Showtime deserves more credit. Since 1982, the premium cable channel has produced original series across a spectrum of genres from science fiction, to horror, geopolitical thrillers, historical dramas, and more. The last ten years in particular have witnessed the network dialing in to the rising demands of the media market and creating some of the best shows on TV. From Dexter to Stargate SG-1 and from Weeds to Homeland, Showtime has gone toe-to-toe for quality with their longtime rival, Home Box Office.
While ranking HBO’s original series proved a competitive task, the top spots on Showtime’s roster are equally hard to place.
There’s Penny Dreadful, one of the best horror series in recent memory, and Shameless, the enduring story of a truly dysfunctional family. And lest we forget, there’s the complex romance, The Affair, and that lusty show about Henry VIII, The Tudors. Where do we begin?
Here are the Top 25 Showtime Original Series, Ranked:
While it has yet to fully mature, Cameron Crowe’s Roadies is primed for television greatness. By showing the “unsung heroes of rock ‘n’ roll,” Roadies lets us explore the thankless jobs of the the lighting crews, the set designers, and the stage managers that make mortal musicians become demigods. Led by Luke Wilson and Carla Gugino, with Imogen Poots at the heart of the story, Roadies infuses your favorite Cameron Crowe qualities into the television format. Though certain scenes may not quite gel in early episodes, the same can be said about most any program in its infancy.
If you liked Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, and especially Almost Famous, Roadies will reliably give you those small doses of hyper-reality that only Cameron Crowe can produce. The characters are likable and the subject matter is fairly light, especially compared to the rest of Showtime’s heavy offerings. If exploring the backstage happenings of big-time productions strikes your fancy, Roadies will certainly be worth the trip.
You may not remember this Bob Lowry-created show, but Huff once had a heavily invested fan following. Call it a more comedic take on HBO’s In Treatment: this Hank Azaria-led show follows the tumultuous life of psychiatrist Dr. Craig “Huff” Huffstodt. Eternally devoted to his patients, Huff approaches his work with panache until a teenage client commits suicide in his own office. The fallout sends Huff spiraling out of control, relying on his doting wife, Beth (Paget Brewster), and his best friend, Russell Tupper (Oliver Platt), to lift him out of the doldrums.
Though the series only lasted two seasons and twenty-six episodes, Huff makes for good entertainment thanks to its excellent writing and cast. A young Anton Yelchin plays Huff’s son, while, as the psychiatrist’s flighty mother, Blythe Danner, took home the Supporting Actress Emmy in back-to-back years. Additional guest stars include Robert Forster, Faith Prince, Sharon Stone, and Anjelica Huston to round out the veteran cast.
Comedians dominate the entertainment industry more than ever. Jerry Seinfeld has Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Louis C.K. has Louie, Bill Burr has F is For Family, and now Andrew Dice Clay has joined the fray. It must be said that he is not your usual Comedy Central stand-up funnyman, nor a carbon copy of the politically-correct cabal. He tells it like it is and if you get your feelings hurt along the way, then that’s just too bad. In Dice, we follow the comedian’s life up close as he travels to stand-up gigs in the sordid streets of Las Vegas. That’s where Clay made his name, of course, and while he has been a fixture of the industry for decades, it’s great fun to watch him back in the town that made him. Dice currently has just six episodes to its name, but at around twenty minutes each, they’re worth the small investment.
22. Web Therapy
Lisa Kudrow may be best known for playing Phoebe on Friends, but Web Therapy showcases the actress at the top of her game. The Showtime original series pioneers the concept of Skype-psychiatry, or therapy sessions condensed from their usual 50-minute run time. Though the concept is relatively simple, Web Therapy excels thanks to its fully committed approach to improvisation. While each episode has a particular story to tell, most of Web Therapy is made entirely from the magic of the moment.
There’s a lot at stake for Fiona Wallice (Kudrow), whose repressed secrets slowly unravel throughout Web Therapy’s four season arc. As an ambitious therapist, Fiona hopes her Internet-friendly concept will revolutionize the industry and help make her a household name. Thanks to an endless train of top-tier celebrity guest stars, from David Schwimmer to Matt LeBlanc, and Conan O’Brien to Jon Hamm, Web Therapy ranks among the best improv shows on the market.
Former sitcom stars don’t always have the best reputation. Just look at Bojack Horseman, the Netflix original show that parodies the self-indulgence of washed-up stars. In Episodes, show-runners David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik thrust former Friends cast member, Matt LeBlanc, into the middle of their industry-set maelstrom. Playing a fictionalized version of himself, LeBlanc becomes a Hollywood caricature: sex-obsessed, driven by money, and enamored of his own reflection.
When he accepts the lead role in an American remake of a hit British show, personalities clash and chaos ensues. While it has been a fun and fairly innocuous show, Episodes will air its fifth and final season in 2017. Now that LeBlanc’s commitments have shifted to Top Gear, it’s no surprise he’ll be moving on. Still, Episodes garnered the actor a Golden Globe award in 2012, along with repeated nominations in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series ever since.
As HBO’s The Wire grew in prominence, Showtime needed to answer the call. The demand for layered dramas was rampant and while the streets of Baltimore had already found their voice, New England had yet to be spoken for. Enter creator Blake Masters, a native of the north-east with a particularly keen eye for the political and criminal happenings in Providence, Rhode Island. With Brotherhood, Masters expertly crafted a story that followed both sides of the law.
Through Michael Caffee (Jason Isaacs), viewers infiltrate the intricacies of the Irish mob and through his politically-engaged brother, Tommy Caffee (Jason Clarke), we encounter the duplicity of high office. With the true story of Whitey and Billy Bulger as the series’ inspiration, Brotherhood shows the duality of lifestyles and the complexity within families. Isaacs and Clarke both deliver incisive performances throughout the series and, while they may not be likable, they’re always compelling.
19. The Big C
Most networks would kill to have Laura Linney lead their show. With The Big C, Showtime got their wish, but they attached her to a project that had her character destined to die. Indeed, the accomplished Laura Linney elevated this dire cancer drama well beyond its source material. In the pilot episode, we meet Cathy Jamison (Linney) shortly after being diagnosed with stage IV melanoma, the cancer that scares other cancers. This is the calm before the storm.
Upon hearing the news, Cathy’s state of shock send her searching for life in the face of death: she buys herself a luxury car, engages in an extramarital affair, and kicks her husband (Oliver Platt) out of the house. Despite the darkness, The Big C is worlds away away from the soap-opera tone of shows like Grey’s Anatomy. By balancing its dread with a biting wit, watching The Big C often feels like laughing at a funeral.
18. Queer as Folk
While there have long been sexually ambiguous characters in film and television, Queer as Folk was the first dramatic TV show to focus directly on the gay community. Created by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, Queer as Folk skyrocketed to the top of Showtime’s original series lineup. Though based on the more raw British show that preceded it, Queer as Folk bent the rules in America and introduced audiences to subjects seldom explored on network television. Set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Queer as Folk followed five gay men and a lesbian couple through their urban and unpredictable lives, along with the family members closest to them. Controversial and complex story lines vaulted the show to popularity and kept it in the public eye for all five seasons and eighty-three episodes of its tenure. Though often more serious than comedic, Queer as Folk paved the way for a new generation of shows including HBO’s Looking.
17. Masters of Sex
Unfettered by the constraints of the FCC, premium cable networks know how to maximize their freedom. With Masters of Sex, the whole spectrum of reproduction and pleasure are quite literally on the table. Created by Michelle Ashford, this mid-century drama follows real-life doctors, William Masters and Virginia Johnson (Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan), in their dedicated study of human sexuality. Though on the surface the show may look and feel like a naughtier Mad Men, Masters of Sex distinguishes itself from Matt Weiner’s show by exploring the era’s true naivete.
Masters and Virginia weren’t just curious adults, they were pioneers of their respective industry. While Sheen’s William Masters has more than a bit of Don Draper in him, his subjects often display a great deal of innocence indicative of the times. While the taboo has since become tame, this Showtime series continues to improve as its timelines shifts into the 1970’s.
16. The United States of Tara
You might not expect Steven Spielberg to create a show about a housewife suffering from dissociative identity disorder. Thanks to his pioneering vision, however, The United States of Tara became a reality. By teaming up with Diablo Cody, the mind behind Juno and Young Adult, Spielberg helped create one of the most interesting concepts to grace the small screen. In the town of Overland Park, Kansas, Tara Gregson’s (Toni Collette) unrestrained tension manifests in multiple personalities.
From her 1950’s era housewife, Alice, to “T,” her rambunctious sexpot teenager, and Buck, her beer-swilling Vietnam vet, Tara fluctuates identities like an actor in a one-man play. For Toni Collette, the transition between personalities is a feat to behold, a performance that netted her both an Emmy and Golden Globe award in back-to-back years. The supporting cast more than matches her talent, as the likes of Brie Larson, John Corbett, and Rosemarie Dewitt will attest.
15. Secret Diary of a Call Girl
While Starz has more recently mounted Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, Showtime first entered the courtesan arena with Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Rather than telling the story of a rags-to-riches woman seeking stability, Secret Diary of a Call Girl follows Hannah Baxter, the middle-class and seemingly prototypical Londoner who dives down the prostitution rabbit hole for quick cash and faster thrills.
Hannah, who goes by the name “Belle” with her clients, is portrayed by the perennially sultry Billie Piper. As the high-class call girl, Belle breaks the fourth wall like her profession breaks hearts. She stares at the audience as if we are her customer, and while the experience can certainly feel voyeuristic, it is always engaging. Though Secret Diary of a Call Girl may not sit well with prudes, its sarcastic tone borrows from Sex and the City and gives the show a welcome taste of humor.
Since the housing market collapsed in 2007, Wall Street has become public enemy #1 of Hollywood and the media. Margin Call, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Big Short all capitalized on portraying the fascinating lives of those on both sides of the finance world. Billions takes that Jordan Belfort flair and retrofits it on the small screen in Brian Koppelman’s (Rounders, Ocean’s 13) new show.
The casting is on point, with Damian Lewis as the cutthroat hedge fund manager, Bobby Axelrod, and Paul Giamatti as Chuck Rhoades, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Together, the pair function like Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner, with Rhoades looking for loopholes to bring down Axe Capital and purify the Wall Street system. Though their scenes in the first season were tantalizingly rare, Giamatti and Lewis both bring their A-game to Billions, lifting the occasionally trite material to something David Mamet might once have made.
13. House of Lies
What’s in a name? For Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle) in House of Lies, his says it all. As the founder of his consultancy firm, Kaan & Associates, Marty is simply a con man in a ten-thousand dollar suit. He lives for the art of the deal, his tolerance for criticism and resistance is high, and he’ll close clients at any cost. Though the concept may sound abrasive, House of Lies has been one of the funniest shows on the air since it premiered in 2012.
While its caustic sense of humor certainly won’t gel with everyone, and the show has left critics split in their support, House of Lies asks for a little and delivers a lot. Each half-hour episode packs in rapid-fire dialogue from a whip-smart cast that includes Kristen Bell, Ben Schwartz, Josh Lawson, and Dawn Olivieri. Inspired by the book written by a former Booz Allen Hamilton consultant, House of Lies may be closer to the truth than any of us would like to admit.
12. Stargate SG-1
Roland Emmerich’s 1994 movie, Stargate, was just a drop in the bucket. Once Showtime expounded upon Dean Devlin’s original story and customized it for a TV series, Stargate SG-1 was ready for ascension. Indeed, though the show-runners only expected the series to last two seasons, Stargate SG-1 withstood a lack of critical praise to become the longest running sci-fi show of all time, second only to the British juggernaut, Doctor Who.
Having previously explored deep space with their mid-1990’s show, The Outer Limits, Showtime embraced the Stargate property and developed it with Richard Dean Anderson (former MacGyver star) in the lead. By embracing the wants and needs of true science fiction fans, Stargate SG-1 accrued an impressive viewership that was rarely deterred by the show’s occasionally histrionic acting and modest production values. With 214 episodes, Stargate SG-1 became Showtime’s most reliable show and led to additional spin-offs like Stargate Atlantis.
11. The Borgias
While HBO’s The Sopranos explored the modern Italian mob, Showtime attempted to eclipse their competitor by rewinding the clocks to the greatest crime family of all: House Borgia, the rulers of the Renaissance. Though cancelled before reaching its climax, The Borgias was a towering achievement for Showtime that managed to condense the rich history of the family’s political and religious power.
By bringing one of the most storied chapters in Italian history to bear, The Borgias proved as equally an equally impressive feat as HBO’s ambitious Rome. Though it failed to fulfill creator Neil Jordan’s planned fourth season and downfall of the family, The Borgias lasted three seasons with Jeremy Irons in the lead as Rodrigo Borgia (and later, Pope Alexander VI). Some critics may have complained of the show’s plodding pace and raised eyebrows at specious depictions of history, but The Borgias remains one of the most elaborate shows to air on any network.
10. Ray Donovan
Ray Donovan is not your usual fixer. While commissioned by dominant law firm, Goldman & Drexler, Ray (Liev Schreiber) helps absolve the sins of celebrities and corporate power players throughout Los Angeles. Though parallels can be made to Tony Gilroy’s excellent Michael Clayton, this Showtime series dives headlong into the muck. From covering for the indiscretions of Hollywood stars, to avoiding the FBI and protecting his family from his unruly father, Mickey (Jon Voight), Ray rarely has a moment of peace.
Indeed, Liev Schreiber’s interpretation of the eponymous character remains the primary strength of the show. He is a man filled with contradictions and guilt, but his demanding job allows for the perfect sublimation of those repressed emotions. While the rest of the cast punches their weight, especially when Jon Voight, James Woods, and Ian McShane are on the screen, Ray Donovan succeeds because Liev Schreiber gets the job done.
Barring the show’s lackluster conclusion, Californication deserve a spot in our top 10. Thanks to David Duchovny’s irresistible performance as Hank Moody, the alcoholic man-child who struggles to ever say “no,” Showtime took Californication for a seven-season run from 2007 to 2013. For such an unassuming concept and relatively straightforward execution, that’s quite a feat. With Natasha McElhone, Evan Handler, Pamela Adlon, and Madeleine Martin in the supporting cast, Showtime could do no wrong.
For all of the vicarious pleasure we received from watching Hank’s wanton lifestyle, however, showrunner Tom Kapinos always ensured that the story and character development remained in motion. Where shows like Entourage struggled in depicting their characters’ transition from debauchery into discipline, Californication excelled. To be fair, it doesn’t hurt that the beautiful women, the rock star cameos, and the Hollywood lifestyle were all on display in each half-hour episode. It may not be Shakespeare, but Californication is fun while it lasts.
8. The Tudors
Henry VIII and his six wives were a slice of history the world won’t soon forget. Though his portraits depict a stout man with a protruding belly, The Tudors sexed up the life of Henry VIII by focusing on his glory days. In Showtime’s original series, the fiery Jonathan Rhys Meyers takes on England’s most notorious king and The Tudors wastes no time indulging in Henry’s insatiable appetite for the ladies of the court.
Aided by his designated wing-man, Charles Brandon (a pre-Superman Henry Cavill), the King betrays his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and pursues the beautiful Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer). Before she took on the role of Margaery Tyrell in Game of Thrones, Dormer proved her acting worth by portraying the most famous of Henry’s wives. While the show undoubtedly takes many historical liberties in its writing, The Tudors crafted a fascinating historical drama that lasted four seasons and vaulted Showtime to a higher echelon in television production.
7. Nurse Jackie
In the closing line of the Nurse Jackie pilot, the likable antihero beseeches her maker, “Make me good, God, but not yet.” This close paraphrasing of St. Augustine frames the entire series about a woman plagued by inner demons who still manages to act like an angel. As a nurse, Jackie Peyton (Edie Falco) bends the rules of the red-tape bureaucracy and goes out of her way to help her patients survive.
If only she were so thoughtful towards herself. Beneath the surface of her altruistic caretaker is an opiate-addicted and lying, cheating head-case who betrays her family as she struggles with her debilitating addiction. Though she hops on and off the proverbial wagon throughout the show’s eight seasons, Nurse Jackie often serves as a sobering reminder to eliminate our habits before they do the same to us. Edie Falco’s deliciously duplicitous performance fueled the show right through to its unforgettable conclusion.
6. Penny Dreadful
For the last fifteen years, writer John Logan has been the man behind the man. He’s the writer of Gladiator, The Aviator, and Skyfall, and in his first foray into television, he used his immense literary background to forge the Gothic fantasy, Penny Dreadful. The title refers to the fin de siècle stories and comics that cost a mere penny to read and Logan appropriately uses it to blend the best horror tales of all time into one properly aligned universe.
Frankenstein meets Dorian Gray, Van Helsing meets Dr. Jekyll, and Dracula meets the Wolf Man. It’s the mash-up that Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley may have never imagined, but it works without a hitch. Led by Josh Hartnett, Eva Green, and Timothy Dalton, Penny Dreadful does an impressive job at creating the lurid world of the 19th Century world. The fog rolls in on little cat’s feet and the plot gets progressively more devious across each of its three seasons.
Before she opened the prison gates of Orange is the New Black, Jenji Kohan first created Weeds. The premise starts out akin to a softer Breaking Bad, as the recently-widowed Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) turns to selling marijuana to help make ends meet. As her clientele expands and she becomes increasingly entrenched in the criminal world, Nancy is forced to juggle multiple identities and risk of spending her life in jail.
Though Weeds may seem like a gentle exploration of a middle-class woman living life on the edge, don’t be fooled. Showtime’s immensely popular show is comprised of equal parts comedy and corruption. For every comedic bit in the show, there are moments of unexpected violence and brutality that remind you of the danger in Nancy’s world. Weeds grows you on like a plant and, while the latter seasons may experience an unfortunate drop in nuance and quality, Jenji Kohan’s peculiar strain of dramedy is worth a few hits.
4. The Affair
There are two sides to every story and The Affair exploits that epigram to perfection. By probing the consequences of extramarital relationships through a split narrative perspective, The Affair summons our sympathy and enhances our disgust for each of the lead characters. Creators Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi explore the ramifications of “memory bias” and make us question every moment on screen. What the married novelist Noah Solloway (Dominic West) sees in the lonely waitress Alison Lockhart (Ruth Wilson) is far different than what she sees in him.
Season 1 focused primarily on the passionate affair between Noah and Alison, while a crime drama slowly brewed in the background. In its sophomore season, The Affair expounded upon that criminal subplot while incorporating the perspectives of Noah’s and Alison’s spouses (Maura Tierney and Joshua Jackson). Much to its credit, The Affair cannot easily be defined, as it traverses romantic and legal genres in a single bound. Season 3 is set to debut this fall.
Dexter is not the for faint of heart. There’s more blood in this show than the vampire dance club in Blade. Should you be able to tolerate the grisly life of Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), the Miami police blood-spatter expert by day and serial killer by night, you will find a haunting study of human nature. Based on the crime novels of Jeff Lindsay, Dexter is much more complicated than the mindlessly violent killers on Criminal Minds.
Dexter knows that his penchant for murder is wrong, but he justifies his actions by convincing himself that his victims deserve a just punishment. After all, they’re murderers, thieves, and in some cases, serial killers just like himself. In striving to purify the streets of Miami from evildoers, Dexter becomes both the ultimate sinner and quasi-saint. Though some of the show’s eight seasons retread old ground, and the final episodes may feel stale, Dexter earned its many accolades and audience appreciation for creating a multi-dimensional lead character that left viewers in a purgatory of fascination and disgust.
Wisely taking their cues from across the pond, Showtime saw a major opportunity in adapting the British smash-hit Shameless. While the UK series began in 2004 and ran through 2013, creator Paul Abbott built the American Shameless from the ground up in 2011, basing the Gallagher family in the uncouth suburbs of Chicago’s south side. With six seasons under its belt and a seventh on the way, Shameless may go down as the best long-term investment Showtime ever made.
Not bad for a show anchored by the morally-bankrupt alcoholic Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy), the catalyst of his family’s decay. Indeed, while Shameless may seem like a study in personal self-destruction, the rest of the Gallagher clan make deals with the devil as they are forced to become semi-adults in lieu of proper parenting. Fiona (Emmy Rossum) is in many respects the de-facto matriarch of both the family and the show, thus providing Rossum with some of the meatiest acting moments in her career. Though each season plays out like a masterclass in how not to live, Shameless earns our empathy while doubling down on our interest.
While it has been one of Showtime’s most awards-friendly shows, Homeland takes our top spot for its ability to continually recreate itself. It started as a masterful cat-and-mouse thriller between troubled CIA operative, Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes), and Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), the recently returned prisoner of war long thought to be dead. Through unexpected turns, complicated relationships, and conflicting alliances, Homeland established a riveting domestic thriller with international implications in the first two seasons. After the death of a major character at the end of season 3, however, creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa went full-throttle with their geopolitical plot and set the impulsive Carrie Matheson loose upon the world. While season 4 struggled to find its footing in the Middle East, Homeland excelled with its most recent season, churning out episodes that resembled current events to an uncanny degree. Though hardly immune from melodrama, Homeland remains the most compelling series on the Showtime roster.
How do you rank Showtime’s best series? Tell us in the comments below!
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