Over 125 of the Most Intelligent TV Dramasby stephanieericsson | created - 21 Nov 2015 | updated - 27 Sep 2016 | Public
If you're tired of being treated like an idiot audience by network execs, then you'll like this list. I want tour de force, well-scripted, intelligent shows with unpredictable plots, complex characters & renegade direction. Shows that take risks to create exceptional television. Many are British, Canadian or Aussie. It's all drama, suspense, mystery but no zombies, vampires or super heroes. 1998 to 2016 in no particular order after the first 15. Feel free to comment but please be polite.
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1. Game of Thrones (2011–2019)
TV-MA | 57 min | Action, Adventure, Drama
Nine noble families fight for control over the mythical lands of Westeros, while an ancient enemy returns after being dormant for thousands of years.
Has taken television to a new level. My favorite characters are Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke)... can't wait til the dragons arrive at the Seven Kingdoms...
2. Band of Brothers (2001)
TV-MA | 594 min | Action, Drama, History
The story of Easy Company of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division, and their mission in World War II Europe, from Operation Overlord, through V-J Day.
Breathtaking. This was the first television mini-series that made me take television as seriously as feature films. In fact, by virtue of having so much time, character & story development is taken to a whole new level.
3. Deadwood (2004–2006)
TV-MA | 55 min | Crime, Drama, History
A show set in the late 1800s, revolving around the characters of Deadwood, South Dakota; a town of deep corruption and crime.
"...intellectually daunting, digressive, arcane, wittily profane—" (New Yorker, February 14, 2005) I couldn't put it better myself. A character-driven drama, set during the historic Black Hills gold rush days in Deadwood, SD, it's a study in redeeming the irredeemable, where each character becomes fully human through the crucible of their own depravity and moral failure. There isn't a saint who doesn't fall or a sinner who doesn't win over your heart. IMHO, this is the best dialogue ever written in the history of television. Superb acting, direction & production. A tour de force for creator/writer David Milch.
4. Flesh and Bone (2015)
TV-MA | 60 min | Drama
A talented but emotionally troubled dancer runs away to New York City and quickly finds herself immersed in the cutthroat world of professional ballet.
Created by Moira Walley-Beckett, one of the top writers on Breaking Bad, F&B is the most audacious, original show ever aired on TV. It excavates taboo territory with fearlessness.Think Greek tragedy. But also -- think allegory. It is about a woman in a cosmic battle for her soul. The writing is sterling as are the acting & direction. After being exposed to such masterful artistry, it was hard to stomach regular TV.
5. The Borgias (2011–2013)
TV-MA | 50 min | Crime, Drama, History
In the fifteenth century, Pope Alexander VI tries to control all power in Italy with the help of his several sons, through murder, intrigue, war, and marriage alliances.
Up there with Game of Thrones, but more cohesive -- no holds barred on content & production. Irons' tour de force. Created & written by Neil Jordan, known for The Crying Game (1992), The End of the Affair (1999) and Michael Collins (1996).
6. The Newsroom (2012–2014)
TV-MA | 55 min | Drama
A newsroom undergoes some changes in its workings and morals as a new team is brought in, bringing unexpected results for its existing news anchor.
Probably the some of the best dialogue ever in the history of TV. Aaron Sorkin's genius is played out by a stunning heavyweight cast, but the lesser characters played by Dev Patel, Alison Pill & Olivia Munn are unforgettable. Gutsy in every way.
7. Peaky Blinders (2013– )
TV-MA | 60 min | Crime, Drama
A gangster family epic set in 1919 Birmingham, England; centered on a gang who sew razor blades in the peaks of their caps, and their fierce boss Tommy Shelby.
Cillian Murphy is electric in this period drama set in industrial Birmingham in the 20's about an Irish gang-family taking control of horse-racing betting. Helen McCrory plays Aunt Polly, the crone matriarch and gets some of the most sardonic lines ever written in television. Sam Neill does his best work yet.
The music is contemporary but blends perfectly with the house band being Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.
8. Breaking Bad (2008–2013)
TV-MA | 49 min | Crime, Drama, Thriller
A high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer turns to manufacturing and selling methamphetamine in order to secure his family's future.
I kept wondering how much farther Walt would go... One of the best TV shows ever made. And brilliantly, they ended the show leaving us all wanting more...
9. Downton Abbey (2010–2015)
TV-PG | 58 min | Drama, Romance
A chronicle of the lives of the British aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in the early 20th Century.
Wonderful... needs no description except to say that you will come to love these characters like old friends.
10. The Wire (2002–2008)
TV-MA | 59 min | Crime, Drama, Thriller
Baltimore drug scene, seen through the eyes of drug dealers and law enforcement.
Broke the mold. Gritty, real, tour de force. One of the top 10 best shows ever made. Created by David Simon, known for his writing on Show Me a Hero (2015), Treme (2010–2013), Generation Kill (2008), The Corner (2000), Homicide: Life on the Street (1993–1999).
11. Vikings (2013– )
TV-MA | 44 min | Action, Adventure, Drama
Vikings transports us to the brutal and mysterious world of Ragnar Lothbrok, a Viking warrior and farmer who yearns to explore - and raid - the distant shores across the ocean.
Travis Fimmel, who otherwise is a mediocre actor, is electrifying as the main character. Don't quibble with historical accuracy (it tries to stay close) because there is little but most of the characters were real and the exploits part of legend.
12. The Hour (2011–2012)
60 min | Drama
A behind-the-scenes drama and espionage thriller in Cold War-era England that centers on a journalist, a producer, and an anchorman for an investigative news programme.
British period drama set in the 50s when news programs were battling for journalistic freedom. Romola Garai is compelling as a female reporter butting up against the old-boy network. Dominic West is good too as the confused pretty boy anchor, but it's Ben Whishaw, the wiry, ballsy, arrogant reporter/producer who really drives this show. Written by brilliant Abi Morgan, known for Shame (2011), The Iron Lady (2011), and most currently, River (2015). Sadly, it only lasted 2 seasons.
13. The Man in the High Castle (2015– )
TV-MA | 60 min | Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller
In a dystopian America dominated by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, a young woman discovers a mysterious film that may hold the key to toppling the totalitarian regimes.
This is being billed as 'alternate history' but it isn't really, at least, not in the strictest definition of the genre -- and yes, Alternate History (AH) is a genre of its own. PK Dick's books usually challenge what we accept as real, and here, he uses the the 'what if the German's had won WWII? question as a structure to pose this challenge. Sterling cast, scripting & direction, it is also stunning in art direction and cinematography. This is a contender to Flesh & Bone for my pick of the best shows of 2015.
14. Spiral (2005– )
Not Rated | 52 min | Crime, Drama, Mystery
Follows criminal investigations in Paris from all the different points of view of those involved.
(aka Engrenages) Addicting. Gritty French detective series. this is my number one favorite on this list. Flawless, powerful acting. Recently renewed for a 5th & 6th season.
15. Sons of Anarchy (2008–2014)
TV-MA | 45 min | Crime, Drama, Thriller
A biker struggles to balance being a father and being involved in an outlaw motorcycle club.
Love the bad boys, the bad boy toys, the bad boy women, the bad boy justice. SOA challenges the real boundaries between 'legitimate' and 'illegal' with characters who are normally considered society's scum but who are often the real heroes.
Their last season floundered, in my opinion. The characters I loved became evil and irredeemable. Seems like a case of the show's producers not knowing when it's time to end a good thing.
16. Outlander (2014– )
TV-MA | 64 min | Drama, Fantasy, Romance
An English combat nurse from 1945 is mysteriously swept back in time to 1743.
Loved the Outlander book series and this television adaption has not disappointed. Set in the late 1700s in Scotland during the conflict which led to Culloden & the Highland Clearances, with characters so real I could put them on my Christmas card list. Sets & costumes are exquisite, acting & directing unsurpassed, this series is even better than Game of Thrones. Ronald D. Moore, creator.
17. Boardwalk Empire (2010–2014)
TV-MA | 55 min | Crime, Drama, History
An Atlantic City, New Jersey politician plays both sides of the law, conspiring with gangsters during the Prohibition era.
Visually gorgeous, great story and even the oily, creepy Steve Buscemi endures, although it seems to lose its edge in the last season.
18. The Good Wife (2009–2016)
TV-14 | 43 min | Crime, Drama, Mystery
Alicia has been a good wife to her husband, a former state's attorney. After a very humiliating sex and corruption scandal, he is behind bars. She must now provide for her family and returns to work as a litigator in a law firm.
Julianna Margulies is great in this but after 4 seasons, I wondered how this show could hang on to it's edge. Well, season 5 is full of surprises.
19. Justified (2010–2015)
TV-MA | 44 min | Action, Crime, Drama
Old-school U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens is reassigned from Miami to his childhood home in the poor, rural coal mining towns in eastern Kentucky.
Cops & robbers with manners ... Blows away stereotypes of Kentucky folk. Created by a brilliant Graham Yost, known for Raines (2007), Broken Arrow (1996), Speed (1994).
20. The Killing (2011–2014)
TV-14 | 45 min | Crime, Drama, Mystery
A police investigation, the saga of a grieving family, and a Seattle mayoral campaign all interlock after the body of 17-year-old Rosie Larsen is found in the trunk of a submerged car.
Dark, gritty crime series based on a Danish one. Mireille Enos & Joel Kinnaman play the detective team brilliantly. The writing, directing and production is so stellar that the first 26 episodes are about a single case! Veena Sud is the creator.
21. Bron/Broen (2011–2018)
TV-MA | 60 min | Crime, Mystery, Thriller
When a body is found on the bridge between Denmark and Sweden, right on the border, Danish inspector Martin Rohde and Swedish Saga Norén have to share jurisdiction and work together to find the killer.
Brilliant Danish series (not to be confused with the 2013 US remake, which is only second rate at best.).
22. Homeland (2011– )
TV-MA | 55 min | Crime, Drama, Mystery
A bipolar CIA operative becomes convinced a prisoner of war has been turned by al-Qaeda and is planning to carry out a terrorist attack on American soil.
Love the ambiguity in the characters, motives, political agendas... Will keep you guessing. However, once Damian Lewis leaves in the 4th season, the show loses it's pull. Claire Danes doesn't have the greatness to sustain the show, IMHO.
23. Luther (2010– )
TV-MA | 60 min | Crime, Drama, Mystery
DCI John Luther is a near-genius murder detective whose brilliant mind can't always save him from the dangerous violence of his passions.
Top notch in every way. Idris Elba is superb and Ruth Wilson is terrifying.
24. Wire in the Blood (2002–2009)
TV-MA | 69 min | Crime, Drama, Mystery
A psychologist gets inside of the minds of both killers and victims to aid the police in solving gruesome serial killings in Northern England.
Intriguing British crime series starring Robson Green, a mentally disturbed psychologist/consultant with an uncanny instinct for the dark side of the human psyche. This is an overdone premise now, but in 2002, it was fresh and Robson Green is still the best of these characters.
25. The Shield (2002–2008)
TV-MA | 47 min | Crime, Drama, Thriller
Follows the lives and cases of a dirty Los Angeles Police Department cop and the unit under his command.
Brilliant, gritty cop show about corrupt cops in LA. Michael Chiklis is... well, Michael Chiklis...
26. Luck (2011–2012)
52 min | Drama, Sport
A television series centered around characters who are tied to the same horse racing track.
One of the biggest shames HBO should bear is cancelling this show because rarely do we ever see a show about a subculture that's never been done before. Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, Nick Nolte star among other brilliant actors. David Milch, the creator, must have had a good cry when he lost this one.
27. Hell on Wheels (2011–2016)
TV-14 | 42 min | Drama, Western
The Civil War is past, but former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon can't put it behind him. Fresh are the memories of the death of his wife, killed at the hands of the Union soldiers, an act that sets him on a course of revenge.
Great characters. Macho plots. Cowboys & Indians & villainous tycoons. YahOO! Could look at Anson Mount all day si it's nice that he can act too... Christopher Heyerdahl forges his place among the great television villains of all time.
28. Scandal (2012–2018)
TV-14 | 43 min | Drama, Thriller
A former White House Communications Director starts her own crisis management firm only to realize her clients are not the only ones with secrets.
Kerry Washington is mesmerizing as the political fixer although I, personally, couldn't see what she sees in Tony Goldwyn's character. Still there are some other good characters that shine.
By the 3rd year, this series falls into my "Should Have Quit While They Were Ahead" List. By then, practically every character's dialogue has the same cadence as Olivia Pope which becomes tiring -- something that signaled to me that the writers & directors were burnt out.
29. Ray Donovan (2013– )
TV-MA | 60 min | Crime, Drama
Ray Donovan, a professional "fixer" for the rich and famous in Los Angeles, can make anyone's problems disappear except those created by his own family.
I'm very ambivalent about this series, because, although the cast is stellar and, in particular, Jon Voight's portrayal of Mickey Donovan will go down in history as his magnum opus, the story arc seems to lack a clear direction... Still, Paula Malcomson does a great job as Ray's crazy bitch wife, and Eddie Marsan and Dash Mihok are worth the price of admission. Liev Schreiber, in my opinion, is the weakest actor of all the principals which surprised me. It could be the writing, but he comes off as a moody narcissist without much depth.
30. Bomb Girls (2012– )
60 min | Drama, War
A drama about World War II women at work in a munitions factory.
The stories of four women working in a Canadian munitions factory during World War II, beginning in 1941. Meg Tilly is great in this as are the rest of the female cast.
31. Touch (2012–2013)
43 min | Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi
A widower struggling to raise his emotionally challenged son discovers that he can predict events before they happen.
Really fascinating premise about a father with an autistic & gifted son who leads him on a very long arc of stories & encounters that involve the chaos theory. Made me ponder whether everything that happens in this world isn't part of a greater design. I just wish Kiefer Sutherland would catch his breath and learn how to act.
32. Birdsong (2012)
165 min | Drama, History, Romance
As an English soldier fights in the horrific trenches of northern France, he is haunted by the memories of his forbidden love affair with a French woman.
Historic period drama by BBC/PBS about an ill-fated love affair during WWI. Clémence Poésy is superb.
33. Spooks (2002–2011)
60 min | Action, Crime, Drama
The missions of MI-5, the UK's domestic intelligence organization.
Bingeworthy. Great cast, although Matthew Macfadyen, who I find tedious, is the weakest link in an otherwise stellar group for the first couple of seasons. After he exits the show, Rupert Penry-Jones, Keeley Hawes, Nicola Walker, Raza Jaffrey and Richard Armitage really bump up the caliber of the show.
34. Missing (2012)
TV-14 | 60 min | Action, Drama, Thriller
When a woman's son goes missing under suspicious circumstances, she will do anything it takes to find him.
Ashley Judd, Cliff Curtis and Sean Bean in edge of your seat action. Great series that ABC, in its infinite idiocy, cancelled after one season. The show was nominated for 2 Emmys, including Best Actress... sigh.
35. Hunted (2012)
TV-MA | 59 min | Action, Drama
Meet Sam. A spy. A hunter. And herself hunted by an enemy more ruthless and determined than any she's ever known.
Melissa George tends to be under-rated as an actress, but she's a very talented Australian. As an espionage operative with a mysterious past, she brings a European quality to the character that is absent in (most) Hollywood actresses.
36. Whitechapel (2009–2013)
180 min | Crime, Mystery, Thriller
A fast-tracked inspector, a hardened detective sergeant, and an expert in historical homicides investigate modern crimes with connections to the past in the Whitechapel district of London.
Rupert Penry-Jones is quite good-- British crime series w/ a Sherlock Holms theme.
37. Prisoners Wives (2012–2013)
60 min | Drama
Gemma's perfect life comes crashing down when her husband is arrested for murder. As Gemma learns to navigate the prison system, she starts to think the unthinkable.
Excellent BBC series about 4 very different women struggling to hold it together while their men are in prison. Excellent characters & believable stories.
38. Da Vinci's Inquest (1998–2006)
44 min | Crime, Mystery, Drama
A Vancouver cop turned coroner searches for truth and justice with the help of his friends.
Nicholas Campbell is brilliant as Dom Da Vinci, the ME. The Canadians make great cop shows.
39. Awake (2012)
TV-14 | 43 min | Drama, Fantasy, Mystery
After a car accident takes the life of a family member, a police detective lives two alternating parallel lives, one with his wife and one with his son. Is one of his "realities" merely a dream?
Only lasted 1 season, but what can we expect from myopic NBC... Still, anything with Jason Isaacs in it is worth watching and he's brilliant in this. Kyle Killen, creator.
40. One Night (2012)
104 min | Drama
A young woman is stabbed, sexually assaulted and murdered in public as her neighbors ignore her cries for help.
Thought provoking mini-series about one incident from the POV of 4 unrelated people involved.
41. Magic City (2012–2013)
TV-MA | 50 min | Crime, Drama
Centers on Miami mobsters and other characters from Miami Beach in the late 1950s.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan is very believable as a 1950s Miami mobster trying to run a legit business as he negotiates with other treacherous, psychopathic & perverted mobsters like Ben Diamond, brilliantly played by Danny Huston. It only lasted 2 seasons, unfortunately. Mitch Glazer, creator.
42. Lie to Me (2009–2011)
TV-14 | 43 min | Crime, Drama, Mystery
About Cal Lightman, the world's leading deception expert who studies facial expressions and involuntary body language to expose the truth behind the lies.
This series started off strong but quickly became redundant within the first few episodes... however, miraculously pulled out of its dive and recovered and then it was cancelled.
43. In Treatment (2008–2010)
TV-MA | 25 min | Drama
A psychotherapist questions his abilities and gets help by reuniting with his old therapist, whom he has not seen for ten years.
Gabriel Bryne as the troubled but talented psychotherapist. Some of his patients are just plain annoying, but most of them develop into real, 3 dimensional people.
44. Wallander (2008–2016)
TV-PG | 90 min | Crime, Drama, Mystery
A television show centered on a soul-searching Swedish cop.
Love Kenneth Branagh as Wallander but I confess that I haven't watched the Swedish-language Wallander (2005) with Krister Henriksson.
45. Mrs Biggs (2012)
90 min | Drama
The true story of Charmian Brent (née Powell), the rebellious product of a strict 1950s upbringing, and her whirlwind romance with Ronald Biggs leading to a descent into crime, most infamously 1963's Great Train Robbery.
BBC series about the true story of a train robbery and the couple on the run. Sheridan Smith is excellent as Mrs. Biggs who holds things together while her weasily, spineless husband, played by Daniel Mays, keeps *beep* up on the run over 3 continents.
46. The Bletchley Circle (2012–2014)
TV-14 | 45 min | Crime, Drama, Mystery
In 1952, four women who worked at the wartime code-breaking centre, Bletchley Park, reunite to track down a serial killer.
Really good BBC series about the real genius of the support women of the code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park.
47. Falcón (2012–2013)
Falcón is a brilliant detective whose personal and professional life is compromised by dark secrets from the past.
Marton Csokas is riveting as Chief Inspector Javier Falcón in this British crime series set in Spain.
48. The Mill (2013– )
60 min | Drama
The hard labour of cotton mill workers and the abuse they endure.
British period drama about the slavish practices of the English textile industry in late 1800s.
49. Orphan Black (2013–2017)
TV-MA | 44 min | Action, Drama, Sci-Fi