The odds were stacked against Vince Gilligan’s crime drama series Breaking Bad. Audiences were hesitant to take Hal from Malcolm in the Middle seriously as a dramatic lead, and the show was on a network not yet known for original scripted programming. Of course, Breaking Bad ended up being a huge hit that’s widely regarded to be one of the greatest TV series ever made.
Considered the pinnacle of so-called “Peak TV,” Breaking Bad influenced the TV drama landscape in a number of ways. Primarily, it made antiheroes the go-to protagonists for drama series. But there had been others before it, too.
Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013)
Thanks to focused writing and an impeccable performance by Bryan Cranston, Walter White’s transformation from Mr. Chips into Scarface rings true every step of the way.
As a result, the show is a five-season masterpiece. Very few shows get off to as great a start as Breaking Bad and end with such a satisfying series finale.
Weeds (2005 – 2012)
Vince Gilligan almost gave up on developing Breaking Bad when he heard about Weeds, which similarly revolves around a suburban parent who resorts to joining the illegal drug trade to provide for their family.
Whereas Walter White manufactures crystal meth, Nancy Botwin sells pot. Much like Breaking Bad, Weeds is rife with pitch-black humor, but it leans into its comedic elements more heavily than Gilligan’s show.
The Mandalorian (2019 – present)
Taking cues from the Lone Wolf and Cub series, The Mandalorian sees a bounty hunter in a galaxy far, far away breaking his long-held code to protect a baby of Yoda’s species from what remains of the Empire. The series has an adventure-of-the-week format, but there are also ongoing storylines.
Harking back to George Lucas’ original influences — namely Akira Kurosawa’s samurai masterpieces and classics of the western genre — The Mandalorian feels more like Star Wars than any other Disney-mounted Star Wars project.
Ozark (2017 – present)
Netflix’s Ozark is a lot like Breaking Bad, except it’s set in the misty mountains of the Ozarks instead of the scorching desert landscapes of Albuquerque, and the protagonist teams up with his wife instead of hiding his crimes from her.
After an accountant gets in over his head with a drug lord, he relocates his family to the Ozarks to start laundering his boss’ money. Jason Bateman and Laura Linney are incredible in the lead roles.
Mad Men (2007 – 2015)
Back when Mad Men premiered, it didn’t seem like a show with subject matter as dry as the advertising industry could be a hit. But with its complex characters and stunningly accurate portrayal of life in the ‘60s, Mad Men became one of the most popular TV dramas of the 21st century.
Jon Hamm stars as brooding antihero Don Draper, who brazenly cheats on his wife and is much more interested in his work than his family. Hamm has strong support from such brilliant actors as John Slattery, Christina Hendricks, Elisabeth Moss, and January Jones.
The Shield (2002 – 2008)
Not many cop dramas end their pilot episodes with a bunch of police officers joining forces to kill one of their own. Shawn Ryan’s The Shield’s exploration of crooked cops and how they operate makes it much darker than the average police procedural.
Michael Chiklis gives an unforgettable performance in the lead role of Vic Mackey, while the show’s intense action sequences are brilliantly staged.
Jessica Jones (2015 – 2019)
Since Marvel has moved the TV side of its franchise to Disney+, its Netflix series have mostly been swept under the rug. But that’s a shame because there are some great storytelling and iconic characters in those Netflix shows.
Arguably the best of Marvel’s Netflix series is Jessica Jones, which revolves around a cynical, hard-drinking private eye with superhuman strength that she sees as more of a curse than a gift.
The Americans (2013 – 2018)
Set at the height of the Cold War, FX’s The Americans revolves around two Soviet spies, played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, who adopt the identities of married couple Elizabeth and Philip Jennings as they go undercover in the suburbs of Washington to gather intel. Noah Emmerich provides strong support as their neighbor, an FBI agent, the Hank Schrader of the equation.
It’s not totally accurate — for example, if the Soviets were as competent as The Americans makes out, then they would’ve won the Cold War — but it makes for compelling television.
Better Call Saul (2015 – present)
Spin-offs from popular TV shows rarely work out — for every Frasier, there are a hundred Joeys — but Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have knocked their prequel to Breaking Bad out of the park.
In addition to telling the story of Jimmy McGill’s transformation into “criminal” lawyer Saul Goodman, Better Call Saul fills in the backstories on Gus’ rise to power and Mike’s history as a dirty cop.
The Sopranos (1999 – 2007)
Long before Walter White turned an RV into a meth lab, Tony Soprano was staring at a family of ducks in his pool. It’s safe to say that Breaking Bad couldn’t have existed if The Sopranos hadn’t broken all the ground it did.
James Gandolfini gave one of the greatest performances in the history of screen-acting in the role of Tony, while David Chase and his team of writers masterfully added surreal layers over a gritty portrayal of mafia life.