10 Best TV Dramas Since The Sopranos
It has been 20 years since the first season of The Sopranos premiered on HBO, with April 4 as the anniversary of the final episode of the first season. This presents us with a useful moment to reflect on the great television dramas that have come in the wake of The Sopranos. To mark this anniversary, we’ve put together a list of the 10 best TV dramas since The Sopranos. But before we discuss the television dramas that were to follow, we first have to look at what made The Sopranos so singular.
The Sopranos is undeniably one of the great television dramas. While at the time it was certainly heralded for its daring, novelty, and excellent performances, after 20 years its impact can be more accurately assessed. To echo a few cliches we’re sure are being repeated in such retrospectives but which nevertheless hold truth, The Sopranos is the godfather of the new breed of television dramas that arose with premium cable channels, most notably HBO, and which exploded with the rise of streaming services such as Netflix. This has been a Golden Age for the medium, and whether or not the heyday is over or continuing, The Sopranos offers as fine a starting point as anything else to mark the period.
The Sopranos blended and transformed various television and film genres in order to offer something really new on the small screen. There have been many great mobster movies and many great television crime dramas, but few have combined their gripping crime plots with such genuine and insightful presentations of families and of human interactions outside the direct affairs of criminal work. The Godfather films always framed their crime stories as family tragedies, and Goodfellas was novel for giving us the perspective (and voice-over narration) of the wife of a mobster, but The Sopranos really pushed things further by drawing on one of the dominant genres of television, the sitcom, in order to tell the familial and personal stories of its criminal protagonists. Of course, the show was never laugh-track funny, but we did get episodes which exploited the situational comedy—and drama—of putting Tony Soprano and his associates in an unlikely or mundane setting.
The other stunning novelty of the show, which pays off hugely in the final episodes, was the therapist subplot. In the early days of the show, Tony going to a therapist was touted as adding relevancy, speaking to the late 90s moment, and there is an aspect of the show being an update of the mob genre for a new age of cell phones and changing family dynamics. The joke is that Tony is mostly as gruff and antagonistic and aggressively charming as ever in the therapy sessions. But the sessions have important functions for the narrative and for Tony’s character, allowing us to explore Tony’s personal and inward life in a new way, rather than through the expression of inner thoughts through voice-over or flashbacks to childhood events.
Perhaps the greatest aspect of the show, however, was the final subversion of everything we had watched: the reframing and questioning of the viewer’s relationship to Tony through Dr. Melfi’s realization that Tony is very likely a sociopath, and that his emergent humanity and the occasions of warmth she has witnessed over the years are possibly all bluffs. Whether this is true remains as unclear as the remarkable final cut to black, which uses a change in editing style to signal the end of the show, since every other episode had ended with a slow fade to black with music rising over a well-framed shot.
Just as this brief assessment of The Sopranos is obviously incomplete, the following list of great post-Sopranos dramas is not exhaustive. A comprehensive review of the Golden Age of Television would be impossible, since one of the defining characteristics of the age is the sheer number of television programs being produced (which is as much a problem as a blessing for viewers). Due to the unmanageable number of serious television programs being released into the world, each with dozens and dozens of hours-worth of episodes, you will not see dramas such as The Handmaid’s Tale or Six Feet Under on here, since none of us have watched them in their entirety. Nor will you see cultural touchstones like The Walking Dead, which, although helping to redefine the horror genre over the past decade, does not belong on a list of the very best.
Furthermore, we are being strict and traditional with our definition of drama, which means that half-hour programs are not eligible, nor are comedies or sitcoms such as BoJack Horseman or Atlanta, though they are often as dramatic as they are funny. The New York Times may have placed Adventure Time on their own list, but it’s a children’s show, and not a conventional drama, so we’ve left it off, regardless of our affection for it. Our list is not meant to be contrarian or purposely provocative; you’ll find many of the consensus classics on our list and we have not twisted the definition of best merely to provide novelty. We also haven’t favoured political relevance over other factors; just because a show is timely does not mean it’ll stand the test of time. This list attempts something of a longer view.
The 10 Best TV Dramas Since The Sopranos
Battlestar Galactica (Syfy 2003-2009) showrunner Ronald D. Moore
My wife and I watched BSG via a set of DVDs in the late 2000s. It was the first television drama we “binged” on, even if this was before streaming services became a major thing. The show’s crazy and addictive twists and turns pointed forward to the technological impact of having all episodes available at once, even as the show can also be read as the ultimate summation of 80s and 90s sci-fi TV dramas, bringing together all of Ronald D. Moore’s personal interests from his Star Trek: Deep Space Nine years, while having the budget and acting chops to achieve what the likes of Babylon 5, etc. attempted but couldn’t achieve. The show trimmed humanity down to the microcosm of one Battlestar and some transports, and then examined the human bugs in the bottle as they were continually pushed to the brink. At the same time, the Cylon stories brought in profound and stunningly new ways to think about the nature and threat of machine intelligence. Lastly, throw in touches of apocalyptic elegy, which I always love. And, as I suggested above, it was also damn addictive fun. (Anton)
Breaking Bad (AMC 2008-2013) showrunner Vince Gilligan
It’s easy to describe Breaking Bad as the epitome of the high-concept narrative convergence: Goodbye Mr. Chips meets Scarface, the family sitcom meets the crime drama. As we laid out in the introduction, The Sopranos did this convergence before, but not in as focused a way as Breaking Bad, which like the chemical experiments at its centre, clearly showed the irreversible transformation of a good man into a bad one. Like all great tragedies, Breaking Bad clearly understood that the hero’s fall was rooted in his own persona, a result of his pride that consumed his soul as he accumulated more power. But more than simply being a great tragedy, Breaking Bad was an exemplary narrative construction: riveting and exciting, and as delicately balanced as a clock, ratcheting the tension up to unbearable levels before releasing it in elaborate heist scenes or schemes that draw on the full energy built up over the course of a season. Few shows have achieved the pure exhilaration of Breaking Bad. Combine that with its insightful look at how the seeds of doom lie within the best of us, and you’ve got great drama. (Aren)
Deadwood (HBO 2004-2006) showrunner David Milch
Deadwood is as close to Shakespeare as you’ll ever get on television. Exploring the birth of America through the microcosm of the town of Deadwood in the Dakota Territory in 1876, Deadwood had the plot turns, sudden deaths, shootouts, and sex you’d expect of prestige television, but its greatest pleasure was its language, florid turns of phrase with liberal cursing that sounded more akin to the verse of Shakespeare than anything else you’d find on television. Furthermore, like Shakespeare, Deadwood investigated the notion of the human and civilization through the lens of history, using conventions (in this case, the Western) to demonstrate great truths about how people live their lives and how human civilization is born from a union of greed and savagery. (Aren)
Game of Thrones (HBO 2011-2019) showrunners David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Game of Thrones may not be the very best television drama of the past decade, but it’s definitely the biggest and in many ways as much a “game” changer as The Sopranos itself was. Adapting George R.R. Martin’s ongoing (if he ever finishes it) high fantasy series, intact with all its cruelty and depravity—brutal violence, sex, and nudity—turned into a coup for HBO while setting new standards for fantasy special effects in any cinematic medium. Game of Thrones is a true global cultural phenomenon in a world where few such things exist. That it happens to deliver pulpy thrills and breathless narrative twists is just icing on the cake. (Anders)
Hannibal (NBC 2013-2015) showrunner Bryan Fuller
Hannibal, an adaptation of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter stories, including the novels Red Dragon and Hannibal, pushed the limit of what was possible—and acceptable—on primetime television, in both graphic violence and psychological depth. With outstanding lead performances (Mads Mikkelsen, in my mind, outdoes Anthony Hopkins as the definitive onscreen portrayal of Lecter) and a grand supporting cast including Laurence Fishburne and Gillian Anderson, Hannibal married serial killer procedural drama conventions to something more ambitious, more dreamlike and probing. In the end, it was the passion and madness shared between Lecter and Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) that gave the show its magnetic pull. (Anders)
Justified (FX 2010-2015) showrunner Graham Yost
In one episode, Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) asks how anyone could not love bourbon, since, in his words, it tastes like sunshine. I’m of the same mind about Justified, which is a show that’s as well-acted and tightly written and filmed as any, but goes down nice and easy. That’s saying something in a world in which TV shows try to outdo each other with their cynicism and shock value. Sometimes I just want a break with good characters and solid stories (and without a laugh track). Like The X-Files, the seasonal narratives lie somewhere between case-of-the-week and a long-developed story arc, which is linked around the fascinating relationship between Raylan and his nemesis, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). Even if the show was incredibly fun, the final line spoken between the two companion enemies—“We dug coal together”—is as poignant and deep as any TV has produced. (Anton)
Mad Men (AMC 2007-2015) showrunner Matthew Weiner
Although Mad Men is set in the 1960s, it’s really about the 21st century and how America got to be the way it is. Essentially the Great American Novel like The Great Gatsby imagined for television, the show follows Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the epitome of the American self-made man, and the people around him on Madison Avenue, tearing down the facade of white middle class America while also demonstrating the many ways that America itself is a construction, a shared lie created by people like Don both in their personal lives and in their work. Formally, Mad Men borrowed from classical Hollywood style and the films of the 1960s, making it as aesthetically pleasing a show as has existed on television, but beyond that, it deeply understood psychology, showing how advertising has changed the way human beings think and radically reshaped our self-image and self-worth. Essentially, it shows that the modern world is a con, but one that we’re selling to ourselves. (Aren)
True Detective (HBO 2014-present) showrunner Nic Pizzolatto
True Detective is on this list almost entirely for the merits of season one, which will go down as one of the greatest seasons in television history and an endlessly-rich exploration of morality, masculinity, and redemption. The other seasons are good as well (yes, even season two), but season one is something truly remarkable: an inversion of the buddy cop procedural that indulges occult fascinations and dark crime thrills, but mostly investigates the morality and philosophies of the two men at its centre played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. More than any other detective show of the Golden Age of Television, True Detective turns the investigation inward, exploring the souls of the men who descend into the muck to try to make sense of the mess we’ve made of our world. (Aren)
Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime 2017) showrunners David Lynch & Mark Frost
The series that launched a thousand thinkpieces: is it a television show or is it an 18-part movie? Whatever one thinks (and its place on this list shows our take), the sequel to the 1990-91 series, Twin Peaks: The Return, bringing back both of its creators and directed in its entirety by David Lynch, is one of the most ambitious audiovisual works every put on screen, big or small. Returning to the small Washington town over 25 years later, and expanding the palette, both geographically and thematically, its avant-garde experimentation (I’m looking at you Episode 8) is a meditation on the role of evil in American mythology—the small town, the Bomb, the lawman—and both brings the series to a satisfying conclusion, while remaining as frustrating to those that seek resolution and neat endings as ever. The entire 18-episode run is a miracle of art-making in mainstream, mass media, and shows how even the Golden Age of Television only scratches at the surface of what might be possible. (Anders)
The Wire (HBO 2002-2008) showrunner David Simon
The Wire is more educational about millennial American social structures and systemic inequalities than almost any sociology lecture, but it’s also as fine—and, yes, entertaining—a drama as TV has offered. The scope and overarching thematic plan is like that of a great Victorian novel, with a cast of scores of characters, all keenly drawn and believable yet memorable and unique. Each season focuses on a different aspect of contemporary Baltimore: the projects, the docks, city hall, the schools, and the newspaper room. But the show’s true achievement (particularly when watched today in the age of Trump and the reaction of on-the-nose progressive messaging) is the show’s ability to persuasively argue for a certain interpretation of what ails society while doing so not through overt bits of dialogue and shameless narrative additions, but rather through coherent and captivating plot structures and multidimensional characters developed over the course of five seasons. It’s a brilliant achievement that is unlikely to ever be repeated, or even attempted. (Anton)
Bloodline (Netflix 2015-2017) showrunner Todd A. Kessler
A great deal of recent TV shows exist in the realm of fantasy, or at least a highly-stylized version of reality. In contrast to prevailing fantasies, and in spite of claims that its gorgeously atmospheric cinematography is too glamorous to be truthful, Bloodline firmly exists in the realm of realism. What I further admire about Bloodline is that it doesn’t project into the realm of improbable reality, or demonstrate a pronounced emphasis on the sordid and lurid aspects of its story. The show isn’t adult or mature simply for its racy content, but rather in the sense that it takes what’s actually a fairly uncomplicated situation and explores its depths. It deals with responsibility and with what we consider to be mature vs. immature behaviour, and Kyle Chandler’s incredible central performance is the show’s embodiment of these themes.
Most importantly though, Bloodline is also a remarkable dissection of family life. You might describe the Rayburns as a dysfunctional family, and I usually can’t stand representations of dysfunction in film and on television. The dysfunction is too often contrived or too consumed with its vision of a hyper-niche subculture that can both interest but also disconnect (think about all those shows about wealthy New York intellectuals or So-Cal extravagance that are somehow supposed to be accessible and relatable to most viewers). Bloodline is able to portray its Florida Keys dynastic family in a way wholly accessible and relatable. While I imagine (and hope) few of us have been as pushed as far to the extremes of family troubles as the Rayburns, part of the show’s power is its ability to tap into personal feelings in unsentimental ways. We can relate to character’s feelings of jealousy, resentment, the burden of family secrets, and the yoke of responsibility, even if the degrees to which we have experienced those are different. And the show can do this precisely because it’s not sensational or ridiculous. (Anton)
Friday Night Lights (NBC 2006-2011) showrunner Jason Katims
Friday Night Lights deserves to be in the conversation of best television of the last two decades. Based on the non-fiction book by H.G. Bissinger, and with Coach and Tami Taylor (Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton) acting as a through-line, there is real cinematic poetry to this portrayal of American culture—economic, social, and personal—through the lens of sport and family. (Anders)
Lost (ABC 2004-2010) showrunners Damon Lindelof & Carlton Cuse
Lost is the show that introduced me to the pleasures of this Golden Age of Television. Essentially Star Wars for the small screen, Lost tapped into deep wells of archetypal storytelling and genre and character tropes in order to tell a large-scale science-fiction adventure about the mysteries of the universe and the power of the bonds we have with those who share our lives. Few shows were as surprising on a weekly basis, or as addictive in the theorizing and plotting. But while the mystery fueled the thrills week to week, the strong cast of characters and the deep wells of affection for their lives and relationships are what made Lost a classic. Lost shows that we may not be able to solve the mysteries of the universe, but we can build a family with others to hold back the darkness. (Aren)