This truly is the golden age of television. It's a far cry from two-channel Ireland when Glenroe and Jo Maxi were the greatest innovations to hit our screens. There are plenty of masterpieces like The Sopranos, The Wire, Homeland, Six Feet Under and Breaking Bad that everyone knows about - here Peter Boyle addresses a few you may not have heard of / got around to watching yet (they might even give you some Christmas pressie ideas...)
One of the great travesties in the history of the modern television is that this terrific show was cancelled after only one series. Created by Joss Whedon of Avengers and Buffy fame, this space western follows the adventures of Captain Mal Reynolds and his rag-tag crew as they attempt to evade various warring factions and nefarious enemies. Along the way we learn the back-stories of the mysterious group (including Nathan Fillion and Homeland hottie Morena Baccarin), each of whom has an interesting story to tell. Firefly is full of Whedon's trademark witty dialogue and likable characters and has an extremely loyal fanbase despite its short lifespan. The follow-up movie Serenity is also well worth a watch.
Deadwood is a lawless South Dakota town in the 1870s where chaos reigns and folks come to seek their fortune. Into the madness arrives Seth Bullock, a former marshal looking to make a quiet life for himself but it's not long before he is reluctantly drawn into keeping the peace. Timothy Olyphant is mesmerising as Sheriff Bullock though Ian McShane's wily saloon owner Al Swearengen gets all the best lines. The show features many real-life historical figures including Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Deadwood is famous for its rich, flamboyant dialogue and imaginative swearing, and the high production values mean the Wild West has never looked so authentic.
3. Battlestar Galactica
BSG is a loose remake of the camp 70s Star Wars rip-off TV show, although this effort an altogether more serious affair. In a distant galaxy, the human race has been all but been destroyed by a cybernetic civilization of its own creation known as Cylons. The only hope of the remaining fleet, led by Commander Adama aboard the Galactica, is to escape their attackers and lead the few survivors to a fabled promised land known as Earth. It's full of riveting storylines and unforgettable characters such as impetuous fighter pilot Starbuck and the scheming scientist Gaius Baltar. The show ran for four seasons (and a mini-series) and received huge critical acclaim. The sci-fi tag may have scared off potential viewers but give it a chance and I guarantee you'll be impressed.
4. The Shield
The Wire's grittier cousin, this show revolves around Vic Mackey and his strike team, a bunch of dirty cops in the dangerous LA district of Farmington. While catching criminals by any means necessary, Vic and his boys are out to grab a piece of the action for themselves. This doesn't always go to plan. This thrilling show highlights the corruption and greed that can happen behind the scenes when the supposed good guys turn bad. Michael Chiklis excels as the volatile Mackey and you'll be rooting for him even when you don't know why. If anything the quality improves as the show goes on, while the noose tightens around Vic and builds towards an engrossing climax.
5. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
If you like your comedy dark, then it doesn't get much darker than this. Always Sunny centres around an Irish pub in Philadelphia called Paddy's and the bunch of hopeless losers that run it. There's vain Dennis, tough-guy wannabe Mac, aspiring comedienne Dee, and simpleton Charlie who shares a filthy sofa bed with the repulsive Frank (Danny DeVito as you've never seen him before). Make no mistake about it, these are horrible people but their get-rich-quick schemes and nasty pranks will have you in tears laughing. Think of it as Cheers mixed with South Park and you're not far off.
Damages is an absorbing legal thriller starring Glenn Close in typical super-bitch mode. She plays Patty Hewes, the ruthless head of a New York law firm and mentor to rising legal star Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne). Hewes is known for being the best in the business but it's not long before her protégé begins to question her controversial methods. The show focuses on one case per season and looks at it from the point of view of the prosecution and the defence. In such a high-stakes environment each side will do whatever it takes to win and Close revels in her role as the ice queen. The top-notch cast also features several high profile guest stars including Ted Danson, John Goodman and William Hurt.
This is one of the funniest and smartest comedies on TV. It follows a bunch of misfits at a Community College in Greendale, Colorado who join forces to set up a study group. Amongst them are Jeff the self-centred former lawyer, millionaire curmudgeon Pierce (Chevy Chase), innocent over-achiever Annie (the lovely Alison Brie), film obsessive Abed and his equally nerdy sidekick Troy. Community is known for pushing the boundaries and playing with the conventions of the sitcom - for example episodes filmed in stop-motion animation, an 8-bit video game and a spot-on Law & Order spoof. The show loves to poke fun at TV cliches and it's great fun spotting all the hilarious pop culture references.
8. Criminal Justice
This was an outstanding BBC production from a few years back which appears to have been all but forgotten about. There were only two series made, each of them following a single murder case. The first concerns a young man who is accused of killing a girl on drunken night out, though he can't remember anything about it; the second follows a distressed housewife whose barrister husband is stabbed in their bed. The show looks at all aspects of the criminal justice system in the UK and was widely praised for its accurate and fresh depiction. It features some truly wonderful acting throughout, especially from Ben Whishaw and Maxine Peake in the lead roles.
9. Arrested Development
Arrested Development is a real cult favourite and became an instant comedy classic on its initial airing. It focuses on the Bluth family, who were formerly wealthy but have fallen on harder times since patriarch George has been arrested for fraud. It falls to his son Michael to run the company and keep the rest of his crazy family in check. A terrific ensemble cast includes failed magician Gob, never-nude actor Tobias and supremely awkward teenager George Michael (Michael Cera). The jokes come thick and fast and there are endless lines of quotable dialogue, making it very rewatchable. After an enforced hiatus, Season 4 is due to air on Netflix in 2013 and is eagerly anticipated by fans.
10. The Killing
If you are a fan of intense, unsettling crime dramas then The Killing is the one for you. Each season of this Danish thriller deals with a single murder case, the police investigation surrounding it and the devastating effect on the victim's family. This Nordic Noir is full of unexpected plot twists and its intelligent, involving storyline will soon have you gripped. Sofie Grabol shines as lead detective Sarah Lund and may be single-handedly responsible for bringing the chunky knitted sweater back into fashion. It has recently been remade by US television but this is by far the superior version, so long as you don't mind the subtitles.
By Peter Boye