20. “Fargo” (2014 – present)
It should have been an act of madness. For thirty years, every time someone not named Joel or Ethan have tried to make something described as ‘Coenesque,’ it ended in disaster, and yet here was novelist and former “Bones” writer Noah Hawley, attempting to make a basic-cable spin-off of one of the filmmakers’ most beloved films. And somehow it worked brilliantly, and then it worked again even better with last year’s second season. With the first run Hawley built a sort of side-story to the movie (you eventually learn that one character found the money buried by Steve Buscemi’s Carl in the film), nodding, in Alison Tolman’s whip-smart police officer, in Billy Bob Thornton’s Satanic Anton Chigurh-like villain, in Martin Freeman’s Jerry Lundegaard-like ‘nice guy’ with a dark heart, not just to its namesake but to the entire Coen canon, and proved to be a sharply written, darkly funny, appropriately funny successor delving into similar themes. And things really stepped up with the second season, which went back to the 1970s for the tale of a gang war in Fargo that encompasses Patrick Wilson’s State Trooper, and in Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons’ Ed & Peggy an ordinary couple on a “Macbeth”-like path. The second run in particular connected with the same kind of existential soulfulness that elevate the Coens above most of their imitators, creating a host of memorable characters, from Kate Walsh’s vampish widow to Bokeem Woodbine’s garrulous, ambitious mobster. Bring on season three.
19. “The Leftovers” (2014-2016)
If “Lost” was a show hampered to some degree because the answers it would provide could never have satisfied the fans’ speculation about the questions it posed, Damon Lindelof’s second great show was a series that was wholly and utterly unconcerned with answers at all. Based on Tom Perrotta’s novel which imagines the aftermath of a Rapture-like ‘departure,’ it’s a show that probably frustrated those expecting another “Lost”-style mystery box, and in its two seasons to date (with a third and final coming later this year) has never really become beloved by many outside the TV critic community. In part, perhaps, because it’s unlike anything else out there. It’s not quite a supernatural show, it’s certainly not a procedural, it doesn’t even qualify as a soap. In fact, it has a rhythm and tone entirely of its own, a bone-deep melancholy that would feel more European than American, if it wasn’t such a quintessentially American show. It tackles big themes — loss, grief, community, faith, madness, our place in the universe — without ever fitting into a box, and with performances from the likes of Justin Theroux, Carrie Coon, Christopher Eccleston, Regina King and Kevin Carroll that have only grown in stature and power since it aired. Lindelof’s work to date has been unashamedly populist, and yet his finest hour has come with a drama that’s as close as HBO cable drama has come to arthouse cinema. If this is what he can come with unfiltered, we hope someone writes him another check once “The Leftovers” comes to an end, because it’s like nothing else we’ve seen.
18. “The Knick” (2014-2015)
If anyone thought that Steven Soderbergh’s so-called retirement meant we’d be seeing less of his work, they were firmly wrong: thanks to the two seasons of “The Knick” that he directed, we’ve had the equivalent of ten Soderbergh features in a little over a year. And they were brilliant ones, too. On paper, “The Knick,” created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, could have been a fairly standard medical drama in period trappings, following as it does the staff of the Knickerbocker Hospital and their pioneering medicine in turn-of-the-20th-century New York. But while it to some extent follows the same doctors and nurses and administrators formula as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “E.R,” the writing swiftly elevated it, the experimental procedures and fly-by-night operations playing up the fragility of life and the glorious madness of physicians more successfully than most. The acting too was across-the-board great, with Clive Owen getting the role of his career as coked-up genius surgeon Thack, Andre Holland doing utterly flawless work as his co-chief-of-surgery Edwards, doomed to be disrespected by men half as talented as him, and Michael Angarano, Eve Hewson, Cara Seymour and more all made their mark. But what made the show stand out more than anything was, of course, the filmmaking. If Soderbergh didn’t reinvent the period drama, he certainly re-invigorated it, reaching a level of effortless brilliance with his filmmaking that makes the show rank among the best stuff he ever did (and always scored by Cliff Martinez’s phenomenal, throbbing electronic score). It’s still unclear if the show will be returning for a third season, but without Soderbergh (he’s moving on whatever happens), it won’t be the same.
17. “The Americans” (2013 – present)
Perpetually somewhat under the radar, and consistently better than most of the competition, “The Americans” doesn’t have the Emmy glory or massive viewership of some, but has been consistently excellent across its three seasons to date, and will likely be rediscovered as time goes on by viewers looking for their next boxset fix. Created by former CIA agent Joe Weisberg, it has a totally irresistible premise: an ordinary Washington D.C. couple (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) in the 1980s who are in fact deeply embedded KGB agents, and whose fake marriage has started to flicker into real life. Oh, and an FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) tasked with tracking down Soviet moles has just moved in next door. It’s an absolutely crackling spy tale, drawing from Le Carre and other Cold War classics but marching to the beat of its own drum, cunningly getting you to root for ‘the enemy’ even as they do acts as morally shady as any that Walter White or Don Draper might pull. It’s also a great portrait of the 1980s as the world changed and Perestroika started to settle in, nailing the obvious references (the use of some unlikely music cues of the era are absolutely killer — just note the spectacular re-appropriation of Phil Collins in the pilot), but also truly capturing the deeper feel of the time. And it’s a great show about marriage too, the show’s conceit unveiling more universal truths, thanks in part to spectacular performances by its leads. The fourth season starts in March, so if you haven’t watched it yet, you have a month to catch up.
16. “Borgen” (2011-2013)
This list is still dominated by American shows for the most part, and it’s true that serialized TV drama is still done best, on the whole, here. But the unlikely nation of Denmark have, in recent years, been impressing with a string of utterly addictive shows, tying into the “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”-aping trend for Scandi-noir. Some of them became more familiar after receiving U.S. remakes — both “The Killing” and “The Bridge” got the English-language treatment, to mixed success — but the best of the bunch remains untouched, and relatively little-seen in the U.S. “Borgen,” created by Adam Price (also, amusingly, a TV chef) and partly written by “The Hunt” and “A War” screenwriter Tobias Lindholm, tracks the rise to power of a left-wing female Prime Minister, played by “The Duke Of Burgundy” star Sidse Babett Knudsen. A political drama of rare nuance and heft, it’s tonally a midpoint between “The West Wing” and “House Of Cards,” but more grounded than either, in part thanks to the charming central turn by Knudsen (and similarly excellent work by rising star Pilou Asbaek and Birgitte Hjort Sørenson, among others). Those happy with subtitles and political wonks are probably the target audience, but this should be essential viewing for almost anyone — it has an insight not just into Danish politics (though its specificity is utterly winning), but also into a life in politics in general. The show wrapped up in 2013 after three seasons, but it’s on iTunes — get to it before the remake happens (HBO is working on it now).