15. “Real Sports“
In a changing landscapes that has an increasingly smaller space for TV newsmagazines, “Real Sports” has consistently found a way to bring vital stories from the sports world to a wider consciousness. Anchored by some of the industry’s strongest voices, these reports go beyond human interest stories to uncover the hidden side of iconic institutions or put a face to stories only previously whispered in off-the-record circles. Recent pieces on college athletics, youth football leagues, domestic violence issues and traffic deaths in the Dominican Republic continue a two-decade tradition of offering insight into lives beyond the highlight-reel regulars. Thorough, provocative and far-reaching, it’s a series with a persistence and consistency, a model for similar journalistic endeavors.
14. “Six Feet Under“
Alan Ball’s opus about family, life, and loss is probably best known for how it tackled the subject of death. “Six Feet Under” centered on the lives of brothers Nate (Peter Krause) and David (Michael C. Hall) Fisher, who run the family funeral parlor after the death of their father. Frances Conroy, Lauren Ambrose, Freddy Rodriguez, and Rachel Griffith also starred in the series as characters all searching for their own personal truths. As the Peabody Awards wrote when honoring the show in 2002: “Created by producer/writer Alan Ball, the strange yet strangely familiar world of the Fishers and their assortment of friends and companions, lovers and clients, deals with the most fundamental human experiences. The face the celebration of life and the loss of life, the joy of love and the pain of love, the struggle for understanding—and the headlong crash into confusion. Here, dreams, memories and neuroses intersect, remind us that those who pass are never fully lost.”
HBO has had its share of bombast over the past few decades, but “Looking” is an example of the network doing quieter stories with even more profound impact. Seeing the world of San Francisco through the eyes of three friends, all navigating their respective professional and personal challenges, the show was able to intertwine these individual expriences with the city it was set in. Under the watchful eyes of Andrew Haigh, Michael Lannan and a revolving door of talented independent filmmakers, this small group showed a diversity of ambition and desires from life, but never lost sight of the friendship that kept these men together. Over two seasons and a feature-length coda, “Looking” made drag clubs, bathhouses, Halloween parties, and tech offices each come alive with the specificity and care that comes with documenting the search for love, acceptance and companionship.
12. “The Comeback“
“Sex and the City” writer/director Michael Patrick King moved on from that show to immediately create another HBO classic, this time with former “Friends” star Lisa Kudrow. “The Comeback” introduced the world to Valerie Cherish, a washed-up sitcom actress who’s followed by a reality TV camera crew as she lands a role on a new network comedy. “The Comeback” made a comeback of its own in 2014, when a second season premiered nine years later, and was just as awkward, brutal, heartbreaking and beautiful as ever.
“Cheers” is probably your favorite comedian’s favorite comedy, but among the other American outputs from last quarter century, few shows lay claim to a similar spot in the hearts of comedy nerds more than “Mr. Show.” Bolstered by the two men up top and a bevy of supporting players who would go on to have influential places of their own in the comedy world, few sketch shows have been able to create comedic shorthand in quite a way that this show did. Sketches like “The Story of Everest,” rival mayo and mustard commercials, and “The Audition” (above) not only showed off David Cross and Bob Odenkirk’s comedic range, they challenged the standard format. Bending time, nesting narratives, and embracing the absurdities of everyday life, “Mr. Show” used the freedom of pay cable to usher in a new era of laughs.
Up next: picks #10-6, including some of the best comedies of all time