Emmy voters and TV critics haven’t always seen eye to eye. Keeping this tradition alive, here are my choices for the top 10 drama series of all time. Some are winners, some have never come close. But they’re the best of the best.
1. “The Sopranos” (HBO, 1999-present)
David Chase’s drama (with undertones of pitch-black humor) put HBO’s 9 p.m. Sunday slot on our cultural radar. New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano is a very bad man but he’s also a suburban Everyguy suffering through midlife depression and divided between opposing ideas of manhood.
At work, Tony is a savagely effective boss. At home, his wife complains about his lack of sensitivity and rolls her eyes at his macho posturing. Only his psychiatrist understands.
Tony is TV’s unlikeliest hero, and “The Sopranos” family/Family saga demonstrated that TV could produce storytelling as challenging and grandly cinematic as the best of Scorsese and Coppola. No other drama can match its singular badabing.
2. “Hill Street Blues” (NBC, 1981-87)
The phrase “ensemble workplace drama” is pretty worn-out but imagine that you had never heard the words.
Imagine TV dramas without cameras swerving through a bustling precinct house or hospital, peeking in and out of the lives of a dozen characters, all with their own storylines. Imagine cop shows without urban landscapes of gritty despair, without uncompromised depictions of racism and class tensions. Imagine authority figures without flaws, issues and emotional baggage. Imagine the past 20 years of primetime without “St. Elsewhere,” “L.A. Law,” “NYPD Blue,” “ER” or “The West Wing.”
And if you can imagine all of that, you can appreciate the boldness and sweeping influence of “Hill Street Blues.”
3. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (WB/UPN, 1997-present)
Joss Whedon’s genre-hopping cult fave is ambitious, original and terrifically entertaining, with a soulful performance by Sarah Michelle Gellar as a superpowered girl who grows into womanhood battling demons — the ghoulish kind as well as the ones in her psyche.
“Buffy” is the best drama to never get a single major Emmy nomination. Ah, if only there was a category for kick-ass fantasy action Gothic romance pulp horror sex comedy chick-flick existentialist musical coming-of-age dramas. …
4. “Homicide: Life on the Street” (NBC, 1993-99)
The “Hill Street Blues” influence strikes again, except the dialogue was faster and funnier, the camerawork was edgier, the endings were unhappier, the urban wasteland had a name (Baltimore) and the cops were even more spectacularly messed up.
“Homicide” was a haunting ride into the funhouse of the soul, where the “murder police” (to quote the show’s vernacular) fought to hold onto their humanity in the face of everyday evil.
5. “Twin Peaks” (ABC, 1990-91)
David Lynch’s surrealist mystery soap only lasted for a brief moment, but what a mind-expanding, convention-busting moment it was.
“Twin Peaks” took us on a Zen Buddhist head trip, with detours into fetishism, kinky sex, serial killers, blackmail, dancing dwarves, wayward teens and cherry pie. And at the end of the road, there was no closure, only more questions.
Like, how did this magnificent fluke ever get on the air? And would it make it on to network television today?
6. “thirtysomething” (ABC, 1987-91)
OK, I admit it, I hated this show at the time. I hated those cloying yuppies, all wrapped up in their suburban angst and their child-rearing crises, obsessed with their own childhoods and afraid of turning into their parents. I hated the show’s endless navel-gazing and the characters’ certainty that nobody before them had ever experienced marriage or parenthood before. And then, one day, I had a baby. And now I get it. This show was brilliant!
7. “My So-Called Life” (ABC, 1994-95)
This coming-of-age drama, created by former “thirtysomething” writer Winnie Holzman (and produced by “thirtysomething” masterminds Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick), left the old Boomer insularity behind, appealing instead to the soul-searching adolescent within us all.
Everyone on this wistful and perceptive show, from the teenage heroine to her 40-ish mom and dad, yearned for the self they might have become if they’d chosen another path. As high schooler Angela Chase, Claire Danes gave a beautiful characterization of a good girl defying others’ expectations as she followed the hot delinquent guy down the rabbit hole.
Without Angela, there might be no Felicity, no Lindsay from “Freaks and Geeks” and no Grace from “Once and Again.”
8. “The Rockford Files” (NBC, 1974-80)
Today, almost 30 years after it premiered, “The Rockford Files” still goes down as smooth as an ice-cold beer on a hot summer day.
James Garner’s downwardly mobile ex-con P.I. remains one of TV’s most charming heroes, a manly man with a heart of gold. The mysteries were well plotted, the tone was wryly adult and Jim Rockford’s wrong-side-of-L.A. milieu was agreeably seedy.
They don’t make them like this anymore. Unfortunately.
9. “Gunsmoke” (CBS, 1955-75)
Thank goodness for the TV Land cable network, or young’uns like myself might never have experienced the pleasant shock of finding that adult dramas didn’t begin with “The Sopranos.”
Dark-edged and ribbed with a fierce Old Testament morality, this was the Western that changed everything about TV Westerns. No kiddie stuff, no yippie-ai-yay, just some good men and women trying to shine a righteous light on the wild frontier.
10. “Law & Order” (NBC, 1990 – present)
Who knew a dozen years and 11 consecutive best drama Emmy nominations ago that Dick Wolf’s meat and potatoes cop ‘n’ court twofer would grow into the CNN of drama series?
“Law & Order” is solid, topical and, between various reruns, syndicated airings and spinoffs, the franchise is on virtually 24 hours a day. The original “Law & Order” — primetime’s longest-running current drama — is still the best, though. Veterans Jerry Orbach, Sam Waterston and S. Epatha Merkerson enthusiastically bite into these crisp adult mystery/courtroom stories as if they could go on doing this forever. And they probably will.
Joyce Millman is a contributor to the New York Times.