I love this show. I love how weird and specific to Atlanta it feels. How the larger narrative arc of the show unfolds at its own pace, leaving plenty of room for entertaining and disturbing detours. How Paper Boi is introspective and thoughtful and a little bit sad even as he continues to gain success and fame. How Lakeith Stanfield, who plays Paper Boi’s roommate Darius on the show, just might be one of the greatest characters to come along in the past ten years (sample quotations: “I think if we spent the time we spend thinking about not spending money, spent that time on spending money, then it'd be time well spent” and “AIDS was invented to keep Wilt Chamberlain from beating Steve McQueen’s sex record.”) How Donald Glover’s character, Earn, refuses to be boxed into any neat characterization. You watch him succeed and struggle in equal parts. He fucks things up just as often as he fixes them, and he never asks for your sympathy. Atlanta is the type of show that feels fundamentally different and fresh. And that’s before we even start talking about Zan and “sneakies.”
"I've been accused of being a lot of things... inarticulate ain't one of them." -- Boyd Crowder
Elmore Leonard's books are basically written television shows. Meaning they fly by on the backs of tight dialogue and just enough narrative to push you along to more tight dialogue. He was once asked what his secret was for writing such readable books. "I just skip the boring parts," he said, because he is a legend.
Anyway, Justified was based on a book of short stories Elmore Leonard wrote, and -- when it first came out -- a traditional, basic law-and-crime show. Each episode had a small "whodunnit" element to be solved, but the backbone of the season focused on Boyd Crowder, aka one of the five best characters ever on television, and his family. But once the show cleared its throat of that first basic season, the criminal world in and around Harlan, Kentucky, opened up, and the show morphed into something special with an uncanny chemistry between Boyd and Raylan Givens, the protagonist. I don’t want to compare it to Deadwood just because Timothy Olyphant was also in that, but it does feature a quiet lawman and an exquisitely articulate bad guy, plus a cast of side characters who are willing to scheme, cheat, and kill in creative and damaging ways. If you can only watch one season, skip right to season two to behold Margo Martindale's character, Mags Bennett. And beware if she offers you a drink.
4. The Shield
In 2002, the whole antihero thing didn’t exist. And then came this show, on this random network, which I'm pretty sure was still just running WWE fights. At the time, Vic Mackey, its protagonist, was the greatest, most complicated character on television outside of The Sopranos. You felt dirty with him when he and his crew slimed and blackmailed and murdered their way out of things. But you rooted all the same. Also, it is widely known that The Shield has the greatest series finale in the history of series finales. Comeuppances are handed out, and they all feel right and absolutely earth-scorching. Even if this show doesn't make as much sense or have the same impact now in the context of all of our fantastic TV shows 10 years down the road, for its time, it had but few equals, and none of them were on basic cable.