Top 20 US TV dramas

The best dramas from American television history and why they are so influential...

January is the cruellest month, and I don’t care that TS Eliot claimed otherwise. (April? Cruel? Pah.) It’s drab, dark, bleak, miserable; Christmas has been and gone and the loft is closed on the decorations for another year.


But wait! Television has candles to light the darkness because, traditionally, it’s become the time of year when the cream of US TV shows return to our screens. This week 24, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI: New York and Law & Order are back, and life is just a bit more shiny.

The galvanising effect of US dramas has long been a feature of many lives here in the UK, and was greatly in evidence when RT’s experts came to drawing up a list of our 20 favourites, exchanging memories and enthusiasms. Even now, all these years later, stumbling across an ancient Cagney and Lacey on a dinky little cable channel makes me smile with anticipation.

Like American films, American dramas are sprinkled with stardust, which they ought to be as the US industry is vast and awash with money. They tell good stories, too, and don’t get distracted by the tedious byway marked “characterisation”, the death of many a story in UK dramas.

That doesn’t mean we don’t get to know anyone. Look at Mad Men and Damages, pieces of shimmering brilliance whose lead characters only gradually reveal themselves over, admittedly, fairly long runs of the type we just don’t tackle here. Even in long-runners like the Law & Order “franchise” we get to know regular characters through plot, rather than heavy-handed attempts at revelation. That’s how it should be.

There’s a boldness, too, about US dramas and their concepts. Just look at The X-Files, Twin Peaks, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, The Wire – whether fantasies or rawly realistic slices-of-life, they breathe authenticity.

1. ER – roving cameras, more plotlines than a suburban allotment, and a dazzling sense of theatre

2. Hill Street Blues – it redefined both police drama, and TV drama in general

3. The Sopranos – this was television as high art

4. The X-Files – FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully’s platonic relationship was exquisitely nuanced

5. Twin Peaks – the ultimate cult series

6. CSI – the biggest TV franchise in the world took the tenets of the police procedural and went hi-tech

7. Star Trek – no other series on this list has morphed into such an enduring cultural phenomenon

8. Mad Men – it’s the scarcely concealed turmoil of the characters within it that is so gripping

9. Damages – Glenn Close has found the ideal berth for her latter career as shady litigator Patty Hewes

10. thirtysomething – small-screen catnip for the “me” generation

11. Murder One – a single murder case for an entire series – the pitch was irresistible

12. House – while Britain wasn’t paying attention, America discovered that Hugh Laurie was a brilliant straight actor

13. Battlestar Galactica – does what good sci-fi should – comment on the present by writing about the future

14. The West Wing – it remained enduringly popular at a time when reality TV was all-conquering

15. 24 – 24 honed TV drama down to a point where there was nothing left but action, suspense and shocks

16. NYPD Blue – audiences were treated to a performance as good as any in TV history from Dennis Franz as Andy Sipowicz

17. Six Feet Under – death was merely another fact of life, grappled with over five sensational seasons

18. Dallas – the primetime soap that defined American television for a whole generation of Brits

19. Cagney and Lacey – Christine and Mary-Beth made screen history as the first pair of female leads in a US drama

20= Law & Order
– the longest-running primetime drama on US TV has now fathered two successful spin-offs


20= The Wire – OK…we’re cheating, but we just couldn’t leave this one off our list. Bleak, elegiac, real.