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JCM's Top 11 Shows


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In honor of my 11th SBC Anniversary, I'm going to do something I was supposed to do six anniversaries ago: my top ten TV shows list! I'm actually going to make it top 11 to reflect my eleven years on the site and to make up for taking so long with this. (I swear to God it's not to rip off Nostalgia Critic, please don't sue me Doug.)

Without further ado, here's the first show on my list:

11. The Mandalorian

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Three years ago, a new streaming service debuted in Disney+ that was expected to be the first to really give Netflix a run for its money. To challenge a giant like Netflix who was essentially synonymous with streaming at the time, Disney needed a real draw, a killer app that would do for their new service what Halo did for the Xbox. Jon Favreau's Star Wars show, the first live action show in the 40+ years of the franchise, turned out to be exactly that. Premiering on the same day as Disney+'s launch, it was critical in drawing interest to a service that wouldn't take long to become a giant in its own right, and it's easy to understand why.

Fully embracing the Western genre that the Star Wars movies had only borrowed elements from, The Mandalorian tells the story of a bounty hunter who is forced to become the hunted when he refuses to give up a valuable prize, known by the show's fandom as Baby Yoda due to being...well...a baby who looks a lot like Yoda. The dynamic between the quiet, very serious Mandalorian and the innocent, playful child is the most engaging aspect of the show, and that combined with the stellar writing and the constant twists and turns the series throws at us makes it a classic after just two seasons. Whether you're a diehard Star Wars fan or somebody who couldn't care less about the movies, this is definitely a show worth checking out.

#10 coming tomorrow

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10. Invader Zim

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During the 90s, Nickelodeon revolutionized children's animation with so-called Nicktoons, cartoons made exclusively for the channel that, unlike the cartoons kids were used to watching on broadcast networks, weren't educational and weren't trying to sell them toys. It sounds crazy now, but at the time, it was seen as a huge risk, and it was a risk that paid off in a big way for the cable channel, sending what was already a growing brand into the stratosphere. By the time Invader Zim premiered in mid-2001, there had already been 15 Nicktoons, with the biggest success stories out of them being Rugrats, The Fairly OddParents, and of course, SpongeBob SquarePants.

Invader Zim wasn't a success story. Far from it, in fact. It was the first Nicktoon not to reach 30 episodes or 3 seasons. In fact, its second season wasn't even completed before Nick gave it the axe. The show wasn't cancelled for being bad, though. Obviously, I wouldn't think that, or it wouldn't be on this list. The show was innovative, unpredictable, gorgeously animated, and of course, hilarious. It also happened to be super dark, darker than every other kid's show and most adult shows, too, which is why it's frankly bizarre that Nick greenlit it in the first place. I'm happy Nick did, though, because it gave us one of the classics of the form, one that still holds up even 20 years later.

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9. Atlanta

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A show that defies genre, Atlanta was already one of the most unique shows on TV during its first season, but over its next two seasons, it continued to redefine itself. Created by and starring Donald Glover, the series used everything Glover had learned from writing and acting in comedy to give us a social satire about race relations and the issues that come with fame that was hilarious and thought-provoking from its very first episode. With a stellar cast of names that get more famous by the year and that have great chemistry with each other, Atlanta didn't have to deviate much from what it did during its first season to make an impact, but it did, anyway, propelling it from just a very good show to one of the best of all time.

If Atlanta had anything resembling a formula by the middle of Season 2, it was thrown out the window for Teddy Perkins, arguably the show's best episode. It didn't have too many ha-ha funny moments, and the show's central characters Earn and Alfred had virtually no part of the episode's plot, but it thrived despite that. Now secure in the knowledge that it could completely ignore what had worked before to tell the stories it wanted to tell, Atlanta became more of an anthology series, a Black, Black Mirror, in its third season, which aired earlier this year after a four-year break. Atlanta's more than making up for lost time by premiering its fourth season next months, and the only expectations we can have going into it is that the expectations we will have will be subverted.

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I'm back! Who better to describe my next show than Cosmo himself?

8. Seinfeld

One of the most influential sitcoms of all time, as well as one of the funniest, Seinfeld didn't have the warmth most of its predecessors had. It didn't have lessons, and in fact, it went out of its way to avoid having lessons. Its main characters weren't likable (the farthest thing from likable, actually) but it took the country by storm anyway. After watching just a few episodes of this show, you'll understand why. Two of the biggest shows of the 21st century, The Office and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, got much of their comedy from bad things happening to bad people, but Seinfeld did it better than either of them.

There are many episodes I can point to as examples of the show doing what it does best, but none stand out more than The Soup Nazi, which I jokingly had listed as my Favorite Episode on my SBC profile (and still might, idk I don't feel like checking). The Soup Nazi is not only my favorite episode of Seinfeld but one of my favorite episodes of television. It takes something as mundane as buying soup and turns it into an absolute riot with stakes and a seemingly unconquerable villain while having everything wrapped up neat and tidy after 22 minutes. The Soup Nazi aired in one of the show's final seasons, and one of the incredible things about Seinfeld is that while most shows, especially sitcoms, get worse as they go on, Seinfeld only got better. The last season had what was probably the show's most experimental episode in The Betrayal, an episode with a plot that unfolded in reverse, and the finale stayed true to the show's philosophy by having no hugging and no tears, instead putting the main four of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer exactly where they belonged: in prison.

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7. Batman: The Animated Series

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Though studios are pumping out more superhero media than ever before, none have come close to replicating the impact that Batman: The Animated Series had in the early 90s. Meant to mimic the style of Tim Burton's hugely popular Batman film from 1989, with music including the iconic opening theme inspired by Danny Elfman's score for the movie, BTAS used the seeds of what came before it to create what is still known by many to be the definitive version of the Caped Crusader. I mentioned during my review of Invader Zim that most children's animation at this time existed either to teach you stuff or sell you toys or both, and while BTAS had the occasional Aesop, and while I'm sure it sold a ton of Batman toys, it was clear from the start that the show's main directive was telling great, compelling stories, and it did that better than almost any other show, live action or animated, that I've seen.

Even today, BTAS manages to stand out from the pack due to its art style, dubbed Dark Deco, which makes everything seem like it's happening in the shadows. The show had many memorable performances from its voice cast, but none were as memorable as Mark Hamill's turn as The Joker, a performance so strong that it legitimately holds its own against Oscar-winning depictions of the character by Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix. The show has been so influential on Batman canon that its takes on obscure villains like Clock King and Mr. Freeze have been adopted into the comics, and of course, no contribution to the Batman mythos by the series has been bigger than Harley Quinn, who at this point is eclipsed only by Batman and The Joker in popularity. A triumph of art and storytelling and the launching pad of television's first superhero universe, BTAS deserves all of the praise it has gotten and then some.

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6. Gravity Falls

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Another animated show that proves cartoons can be enjoyed by far more than just children despite the insistence by studio executives (even today) that they can't be, Gravity Falls was an exciting, funny show that was unlike anything that had aired on Disney Channel before it. Taking place in the small town of Gravity Falls, Oregon, the series follows twins Dipper and Mabel Pines as they stay with their great-uncle Stan in his tourist trap, the Mystery Shack, over the summer. In the first episode, Dipper discovers a journal written by a secret author describing the supernatural goings-on of the city, and with the journal's help, he and Mabel learn how to navigate the strangeness they encounter every episode while also navigating the struggles and anxieties that come with growing up. The big animated hit that Disney had before Gravity Falls, Phineas and Ferb, managed to stretch a summer into eight years, over 200 episodes, and multiple movies, but Gravity Falls made sure it didn't wear out its welcome by ending after only two seasons and 40 episodes. I, like many of the show's fans, would have liked a little more, but after the experience Alex Hirsh and the rest of the show's crew gave us, I can't complain.

The experience of watching Gravity Falls with all of its twists and turns, and most importantly, watching it all live, is what really sets this show apart from others in my mind. Had I binged the show years after it ended and after cultural osmosis made me aware of most of its big surprises, it likely wouldn't be this high on the list, assuming it made the list at all. That's what I love about television as a medium. Catching onto a great TV show as it airs, discussing it every week, and seeing new episodes at the same time as everybody else is a wonderful feeling, a feeling that's becoming more and more rare today with the growing fragmentation of TV and bulk release of episodes through streaming services. Gravity Falls felt like one of the last of a dying breed, and that's one of the things that keeps its memory alive ten years after it first premiered. Another thing keeping it alive is the Disney shows clearly influenced by it in DuckTales, the recently-ended Amphibia, and the soon-to-end Owl House, shows that prove cartoons can appeal to people of all ages by mixing their humor with strong storytelling and character growth, and I hope its an influence that doesn't go away anytime soon despite a corporate environment that's become increasingly hostile to those types of shows.

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5. Community

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The history of the sitcom is a long and varied one, longer than the lifetime of anybody reading this, but the goal has been the same since the beginning: to make the viewer laugh. That makes sitcoms harder to judge than other shows, but in my subjective opinion, Community is the funniest sitcom ever made as well as one of the best shows ever made. Taking place at a community college in Colorado, the show centers on Jeff, a disgraced former lawyer who starts a study group full of colorful characters. For its first 20 episodes, it's a mostly conventional sitcom, but two of the season's final episodes, Contemporary American Poultry and Modern Warfare, gave us a preview of the genre-bending show that Community would become.

Community's so-called "gimmick episodes" or episodes styled to mimic everything from mafia and action movies like the aforementioned episodes, to documentaries ala The Office, to cheesy stop-motion Christmas specials, are among the highlights of each season. They also don't change up the style's format just for the sake of doing it generally but as a way of teaching us more about the characters. Remedial Chaos Theory, not just the best gimmick episode but the best episode period, is the show at its most funny, heartwarming, and inventive. It helped establish Community as one of the finest examples of its art form after just over two seasons, and despite a small bump in the road in the form of a fourth season without the show's creator, it completed its run as a hallmark of television, a series so influential that it helped launch a new streaming service (that died just a couple of months later oops). Community's greatness didn't translate into the viewership other great NBC sitcoms had, but the devoted fanbase and its refrain of "six seasons and a movie", an inside joke that blew up like many of the show's inside jokes, kept it going for much longer than it had any right to. Now that a movie seems more likely than it ever has been in the seven years since the show's conclusion, that devoted fanbase will be rewarded for its efforts with at least one more trip to Glendale Community College.

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4. Better Call Saul

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How do you follow up a show as popular and critically acclaimed as Breaking Bad was? Regardless of your show's individual merits, it will be unable to avoid comparison to its more well-known sister series. BCS could have been seen as a failure just by being good, but miraculously, it was able to not just match the quality of the show that inspired it, but in the eyes of many, exceed it. Instead of trying to avoid comparison to Breaking Bad, BCS invited it, and that high standard led to a show better than I think anyone expected when it was announced during BB's record-breaking final season.

Saul Goodman, Walter White's fast-talking lawyer, begins the show as Jimmy McGill, aspiring lawyer and brother of one of the most prominent lawyers in Albuquerque in Chuck McGill. The relationship between Jimmy and Chuck is the emotional core of the show, at least during its first few seasons, and it plays a big part in helping the show explain how Jimmy became Saul. The second-most important relationship, which becomes easily its most important by the show's end, is between Jimmy and Kim Wexler, who have a mutual attraction that isn't healthy for either of them.

Outside of Saul, the most important character to return from Breaking Bad is Mike Ehrmantraut. His journey from cop to criminal enforcer is almost as compelling as Jimmy's transformation into Saul, and every time their stories collide, we're in for a treat. Saul and Mike aren't the only characters to return from Breaking Bad, of course, and every time we see a familiar face, it's exciting without being distracting, because the writers always make sure that it fits within the overall story arc.

What makes a spin-off successful, like a Fraiser or a Law and Order: SVU, or a Better Call Saul, of course, is a hook that differentiates the show from the original without forgetting what made people love the original in the first place. BCS took a Godfather Part II approach to Breaking Bad, acting as both a prequel and a sequel while retaining much of what made BB such a huge hit. The writing, the acting, and the directing continues to be top-notch, and they're more consistent from the start than BB was, the result of a creative team that's much more confident going into it. Better Call Saul isn't just required viewing for people who loved Breaking Bad but for people who love great television in general.

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3. Mr. Robot

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When you think of prestige TV, the first networks that come to mind are HBO, Showtime, AMC, and maybe even FX. Before recently, USA Network was not thought of as a home of prestige TV and seemed to have no designs of being so. Shows like Monk, Psych, and Burn Notice were good and occasionally even great, but you knew what to expect from shows like that, which had well-defined structures and rarely ever deviated from them. They were TV equivalents of comfort food, giving you something better than the bland fast foody dramas the broadcast networks pump out but nothing that will challenge you with bold new flavors.

Enter Mr. Robot.

The Sam Esmail drama ignored the precedent set by the popular USA Network dramas before it and defied every expectation it could. With a main character whose various mental disorders and drug habits made it hard for him to determine what was real or not, Esmail and crew had the opportunity to create one of the most unpredictable shows we've ever seen, and it was an opportunity they took advantage of. The show was a huge success during its first season, but the second season proved to be too confounding for a lot of people, and the ratings began a steep decline. Despite that, network executives maintained their faith in the show and its crew, and while the show's ratings continued to fall over its final two seasons, the show itself only got better, ending as not just the best show USA Network ever produced but one of the best shows of all time.

My two favorite episodes of Mr. Robot came in those last two seasons: eps3.4_runtime-error.r00, which unfolded in real time, and 407 Proxy Authentication Required, which not only defied expectations but defies description, an episode you have to watch yourself to understand just how game-changing it is. If there's one thing most of the shows on my list have in common, it's a willingness to experiment with the medium, to truly give us something that we haven't seen before. In a television landscape dominated by spin-offs, reboots, and remakes (some of them admittedly very good, like the show right under this one on my list), that's very important to me, and Mr. Robot's commitment to doing just that is what makes it one of my top three shows.

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2. Breaking Bad

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When Walter White and Jesse Pinkman first got into that RV, there's no way they could have known where it would take them. Similarly, few who watched this show about a chemistry teacher who finds out he has terminal cancer and starts cooking meth to support his family after he dies could have known that it would become a depiction of the rise to power and devastating fall of a drug kingpin. I started watching the show just a week before the finale aired thanks to a marathon AMC was doing, and though I rushed to catch up with everyone at school who was talking non-stop about the show in the fall of 2013, I still appreciated the stellar writing, acting, and directing of what had once been the best show almost nobody had been watching and was now a cultural sensation.

It's only natural that I did my first rewatch in nine years on the platform most responsible for Breaking Bad's surge in popularity at the end of its run: Netflix. The show's fast pace and dense storytelling made it perfect for the budding streaming service, and it didn't hurt that it was really, really good, of course. Unlike its spin-off, Better Call Saul, and most of the other shows on this list, it took a while to get going, but once it got going, it gave us some of the best television ever produced, and its final season not only lived up to its sky-high expectations but somehow exceeded them. The last half of that season contained gut-punch after gut-punch, culminating with Ozymandias, which remains the best episode of anything I've ever watched (sorry, Soup Nazi) and wrapping Walter's story up the only way it could have been wrapped up with a victory lap of a series finale in Felina.

Just as Ozymandias dethroned Soup Nazi as my favorite episode, Walter White dethroned Gregory House as my favorite character, somebody who starts the show off as a mostly decent man but gradually develops into a monster. He certainly had his pride and his willingness to make moral concessions that encouraged him to get into the drug business in the first place, but as he goes deeper and deeper into the business, his negative qualities become amplified and less of what made Walt a sympathetic character in the first place remain. A character that good simply could not work without an actor good enough to bring him to life, and thankfully, Bryan Cranston was up to the task. Before Walter White, Cranston's most famous role was that of Hal in Malcolm in the Middle, which was...a very different role, to say the least. The trust that was put into him to pull a role that complicated off paid dividends, including four Emmys for Cranston. This was a show that spoiled us with great performances, including Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman, Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring, Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut, and despite claims to the contrary by a very loud and very annoying segment of the fanbase, Anna Gunn as Skyler White, but Cranston needed to get it right more than anybody else in order for the show to have the legacy it has had.

Breaking Bad's legacy is obvious even today, close to a decade after its finale and two months after the end of Better Call Saul. You can't talk about prestige TV without mentioning it or you won't be taken seriously. You'll be hard-pressed to find it outside of the top 5 of any list of the greatest television shows of all time by people who have watched many more television shows than I have. You're unlikely to join a Discord server or subreddit that hasn't had a Breaking Bad meme posted to it recently. As Walter White said once, adding to an endless supply of memorable quotes from this show: "Nothing stop this train."

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The #1 show on my list is an innovative take on the police show. Yes, I'm talking about...

1. Cop Rock

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With its unique blend of gripping drama and catchy music, there had never been anything like Cop Rock on TV before it premiered, and it's unlikely we'll ever see anything on TV like it again. This may be a surprising choice to many for the top spot because the show was cancelled after just 11 episodes and sports a putrid 53% rating on Rotten Tomatoes as well as a 4.4/10 on IMDB, but it really is a show you can either love or hate, and I happen to be one of the ones who love it. Coming out just as the Disney Renaissance was kicking into high gear, the Disney-owned ABC gave us a show with songs as easy to shake your head and sing along to as in movies like The Little Mermaid and The Lion King, but they happened to be singing them as people got kidnapped, shot, and killed. It truly was a masterpiece.

And, of course, I'm kidding. The #1 show on this list isn't Cop Rock. It's...

1. The Wire

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David Simon's in-depth look at crime in Baltimore is the absolute peak of prestige TV in my eyes. The writing, acting, and directing are consistently good from the very first episode, and though it didn't get as much attention as another HBO show airing at around the same time also hailed by many as one of the best ever in The Sopranos (a show I've only seen one episode of, sorry), it was able to finish the story it wanted to tell, and it could not have done it much better. The Wire immediately separates itself from most other cop shows by putting just as much of a focus on the criminals as the police investigating them and not making all of the criminals bad guys by default but giving them a more nuanced portrayal while aiming greater criticism at the systemic issues that push many in these urban, African-American majority areas to crime in the first place. Every season focuses on a different dimension of these systemic issues, starting with the police department itself during the first season, the unions in the second season, the government in the third season, the schools in the fourth season, and the media in the fifth season. I have never seen a better depiction of the effects of urban decay than The Wire, and the fact that it's just as relevant today, if not more so, than when it first premiered in 2002 makes it a show that pretty much everyone should set time aside to watch.

Breaking Bad and Mr. Robot are as great as they are in large part because of their main characters and the stellar performances by Bryan Cranston and Rami Malek of those respective characters. Without them, the shows would undoubtedly be worse and likely wouldn't be on this list, certainly not in my top 3. What puts The Wire a step above them is the fact that it doesn't rely on one character or one actor. My favorite season, season 4, had barely any of Jimmy McNulty, who had been the show's main character the first three seasons, at all. The show had a murderer's row of emerging talent, most notably Idris Elba, Michael B. Jordan, and the late Michael K. Williams. With this kind of talent and the show's reliably good writing to support it, they could handle a character as important to the show's events as McNulty taking a backseat, and with season 4, they had an opportunity to prove just that, giving us some of the best television to ever be put on the screen in the process.

Though it was loved by critics even while it was airing, The Wire never got great ratings, with the slow pace and complicated storylines making it a difficult show to follow in the pre-streaming era. It also wasn't very flashy compared to most of HBO's hits, which was a deliberate decision but also something that hurt The Wire's viewership. Its focus on black drug dealers is also something that limited its appeal, with it likely not being a coincidence that season 2, which gave the spotlight to the city's mostly white dock union, had the show's best ratings. The reasons most HBO subscribers weren't digging The Wire are probably the same reasons Emmy voters didn't like the show, either, the ones who bothered to watch, anyway, making The Wire the best show to never win an Emmy, only being nominated twice for its writing and getting nada outside of that. Despite everything going against it, the show continued to stick to its philosophy, which was to give us an unfiltered look at what used to be a great American city. Though not a lot of what it had to show us was good, it's good that we got to see it anyway, and while it could have been easy for The Wire to succumb to all its cynicism, it ended on a hopeful note instead, making it clear that Simon and the rest of the crew still believed in Baltimore someday fixing the problems that led to the show's creation in the first place. 20 years later, Baltimore clearly hasn't done that, encouraging Simon to return to the city for his miniseries We Own This City that aired last spring, but I'm sure he hasn't lost his hope yet, and as long as that is the case, neither can we.

That's it for my list! Thanks to everyone who read through this, and especially those of you who waited through the progressively longer breaks to do so. Even today, the list would likely be different than it was when I started, due to Atlanta's final season and the amazing (possibly top 10 worthy?) show I just finished in Barry. Still, it's close to enough to what my 10ish favorite shows really are that I'm happy with the list, and I hope that you all have a happy holidays!

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