Once considered the main rival to HBO, Showtime series have simmered off some in recent years in terms of fan fervor. But don’t discount this premium network or its library of shows. Often focused (some may argue too focused) on compelling lead characters taking on an unexpected job or position (a suburban mom drug dealer, a serial killer who kills serial killers, a bipolar CIA agent, etc), Showtime series are usually engrossingly offbeat, providing unique worlds well worth exploring.
Though we stick to scripted series below, Showtime is also home to a number of compelling documentaries and docuseries. As for streaming, you can find the Showtime add-on as part of cable, Amazon, or Hulu subscriptions, so while we do link directly to Showtime for its exclusive series below, you can also watch them on those platforms. For series that don’t require the add-on, and are part of an existing Netflix, Hulu, etc subscription, we’ve linked to that viewing option.
Finally, Showtime usually offers free previews (of an episode or even a season) via Amazon and occasionally YouTube, so check that out as well, and take advantage of the free trial offer. (For those series not officially streaming anywhere at the moment, YouTube can also be a valuable resource … looking at you, Rude Awakening and Web Therapy).
Check out our list of the 25 best Showtime series below, and know that some of us are still thinking about Roadies and Californication—even though they didn’t make the final cut:
25. Stargate SG-1
Created by: Brad Wright, Jonathan Glassner
Stars: Richard Dean Anderson, Michael Shanks, Amanda Tapping, Christopher Judge, Don S. Davis, Beau Bridges, Claudia Black
Richard Dean Anderson was Air Force officer Jack O’Neill, leader of the Stargate team SG-1, longer than he was secret agent Angus MacGyver. Based on the 1994 film Stargate, SG-1 ran for 10 seasons (half on Showtime, half on the Sci Fi channel), delivering Showtime its biggest series premiere in 1997 for an audience of 1.5 million households. Providing scientific explanations for human mythology from the ancient Egyptians to Greek, Norse and Arthurian legends (aliens! wormholes!) wasn’t a new concept, but the show built an epic universe around the original storyline of the film. And if the Goa’uld were the Klingons of Stargate, an immediate threat of human subjugation, Season 3’s Replicators were the show’s Borg, terrifyingly powerful sentient machines capable of reprogramming matter through assimilation. But it was the team itself, Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks), Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping), alien Teal’c (Christopher Judge) and surly Jack O’Neill traveling through across the galaxy through ancient portals to keep Earth safe from ever-increasing threats that made Stargate SG-1 such a compelling sci-fi ride around the turn of the Millennium. —Josh Jackson
24. Nurse Jackie
Created by: Liz Brixius, Linda Wallem, and Evan Dunsky
Stars: Edie Falco, Eve Best, Merritt Wever, Paul Schulze, Peter Facinelli, Dominic Fumusa, Anna Deavere Smith, Betty Gilpin, Adam Ferrara and Morris Chestnut
Edie Falco headlines here as a morally ambiguous protagonist, a cranky ER nurse who’s snorting painkillers and having sex with the hospital pharmacist (how convenient) while the World’s Best Husband waits for her to come home to him and their two girls. Jackie Peyton is a maddening, two-faced character: kind and empathetic with her patients and stoically hurtful to the people closest to her. Her moral code is erratic, but intriguing—she flushes a patient’s ear down the toilet because he stabbed a woman, and then promptly returns to her day-to-day routine of getting high and committing adultery. The supporting cast brings out both the worst in her and the best moments in the show: Eager nursing student Zoey (Merritt Wever) worships the ground Jackie walks on; narcissistic doctor Fitch Cooper (Peter Facinelli) has an inexplicable crush on her, and fashionista Dr. Eleanor O’Hara (Eve Best) knows about all her transgressions and refuses to judge her, creating a twisted friendship and an unusual dynamic for two female characters. —Kate Kiefer
23. The Tudors
Created by: Michael Hirst
Stars: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Henry Cavill, Sam Neill, Callum Blue, Henry Czerny, Natalie Dormer, Maria Doyle Kennedy
“Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived.” This cozy little rhyme helps us all remember the poor women who married King Henry the VIII, every one (practically) meeting with an unpleasant end. He divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, for a younger woman, and Catherine spent her remaining days destitute and imprisoned in a castle. In this captivatingly soapy and not exactly historically-accurate series (which launched no shortage of acting careers) Natalie Dormer (Margaery Tyrell on Game of Thrones) plays Anne Boleyn, Henry’s infamous second wife. Proving that karma is indeed a bitch, she was framed by her nemeses to make it seem like she had cheated on the king, and was beheaded. While Anne died young, her legacy did continue with her daughter, Elizabeth, and The Tudors continued to tell her story alongside the infamous Henry’s, as well as those inhabiting the various thrones around her during one of England’s most fraught periods of royal turmoil. —Madina Papadopoulos and Allison Keene
22. Masters of Sex
Created by: Michelle Ashford
Stars: Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan, Caitlin FitzGerald, Teddy Sears, Nicholas D’Agosto, Annaleigh Ashford, Allison Janney and Beau Bridges
For a sublime, all-too-brief interlude between Lizzy Caplan’s fairground rendition of “You Don’t Know Me” and the daring Season 2 entries “Fight” (a pugilistic bottle episode) and “Asterion” (a magnificently handled time jump), Masters of Sex counted among TV’s very best dramas: Here, the relationship between sex researchers William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Caplan, in a star-making turn) found its voice, sparkling with erotic and emotional splendor. (For its stunning guest arcs alone, featuring Allison Janney, Beau Bridges, Julianne Nicholson and Betsy Brandt in some of the finest TV performances of recent vintage, it deserves a spot high on this list.) Though its third and fourth seasons turned it into The One That Got Away—the series I rooted for hardest to hold its “Fight”-ing form, and which ended up falling short of my expectations—it still enjoyed moments of such precise, profound feeling that I can’t help but remember it as remarkable. —Matt Brennan
21. Web Therapy
Created by: Lisa Kudrow, Don Roos, Dan Bucatinsky
Stars: Lisa Kudrow, Dan Bucatinsky, Jennifer Elise Cox, Victor Garber, Alan Cumming and Lily Tomlin
The Friends cast’s post-show projects have been a mixed bag, but both Matt LeBlanc and Kudrow landed on funny Showtime offerings. Web Therapy features Kudrow as a self-centered therapist who believes that hour-long therapy sessions are too bloated, so she begins her own brand of therapy over the internet that drastically shortens the time of a session. Kudrow is great fun in the role, which features a lot of improvisational comedy. But what really made Web Therapy great was its supporting cast and guest stars. The regulars included Lily Tomlin, Victor Garber, Alan Cumming and Rashida Jones, and the guest stars included all of Kudrow’s Friends co-stars plus Jane Lynch, Rosie O’Donnell, Steve Carell, Meryl Streep, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jon Hamm and Gwyneth Paltrow. The four seasons can be quickly binged and it is definitely worth a watch. —Andrea Reiher
20. The Affair
Created by: Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi
Stars: Dominic West, Ruth Wilson, Maura Tierney, Joshua Jackson, and Josh Stamberg
Showtime has managed to produce a series that is about an affair without being entirely about sex. Yes, there is booty involved (thank you, Dominic West), but this is no seasons-long booty call. The Affair is an intriguing murder mystery that makes you think about how you perceive the world and how you are perceived by others by switching between male and female points of view. The complexity of the characters, combined with multiple conflicting story lines (given the variety of different perspectives on the same events), leaves you in a constant, thrilling state of “Wait, what?”—which is what I want from a premium cable drama. Though it lost its way in later seasons (and gave us an exceptionally strange time jump in its final run of episodes), The Affair still deserves our unending gratitude for bringing Josh Jackson back to television. —Keri Lumm
19. Ray Donovan
Created by: Ann Biderman
Stars: Liev Schreiber, Paula Malcomson, Eddie Marsan, Dash Mihok, Jon Voight
Ray Donovan is a show that, from the start, faced an identity crisis. On the one side is Ray’s (Liev Schreiber) professional life where he works as a “fixer,” cleaning up the crimes and misbehaviors of the rich and powerful in and around L.A. On the other is his Irish-Catholic Bostonian family, who have relocated with him to the West Coast, and includes an antagonistic relationship with his criminal father Mick (Jon Voight). The movie stars and studio executives are the dimmest part of Ray Donovan, but the series truly shines whenever the story focuses on the Donovan diaspora. Eddie Marsan and Dash Mihok are outstanding as Ray’s brothers who he must forever bail out of their problems, with Paula Malcomson as Ray’s rock who he doesn’t fully appreciate until it’s too late. Though the fixer aspect of the show never really comes together, the boxing gym-centered story around the family is a worthy journey full of compelling drama and unforgettable performances. —Allison Keene
Created by: David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik
Stars: Matt LeBlanc, Tamsin Greig, Stephen Mangan, John Pankow, Kathleen Rose Perkins and Mircea Monroe
When successful British showrunners Sean (Stephen Mangan) and Beverly (Tamsin Greig) move to Los Angeles to remake their beloved comedy Lyman’s Boys for an American audience, they have no idea what they’re in for when their quirky comedy is put through the Hollywood wringer. Playing a heightened, fictional version of himself, Matt LeBlanc is terrific in a role created for him by former Friends producer David Crane. The series is a spot-on takedown about how creativity is sucked out as TV comedies are produced to play to the lowest common denominator. (I remain convinced that LeBlanc’s CBS show Man with a Plan is just him trolling us.) Don’t miss out. —Amy Amatangelo
Created by: Jenji Kohan
Stars: Mary-Louise Parker, Hunter Parrish, Alexander Gould, Justin Kirk, Kevin Nealon, Elizabeth Perkins, Romany Malco, Demián Bichir
Before Walter White broke bad or Piper Chapman started selling panties, Weeds introduced us to the privileged protagonist who resorts to crime when faced with dire circumstances. In this case, meet Mary Louise Parker’s Nancy Botwin, a suburban mom-turned-marijuana dealer desperate to keep her family afloat after her husband dies of a heart attack. As with so many Showtime series, Jenji Kohan’s precursor to Orange Is the New Black skidded out of control as Nancy sunk deeper and deeper into the black market, but in its first season especially, Weeds offered a ballsy, bawdy send-up of conformist thinking and the American Dream, aided by gonzo comic support from Kirk, Nealon, and the deliciously petty Perkins. Plus, its title sequence, featuring Malvina Reynolds’ 1962 ditty “Little Boxes,” is one of premium cable’s most memorable. —Matt Brennan
16. The Big C
Created by: Darlene Hunt
Stars: Laura Linney, Oliver Platt, John Benjamin Hickey, Gabriel Basso, Gabourey Sidibe, Phyllis Somerville
Showtime’s “brave bitch” of a comedy series, like its cancer-stricken heroine, Cathy Jamison (the exquisite Laura Linney), never received its due—in part, perhaps, because the first season’s aggressively quirky comedy scared off viewers and critics before the series could show its hand. By the time her adolescent son, Adam (Gabriel Basso) discovers the secret stash of presents and letters she’s left behind for the milestones she’ll miss, The Big C emerges as a far more complicated depiction of illness and its consequences—for marriages, families, neighbors and friends, as for the sick person herself—one with an powerful undercurrent of honest emotion. Its four seasons, culminating in a real beauty of a series finale, trace the arc of cancer (diagnosis, treatment, remission, death) with surprising precision, a poignant yet unstinting examination of what living fully might in fact mean. —Matt Brennan
15. Dead Like Me
Created by: Bryan Fuller
Stars: Ellen Muth, Laura Harris, Callum Blue, Jasmine Guy, Cynthia Stevenson, and Mandy Patinkin
The grim reaper is an 18-year-old directionless college drop-out named Georgia Lass (Ellen Muth) whose post-life boss is a bank robber who died in the 1920s (played by Mandy Patinkin). But, sadly, her on-air life was even shorter. Creator Bryan Fuller (Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies, Hannibal) has always gathered more of a cult following than a mass audience, and was forced out during his first season. But his dark, peculiar vision lingered in his delightfully twisted world, just like the reapers who populated it. To put it bluntly, Dead Like Me is probably the greatest show you’ve never actually seen—a brilliant and underrated gem, a story that simultaneously wrestles with both the challenges of growing up and the meaning of life itself. Part horror story, part meditation on faith, and part coming-of-age saga, Dead Like Me mixes dark comedy and emotional melodrama to make something that felt downright magical back in 2003 and has never been quite equaled in all the years since. —Josh Jackson and Lacy Baugher
14. The Borgias
Created by: Neil Jordan
Stars: Jeremy Irons, François Arnaud, Holliday Grainger, Joanne Whalley, Lotte Verbeek, David Oakes
A deliriously over-the-top family saga from the minds behind The Tudors, The Borgias is wildly entertaining, generally inaccurate, and utterly impossible to stop watching. The series, which ran for three seasons on Showtime, follows the story of Rodrigo Borgia, the scion of the infamous Borgia family, who were known for their lavish tastes, scandalous sexual escapades and love of using bribery, extortion and torture to hold on to power. Rodrigo, of course, is better remembered by history as the Renaissance-era Pope Alexander VI, a corrupt manipulator with multiple bastard children who you’ve probably heard of (the legend of his son Cesare plays a key role in the Assassin’s Creed videogames)—but perhaps most notably his daughter Lucretzia.
Jeremy Irons is clearly having a blast playing Rodrigo, gleefully chewing the scenery and fully committing to his character’s most debaucherous moments. But it’s Holliday Grainger who truly deserves praise, playing a Lucretzia who evolves from innocent ingenue to incestuous powerhouse over the course of the show. (Forever salty that the Cesare and Lucretzia love story that blossoms in the series third season wasn’t talked about more at the time; it’s both shocking and surprisingly well done!) —Lacy Baugher
13. Back to Life
Created by: Laura Solon, Daisy Haggard
Stars: Daisy Haggard, Geraldine James, Richard Durden, Adeel Akhtar
Like the exceptional SundanceTV series Rectify, Showtime’s Back to Life picks up when 30-something Miri (Daisy Haggard) returns to her small hometown after being in prison for 18 years. But this series never flashes back to that time, because Miri’s focus is on starting over and getting a second chance—if only anyone would let her actually achieve it.
The charming and wryly funny series (running an economical six half-hour episodes) is also created by Haggard and co-written by Laura Solon. The duo take the familiar canvas of a small British seaside town where a crime was committed and everyone has secrets, and subverts our expectations of where the story goes next. Yes there is something of a mystery as far as what Miri did, but the script has fun playing with our assumptions (like having Miri’s mother Caroline, played by the great Geraldine James, pluckily hiding the knives before she comes back downstairs). Neighbors write terrible messages on the family’s fence, they harass Miri, or whisper like cowards about rumors they’ve heard. But through it all, Miri puts on a brave if exasperated face, appreciating her freedom and hoping that some day people can forget what she did.
The key to Back to Life’s success is how it dances along the line of humor and grief, like when Miri returns to her room—untouched since she was a teenager—and sees posters of David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, and Michael Jackson. “Last one standing,” her mother says, gesturing to a bedside poster of Jamie Oliver. “Thank God he’s still with us,” Miri replies dryly. In a late episode moment, Miri notices that her parents have made a cup of tea for an effigy doll of her that someone left in their front garden. “Well, she was cold,” her mother says, almost breaking into a laugh—I nearly did the same. Back to Life is a quiet and emotionally genuine series that hinges on the fantastic interactions among its characters. It examines the fallout of this past tragedy through the mundanity of daily life, including the lies we hold on to that mask truths we don’t want to confront. —Allison Keene
12. Penny Dreadful
Created by: John Logan
Stars: Timothy Dalton, Eva Green, Reeve Carney, Billie Piper, Rory Kinnear and Josh Hartnett
In conception, Penny Dreadful doesn’t seem so much like a TV show but, rather, like a very elaborate dare—specifically, a challenge to craft the most fan fic-y Gothic horror series of all time and still have it track on an artistic and narrative level. Well, challenge accepted and conquered. Conceived by John Logan (the award-winning screenwriter behind Gladiator and Hugo) and executed with great finesse by pilot director J.A. Bayona (the filmmaker behind the extraordinary horror-drama The Orphanage), the series is set in Victorian London and centers on a trio (an explorer, a clairvoyant and a gunslinger) who band together to slay the monsters threatening their world. The draw here is that a good many of these threats consist of characters or concepts from classic horror literature, whether it’s Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster or Dorian Gray. Boasting notable performances from the likes of Timothy Dalton, Josh Harnett and Rory Kinnear, the series managed to ground its outlandish premise in an emotional reality. The true masterstroke, however, is unquestionably Eva Green as the clairvoyant Vanessa Ives. One of the most brilliant and gonzo actresses working today, Green attacked her first major TV role with great relish, and Logan and company certainly rose to the occasion in writing great material for her. Alternating between victim and victimizer, Vanessa firmly deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as the likes of Walter White, Tony Soprano or Don Draper.
The series’ new anthology iteration, City of Angels, is just as bombastic in its depiction of 1930s detective noir. But really, it’s Natalie Dormer’s world, and we’re all just living in it. Here she plays a shapeshifter that wears a half dozen different identities, meddling in storylines that include everything from murder to Nazis to a street-level race war. This is a period historical piece as much as it is a tale of monsters, and the uncomfortable view of mankind it reflects back at us is both predictably and painfully bleak. City of Angels is fascinating to watch, set in a world that’s richly imagined and beautifully brought to life, populated by sharply drawn characters who consistently wrestle with ideas of right, wrong and everything in between. —Mark Rozeman and Lacy Baugher
Created by: James Manos, Jr.
Stars: Michael C. Hall, Julie Benz, Jennifer Carpenter, Lauren Velez, David Zayas
The character development of Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) over eight seasons was fascinating to follow. While Season 1 saw us trying to come to terms with our empathy towards a serial killer who kills serial killers, we were eventually cheering an old friend’s slow progression towards something akin to humanity. His moral code might be a world away from ours, but he often does a better job adhering to it than the rest of us. In addition to the constant edge-of-your-seat plot twists, the South Florida-based series gave us incredible guest stars as allies and antagonists, including Jimmy Smits, John C. Lithgow, Peter Weller, Mos Def, Edward James Olmos and Julia Stiles. Yes it went off the rails midway through its run (way off), but the success of its early seasons solidifies its position as one of TV’s most unique and compelling crime series —Josh Jackson and Allison Keene
10. The L Word
Created by: Ilene Chaiken
Stars: Jennifer Beals, Erin Daniels, Leisha Hailey, Laurel Holloman, Marlee Matlin, Sarah Shahi, Eric Mabius, Rachel Shelley, Katherine Moennig, Pam Grier, Mia Kirshner and Daniela Sea
Now is the time to catch up on this innovative series. Created by Ilene Chaiken (who has gone on to Empire and The Handmaid’s Tale), The L Word followed a group of friends living and working in Los Angeles. The hook, of course, is that the central characters identify as lesbians. Much like the network did with Queer as Folk, The L Word made clear the obvious—gay women live rich, full lives brimming with romantic entanglements, career problems, medical crises, fractured friendships and family drama. Not a radical idea, but one not seen on TV before. Anchored by power couple Bette (Jennifer Beals) and Tina (Laurel Holloman), the series broke ground and transcended stereotypes (and remained a compelling watch even through its wilder late-series plots).
Recently, Showtime rebooted the series with The L Word: Generation Q, where legacy characters Bette, Alice (Leisha Hailey), and Shane (Katherine Moening) are joined by, as the title suggests, a new cast of queer characters navigating their lives, loves and careers in Los Angeles. Lots has changed in the world since the original series went off the air 10 years ago but, with the current administration, so much hasn’t. The new series picks up where its elders left off with complex new characters and soapier-than-ever stories. —Amy Amatangelo
9. The United States of Tara
Created by: Diablo Cody
Stars: Toni Collette, John Corbett, Rosemarie DeWitt, Keir Gilchrist, Brie Larson and Patton Oswalt
Created by Diablo Cody with support from Steven Spielberg, this edgy little comedy centers around Tara Gregson (Toni Collette), a mother and wife with dissociative identity disorder, causing her alternate personalities to take over whenever she’s stressed. At the beginning of the series, Tara has three alters: Alice, a housewife straight out of a 1950s sitcom; T, a flirty, out-of-control 16-year-old girl; and Buck, a manly war vet. More personalities are introduced as the show progressed before its unfortunate cancelation after three seasons, but it also served as an early showcase for Brie Larson as Tara’s exasperated daughter. —Riley Ubben
8. Queer as Folk
Created by: Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman
Stars: Gale Harold, Randy Harrison, Scott Lowell, Peter Paige, Chris Potter, Hal Sparks, Sharon Gless, Michelle Clunie, Thea Gill, Robert Gant and Jack Wetherall
Based on the Russell T Davies’ Channel 4 series of the same name, and following the lives of gay men in Pittsburgh, Queer as Folk broke ground not only for its candid depiction of the gay community in America, but was an early feather in Showtime’s cap. Quickly becoming its highest-rated show, it announced the network’s intention to compete with HBO for premium-cable supremacy. Queer as Folk remains as addictive as ever: Sexy and melodramatic, while never sacrificing a sense of humor about itself (as with the hilariously awful show-within-a-show Gay as Blazes). It was witty and quick without being reductive—indeed, gay audiences may have flocked to Queer as Folk partially out of a sense of exhaustion with Will & Grace—and thus the finest entry in Showtime’s 2000s drama boom. —Graham Techler
7. On Becoming a God in Central Florida
Created by: Robert Funke, Matt Lutsky
Stars: Kirsten Dunst, Théodore Pellerin, Mel Rodriguez, Beth Ditto, Ted Levine
On Becoming a God in Central Florida is the next bold career choice for Kirsten Dunst, one that only confirms that there is arguably a Kirsten Dunst role for every day of the week or emotional state. The series is set in an “Orlando adjacent” town in 1992 where Dunst’s Krystal Stubbs, a water park employee and former beauty pageant queen, sets out to take down FAM (Founders American Merchandise), the multi-billion dollar multi-level marketing scam that brainwashed her husband Travis (Alexander Skarsgård) and ultimately ended up ruining her family and home life. Specifically, the Garbeau System of FAM, created by a Colonel Sanders-doppelganger in the form of Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine).
Created by newcomers Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky—in their first major project and especially first-ever television show— and bounced around from ABC to AMC to YouTube Premium to Showtime, On Becoming a God in Central Florida is a series that caused me to, numerous times as I watched the first season, write in my notes, “What is this show?” But it was always in a good way, as I found myself in awe of what I was watching. With every hard left turn and 180 the series takes, the tone somehow manages to remain consistent. In fact, even through its trippier moments—like Krystal’s bird disease-driven “odyssey” in the fourth episode or in the introduction of Louise Garbeau’s (Sharon Lawrence) therapy method—the series continues to play them straight (or at least on the same level) as everything else in the show; no character ever addresses those bizarre moments. That’s a point that can make it easy to miss certain jokes and gags at first, but On Becoming a God in Central Florida excels because of how subtle it is—despite being a show whose very premise of Florida, the ‘90s, and pyramid schemes (and really, cults in general) suggests that “subtlety” is a concept that’s out the window altogether. This is not a series that is in a rush, even if the “get-rich-quick” component would make it seem so. —LaToya Ferguson
Created by: Ashley Lyle, Bart Nickerson
Stars: Juliette Lewis, Melanie Lynskey, Christina Ricci, Tawny Cypress, Sophie Nelisse, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Sophie Thatcher, Sammi Hanratty, Ella Purnell, Steven Krueger, and Warren Kole
Showtime’s survival thriller Yellowjackets feels like such a breath of fresh air. The series is an intriguing mix of genres: part 1990s-set horror story and part modern-day mystery, with heaping doses of teenage angst and supernatural weirdness thrown on top. It honestly feels like nothing else on television right now, and though its pace is somewhat more glacial than its trailers might have initially indicated, there are moments where the tension—combined with our knowledge that many of these people aren’t going to make it out of this alive—is nigh unbearable.
The story begins in 1996 and follows the titular Yellowjackets, a New Jersey girls high school soccer team on their way to nationals. But when the private plane lent by a rich dad for the trip goes down in the Colorado mountains, they spend the next 19 months fighting to stay alive—a feat not all of them apparently accomplish. We know this because the other half of the show’s plot is set 25 years later, as several of the crash survivors (played by Juliette Lewis, Melanie Lynskey, Christina Ricci, and Tawny Cypress) find themselves visited by a nosy reporter aiming to write a book about their stories.
Ultimately, Yellowjackets is a twisty mystery that doesn’t easily give up many of its secrets, and grounds its story in a specifically female experience in a way that other series like this have never bothered to try. From awkward crushes and sexual double standards to character revelations driven by the fact that the girls’ menstrual cycles sync up… basically what I’m saying is that Lord of the Flies could never. —Lacy Baugher Milas
5. Escape at Dannemora
Created by: Brett Johnson, Michael Tolkin
Stars: Benicio del Toro, Patricia Arquette, Paul Dano, Bonnie Hunt, Eric Lange, David Morse
Director Ben Stiller’s take on the real-life prison break and the love triangle that led to it could have just leaned on its central trio of deft performances from Paul Dano, Benicio del Toro, and Patricia Arquette. It would’ve been a simple, easy job to let these three legends eat up all the icy scenery. But thanks in no small part to Stiller’s mark-making hand in the process, the show became an exciting and slick throwback story, encapsulating much of what made prison and crime films the perfect 1970s stomping grounds for those looking to make engrossing character studies. Managing the escape, the aftermath, and the complicated people affected by both gave the limited series much-needed life and plenty of reason to watch aside from the true-crime selling points riding the genre’s trend. —Jacob Oller
Created by: Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa
Stars: Claire Danes, Mandy Patinkin, Damian Lewis, Rupert Friend, F. Murray Abraham, Morena Baccarin, David Harewood, Navid Negahban, and Nazanin Boniadi
After Homeland’s freshman season sank its hooks into viewers with an extraordinarily tense cat-and-mouse game involving a bipolar CIA analyst (Claire Danes) and a former POW (Damian Lewis), and two subsequent seasons in which the writers seemed to lose their grip on the intricacies of the plot, many wrote off Showtime’s counterterrorism drama for good. Too bad. Since then, Homeland hasn’t simply recovered; it’s been reborn, this time as a sharp, muscular reconsideration of America’s so-called “War on Terror,” alive to our own strategic flaws and moral compromises. In particular, the fourth season traces the outlines of the series’ new structure—a long, slow burn to expose the nerves, followed by two remarkable episodes, “There’s Something Else Going On” and “13 Hours in Islamabad,” that suggest the true terror at hand: war without end. Matt Brennan
Created by: Paul Abbott
Stars: William H. Macy, Emmy Rossum, Ethan Cutkosky, Shanola Hampton and Cameron Monagan
Meet the Gallaghers: six rambunctious kids and their single father living in poverty on Chicago’s South Side. But this isn’t your average heartwarming story of a down-on-their-luck family. When freeloading dad Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy) isn’t bemoaning the state welfare system, he’s actively swindling it—the profits of which keep him in booze. Head-of-household duties fall to oldest daughter Fiona (Emmy Rossum), who juggles minimum wage jobs to pay bills while also having to curb her siblings’ truancy, drinking, and drug addictions. That is, when she’s not participating herself. In this acclaimed American adaptation of a British series, creator Paul Abbott brings to life a working-class family never before seen on television. Shameless has become one of the sharpest and most progressive shows on TV, facing issues of class, race, gender, and sexual identity on the difficult side of the income gap. The Gallaghers are dysfunctional, disenfranchised, and combative—but they’re together. —James Charisma
Created by: Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Andrew Ross Sorkin
Stars: Damian Lewis, Paul Giamatti, Maggie Siff
Though one of the newer entries on our list, Billions has established itself as one of Showtime’s strongest voices. The reason it stands out is because it knows exactly what it is. It’s confident in its overblown dialogue and unrelenting in its application of machismo, portraying the world of cutthroat hedge fund managers, and the “good guy” government bureaucrats as power hungry as they are, in a way that never once shies away from the sheer theater of it all. By amplifying the worst aspects of its main characters, Billions becomes so much more than a self-satisfied, wholly entertaining financial drama. It’s also a scathing bit of satire, using its bombastic dialogue and performances— Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti chew scenery like starved carnivores—to expose the emptiness not only at the heart of neoliberalism, but also inside those who use the system to manipulate and oppress others. —Kyle Fowle
1. Twin Peaks: The Return
Created by: David Lynch, Mark Frost
Stars: Kyle MacLachlan
Twenty-seven years after David Lynch changed the face of television with a whodunit/whydunit about a murdered homecoming queen, he created an extraordinary 18-episode sequel. The Return wasn’t merely a return: It ranged from Las Vegas to New York to 1940s Los Alamos, N.M. before bringing Special Agent Dale Cooper (the incandescent Kyle MacLachlan) home to the land of Douglas firs and dubious owls. Lynch’s master preoccupations hit as hard as ever: violence against women, metaphysics and the supernatural, nostalgic pop music, and the ways in which good and evil are at once mundane and unfathomably mysterious (television itself gets a bit of a meta-referendum, as it did the first time around). Featuring much of the original cast (including the last performances of Catherine Coulson and Miguel Ferrer) with a host of fabulous newcomers, Twin Peaks: The Return is sometimes a hoot and sometimes an utter tour de force, but always, always, classic David Lynch—which is to say, completely dedicated to the mystery. —Amy Glynn
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