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Before taking on some of the biggest movie franchises in Hollywood, JJ Abrams established his action credentials as the creator of the spy drama Alias. Jennifer Garner plays Sydney Bristow, a CIA double agent who infiltrates an even more secretive, rogue spy agency.
The show is full of double and triple crosses and shifting loyalties, but even when the plot gets complicated, Garner keeps it grounded as the capable and determined Sydney. Abrams delivers thrilling action and suspense without losing sight of the complex characters that drive the story.
The Americans in The Americans are actually Soviets, spies hiding in the suburbs of Washington, DC masquerading as an average married couple in the 1980s—a premise that could have been crazy makes for compelling drama over the course of six seasons as the agents who Bearing the names Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) are torn between their loyalty to their homeland and their fabricated American life.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Deconstructing the structure of horror movies is now old news, but Buffy the Vampire Slayer pioneered the clever subversion of horror clichés while also creating a rich mythology of its own. Sarah Michelle Gellar plays the titular character, a seemingly superficial teenager who has been designated as the chosen one to fight vampires and other evil forces. Buffy and her friends mature and change over the course of seven seasons, as they battle a series of complex and compelling villains.
There may have been a popular one Saturday Night Live sketch about a game show host who asks contestants, “What is? fire alarm?”, but the light-hearted crime drama makes for a perfect low-stakes viewing experience. fire alarm plays Jeffrey Donovan as a former CIA agent who is subject to a “fire alert” that drives him out of the intelligence community and freezes his assets.
Stuck in Miami, he takes odd jobs to help people in dire circumstances, aided by several of his former associates, while trying to figure out who is responsible for his predicament.
Much more than a sitcom about community college students, Community uses that basic framework for a self-conscious deconstruction of multiple TV genres and traditions. Creator Dan Harmon devises brilliant, hilarious parodies of typical TV episode structures while also building strong emotional bonds between the core characters.
Community contains the kind of intricate craziness that attracts a devoted cult following, along with the kind of romantic tension that inspires deep fan investment in potential relationship couples.
Creator Julian Fellowes brings soft human drama to the British class system in Downton Abbey, which equally focuses on the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants living on the titular estate. It’s a riveting domestic drama that deals more with relationships than social change, though the six seasons are set over the course of 15 years and chronicle changing attitudes in British society.
The show is full of charming characters, from the eccentric, outspoken Crawley matriarch Violet (Maggie Smith) to the tough, stuffy butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter).
British import flea bag is a perfect example of the benefits of the concentrated, self-contained model of British TV series. Creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge tells a bitingly funny and heartbreakingly sad story in the six episodes of the first season. The unnamed protagonist navigates her disastrous personal life while making regular snarky asides to the public. She even matures a bit in the late second season, which in itself tells an equally hilarious and gripping story.
The wonderful Mrs. Maisel
One of the best Amazon original series, The wonderful Mrs. Maisel is a lavish love letter to the pop culture of the fifties and sixties. Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino tells the story of the title character (played by Rachel Brosnahan), a privileged New York City housewife who gives up her comfortable life to pursue a career in stand-up comedy.
The show is full of lightning fast witticisms delivered by fascinating characters in colorful costumes. It is a celebration of the time period with insights from the present.
Creator Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek wasn’t widely appreciated in its original three seasons of the 1960s, but it may have become the most influential sci-fi TV series of all time. Much of it still holds up remarkably well, delivering self-contained adventures as the crew of the starship Enterprise explore strange new worlds. Star Trek explores serious philosophical issues through extraterrestrial civilizations, with a team of unique characters who remain pop culture icons.
Tina Fey followed up on her breakout stint Saturday Night Live by creating this sitcom behind the scenes and starring in a sketch comedy series. The production of the show within the show on 30 Rock is just background though, and the real appeal comes from the ensemble of strange characters and the sophisticated but silly jokes and parodies.
Fey’s TV producer Liz Lemon has surprisingly sweet relationships with her discerning network boss (played by Alec Baldwin) and the narcissistic stars of her show (played by Tracy Morgan and Jane Krakowski).