Tim Goodman's 11 Best Network Dramas
THR's chief television critic gives some love to broadcast dramas that are at an unfair disadvantage against cable dramas -- and finds entertaining gems.
I like watching a lot of network dramas. I even love watching a couple. But clearly I didn't think any of them were truly great in the same way so many cable dramas are -- and that has quite a bit to do with the playing field of broadcast television. When you're going after, literally, the broadest possible audience, the rules for success are different. The game is changed before it's begun -- no network was ever going to air Breaking Bad because of the content and no network would air Mad Men because, well, it wouldn't draw a fraction of the audience needed to support it.
So if there really are two playing fields -- even two business models -- then there need to be two lists for dramas (in my opinion -- which I note here even though that should be self-evident).
Being on cable doesn't mean a show is inherently better. There are tons of crappy cable dramas -- every series on this list would be significantly better than a lot of cable dramas I could mention but won't. Being able to swear or to feature nudity or sex also doesn't make a show inherently better, but I do believe that wider boundaries allow for more mature, sophisticated storytelling that has more grit and realism than what's permitted on a broadcast network. More chances can be taken in the writing and depiction of dramatic events on cable -- that's just my take on it. I find less pandering, fewer instances of excessive expository scenes and a whole lot more ambition on cable.
That's a good part of why I think the playing fields are different. And thus, two lists. So here we go. Oh, wait. I'd better answer this before people scream that I "forgot" it: Scandal isn't on this list because it doesn't interest me. Onward:
1. The Hollow Crown (PBS). You can never have enough Shakespeare, and credit PBS for this wholly engaging, exceptionally well done collection of performances surrounding the Bard. (And, yes, in all honesty, this could have been on my other Best Drama list -- having regrets is part of list making at this time of year.)
2. The Good Wife (CBS). This is not a series that has, in past years, made me flip for it like some others, but it's always been good. And this season it was very good -- building up to something grander in the same way that, say, Boardwalk Empire did on the cable side. Hats off for exceeding the constraints of the system.
3. Elementary (CBS). This is a perfect example of an excellent broadcast drama and, by far, my favorite network drama to watch each week. And maybe it's just the right show to further illustrate why two drama lists were needed. Elementary is my comfort food on broadcast -- because it's a procedural and plays by many of the restrictive rules of storytelling that are necessary to produce a hit, it's not on the same tier as, say, Sherlock, nor those 20 cable shows I listed earlier in the week. And yet, I do love it. The performances of Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu keep me coming back, as does their relationship/connection.
4. The Blacklist (NBC). James Spader is this show, period. But there's a lot of creativity to the storytelling and in the concept. And whatever its shortcomings, Spader just covers them up by being riveting.
5. Hannibal (NBC). It sure seemed like the network didn't know what it had on its hands as Hannibal faced the possibility of cancelation. And maybe Hannibal will never be a smash hit. But it's creepy good, like a weirdly lucid dream you wish you weren't having -- until it's over and you can't wait for next week.
6. Person of Interest (CBS). Credit CBS for being masters of the procedural -- to the extent that it can also allow creators to go beyond what the formula allows, as Person of Interest does (see also: Elementary). Another solid series you can rely on each week.
7. Parenthood (NBC). No surprise here -- Parenthood has been pretty great since the first episode. And yes, it's a crime that more people aren't watching it and plowing through Kleenex. That said, the show does drain you, and at some point there will have to be an end.
8. Sleepy Hollow (Fox). Crazy. Just … crazy. I've written before that the more outrageous this show gets the better it is and the more fun it is to watch. That hasn't changed at all.
9. Almost Human (Fox). Broadcast television needs a good sci-fi show. This one certainly qualifies and gets my nod over ABC's Agents of SHIELD (which had a lot higher expectations -- and hasn't quite met them). Excellent visuals, engaging cast and entertaining as hell.
10. Grimm (NBC). Is this the most underrated drama on broadcast television? It certainly gets slighted and ends up outside the proverbial water cooler chatter. But it's funny, creative, scary and has enough backstory to keep it all interesting.
11. Nikita (The CW). Bye, Nikita. You'll be missed, you skinny bad-ass. Hours of high-gloss, mindless fun. Sometimes that's the most necessary thing at the end of a day.