Peak TV needs to happen soon. Because as scripted shows continue to multiply, I’m losing hope of ever catching up.
And yet there’s never been a better time to love great television, because missing a show when it’s still in production no longer means missing it forever. (Although it can, I’ve discovered, occasionally mean paying à la carte for streaming access or DVDs as Netflix and other streaming services change their lineups.)
Some shows demand to be watched in the moment, or at least in the era when they’re on. If you save Scandal or This Is Us for a few years from now, you’ll miss the conversations happening now. There are shows, though, that you can wait to see but that it would be a shame to miss forever.
No one needs me to urge watching The Wire, which, anecdotally, at least, has had a larger audience since it ended than it did when HBO first showed it. If you haven’t already seen Breaking Bad, which became a ratings force only in its final year on AMC, you can see it when (or if) you’re ready to find out what all the fuss was about.
And no one needs another list of the Best Shows on Television You’re Not Watching. Because, although I may feel guilty about not keeping up with everything good on TV — it is, after all, my job — you shouldn’t have to. So I won’t bug you to watch anything on this list immediately; if you’ll accept that, I’ll get to the Netflix-distributed Peaky Blinders (recommended repeatedly by readers) when I get the time.
I may have a week free in mid-2019.
This is a list, instead, of shows for a rainy weekend, or a midweek sick day, or that time, a few months or years from now, when, by some miracle, there’s nothing on. One series is wrapping up its run this month, but most have ended, or have had the opportunity to tell their stories completely enough so you won’t be left hanging:
- Halt and Catch Fire. If you watch only one drama about the heady early days of personal computing and the World Wide Web, make it this one from AMC. I could almost hear my old 300-baud modem straining to connect as I watched the first, 1980s-set season, which introduced us to hustler Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), married techies Gordon and Donna Clark (Scoot McNairy and Kelly Bishé), and visionary coder Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis). And yet I managed to miss the entire third year before logging in again for this fourth and final season, running for just a few more Saturday nights. It’s been splendid (and I remember being just as excited by those first browsers as the characters are), but I recommend starting from the beginning. And I’ll definitely be going back to that third season at some point. Where to watch it: First three seasons are on Netflix. Current season, which ends Oct. 21, is available On Demand.
- The Leftovers. Justin Theroux, Carrie Coon, and Amy Brenneman star in this surreal, beautifully realized HBO drama from Tom Perrotta and Damon Lindelof (Lost) that begins with the events of Perrotta’s novel about those left behind when 2 percent of Earth’s population vanishes in an instant. What felt at first like a commentary on post-9/11 America eventually became something much deeper. If the ending of Lost spoiled all six seasons for you, this show probably isn’t for you. But if you’ve lived long enough to have experienced and to have survived great loss, you might just love it. And fear not the finale, which ran in June: It sticks the landing. Where to watch it: All three seasons are on HBO Go.
- Friday Night Lights. You wouldn’t believe how little I care about football, much less Texas high school football. But I loved nearly every moment of this fictional series, inspired by former Inquirer reporter H.G. Bissinger’s nonfiction book, and starring Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton as coach Eric Taylor and his wife, Tami, a high school guidance counselor. There is one story line in the second season that, like many fans, I would prefer to bury, but this remains one of the best TV depictions I’ve seen of marriage, and of high school. And if I hear, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose,” I will get choked up. Every time. Where to watch it: Sadly, Netflix benched FNL on Oct. 1. Available on DVD or for rental or purchase on multiple streaming sites, including Amazon Video and Google Play.
- Fargo. Noah Hawley’s ambitious series for FX channels the spirit of the Coen brothers’ 1996 film, telling a new story every season. My favorite remains the Peabody-winning first, with Allison Tolman as sheriff’s deputy Molly Solverson; Keith Carradine as her ex-cop father, Lou; and Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman as two men whose chance meeting leads to nothing but trouble. Although, come to think of it, I’m very fond of the second. And the third is pretty good, too. Where to watch it: First two seasons are on Hulu. Third season arrives on DVD Dec. 5. No word yet on whether there will be a fourth.
- Big Love. Once, I might have said that this series, which ran on HBO from 2006 to 2011, was an examination of love and marriage that might be very much of its time. But I’ve since come to also see Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer’s story of suburban polygamists as rooted in aspects of the American character that, for better or worse, seem likely to endure. Either way, the performances, by sister wives Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny, and Ginnifer Goodwin, and by the late Bill Paxton, who plays their husband, are marvelous. Harry Dean Stanton, who died a few weeks ago, gives a creepily memorable performance as Roman Grant, the patriarch of a polygamous cult. Where to watch it: All five seasons are on HBO Go and Amazon Prime Video.
- Switched at Birth. If you never miss NBC’s This Is Us, you might be the viewer for this Peabody Award-winning ABC Family/Freeform series that ended this year, about the unlikely family formed after parents (Lea Thompson, D.W. Moffett, and Constance Marie) discover their two teen daughters (Katie Leclerc and Vanessa Marano) had been, yes, switched at birth. Because one of the girls was deaf, that gimmicky premise yielded a deeper dive into deaf culture and education than I’d seen in any TV drama. (In 2013, it presented an entire episode in American Sign Language, with subtitles.) The show was a hit from the beginning for its youth-oriented network, but it’s really not just for teens. Where to watch it: All five seasons are on Netflix.
- Justified. “I never thought of him as any kind of super-intellect … he likes what he does. That’s the main thing,” Elmore Leonard once said of Raylan Givens, the Leonard character Timothy Olyphant made his own in this series about a trigger-happy deputy marshal assigned to the hardscrabble area in which he grew up. Leonard, whose ability to write visually meant his work frequently made it to the screen, was unusually proud of this adaptation, and he had a right to be. Where to watch it: All six seasons are on Amazon Prime Video.