Top Ten Best-Written TV Series

Written By: Paul Toth - Dec• 07•13

In creating this list, I’ve tried to focus specifically on writing, rather than the numerous other facets that contribute to making a television program list-worthy. This means that some phenomenal series, such as Game of Thrones and Fringe, didn’t make the list because their greatness (to my mind) stemmed as much from other factors—such as remarkable acting and visuals—as the quality of the scripts. This isn’t to say these shows aren’t well-written—they most certain were (are are). It’s just that a few other series managed to strike an even greater number of appealing notes.

Obviously this list reflects my personal biases. There’s a lot of speculative fiction, far more drama than comedy, and a heavy tilt toward more recent stuff. Obviously there are plenty of series from yesteryear that had phenomenal writing. Shows like M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore show, and All in the Family. I think the art of writing for screen has evolved, though, and today’s authors have the advantage of learning their craft while standing on some wonderfully broad shoulders.

Many television series have featured stellar writing. These, in my opinion, are the best of the best.

#10: Season 1, The Wire

David Simon deserves kudos for every season of The Wire, one of greatest crime dramas ever to air. The show’s journey into an urban heart of darkness is a mesmerizing, intoxicating jaunt that leaves one gasping for breath and dead-bolting the doors. Season one in particular is reminiscent of Pacino and Deniro’s Heat in that it turns the traditional cops-and-robbers paradigm on its side by placing equally prominent (and equally flawed) characters on both sides of the law.

Much has been made of the series’ deft social commentary, but the most remarkable aspect of Simon’s focus on the dark side urban America lies in the fact that it never feels preachy. This contrasts sharply with shows like the US version of Life on Mars or the 70s procedural Quincy, in which the protagonists rarely seem climb off the soapbox.

The series is particularly daring in that in that portrays members of the law enforcement community as eminently fallible creatures. Plenty of film and TV shows include detectives with flaws, but these tend to fall into a predictably narrow band—namely, one in which the character possesses a surfeit of some admirable trait: He cares about the victims, but too much. She’s dedicated to the job, but too much. He or she is too brave for their own good.

Not the cops on the wire. They’re venal, bureaucratic, and above all, lazy. In other words, they’ve got feet of clay like the rest of us, and the result is relatable characters that are a perfect fit for a gritty milieu that feels dangerous and tense and sometimes frustrating. And that frustration makes it all the more uplifting when a character actually manages to grab the bull by the horns and get something done.

The one red mark on season one’s ledger is probably its almost comically dense profanity. Never have so many used the f-word so much. Thankfully, the swearing is toned down to slightly more believable levels in subsequent seasons.

Season one treats the viewer to any number of great moments, and some of the best come in the pilot, where we see the planets align—one by one—in just the right way to spur an aimless, politicized police force into taking action. In a situation where smart, organized criminals seem to hold all the cards, we’re treated to a whiff of hope.

#9: Season 2, Chuck

Both season one and season two of Chuck are superb, but because of season one’s truncated schedule, season two gets the nod. Schwartz and Fedak blend comedy, action, romance, and drama so effectively that the show’s relentless goofiness almost never derails its tales of high-stakes intrigue.

Season two presents a half-dozen different multi-episode story arcs, several of which rank among the series’ best. They often run concurrently, providing the series with a narrative richness rarely seen on broadcast TV. These include the emergence of the shadowy “Orion,” who turns out to be Chuck’s (the eponymous main character) estranged father; a romantic entanglement with Jill, Chuck’s ex, who’s also a member of a nefarious organization known as fulcrum; and an overarching romantic arc that culminates in a beautifully executed love scene between Chuck and the series’ female lead, Sarah.

Chuck and Sarah’s evolving romance is an area in which the season’s writing proves particularly inspired. The will-they-or-won’t-they subplot, in which the path to emotional fulfillment is blocked by succession of unpleasant characters and unforeseen events, is a staple of modern television, but Chuck’s creative staff carries out this strategy with a panache that sets the season apart. Both Sarah and Chuck fall for alternative partners, and in both cases the subplots involving their love interests are neatly tied to central espionage storylines. Life and death scenarios serve to intensity romantic arcs, and vice versa.

The single greatest impediment to Chuck and Sarah becoming a couple is Sarah’s reticence, and the stark contrast between her reserve and Chuck’s earnest puppy-dog affections serves as excellent source of tension. The writers parlay this tension into a series of superb comedic and dramatic moments, several of which play out against the backdrop of Sarah’s checkered past.

Writers often draw upon the antics of peripheral characters for comic relief, and Chuck has an entire stable of characters who serve in this role. Season two sees the introduction of “Jeffster,” a pop duo featuring Chuck’s ferociously inappropriate Buy More coworkers. The resultant dialog (and performances) are at the very least amusing and in many cases knock-down-drag-out funny.

#8: Season 3, The Walking Dead

Despite the outrageous of The Walking Dead’s premise (zombie apocalypse), it feels real, and this is strength from which many of its other strengths flow. The show is peopled by characters with whom we can readily identify because they’re more-or-less everyday folk. Seeing people like oneself thrown into bizarre, horrific circumstances makes it easy to imagine being in such circumstances, and, depending on your taste in entertainment, this can be an intensely appealing experience. Most speculative series’ are peopled by larger than life characters, from the gorgeous witches of Charmed to the superbly effective officers of Star Trek, to the X-Files’ fanatically diligent FBI agents. They’re generally sympathetic, but I don’t think most of us really identify with them. The Walking Dead takes an altogether different tack, to superb effect.

The series is adapted from the graphic novels by Robert Kirkman, and season three merges the strongest  storyline from Compendium One (collecting the first five years of graphic novels) with a variety of new material. At the season’s outset, a small group of zombie-apocalypse survivors take refuge in an almost- abandoned prison. Unbeknownst to the protagonists, a larger group of survivors has secured several blocks of a nearby downtown area and turned it into a livable settlement. Eventually the two groups meet, and their interactions are tainted by the fact that the townies are led by a wily homicidal maniac known as “The Governor.” The struggles between the two groups dominate this part of the series.

Every season of The Walking Deacd emphasizes the moral dilemmas that arise when people are forced to contend with other members of a fragmented, desperate population. In season three, characters facing these dilemmas make choices with terrible unintended consequences. By daring the viewer to put themselves in the characters’ shoes, the writers create a provocative, immersive experience few series have matched.

One particularly potent example of these ethical conundrums comes to mind: Early in the season, the survivors find the prison isn’t altogether uninhabited. A half-dozen prisoners are still there—able to fend off the zombies, but unable to escape. Rick, the group’s leader, finds he must choose between letting one of the prisoners fend for himself outside the prison walls or allowing him back inside, where he might a pose a threat to Rick’s family and friends. Rick shuts the prisoner out, and the chain of events that follows eventually results in the horrific death of two survivors, including Rick’s wife. The ensuing barrage of guilt and unhinges him, and for a time renders him incapable of leading. The drama of the arcs potency lies in the fact that most of us can probably see ourselves at least considering taking the same course of action as Rick.

Season three is also marked a remarkable richness of conflict. As usually, there’s the human vs. zombie storyline, that plays out in different ways for each of the two groups of humans. Both bands of survivors develop deep divisions, and resulting acts of deception, breaches of trust, and the escalating acrimony form a counterpoint to the inter-group warfare and the personal struggle between their leaders. In addition, a third, smaller band (which faces its own divisions) must choose who it will align with. As if that wasn’t enough, several characters, including Rick, and a relative principled survivor named Andrea, must face internal conflicts that contribute to the death of one and deteriorating mental condition of the other.

#7: Season 1, Justified

Inspired by Elmore Leonard’s short story Fire in the Hole (the late Leonard also produced the first few seasons), the series gives us one of the most well-drawn protagonists (Raylan Givens) in the history of the medium. Mixing a lengthy set of ostensibly contradictory traits in one persona might seem like a recipe for disaster, but Leonard manages to do so in a manner that is not just credible, but downright compelling. His Kentucky marshal appears tip-of-the-hat laid back, but is tense, confrontational and, as his ex-wife puts it in the pilot, “the angriest man I know.” He has a disarming wit and backcountry charm, but takes pains to distance himself from his blue collar past. And while he’s capable of being presumptuous to the point of outright arrogance, he addresses even the most loathsome of contract killers with a soft-spoken politeness—at first, anyway.

It might seem like plot arcs involving a coal country marshal would be simple, but Justified spins a tangled web, with Givens at the center of a splay of nuanced relationships. In the pilot, we’re introduced to his old love interest (who works at the same courthouse he frequents), his new love interest (involved in one shooting death before the marshal arrives, and another in his presence), a one-time friend turned violent supremacist, and (obliquely) his felonious father. Watching this show feels like diving into the deep end, and as the season progresses, its interwoven arcs only become progressively (though pleasingly) more involved.

Plenty of series feature quirky characters—in the world of sitcoms it’s practically a requirement— but quirky doesn’t necessarily equate to good, or even appealing. There’s a fine line between characters whose quirks makes them eye roll-worthy and those whose idiosyncrasies help render them sympathetic and compelling. In my book, Bones’ protagonist is an example of the former (though, judging from its longevity and ratings, many disagree) and Justified is a superb instance of the latter. From Boyd Crowder, the marshal’s nemesis and eventual born-again frenemy, to Ava Crowder, Raylan’s precocious, shotgun-toting, sexually aggressive pseudo-semi-girlfriend, Justified gives us one personality after another that commands the screen. Its characters can both make us believe in them and shock us witless, sometimes in the same scene.

#6: Season 1, Battlestar Galactica

I hereby bestow upon the Battlestar Galctica pilot the title “Best Pilot, Television Movie, or Miniseries of all Freaking Time” (yes, I know, it already has a title). It’s that good, and it’s the main reason season one makes the list instead of seasons two or three, which are in some ways stronger contenders. In it, the human race (such as it exists in another place and time) is nearly wiped out, and its remnants must go on the run, forever at the precipice of extinction. They fighting for lives against an implacable enemy host consisting of artificial beings called Cyclons. And as if things weren’t bad enough, the fleet of spacecraft in which the humans have taken refuge includes only a single warship—one that’s been infiltrated by Cylons. Also, the mad scientist who betrayed mankind has taken charge of their R&D efforts. It’s not quite as grim as The Walking Dead, but close.

Battlestar Galactica is, at its heart, a story about war—what is does to us, how it changes us, and how it may in time be the end of us. Season one uses several simultaneous developing arcs to explore these themes, each of which brings to bear a different type—a different flavor, if you will—of intensity.

Flavor One: The Galactica, a massive, venerable ship that has become a sort of space arc, is at the center of numerous battles against the Cylons. These are never “paste obligatory action scene here” affairs, but well-crafted sequences in which conflict propels the plot in a readily understood way. In each case, there’s a great deal at stake, and we’re consistently brought to the edge of our seats as human pilots duke it out against squads of vicious sentient drones.

Flavor Two: While his compatriots fight for their lives in deep space, Helo, one of the Galactica crewmembers, is stranded on a Cylon-occupied homeworld. He believes Boomer, another crew member, is stranded with him, but in reality he’s being manipulated by Cylon doppleganger. In its own way, this dance of deception is as high-octane as the life and death struggles aboard Galactica, especially since we, the viewers, know what’s going on and Helo does not. When he literally ends up in bed with the enemy, it’s space opera at its finest.

Flavor Three: In the episode Bastille Day, we see another face of war when humanity turns on itself, with prisoners representing an oppressed faction attempting to gain concessions by taking hostages. Those who lead the fleet must either negotiate with criminals or risk open combat, and the possibility that many of the remaining members of the human race may die at one another hands. This episode is excellent example of way characters are challenged during the series—not just with tests of fortitude and battle-readiness, but with challenges to their wisdom and essential humanity.

In addition to the pilot, season one includes another of the series’ finest single episodes, You Can’t Go Home Again. In it, a shipwrecked Starbuck must find her way back to the fleet. It’s a model man-vs.- nature story in which wit, determination, and intestinal fortitude allow an isolated individual to win out against seemingly insurmountable odds. The story pegs the intensity needle early on and never lets up, culminating in a triumphal penultimate scene worthy of a standing ovation.

#5: Season 5, 24

Though equally suspenseful series have since come along, 24 was the first television show that excelled at scooting us to edges of our seats and keeping us there—act after act, scene after scene. While the show’s real-time formula appears simple, it is anything but. Each episode builds tension and reaches dramatic peaks in multiple associated arcs, with one arc sloping gently while another peaks and yet another plateaus (often with some sort of high-stakes confrontation). The result is like somehow spreading’s one’s consciousness across multiples selves on multiple simultaneous roller coasters. Pure vertigo.

Not all seasons of the show are equally noteworthy. They range from mediocre to outstanding, with as many at low end as the high. Three seasons distinguish themselves, though: 1, 2, and 5. In each case, there’s sufficiently rich content that the writers don’t’ have to resort to repetition or filler to fill in the spaces between key developments. They also manage to present wildly unlikely scenarios with enough convincing detail to allow for suspense of disbelief—a major challenge with all larger-than-life fiction.

The season sets a brisk pace from the first episode, in which two supporting characters are murdered and a third barely survives the same fate. It’s easy enough to throw a bunch of gratuitous violence in an episode, but the deaths in 24 are hardly random—rather, they sit in center of a weave of plot threads that extends back into previous seasons into forward into the central season five arc. The violence is shocking, but it’s also the logical outgrowth of the struggle between Jack Bauer, the protagonist, and a well-placed nationalist cabal. By the end of episode, the stakes are high, the pace is set, and a number of sympathetic characters are already in jeopardy.

#4: Season 4, Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad is the tale of Walter White, a good-hearted, intelligent man whose various faults (pride, self-delusion, and a sort of reluctant ruthlessness) join desperate circumstances to brew a foul elixir that poisons all who imbibe it. Walter White’s ruinous journey destroys the lives of his family and associates, and eventually hastens his demise. Along the way, he immerses himself in a life of crime that involves him in a series increasingly high-stakes conflicts, facing off against other members of an underworld in which he eventually comes to play a prominent role. Despite the fact that Walter dooms himself and everyone around him, he’s a sympathetic character, and the show’s various subplots, driven by his particular blend of desperation, cleverness, and iron-willing determination, are fascinating.

Every season of Breaking Bad is riveting, but season four stands out as remarkable because of the deadly duel White ends up waging against Gus Fring, one of his co-conspirators. One of things that makes the conflict so compelling is the fact that it’s borne, not out of Walter’s flaws, but out of his more noble traits—namely, his loyalty to Jesse, his partner in crime. Because Water clings to this particular principle, he and Gus end up at odds, and Water barely escapes death at the hands the cultured but deadly kingpin’s henchmen. For most of the season, we’re waiting for terrible things to happen to Walter, and they often do. When Walter decides to fight back, things give even dicier, and the resultant suspense in spellbinding.

#3: Season 1, Twin Peaks

Several of the series on the list—Dexter, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead, made it largely because of the level of intensity they bring to screen. Twin Peaks—at almost twenty five years old the elder statesman of the batch—isn’t here because of intensity, though, it’s here because of mystique. The series is chock-full of strange character and stranger moments, but they blend together in a purposeful, beautiful pattern that’s engrossing rather than random or silly.

My favorite scene in the series comes when FBI agent Dale Cooper, the closest thing the ensemble has to a main character, sets out to gain insights into a homicide by throwing rocks at bottles. The method comes to him in a dream about the Dalai Lama, of course. As absurd as the whole thing, is, it doesn’t just come across as absurd, it comes across as, well, almost deep. The calm, intelligent, insightful-sounding way Agent Cooper choreographs the whole thing makes him seem like seem competent to the core, and for a moment—just a moment—we can almost belief his crazy-ass method will work, at least in the off- kilter world of Twin Peaks.

One of the most remarkable things about series was the fact that it reached the screen at all—especially considering it was a network show. It came in at the tail-end end of the 80s, a decade in which networks embraced true lowest-common-denominator programming, resulting in one bland sitcom and PI show after another. Even some promising series, such as Star Trek, The Next Generation, were pretty bad until they left the eighties behind.

Twin Peaks had a short run—a single full season, another partial season, and an obscure theatrical movie that tied up the remaining threads. So season one gets the “best of” designation by default. It’s a scenario familiar to fans of the next series on the list…

#2: Season 1, Firefly

So much has been written of Joss Whedon’s opus it sometimes seems there’s little left to say. Like Twin Peaks, it was cut down in its prime—though, unlike Twin Peaks, it probably had a lot of gas left in the tank (Twin Peaks appeared likely to move from its youth directly to its dotage). At least its jilted fans had well-received theatrical finale to enjoy.

Season one of Firefly truly hits on cylinders, and manages to do it in episode after episode. It has distinctive characters with back stories that are revealed in tantalizing bits and pieces. Like Battlestar Galactica, the show has intrinsically high stakes because the characters are at odds with a vastly more powerful foe. Finally, the show blends humor, action, romance, and speculative elements almost as artfully as Chuck. Being funny is hard. Being funny without derailing a tale’s dramatic tension and sense of high stakes requires outright mastery of the form. And Firefly’s writers demonstrate that mastery time and time again.

As much as any series on the list, Firefly makes wonderful use of subtext—something I never saw done within the confines of the small screen until the remarkable ER made its debut in the early 90s. Though the season is action-packed, some of its best scenes involve Mal, a freelance spacecraft captain, and Inara, a high-end prostitute. The two rarely say what they mean to each other—not really—but a complex mélange of one-upmanship, bruised feelings, attraction, and growing respect is nonetheless evident. A thousand things neither character will ever say are there to be discerned by the viewer. Wielding unspoken words as if they were a rapier striking right to the heart is a magical feat few writers can pull off.

Like most of Whedon’s series, Firefly’s dialog crackles. When gauging the quality of such things, I like to play a little game called “Is it obvious?” After each line, I ask myself if it was obviously the next thing I would expect the character to say. If the answer is “yes,” it means the line was either predictable, or I ended up feeling I should have predicted what the character would say. Either way, conversations that consistently make me say “yes,” end up feeling flat and unremarkable. Lines that fail to surprise also generally fail to evoke, provoke, and draw us in. Again and again, watching Firefly leads me answer the “obvious” question with a resounding “no.” The characters keep surprising us, keep drawing us in, and keep us wanting to know, see, and experience more of the series has to offer.

#1: Season 2, Dexter

It’s a series about serial killer who stalks other serial killers—a premise that could easily have led to a repetitive gore-fest or become nihilistic and depressing. Instead, we got a classy, smart show with loads of thought-provoking moral ambiguity and more suspense than any other entertainment I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. Like many modern series (and most of those on this list), Dexter eschews an episodic approach, making use of multi-episode story arcs that sometimes extend the entire length of season.

For Dexter, this is important because its approach to suspense involves posing a threat that intensifies over time, building from one episode to the next until the protagonist seems inevitably doomed. This strategy is masterfully applied in season two, which develops multiple threats and evolves them in tandem, with plot elements in each of the arcs interacting with elements in the others. The result is something a time-traveling Hitchcock would probably have enjoyed to no end: a tale of suspense that unfolds in masterful fashion.

The show’s protagonist (“Dexter,” of course) presented what I can only imagine must have been a daunting challenge for the writers. He’s an emotionally stunted sociopath incapable of the full range of normal human responses. How do you make such a character relatable, much less sympathetic? And with such a narrow emotional range, how do avoid having him end up boring? This is TV, after all, and it’s not enough for a character to be interesting for a couple of hours—he has to keep the viewer coming back—week after week, for months.

Once the show went into it second season, with a dozen episodes in the can, the problem was no doubt compounded. Several strategies seem to have been employed to address the issue, but the most important of them, in the long run, involved finding a way to let the character evolve in a compelling and believable way. Over time, we can see a sort of feedback loop, in which Dexter’s interactions with those in his life gradually engender stronger, more genuine emotional responses, which in turn allows those relationships to deepen. There were any number of ways the writers could have fouled up this tricky process, but they didn’t, and the result is a character that continues to intrigue and engage for years.

Honorable Mention

Season 1, Game of Thrones

An amazing series, but amazing as much due to set design, acting, directing, and special effects as writing. While the scripts are stellar, especially those in season one, they weren’t quite good enough to beat out the other shows on this list.

Season 3, The Sopranos

Great writing, season after season, but not quite as exceptional as other shows that are good for similar reasons. Not as thought-provoking as The Wire, or as suspenseful as Dexter, or as compelling a character study as Breaking Bad. One of my favorite series of all time? Yes. Top-ten writing? Not quite.

Season 2, Mad Men

Whip-smart dialog, brilliant narrative slight-of-hand, and great hairy boatloads of subtext. The best episodes are wickedly subtle and deft. Beautiful writing, no doubt, but I don’t find the stories quite as enthralling as those presented by the series that made the list. And yes, it’s all subjective.

Season 2, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

If I was making a list of the top ten best-written series, rather than the best-written seasons, Buffy would certainly make the grade. Focusing on seasons made it difficult to select this show, though. The

best individual episodes come later in the series, but the most consistent writing occurs earlier on. The most appealing overarching arc comes in season two, but season three has the greatest preponderance of compelling plot twists. In the end, I couldn’t think of a specific season worthy of edging other contenders off the list.

Season 1, Journeyman

Never heard of it? Sadly, most haven’t. A great series, with spectacular writing, that never found an audience. It was a strong contender.

I’m interested in hearing from readers. What would your top 10 list look like?

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.