With most majorly addictive TV series about to take a dirt nap for the summer, you may find yourself frantically cycling through your DVR and muttering, “But what do I watch now?” Fortunately, there’s no shortage of great, long-running series to keep you on your couch well into the fall. Here are 25 small-screen masterpieces past and present to suck you in—all three seasons or longer, for maximum addictiveness.
Mad Men (2007—): Television doesn’t get much closer to great literature than Matthew Weiner’s gorgeously textured series, which is as rich in symbolism as a Steinbeck novel—only way more entertaining. From the moment we first glimpse Don Draper’s monolithic mug through a gauzy cloud of cigarette smoke, we’re intrigued: 1960s New York City, the art of persuasion, gorgeous costumes, uncomfortably outdated social mores and so, so many whiskey cocktails. Not to mention Joan Holloway, a.k.a. the biggest badass on television. Mad Men is great not only because of its whip-smart script, stunning cinematography and freewheeling way with rider lawnmowers, but because it really takes the time to explore how its characters tick; and sometimes they sound an awful lot like time bombs.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003): With his awkwardly named WB series, Joss Whedon turned a simple concept into a revolution: What if the tiny blond cheerleader is actually much scarier than the hulking monster that’s stalking her? Buffy portrays the perils of growing up more vividly than dozens of other coming-of-age shows whose high schools aren’t built on a demon-spewing Hellmouth. Ass-kicking action sequences, laugh-out-loud comedy and moving drama regularly blend in the course of a single story, and the show doesn’t shy away from stylistic experimentation. Hell, there’s a whole episode with almost no dialogue. And Whedon went on to influence a generation of screenwriters with his singular mode of discourse—y’know, where people get all made-up-adjectivey and pop-culture-referencey with the words and the things. Whoops, now we’re doing it.
Lost (2004-2010): No one knows how to bait a hook quite like Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. A bruised man in a nice suit wakes up in a jungle and stumbles upon a horrific plane crash; next thing we know, we’re thrown headlong into a world of sexy fugitives, sexy grifters, sexy torturers, sexy Scotsmen living in holes in the ground… Oh yeah, and polar bears, smoke monsters, time travel and about a dozen interlocking conspiracies. And damnit, we need to find out what happens next. At its best, Lost is an intricately layered mystery-thriller that manages to plumb surprising emotional depths. And even when the show loses its way, it’s still as addictive as black tar heroin.
Six Feet Under (2001-2005): We’d never want to spend a significant amount of time in an actual funeral home; but we lapped up every second at Fisher & Sons, home of the most fascinatingly repressed family in TV history. Alan Ball was still riding his American Beauty high when he created this series that’s all about Death with a capital D—and its weird little sister, Life. Every character on this show is an impossibly tangled ball of neuroses, from tightly wound matriarch Ruth (the stunning Frances Conroy) to brooding protagonist Nate and his psychoanalysis-addled girlfriend, Brenda. Where most TV shows skirt dealing with issues of mortality, Six Feet Under does nothing but—and never flinches.
Parks and Recreation (2009—): Greg Daniels and Michael Schur’s local-government sitcom admittedly had a rough start. But once it got over its case of trying-to-be-The Office-itis, Parks and Rec went on to become one of the most consistently awesome comedies of the modern era. The fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana represents a cracked utopian vision of small-town America, where the raccoon problem is only as bad as you make it out to be, and the progressive Leslie Knopes and the libertarian Ron Swansons of the world can find common ground in their shared sense of decency—and shared love of junk food. Where many shows rely on hilarious jerkoff characters for laughs, Parks proves that people being incredibly sweet to each other can be just as much of a comedy goldmine.
Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009): What are the odds that a short-lived, kitschy sci-fi series from the ’70s would be resurrected as one of TV’s most nuanced dramas? Sure, it’s about fighter pilots and humanoid robots duking it out for survival in outer space—but that’s just the surface. Showrunner Ronald D. Moore uses the raw elements of the story to build a complex series that delves into politics, religion, the military and what it means to be human—all backed by a super talented ensemble of actors (led by tough-as-nails Edward James Olmos). And even if you’re just in it for the interstellar shoot-em-ups, those are also pretty spectacular, “filmed” in a shaky-cam style that conveys the feel of actual battle footage.
Veep (2012—): After coming out swinging with The Thick of It, the BBC’s wicked skewering of British governmental bureaucracy, it was only a matter of time before creator Armando Iannucci turned his claws on the American political system. He traded foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker for foul-mouthed Vice President Selina Meyer, a beleaguered second fiddle portrayed by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Veep deals less with political issues than with the machinations of politics itself, particularly within Selina’s ever-bickering staff. Currently rounding out its third season (with a fourth on the way), this HBO comedy is as funny as it is wise. (And for anyone who thought that Elaine Benes would be the height of Louis-Dreyfus’s career, boy did they have another thing coming.)
Archer (2009—): With the blistering action of James Bond, the aesthetics of Mad Men and the intelligent, filthy humor of nothing else out there, Archer scratches far more itches than your average cartoon for grownups. In espionage agency ISIS and self-obsessed spy Sterling Archer, Adam Reed has built an animated universe that’s big enough to encompass insane action-movie set pieces, absurdist jokes, workplace politics and weird science—all with a withering smirk on its face. It helps that Adult Swim alum Reed recruited some of the finest in the comedy biz for his vocal cast (H. Jon Benjamin, Jessica Walter and Judy Greer, to name just a few).
Doctor Who (2005—): This iconic British sci-fi series has been around since 1963, but you needn’t watch the 26 seasons (plus one TV movie) of the original series to get in on the fun. The secret to the eponymous Doctor’s staying power? He’s a (give or take) 1,500-year-old alien who “regenerates” instead of dying—meaning that casting changes are never a problem. Three actors have played the time-traveling alien in the new series so far (the best being David Tennant); The Thick of It’s Peter Capaldi is stepping into the role this August. With an infinite array of settings and characters at its disposal, Doctor Who is an endlessly creative series that runs the gamut from lowbrow cheese to highbrow drama, all the while never deviating from the Doctor’s giddily humanist worldview. Start in season one with the intense Christopher Eccleston as our main man and Billie Piper as his shopgirl-turned-adventurer companion, and keep your eye on the big blue box.
The Sopranos (1999-2007): The Writer’s Guild of America named David Chase’s mafia drama the best-written TV show of all time—and they would know. With its carefully crafted dissection of the American Dream, The Sopranos ushered in an era that gave small-screen drama permission to take itself as seriously as film. Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano (R.I.P. James Gandolfini) was the larger-than-life mold for TV antiheroes to come; without Tony, there would be no Don Draper or Walter White. Chase & Co. taught a generation of screenwriters and viewers that you don't have to admire your protagonists, or even like them; you just have to empathize with them. We’re all human, after all—even if we are humans who occasionally asphyxiate our own nephews.
Veronica Mars (2004-2007): Even if the clever mystery at the center of Rob Thomas’s teen-sleuth show doesn’t pull you in from the word go, the central performance surely will. Kristen Bell (currently pulling Disney-princess duty) is a revelation as the titular Veronica, a hard-boiled high-school girl with a dark past and a wry sense of humor. Thomas expertly juggles film noir style, romantic drama, and twisting plotlines to create a show whose tangled-web addictiveness is only outmatched by its witty dialogue. The series was canceled before its time, but fear not: There was enough love from within and without the show to spawn a Kickstarter-backed big-screen follow-up that hit theaters earlier this year.
The West Wing (1999-2006): When The West Wing debuted shortly before the Bush presidency, Aaron Sorkin couldn’t have known that his show would soon become the vicarious political fantasy of disaffected liberals across the United States. Even as ol’ Dubyah made worse and worse decisions, viewers could cozy up to the stridently reasonable rhetoric of President Bartlet and his fast-talking team. Sorkin made his “walk and talk” style of dialogue de rigueur for screenwriters everywhere, and assembled one of the best ensemble casts in TV history (Allison Janney, Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe, Bradley Whitford and so many more). Today, it still plays like an idealist’s dream American politics.
Breaking Bad (2008-2013): Terminal lung cancer, a low-paying job and a family to support: What’s a mild-mannered chemistry teacher with a god complex to do? Walter White may initially come off as an everyman on Vince Gilligan’s drugs-meet-suburbia drama, but he “breaks bad” with a quickness. Though plenty of television centers on an alpha-male antihero (The Sopranos, Mad Men), nowhere are manhood and its discontents explored more darkly than in the figure of Walt, a character who’s more concerned with his own dignity than in, say, the value of a human life. And when Heisenberg becomes hard to root for, there’s always the endearingly manic Jesse Pinkman to steal our hearts. The secret to Breaking Bad’s meth-like addictiveness lies in watching things go from bad to worse, and loving every messed-up second of it.
Seinfeld (1989-1998): Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s comedy has become so iconic and quotable that it’s easy to forget how game-changing it was. Before its debut, sitcoms were almost exclusively centered on a family or a team of coworkers. But Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer were just…bros. Really, really cranky bros. Seinfeld ushered in an age of sitcoms that continues to this day, centered around groups of unmarried friends stumbling through their not-so-spectacular lives. And no show before or since has done its fussy brand of humor as well (no, not even Curb Your Enthusiasm), nor made us fall quite so in love with such unrepentant jerks. For all its lack of pretension, there’s no question that this “show about nothing” singlehandedly changed the face of sitcoms.
Community (2009-2014): We still have our fingers crossed that Dan Harmon’s slice of weird brilliance will find new life beyond its recent NBC cancellation. But considering how brainy and esoteric its brand of humor is, Community survived far longer on mainstream-lovin’ network TV than fans ever dreamed it would. Harmon packs in a clown car’s worth of genre references, meta jokes and sight gags into the exploits of an unlikely group of study buddies (who never actually study). On this playground of a sitcom, a crappy community-college campus can turn into anything from a paintball war zone to a stop-motion winter wonderland. Even though Community can be uneven—the less said about the Harmon-less fourth season, the better—it always wins you back in the end.
Futurama (1999-2013): Because it’s nearly impossible to binge-watch The Simpsons in its entirety (hello, 25 seasons and counting), we thought we’d turn our attention to Matt Groening’s other great animated comedy. Throughout its on-again off-again run (airing on Fox until it was canceled in 2003, then revived by Comedy Central in 2008), Groening and David X. Cohen’s jokey-retro vision of the distant future is endlessly creative, canny and experimental. The story of a cryogenically unfrozen pizza-delivery boy and his coworkers also wasn’t afraid to really go there, by turns touching, daring and tragic, whether it’s trafficking in time travel or religious allegory. (Season four’s “Jurassic Bark” remains one of the saddest TV episodes of all time.) But first and foremost, Futurama is just plain hilarious.
The Office (2005-2013): We’re big fans of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s original U.K. series, but its strident bleakness would have been hard to take for longer than its two seasons. That’s not the case for its U.S. counterpart, which has at least as much heart as cringey humor, and a terrific ensemble to boot. In terrible boss Michael Scott, Steve Carell and showrunner Greg Daniels crafted a great American non-hero—a man whose ineptitude and selfishness is only outdone by his aw-shucks enthusiasm. A generation of worker bees saw themselves in will-they-won’t-they everycouple Jim and Pam, and the rest of us were Kelly Kapoor. The Office went on too long and eventually lost its way, but it came back around to its central message in the end: that a crappy job is only a dead end if you look at it that way.
The Wire (2002-2008): The word Shakespearean tends to come up a lot when fans wax rhapsodic about this relentlessly ambitious HBO crime drama, and it’s no wonder. Over the course of its run, the show explores Baltimore’s sundry institutions on a scale that’s simultaneously epic and intimate. And like the greatest dramas, it bristles with complex characters caught up in all manner of tangled webs. Creators David Simon and Ed Burns drew from their personal experiences in the city’s newspaper industry and police department, respectively, to create a gritty, realistic portrait of the urban working classes that’s unmatched anywhere else on television.
The Venture Bros. (2003—): What began as a send-up of 1960s adventure cartoon Jonny Quest quickly proved to be so much more (and so much weirder) than advertised. Creators Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick—who also voice a good chunk of the characters—have built a freaky, intricate world populated by washed-up scientists, loveable supervillains and the people (and henchpeople) who love them. Chock-full of out-there humor and pop-culture references to everything from David Bowie to Lost, The Venture Bros. also manages to take on big, existential themes like failure and identity. Plus, come on: There’s a one-eyed Russian mercenary named Molotov Cocktease.
Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-1969): There have been more incarnations of Star Trek than tribbles in the Enterprise’s grain hold, but this is where it all began. Into a world steeped in Cold War tensions and civil rights battles, screenwriter Gene Roddenberry introduced a quasi-utopian future where humanity has put aside its differences and set out to explore the galaxy. Were the effects cheesy, the costumes ridiculous and the acting hammy as hell? Sure. But TOS was groundbreaking in more ways than one, airing the first interracial kiss in TV history and ushering in an era of interstellar sci-fi adventure that spawned series from the original Battlestar Galactica to Firefly. And nearly half a century later, it still makes for pretty entertaining television. Live long and prosper, indeed.
Arrested Development (2003-2013): The cultiest TV comedy of all time earned its acolytes by packing in more layers of gag per episode than lesser sitcoms fit into entire seasons. Mitchell Hurwitz’s dense, witty series presents a cracked portrait of the 2000s and its disillusionment with America’s bullcrap. The banana-stand-owning scion of a corrupt real-estate magnate tries to fix what’s wrong with his family, but finds that the rot runs too deep; that a story so bleak could also be so laugh-out-loud hilarious is a testament to what a rare gem this show is. Fox made a huge mistake when it canceled the series after only three seasons; but diehard fans were vindicated when Netflix revived the family Bluth in 2013 for one more go-round in the stair car.
Game of Thrones (2011—): Delving into the dense thicket of George R.R. Martin’s book series constitutes a whole other level of cultural binging, but HBO’s no-holds-barred adaptation is equally worthwhile. Game of Thrones combines the epic fantasy trappings of The Lord of the Rings with ruthlessly realistic attitudes toward war, politics and sex. There’re dragons and ice zombies, sure, but also a complex medieval power struggle waged by a morally dubious cast of thousands. And among them, you’ll find performers like Sean Bean, Peter Dinklage, Charles Dance and preternaturally talented child actress Maisie Williams. With its sumptuous visuals, clanging sword fights and over-the-top sex scenes, you could almost call Game of Thrones escapism—if it weren’t so damn heartbreaking.
Weeds (2005-2012): For all of the revolutions in contemporary television, the small screen is still woefully short on female showrunners. Among the pioneers: Jenji Kohan, who introduced one of TV’s great fucked-up protagonists in housewife-turned–drug kingpin Nancy Botwin (played by the indomitable Mary-Louise Parker). Like so many shows, Weeds is about an extremely flawed person trying to keep a family together against all odds; but Kohan’s dared to move characters into entirely new locations and situations, and see where they went from there. Kohan went on to pen current hit Orange Is the New Black, but before that was this Showtime master class in pitch-black comedy and suburban malaise.
Friday Night Lights (2006-2011): You don’t have to be a football fan to get swept up in Peter Berg’s small-town drama—just a fan of human beings. The story isn’t just about Eric Taylor and the high-school football team he coaches, but also the hopes and dreams of an entire Texas community. It’s no accident that Friday Night Lights is one of the most naturalistic portrayals of small-town America ever to grace the small screen: It was filmed with little rehearsal, with plenty leeway for its actors to improvise their blocking and dialogue. Whether you’re in it for the rousing speeches or just for one of the best marriages on television (love ya, Coach and Tami), FNL is a show that feels truly lived in—and lived through.
Monty Python's Flying Circus: To say that the Python boys forever altered the face of comedy is an understatement. Their scrappy, anarchic approach to sketch—coupled with healthy doses of intelligence and absurdity—set the bar for all yucksters to come, from Saturday Night Live’s writers to stand-up greats like Eddie Izzard. Forty years down the line, Flying Circus is as guffaw-inducing as the day they were minted: Is there any sketch ever filmed that tops John Cleese and Michael Palin arguing over a dead parrot? As easy as it is to fall into a YouTube hole of classic clips, we recommend watching the show in its entirety to savor the deeper cuts.
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