Starting Nine is the method a lineup nerd uses to rank his personal favorites. These are not necessarily the nine all-time best entries of the subject being covered. It’s an exercise in finding the entries that best fit the profile for each spot in the batting order.
I’m a lineup traditionalist: I like dependable table-setters in the 1 and 2 spots, world-beating franchise powerhouses 3rd and 4th, potent sluggers 5th and 6th, hard-nosed role players 7th and 8th, and an underrated, dirt-dog workhorse in the 9-hole.
Today’s Starting Nine examines my favorite TV drama series of all time. Keep in mind that this is not your typical ranking list. This is the lineup card I would hang in the dugout to generate the greatest production.
They use to call Frasier the smartest show on television, which is a load of crap. Every ER episode was a lidocaine-infused rush until that Kovash guy became the star, and even then it was still passable. The most dependably good network drama of my lifetime, the show you could always count on to bring it every week, is my choice to sit at the top of the order.
2. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
Wooden, one-dimensional characters aside, the first 35 years or whatever of this show (until Stabler left) gave a gritty, bleak, often gruesome edge to Dick Wolf’s empire. Sometimes it was all cop stuff, with Stabler, Benson, and Ice-T dishing out PG-13 threats to bad guys. Sometimes it was more trial heavy, which gave us all a chance to take a longer look at Stephanie March. But it was always interesting, and there was always a crazy twist. A rock solid contributor that deserves a lot of at bats (until the mid-2010s anyway).
3. The Sopranos
I used to get irritated at David Chase for making this show so damn nuanced with the funky dreams and hidden symbols and auteur stuff. But now I’m convinced that those traits are the reason that you get something new out of each episode literally every time you watch it. In my opinion, it’s the greatest of all time, starring the greatest lead character of all time. That’s why it’s in the 3-hole, where the best producer on the team should ALWAYS be hitting (that’s right, I said it).
4. Breaking Bad
Everything David Chase didn’t give us with The Sopranos, Vince Gilligan delivered with the show I’m putting in the cleanup spot. Slick character development for the entire cast that evolved rapidly, yet never seemed rushed and always felt organic. An iconic lead character and excellent sidekick-turned-nemesis who took turns serving as the heart of the show. This was a master class in pacing a drama series episode by episode, season by season.
5. The Shield
The show that taught me just how much you can get away with on basic cable. Blood, violence, every curse word other than the f- and c-bombs, graphic sex scenes toned down just enough to air on FX, and let’s not even get into what that gangbanger did to Aceveda. If gangland L.A. is truly as scary as it’s depicted here, I won’t be visiting southern California anytime soon. Was Vic Mackey just as despicable a hero as Tony Soprano? I’ll leave that one for future generations to decide.
David Fincher’s masterpiece was abandoned after two seasons for being too expensive to shoot and criminally unnoticed by the population at large. I was devastated to hear that we would never get closure on the BTK Killer storyline. It was The Silence of the Lambs meets The X-Files; the perfect mix of intelligence, suspense, and drama. We all missed out on some amazing television when Netflix axed this one.
7. Game of Thrones
On pace to be the best drama of all time after three seasons, it lost it’s way when the creators lapped George R.R. Martin’s books. The sets, battle scenes, and ensemble cast were all possibly the best we’ve ever seen on TV. I didn’t hate the final season as much as most fans did, but it certainly lost it’s fastball after the Red Wedding, which is what drops it to the bottom third of the order.
8. Quantum Leap
No, not the new one, dummy. I admit some of these episodes don’t hold up three decades after they originally aired. But many still really hit home (pun intended, fellow QL fans). Sam Beckett travels through time changing history for the better, with only his wise-cracking hologram buddy to assist. Sure, it can get a little cheesy. But it’s a fun concept with a killer wardrobe department that truly pulls you into a different time period every episode. Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell were fantastic.
9. Highlander The Series
So, the Highlander movies, even the ones featuring the characters in this show, are among the worst movies of all time. However, the creators of this show really captured magic in a bottle with this low budget, syndicated, dark fantasy show about immortal warriors beheading each other. The first season is pretty bad, and the final season is a steaming turd. But from the introduction of The Watchers in season two through the Four Horsemen storyline in season five, this show did more good stuff with less to work with than any drama I can recall. The perfect scrappy underdog to round out the order.