1. The Singing Detective 1986
Before True Detective came this intricately constructed puzzle-drama. Michael Gambon is terrific as a toxic writer of pulps forced to examine the relationship between his hard-boiled fiction and his painful past during a protracted hospital stay. Also? It’s a musical! Skip the Mel Gibson remake and seek the original miniseries, stat.
2. Action 1999
Jay Mohr starred on the abrasive Hollywood comedy as a wicked film producer with zero respect for anyone in a lower social stratum. His punchlines were jagged gems, like when he discovered that an employee bought a script from an Adam Rafkin instead of Alan Rifkin: “Are you telling me we spent a quarter of a million dollars and we got the wrong Jew?”
3. Clone High 2002-03
Phil Lord and Chris Miller (the guys who built The LEGO Movie) created this animated treat about genetic copies of famous figures (Gandhi, Cleopatra) attending high school together. Part history on acid, part teen-soap parody, and part anarchic Looney Tune, the show is like a clone of George Clooney — it’s gotten better with age.
4. Peep Show 2003-Present
This riotous British comedy about two incongruous flatmates in South London comes with a unique conceit: The viewer literally sees everything from the characters’ perspectives. While that may sound gimmicky, Peep Show is anything but; the first-person vantage points cunningly bring to life that old saying about hell being other people.
6. Unscripted 2005
Exec-produced by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney, this documentary-style dramedy was an absorbing portrait of how Hollywood’s other half — struggling actors — really live. With Bryan Greenberg and Krista Allen playing fictionalized versions of themselves, and cameos from stars such as Angelina Jolie and Meryl Streep, the HBO series offered a sharper take on the reality of celebrity than any celebreality show has since.
7. Harper’s Island 2009
A destination wedding is besieged by a killer and guests are picked off one by one on this totally ludicrous (Harry Hamlin gets chopped in half!) but immensely entertaining thriller. Starring Christopher Gorham and Katie Cassidy as the beleaguered betrothed, Harper‘s was the demented love child of The Proposal and Friday the 13th.
8. Borgen 2010-Present
Sort of like a Danish West Wing — except with less Sorkinian idealism and more “?”s — Borgen explores the tribulations of Denmark’s (fictional) first female prime minister. Don’t wait until the inevitable American remake to start bingeing.
9. Black Mirror 2011-Present
Would a replicant of a dead lover constructed from his social-media profile be an acceptable substitute for the real thing? Could you use the Web to blackmail the British prime minister into having sex with a pig? These are just some of the questions considered on Charlie Brooker’s deeply disturbing, darkly comic U.K. anthology show.
10. Call the Midwife 2012-Present
The BBC series follows a group of midwives laboring in London’s impoverished East End during the 1950s. Though it may not deliver the opulence of other British period pieces (ahem, Downton Abbey), Midwife is still a sweet bundle of joy.
11. Rectify 2013-Present
After 19 years on death row, a man returns to rural Georgia when his conviction is overturned due to DNA evidence. Is he truly innocent? Will we ever know? Can we root for him? To want the answers is almost to miss the point. The visually lush tale is more O’Connor than Grisham — an eerily transfixing American gothic character study shrouded in meditative mystery.
Joshua Malina: My Picks
Slings & Arrows “This Canadian series focuses on the backstage antics of a Shakespeare play at the fictitious New Burbage Theater Festival. The sharp writing makes for a show that is biting and funny and surprisingly complex.”
The Returned “People long dead begin returning to a French town on this eerie tone poem of a zombie series. The acting is superb, the visuals stunning, and the music — by Mogwai — appropriately doleful. It combines for a fresh take on an old genre.”
Bill Lawrence: My Picks
Co-creator, Cougar Town
Broadchurch “Best binge viewing of the year, a murder mystery that’s more about the town and how a kid being killed tears apart lives.”
30 For 30 “The perception is that these [ESPN docs] are for sports fans. They are for everyone, and some of the best short documentaries I’ve ever seen.”
Mads Mikkelsen: My Pick
The Kingdom “Lars von Trier did a [Danish] TV show that was eight episodes. It is hysterically funny and brilliant, and it’s probably the best TV show I’ve ever seen come out of Denmark.”
Julia Louis-Dreyfus: My Pick
Smack the Pony “It’s a bunch of women doing sketches, and it was drop-dead funny. Darren Boyd, who is on Veep this year, and Sally Phillips are in it — she played the prime minister in the Finland episode. It had a Monty Python-esque edge to it.”