This brilliant comedy managed to appeal to the masses and comedy writers alike. Seinfeld somehow made us all seem funnier, smarter, and occasionally annoying if we were trying to mimic that Seinfeldian whine. Partnering Seinfeld’s observational every-guy comedic chops with Larry David’s relatable misanthropy has enshrined this classic into hearts of smart and funny folks everywhere.
When Seinfeld was originally piloted, it tested terribly, mostly because at the time it was so unique that the viewers didn’t know what to make of it. The network rolled it out as mid-season replacement, where shows get buried alive, but instead they stumbled on pay dirt. The show found a loyal following and reigned on the air for 9 years. From close-talkers to puffy shirts, from Festivus to double-dipping, Seinfeld, which still rocks even in re-runs, changed comedy and our vernacular forever – yada yada.
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2. The Wire
David Simon’s lyrical and critically acclaimed masterpiece is an indictment of the institutions that are the bedrock of Baltimore. Each season is a deep dive into these worlds (Police, Docks, Schools, Newspapers, Police again). Simon managed to draw out incredible performances from memorable characters like Stringer Bell, McNulty, Lester Freaman and Omar.
The Wire is long on humanity, even as it explores the gritty, multi-layered topic of urban decay. Years after The Wire’s original airing, it remains relevant. Writer-producer and creator, Simon, was even awarded a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation, given to only a handful of brilliant innovators. If that wasn’t enough, The Wire also features one of our favorite scenes: when McNulty and Bunk investigate the scene of a crime and drop the F-bomb three-dozen different ways as they recreate the shooting.
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3. Stranger Things
The new sci-fi thriller Stranger Things from Netflix, written and directed by Matt and Ross Duffer, is quickly becoming a cult classic – which means your co-workers may be incessantly blabbing about it. Try not to be dissuaded by the whiff of Geekdom surrounding the show. Yes, it’s about a group of tween nerds solving the mysterious disappearance of a young boy, but it has just the right balance of scary elements that are coupled with strong clear storytelling.
Set in the early 1980’s, Stranger Things sates our hankering for 80’s nostalgia (E.T, Poltergeist, D&D, Winona Ryder) in the perfect dosage – without drowning us in 80s kitsch. The Duffer Brothers and Shawn Levy were inspired by Spielberg, Lucas, and King with some X-Files throw in, but Stranger Things isn’t a slave to the genre. It nimbly finds a way to embrace and pushes it to a new level. The critical acclaim is well deserved, Stranger Things is actually as smart as people are saying and is now streaming on Netflix. Stop fighting it and start binge-watching it.
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4. Master of None
Aziz Ansari’s Master of None begins with a condom breaking, and we are quickly entrenched in this upbeat cringe comedy. But the series quickly ascends to a truly original and higher-minded show that feels both modern and fun. Created by Ansari & Alan Yang for Netflix, Master of None tackles the small intricacies of dating rituals, sexting and courting, but also handles (in the least preachy way possible) racism, respecting parents, and what it means to be a second-generation immigrant.
Ansari, who perfected the fast-talking wannabe playboy on Parks & Rec, pulls off a slightly more grounded vibe in this series. At times, some of the performances from the supporting cast can feel a bit like an improv group shooting an indie film on the weekend, but that may just add to its winning charm. The relationship between Ansari’s Dev and Rachel is when this show is really at the top of its game. Their witty banter is smart, honest, and truly sweet in its slightly askew originality. Master of None may not be epic, but for its scale – it wisely knows how to play to its strengths.
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5. Arrested Development
Line for line, Arrested Development is arguably one of the funniest and most quotable sitcoms ever produced. Created by Mitchell Hurwitz, it originally aired on Fox for three seasons and then on Netflix. Arrested Development employs every tool in the comedy arsenal: from word play to innuendo, physical comedy to intricate bits, from broad cultural references to winks, and inside jokes about the cast and production process. The show manages to be simple in its plotting, which follows the downward spiral of the “riches to rags” Bluth family, and yet subversively complicated in its execution.
Portia De Rossi, Michael Cera, Jeffery Tambor, and David Cross, but the comedic story-telling devices that Huwritz brings to life. These all serve to share the zany exploits of the Bluth’s including: archival home-video footage, self-aware voice-overs (from an un-credited Ron Howard) and long-running jokes. Watching Arrested Development is like being invited into the best comedy room in Hollywood and watching the masters at play.
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The British sitcom Catastrophe shows the brilliance of quirky creator-driven comedy. Legend has it the creators, writers, and co-stars, Sharon Hogan and Rob Delaney, originally “met-cute” on Twitter. Whether that’s true or not, what is undeniable is their genuine chemistry and the honesty of their performances. The show follows the fallout after a week of never-going-to-see-you-again sex, which is complicated when (not such a spoiler) – she gets pregnant. Don’t let the simple premise fool you, because Catastrophe mines emotional gold and finds a way to be smart and funny in an original and fresh way.
Horgan and Delaney’s writing and performing deserves much of the credit here. In less capable hands, this show would fall flat on its trans-Atlantic butt. But you will find yourself rooting, laughing and cringing along with them in this unlikely, smart little comedy. Now on Amazon, Catastrophe continues to be met with critical acclaim and was recently renewed for two more seasons.
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7. The Sopranos
Yeah, it doesn’t take a frickin’ genius to say that The Sopranos is one the finest TV shows ever created. David Chase’s mob series has banked so many awards, so much critical acclaim, that it’s basically bandwagonning. But it is the sturdy writing, meticulous plotting, and killer performances that elevate this show to be one of the smartest TV series of all-time. When thinking of The Sopranos, it’s hard not to lament the loss of the talented James Gandolfini, who so fully inhabited the role of Tony Soprano that he grounded the entire show. Simply put, Gandolfini never hit a false note. Of course, the the supporting cast (Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Tony Sirico) isn’t too shabby either.
There are so many amazing moments (Spoiler Alert: Pussy’s getting whacked, Chrissie’s intervention…), however, what makes The Sopranos so riveting is Tony’s struggle to balance being Boss and being a family man. In wrestling with these struggles, Gandolfini makes us feel his heavy burden. The Sopranos somehow found a way to blend gallows humor and existential longing, deep brokenness and delivered on our deep dark desire to have our messy lives fixed by a visit from Tony’s crew. Bottom line, The Sopranos revolutionized TV forever.
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8. Game of Thrones
HBO’s Game of Thrones transcends beyond George R.R. Martin’s fan-boy favorite fantasy novels. The show delivers on the promise of ultra-violence, tons of sex, soapy plot lines, and Machiavellian maneuvering. In the banal world of television writing, Game of Thrones (with the help of collaborators David Benifoff & D.B Weiss) stands out as one of the brightest and most intelligent shows. At times, the plot and multitude of characters can be so interwoven and complex that it can even hurt your brain as you work hard to remember all their back-stories, but stick with it.
The murky morality and lust for the Iron Throne forces viewers to stay engaged and watch closely. Psychologically speaking, the characters of Game of Thrones could not be more layered nuanced. They both embrace the classical archetypes like cutthroat king, evil queen, knight in shining armor of epic storytelling, all the while undermining the whole elaborate system. And while Game of Thrones is replete with tons of sex and a parade of porn star cameos, it may well be its handling of the women characters that is perhaps its most striking strength. Whether nurturing, devious, virginal or promiscuous – the women are fully drawn and show true power in their ability to survive and often rule this brutal fantasy world. Many a PHD will be written in years to come analyzing Arya Stark and her feminist bonafides.
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9. Friday Night Lights
Loved by critics and a passionate fan base, Friday Night Lights is one of the smartest shows ever created. Based on a non-fiction book by H.G. Bissinger and a film of the same name, this show about high school football draws you in like a soap opera and has you caring about the close-knit town of Dillon, Texas. But this is not just a show a about high school athletics.
Their marriage and parenting may be one of the most well-hewn relationships on TV. That’s not to say there’s no drama or flair ups, but they are the true grown-ups of the show. They shoulder their fictional duties and responsibilities heroically. Some will point to the down-turn of Season 2 (we agree about that Landry storyline over-reaching), which was hobbled by the WGA’s writer strike… And yet the show still achieved smart stories that showcased heartbreaking courage. Plus, who doesn’t feel more uplifted after chanting: Clear Eyes, Full Heart, Can’t Lose!
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