When it comes to television, basic cable gets kind of a bad rap. While network shows draw in massive viewership and premium channels have greater leeway to develop smart, cinematic programming, all but the very best cable fare can get lost in the shuffle. But in an article for Salon, Matt Zoller Seitz extolls the virtues of AMC, claiming it could very well become the next HBO. His piece got us thinking about all of the other great shows on basic cable. Our list of the 15 best, culled through an informal Flavorpill staff poll, tackles everything from the obvious picks (Mad Men, The Daily Show) to cult-y favorites like No Reservations and The League.
Mad Men, AMC
What, you thought we weren’t going to list our hands-down favorite show of the past few years? Just in case you’ve been in a sensory-deprivation chamber since 2007, here’s the deal: No TV series right now is as compelling, well acted, smartly written, lushly art-directed, or beautifully shot as this drama about a ’60s ad man with a dark past and uncertain future.
Burn Notice, USA
Remember when USA was most famous for showing Major Dad reruns? Well, not anymore. This single-camera drama follows a covert-ops agent who’s been “burned” — that is, completely cut off by his agency as he seeks answers about why he was left high and dry. The series has won everything from an Emmy to an Edgar Allan Poe Award.
He may be cracking a lot of jokes about his move to TBS, but we’re sure glad to see Conan O’Brien back on the late-night circuit. His new show is almost exactly the same as what he was doing on NBC, and that’s totally fine. Conan’s monologues are still the funniest, his interviews remain the most enjoyably awkward, and he and Jimmy Fallon are still the only two late-show hosts who care enough about music to book interesting acts.
White Collar, USA
You may think you’ve seen enough cop shows to last you a lifetime, but give White Collar a try anyway. And it’s got a pretty unique premise. A con man caught escaping from prison by the FBI agent who got him thrown in the slammer helps his captor nab white-collar criminals as part of a work-release program. Saved by the Bell fans should be aware that Tiffani Thiessen, a.k.a. Kelly Kapowski, is part of the show’s core cast.
Top Chef, Bravo
Before its move to Lifetime, we might have nominated the show that formed the model for Bravo’s reality-TV domination, Project Runway. But since it changed hands, it’s become pretty awful. We far prefer Top Chef, which has hit upon a group of judges and set of challenges that keep the competition fresh and engaging. Although certain contestants are certainly over the top, impressive work always seems to trump manufactured drama. The producers have also been great at coming up with smart variations on the original — such as the first season of Top Chef: Just Desserts, which ended last week and taught us that all pastry chefs are insane.
Breaking Bad, AMC
Think of this as a crazier, guy’s version of Weeds. But thankfully, one of TV’s oddest series is also among its best. The Emmy-winning show follows a chemistry teacher who learns he’s got terminal lung cancer and goes into the meth business with a former student to earn money to support his family once he’s dead.
The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, Comedy Central
Allow us to group these shows together, for they are the yin and yang of spoof news. While Jon Stewart takes the media to task for its often irresponsible reporting, Stephen Colbert holds up an absurdist mirror to the antics of cable’s most ridiculous pundits. The fact that so many people get their news from Comedy Central these days — and came out to Washington to rally for sanity or fear or whatever — says something important about both the state of broadcast journalism and the appeal of these two brilliant comedians.
The Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC
Speaking of TV pundits, we can name only one who is both sane and entertaining: Rachel Maddow. Since her show premiered a few years ago, she’s been a witty and informed respite from the cable-news hysteria that assaults us from both sides of the aisle. Keith Olbermann, Bill O’Reilly, Chris Matthews, Glenn Beck — all these dudes are crazy (some are obviously worse than others). Maddow is the only one who’s actually a joy to watch.
No Reservations, Travel Channel
In a world of smiley Food Network robots who may or may not know how to cook, thank heavens for Anthony Bourdain. The writer and chef tells it like it is and shares our preoccupations with art cinema and punk rock. For foodies like us, who can’t afford to travel to exotic locales on a regular basis, his globetrotting adventures in international cuisine are food porn elevated to the status of art.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, FX
This is one of those polarizing comedies — either you love it or you think it’s random-ass nonsense. Suffice to say we fall into the former category. If you have an appreciation for heavy drug use, dark humor, Danny DeVito and characters who would make the Seinfeld cast look like angels, It’s Always Sunny is the show for you.
Sister Wives, TLC
Okay, so it’s a guilty pleasure. But those of us who watched Big Love and became curious about what real-life polygamous families are like just can’t look away. Although Sister Wives is just as dishy and salacious as your average TLC show, it’s also a rare glimpse into a part of American culture that few Americans truly understand. We may not make the same choices as the fundamentalist Mormon Brown family, with four wives and 16 kids, but at least we can begin to see what their controversial way of life is truly about.
The League, FX
A comedy series about a fantasy football league? Really? Don’t let the idea turn you off right away. For one thing, this hilariously written show features some of our favorite left-field personalities, from mumblecore filmmaker Mark Duplass to perennial TV guest-star Paul Scheer. In a review that praises The League‘s ability to please real fantasy sports nerds while still appealing to a broad audience, Neil Genzlinger of the Times writes, “The show moves quickly and somewhat sloppily, and the stars, mostly sketch-comedy types, aren’t likely to win any acting awards. But they do get laughs.”
The Walking Dead, AMC
We have to admit that while we have great faith in AMC’s ability to make wonderful series, The Walking Dead made us nervous. Zombie TV? Doesn’t the genre lend itself much better to film? As it turns out, this comic-book adaptation is more than just a monster shoot-’em-up. It’s about the true nature of heroism and what happens to human relationships when society breaks down. Of course, that doesn’t stop the show from having some seriously terrifying and disgusting moments.
Hailed by many as the best new show of fall 2010, Terriers follows a former criminal and a former cop who go into business as unlicensed private investigators. It’s hard to put a finger on what makes this comedic drama so special, but sometimes old-fashioned good writing and acting is really all it takes. Sadly, the show is in serious danger of cancellation. Want to save it? A.V. Club has some suggestions.