5. “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”
Coming out of the shadow of “The Next Generation,” this version of “Star Trek” was a critical turning point. Opting not to skew too close to its two predecessors, it struck a delicate balance of connecting with the “Trek” universe at large and telling stories in its own distinct way. Committing to moving the franchise from adventure-of-the-week thrill rides to ones that were woven into less self-contained arcs, “Deep Space Nine” forged ahead in ways that Picard- and Kirk-led stories never quite did. It still carried the “Trek” commitment to progressive ideas on fighting imperialism, totalitarianism, and wealth inequality while building various layers to the interspecies relationships that have made the franchise such an engaging, enduring TV world. Plus, it helped to launch the careers of Bryan Fuller and Ronald D. Moore, who would continue to shape the TV and sci-fi landscapes at large for the better part of the next two decades.
MTV’s animated series “Daria” was a spin-off of “Beavis and Butt-head,” yet creator Mike Judge was not involved. Instead, Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis were behind the show, which followed sullen teen Daria Morgendorffer as she and pal Jane Lane reacted to their family and high school lives in suburban Lawndale (including Jane’s cool big brother Trent and Daria’s bratty kid sister Quinn). Daria’s monotone take on life helped put the coda on the 1990s Gen X experience and, along with “My So-Called Life,” may be the most realistic (and sweetest) take on the high school experience ever produced for TV. Lewis recently revisited the characters for an Entertainment Weekly story, and reports that Daria now lives in Hell’s Kitchen and writes for a late-night talk show.
3. “Better Call Saul”
Born from the DNA of “Breaking Bad,” over three seasons “Better Call Saul” has brought the same laser-like intensity to character, craft, and storytelling that its predecessor had. But even though the New Mexico environment still makes for the same ominous desert backdrop, this legal-focused deep dive into Saul Goodman’s personal history has always felt like its own distinct story. Bolstered by tremendous performances from “Bad”iverse newcomers Rhea Seehorn and Michael McKean, as well as contributions from familiar faces, this is a series that has balanced new and old better than nearly any other show on TV.
2. “The Simpsons”
It’s been 30 years since Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie first appeared as interstitials on “The Tracey Ullman Show.” The origins story of “The Simpsons” is now the stuff of legend: “Tracey Ullman” executive producer James L. Brooks recruited Matt Groening to turn his “Life in Hell” comic strip into interstitials; instead, Groening came up with the Simpsons family, based on his own family (and named after most of them). After three seasons on “Tracey Ullman,” a series was attempted — starting with an animated Christmas special in 1989.
Now entering Season 29, the show is close to surpassing “Gunsmoke” (which ended its run with 635 episodes) as the primetime scripted show with the most episodes in history. “I can’t believe how many people who work on the show have been working on the show for as long as they have,” creator Matt Groening said this summer at San Diego Comic-Con. “It’s gratifying to be able to continue to tell stories and come up with new jokes — and repeat some old ones.”
1. “The Colbert Report”
For a show built on a very specific formula, “The Colbert Report” always knew how to adjust to the times. Originally a venue for the Colbert persona to send up cable punditry a half hour at a time, it essentially became a way to shape the language of political commentary. It minted a brand new word in its debut episode and never really looked back, even as it performed in harmony with its “Daily Show” lead-in. It’s a series that didn’t need politics to be hysterically funny, as Colbert took on the goofy and the indignant with equal panache. Lost in the wordplay and the occasional antics, Colbert became the most incisive interviewer in late night, even from behind the guise of a character. It was a potent blend of commentary, character work, and downright joke wizardry that may never be equaled, especially with an increasingly fractured late night landscape of hosts trying to recapture this same magic (Colbert included). “The Colbert Report” didn’t save the world, but it made it funnier place to live in for a while.