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The 20 Best TV Dramas of the Last 20 Years

From "Mad Men" to "Friday Night Lights," these 20 dramas helped define the modern TV landscape — even if they're still a part of it.

The Wire” (2002-2008)

Whether or not it is correctly labeled as “The Greatest TV Series of All Time,” HBO’s critically adored crime drama did something few other shows have ever accomplished. Juggling an ever-shifting cast of characters, “The Wire” brought to life the stories of communities that are too often swept under the rug both on television and in American society itself. No other show has ever illustrated a specific time and place — in this case, early 21st century Baltimore — through so many hyper-realistic perspectives. From politicians at the top of Baltimore society to down-on-their-luck dock workers to the grimy squat of homeless heroin junkies, “The Wire” is not only about the power struggle between individuals but the struggle between individuals and institutions. It introduced a host of characters that were as instantly iconic as they were groundbreaking, most notably Michael K. Williams’ gay, cornrowed, scar-faced gangster Omar Little, one of the most badass yet intensely likable characters in TV history. But limiting “The Wire” to its human characters is to limit its scope; the true protagonist of the series is the broken city of Baltimore itself, a microcosm displaying the issues that plague America more than ever today. – Kate Halliwell

READ MORE: ‘The Wire’ Changed His Life and ‘Treme’ Defined An Era: Wendell Pierce on Creating Great Art on TV

“The O.C.” (2003-2007)

Just the other day, Josh Schwartz and his crew reunited to remember wrist cuffs, water polo players and Chrismakkuh celebrations. And among the nostalgia came relevancy, as Fox’s nighttime soap served as far more than a guilty pleasure for high schoolers dreaming of the West Coast. It was an ambitious achievement aiming to please every age, including those whose bedtime came after “The O.C.” ended each night. Sandy and Kirsten Cohen (played by Peter Gallagher and Kelly Rowan) became equally iconic as the children they raised, just as the soundtracks of the series defined a generation of sound. And even when the story ate itself up — because it was just too good not to gorge — “The O.C.” remained committed to its progressive nature, throwing in divisive twists and truly letting things fly in a fun-filled final year. An imperfect classic is still a classic, and “The O.C.” remains the best of its kind in the genre. – Ben Travers

READ MORE: ‘The O.C.’ Is Still Relevant, Bitch

“Deadwood” (2004-2006)

David Milch’s dialogue has always been dense, but the “Deadwood” mix of Shakespeare and colloquial profanity (you never knew “cocksucker” could have so many meanings) resulted in an unique poetry that remains one of television’s most glorious creations. The story of a post-Civil War mining camp’s rapid transition to a town with systems of government and commerce was Milch’s way of telling the story of America, except that in his version the institutions of western capitalism were welded from the cross motivations of murderous casino owners, greedy prospectors, criminal politicians and wayward souls looking for salvation. On the surface the show is extremely violent and vulgar, not sugar coating the most base side of humanity, but underneath it tackles incredibly complex characters and ideas that are so fully realized they resonate long after the shock wears off. This is best epitomized in the charter of Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), who in era of TV’s great anti-heroes ranging from Walter White to Tony Soprano to Don Draper remains the most relatable and redeemable. The biggest knock against Milch in regards to “Deadwood” was the show’s premature end, with fans still holding out hope for a concluding movie or miniseries 12 years after it went off the air. – Chris O’Falt

“Battlestar Galactica” (2004-2009)


Before “Battlestar Galactica,” it could be said that mainstream sci-fi had a habit of pulling its punches. Then came Ronald D. Moore and David Eick with a new interpretation of Glen A. Larson’s cult 1978-1979 series. Dark, moody, philosophical and risk-taking, the new “Battlestar” wasn’t afraid to challenge our basic ideas of what it means to be human, while also completely redefining what science fiction on television could be. It’s arguable that the series peaked early and never exceeded beyond the promise of its first two seasons. But from bold time jumps to storylines that weren’t afraid to take on issues like terrorism, “Battlestar” was the definition of game-changing not just for sci-fi, but for television in general. – Liz Shannon Miller

“Lost” (2004-2010)

“Two players. Two sides. One is light. One is dark.” The creative team behind the Show That Launched a Thousand Obsessions may not have had a full view of the endgame when the pilot first aired in September of 2004, but “Lost” still stands as a trailblazing playbook for building mythology on TV. Some of those markers might be missteps (the Season 6 diversion to the temple is still a head-scratcher), but the show quickly bridged the divide between message boards and the mainstream. In its wake, it helped birth a generation of fandom that thrives on mystery-box hints, Internet theories and spoiler culture. Amidst the easter eggs and red herrings that fueled the week-to-week engine that powered a network drama behemoth, a few enduring elements rise above: supporting performances from Michael Emerson and Terry O’Quinn that gave an emotional center to a story that sometimes teetered on the outrageous, a score from Michael Giacchino that lent thematic heft to an exponentially expanding world and a three-word message on a character’s left hand that’s one of TV’s most bittersweet goodbyes. – Steve Greene

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