1. SPACED 1999-2001
For a generation weened on geek culture and bottle fed on cult movies, Spaced was the perfect comedy. With a loose set up bringing together a bunch of disparate drifters (Simon Pegg’s lovable comic book artist, Jessica Stevenson’s lazy author and Nick Frost’s army obsessive amongst others), each episode was little more than a collection of film and TV references strung together on an unlikely plot – luckily it had the good grace to be very funny and very clever.
Battles (Series 1, Episode 4). Tim and Mike go paintballing and encounter the odious Duane Benzie (the slimy git who stole Tim’s girlfriend). If only for the paintball in the knackers gag, this is Spaced at its very best.
DID YOU KNOW? At the end of the last episode of series one during the scene where Tim and Daisy are dancing in the pub and discussing porn, the band playing is actually fronted by Simon Pegg’s real dad.
2. THE X-FILES 1993 -2002
Created by surfing enthusiast Chris Carter, The X-Files proved to be the show that could do anything. It could modulate its tone from Twin Peaks creepy to Texas Chain Saw Massacre terrifying to Three Stooges silly. It had a pair of good-looking, charismatic heroes with deliciously simmering sexual chemistry – plus a rogue’s gallery of memorable villains, including the putrid Flukeman, stretchy Eugene Tooms and butt-loving Cigarette Smoking Man. Of course, the long-running ‘Myth-Arc’ conspiracy plotline would have baffled Einstein and was never properly wrapped up in any case, but with at least one more big-screen outing lined up for Mulder and Scully there’s still time to redeem the show that launched a thousand Dark Skies.
Jose Chung’s From Outer Space (Season 3, Episode 20) showcases The X-Files’ at its playful best. The same alien-abduction investigation is shown from an array of perspectives, sending up the show’s own staples to very funny effect.
DID YOU KNOW? The classic horror episode Home was inspired by a tale in Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography, about the time some rednecks took the comedian home to meet to their mother – and pulled her out from under a bed.
3. THE WIRE 2002 -2008
David Simon’s frighteningly realistic cop drama is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished TV shows ever created and the vast majority of people have never actually seen it. It’s a slow-burning, uncompromising and above-all honest look at the mean streets of Baltimore and the drugs trade that stangles it. Each season has a specific focus (be it the working class, education, politics or the media) and proceeds to explore the underlying real-world problems within a dramatic context. It all sounds rather heavy but thanks to a mischievous sense of humour and some outstanding characters (Bubbles, Omar and The Bunk) the show is extremely watchable despite the weighty themes. Effortlessly straddling the divide between drama and documentary, The Wire, at its best, is without peer on big screen or small.
Middle Ground (Season 3, Episode 11): when Omar and Brother Mouzone face off against Stringer Bell.
DID YOU KNOW? Aside from a single montage sequence at the end of each season, The Wire has no superimposed soundtrack – all music heard in the show originates from sources within the scene.
4. FRIENDS 1994-2004
How is it that Channel 4 can show the quintessential ’90s sitcom on a virtual loop and it doesn’t get old? It’s because Friends, at its best, is as perfect a sitcom as you will find. In its earliest days, the adventures of six beautiful pals who apparently earned money by drinking coffee featured writing much sharper than the cuddly exterior suggested. Even when the quality dipped a little mid-run, the ensemble remained perfectly matched and the best comedy collective on TV.
The One With The Prom Video (Season 2, Episode 14). Joey and Chandler fall out and make up; Rachel realises why she loves Ross; and, thanks to a home video, we meet fat Monica. The show’s whole ethos in 22 minutes.
DID YOU KNOW? Phoebe is the most promiscuous Friend. The only one of the group she hasn’t kissed is Monica.
5. 24 2001-PRESENT
Okay, so the last series was bobbins, but 24 has bounced back before and we’re hoping the forthcoming Season 7 will see the Jack Bauer Power Hour back on form. At its best, there is just nothing like it – insane levels of adrenaline, finely calibrated political intrigue and twists that hit you in the face like a two-fisted punch from Tony Almeida. 24 is some of the most cinematic TV you’ll ever see, with no expense spared to depict CTU’s intense battles against cunning terrorists and occasionally the odd rogue President. Even when 24′s rubbish, it’s still loveable – we still have a soft spot for the cougar who menaced Kim Bauer in possibly the show’s worst ever plot twist, back in Season 2.
6:00 AM – 7:00 AM (Season 3, Episode 18). The gut-churning episode where terrorists demand that Jack shoot his supervisor Ryan Chappelle in the head or they’ll kill thousands. As Jack puts a bullet into Ryan’s head and weeps, the clock at the end of the episode remains silent, capping off the most emotional and darkest hour in 24′s history.
DID YOU KNOW? James Morrison, who plays Bill Buchanan, runs a yoga class in Los Angeles, which Empire’s Nick de Semlyen has attended and does not recommend for beginners.
6. LOST 2004-PRESENT
Only time will tell whether it’s as clever as it seems, but few TV shows have gripped viewers’ imaginations like this hybrid of Swiss Family Robinson and Twin Peaks. An innovative structure in which each episode hones in on a different character, with flashbacks and flashforwards expanding their backstory, ensures the entire cast is fleshed out beyond the constraints of the primary narrative. But aside from the host of unique and colourful characters – from earnest Jack to cocky Sawyer, noble Jin to bug-eyed Ben – it’s the epic mysteries at the core of the story that keeps us coming back. What powers does the island have? What’s that polar bear doing in the tropics? And how come Hurley never loses weight despite being marooned on an island?
The action-packed Exodus two-parter (Season 1, Episodes 23-24) that features a wrecked ship, a monster, a clash with the Others and the discovery of a deep, dark hatch.
DID YOU KNOW? The fictional Oceanic airline also appears in the movie Executive Decision.
7. THE WEST WING 1999-2006
For a long time a walk-on part in The West Wing was the pinnacle to which all jobbing TV actors aspired. Smart and funny, Aaron Sorkin’s political drama showcased the writer’s gift for rapid-fire dialogue and layered, politically resonant storylines, proving that television can be funny and insightful all at the same time. The series took a temporary downturn after Sorkin’s departure at the end of season four but rallied soon after with a number of surprising changes to both character roles and format. It all came to a natural close at the end of President Bartlet’s second term in office but The West Wing remained one of the most intelligent shows on television throughout its run and a comforting image of what a more benevolent White House could look like.
Two Cathedrals (Season 2, Episode 22). The episode with Mrs Landingham’s funeral and the closing scene on the podium where Bartlet decides to run for re-election.
DID YOU KNOW? The president was originally written as a minor character with little actual screen time. Audience reaction to Martin Sheen was so positive, however, that he soon became a leading role.
8. THE SOPRANOS 1999-2007
Those who tuned into the first episode of The Sopranos in 1999 found not a documentary about opera singers but a dark, offbeat drama about a New Jersey gangster with a fixation on the ducks who visit his swimming pool. As the first season wore on, viewers became hooked on creator David Chase’s uncompromising vision of an old-school criminal organisation beset by all the stresses and tensions of the modern day. A fusion of sharp, unpredictable writing and powerhouse acting ensured this show classic status, spawning a videogame, spoofs by The Simpsons and the Clintons (!) and an Artie Bucco recipe book, so you can make like Tony and feast on ‘gabagool’ yourself.
Long Term Parking (Season 5, Episode 12), in which… well, we won’t give it away. Let’s just say that two of the show’s best characters have an eventful car ride and leave it at that.
DID YOU KNOW? The Bada Bing strip club is actually a go-go bar in Lodi, NJ, called Satin Dolls.
9. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER 1997-2003
Emerging from the ashes of a failed 1992 movie, this improbably titled series was the phenomenon that put Joss Whedon firmly on the map. The very essence of girl power, Buffy was an arse-kicking babe blessed with a smart mouth and a vicious roundhouse right. The winning factor, though, was that the supporting characters were just as appealing as the lead, from Willow the lesbian witch to Anya the former vengeance demon. Above all others, though, It was however James Marsters’ turn as Brit bloodsucker, Spike, who most frequently stole the show.
BEST EPISODE A toss-up between the superb musical episode Once More With Feeling (Season 6, Episode 7) and Hush (Season 4, Episode 10), which was performed almost entirely in mime.
DID YOU KNOW? Angel was only resurrected after his death in Season 2 because the network decided to greenlight a spin-off show.
10. THE SIMPSONS 1989-PRESENT
Could it really be anything else? You can put The Simpsons in almost any category you like and it will come out on top. Best animated show. Best sitcom. Best family show. The list goes on. It’s ageless, both in the quality of the jokes and the people it appeals to. Bart was originally intended as the focus of the show, but the brilliance of the writing means the rest of the family has come to be equally beloved. People complain about a dip in quality now that it’s reaching its third decade, but even sub-par Simpsons is better than 90% of TV comedy. At its greatest, it’s untouchable. Best. Show. Ever.
King Size Homer (Season 7, Episode 7). The family patriarch tries to eat himself to 300lb and thus qualify as disabled so he can work at home. An unimprovable mix of sharp dialogue, hilarious site gags and heart.
DID YOU KNOW? Bart is the only character not to be named after a member of creator Matt Groening’s family.