Top 20 Best Modern TV Dramas

Top 20 Best Modern TV Dramas

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: George Pacheco
The best modern TV dramas signify the gold standard. We'll be ranking the most popular or influential dramatic television programs which have debuted since the year 2000. Basically, we're using The Sopranos as a benchmark of sorts to signify when small screen drama really upped the ante with regards to long-term storytelling and production values. WatchMojo ranks the best modern TV dramas. What's your modern TV drama? Let us know in the comments!

These shows signify the gold standard. Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we're counting down our picks for the Top 20 Best Modern T.V. Dramas.

For this list, we'll be ranking the most popular or influential dramatic television programs which have debuted since the year 2000. Basically, we're using "The Sopranos" as a benchmark of sorts to signify when small screen drama really upped the ante with regards to long-term storytelling and production values. These programs are all very different, but represent some of the best characters and plotlines modern television has to offer. Also, given the fact that we're going to be discussing some of these shows in depth, a SPOILER ALERT is now in effect!

#20: "Boardwalk Empire" (2010-14)

We kick off our show with an HBO series, of course, as the premium cable network titan has become synonymous over the years with quality programming and storytelling. "Boardwalk Empire" was no exception to this rule, tackling the wild and wooly Prohibition era and doing it with style. Much of the show’s success relied upon its excellent writing, as well as the charisma of its lead, Steve Buscemi. Buscemi's character of Nucky Thompson is flawed, yet fascinating; not entirely unlike James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano. Both men are capable, ambitious, and ruthless, yet also possess certain levels of morality and code to their behavior. The criminal underworld of "Boardwalk Empire" may not be set in the modern day, but its Jersey roots are just as strong.

#19: "Dexter" (2006-13)

Showtime's "Dexter" managed to walk a very fine creative line during its eight-season run, namely by making its lead protagonist a secret serial killer. Michael C. Hall played the titular Dexter with charm and charisma to spare, while John Lithgow was by far the series' most chilling villain as Season Four's "Trinity Killer." The idea of a forensics expert moonlighting as a clandestine vigilante was sharp stuff in 2006, and "Dexter" managed to keep hooking in viewers in record numbers for Showtime. Sure, the last few seasons may have been a disappointment, but there's no denying that, for a time, "Dexter" was some of the most "killer" dramatic television around town.

#18: "The Walking Dead" (2010-)

"The Walking Dead" has proven to be a multi-platform phenomenon, earning fans within the medium of comics, television, and even gaming. The AMC adaptation of Robert Kirkman's influential comic series has been on the air for nearly a decade as of 2019, with many ups and downs along the way. Yet, many would agree that, at its best, "The Walking Dead" was must-see, appointment television for many years, and featured a plethora of memorable characters. The practical make-up effects of Greg Nicotero and his crew are also born from a legacy of genre movie greatness and helped make "The Walking Dead" not just a horror show, not just a drama show, but something which transcended genre to captivate millions.

#17: "Fargo" (2014-)

The series creators of "Fargo" hit upon a winning formula when deciding how to properly adapt The Coen brothers' classic film to the small screen: make it an anthology. The witty writing is highly reminiscent of that quirky Coen brothers magic, while the choice to make each season independent of each other, with differing casts and time periods, ensures that "Fargo" never gets old. The show also proved once again how many big-time stars are often drawn to television as a favored medium for storytelling, with "Fargo" netting such high-profile players as Billy Bob Thornton, Ewan McGregor, Kirsten Dunst, and Martin Freeman for its cast.

#16: "True Detective" (2014-)

Can a crime drama also double as high art? If we're talking about HBO's "True Detective," then the answer is a resounding "YES." Creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto struck gold in particular with the show's first season, which benefited from career-defining performances from its leads, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. The season possessed a disturbing, occult vibe to it, while remaining a cop drama through and through. The subsequent seasons never quite captured the same magic, yet each stood on their own unique merits as standalone stories worthy of investigation. Captivating characters, intense acting, and cinematography to die for? It's all here in "True Detective."

#15: "Hannibal" (2013-15)

Call this a case of a show being cancelled before its time. "Hannibal" was the brilliant reimagining of Thomas Harris' series of books, here focusing upon the fascinating and psychotic Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen absolutely KILLS it (pun intended) as Lecter, amplifying the character's innate charm and sophistication while also emphasizing his brutality as a brilliant serial killer. Sadly, "Hannibal" could only muster something of a cult status with its three-season run, yet the dedication of its fan base proved that the show had legs, as well as the power to reach out and take hold of an audience's imagination.

#14: "The Knick" (2014-15)

Ok, let's be honest: if Cinemax is known for anything, it's the channel's movie selection, and (*ahem*) "late night" soft-core offerings, [1] not its original dramatic programming. All of that changed in 2014, however, when "The Knick" debuted to both critical and audience acclaim. The show benefitted from a unique premise: following the struggles of a turn-of-the-century hospital as it dealt with drug addict doctors, racial tensions, and the primitive world of 1900s medicine. Clive Owen was also in great form as series lead, Dr. John Thackery, but not even Owen's solid acting chops could keep "The Knick" from being taken off life support after only two seasons.

#13: "24" (2001-10; 2014)

Sometimes, all it takes is one clever idea to get the ball rolling for a show that could go on to become a classic. Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran had such an idea when they developed "24" for FOX back in 2001, specifically to present the series in real time. It was here where "24" differentiated itself from other action shows, as each episode signified an hour of time spent by its characters. This not only opened up a world of storytelling possibilities, but it assisted greatly in ensuring that audiences would be kept on the edge of their seat. It worked, and fans soon came back week after week to see what would happen next to Agent Jack Bauer during the next 24 hours.

#12: "The Shield" (2002-08)

This was NOT your father's cop show. FX earned one of its earliest primetime hits with this gritty, pull-no-punches procedural which gave former "Commish" actor Michael Chiklis the role of a lifetime. Chiklis' character of Vic Mackey and his Strike Team blurred the lines between good and evil, right and wrong as "The Shield" asked questions about police tactics, ethics, and legality. Gone were the "white hat, black hat" days of the 1970s and '80s, and in its place were undeniably charismatic characters bending the rules and making mistakes which would have dire consequences throughout the series. Want proof? Just watch the show's iconic pilot episode: you'll be hooked in no time.

#11: "The Handmaid's Tale" (2017-)

A lot of justifiable attention is often placed towards Netflix original films and programming, the next series on our list proved that they weren't the only streaming service in town with high ambitions for its content. Case in point? "The Handmaid's Tale," which debuted in 2017 for Hulu to rave reviews and rapturous fan reaction. This adaptation of Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel is a stylish and serious-minded drama about an alternate, dystopian future, and the subservient handmaids are forced into a breeding role by the ruling elite. "The Handmaid's Tale" touches upon such themes as feminism, humanism, and the abuse of power, serving as something of a cautionary tale against a fantastic, frightening backdrop of drama.

#10: "Lost" (2004-10)

Sure, the ending of "Lost" may have been... well, "divisive," to put it nicely, but there's no denying this show's place within the primetime drama pantheon. Co-creator J.J. Abrams and crew helped make "Lost" appointment television for millions of fans, as they struggled to make sense of what happened to a crew of castaways, whose plane crashes on a mysterious island. Sure, "Lost" was at times confusing and obtuse, but trying to piece together all of the crazy plot threads was half the fun, even when the show was experiencing a decline during its final seasons. The fact that we're still talking about it today means that "Lost" was doing something right, and it totally deserves its spot at the halfway point of our list.

#9: "The Leftovers" (2014-17)

What would happen if two percent of the world's population was suddenly missing? This is one of the questions asked by HBO's "The Leftovers," and the reality is more complicated than you might think. The series pointedly uses a small number like two, yet showcases in such grand detail the devastating and wide-ranging effects this disappearance has upon those left behind. Grief, guilt, confusion, and anger are just some of the emotions touched upon by "The Leftovers," with the result being a show which was dark, depressing, and occasionally difficult to watch. Still, this unflinching realism was one of the things which kept audiences coming back for three seasons, and part of what made "The Leftovers" one of HBO's finest original programs.

#8: "Battlestar Galactica" (2004-09)

The 1970s and '80s iterations of the "Battlestar Galactica" had their devoted fans, but never quite achieved the levels of success earned by peer franchises, such as "Star Wars" and "Star Trek." This all changed when Ronald D. Moore re-imagined the franchise with higher stakes, stronger storylines, and more memorable characters. Gone were the sometimes-hokey effects and recycled plot devices, and in their place was a vibrant cast of actors, all of whom took their work on this new "Battlestar Galactica" seriously, and it showed. The show would gain legions of fans around the world over the course of its main television run, as well as several small screen movies, miniseries, and spin-offs, ensuring "Galactica's" place in the sci-fi universe for years to come.

#7: "Six Feet Under" (2001-05)

Never has death been so dramatic. "Six Feet Under" is well remembered by fans who saw the HBO series during its original run from 2001 to 2005, thanks largely to its smartly written scripts and memorable performances. The setting of a family-run funeral home was unique, but "Six Feet Under" wasn't a one trick pony, and managed to keep audiences guessing throughout its five seasons. The Fisher family and their friends all deal with death on a daily basis, and "Six Feet Under" knew how to handle the subject with alternating seriousness and humor, while also pushing forward the use of absurdist and surrealist storytelling in a unique way.

#6: "The Americans" (2013-18)

Who said all spy shows had to be in the mold of James Bond or “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.?” "The Americans" was as far removed from the swingin' sixties spy boom as could be, instead setting its premise in the eighties, during Cold War tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys shined as undercover KGB operatives living in the U.S.A. under aliases, and "The Americans" treated the seriousness of its subject matter with respect. This was largely due to the background of the show's creator, Joe Weisberg, as a former CIA operative, yet "The Americans" was anything but stuffy. Instead, it was addictive stuff with great characters and satisfying story arcs.

#5: "Deadwood" (2004-06)

Never underestimate the power of fan devotion. This is essentially what saved this HBO program, over ten years after its initial cancellation. "Deadwood" was a poetic yet violent western saga, which loosely followed the history of a real-life gold rush settlement during the 1800s. Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane led an ensemble cast which captured the imaginations of millions on a weekly basis, particularly the latter, whose character of Al Swearengen would become a fan favorite. Still, the show was cancelled before the planned fourth season could be filmed. It wasn't until 2019 when "Deadwood: The Movie" finally aired on HBO, tying up loose ends from the season three cliffhanger while bringing these insanely memorable characters back to the small screen one last time.

#4: "Mad Men" (2007-15)

Critics and audiences flocked to "Mad Men" throughout its seven-season run on AMC, to the point where the show was the first basic cable program to win four consecutive Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Drama Series. Accolades aside, "Mad Men" wasn't just an exercise in technical merit; this was a show which captured a snapshot of a time which rang true. The style and slang present from the 1960s on through the dawn of the 70s felt real, and never kitschy, while the performances from Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks, and Elisabeth Moss leaped through the television screens and into our living rooms. We cared about these characters, flawed though they may be, and held on right on to "Mad Men's" fantastic closing shots.

#3: "Game of Thrones" (2011-19)

Ok, so we may now live in a post "Game of Thrones" world, but that doesn't make the achievements of this massively popular HBO series any less impressive to revisit. This adaptation of George R. R. Martin's epic (and ongoing) series of novels proved that fantasy could be done properly on the small screen. "Game of Thrones" also proved that such a fantasy series could also double as high drama, featuring all of the violence, intrigue and salacious content present within any number of soap operas. The show was ANYTHING but hokey, however, and continually pushed the boundaries of sex and violence, even those standards set by free and easy HBO.

#2: "The Wire" (2002-08)

How do you know when a show has entered the cultural lexicon? Well, fans of "The Wire" often still refer to actors by the character names they portrayed in the show, over a decade later. We think that's a pretty good sign. "The Wire" was a definitive and grounding breaking show for HBO when it debuted in 2002, a police procedural unlike any other, where the city of Baltimore was the only true star. "The Wire" was gritty and honest, with an air of authentic realism which always seemed to ring true. It may not have been a blockbuster when it initially aired, but "The Wire" is now seen as a true titanic example of when television drama is done really, really right.

Before we name our number one pick, here are some honorable mentions!

"Halt and Catch Fire" (2014-17)

"Carnivàle" (2003-05)

"Rome" (2005-07)

"Homeland" (2011-)

"Killing Eve" (2018-)

#1: "Breaking Bad" (2008-13)

Hands up, who wants to root for the bad guy? Well, lots of hands grabbed their remotes and tuned into this AMC megahit, with many also continuing on to its prequel, "Better Call Saul." We're talking about "Breaking Bad," which turned the character of Walter White into a household name, together with his iconic bags of blue crystal meth. The series had a relatively simple premise, which followed a humble high school teacher turning to small-time drug dealing to help his family, after learning he has inoperable, stage 3 lung cancer. "Small-time" soon becomes "big-time," however, as Bryan Cranston's White rises up the ranks as a dangerous and lethal drug lord with nothing to lose. Never has being bad felt so damn good.