Television is in a golden age. The visual style of programming has become more cinematic, and the time length involved allows writers to tell deeper, longer and more fulfilling stories. These are the shows that epitomize this recent trend.
The Wire
HBO has a reputation for groundbreaking programming, but its greatest achievement is a show that is largely ignored, by audiences and the industry at large. But "The Wire" is easily one of the best stories ever told on the small screen, practically a modern Greek tragedy. "The Wire" tells the story of the inner city of Baltimore, casting the spotlight on those people who are continually marginalized in our society. Each individual season has focused on a different institution that has become corrupt and ineffective. The most recent season focused on the educational system, following four young boys as they make their way through, and ultimately fall victim to, the street.
Battlestar Galactica
It may come as no surprise that, in this day and age, a television show would be created that deals with the big issues of the current global landscape: war, terrorism, abortion and foreign occupation. But it would certainly be a surprise that the show that most eloquently addresses those issues is a science-fiction drama. But "Battlestar Galactica" is more than simply a sci-fi adventure. It is a complex metaphor about a society on the brink of extinction, and the means that are sometimes necessary in such a situation. The show twists around on itself to make you question your own beliefs, as well as the beliefs of the characters. Early in the most recent season, characters previously portrayed as "good guys" were shown acting as suicide bombers. This reversal was done in order to make you question the morality of these characters, but also to question similar situations in Iraq. While the show certainly has the excitement level you would expect in a science-fiction show, it's the intellectual aspect that makes it one of the best programs on television.
The Shield
A recent trend of shows with antihero main characters has subverted the traditional moral clarity that TV once offered. But one such antihero stands above the rest. "The Shield"'s Vic Mackey is a dirty cop, a cheating husband and a murderer. But while Michael Chiklis's performance certainly makes Mackey one of TV's most intriguing bad guys, it's the rest of the show that truly stands out. Because "The Shield" is about the other characters, and how they react to his actions. Some characters are completely aware of his treachery, but ignore it to avoid a political scandal. Others use his strong-armed police tactics to make arrests, but are disgusted with him personally. Still others begin the show believing him to be immoral, but are eventually swayed by his charisma and conniving nature. No one is a completely good person on "The Shield," so the show goes far beyond simply having one antihero.