There are way too many good TV shows available to us today. We live in a world of modern riches, of an over-abundance of goodness so vibrant it’s terribly easy to miss the good stuff. Embarrassing first world problem of the highest order, but still: a wonderful predicament to find oneself in. But mo-oooom, I can’t go outside and play, or socialize with weird Uncle Kevin — there’s just so much TV to watch, you see! Teevee: the future!
And lo, what good stuff is to be had on your premium channels! Though previous editors have regaled you with the delightful offerings on Amazon Prime and Netflix, I’ve decided to take a look exclusively towards television’s rise to greatness: the premium network series. The oft-regurgitated line of thought on these past five years — that it is “The Golden Age of Television” — is largely thanks to the work of the pay-channels like HBO and Showtime.
Because they don't rely on ratings, premium networks have consistently and craftily pushed the envelope as to what could and could not be done with visual storytelling. Characters became more nuanced, stories unfolded rather than exposited to death, and a push for small screen viewers to, you know, actually pay attention to the detailed doings were all elevated here first.
Of course everyone has varying levels of binge-watching abilities, so we’ve taken the liberty of Goldilocking this one for you a bit: tailoring our picks to mini, moderate, and maximum helpings, ensuring you find the most efficient multi-episode viewing scenario that is just right for you. Besides, we love to enable your extreme binge-watching behaviors, Internet. So click on to see our picks.
Lucky Louie, HBO
Not typically a fan of the multi-camera sitcom set-up, Louis C.K.’s first venture into the world of television was a ripper. For HBO it was a trial of the new, as the 2006 series' one-and-only 13-episode season was a departure in style and substance. With a wonderful supporting cast (Pamela Adlon, Jim Norton, Rick Shapiro, Mike Hagerty), the series’ look at blue-collar living resonates more now than it did then (though that may be in part due to the omnipresent C.K.-ified existence we now live in). The ruminations on married living — a far cry from the subject matter of its FX sibling — still push and prod at the ideas seen in its later Louie draft. Still, the whole thing remains enjoyable to watch, and highlight the budding genius that is C.K.’s omnipresent brand of perfectly skewering humor.
Masters of Sex, Showtime
I simply cannot say enough good things about Masters of Sex. Far and away the best new series of 2013 (in my oh-so humble opinion), Michelle Ashford’s take on the Thomas Maier book of the same name gives a wonderfully thoughtful and emotionally intricate body to the curious and compelling relationship of Dr. Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson, the sex scientists who ramped the world into the sexual revolution of the 1960s with their research on bodily sexual response. With a dream-team guest starring cast of Allison Janney and Beau Bridges, coupled with top-notch supporting performances from Annaleigh Ashford, Teddy Sears, and Heléne York — just to name a few — the whole thing leaps forward with such a careful and slow-burning brilliance, if you’re not paying enough attention you may miss the undercurrents completely. With the finale airing this-coming Sunday (December 15), the whole series will be up on Showtime On Demand. It would behoove you to tune in immediately.
Ja’mie: Private School Girl, HBO
Chris Lilley’s skewering take on spoiled, malevolent young girls is consistently able to find the funny, even when its antics border on painful painted with awkward abandon. And with only 3 episodes currently available, it’s a quick way to catch up on a new series without feeling like you have to actually commit to any sort of serious sitting time. That way you won't feel so out of the loop while your friends are all calling each other quiche, so win-win.
The Cinemax espionage series may not have gotten much buzz or praise in its premiere run, but it’s a highly enjoyable for all of its twisty-turning spy-on-spy dramatic machinations. Sitting squarely on the shoulders of its star Melissa George, Hunted is bleak in many ways: the undercurrent of “oh you guys are really all just pawns, here, aren’t you?” permeates everything from the visuals to the plotlines (hello, literal-and-actual-maze). Plus, the cast is wonderful: Several Game of Thrones actors show up, as well as the star of the soon-to-be FX series, Tyrant, Adam Rayner. There’s mystery and intrigue for days here — thanks in part to the mysterious ethos surrounding Sam (George)’s origin story. For fans of sneaky spy tricks, Hunted’s first season is worth a wee binge.
Family Tree, HBO
Family Tree is one of the more delightfully strange and endearing shows out there. The Christopher Guest series does a wonderful job luring the characters out slowly-but-assuredly as to endear their crazy to you. Chris O’Dowd stars in its 8-episode first season as Tom Chadwick, a young man who inherits a mysterious box from his aunt filled with the mysteries of his family history. Surrounded by best friend Pete and his sister Bea Chawick and her monkey puppet, Monkey, the whole of the series feels warm and inviting in its absurdity, and the characters bring a sort of charm to the whole thing that’ll leave you feeling cozy and satisfied. Like a cup of really good hot chocolate, chockablock with hilariously untoward marshmallows in it.
The Moderate Binge
While the first season of the Julia Louis-Dreyfus starrer, Veep sang, its second season reordered itself with such cutting abandon that it found its footing to be sharply tuned brilliance. Episode after episode of Armando Iannucci’s HBO comedy sizzles with Louis-Dreyfus’ comedic brilliance, reminding you why she’s one of the few Seinfeldians to have a robust and worthy career after the show about nothing. Between the superb acting, writing, and occasional improvising, and its all-too-stellar supporting cast (Tony Hale, Anna Chlumsky, Matt Walsh, Sufe Bradshaw, to name a few), the comically inhumane emotional prattling that seems to swing politics into lurching motion is set ablaze with hilarious fury. No one cuts half so well into the withering miserytrain that is American politics like Iannucci and Louis-Dreyfus. A dream team of ineffectiveness and bitterly narcissistic meanness, there is nothing about Veep that isn’t must-watch making for comedy fans out there.
House of Lies, Showtime
Take one part Jean-Ralphio, one part Veronica Mars, two parts guest star, and a shitton of batshit crazy manipulation and you have House of Lies. The Showtime Don Cheadle starrer is awash in all the brash machinations of the makers and breakers of our modern society, and shines a light on just how horrible us humans can be. The humor of self-loathing liars is a particularly audacious and enjoyable breed. Kristen Bell’s Jeannie pushes hard against Cheadle’s Marty, especially in season two, but not without the requisite and refreshingly honest style with which it presents its terribleness in words. Words make, change, and break the game when in the right-wrong hands (mainly Marty’s) and it is a delightfully sinking ship of humility, or lack thereof. Plus who doesn’t love a little bit more Ben Schwartz (a.k.a. the aforementioned Ralphio) on their television? Everyone: the answer is everyone loves to have a little bit more Ben Schwartz on their TV.
Bored to Death, HBO
Jonathan Ames’ comedic crime/mystery series starring Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis, and Ted Danson is a delight, plain and simple. With the help of three wildly narcissistic lead characters, the struggling-writer-turned-double-life-leading-detective schtick plays out with quirky abandon, and features a ton of hilarious gaffe-ing to boot. Blunders and internal plunders alike punctuate the three seasons, and make a case for the hilarious after-affects of self-obsession and constant-validation folks of a certain style oft crave. To say nothing of all the Brooklyn jokes. Oh so many Brooklyn jokes. As a former New Yorker, I like this.
Dancing on the Edge, Cinemax
The ambitious and beautiful miniseries Dancing on the Edge features luscious backdrops, beautiful costumes, buoyant and bouncy jazz music in addition to the acting charms of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Matthew Goode, and John Goodman (there’s even a wee bit of the underutilized Jenna Coleman of Doctor Who fame). Though a bit spotty in places, Dancing on the Edge actually benefits from a binge-watch rather than a regular viewing. It is ambitious in its goal of decoding how casually imbued 1933 London was with racism, classicism, and anti-Semitism — basically all of the bad isms — and who ominously pulls the strings behind such no-good, very bad-ness. Though not wholly successful — it’s trying to push in so many moving, complicated parts — it is worth a watch if for nothing more than how enjoyable its actors are. It’s television Pop Rocks.
The Professional Binge-a-Rama
Game of Thrones, HBO
Though shutout of the nominations game this season, Game of Thrones is the fantasy epic you didn’t know you’d like until you actually sat down and did it. Terrifyingly intimidating in size and scope (and the utter voraciousness of its audience), Game of Thrones is beyond enjoyable, it’s downright delicious. Intersecting and overlapping storylines rife with the political dealings of an almost-magical realm tell real stories of the emotional and war-waging battles that come with having and serving greater powers. It is merciless and cruel, but wholly addicting. Never again will you doubt the abilities of television to create sweeping epics — in fact, never before has a story been so well appropriated to television. Especially when you consider all of the moving parts. Besides, winter is coming: what better time to snuggle up to the Lord of Light? The night is dark and full of terrors, after all: let Peter Dinklage’s utter perfection warm your HBO Go account.
Sure, it might be one of the most divisive shows on television to date, but Homeland’s high-octane antics make it perfect for a just-can’t-stop mega binge of television proportions. Sure, there are plenty of things to criticize about Homeland’s rough-and-tumble twirl these past three seasons, but there’s plenty to love. PLENTY. From the first season, Homeland grabs you with a terrifying force, turns your heart an anti-gravity torture chamber, and continues to twist and turn throughout every episode of its three seasons. And that doesn’t even include the glory that is Mandy Patinkin and his oft-regarded beard. That beard, folks, is worth the price of admission alone. Sure, there’s a love story in there, but if you ignore all that and focus on the CIA antics and American terrorism machinations as told through the bipolar eyes of Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes is an addled treasure), then you’re sure to enjoy the wealth of riches to be found amongst its minutes and minutiae.
Big Love, HBO
My own personal fascination with Mormonism aside, Big Love is a beautiful and intriguing turn on how polygamy, a man’s game, is actually quite a confounding relationship bridge for the women involved. And while you could take a dip into the reality-trenched world of it with TLC monstrocities like Sister Wives, its Big Love’s ambitious and careening five seasons of largely well played melodrama that makes it sing (as long as you pay lesser attention to, say, season four). It is intimate relationship theater of the highest order, and one you’ll be happy to sink your teeth into.
Six Feet Under, HBO
In my own television viewing experience, Six Feet Under may be the greatest show I’ve ever come bear to witness. The heart-achingly rich series on life and loss and love and death is the sum of all of its hauntingly heartbreaking and interwoven parts. The series is uncompromising in its vision of the world, so brazen in its own brilliance, there’s little I should have to say or do to get you to tune in. Six Feet Under is comedy, drama, insightful life-looks by way of a visual aptitude rarely seen on television elsewhere. The acting, the tender honesty: everything about Six Feet Under shines as required viewing for anyone who enjoys anything at all about storytelling — visual or otherwise. It may not leave you feeling warm-fuzzy, but so much of life is not that, and its trade-off results in moments both graceful and gonzo, and what happens when your entire life revolves around facing the mortality of existence. If your family lived in and ran a funeral home, you’d have a fucked up sense of humor then, too — wouldn’t you?
Angels in America, HBO
Though nowhere near as long as some of the other major binges here, Tony Kushner’s socio-political epic about the AIDS crisis in 1980s America is heavy stuff. The 2003 epic — with a cast of brilliants such as Emma Thompson, Al Pacino, queen Meryl Streep, Mary-Louise Parker, Justin Kirk, James Cromwell, and Patrick Wilson just to name a few — has all the trappings of a truly career-defining masterwork. Death, isolation, desertion, distance, the mundane sprawl of everyday life are all brilliantly portrayed in duplicitous dealings, highlighting the humanity underneath those universal feelings. It’s incredibly big, and with that, deserves time and energy akin to watching a more expanded series, because it begs you to examine the existential issues of your own life as well as the world around you. For anyone who managed to miss the now 10-year-old miniseries, now may be the perfect time.
Honorable Mentions to Shows That Are On My List:Though I woefully cannot speak to their brilliance — though there are several hundreds of other people on the Internet who can and will, if you’re curious — the following shows are actually on my premium cable to-watch list, and would be welcome to your binge-watching party if you are as embarrassingly out-of-touch with them as I. They include: Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Wire, Parade’s End, and The Sopranos.