We are in the golden age of TV. That fact is indisputable. But who makes the best TV?
It certainly isn’t the major networks anymore. Sure, there will occasionally be an NBC or ABC show I enjoy. FX creates some great stuff. But the way TV has exploded thanks to streaming technology means the competition is wide open.
Now it’s time the main event. This is what you came for. Hell, half of you probably skipped the previous paragraph because your attention span is more fractured than the Seven Kingdoms. And so, without further gilding the lily, and with no more ado, I give you the ultimate battle of the old money vs. the new; the Goliath of cable TV against the streaming David; my five favorite HBO shows clashing with my five favorite Netflix shows. Now touch ‘em up.
*Small disclaimer: I’ve limited the HBO shows to ones currently running. Given that they’ve had a decades-long head start on Netflix, it only felt fair.
I’ve chosen five shows that illustrate the impressive range of Netflix’s programming. Comedy, drama, sci-fi, superhero, animated… and a whole lotta heart.
Orange Is The New Black
We’re five seasons into a drama that broke down so many important doors in the world of TV. It has tackled race, gender, sexuality, and the American criminal justice system and prison complex in ways that are sometimes brash and sometimes nuanced. The sheer volume of great characters that we have the pleasure of meeting makes the show fascinating, even after the novelty wears off. Taystee Jefferson is one of my all-time favorite TV characters.
It’s a show that confronts relevant social issues in ways that my top HBO shows simply don’t attempt. Finally, seeing Laura Prepon – who I only ever knew as the snarky yet lovable Donna from That ‘70s Show – as the plotting, smoldering Alex Vause is really fun.
If you haven’t yet seen this one, I insist you stop reading this immediately and go watch Episode 1. If all I achieve here (besides fueling a few trollish ignoramuses) is spreading the word about this magical show, it will all have been worth it. GLOW has more heart than any show on this list.
Alison Brie was born to play Ruth Wilder, a zany, over-eager actress who is acutely aware of how fucked up she is, which manifests in this desperate need to please. I met Betty Gilpin for the first time in GLOW as the vulnerable ice queen Debbie Eagan – and fell immediately in love. Or was it in lust? Despite the presence of those two scene-stealers, the show does an amazing job of making each of the Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling into a complex character. Marc Maron shows off acting chops as the alcoholic director Sam Sylvia – a man fighting for relevance but often settling for existence.
Go watch it. Seriously.
Master of None
Aziz Ansari is a bit of a Renaissance Man. He wormed his way into America’s hearts as the cuddly, simpering Tom Haverford whose velvet blazers, “treat yo self” days, and chicky-chicky-parm-parms are defining charms of Parks & Recreation. But since then, he’s gotten much more ambitious, releasing a book, stand-up specials, and of course, the Emmy-winning Master of None.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a show that better shows the strange, ecstatic, awkward life of 20- and 30-somethings living in a big city. His cast of characters is great, and the way he delves into the minutiae of adult social life makes the show feel like Seinfeld at times, but with more heart.
The premise of Bojack Horseman is delightfully absurd. The writers use the animal kingdom to set up dozens of jokes throughout the series, often in subtle ways. The show sends up LA and Hollywood (or was it Hollywoo?) as well as anything I’ve seen, and the casting – especially Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris, and Paul F. Tompkins – is pitch perfect.
But what sets Bojack apart from other raunchy animated comedies (like Archer, another favorite) is the way it digs deep into the psyches of its characters, exposing a level of emotional depth and vulnerability that will pierce you to your core. The central question of the show is essentially – can you create your own happiness? It’s something that the hero constantly struggles with. The vapid lifestyle so often associated with showbiz is turned inside out in search of what truly fulfills the characters, and the answers are as poignant as they are unexpected.
This show rocked my socks off. I’m not someone who goes crazy for superhero movies or shows typically, but Jessica Jones hit this sweet spot of noir New York, psychological insanity, and some really cool powers.
Our hero is broken, we get that from Episode 1, but it’s the slow burn of her piecing together her former confident self that makes the viewer connect. Throw in David Tennant as a live wire of slick evil and you’ve got an icy personality that is the equal of Kristen Ritter’s fire. But it’s also a show about the regular folks – the collateral damage – and the way that they found peace in each other when no one else could understand.
Honorable Mentions: House of Cards (some amazing seasons mixed in with some duds), Narcos (really enjoyable but lacked the depth of my top five), Love (at least one of the main characters will drive you insane), Stranger Things (haven’t seen it, but hear great things), Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (plot felt stretched thin after the first season).
From the current giant of TV to an old favorite renewed, HBO flexes its muscle in these five masterpieces.
Game of Thrones
What can I say about GoT that hasn’t already been said about Alexander the Great. Powerful, beautiful, intimidating, unpredictable. This show is amazing; it lives up to the hype. It is this weird mashup of fantasy novels I devoured as a kid; brilliant, snarky dialogue; and of course, sex scenes with some of the hottest women and men on TV. Plus dragons.
Thrones creates deep and lasting connections to its characters. And though it’s famous for killing them off – they’ve preserved all the best ones, when you think about it: Arya, Tyrion, Jon, and of course, Daenerys. At least those are my personal Mt. Rushmore, and this is my article, isn’t it?
As beloved as the character Elaine Benes became, after seeing Veep, it feels like Julia Louis-Dreyfus must have been sleepwalking through every episode of Seinfeld. The acting on display in Veep is positively terrifying at times. Her unchecked narcissism and, frankly, madness is impossible to look away from. And though I’m loathe to bring current events into an article about TV, the political situation in 2017 has helped ripen Veep into a satire that feels prescient.
The verbal sparring between the many bumbling idiots on Selena Meyer’s staff feels written by the love child of Aaron Sorkin and Eric Cartman. And really, sparring might be generous; the many ingenious insults are offset by verbal flatulence in equal measure. On top of that, Veep might have the greatest human punching bag of all time: Jonah Ryan.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
I’m beyond ecstatic that Curb is back for its ninth (!) season. This show brings awkward humor to a brilliant new level of cringeworthy-ness. It peddles in the same close examination of the essentially meaningless social lives of a small group – but this time it’s based around the entertainment world in LA rather than New York.
There’s one thing that greatly enhanced my love of this show that I only realized after watching a few dozen episodes: I agree with Larry David in almost every single matter. He is often cast a social pariah in his interactions, and causes all sorts of grief by trying to impose his worldview on others. He handles things terribly. He never quits when he’s ahead. But the central ideas of the gripes he has with society ring true to me, and I have to assume to many others.
I started watching this show while living in the Bay Area and working for a startup, so it hit a little too close to home. Despite that, I kept watching, and Silicon Valley rewarded me by going far beyond the Valley stereotypes to create a comedy/drama that examines important aspects of workplace life that other shows shy away from. While the goal of the show certainly isn’t to be woke – its punchlines are typically frat humor with obscure references – it discusses some very relevant subject matter, including race, gender, business ethics, and of course, smart fridges.
Silicon Valley is eminently binge-able, as it ends every episode with a bang – some revelation or twist that makes you hungry for more.
Last, but certainly not least, is the show primed to take the mantle from Game of Thrones as HBO’s flagship. From the first trailer I saw for Westworld, I was hooked – Anthony Hopkins doing strange, science-y things is enough to set my hair on end. I had no idea what I was in for.
The park in Westworld is a virtual reality Wild West, which people can pay to enter and do whatever they please – kill, gamble, get laid, etc. That concept alone is beyond fascinating, but the way the show delves into human nature and the boundless consequences of such manipulation of life is a sight to behold. If you haven’t given the show a chance, I suggest you take a few PTO days and immerse yourself in this universe.
Honorable Mentions: True Detective (Season 1 was truly special, but Season 2 fell well short), Vice Principals (on par with Eastbound & Down for peak Danny McBride), High Maintenance (really inventive concept, not top five worthy)
It’s HBO for me, but by a narrow margin. Netflix has yet to create a show close to the epic scale of Game of Thrones or Westworld, but they dominate the comedy category, for my money. The good news is that we all stand to benefit from this competition of TV makers – Amazon has produced some amazing shows (shouts to Transparent), Hulu is throwing their weight around, and more importantly, more niche streaming services are popping up by the dozens. Plus, Disney is about to start their own streaming service, and Apple is getting into the original content game. This magical age of TV is only going to get better.