumored movie version?
Just before Showtime scored big with Dexter, there was Brotherhood. One of the premium net's first original series, it gave us two phenomenal actors named Jason - Isaacs (Awake) and Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) - playing brothers from the same Rhode Island family on two distinctly different paths. Michael Caffee was a mobster and his brother Tommy a politician, but both had their sins and their axes to grind. It's hard enough to find one great lead actor for a show, but this one had two who were always on the top of their game. Series creator Blake Masters and his staff made sure that the cast - which also included Annabeth Gish (The X-Files), Fionnula Flanagan, Kevin Chapman (Person of Interest) and an underappreciated Ethan Embry - had material that they could really sink their teeth into. Brotherhood was the complex, sometimes dark, sometimes bloody story of a family and a neighborhood, and it's a shame that it never got more attention, because it was just as good if not better as some of the shows that followed it.

The Chicago Code
After Brotherhood, audiences got another chance to see Jason Clarke when he nabbed the starring role in Shawn Ryan's FOX drama The Chicago Code. Ryan is one of the best showrunners working in TV today if not ever, and no offense intended to fans of his other great shows, but Chicago Code was something special. It boasted another magnetic performance by Clarke, who proved that there's pretty much nothing he can't do amazingly well, and he was well-matched with Jennifer Beals (The L Word) as his character's former partner who rose through the ranks to become the Superintendent of Police. There wasn't a weak link in the ensemble, which also included Delroy Lindo, Matt Lauria (Friday Night Lights), Todd Williams, and Devin Kelley (Covert Affairs). It was a true shocker when this one got the axe - but it remains one of the best single seasons of television ever made.
The Equalizer
TV's most impressive hero in the 1980's was easily Robert McCall, the former spy whose idea of retirement was helping the less fortunate on CBS's The Equalizer. McCall didn't need to come up with a witty one-liner or shoot someone to prove that he was a badass; he just was one, with his unnervingly calm presence and willingness to take on any sort of injustice. His clients were average folks in sadly plausible situations, beyond the usual ones you'd see on TV, and he wasn't your typical hard-charging vigilante. As played by the late Edward Woodward, he had class while he was putting bad guys in their place. You'd be hard-pressed today to find a character as principled as McCall was. Making great use of its New York setting, The Equalizer gave us a hero who was always just a phone call away - and it never got old to see him confront someone who deserved it.

Homicide: Life on the Street
David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets is one of the best books ever written, so it's not surprising that the TV series created from it lands on this list. The gritty, compelling crime drama introduced small-screen audiences to award winners Andre Braugher (Last Resort) and Melissa Leo (The Fighter), as well as actor-director Clark Johnson (S.W.A.T. and countless TV shows). Richard Belzer originated his Law & Order: Special Victims Unit character John Munch on Homicide: Life on the Street (which crossed over with SVU as well as the original L&O during its run). The show was a departure from the usual New York or Los Angeles-based cop dramas, giving audiences a sense of Baltimore along with cases that were complicated, thought-provoking, and not always solved. Though it never quite recovered from the departure of Braugher, there are numerous episodes of Homicide that stand among the best ever. Try watching "The Subway," with a pre-Law & Order: Criminal Intent Vincent d'Onofrio, without getting rattled.
Human Target
A breath of fresh air upon its arrival on FOX, Human Target was the best TV adaptation of a comic-book property, and one of the most well-done in that genre, period. Series creator and first-season showrunner Jonathan E. Steinberg (Jericho) clearly loved the material, and had a great team around him to get it made right: comic co-creator Len Wein, director Simon West (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider), and scoring genius Bear McCreary (Battlestar Galactica), to say nothing of a stunt team that created awesome, film-quality action for the small screen. Great TV shows always come down to character, though, and Steinberg and Co. found the absolutely perfect Christopher Chance in Mark Valley, who actually improved on a great hero with his multifaceted performances. Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen) was another dose of awesome as Chance's enigmatic associate Guerrero, and both were balanced out by Chi McBride (Boston Legal) as the straight-laced Winston. It was a fun, exciting, epic adventure that was like nothing else, and it's still missed.

Book lovers know that Elmore Leonard is one of the world's best authors, and Leonard's wit and knack for quirky characters has found a whole new audience with the deserved success of FX's Justified. It's not the first time Leonard's work has been adapted for TV or film (remember Karen Sisco? Or Out of Sight?), but it's definitely the best. That's because it's got a white-hot leading man in Timothy Olyphant, who already established his badass credentials as Agent 47 in Hitman and Thomas Gabriel in Live Free or Die Hard, but is doing the best work of his career as Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. Like Robert McCall before him, Raylan is just as good without a gun in his hand as he is at making his shots. He's also surrounded by a vibrant cast of characters, from Walton Goggins (The Shield) as Boyd Crowder to one-episode players like Desmond Harrington (Dexter). There's nothing boring or flat about anything on Justified, which has proven this season that it can make some of the best drama on TV with just what's already in its arsenal.
Law & Order
It may seem formulaic now, but we forget that NBC's long-running show started the formula and made mainstream many of the things that we now expect from drama series, especially in the crime genre. Law & Order ripped stories from the headlines of the New York papers and made audiences chew on them, with very little fanfare and a variety of players, many of whom were better than they were given credit for. There was nothing at the time quite like a summation delivered by Michael Moriarty's EADA Ben Stone - at least, until Linus Roache played EADA Michael Cutter more than a decade later. Over 20 years, it also seemed like everyone who was anyone visited the series at some point, including a then-unknown Jennifer Garner, future West Wing stars John Spencer and Allison Janney, and Christine Baranski. TV buffs also have "the mothership" to thank for long-running favorite Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and ITV's Law & Order: UK, which itself is another of the best dramas to be produced.

Star Trek: The Next Generation
The entire Star Trek franchise has left its fingerprints on TV history, but it was the sequel series that proved there was still a place for Trek - and indeed, for all of science-fiction - on television. The Next Generation told stories as compelling as they were fantastic, from the sudden death of Tasha Yar in the episode "Skin of Evil" to its discussion of what defines humanity in "Measure of a Man," and introduced a whole new generation to the possibilities of the sci-fi genre. Over 20 million viewers routinely tuned in to watch the voyages of the USS Enterprise-D (to compare, the most-watched show on TV the day before this article was written, FOX's American Idol, garnered just over 13 million eyeballs). TNG introduced the Borg, perhaps the best Trek villains ever, and paved the way for Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise and that pair of blockbuster J.J. Abrams movies. 25 years later, it still holds up as a true classic.
Two seasons is relatively early to call a show one of the best ever made, but there's really no other way to describe USA's most popular original series. In that period of time, creator Aaron Korsh and his writing staff have come up with strong characters and scripts that are as layered and fascinating as the best novels. Rare is the TV show that's not just good entertainment, but also makes you want to get into arguments about things like themes and morals and other concepts you'd normally reserve for scholarly discussion. The actors bring all that great material to life, led by the wonderful duo of Patrick J. Adams and Gabriel Macht, who both ought to have awards shelves ready because they deserve quite a few. Suits has raised the intellectual level of television, and that's what makes it one of the best: it's reminded us of the ability of TV to be something bigger than just a diversion.

Audiences largely missed out on this extraordinary horror-drama series. Ultraviolet was dealing with vampires before they were popular again, and doing so in an interesting way: by tackling the subject with hard science. The result was a show that was more gritty than fantastic (in fact, the word "vampire" was never once uttered during the entire series), but still deliciously unnerving. The world of Ultraviolet was painted in shades of grey, with audiences able to see both sides of every story. It was anchored by a pair of strong performances from a pre-The Wire Idris Elba and pre-Smash Jack Davenport, as two heroes with decidedly different methodologies forced to collaborate. And before he was Bill Compton on HBO's True Blood, Stephen Moyer played another vampire named Jack Beresford. It all came together to create a fantastic piece of storytelling that deserved more than six episodes.
The West Wing
Almost all of Aaron Sorkin's series have been worthy of consideration for a list like this, but the one most folks associate Sorkin with is The West Wing. His political saga put him into the elite class of Hollywood writers, and it's not hard to see why. It was one-part love letter, one-part scathing indictment, imagining a White House at its best while not being afraid to call out the things that were wrong with the system. It had a wonderful cast of players, from Martin Sheen's President Bartlet to great recurring actors like a pre-Marvel movies Clark Gregg as federal agent Mike Casper, delivering TV's best dialogue. The show was never the same when Sorkin and director Thomas Schlamme left, but by then it had already established its place in small-screen history, if only for the number of people it motivated to talk about or get involved in politics. Sorkin's Sports Night remains a cult classic, and in another season or two, we might be talking about The Newsroom in the same breath.
Honorable Mentions
There are five series that almost made the cut: FOX's Lone Star, which was positively brilliant but violated Rule 01 by not making it past episode two; NBC's Third Watch, which was great in its earlier seasons but lost something when its cast changed; Sci-Fi's Battlestar Galactica, an epic that I love but not quite as much as the rest of its awesome fan base; NBC's Friday Night Lights, which was a fine show that just didn't crack the top for me; and HBO's The Wire, which misses a spot only because, when forced to choose between two brilliant David Simon shows, I had to go with Homicide, without which I never would have watched The Wire in the first place. See what I mean by there being so many great dramas? This list could truthfully be a lot longer.
What are some of your favorite drama series of all time? Are they popular picks or obscure shows you wish more people would have seen? Let me know the ones that are your most memorable in the comments - especially if they're not on this list, because there's always another good drama out there worth watching.
(c)2013 Brittany Frederick. Appears at Starpulse with permission. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted. Visit my official website and follow me on Twitter at @tvbrittanyf.

Related: 24, Brotherhood, Chicago Code, Human Target, Justified, Law & Order, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Suits, The West Wing, Starpulse Exclusives, Television, Drama, CBS, NBC, FOX, Showtime, USA, FX, Evergreen

Photo Credits: FOX, NBC, CBS, Channel 4, Showtime, USA, Paramount

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