Which is the greatest TV show of the past 25 years?
TV & Radio
Tough decisions have been made by The Sydney Morning Herald in the attempt to name the best 25 television series of the past 25 years.
For shows to make the list, they had to be made after 1987, which ruled out undeniable favourites such as Cheers, Family Ties, M*A*S*H and A Country Practice. The cut-off date also meant that any awkward conversations regarding Neighbours' place in the firmament of Australian television history could be had another day.
Members of the panel nominated their favourite 25 shows in order of preference. We then awarded points to shows based on where they came on each panellist's list. Additional preferences were given to shows that were nominated by more than one panellist, which, as it turned out, included all the shows in the top 25.
The list will inevitably cause some consternation. Looking at the very impressive top five, however, it's hard to pick a single show that doesn't belong there.
Tell us what you think of the list. Which show was too high or low in the standings? What did we miss? And which shows do you think shouldn't have earned a place at all? Not all of the shows screened in New Zealand. Let us know in the comments which Kiwi TV highlights should be on the list, too.
25. Phoenix/Janus (1992-93/1994-95)
Long before Underbelly, Phoenix and Janus broke the mould for Australian cop shows. We'd always made them, and loved them, from the first days of television but, by the late 1980s, we had become stuck in the old Grundy/Crawford rut. In terms of plot, character and production, about the only thing that had progressed was that we now got cardboard characters, bloodless crimes and clunky dialogue in colour. Then came these two sensational series based on infamous true cases and bringing a new look, feel, seriousness and verity to the way Australian telly did crime.
24. Law & Order (1990-2010)
Often underrated thanks primarily to its ubiquity in reruns, absolute consistency and relatively rigid formatting, this New York police drama is hard to beat for sheer watchability. Throughout its 20 seasons, L&O has become something of a New York time capsule, depicting the city's move from seedy, urban, crime hotbed through the Giuliani clean-up and the state of paranoia after 9/11. What remained constant were adroit ''ripped from the headlines'' writing and regularly superb performances from Sam Waterston, among other stars, and a who's who of American talent as guests.
23. Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)
Set in a distant star system where the remnants of humanity are fleeing the Cylon machine enemies they once created, Battlestar Galactica proved to be a remarkably accurate take on the first decade of the 21st century (9/11, suicide bombers, military justice). This was science fiction as contemporary commentary, and any doubts about a remake of a hokey old space opera were banished within a handful of gripping episodes.
The show dug deep into matters of faith and spirituality and it gave audiences the unfolding drama of people losing their humanity and machines discovering theirs, a saga matched by impressive digital effects and lived-in performances.
Sound off: How does a show about soldiers at war get around US language restrictions? By inventing its own ''fracking'' expletives.
22. Six Feet Under (2001-2005)
Creator Alan Ball won an Academy Award for best original screenplay for American Beauty before being invited to develop his own series for HBO. Set in a funeral home run by the Fisher family, this darkly comical drama opens every week with a death, before fading to white and the person's memorial being arranged.
Six Feet Under was intensely adult, with swearing, graphic sex scenes, simmering suburban tension and perennial themes of love and mortality punctuated by moments of genuine humour. Featuring a flawless cast including Rachel Griffiths and Michael C. Hall, Six Feet Under ran for five seasons, won nine Emmy awards and can lay claim to one of the most satisfying - and devastatingly emotional - finales in television.
21. Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-present)
Few people create one important television series, even fewer do it twice. But that was Larry David's achievement when the co-creator of Seinfeld launched this improvised comedy where he stepped in front of the camera as a (hopefully) fictionalised version of himself. Without the formalities of a typical hit sitcom, Curb Your Enthusiasm took the social gaffes and questions of etiquette that circulated through Seinfeld to excruciating new depths as the show's Larry David leapt to the wrong conclusions, made inappropriate comments and perpetually made things worse. By the final episode of the most recent season, he was feuding with Michael J. Fox and had previously used his mother's death as an excuse to avoid social commitments.
20. The X-Files (1993-2002)
The highly rational woman and the intuitive, emotional man; these days that's a standard TV trope, defining the key relationships in Bones, Castle, The Mentalist and many more. In 1993, though, that was a pretty crazy idea. Even the idea of a male-female crime-fighting partnership was kinda out there.
When we think of The X-Files we think of that spooky opening theme, the conspiracy theories, the ''monster of the week'', the whole idea that the truth was out there. But Chris Carter's seminal series broke new ground in a thousand ways, creating compelling character-driven television from a lucky dip of preposterous ideas and seducing a generation into the joys of fantasy sci-fi. Suddenly, geeks were cool. Did you even have internet in 1995?: Not only did fans, known as ''X-Philes'', establish online communities, they created a world of acronyms, including the one that defined Scully's and Mulder's relationship, UST: unresolved sexual tension.
19. Blue Murder (1995)
A raw, ferocious and confronting study of police corruption and underworld activity in NSW in the late 1970s, this two-part ABC crime drama is a distinguished predecessor to Underbelly. Written by Ian David, directed by Michael Jenkins and based on real people and events, it focuses on Detective Sergeant Roger Rogerson - played with cockiness and ruthless resolve by Richard Roxburgh in a career-making performance - his band of detectives and their relationships with a range of crooks and killers, notably Arthur ''Neddy'' Smith (Tony Martin).
The crude, swaggering, boozing cops run their patch as a fiefdom: making and blithely breaking the rules, colluding with criminals, eliminating anyone who gets in their way, conspiring to profit at every turn. The drama is distinguished by an array of electric performances from a cast that includes Alex Dimitriades, Gary Sweet, Steve Bastoni, Marcus Graham and Bill Hunter.
18. The Office (2001-2003)
This British show forever changed workplace comedy. Set in a small branch of paper company Wernham Hogg, its star was the Ricky Gervais creation David Brent, the epitome of bad management. Convinced he is popular and charming, Brent is in fact pompous, nasty and out of his depth.
17. Deadwood (2004-06)
It wasn't what decent folk would call a pretty picture. In fact, for most of its three seasons, writer-creator David Milch's alternative vision of the settling of the American frontier was repellent, nauseating and repulsive.
At the centre of Deadwood, South Dakota, circa 1870, was the fearsome Al Swearengen, a violent, ruthless, cunning, depraved, profanity-spouting businessman and power-broker, one-part Shakespearean overlord, one-part existential philosopher (''The world ends when you're dead''), and one-part protector of the vulnerable. Apart from Ian McShane's intense performance as Swearengen, alongside those of Timothy Olyphant as marshal Seth Bullock, Robin Weigert as a hysterical Calamity Jane and Brad Dourif as Deadwood's only doctor, it was Milch's use of language that defined Deadwood as existing outside the conventional parameters of TV or the western.
16. Summer Heights High (2007)
Having made his mark with the uncomfortably absurd We Can Be Heroes, Chris Lilley distilled his comic writing, his feel for characters that cross society's unwritten lines, and a healthy appreciation for the embarrassing into this winning series.
Shot as a mockumentary set at a high school that hopefully wasn't too typical, Summer Heights High had Lilley playing the cruel and self-obsessed former private-school girl Ja'mie King, perpetually in-trouble Polynesian student Jonah Takalua and deluded drama teacher Mr G. The paths of the characters never crossed but each proved resistant to the redeeming values of most television shows - just when you had a skerrick of sympathy for one of the trio through a revelation of their background or a moment of kindness, they'd eclipse it with another petulantly misguided flourish.
Lilley's latest effort, Angry Boys, remains criminally underrated. Expect its stocks to rise as it screens in reruns.
15. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
Before she was known as the Slayer, Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) was just a teenage girl dreading other horrors. Before vampires and nameless evil, it was her first day at Sunnydale High School, where she faced the biggest challenge of teenage life - shudder - fitting in. Before realising that her new school was situated over the Hellmouth, she did something that told viewers exactly what sort of person she was: she had lunch with one of the ''losers'', Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan), and not Queen Bee Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter).
Creator and director Joss Whedon took the familiar horror-movie genre and created a classic blonde protagonist who fought back. For seven (uneven) seasons, Whedon juggled sex, death and humour and gave fans a character who, despite the final episode screening just less than a decade ago, refuses to go away.
The words etched on her tombstone said it all: She saved the world, a lot.
14. Frasier (1993-2004)
The opera-loving radio shrink Dr Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), his effete, snobby brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce), their salt-of-the-earth father Martin (John Mahoney), loopy housekeepe Daphne (Jane Leeves) and Niles' never-seen wife Maris were the hub of this delightful and justly applauded sitcom. An unlikely spinoff of Cheers, the decision to give the henpecked Frasier a younger brother was nothing less than inspired, allowing the series to reflect on the misunderstandings between a father and his two sons and, later, delving into the touching, opposites-attract romance between Niles and Daphne.
A tribute to the skills of the writers, four remarkable seasons followed after the consummation of Niles and Daphne's romance. Rounding out the ensemble was Frasier's humourless former wife Lilith, (Bebe Neuwirth), and Roz (Peri Gilpin), who produced The Dr Frasier Crane Show and became the neurotic shrink's closest friend.
13. The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998)
Every television show that satirises the entertainment profession or has celebrities playing skewered versions of themselves owes a huge debt to this wonderfully cynical sitcom. Centred on late-night talk show host Larry Sanders (Garry Shandling), this blackly hilarious LA story paved the way for the comedy of the uncomfortable that led to Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office.
But the show also revealed the strange sympathies and idiosyncrasies of the characters, who were marshalled via a magnificent turn from veteran actor Rip Torn as Artie, Larry's friend, producer and occasional tormentor.
He wants to believe: X-Files star David Duchovny played himself as a pal of Larry's who was a little too friendly.
12. Twin Peaks (1990-1991)
The arrival of David Lynch's dark, confusing, twisted series marked the moment when ''TV got weird''. Like Sunnydale, it had its own mystical portal - the woods that surrounded the home town where the body of homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) washed up on the shores of the river. Kyle MacLachlan's FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper was our guide, but most of the time he was lost in a surreal Lynchian landscape.
From the haunting opening credits, to its violent dream sequences and bizarre characters, most water-cooler conversations revolved less around "Who killed Laura Palmer?'" and more ''What the hell is going on?''
11. Lost (2004-2010)
Lost was the string theory of television: no show has ever generated so many complex, wildly theoretical solutions. A series about a group of aeroplane crash survivors who find themselves on a tropical island that is the centre of vast metaphysical conspiracies, the American network drama kept the majority of viewers hooked for six seasons and now, through the prism of lacklustre imitators, it looks like a masterful achievement that will never be matched.
The writing provided a handful of indelible characters that transcended expectations, including Josh Holloway's laconic con man Sawyer, Terry Quinn's righteously reborn John Locke and Michael Emerson's Ben Linus, a villain for the ages because he believed he was doing right.
But, but ...: What happened to Walt? Why did the statue have four toes? And where did Richard Alpert get all that eyeliner?
10. Homeland (2011-current)
This nail-biting thriller - in which an unhinged CIA agent plays a cat-and-mouse game with a war hero who is suspected of having ''turned'' - is invested with confronting and provocative ideas about patriotism and the US's recent role in the affairs of the Middle East.
Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Mandy Patinkin and Morena Baccarin bring credibility and gravitas to roles that could have easily succumbed to glib stereotypes, while the dense but measured plotting maintains an at-times unbearable tension. For those in need of a recap, just as Carrie loses consciousness so her psychiatric treatment can begin, she has a ''Rosebud'' moment, connecting a word that Brody said in his sleep, ''Isa'', with the son Nazir lost.
9. Breaking Bad (2008-current)
What began with an intriguing if macabre scenario - a high-school chemistry teacher with lung cancer takes up methamphetamine manufacturing to financially support his family - has turned into an enthralling dramatic proposition that, halfway through its final season, is now about the extremes people will go to get what they want.
Created by former X-Files writer Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad makes you fear for both the physical safety and the souls of its characters, particularly educator-turned-criminal Walter White. Played by Bryan Cranston, who has banished any memory of Malcolm in the Middle, Walter conquers both his enemies and his family, and the tension of how far he'll go and who might pay the price is becoming almost unbearable.
8. The Simpsons (1989-current)
Now in its 23rd season, The Simpsons is the world's longest-running sitcom, animation and scripted prime-time series. Matt Groening's creation fundamentally altered assumptions about television cartoons, from being the exclusive domain of the young and young at heart to having truly broad appeal and capturing an adult audience. The fictional town of Springfield is a microcosm of Middle America, which the writers use as a playground to satirise contemporary culture and society.
Despite its subversiveness, The Simpsons is at heart a sentimental sitcom about a loving and dysfunctional family. The agelessness of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie allows a consistency impossible to achieve in live-action comedy. The dense scripts are packed with clever sight gags, slapstick, pop culture and literary allusions, not to mention famous catchphrases, some of which have been added to the dictionary.
7. Frontline (1994-1997)
Frontline immediately and irrevocably changed the way we watch commercial TV current-affairs programs as it gleefully skewered some of the genre's grubbier practices, acidly exposing the cheap tricks, the puffed-up personalities and the cynicism that can infect the game.
Created by Working Dog, the masterfully written and performed satire delivers a gaggle of self-important, morally bankrupt, deluded and otherwise deficient characters in rabid pursuit of ratings and fame. They include vain and vacuous puffball anchorman Mike Moore (Rob Sitch), ambitious reporter Brooke Vandenberg (Jane Kennedy), drippy weatherman Geoffrey (Santo Cilauro) and rumpled crime specialist Martin Di Stasio (Tiriel Mora).
6. Arrested Development (2003-2006)
A critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful absurdist comedy about the wealthy, dysfunctional Bluth family, who lose their wealth in the opening episode and must adapt to life in their sole surviving asset: a display home on a failed residential project.
5. The West Wing (1999-2006)
No one writes dialogue with the wit, pace, density and complexity of Aaron Sorkin, and he put that gift to great use here, creating an indelible cluster of characters working with the president of the US.
A dream leader, Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is cultured, educated and devout, committed to his family, his country and an agenda of social reform. He was ably supported by a dedicated and equally inspiring team.
Trademark scenes involve characters walking and talking, debating issues rapid-fire. The West Wing never talked down to its audience, or even slowed the pace, respecting its viewers enough to believe they could keep up, and it delivers some of the smartest, fastest dialogue ever to grace the small screen.
4. The Wire (2002-2008)
American crime writer Michael Connelly contends that the reason TV crime dramas tend to portray stereotypical cops and criminals is the difficulty of exploring what's going on inside their heads, which novelists can do. But it's a tribute to former journalist David Simon and his writers that that wasn't the case with The Wire, lauded by many as the greatest show ever.
Set in Baltimore, its densely threaded plots and detailed characterisations are an unprecedented portrayal of a city in decay and the compromises, moral ambiguities and institutional blockages that both fuel and hinder those on both sides of the law.
3. Seinfeld (1990-1998)
Seinfeld was axed after its pilot, resurrected a year later by a visionary NBC executive, survived a sluggish four-episode first season and went on to become one of the most influential comedies of all time. Created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, the sitcom set in New York City introduced a fresh comedic sensibility and brought neuroticism to the mainstream. With early episodes bookended by Jerry's stand-up, Seinfeld was a show about nothing where the characters never learnt anything. This gave the show freedom to sweat the small stuff and put minutiae under the microscope in ways never before seen on TV. Despite the loose premise, Seinfeld gave rise to tightly crafted storylines that remain cultural touchstones to this day. The chemistry between Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer was remarkable and their individual quirks became iconic.
2. The Sopranos (1999-2007)
Although the US's premium cable channel, HBO, had been around for years, it was David Chase's mob drama that made it synonymous with high-concept, quality drama. The show's central character, Tony Soprano - a mobster torn between family and Family, forced by panic attacks to seek the help of a psychiatrist - was the very embodiment of moral ambiguity. The show was the antithesis of the procedural dramas that had gone before, its storylines unfolding slowly, obliquely, demanding attention and rewarding you tenfold for it.
1. Mad Men (2007-current)
Matthew Weiner cut his teeth as a writer and producer on The Sopranos, but there was nothing to suggest the drama he would develop for a minor cable channel would become one of the most talked-about and revered in TV history. The simplicity of the one-line synopsis - ''the lives and loves of a group of men and women working in the advertising industry in Manhattan in the 1960s'' - belies the rich characterisations, dark emotional terrain and eye-candy design that, five seasons on, are synonymous with the show.
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is the enigmatic heart of Mad Men, a devilishly handsome ladies' man with many ghosts in his cupboard, a morose and emotionally unavailable former wife, a new and younger wife he barely understands, and an office full of troubled souls who represent the untold story of the so-called Camelot era.
List written and compiled by Paul Kalina, Frances Atkinson, Andrew Murfett, Debi Enker, Melinda Houston, Craig Mathieson, Daniel Burt, Greg Hassall, Michael Idato, Karl Quinn and Matthew Burgess.