In the past twenty years, Cable series have remade the landscape of TV. Breakout hits like "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under" challenged the conventions of television and even the broadcast networks have desperately tried to keep up with the new trend setters.
And while HBO and Showtime may have started the Cable TV revolution, AMC, FX, TNT and others are on their heels with several shows that continue to pave the way for the rest of the industry. Crave Online recently assembled a list of the best cable series currently on TV, with some surprising results…
In the barren landscape of summer TV, TNT’s "Leverage" is like an oasis in the desert. One part "Robin Hood" with a bit of "The A-Team" mixed in, the series follows a five person team of reformed thieves, hackers and con artists as they use their skills to target white collar and corporate criminals in addition to corrupt government officials. The show’s tag line is "Sometimes bad guys make the best good guys." And nowhere is that more true than with the leading character, Nate Ford (Timothy Hutton); who took the tragic loss of his son and channeled his rage towards bringing justice to those who often escape it.
"Leverage" is also one of the few shows on TV to truly boast a feature film background from co-creator John Rogers ("Transformers") and producer Dean Devlin ("ID4") which has led to some of the most cinematic episodes on television. Even the cons are often quite entertaining, if sometimes predictable. If the show has a weakness, it’s that the Leverage team rarely loses. But as escapist fare, there are few shows better.
Showtime’s "Dexter" is perhaps the first TV series in which the audience roots for a lead character who is an admitted serial killer. Michael C. Hall’s Dexter Morgan murders other serial killers at the direction of his deceased foster dad in part to avenge his mother and also to satisfy his deep-seated need to kill. In other words, he’s a sociopath with little empathy for others and few (if any) human emotions. And yet he remains a sympathetic figure despite racking up a body count that would make Jack Bauer envious.
After a terrific fourth season which pitted Dexter against John Lithgow’s Trinity killer, the current season seems to have lost a few steps. Part of the reason may be due to the loss of Dexter’s wife and the absence of his step-children, who somehow made even Dexter seem more normal. But the series also needs a darker villain to make Dexter seem heroic by comparison and there currently isn’t anyone who can fill that Trinity-sized void.
But Dexter himself remains riveting to watch and we all want to see just how far he will go to keep on killing.
8: "True Blood"
At a time in which "Twilight" and its imitators have turned vampires into neutered and watered down monsters, HBO’s "True Blood" is there to bring them back to the sexy and dangerous creatures they used to be. Based upon Charlaine Harris’ "Southern Vampire Mysteries" series of novels, "True Blood" follows a telepathic waitress named Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) who falls for a vampire named Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), while also dealing with an older vampire called Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgård) who has strong feelings for her.
Sure, it can be a little silly at times (and most of the human characters are unwatchable). But for every misadventure of Sookie’s possibly braindead brother, there’s the Vampire King killing an anchorman on live television with a threat for humanity before "giving the throw" to the weather girl. There’s also some of the hottest vampire sex scenes ever put to film in almost every episode. As a cable series, "True Blood" shies away from NOTHING.
And that alone makes it appointment television.
7: "The Venture Brothers"
This is probably going to be the dark horse candidate on this list, so let me explain.
"The Venture Brothers" is one of the most sublime and brilliant shows on television, animated or otherwise. In theory, the series is a parody of the classic "Jonny Quest" with two dim-witted boy adventurers, Hank and Dean, their drug addled and "ethically challenged" father, Dr. "Rusty" Venture and the family’s bodyguard, Brock Samson (also known as the "Swedish murder machine").
The amazing thing about the show is that it works on so many levels. It’s a comedy, an action series and even an exploration of the personal failures of several eclectic characters that are sometimes oddly moving. And the fourth season has only gotten better as the cast has expanded and the Venture Brothers themselves have actually grown up and started making choices of their own.
Plus the creators of the show have become masters of some of the most bizarrely hilarious endings currently on TV.
6: "Mad Men"
If a series has won the Emmy Award for best drama for three years in a row, then it’s usually because it’s very good. And AMC’s "Mad Men" is more than just very good, it’s become one of the few TV series to immediately become part of our cultural identity. Even "Sesame Street" is running parodies of it!
A large part of the show’s success comes from Jon Hamm’s Don Draper, a creative director for an advertising firm in the ’60s. Far from a perfect hero, Don is actually extremely complex and he is sometimes even despicable and admirable within the same episode. There are several other intriguing figures in "Mad Men," but Don is the one most people tune in to see what he’ll do next.
As a period piece, "Mad Men" isn’t for everyone. But for drama, there are few better series.
5: "Stargate Universe"
I know what you may be thinking: "How the hell is ‘Stargate Universe’ higher on this list than ‘Mad Men’?"
While the latter series may be one of the finest dramas on television, "Stargate Universe" is something even rarer. This show is one of the few truly great sci-fi series currently on TV, and easily the best show on Syfy. While the two earlier "Stargate" incarnations were both entertaining in their own way, "SGU" has carved out its own territory by stranding a crew of civilians and military personal on an ancient alien starship with little to no hope of returning to Earth.
And it’s the conflict between the civilians and the military that has helped the show stay relatively grounded. The problems faced by the crew are largely issues of basic survival like water and air, with alien encounters and action often left out entirely in order to focus on the human characters and the loved ones they left behind on Earth.
"SGU" seems to have taken its cue from "Battlestar Galactica" in terms of tone and execution. And although it hasn’t yet matched "BSG" in terms of critical acclaim or audience support, "Stargate Universe" has the potential to completely reinvigorate the aging franchise and help reshape the landscape of sci-fi series.
One of the biggest tragedies of the current fall season is that very few people are watching "Terriers," one of the best new series to hit FX in years. Donal Logue stars as Hank Dolworth, a disgraced ex-cop and former alcoholic who starts an unlicensed private investigator firm with his friend Britt Pollack (Michael Raymond-James), who has left his criminal past behind him.
Shawn Ryan ("The Shield") and Ted Griffin ("Ocean’s Eleven") are the driving forces behind this series, which is unlike almost any PI show ever seen on TV. Hank Dolworth in particular is hard to classify. He’s a really decent guy and very loyal to his friends and family, but Hank has also shown a willingness to frame a man he blamed for murdering his friend, along with forging a dead man’s signature to secure a loan, staging a car accident to avoid a murder charge and other highly questionable moral decisions.
But unlike Vic Mackey, Hank still seems to feel remorse for his actions and fears more for the safety of those close to him than for his own well being. He may not be a traditional hero, but Hank is extremely compelling and fascinating to watch.
Plus the show has one of the catchiest theme songs on TV, which you can see and hear below.
3: "Burn Notice"
"Burn Notice" is the best action series currently on the air. Which is somewhat surprising, given the large number of spy and action shows currently clogging network TV between "Law & Order" and "CSI" knockoffs.
Jeffrey Donovan stars as Michael Westen, a former spy who finds himself blacklisted and stranded in Miami. Even more than "Leverage," this show is the modern day "A-Team." In every episode, Michael and his associates agree to help someone in desperate need of protection or aid while also investigating the circumstances of his own case. Plus the series also stars cult icon Bruce Campbell as Michael’s partner, Sam Axe with Gabrielle Anwar as Michael’s lover/partner, Fiona.
The fourth season (which resumes next month on USA) has been especially adept at telling stand-alone stories while still managing to advance the season long story arc in every episode. The producers have even put Michael in the unwanted position of burning another spy named Jesse Porter (Coby Bell), who may be Michael’s greatest adversary now that he knows the truth…
2: "Breaking Bad"
Already recognized by Crave Online as the edgiest series on TV, "Breaking Bad" is also one of the best shows, period. In simple terms, it is about the systematic destruction of a man’s soul.
Bryan Cranston has won three straight Emmy Awards for his portrayal of Walter White, a high school teacher dying of cancer who turned to drug manufacturing as a way to support his family and pay for his medical bills. And over the course of three seasons, the relatively good and decent man we met at the beginning of the series has slowly disappeared. In his place, we now follow a hardened man who has lost his family along with any sense of morality.
And now, Walter is no stranger to murder, having killed a man by running him down with his car and ordering his partner, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to execute a rival drug manufacturer in order to save both of their lives.
As the series goes into the fourth season on AMC next summer, there doesn’t appear to be much further that Walter can fall. But I’m willing to bet that he’ll find a way to dig himself an even deeper hole. And it will likely still be extremely entertaining.
1: "Boardwalk Empire"
Although only a half season of "Boardwalk Empire" has aired on HBO at the time of this article, it’s already earned the top slot on this list.
With an epic and sweeping period story (the kind that HBO used to tell regularly), former "Sopranos" writer Terence Winter has recreated the Prohibition era Atlantic City with a mix of historical figures and original characters. Steve Buscemi leads the cast as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, a local treasurer and influential criminal who has used the newly passed Prohibition laws to increase his power and reach.
But it’s Nucky’s latent humanity that marks him as a sympathetic figure. Nucky obviously harbors strong feelings for the loss of his own wife years before the beginning of the show, but he is also capable of having a man killed for beating his wife. With this part, Buscemi has finally reached the plateau of a true leading man. And it’s easily the role of his career.
While none of the subsequent episodes have been quite as visually stunning as Martin Scorsese’s pilot episode, the writing and acting remain top notch. There may never be another "Sopranos," but this is the first show in years to deliver the goods as consistently as that series. If you’re not watching "Boardwalk Empire," then you are missing the best program on cable TV.