20 modern classic TV shows everyone needs to watch in their lifetime

Mad men best tv shows mainAMC‘Mad Men.’

If you’ve ever felt left out at a party when conversation inevitably turns to “this show you absolutely need to watch” — well, you’ve come to the right place.

Business Insider has rounded up the 20 most noteworthy shows of the last 15 years — the best of this bright generation in TV. They range from the most elite shows of the period, like “Six Feet Under” and “Mad Men,” to shows that have become part of the pop-culture lexicon, like “Firefly” and “30 Rock.”

And before you leave irate comments about snubs for “The Sopranos” or “The Walking Dead,” allow us to explain our criteria for the list: We only looked at shows that premiered between 2001 (“Sopranos” debuted a couple years earlier) and 2015, and we only looked at shows that have concluded their runs (we’re still waiting to see where these “Dead” shows go). If a show hasn’t been officially canceled, like HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” then it was also not included.

Here are the shows everyone should watch from the last 15 years:

'Six Feet Under' (2001)

HBO
'Six Feet Under' won three Golden Globes.

Before 'True Blood' and 'Banshee,' producer Alan Ball took a sledgehammer to America's ideals with 'Six Feet Under.' It followed a dysfunctional California family that lives in and runs a funeral home.

The show would take us to unbelievably low places, with just an inkling of humour. And it introduced us to actors who would go on to other notable roles. Michael C. Hall went on to 'Dexter.' Peter Krause moved over to 'Dirty Sexy Money' and 'Parenthood. And Frances Conroy is currently staring on Hulu's 'Casual.'

'24' (2001)

20th Century Fox TV
Kiefer Sutherland reprised the Jack Bauer role for Fox's 2014 miniseries, '24: Live Another Day.'

Concept drama '24' starred Kiefer Sutherland as a federal agent tasked with stopping an assassination plot against the president. With strong writing and acting, the series became a huge hit, and later a cult show.

Each season took place over the span of 24 hours, which was a plot trick films and other TV shows would use and expand on. And while today we see many movie actors doing TV, Sutherland did so before it was popular.

'Alias' (2001)

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are inseparable now, but he once had his hands full with Jennifer Garner on 'Alias.'

Bradley Cooper has moved to leading-man status on the big screen, but just nine years ago, he played clueless best friend and possible love interest to Jennifer Garner's impossibly badass spy Sydney Bristow.

This series took the spy drama to whole new places, with a mix of mythology and science fiction thrown in. Plus, who can resist Jennifer Garner's head-to-toe undercover transformations?

'The Shield' (2002)

Sony Pictures TV
Glenn Close was the female lead during the fourth season of 'The Shield.'

Considered one of the first breakout scripted hits for cable, FX's 'The Shield' starred Michael Chiklis as a policeman who's part of an experimental new anti-gang task force.

True to cable even today, the show was considered more explicit than broadcast shows and portrayed the officers using legal and unethical means to get what they needed. The series won a Golden Globe for Best Drama, and Chiklis won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for the role.

'The Wire' (2002)

HBO
Dominic West, far right, is currently starring on Showtime's 'The Affair.'

Aren't you really sick of hearing about 'The Wire,' yet not knowing a thing about it? The HBO drama set in Baltimore focuses on the relationships among the police, citizens, and a local institution that varies from season to season. The first season, for example, focused on the drug trade, while season two took on the seaport system.

Nominated for two Emmy awards for writing, the show's fans will still tell you that the top-notch writing is what keeps people coming back for more.

'Firefly' (2002)

Morena Baccarin, the woman on right of photo, replaced Rebecca Gayheart on 'Firefly,' although Gayheart had already shot the pilot.

It's hard to believe that Joss Whedon had a failed show between hits 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' and 'Angel,' but there was 'Firefly.' It was Whedon's attempt at a space Western. It followed a group of outlaws who rally around protecting a young woman (played by Whedon ingenue Summer Glau) with special abilities from the government that experimented on her.

ABC's 'Castle' star Nathan Fillion first started building his cult fandom with 'Firefly.' And the show has been included in many, many 'canceled too soon' lists.

'Lost' (2004)

ABC Studios
'Lost' was named the most popular show for the first 10 years of IMDb Pro from 2002 to 2012.

'Lost' will probably be the most enjoyable and frustrating TV show to watch on this list. It's an intense show that requires a lot of the viewer's attention.

From a team that included J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindeloff, 'Lost' followed the survivors of a plane crash as they try to get back home from the unpopulated (or so they thought) island. It utilises a mix of science fiction and supernatural elements.

What happened on the series finale is still an ongoing discussion among fans.

'Entourage' (2004)

HBO
The 'Entourage' guys were based on executive producer Mark Wahlberg and his friends.

A young star on the rise. His closest friends at his side. Their first time in Los Angeles. That's the premise of 'Entourage,' which ran for eight seasons on HBO.

Loosely based on its executive producer Mark Wahlberg when he started acting and his friends, 'Entourage' became quite the depiction of life and business in Hollywood. Real stars flocked to guest-star on the series to play fictionalized versions of themselves. Above all, however, Jeremy Piven's portrayal of slick agent Ari Gold is not to be missed.

'Battlestar Galactica' (2004)

NBC Universal TV
To make sure the show stayed focused on humans, Edward James Olmos, center, had a clause in his contract that no strange aliens or monsters would ever appear on the show.

People are serious about their love for 'Battlestar Galactica.' At face value, it's a sci-fi show about a spaceship containing the last human survivors of a war with robots (which they created themselves). As they travel space, discover other planets, and try to survive the robot contingent on their tail, there's a lot of very addictive character interplay.

'Weeds' (2005)

Lionsgate TV
In 2006, Mary-Louise Parker won a Golden Globe for playing a drug-dealing mum on 'Weeds.'

On 'Weeds,' Mary-Louise Parker plays Nancy Botwin, a suburban mum-turned-drug dealer after her husband dies. That's just the beginning. As the show continues on, it becomes a testimony to living a life without the expectations that are thrust on you. Things get increasingly messy for her and the show gets increasingly twisted.

'30 Rock' (2006)

NBC
Executive producer Tina Fey, pictured left, didn't intend to star on '30 Rock,' but NBC insisted that she did.

Follow Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) as she manages the demands of clueless network executives, entitled stars, and cynical writers while putting together an 'SNL'-like sketch-comedy show. '30 Rock' became one of the most decorated TV comedies ever.

'Dexter' (2006)

Showtime
Dexter (Michael C. Hall) killed about 117 people over the series' eight-season run.

Showtime would make itself the home of the anti-hero (see: 'Weeds') over the next several years. 'Dexter' became its poster-child show. Michael C. Hall's title character is a conscientious citizen and police blood-splatter expert during the day, bloodthirsty murderer at night. He focuses his dark desires toward tracking down and killing criminals. But sometimes the line between good and bad becomes hard to discern.

'Friday Night Lights' (2006)

NBC
Connie Britton played the coach's wife in both the 'Friday Night Lights' movie and series.

'Friday Night Lights' took place in a fictional Texas town where the high school's weekly games are the center of its social world. The show expertly and emotionally tackled many of the issues American families face on a daily basis. Critically acclaimed but low-rated, 'FNL' would move on after its second season via a unique deal between NBC and DirecTV for three more seasons.

'Big Love' (2006)

Playtone Productions
In 2010, Chloƫ Sevigny, pictured far right, won a Golden Globe for her role on HBO's 'Big Love.'

Never in a million years would you want to become part of a polygamous marriage, but you will cheer the Henricksons on when you watch 'Big Love.' The HBO show is one of those tightly and expertly wound shows that makes you reconsider how you define family.

There are some truly exciting moments as the Henricksons go up against the goverment, their church, and each other. And you'll suddenly realise there isn't a lot of difference between how you feel and how they do.

'Mad Men' (2007)

In 2008, this series and 'Damages' (2007) became the first basic-cable shows nominated in the best drama series category at the Emmys.

'Mad Men' does a great job of focusing on mysterious ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and then widening the scope to his colleagues at the firm. On another level, the show examines the effects of time on these people, their choices, and their relationships from 1960 to 1970.

Several stars would be made on this show, but keep an eye on the standout female actresses Elisabeth Moss, January Jones, and Christina Hendricks.

'Damages' (2007)

FX Network
Glenn Close signed on to three seasons of 'Damages' before starting season one. She made $200,000 an episode.

In this superb legal thriller starring Glenn Close and Rose Byrne as attorneys, very little is what you expect it to be (including the relationship between the female lawyers). 'Damages' would become one of the first shows to be saved from cancelation by jumping to a new TV platform diving into original series, DirecTV.

'Breaking Bad' (2008)

AMC
In 2013, 'Breaking Bad' was given the Guinness World Record for the critically highest-rated TV show of all time.

'Breaking Bad' is one of those universally loved shows. Seriously, you can't get out of a cocktail party without a reference to it. It follows Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a science teacher who gets diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He decides to start selling meth to ensure his family's financial stability. He spends the show's five seasons dealing with the consequences of his actions. It has never been described as light.

'Parks and Recreation' (2009)

NBC
'Parks and Recreation' was originally going to be a spin-off of 'The Office.'

Amy Poehler's hilarious workplace comedy followed a group of damaged people who would probably be very lonely if they didn't work with each other. Poehler's Leslie Knope is an ambitious servant of the people in a middle-rank local political position. Her huge goals would seem impossible to get if it weren't for the help of her motley crew of co-workers.

'Spartacus' (2010)

Starz
At one point, 'Arrow' star Stephen Amell was considered to replace Andy Whitfield, pictured, as Spartacus.

'Spartacus,' an exciting retelling of a figure in Roman history, would help to put Starz on the map. Its twist on the upstairs-downstairs drama genre would give viewers a look at the lives of those who owned and battled gladiators like toy figures and the lives of gladiators themselves. It also had an unsympathetic take on death, giving up many main characters to keep the show fresh and surprising.

Original star Andy Whitfield left the show as he battled cancer. He was replaced by Australian film and TV actor Liam McIntyre. Whitfield died at the age of 39 in 2011.

'The Newsroom' (2012)

HBO

HBO's 'The Newsroom' was the subject of much debate. Actual TV reporters nitpicked the show for not being realistic. Others understood they were watching a drama and not a documentary.

'Newsroom' took big news moments and recast them to make us really think about what we considered right and wrong. At the same time, the staff of a struggling cable news channel were confronting their own moral questions and journalistic integrity. In the end, no matter how the situation was resolved, no one had clean hands. That's a great show for you.

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