The next best

ER

HOSPITAL dramas have long been a TV staple but none had attempted the kind of adrenalin-pumped pace and relentless action of this series, created by best-selling author and doctor, the late Michael Crichton. It redefined the genre.

THE SLAP

THE eight-part adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas' novel was proof local TV could produce something of the quality of the US's premium cable channels. Tapping into the fault lines of contemporary Australian society, it was a searing, confronting and thought-provoking dissertion on marriage, child-rearing, multiculturalism and generational aspirations, told not through pedantry or sermonising but rounded, highly relatable characters.

TANGLE

PRODUCERS John Edwards, Imogen Banks and writer Fiona Seres created this wise and bitter-sweet drama about the messy, multi-generational relationships of two well-heeled Melbourne families. Beautifully played by an accomplished cast, it was an absorbing account of the school of life that parents and children play out every day.

THE GAMES

COMEDY is usually played up, but the iconoclastic John Clarke and co-creator Ross Stevenson opted to play down the punchlines of their hilarious satire, set in the organising committee for the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Absurd yet frighteningly accurate.

THE SECRET LIFE OF US

THERE were very few secrets among the housemates/ friends/lovers congregating in the beachside apartment where this 20-something dramedy was set. Though the freshness and boldness of its early seasons wasn't maintained, its frank and realistic depictions of sex, gays, relationships and ethnicity were breaths of fresh air in the staid and conservative climate of domestic TV soaps.

24

THE new golden age of quality TV is invariably defined by the brainy offerings of Mad Men and The West Wing rather than the brawny thrills from watching indestructible CIA agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) outrunning and occasionally torturing enemies of the state. The novel conceit of playing out conspiracy plots in real time, splitting the screen to reveal simultaneous events and tapping into - though many would say exploiting - fears about terrorism provided some highly memorable seasons.

UNDERBELLY

CATAPULTED by Prohibition-like suppression orders, the first Underbelly caught the jet-stream of the public's fascination in the events of Melbourne's gangland wars. It was also mighty good TV drama, distilling events and household-name crims and cops into a gripping 13-hour narrative and launching a handful of emerging actors with career-defining roles.

MODERN FAMILY

THE TV pantheon is filled with ambitious, ground-breaking shows that rewrite the rules, but what about shows such as this, which achieve greatness by gently tinkering around the edges of the conventional sitcom? With its playful recasting of sitcom stereotypes, anti-Christian-lobby insistence that families come in all shapes and sizes, plus silly storylines, Modern Family's place in TV history should not be overlooked.

THE LATE SHOW

THIS live comedy from remnants of The D-Generation ran for only two seasons but left an indelible mark on Australian TV. Its mixture of live and pre-taped segments was essential viewing on a Saturday night, and the close-knit cast seemed to have as much fun piss-farting around as we did watching at home.

ROSEANNE

THERE had been comedies driven by women, of course, but none by a woman like Roseanne Barr. Obese, outspoken, defiantly blue-collar, not a stay-at-home mum and often not even very pleasant, she nevertheless became a hero to a generation and persuaded tens of millions of viewers to peek beyond their lace curtains and picket fences and take a good hard look at the real world. Also very funny.

OFFSPRING

WE RECKON Offspring will remain something of a watershed in Australian relationship comedy-dramas. From its quirky production (flashbacks, animation, fantasy) to its crackling script and effortless blend of comedy and drama, it's up there with the best.

ENTOURAGE

EVERYONE was a little too nice in this story of a Hollywood movie star - Adrian Grenier as Vincent Chase - and his pals, but it was a boys' night equivalent to Sex and the City, with the fantasy punctuated by the verbal acrobatics of Jeremy Piven's Ari Gold, a hotshot agent whose salty monologues were an unbridled joy.

SURVIVOR

WHEN it comes to reality television, Survivor is the original and close to the best.

GIRLS

WHILE its extraordinarily frank and graphic depiction of sexuality was initially shocking, Lena Denham's Girls' incredible first season will mostly be remembered for its wonderfully moving finale in which Hannah Horvath (temporarily) found peace alone.

FREAK AND GEEKS

IT LASTED only one season but this poignantly authentic high school memoir, in which the humour was illustrative and not merely piled on for effect, rightly holds cult status for its depiction of adolescence and for introducing us to James Franco, Linda Cardellini and Jason Segel.

HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET

BEFORE The Wire there was another exceptional show set amid the rampant crime and social decay of Baltimore. This police procedural followed the homicide squad through their investigations as they struggled to clear cases and not succumb to their own failings.

THE WONDER YEARS

A SITCOM about a teenage American boy coming of age, which moved from first kiss and high school anxiety to parental rebellion and heartbreak, The Wonder Years balanced perceptive storytelling with warm nostalgia.

MR BEAN

WITH its inspired use of slapstick and visual gags built on mishaps that escalate to catastrophic proportions, Rowan Atkinson's almost-silent comedy harked back to the glory days of masters such as Chaplin and Keaton.

THE GOOD WIFE

WONDERFUL legal drama that frequently bats above its average. Arguably one of the best US dramas on free-to-air TV.

SEX AND THE CITY

THE clothes, the cocktails, the friendships, the willfully self-absorbed Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte elegantly stumbled their way into our lives flaunting excess, revelling in drama and living the dream in NYC.

DOWNTON ABBEY

JULIAN Fellowes' refined and entertainingly addictive soap opera put aside modern glitz for post-Edwardian manners, and not even World War I could crimp the romantic entanglements and disdainful rivalries that occurred upstairs and downstairs in a grand country house.

LOVE MY WAY

IT FELT as though local drama had come of age with this ground-breaking pay TV series focusing on a group of people in their 30s struggling with matters of love, work, family and death.

THE L WORD

IT WAS a winning combination: a group of gorgeous LA lesbians meets high drama. They sleep with each other, fight, betray friendships, have babies, make up and party. The scripts were less than stellar but the trashy soap genre made for compulsory viewing, if only to complain about Shane's inability to remain faithful.

THE PANEL

AUSTRALIAN television is now full of opinionated people swapping viewpoints and funny lines behind a desk, but this Working Dog hit that made its debut in 1998 paved the way for them.

THE CHASER'S WAR ON EVERYTHING

THIS was the show that bridged the gap between the undergraduate antics of the Chaser, who produced a satirical newspaper of that name when they were students at the University of Sydney, and the real world of television satire. The show's upset-the-apple-cart tone was its greatest strength.

MY SO-CALLED LIFE

AN ACHING depiction of adolescence in all its confusion, the sadly short-lived series stars a perfectly cast Claire Danes as Angela Chase, pining for the attention of tantalisingly remote Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto), being regularly annoyed by her parents, hanging out with her pals, and ignoring the interest of the boy next door.

THE HOLLOWMEN

RETURNING to the office dynamics and professional mishaps of Frontline, Working Dog's The Hollowmen drily took apart the Canberra political echo machine, where policy makers invariably found themselves scrambling from one crisis to the next and the public servants were otherworldly creatures not to be taken seriously.

BRIDES OF CHRIST

A MINI-SERIES about the change of pace in 1960s Australia seen through the lives of a group of Catholic nuns (Brenda Fricker, Lisa Hensley) and their schoolgirl students (Naomi Watts, Kym Wilson), Brides of Christ was a telling drama that spoke to both the personal and the public. Would the ABC make it now? Would anyone?

KATH & KIM

FORGET the new movie, Jane Turner's and Gina Riley's mother-daughter team were never better than in a half-hour slot inhabiting the suburban setting they celebrated and sent up. In an increasingly divisive country, Kath & Kim proved we still had a sense of humour about ourselves.

SONS OF ANARCHY

A GUILTY pleasure sure, but this soapy, over-the-top bikie drama is extremely addictive viewing.

THE SHIELD

GRITTY, superbly acted LA crime drama. Michael Chiklis' turn as anti-hero Vic Mackey was simply extraordinary.

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS

ANYONE who has tried to recommend this show has probably had the same conversation: ''Nah. It's about sport. I'm not interested.'' Yet a tight cast, excellent scripts and satisfying plots revealing erudite observations about small-town American life make this show a winner. Full hearts, clear eyes, can't lose.

THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART

WORKS as both the funniest and the sharpest dissection of the US's garish 24-hour news cycle, The Daily Show has put world leaders alongside comedians and left viewers to decide who was more relevant. Host Jon Stewart excels, especially in his takedowns of the insanely biased Fox News.

SEACHANGE

SOMETIMES the planets align: the alchemy of Andrew Knight's mordant humour with Deb Cox's ebullience; a certain moment in the zeitgeist; an unexpected onscreen chemistry. And suddenly you have a show that didn't just charm millions (and become a byword for great Aussie drama), but spawned a genuine social movement that would leave the Bellarine Peninsula changed forever.

THIRTYSOMETHING

SEVERAL years before the baby-boomer generation became scapegoats for everything wrong in the world, their trials and tribulations were given a thoughtful, earnest and sentimental work-out in this once pioneering show.

List written and compiled by Paul Kalina, Frances Atkinson, Andrew Murfett, Debi Enker, Melinda Houston, Craig Mathieson, Daniel Burt, Greg Hassall, Michael Idato, Karl Quinn and Matthew Burgess

The story The next best first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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