This coming Sunday sees what might be one of the biggest event’s of the early 2016 TV season — the arrival of HBO’s big new drama “Vinyl.” The show, which focuses on the record industry in the early 1970s and stars Bobby Cannavale, Juno Temple, Ray Romano and more, marks the cable network’s second collaboration with director Martin Scorsese (who produces the show with Mick Jagger, and who directs the two-hour pilot), after “Boardwalk Empire.”
The show was co-created with Terence Winter, who was one of the key writers on “The Sopranos,” which reinvented television drama. Others paved the way for it — “NYPD Blue,” “Homicide: Life On The Street,” and HBO’s first drama series “Oz.” But “The Sopranos” was the one that changed everything, dominating pop culture, drawing huge ratings and massive critical acclaim, and helping to prove that the small screen could be home for truly groundbreaking work that would go on to draw big movie stars and major filmmakers like Scorsese (whose own work was an obvious influence on the show).
And so, with “Vinyl” hitting this week, we set out to rank the 25 best TV drama series that have debuted since “The Sopranos” changed everything when it arrived in January 1999. Anything that debuted after Tony & co. hit screens was eligible, but shows that had already premiered (“The X-Files,” “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” and “Felicity” among the most notable ones) weren’t. Take a look at our list below, and let us know what you think should and shouldn’t have made the cut.
25. “Doctor Who” (2005 – present)
There have been plenty of attempts over the last few decades to revive beloved geek properties, but while TV re-dos of things like “Charlie’s Angels,” “Knight Rider” and “Kolchak” came and went swiftly, “Doctor Who” has run and run since its return in 2005. And rightly so: while it’s sometimes patchy, at its best, it’s as thrilling, heady, funny and moving as sci-fi TV gets. Though reviver Russell T. Davies was in theory picking up where the show had left off in 1989, this very firmly brought the eccentric time-traveler into the 21st century (as well as the 43rd, the 15th, and everywhere in between), playing into modern sensibilities, including more serialized, season-spanning mysteries and mythology, without ever forgetting what made it special to half a generation of kids and adults alike. As is the nature of the show, it’s shifted and mutated since its return from the younger-skewing, slightly campier early days with Christopher Eccleston, to outgoing show-runner Steven Moffat’s sometimes head-scratching time-twisting narratives. And it still occasionally lets budget and formula show the strain. But it’s grown further and further in confidence over time, and when it’s flying — heart-wrenching two-parter “Human Nature” and “The Family Of Blood,” the Carey Mulligan-launching “Blink,” Richard Curtis’ beguiling investigation of depression with “Vincent And The Doctor,” dizzyingly clever Dickens riff “A Christmas Carol,” Neil Gaiman’s fascinating “The Doctor’s Wife,” crowd-pleasing anniversary team-up “The Day Of The Doctor,” bravura Peter Capaldi showcase “Heaven Sent” — it’s as provocative and entertaining as anything else on TV.
24. “In Treatment” (2008-2010)
Even among the varied shows that HBO have aired since “The Sopranos” blew up, “In Treatment” was an anomaly. Based on an Israeli show, “BeTipul,” the drama produced more episodes than almost anything on this list, owing to its unique structure: every week would see five installments airing, each one focused on a patient of a psychiatrist, played by Gabriel Byrne (the fifth actually documenting his own therapy sessions, with Dianne Wiest’s psychiatrist). Far from the elaborate production value of a “Rome” or a “Game Of Thrones,” this was a pure showcase for actors, almost always in a series of two-handers. And while it proved a little too dry for popular tastes (HBO tinkered with the formula before cancelling it after a third season), it’s addictive for anyone who cares about great acting. Byrne had one of the best roles he’s ever had as the troubled, deeply flawed mind-doctor, but his patients were just as strong: breakout roles for Mia Wasikowska and Dane DeHaan, terrific work by veterans like Hope Davis, John Mahoney, Debra Winger, Glynn Turman and Bollywood superstar Irrfan Khan, Blair Underwood as a pilot with a death wish. With writers including Adam Rapp and “Capote” and “Foxcatcher” scribe Dan Futterman, each episode was a taut, textured half-hour playlet setting two fine actors against each other, and for the most part managed to be restrained and low-key, with the show only faltering when it attempted to go into more soapy territory. It’s destined to be a less-remembered series among the HBO canon, but one that should delight people who dig a little deeper and discover it.
23. “Lost” (2004-2010)
There are shows here that were more consistent than “Lost.” Ones where the creators didn’t openly admit to spinning their wheels with the plotting, where the finales didn’t cause uproar from fans, where characters wouldn’t be introduced and then swiftly written out when they turned out to be useless. But you can love something without it being perfect, and for all its flaws, there have been few TV dramas as original, influential, ambitious and, at its best, exciting, just as there have been few that sparked as much discussion. Famously thrown together by Damon Lindelof and J.J. Abrams in just a few weeks (and responsible as much as anything for the latter’s rise in pop culture, despite his relative lack of involvement beyond the pilot), the show could have been a sort of “Gilligan’s Island” for the 21st century, gathering together a diverse group of characters on a desert island. But it never quite went where you expected it too, giving each character dark secrets exposed in a flashback heavy structure, and putting the island at the centre of a mystery that was more “The Prisoner” than “Cast Away,” bringing some far-out genre conceits into the mainstream in a big way. The show was probably one of the last to be hampered by the old network TV model — the writers were visibly strained by the challenges of cranking out 20+ episodes a year, and were open about the network wanting more seasons than they had story for. But as frustrating as it could be, it provided dozens of memorable moments over the years, and proved to be a dizzying puzzle box that changed the form forever.
22. “Terriers” (2010)
It’s pretty hard, it seems, for a cable drama to get cancelled after just one season — the slow-burning success of “Breaking Bad,” which only caught fire in its later years after viewers caught up on Netflix has made networks more willing to give a show an extra year or two to find its feet. So some might take as a bad sign that FX cancelled “Terriers” after its first and only season in 2010 after particularly low viewership. But as anyone who’s ever caught Ted Griffin’s gorgeous, expertly plotted, soulful neo-noir knows that the show belongs in the hall of fame of one-season wonders. Penned by the “Ocean’s Eleven” writer and produced by “The Shield” creator Shawn Ryan, the show followed a pair of San Diego private eyes, recovering alcoholic ex-cop Hank (Donal Logue) and former housebreaker Britt (Michael Raymond-James) who find one small case turning into a sprawling real estate conspiracy. Perhaps the show didn’t take off because it seemed familiar in theory, but in practice it felt as fresh as a daisy, a character-driven crime tale nodding to classic fiction of the genre, Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” and “Chinatown,” but somehow carving out its own groove. Mainly, it was because of its utter love and compassion for its characters (also featuring lovely work from Laura Allen, Kimberly Quinn and Rockmond Dunbar), a collection of small-fry fuck-ups trying to do the right thing and not always succeeding. With quotable, deceptively tight writing and killer direction from, among others, Rian Johnson and John Dahl, it’s maybe the great lost gem of the modern TV drama age.
21. “Six Feet Under” (2001-2005)
If it was “The Sopranos” that kicked the cable drama door open, it was the success two years later of “Six Feet Under” that ensured it wouldn’t be closing any time soon. There were, you could say, some similarities — both shows were essentially family dramas where death was never far from the frame, and had a willingness to go darker than most TV dramas had ever dared. And yet “Six Feet Under” was a very different series, one that started to show the breadth of what HBO would be capable of doing. Created by Alan Ball after his Oscar-winning success with “American Beauty,” it was the story of the Fishers, an extremely dysfunctional family of funeral directors who we meet just as their patriarch (Richard Jenkins) is killed in a car accident (though notably, he sticks around for imagined conversations, as do many of the show’s deceased). It’s a sort of perfection of what Ball was going for with “American Beauty,” a look at the deeply fucked up heart of the American family, but one that, while it goes to shocking, sometimes borderline tasteless territory, always feels earned, thanks to an impeccable cast and writing (including from “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway) that always found the humor and humanity in its situations. As with many of these shows, the plotting became a little soapy towards the end (though the opening deaths never ceased to shock and/or delight), but for all its imperfections, it found a level of profundity that’s rarely been matched by a family drama, and climaxed with a finale that remains something close to a gold standard for how to wrap up a show.