They say we’re living in the golden age of television. They’re wrong.
Pound for pound, it’s hard to think of another artistic medium churning out more garbage on a day-to-day basis than TV. Flip on any given television at any given point in your day, and you’re most likely to turn on something that would make the inventor of television (for the curious: Philo Farnsworth) lock his creation in a weighted box and throw it into the sea.
It wasn’t always so! In the early days, there wasn’t enough televised content for any of it to be terrible. Television was expensive, there were only three channels, and studio execs had to be sure that what they were putting out would catch eyeballs. Early forerunners of scripted television like Gunsmoke, I Love Lucy and Perry Mason were playing with time-honored genres like vaudeville comedy and radio drama, so although people were still figuring out how to point and shoot a video camera in a way that made sense, the actual storytelling beats were sophisticated. Truth be told, television almost started with its own golden age.
But what people mean when they say today is the golden age of television is the good stuff is better than it’s ever been, and that’s more or less true. There is almost too much good television to take in, even though there is definitely too much bad television to take in (not for lack of us trying). In the interest of rewarding those TV channels that are actively trying to crank out a proliferation of good content, we herewith present Gradient’s Definitive Ranking of Television Channels.
A few notes: First, we ranked these channels according to original content only, which means Hulu gets no points for borrowed content like Empire or Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Second, this is current ranking, meaning channels get no credit for great work they’ve done in the past—meaning AMC gets no points for Mad Men or Breaking Bad.
With those rules in mind, read on:
10. Hulu: The Trooper
No modern television channel was faster to see what the Internet could mean for television than Hulu, and no television has struggled more to figure out how to best capitalize on it. When Hulu launched in 2006, it was a pioneer. Ten years later, it’s a trooper. It’s seen its vision actualized by other companies, but where a lesser fighter might have thrown in the towel, Hulu has only upped its game. This year, it debuted 11.22.63 and The Path. The former was written by Stephen King, produced by JJ Abrams and stars James Franco—that’s the sort of lineup that sends other TV execs off to their therapists. The Path is nearly as promising, starring Aaron Paul and Michelle Monaghan. It’s been a long time since Hulu was at the top of the game, but they’ve never been out of it. Other channels ignore them at their peril.
9. IFC: The Shrewd Prankster
What is IFC? Yes, it used to be the Independent Film Channel, specializing in the sorts of white, navel-gazing indie flicks your college boyfriend judged you for not liking. But in 2010, IFC adopted its new logo: “Always On, Slightly Off” and started producing offbeat, original comedies that kept you guessing as to whether you were in on the joke or the butt of it. Portlandia and Comedy Bang! Bang! are the easiest examples of this, but don’t discount their frequently masterful Documentary Now series, which lampoons the documentary format while being smarter than about 90% of the documentaries you’ve ever watched.
8. BBC: The Bookworm
People in America often cast a longing eye towards the “BBC style” of creating television seaso—er, “series”—with the sort of intentionality and self-imposed limitations that American television goes without, to its detriment. That’s nowhere clearer than the BBC’s take on The Office, which had the good sense to effectively call it quits after three seasons while the American Office—though at times superior to its UK parentage—stayed in the ring long after it had any fight left. Today, the BBC’s claim to greatness rests on cerebral sci-fi like Doctor Who and Orphan Black, along with the bookish blockbuster Sherlock. Americans may be jealous of the BBC style, but the BBC’s real secret is simply a knack for intelligent drama.
7. Comedy Central: The Royal Jester
There was a time when Comedy Central sucked, full of frat boy nyuck-nyucks and a frenetic, whack-a-mole style of telling jokes that didn’t have much to offer if you weren’t 19, stoned, and bored. But a turning point came, and that turning point had a name: Jon Stewart. Comedy Central didn’t know what they had when they put the then-mid-level standup comic behind the desk of their news parody, but it ended up changing the way we watch the news. Stewart isn’t around anymore (and his presence is missed), but the level of prestige he brought to Comedy Central has lingered. In his wake we’ve got the likes of Larry Wilmore, Hannibal Buress, Amy Schumer and Trevor No …uh, Amy Schumer! And then there’s Comedy Central’s newfound knack for unscripted series like Drunk History and Nathan For You—two of television’s surest comedic bets. And how does one even begin to quantify the LOL quotient of Broad City, which makes nearly every other comedy on television look tired and uninspired in its wake?
6. AMC: The Aging King
OK, let’s start with some uncomfortable truths: recent years have been unkind to AMC. It was not long ago that this channel was the proof of just how great television was these days. Mad Men and Breaking Bad were revelations, godsends, the Great American Novel. Future generations will be able to watch them with the same reverence we save for Infinite Jest. And today? Well, today they’ve got The Walking Dead, which remains the most popular cable show of all time, and that certainly isn’t nothing. AMC’s also got Better Call Saul, which isn’t the cultural touchpoint its predecessor was, but it remains one of television’s sharpest dramas. And then there’s the new Fear the Walking Dead, which is besting its own predecessor in some regards. So, no, we are no longer living in AMC’s glory days. But that doesn’t mean AMC hasn’t learned a thing or two from them.
5. Showtime: The Showoff
You’ve got House of Lies, Penny Dreadful, and Homeland. If Showtime had nothing else, that’d still be enough to catapult it into the top five. But Showtime’s also keeping other networks on their toes with series like the brash Paul Giamatti vehicle Billions, the slinky Lizzy Caplan number Masters of Sex and, of course, The Affair. Showtime has staked a claim in glitzy, high stakes dramas featuring unrealistic people doing less realistic things. It doesn’t look much like real life. It frequently looks a hell of a lot better.
4. Amazon: The Champ-In-Training
Amazon is not yet what it wants to be. What it wants to be is the best place for television shows in the whole world, bar none. Its aspirations are so high the strain can’t help but show, as with Amazon’s ill-fated prestige players Bosch and Hand of God, both of which suffered from a deeply dull sense of self-seriousness. The premise worked a little better with Man in the High Castle and Mozart in the Jungle, but the channel has instead—perhaps unintentionally—found a niche with gentler homespun fare, like the quietly audacious Catastrophe and *drumroll* Transparent. The latter is perhaps the most beautiful artistic statement of the modern television era, a piece of drama quivering with such raw humanity you forget you’re watching a show at all. It’s a reminder of how bad most television is, and how good the medium could be if more shows like it were given a chance.
3. FX: The Contender
Check this out: The Americans, People V OJ Simpson, Archer, Baskets, It’s Always Funny in Philadelphia, American Horror Story, Fargo, Louie, You’re the Worst, Man Seeking Woman. The list of the best television shows you can watch right now? Or just FX’s current original series lineup? Is there any difference? At least three of these shows (The Americans, Fargo and The People V. OJ Simpson) are legitimate contenders for the best television in the world right now, and they’re all on the same damned channel. If any of the rest were on another television channel, they’d be the best show on it.
2. Netflix: The Game Changer
Who’d have thought? Who’d have thought five years ago, when Netflix unleashed the PR equivalent of a Hindenberg Disaster with its attempt to create a second “Quickster” brand for DVD rentals (or something) that, just a few years later, it’d be the channel every other channel was trying to beat. Nobody understands the future like Netflix. Head to a startup conference and you’ll find at least fifty recent college grads peddling their new business plan as “The Netflix of x”. Log in to Twitter and watch the next generation blather (ironically and otherwise) about Netflix and chill. This is not an accident. Netflix’s brand identity is more than just a television show—it’s how we live now. And if you think all this is because it got the streaming rights to V for Vendetta, you’re not paying attention. No other channel can match Netflix for sheer variety. The wild, Shakespearean intrigue of House of Cards. The thoughtful, #intersectional charm of Master of None. The zany roller coaster of feels that is Orange Is the New Black and the infuriating, righteous outrage of Making a Murderer. And that’s without counting its gritty, adult spinoff of the Marvel Universe or the zippy joke factory of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It’s an astonishing achievement the rest of television can only half-heartedly replicate. Netflix could double their monthly fee, and it’d still be a bargain (but please don’t, Netflix). At their peak hours, Netflix claims thirty-seven percent of all Internet traffic. What percentage do you think AMC.com is getting?
1. HBO: The GOAT
Look upon its works, ye mighty, and despair. HBO has been the god for a while now, and it’s not tired. HBO’s missteps, like Vinyl and the second season of True Detective, are almost as famous as its successes, but what successes! The Leftovers is running circles around its competition. Girls just closed out a stellar fifth(!) season, while Silicon Valley and Veep are prepping for followups to their own stupendous previous seasons. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver actually improved upon the format of Oliver’s mentor Jon Stewart, somehow succeeding at making twenty-minute explainer videos must-watch entertainment. And we haven’t even gotten to Game of Thrones yet.
HBO has gotten so good, it has become an easy target for parody. You’ll find plenty of other channels poking fun at HBO abusing their ability to do pretty much whatever they want (“tits and dragons”, as Ian McShane recently put it). But these people are confusing the sizzle for the steak. True, HBO tends towards “adult” programming, but “adult” is a good thing. People should be adults. Yes, early seasons of Game of Thrones leaned far too heavily on nubile cheesecake and both the good and bad seasons of True Detective gloried in their excesses, but at its best, HBO has used its adult brand to discuss adult issues—something far too rare on television. There’s a reason people have started naming their children Khaleesi. There’s a reason the Obama family successfully requested advance screeners of True Detective. And although the tagline has fallen out of use, there’s a reason “It’s not TV. It’s HBO” stuck. Because for a while, TV was not good, but HBO was. Now TV is great, but HBO is better.