Mad Men is over, and for a great many people that means that the best show on television isn’t, well, on television anymore. Though it was eclipsed for a while by the white-hot final years of Breaking Bad, Mad Men existed for nearly a decade in this kind of elite TV bubble, hovering somewhere above even its fellow great series in a kind of cultural stratosphere. In our minds it was the smart show, the cool show, the show that simply begged for page after page of analysis and reflection. Now it’s gone, and eventually the thinkpiece cloud left in its wake will settle, leaving us with a void.
Will another show take Mad Men’s place in the TV stratosphere? It really doesn’t matter. Great shows can co-exist and be different things to different people, and in an era with so many great shows out there, we don’t really need to crown one king. We will, though, because this is the internet, and we’re nothing if not consistent in our hyperbole. So, I humbly submit five shows that could take Mad Men’s place.
A Note Before We Begin: These are my five, OK? They’re not the five, so don’t come yelling at me because I didn’t pour praises all over The Good Wife or Orange is the New Black. Those are successful shows with plenty of champions, but they’re not my jam at the moment.
THE AMERICANS (FX)
Honestly, for my money The Americans was better than Mad Men already. I was privately declaring it the best show on TV midway through its third season, and it stuck the landing and left me aching for season four. When it began, I wasn’t sure that the premise — a married couple (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) living in the Washington D.C. area in the 1980s are actually a pair of very deep cover Soviet spies — would be able to sustain itself, because after all if they get pinched, you don’t really have a show anymore. The Americans almost immediately made it clear, though, that this isn’t a show about whether or not two spies get caught. It’s about whether or not they make it through their mission with their souls intact. It’s a thriller, a family drama, a sexual drama, and a meditation on 1980s America all rolled into one exhilarating package, and for my money you can’t do better on TV right now. (The Americans returns in 2016)
BROAD CITY (Comedy Central)
I could’ve easily written about Key & Peele or Inside Amy Schumer — the other two shows that make up Comedy Central’s current trifecta of greatness — instead of Broad City, but for me this show is TV’s most effective comedy at the moment. Its focus isn’t usually on satire, it’s not made up of sketches, and it has no particular narrative path, but it’s just as fearless and measured as any of the other great comedies out there. Stars and creators Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer pour their hearts and their very dirty minds into Broad City, charting the course of a friendship, building a weird little world, and never apologizing. If you’re not watching them do that yet, you really should get on it. (Broad City returns in 2016)
Hannibal is one of the most criminally underwatched shows on TV, and I get why, because when it started I was reluctant to care about a new version of Hannibal Lecter, particularly after stuff like Hannibal Rising. Then the right people started telling me all the right things, and I watched, and I was instantly swept up in creator Bryan Fuller’s beautifully dark world. Hannibal is a heavy show, a dark show, a show full of intense looks and desperate situations, and with the wrong sensibility it would be oppressively grim and unwatchable. In Fuller’s hands, though, it becomes an elegant, almost alien phantasmagoria of horror, sex, and death. It’s the kind of show that will make you cringe at a crime scene and then make your mouth water over Hannibal’s food, even though you know it’s human flesh. That sounds horrific, but trust me, it’s the highest compliment I can pay. (Hannibal returns June 4)
GAME OF THRONES (HBO)
Recent controversies aside, I often feel like Game of Thrones has the most potential energy for greatness of anything on television right now. I love the way the show mixes the brutality of its world with elegant games of palace intrigue. I love the intricacies not just of the story, but of the design of the whole world. Every new location feels separate from the last, every character has a distinct visual and tonal impression, and when the show’s at its best, not a single moment is wasted. The best Game of Thrones episodes are the ones that propel you not just through this world, but into it, well beyond the shocks and twists the show’s so known for. It might not do it all the time, but when it nails that feeling, Game of Thrones is a TV titan. (Game of Thrones is airing now)
Even I have to take this one with a grain of salt, because Fargo is a curious beast. Like True Detective, it was a conceived as a single story that would take a single season to tell, and it achieved that. Now, for season 2, it will be traveling back in time to tell a distantly related story set in the same locale, and we have no idea exactly what that story and those characters hold at the moment. So, for all I know, Fargo could come back as half the show it once was. But in its first season, when no one needed a re-imagining of a classic Coen Brothers movie, writer Noah Hawley and an amazing cast came together to tell one of the most gripping crime stories in recent memory, with a delicious undercurrent of black comedy decorating it all. I truly could not predict where the story would go from week-to-week, and in a genre so well-worn (especially on television), that’s a rare thing. (Fargo returns later this year)