Travel Through Time with the Best Historical TV Series for Every Era

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Travel Through Time with the Best Historical TV Series for Every Era

There is educational television, and there is “educational” television. This list deals almost exclusively with the latter. There are facts to be found in these historically-set series, but they are fictionalized (sometimes greatly so), and will obviously not be as true to life as a documentary. That is, of course, part of the fun. A show like The Great, for example, claims to only be “occasionally” true, but there is something about it that really seems to capture the spirit of the time. And, once a particular time period has sparked your interest, there are certainly plenty of other sources to consult to get the real story.

Still, the sad truth of most television period pieces is that they are very white and Euro-centric. And thus, so is this list (with a few exceptions). Hopefully, we are starting to see that change.

Below, we’ve compiled a list of TV shows taking place from antiquity to the 2000s that best define each time period. To be included, the series have to be specifically about that time, not simply set or made in it (for the 20th century, anyway—again with one exception). Further, they should focus on an important historical figure or political event—no matter how seriously or not they ultimately take their subject matter.

Antiquity: Rome

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Watch on HBO

Created by: John Milius, William J. MacDonald, Bruno Heller
Stars: Kevin McKidd, Ray Stevenson, Ciarán Hinds, Kenneth Cranham, Lindsay Duncan, Tobias Menzies, Polly Walker
Original Network: HBO

Soon after starting Rome, you will be shouting “The 13th!!!!” in solidarity with its lead centurions Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo. The duo have a kind of Odd Couple dynamic that is bonded in blood and brotherhood, as the series tracks the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. An ambitious and enthralling series, Rome was also expensive, and an ill-advised sprint through the timeline in Season 2 botched things enough for that to be that. But going from the story of these simple but compelling legionnaires through the betrayal of Caesar and the increasing excess of the Roman elites, leading up to Antony and Cleopatra, is all incredibly entertaining. A kind of proto-Game of Thrones in many ways, Rome boasts an outstanding cast, bloody battles, and plenty of political machinations to keep you pressing “Play Next” until its epic tale comes to an end. —Allison Keene


The Middle Ages: Miracle Workers: Dark Ages

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Watch on Amazon Prime

Created by: Simon Rich
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Geraldine Viswanathan, Karan Son, iJon Bass, Sasha Compère, Lolly Adefope, Steve Buscemi
Original Network: TBS

In the second installment of this anthology series, Miracle Workers: Dark Ages sets its hilarious cast in another setting well-worn by comedies with a British pedigree: The Middle Ages. Breakout Geraldine Viswanathan is a Shitshoveler—literally, it’s her last name—whose dad (Steve Buscemi) and local layabout prince (Daniel Radcliffe) are always getting her into something … when she’s not breaking the mold by trying to, say, read. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a good touchstone here, with everything from old-timey doctors to executions getting a light satirical jab. The humor is quick, witty, and understated, made even more unique by the brilliantly offbeat deliveries of its stars. If ever there was a show that felt like an Eddie Izzard stand-up routine turned into a series, it would be Miracle Workers, which continues to be both one of the smartest and delightfully dumbest shows on TV. —Jacob Oller


1500s: The Spanish Princess

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Watch on Amazon Prime

Created by: Emma Frost, Matthew Graham
Stars: Charlotte Hope, Ruairi O’Connor, Harriet Walter, Stephanie Levi-John, Laura Carmichael
Original Network: Starz
Runner up: Wolf Hall

If you love historical fiction, then The Spanish Princess is the show for you. Instead of a typical Tudor story about Henry VIII, after he decides he wants to dump Catherine of Aragon for Anne Boleyn, this show shares Catherine of Aragon’s triumph. Based on the novels by Philippa Gregory, in this rarely-told story, The Spanish Princess details her happy years which (you may not know) were 24 years of marriage before her union was annulled. What makes this story particularly compelling is its intentional choice to use a diverse cast which is also rooted in history. While some might define the use of people of color in a historical fiction drama progressive, it is simply accurate. Chances are you have never seen this story of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon on screen, and it is well worth the watch. It’s season finale has set up a fascinating Part 2 that will further investigate the reign of Henry and Catherine, with all of the lies, romance, and beheadings that come with it. Also be sure to check out The White Queen and The White Princess, the first two installments of his anthology, to take you further back into the story of women in the English monarchy. And for the later years of Henry’s reign (and the schism of the church), definitely watch the beautifully intricate Wolf Hall. —Keri Lumm and Allison Keene


1600s: Versailles

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Watch on Netflix

Created by: Simon Mirren, David Wolstencroft
Stars: George Blagden, Alexander Vlahos, Tygh Runyan, Evan Williams, Noémie Schmidt, Anna Brewster
Original Network: BBC Two / Canal+ / Ovation

The wonderfully opulent and soapy drama Versailles focuses on the reign of France’s King Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King. The expansion of France, and the increased taxation that lead towards revolution, plays out against the building of the magnificent Versailles, as the series leans into the courtly drama and scandals that defined the era. Blagden is fantastic as a monarch who truly believes he was chosen by God (which leaves him both bold and conflicted), and is matched in confidence by Vlahos as Louis’ brother Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, who often wore women’s clothing and had a long-running affair with the Chevalier of Lorraine. There are mistresses and sexual romps to spare in the series, but also mysteries, double-crossings, and witchcraft. This is not a stuffy historical drama, but a modern-feeling escapade with a minimal glance towards accuracy. We wouldn’t want it any other way. —Allison Keene


1700s: The Great

Watch on Hulu

Created by: Tony McNamara
Stars: Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Phoebe Fox, Sacha Dhawan
Original Network: Hulu

For those who adored The Favourite, writer Tony McNamara is back with “an occasionally true story” for Hulu focused on the rise of Catherine the future great, when she was just “a 20-year-old who’s been in Russia six months, and who—with the aid of a drunken general, an angry maid, and a nervous bureaucrat—is going up against the violent regime that is Peter’s empire,” (as one character succinctly states). The 10-episode series has a crisp, fast-moving script and sumptuous costuming that looks like a traditional historical drama but feels refreshingly modern in its approach. Bathed in a Marie Antoinette meets Death of Stalin aesthetic (and never going Full Dickinson), the series’ acid, winning humor understands the familiar absurdity of an age filled with the constant juxtaposition of wealth and brutality. Emotionally affecting as a complicated dance of horror and hope, Catherine’s outright victories may be few and far between, but the journey is thrilling.

The Great begins in the mid-18th century, with Catherine’s (Elle Fanning) arrival at the Russian court as a naive German bride for Peter (Nicholas Hoult) the not-so-great and in fact very-much-awful. A script this cleverly bombastic requires very specific handling to balance its humor and drama, and both Hoult and Fanning are luminous as the ill-matched new couple. But though Catherine has a distaste (quite rightfully) for Peter, she does have a heart for her new country. “I want a strong, vibrant Russia alive with ideas, humane and progressive, where people live with dignity and purpose,” she says dreamily. “Russia?” the Emperor’s advisor Orlo (Sacha Dhawan) says in a questioning tone. “It needs to be believable.” Catherine’s maid, Marial (Phoebe Fox)—a former noble lady stripped of her position—adds, “Just tell them … no one will rape and kill you and your children, and you’ll have some bread. That would be sufficient.”

In some ways, it might be a mistake for Hulu to have released all ten hourlong episodes at once, because The Great really should be savored. The way it charts Catherine’s quiet but brave attempts to take power by growing a voice at court and discovering new things about herself is a really beautiful journey, punctuated by completely absurd events. It’s strange and wonderful and a fantastically funny ride. But it will also leave you pondering the nature of sacrifice and real change, and the courage it takes to overthrow a despot. Huzzah. —Allison Keene


Early 1800s: Victoria

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Watch on Amazon Prime

Created by: Daisy Goodwin
Stars: Jenna Coleman, Rufus Sewell, Tom Hughes, David Oaks, Alex Jennings, Nell Hudson
Original Network: PBS

Examining the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, Victoria has never gotten the same attention as its splashy cousin, The Crown. And yet, the series share many similarities. Both feature young women being pushed very suddenly into a royal role they had not been expecting, facing difficulties living under constant public scrutiny, and fighting to command respect from men who do no think them up to the task. Among the politics there are also two beautiful love stories at the center of Victoria; a chaste one between the young queen and her first Prime Minister, “Lord M” (as she calls him), and the other between Victoria and her future husband Albert. Both are unique in their own ways, especially in how the show allows Victoria and Albert to settle into both domestic bliss and the natural scuffles all couples face (augmented, of course, by their positions). The show truly blossoms in its second season, and continues from there to be an emotional and surprisingly cozy portrayal of the royal household, the people it employs, and a nation Victoria and Albert seek to modernize. Gorgeously costumed and compellingly crafted, Victoria is a wonderful series to fully immerse yourself in—one that will (for many Americans, at least) have you constantly on Wikipedia to learn more about the historical events it portrays. —Allison Keene


Mid 1800s: Underground

Watch on Hulu

Created by: Misha Green and Joe Pokaski
Stars: Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Aldis Hodge, Jessica De Gouw, Alano Miller, Christopher Meloni, Amirah Vann
Original Network: WGN America

Before Underground, I’d like to think that I knew that TV could accomplish quite a bit. But after Underground’s first season, I know that TV can change history itself, as well as something just as powerful—language. What is a “slave”? What was a “slave,” in America? It’s not as if the WGN America series, from creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, and executive producers John Legend and Anthony Hemingway, is the first work of art to demand that we see black American “slaves” as humans, first. It’s that, in attempting to create a compelling framework, Underground is the where truly human flaws and characteristics in enslaved people—like jealousy, sexual desire, vengeance, villainy, anger, heroism, spirituality, contentment—are explored with such great depth. Green, Pokaski, and their brilliant writers dared to break away from traditional slave narrative formulas, where slave = good victim, and master = bad victimizer.

Had they stuck with such a formula, I suspect they still would have created one of the most important and compulsively watchable shows on TV. But because they dared to break away, they created one of the most entertaining and jaw-dropping series as well—and in doing so, sent a powerful message about the difference between a slave and an enslaved person. My tongue is still getting used to saying the latter instead of the former, but my brain is already beginning to see the difference. What was an enslaved black person, in America? After Underground, I can imagine an enslaved person as a small boy, refusing a piece of candy from his half-brother and future “master” (Maceo Smedley as James). I imagine dances and yellow ribbons (Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Rosalee). I imagine blood spilled for the sake of a map to freedom, faked injuries and tattoos on top of lashings (Aldis Hodge as Noah). I imagine flames to cotton, and lost men looking for redemption—or, simply, a way out (Alano Miller as Cato). And I imagine women like Underground’s most compelling character of all, Ernestine (Amirah Vann), opening bottles in wine cellars, bathing women in tubs and praying in the dark before and after taking matters into their own hands. In addition to giving us an incredible series with heart-stopping storylines and performances, Underground gave us permission to re-imagine the past, and—perhaps most importantly—re-envision the future. —Shannon M. Houston


Late 1800s: Deadwood

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Watch on HBO

Created by: David Milch
Stars: Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker, Jim Beaver, Brad Dourif, John Hawkes, Paula Malcomson
Original Network: HBO

Few shows sound as profanely inspired as Deadwood, a specific cadence that has also been referred to as “Shakespeare in the mud.” It deserves every kudos. The extraordinarily compelling Western is ultimately less concerned with its setting and historical accuracy (though it has plenty to spare) than it is about accurately portraying humans. Why do societies and allegiances form, why are close friends betrayed, and why does humanity’s best seem to always just barely edge out its worst? These are the real concerns that make Deadwood a masterpiece. David Milch created a sprawling, fastidiously detailed world in which to stage his gritty morality plays and with it has come as close as anyone to creating a novel on-screen. With assistance from some truly memorable acting by Ian McShane, Brad Dourif and Paula Malcomson, Deadwood’s sometimes over-the-top representations never veer far enough from reality for its inhabitants to become just characters. (A recent movie on HBO also helps sew things up in a satisfying way after the original series’ sudden ending). —Sean Gandert and Allison Keene


1900s: The Knick

Watch on Amazon Prime

Created by: Jack Amiel, Michael Begler
Stars: Clive Owen, Andre Holland, Jeremy Bobb, Juliet Rylance, Eve Hewson, Michael Angarano, Chris Sullivan
Original Network: Cinemax
Runner up: Anne with an E

Even though The Knick was conceived by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, and even though every episode of it is filled with fantastic acting performances (Clive Owen should have won a lot of awards for his work as the drug-addicted megalomaniac, Dr. Charles Thackery) and incredible attention to period detail of this early 1900s hospital, the success of this series falls square in the lap of Steven Soderbergh. By allowing him to direct, shoot, and edit each installment, he turned The Knick from just another medical drama into something far more artistic. Even when the most gruesome procedures were playing out on screen, Soderbergh’s use of color, lighting, and camera movement made it so you couldn’t look away. And that was essential, as the show’s exploration of the early days of mental health, the disgraced ideas of eugenics, and the rise of black Americans into the medical field always made this show a cut above.  —Robert Ham and Allison Keene


1910s: Downton Abbey

Watch on Amazon Prime

Created by: Julian Fellowes
Stars: Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, Jessica Brown-Findlay, Laura Carmichael, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Siobhan Finneran, Joanne Froggatt, Thomas Howes, Rob James-Collier, Rose Leslie, Phyllis Logan, Sophie McShera
Original Network: PBS
Runner up: Peaky Blinders

The lush, swirling Edwardian-era Downton Abbey is never short on drama or general strife. The ensemble series is extraordinarily well-acted (as evidenced by Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Joanne Froggatt, Jim Carter and Brendan Coyle all receiving Emmy nominations), and there’s perhaps no easier way to describe some of the plot twists than fucking nuts, a term we strongly feel the saucy Dowager Countess would approve of. Amnesia? Yup. Temporary paralysis? Got it. Murder conviction? Oh, big-time. In less capable hands, these stories would’ve likely flown off the rails and veered into the completely ridiculous, but the talented cast of Downton Abbey manage to always handle it with aplomb. As the seasons progressed, many more tragedies would befall the Crawley family, making for some of most compelling television in recent memory, and all capped off with one of TV’s most satisfying finales (and then, another hugely satisfying movie). —Bonnie Stiernberg


1920s: Boardwalk Empire

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Watch on HBO

Created by: Terence Winter
Stars: Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon
Original Network: HBO
Runner up: Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries

Easily dismissed as just a Sopranos clone set in the 1920s (although gorgeously so), Boardwalk Empire wisely took many of the best elements of its predecessor and expanded its scope. It’s this wide-ranging spotlight, drifting from the highest levels of political office down to lowly bootleggers and prostitutes, that makes the show something special, offering up morality plays that hold the lives of millions at stake while putting an actual face on those being affected. The show’s political commentary is apt without seeming preachy, while characters maintained the balance between being archetypal ciphers and real people. Boardwalk Empire isn’t as energetic as other dramas, but its meticulous slow-burn has a depth and beauty to it that’s rarely been matched on the little screen. And it only improved over time as it became less concerned with the minutiae of New Jersey politics in favor of featuring a much more compelling national landscape. As a result, both its characters and its stories became grander, more operatic, and expressionistic. —Sean Gandert


1930s: Babylon Berlin

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Watch on Netflix

Created by: Tom Tykwer, Achim von Borries, Henk Handloegten
Stars: Volker Bruch, Liv Lisa Fries
Original Network: Sky 1, Das Erste
Runner up: Carnivale

Ok, technically Babylon Berlin takes place in the late 1920s. But it informs everything about the 1930s along the way as a labyrinthine but deeply human exploration of a key era of German history. Focusing primarily on a mysterious detective from Cologne (Volker Brunch’s Gereon Rath), as well as a poor, ambitious flapper with a desire to work in Berlin’s homicide division (Liv Lisa Fries’ Charlotte Ritter), this neo-noir builds a case around the many forces at work in German society and politics during the Weimar Republic. With the rise of Stalin impacting Europe, and the Treaty of Versailles not sitting well with dangerous nationalist groups, Berlin is a hotbed of covert activities. And the payoff, after the show’s marvelous first two seasons, culminates in one of television’s best episodes of all time (including an outrageous twist you will never see coming).

Despite the time period (in a surprise perhaps to American viewers), the first time we are shown a swastika is not until the Season 2 finale. But the slow turning of that tide—the fall of democracy, the rising blame against the Jewish community—is felt throughout, as violence spills out onto the streets, among a population still splintered from the horrors of the first World War. And yet, Babylon Berlin is never a dark series. It can be sad or heartbreaking, but it can also be luminous and joyous. It’s cerebral and emotional. It takes time to spend an entire episode casually lounging by a lake, but also builds such an intricate interplay of narrative threads that, when they start to pay off, you will come away astonished. The show’s distinct German Expressionist style, gorgeous costuming, and keen sense of character make it unmissable TV. Don’t be scared of the subtitles—though it is dubbed, it is best experienced in its native language. —Allison Keene


1940s: Band of Brothers

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Watch on HBO

Created by: Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg
Stars: Damian Lewis, Ron Livingston, Scott Grimes, Donnie Wahlberg, Kirk Acevedo, Eion Bailey, Michael Cudlitz
Original Network: HBO

Many years ago there was a blog called “Pop Culture Torture,” and one of the challenges was for a writer to watch all of Band of Brothers in one day and document it. By the fourth hour he was an emotional wreck, and by the fifth he was starting to sob just at the opening theme. Such is the immense power of this World War II epic, which fictionalizes the experiences of “Easy” Company from the 1992 book of the same name. The series also features some of the real heroes talking about their experiences before and after episodes, and when you learn which characters are based off of them it just brings everything together in overwhelming ways. The careful attention to detail and weaving in of historical moments will ultimately make this series your definitive understanding of the war and everything surrounding it. So don’t binge it, but do watch—it is one if the all-time greats. (One that happens to star a massive cast of recognizable young male actors in small roles who almost all became A-list movie stars). Follow-up series on HBO include The Pacific, which deals with that theater of the war, and also David Simon’s Generation Kill, another outstanding miniseries that focuses on a Marine recon division during the first 40 days of the Iraq War. —Allison Keene


1950s: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

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Watch on Amazon Prime

Created by: Amy Sherman-Palladino
Stars: Rachel Brosnahan, Alex Borstein, Michael Zegen, Marin Hinkle, Tony Shalhoub
Original Network: Amazon Prime
Runner up: Call the Midwife

It has its flaws, but Amy Sherman-Palladino’s tale of a 1950s housewife-turned-aspiring stand-up—starring the luminous Rachel Brosnahan as Midge Maisel—is a real charmer. Whether delivered at cocktail parties, in court, or on stage, Midge’s act, honed into a “tight ten” under the guidance of manager Susie Meyerson (Alex Borstein), is the series’ highlight: When Brosnahan gains steam, Midge’s raw, fast-talking fury becomes a performance, steering into the emotional skid and catching each laugh before it careens off the precipice. She’s a natural because her comedy is, yet Sherman-Palladino’s direction—treating the sets as set pieces, separated from life by the glare of the spotlight—maintains the border between life and art, permeable though it may be. As comedy, and on the subject of comedy, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has the feeling of a star turn, at once vulnerable and self-aware. 

Though it has sustained some (perhaps rightful) backlash for being a fantasia of privilege, those fantasy aspects of Maisel are still really fun. It’s wry, witty, and occasionally deeply emotional. But for the most part, it comes down to having a lot of funny words and a lot of beautiful costumes, with the exceptionally charming Brosnahan pulling Maisel back from the brink of occasionally becoming a little too theatrical. In fact, everyone in this swirling, whimsical series is excellent, most especially the aforementioned long-suffering Susie (in particular Susie’s low-stakes kidnapping and her later assimilation into the wealthy Jewish getaway where Midge’s family has holed up for the summer in Season 2). Maisel is pure escapism with some occasional well-earned bite.—Allison Keene and Matt Brennan


1960s: Mad Men

Watch on Netflix

Created by: Matthew Weiner
Stars: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, Bryan Batt, Michael Gladis, Aaron Staton, Rich Sommer, Robert Morse, John Slattery
Original Network: AMC

Look, you don’t need us to tell you that Mad Men is one of the greatest TV dramas of all time; you have the entire Internet for that, and frankly, that’s time you could be spending watching more Mad Men. But with his tale of 1960s (and eventually, early ‘70s) ad men and women and the American Dream, Matthew Weiner has done something truly extraordinary: proven that there’s drama in everyday life. Unlike pretty much every other TV drama, this one doesn’t deal with cops, doctors or lawyers; there are no mafia dons or drug lords going down in a hail of bullets. It’s just a bunch of people working together in an office, trying to push forward and navigate one of the most compelling decades in American history. Sure, it’s glamorous and brilliantly written, and the fact that Elisabeth Moss never won an Emmy for it is criminal. But ultimately, it’s oddly relatable, and that’s what great TV is supposed to do—show us ourselves. —Bonnie Stiernberg


1970s: Mrs. America

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Watch on Hulu

Created by: Dahvi Waller
Stars: Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Uzo Aduba, Elizabeth Banks, Kayli Carter, Ari Graynor, Melanie Lynskey, Margo Martindale, John Slattery, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Tracey Ullman, Sarah Paulson
Original Network: Hulu
Runner Up: That 70s Show

Equality is at the heart of Mrs. America. The series, which starts in 1971 and runs through 1979, examines the national debate taking place over the Equal Rights Amendment, meant to put women on the same legal footing as men. For some housewives across America, though, the amendment was concerning because it was ushered in by second-wave feminists who (they believed) threatened to dismantle traditional family values. And at the head of that anti-ERA movement was Illinois housewife and mother of six, Phyllis Schlafley (an elegant Cate Blanchett).

Phyllis is the nexus of everything happening in Mrs. America, but each episode also spends time with one or two other important women on the opposite side of the movement, from Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) to Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) to the first black woman to run for President, Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba). Where the limited series, created by Dahvi Waller, really excels (and manages to eschew the issues of other series dealing with similar topics) is that it’s not overly reverential to these real-life characters. It also, crucially, doesn’t treat them as caricatures—there is a deep, recognizable, and very true humanity to each of these women that is immediately authentic, as they move in and out of each other’s lives.

Mrs. America is juggling a lot, but it never feels like too much. Like the ever-present (worthless) question of “can a woman have it all?” Mrs. America does have it all, and more. It illuminates an essential part of the women’s liberation movement and the real women behind it (and against it) in ways that are engrossing, enlightening, and sometimes enraging. —Allison Keene


1980s: The Americans

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Watch on Amazon Prime

Created by: Joseph Weisberg 
Stars: Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Holly Taylor
Original Network: FX
Runners Up: Narcos, Deutschland 83

Over the course its six-season run, The Americans completed a remarkable evolution, beginning and ending as a blisteringly suspenseful spy drama. Of course, by the time Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’ masterwork reaches its devastating conclusion, with deep-cover KGB agents Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (the magnificent Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) surveying what they’ve lost, and gained, in the process, The Americans is about so much more than safe houses and dead drops (and the fashion). It is at once a parable of family, faith, and nation; a pitch-dark examination of the Cold War’s moral calculus; a coming-of-age tale (twice over); a wrenching depiction of friendships formed and betrayed; and an indelible portrait of an American marriage. FX’s pet project was worth every ounce of patience it demanded: We may well remember it as the last great drama of the Golden Age of Television. —Matt Brennan


1990s: Fresh Off the Boat

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Watch on Hulu

Created by: Nahnatchka Khan
Stars: Randall Park, Constance Wu, Hudson Yang, Forrest Wheeler, Ian Chen, Lucille Soong
Original Network: ABC
Runner up: American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson

It’s no wonder that Fresh Off the Boat thrived in the network television environment. “Representation” is often tokenism, despite being a mainstream talking point for the industry, but FOTB is the real thing—and it shows. The specificity of experience written into these Chinese-American characters we’ve grown to love over its many seasons makes the sitcom able to navigate choppy emotional waters with a grace grown from reality. Never losing a slightly surrealist edge, the series continues to understand how to create a family comedy that never feels expected or cliché, and the same goes for its loving embrace of the 90s culture that informs its core. “Four Funerals and a Wedding,” a recent highlight, is a perfect example of how dedication to not making a show solely about universal experiences makes Fresh Off the Boat one of the most complex, engaging, moving comedies on TV. —Jacob Oller and Allison Keene


2000s: The Wire

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Watch on HBO

Created by: David Simon
Stars: Dominic West, Lance Reddick, Sonja Sohn, Idris Elba, Domenick Lombardozzi, Ellis Carver, Andre Royo, Wendell Pierce, Rhonda Pearlman
Original Network: HBO
Runner up: Breaking Bad

Series mastermind David Simon conceived of The Wire as a modern Greek tragedy, a morality play set in a drug-infested urban war zone where conventional good guys and bad guys barely exist. Everyone is conflicted and compromised. We didn’t need The Wire to remind us that the system—the criminal justice system, the political system, the education system—is broken. But no other cultural enterprise (and certainly no television show) has shown us precisely how the infrastructure has collapsed, forcing us to consider the impossible decisions required for repair. Amidst the rubble of a failed city, Simon created an engrossing human drama with unforgettable characters about the eternal struggle between aspiration and desperation, ambition and resignation. In other words, the fight for the American Dream. —Nick Marino



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