The 25 Best Showtime Series of All Time

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The 25 Best Showtime Series of All Time

Showtime’s best series may not hold a candle to HBO’s, which ushered in and sustained the so-called Golden Age of Television, but the premium cable channel has developed a house style all its own. In particular, the Showtime of yore found space for gay and lesbian perspectives (Queer as Folk, The L Word, dramas focused on black and Latino families (Soul Food, Resurrection Blvd.) and women-centered comedies (Rude Awakening) that count as pioneers in the call for TV to represent the full spectrum of society. The network’s more recent output has tended toward inconsistent dramas and quirky comedies, but against their flaws, series such as Homeland, Dexter, Shameless and Nurse Jackie have produced innumerable memorable moments, and suggest that Showtime retains the appetite for artistic risk-taking that’s defined it all along.

One note: We restricted the following to fictional series (sorry, not sorry, The Circus) and excluded programs that continued on Showtime after originating on other networks—so, adaptations of British series such as Queer as Folk and Shameless were fair game, but you won’t find The Paper Chase, which debuted on CBS, or Twin Peaks, which began on ABC. (We can argue about whether The Return is really a continuation, or actually its own thing, or in fact an 18-hour movie, another time.)

Here are Paste’s picks for the 25 best Showtime series of all time:

25. Californication

Creator: Tom Kapinos
Stars: David Duchovny, Pamela Adlon, Natascha McElhone, Evan Handler

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Hank Moody (David Duchnovy), the tortured writer and protagonist of Californication is “so desperate to feel something… anything” that he jeopardizes his relationships with the two people in his life that actually mean something to him, in constant search of his next (literary) high: his baby mama, Karen (Natascha McElhone), and his daughter, Becca (Madeleine Martin). Continuously finding himself intoxicated and “knee deep in a river of pussy,” he self-sabotages his chances of ever snapping out of the writer’s block holding him hostage, let alone experiencing a harmonious family life.

Californication may have been clichéd in its depiction of a boozing, womanizing writer with a rock’n’roll lifestyle, but in delving deeper into the complexities of Moody’s character, and those of his chaotic friends, Charlie (Evan Handler) and Marcy (Pam Adlon), the series offered brilliant character work and a great deal of rowdy and biting comedy up until about Season Three. It was one of many shows that long outstayed its welcome, with Moody’s usual antics growing increasingly tiresome and repetitive, and the on-off relationship between him and Karen soon lost its depth. But even as Californication came to an unsatisfying end after seven seasons, each episode had at least one character and a killer one-liner—Marcy: “I don’t want to go where Hank’s been. I mean, he’s probably left booby-traps up there like the Vietcong”—worth tuning in for. #teammarcyalltheway. Roxanne Sancto

24. Beggars and Choosers

Creators: Peter Lefcourt and Brandon Tartikoff
Stars: Brian Kerwin, Charlotte Ross, Tuc Watkins, Sherri Saum, Keegan Connor Tracy and Christina Henricks

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Perhaps this short-lived series—it ran just two seasons from 1999-2000—was ahead of its time. The series focused on the fictional LGT network and network president Rob Malone’s (Brian Kerwin) efforts to increase its flagging ratings. It might have been too inside baseball, but now, in the age of Peak TV, we’d probably love this (comically exaggerated) sneak peek into how the TV sausage gets made. From the temperamental TV stars to the ambitious executives to the people with the money who always make things more complicated, Beggars and Choosers deftly skewered its own medium. The comedy was from Brandon Tartikoff, the former head of NBC, who brought his own experiences running the must-see-TV network to the series. Sadly, Tartikoff died before Beggars and Choosers premiered. Amy Amatangelo

23. Penny Dreadful

Creator: John Logan
Stars: Timothy Dalton, Eva Green, Reeve Carney, Billie Piper, Rory Kinnear and Josh Hartnett

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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, Hugo, Skyfall and Rango) 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. Mark Rozeman

22. Soul Food

Creator: George Tillman, Jr.
Stars: Rockmond Dunbar, Darrin Dewitt Henson, Boris Kodjoe, Aaron Meeks, Nicole Ari Parker, Irma P. Hall, Malinda Williams, Vanessa A. Williams

Based on the 1997 movie of the same name, Soul Food follows the three Joseph sisters living in Chicago. Family dramas can be some of the hardest to produce, as there’s no weekly hook (patient to save, crime to solve, case to litigate) to hang your plot on each week. But Soul Food effortlessly wove the family strife—be it romance, finances, parenting, sibling rivalry—into each episode. Nicole Ari Parker was the oldest, responsible, suffer-no-fools sister Teri. Vanessa A. Williams played the middle sister, Maxine, and Malinda Williams the youngest sister, Bird. At the time, the series was the most successful, longest-running TV drama featuring a predominately black cast. While that may be important for TV history, what made the show great was the stellar performances and compelling writing. Fun trivia fact: Vanessa Williams (Ugly Betty, Daytime Divas) played Teri in the movie, while Vanessa A. Williams starred in the series. Amy Amatangelo

21. Rude Awakening

Creator: Claudia Lonow
Stars: Sherilyn Fenn, Lynn Redgrave, Jonathan Penner, Rain Pryor, Roger E. Mosley and Mario Van Peebles

Actress Claudia Lonow, at the time best known for starring on Knots Landing as a teen, created this semi-autobiographical comedy about actress Billie Frank (Sherilyn Fenn) a former soap opera actress trying to stay sober. Fenn demonstrated a previously unseen knack for physical comedy and Billie was a surprisingly sympathetic character—no matter how many (completely avoidable) mistakes she made. Add in Lynn Redgrave as Billie’s hilariously inappropriate mother and Rude Awakening is one of TV’s most underappreciated comedies. Amy Amatangelo

20. Resurrection Blvd.

Creator: Dennis E. Leoni
Stars: Michael DeLorenzo, Nicholas Gonzalez, Ruth Livier, Mauricio Mendoza, Marisol Nichols and Elizabeth Peña

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One thing Showtime definitely doesn’t get enough credit for is being on the forefront of bringing diversity to the small screen. Resurrection Blvd. followed the Santiago family living in Los Angeles and embroiled in the family business of boxing. Family patriarch Roberto Santiago (Tony Plana) believes success lies in one of his sons becoming a successful boxer. His hopes are pinned on Carlos (Michael DeLorenzo) until he’s injured and unable to fight, leaving his younger brother, Alex (Nicholas Gonzalez), to fulfill the family’s destiny. Although a soap opera at heart, the series offered an unflinching look at what it’s like to pursue the American Dream when it remains just out of your grasp. Amy Amatangelo

19. The Affair

Creators: Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi
Stars: Dominic West, Ruth Wilson, Maura Tierney, Joshua Jackson, and Josh Stamberg

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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. The complexity of the characters, combined with multiple conflicting story lines, leaves you in a constant, thrilling state of “Wait, what?”—which is what I want from a premium cable drama. Most importantly, The Affair deserves our unending gratitude for bringing Josh Jackson back to television. Keri Lumm

18. Huff

Creator: Bob Lowry
Stars: Hank Azaria, Oliver Platt, Paget Brewster, Blythe Danner

This gone-too-soon drama really let Azaria shine as the titular psychiatrist whose life gets a bit out of control after a 15-year-old patient commits suicide in his office. Huff always believes that he can save everyone, so the suicide puts on brutal display that he cannot. Platt plays Huff’s lawyer, Russell, who provides a nice foil, the morally questionable comic relief to Huff’s savior complex. It’s one of Showtime’s typical “dramedies,” walking that fine line between serious and comic, but it also couldn’t seem to figure out if it was a family show or medical drama or midlife crisis comedy. It was unfortunately canceled after two seasons, never really finding a solid audience—perhaps because it couldn’t decide what exactly it was trying to be. Andrea Reiher

17. Brotherhood

Creator: Blake Masters
Stars: Jason Clarke, Jason Isaacs, Ethan Embry, Annabeth Gish

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This crime drama flew largely under the radar with viewers, but it was an unflinching, rough tale of an Irish-American family in Rhode Island, anchored by Clarke and Isaacs as brothers Tommy and Michael, who are embroiled in both politics and the mob. The central relationship between the brothers highlights the morally gray areas that often come with family loyalty, buffeted by strong supporting actors in Embry, Gish and Fionnula Flanagan. It was on par with competitor HBO’s dramas The Sopranos and The Wire, but could never find the same word-of-mouth buzz, so it was unfortunately canceled after three strong seasons. But it did win a Peabody Award in 2006. Andrea Reiher

16. House of Lies

Creator: Matthew Carnahan
Stars: Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, Ben Schwartz, Josh Lawson, Dawn Olivieri

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Cheadle did some of his finest work on this Showtime comedy, which follows a group of management consultants as they hustle from business deal to (sometimes immoral) business deal while juggling dysfunctional personal lives. Cheadle’s Marty Kaan can simultaneously be warm and cold, connected and distant, brutally honest and terribly misleading—and it was fascinating to watch his relationships at both work and with his son, Roscoe (Donis Leonard Jr.) and father, Jeremiah (Glynn Turman). The writing is rude, crude and hilarious, making it one of Showtime’s best comedies. Andrea Reiher

15. It’s Gary Shandling’s Show

Creators: Garry Shandling and Alan Zweibel
Stars: Garry Shandling, Jessica Harper, Molly Cheek

Well before he broke down the artifice of the late-night TV talk show with The Larry Sanders Show, Garry Shandling created the ultimate meta-sitcom with his titular Showtime series. All the beats of a typical half-hour comedy—funny start, introduction of conflict, third-act resolution—were there, but they dared to emphasize all the elements that most shows try to hide. Characters addressed and interacted with the live studio audience. They mocked the flimsiness of the sets. And they weren’t cagey about the fact that bringing folks like Tom Petty, Chevy Chase, and Vanna White on certain episodes were pure attention-getting devices. It’s so much better to be in on the joke than simply to get the joke. Robert Ham

14. Billions

Creator: Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Andrew Ross Sorkin
Stars: Damian Lewis, Paul Giamatti, Maggie Siff

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Billions may only have two seasons under its belt, but across those 24 episodes it’s established itself as one of Showtime’s strongest voices. The reason Billions 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

13. The L Word

Creator: 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

With news that Showtime is rebooting The L Word, which ended its six-season run in 2009, now is the time to catch up on this innovative series. Created by Ilene Chaiken (now working on 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 are gay women. 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. Can’t wait for these ladies to return. Amy Amatangelo

12. Masters of Sex

Creator: Michelle Ashford
Stars: Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan, Caitlin FitzGerald, Teddy Sears, Nicholas D’Agosto, Annaleigh Ashford, Allison Janney and Beau Bridges

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For a sublime, all-too-brief interlude between Lizzy Caplan’s fairground rendition of “You Don’t Know Me” and the daring Season Two 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

11. Web Therapy

Creator: Lisa Kudrow, Don Roos, Dan Bucatinsky
Stars: Lisa Kudrow, Dan Bucatinsky, Jennifer Elise Cox, Victor Garber, Alan Cumming and Lily Tomlin

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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

10. Dead Like Me

Creator: 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. Josh Jackson

9. The United States of Tara

Creator: 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. Riley Ubben

8. Weeds

Creator: Jenji Kohan
Stars: Mary-Louise Parker, Hunter Parrish, Alexander Gould, Justin Kirk, Kevin Nealon, Elizabeth Perkins, Romany Malco, Demián Bichir

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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, 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

7. Episodes

Creator: David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik
Stars: Matt LeBlanc, Tamsin Greig, Stephen Mangan, John Pankow, Kathleen Rose Perkins and Mircea Monroe

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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, 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 current CBS show Man with a Plan is just him trolling us. Episodes returns for a fifth and final season on August 20. Don’t miss out. Amy Amatangelo

6. The Big C

Creator: Darlene Hunt
Stars: Laura Linney, Oliver Platt, John Benjamin Hickey, Gabriel Basso, Gabourey Sidibe, Phyllis Somerville

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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

5. Nurse Jackie

Creator: 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

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Edie Falco headlined as the 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 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

4. Shameless

Creator: Paul Abbott
Stars: William H. Macy, Emmy Rossum, Ethan Cutkosky, Shanola Hampton and Cameron Monagan

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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

3. Dexter

Creator: James Manos, Jr.
Stars: Michael C. Hall, Julie Benz, Jennifer Carpenter, Lauren Velez, David Zayas,

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James Remar, Desmond Harrington, Yvonne Strahovski, Geoff Pierson and Aimee Garcia
The character development of Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) over eight seasons was fascinating to follow. Season One saw us trying to come to terms with our empathy towards a serial killer, 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, each season 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. Josh Jackson

2. Homeland

Creators: 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

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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

1. Queer as Folk

Creators: 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

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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—it was an early feather in Showtime’s cap, quickly becoming its highest-rated show and announcing 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

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