The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
One of the most infamous trials in American history gets a dramatic interpretation in this limited series, which follows the trial of former football star O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr), the prime suspect in the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. After a televised high-speed chase that captivated the nation, District Attorney Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) brings charges against him, leading to the highly publicized murder trial. The show examines the case from many angles, bringing in the perspectives of the major players in the case, including Simpson, Clark, and Simspson’s legal team — Robert Shapiro (John Travolta), Rob Kardashian (David Schwimmer), and Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance). Like the case that inspired it, The People v. O.J. Simpson is dramatic, emotional, and ultimately leaves the viewer wondering where the truth lies.
Set in New York in the 1960s, Mad Men follows one of the city’s most prestigious ad agencies on Madison Avenue. The agency is doing well, but as the industry grows, the competition begins to stiffen. The agency tries to survive in a time when everything, including the ad industry, is undergoing a radical shake-up. The two protagonists are the enigmatic Don Draper (Jon Hamm), a self-made executive whose childhood seems to always get in the way of his happiness, and ultra-terse Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss), a former secretary who works her way up the corporate ladder.
Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is a high-school chemistry teacher diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. To secure his family’s finances before he dies, White uses his chemistry background to cook and deal premium blue meth. His partner is former student and burnout named Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). Breaking Bad is teeming with moral consequences and family issues, and fittingly, it’s as addicting as the crystal meth White produces in his beat-up van in the desert.
Better Call Saul
Starring Bob Odenkirk, Better Call Saul takes fans of Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad back to the New Mexico desert for a look at Saul Goodman’s origin story. Before Goodman became the quirky, crooked lawyer Walter White played like a fiddle, he was Jimmy McGill, an aspiring lawyer who just couldn’t seem to keep his hands clean. The show is set six years prior to the events of Breaking Bad, and throws out the convention that a spinoff must pale in comparison to its source material. It also proves Gilligan and company remain at the top of their game.
The Sopranos actress Edie Falco stars in this drama/dark comedy about a drug-addicted nurse who leans on the help of Xanax and Percocet to help her through her days. Thing is, for as strung out and tweaked as she is, she’s one hell of a nurse. Strong-willed and determined, Jackie Peyton (Falco) navigates through a busy New York City hospital while consistently breaking the nursing Code of Ethics. Despite her many flaws and errant behavior, Jackie operates at such a high level you’d have a hard time knowing she’s ever ingested any opiates at all. Nurse Jackie dominated the Showtime airwaves when it ran for seven seasons, and for good reason — this is one wildly addictive show.
House of Cards
The Netflix-produced series is one of the best political dramas since The West Wing. The show revolves around protagonist Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the U.S. Senate Majority Whip who uses every political secret and inch of his clout to dethrone enemies and leverage his way to the top. His marriage to environmental lobbyist Claire (Robin Wright) is arguably one of the best alliances on TV, brilliantly showcasing just how far the two characters are willing to go to beat their opponents and catapult — or destroy —approval ratings.
To paraphrase Tolstoy, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way; the Rayburns are unhappy in quite a few. Bloodline opens with an aerial shot of the Florida Keys, and that coastal setting proves important. While the waves and forests are beautiful, they conceal dangers. The show’s central family is — on the surface — happy and successful, one of the pillars of Monroe County. However, when prodigal son Danny (Ben Mendolsohn) returns after years away, the skeletons in the family’s closet start to rattle. Bloodline is a slow-burning story, taking its time to establish the characters and their relationships before turning up the heat, and this allows the tension to ratchet up considerably. The character-driven drama is anchored by the fraught relationship between Danny and favorite son John (Kyle Chandler), with both Mendolsohn and Chandler giving titanic performances.
The West Wing
Quite possibly the best political drama of all time, The West Wing follows fictional President Jed Bartlett (Martin Sheen) and his staff as they fight various personal and political battles through his two terms as president. Critics and people close to the White House praised the show for its accuracy and Aaron Sorkin’s razor-sharp dialogue, and even now, the show lives on through multiple Twitter handles for several West Wing characters. Netflix offers all seven seasons.
An A&E exclusive, The Returned is a French supernatural thriller set in a tiny mountain town that’s experiencing rather odd occurrences with its deceased; they somehow keep coming back to life. However, this isn’t your typical zombie fare, but rather, the dead come back to life as if nothing’s happened at all. Car crash victims reappear in town, unharmed and emotionally stable despite the horrific way in which they passed. As the people attempt to live ordinary lives, those around them try to pick up the pieces to find out exactly what’s going on.
Friday Night Lights
Director Peter Berg’s Friday Night Lights never excelled in terms of viewership, but it was frequently lauded for its deep characterization and emotional portrayal of heartland America throughout its five-season run. The series is based around a high school football team in the fictional town of Dillion, Texas, and as such, it frequently deals with family troubles, drugs, racism, and the range of problems students encounter while growing up. It’s not so much the acting that renders it sublime — though, Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton are standouts — but the realistic writing and accompanying cinematography. We only wish Billy Bob Thornton could have made the crossover from Berg’s film of the same name.
While cable network A&E is best known for its bevy of reality shows, its foray into thrilling drama with Bates Motel is as impressive as anything in its lineup. The show follows the lives of Norma and Norman Bates some time prior to Norman’s infamous exploits in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic thriller Psycho. After Norma’s husband dies, she sets out for the fictional city of White Pine Bay, Oregon, with Norman, where they purchase a small hotel to begin anew. As expected, things begin to unravel mere days after arriving at said hotel, with each move made by Norma and Norman setting the stage for the young man’s eventual fondness for butcher knives and showers.
The Lizzie Borden Chronicles
Though adaptations of the infamous Lizzie Borden seem to be on the rise as of late, Lifetime’s The Lizzie Borden Chronicles stands out because of one crucial component: Christina Ricci. Perhaps starring in the role she was born to play, Ricci deftly portrays the alleged murderer months after her acquittal. Along with her sister, Emma, Borden attempts to begin life anew while faced with a tainted reputation. As expected, this feat is much easier said than done. Rife with outrageous fantasy and a wicked sense of humor, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles is a bloody good time.
AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, another period piece in the same vein as the network’s smash hit Mad Men, takes place in Texas during the technology boom of the 1980s. The show centers around former IBM sales executive Joe MacMillan, Cardiff Electric engineer Gordon Clark, and programming whiz Cameron Howe as they navigate the tumultuous landscape of the personal computer revolution. Boosted by superb writing, brilliant acting, and its unique inside look at one of the most influential eras in human history, Halt and Catch Fire has binge-worthy written all over it.
Glenn Close and Rose Byrne star in this legal thriller that features the same kind of twists, turns, and storytelling that made Law & Order a bona fide hit. Instead of featuring one case per episode like the Dick Wolf classic, Damages tackles just one case over the course of an entire season. During its successful five season run, Damages garnered heaps of critical acclaim due to its expert use of nonlinear storytelling, along with superb performances from its star-studded cast; it’s not the least bit surprising the show was a mainstay at the Golden Globes and Emmy’s during its tenure.
How would you handle readjusting to life after being wrongfully imprisoned for 19 years of your life? Sundance TV’s Rectify addresses this quandary as it follows the life of Daniel Holden. Convicted and sent to death row as a teenager for the rape and murder of his 16-year-old girlfriend, new evidence sets the stage for his return home to Paulie, Georgia. Now in his late 30s, Holden attempts to rekindle relationships with his family and friends, something not easily accomplished for someone whose name had been denounced for so long.
The House of Cards Trilogy (BBC)
Set after British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s resignation, the original House of Cards features as much backstabbing and morally corrupt political drama as its current day, Netflix-only successor. Similar to the Kevin Spacey-starring drama, House of Cards concerns a Chief Whip of Britain’s Conservative Party who attempts — at all costs — to slither his way to the seat of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Ian Richardson and Diane Fletcher star as the infamous power couple Frank and Elizabeth Urquhart, bearers of a black heart, twisted moral compass, and insatiable need for immense control. With a gripping storyline and incredible performances from the show’s impressive cast, House of Cards Trilogy is a wildly fun ride, even if you’ve seen the remake.
Dancing on the Edge
Dancing on the Edge takes place in 1930s London and follows the ups and downs of a local black jazz band. After scoring a gig at the legendary Imperial Hotel, the band becomes an instant success and starts playing shows for many of London’s elite, including the Royal Family. Before any of the members have a chance to take a breath, the group’s star power soars to astronomical levels. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Angel Coulby, and John Goodman star in this period piece, which garnered heaps of critical acclaim for its storytelling, as well as the performances of its cast, when it aired on BBC Two in 2013.
A Young Doctor’s Notebook
Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe star in this British dark comedy about a Russian doctor who recounts a period in his life where he worked at a tiny village hospital. The show constantly shifts between a present-day version of the doctor (played by Hamm), and a version of the doctor some 16 years prior (Daniel Radcliffe). As the story unfolds, viewers get an up close and personal look at his humble beginnings during the Russian Revolution, as well as how he became wildly addicted to morphine – and how it ended up ruining his life. Based on a book of short stories of the same name, A Young Doctor’s Notebook is gripping drama that begs to be binged.
The Netflix-produced Narcos chronicles the story of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. With its fast-paced style of storytelling, brilliant acting, and authentic Colombian locales, the series is yet another impressive win for the massive streaming company. Brazilian actor Wagner Moura plays the role of the iconic Escobar, while Boyd Holbrook fills the shoes of DEA agent Steve Murphy, who was tasked with tracking and killing Escobar. If you’re a sucker for such dramas as House of Cards or Breaking Bad, you’ll no doubt want to dive into the cocaine-fueled world of Narcos.
Person of Interest
Jim Caviezel, Michael Emerson, and Taraji P. Henson star in this science fiction/drama hybrid about an ex-CIA agent who’s recruited by a mysterious man to fight violent crimes. By using an advanced AI system called “The Machine,” the duo sniffs out various persons of interest before they can cause serious harm. This CBS show features the production expertise of Jonathan Nolan — the lesser-known Nolan sibling — and J.J. Abrams of Fringe, Star Trek, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens fame. With 90 episodes under its belt, Person of Interest is the perfect companion piece for the binge watcher.
A morbid, yet mildly funny take on the tried-and-true procedural cop drama, iZombie concerns the life of a recently zombified medical student who takes a job with a local coroner’s office so she can eat its stock of brains. After enjoying a few delicious meals of local gray matter, Liv Moore (our zombie medical student) soon realizes she absorbs the memories of each brain she consumes. In light of this shocking discovery, she uses her newfound power to help the police solve mysteries surrounding these people’s deaths. Based off a DC comic book series of the same name, iZombie is a refreshing take on a genre that is no doubt starting to dry up.
Top of the Lake
Top of the Lake opens with a young girl wading into a lake to drown herself. It’s a startling opening salvo, but the horrors do not end there. When detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) takes up the case of the girl’s disappearance in the small town of Laketop, she steps into a bog of human misery. Set in rural New Zealand, the show fully exploits the atmosphere of its primal setting. Mountains and forests rise up imperiously, and the only people living in Laketop are the rough sort who prefer the law of the jungle to that of civilization. Griffin has to navigate a society where neither the townsfolk nor her fellow police respect her, a murky frontier where monsters are hiding in plain sight. Top of the Lake is a nightmarish mystery, one that unfolds slowly in a beautiful but haunting manner.
Crossovers are not a new concept — superheroes have been doing it for decades — but Penny Dreadful’s Gothic milieu helps it stand out, particularly in the television landscape. The show is a who’s who of 19th century icons, including Victor Frankenstein and Dorian Gray, as well as several original characters. The show begins with stately adventurer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and his compatriot, the psychic Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), recruiting American gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) to investigate the disappearance of Murray’s daughter, Mina. The case takes them to dark places, but all of them carry their own secrets that may be darker still. True to it genre roots, Penny Dreadful takes things slow, building relationships between characters and coyly unfurling its mysteries. The show’s unique atmosphere and mastery of tone set it apart from everything else on television.
Joe Swanberg’s eight-episode anthology, Easy, explores the many incarnations of romance, with almost every episode presenting a different story set in Chicago. One story follows a long-married couple trying to spice up their love life, another a pair of artists whose personal and professional lives collide after a night together. The stories are heavily improvised, with a focus on interactions between characters, rather than plot. As expected of an anthology series, not every episode of Easy is great, but at its best, it is one of the most intimate, honest explorations of love and sexuality around.
Following a series of murders in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) arrives to supervise the investigation. The killer, Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), is a family man and therapist who’s trying to maintain his personal and professional lives while hunting young women. Unlike many police procedurals, The Fall makes its villain known very early. Thus, for the audience, the tension comes not from trying to guess the killer’s identity, but from watching the detective and murderer go about their days, never knowing who is about to get the upper hand. The Fall is a psychological procedural, focusing more on the lives and motivations of the central characters than hunting for clues. A simmering detective story, to be sure, but one well worth the time investment.
Britain’s current and longest-reigning monarch is also one of its most unassuming. Elizabeth II ascended to the throne in the aftermath of World War II, at a time when the monarchy had ceded much of its power to Parliament and the Prime Minister. Despite a lack of governmental power, the Queen remains one of the most important heads of state in the world, and civic duties abound. Netflix’s The Crown traces Elizabeth’s (Claire Foy) life from her marriage to Prince Philip (Matt Smith) in 1947 to the present day, digging into the the web of agendas and alliances the Queen must navigate. Heavy on political intrigue, The Crown is sure to satisfy viewers who appreciate Machiavellian television, as well as those who love the decor of series like Downton Abbey. However, the show also has a deeply intimate side, in that it examines Elizabeth’s personal relationships and the toll exacted by her duties as Queen.