It's been 20 years since The Sopranos began, changing the game and setting the gold standard for drama on the small screen. Here's what followed.
Freaks and Geeks
(1999-2000, 1 season)
The first episode of The Sopranos originally aired in January 1999; Freaks and Geeks' one perfect season didn't start until that September – and it absolutely was a drama, as much if not more than it was a comedy – so it definitely counts. There hasn't been a more achingly real, bittersweet high school drama made before or since, and very few scenes in TV history can match the one where lonely geek Bill gets home from school, fixes himself a grilled cheese sandwich and a glass of milk and finds company and comfort in television. You could cry just thinking about it.
Available on TVNZ On Demand.
Gilmore Girls (Netflix)
(2000-2007, 7 seasons)
On another day, on another list, this spot might go to a show like Grey's Anatomy or The OC, among countless others. It represents the unstoppable rise, first through DVD box sets and then online streaming services, of what we might now term "comfort viewing". And no TV drama has provided quite as much comfort to so many as Gilmore Girls, with its snow-globe setting and cast of unnaturally quick-witted and articulate characters. Where so many other 21st century dramas went for gritty realism, this one indulged our need for pure escapism.
Six Feet Under
(2001-2005, 5 seasons)
In tandem with its HBO sibling The Sopranos, this is the show that marked the new dawn of an era we've come to describe as "Peak TV". Based around the Fisher family, operators of a Los Angeles funeral home, it was dark and funny and moving, its meditations on life and the way it handled death unusually profound for a TV drama. Maybe its rarest achievement was how well it stuck the landing – where The Sopranos and so many others ended on a dud note with (some) fans, the Six Feet Under finale is widely regarded one of the greatest ever.
(2002-2008, 5 seasons)
If you've never been looked dead in the eye and told "it's sooo good, honestly really, really good" by a friend or acquaintance earnestly recommending you watch The Wire, you might have been in a coma for the past 15 years. They're right, of course – it was really, really good, and no other show since has come close to pulling off what The Wire did, the way each new season explored the show's ecosystem of crime and punishment from a different perspective. Its sense of authenticity felt unrivalled at the time, and indeed still remains the benchmark for TV drama.
(2004-2010, 6 seasons)
This, you could argue retrospectively, was the first great TV show of the internet age, the first show that really moved fans to take to the forums and message boards to share obscure theories about just what was happening on that bloody island. And the writers surely noticed, playing it up with increasingly cryptic narratives as the seasons rolled on (121 episodes they managed to keep everybody stranded for). It didn't always hit the spot, but when it did it was one of the best, most mind-bending shows on TV. It
seems only fitting that its finale managed to annoy even more people than that of
Forbrydelsen (The Killing)
(2007-2012, 3 seasons)
Has the influence of any other TV drama been felt as widely in the last 20 years as that of The Killing, Borgen, The Bridge – all the Scandi noir crime shows we all went absolutely wild for? You see it in the relentlessly bleak, washed-out palettes of shows like
Broadchurch and Top of the Lake and hundreds of other harrowing, bone-dry crime procedurals. They're all good in their own right, but few of them beat the complex, multi-faceted, precisely-plotted Forbrydelsen for the way it reset the scope for what a detective drama could be.
The Good Wife (Lightbox)
(2009-2016, 7 seasons)
The first time I ever heard of The Good Wife was when the late cricketing genius
Martin Crowe took to Twitter to send Three a furious barrage of tweets after they had the audacity to move the show to a later time slot. Just like with cricket Max, Crowe was on to something, and years ahead of his time. The rest of us eventually caught up to the brilliance of the smart, timely legal and political drama, centred on a lawyer returning to her career in the aftermath of a sex scandal involving her politician husband.
Game of Thrones (Neon)
(2011-, 7 seasons)
If you told me before 2011 that the biggest show of the next decade would be this depraved fantasy epic full of brutality, dragons and nude women, based on a series of 800-page doorstopper books that wasn't even finished yet, I'd have laughed specks of barbecue Shapes all over your face. But here we all are, eternal slaves to the ongoing spectacle that is Game of Thrones. To be honest, I still don't get it, but at this point, I have no choice but to respect a show that introduced the concept of "spoilers" to the masses.
Black Mirror (Netflix)
(2011-, 4 seasons)
The defining TV drama of the Netflix age, even if the first (and arguably best) two seasons were originally made for regular old Channel 4 in the UK. The switch to the streaming giant in 2014 quickly turned a cult hit into a global phenomenon, each new release of the darkly satirical techno-dystopia anthology met with more fervour (and ridicule) than the last. The feature-length, interactive Black Mirror movie Bandersnatch, released with little prior warning late last year, seemed to capture the zeitgeist more than ever. This is how TV is now – anything can happen.
The Americans (Lightbox)
(2013-2018, 6 seasons)
At some point, most of the shows on this list have held the "criminally underrated" crown currently being worn by The Americans. The more things change, the more they stay the same: turns out we're all kind of terrible at spotting great TV drama when we see it. The basic premise of The Americans – a spy thriller set in the early 1980s Cold War era – does sound pretty dime a dozen, but the way it constantly defied and redefined expectations of the genre across its six seasons (finishing to many ovations last year) has put it in a class of its own.