Photo: Courtesy of Fox

Arrested Development (Fox/Netflix, 2003–present)
After patriarch imprisoned, quirk-infested Bluth clan attempts to soldier on; much frustration ensues for sole sane member, Michael (Jason Bateman).

Chief Accomplishment
Diabolically clever ensemble, throwaway funnies that cohere into megajokes: e.g., Buster (Tony Hale) blocks part of ad recruiting army officers such that it reads "Arm Off," also owns hand-shaped chair; later loses hand to hungry seal. ("Loose seal!" passerby exclaims. Name of Buster's bitingly cruel mom: Lucille. Get it?)

Cultural Touchstones
Rueful refrain "I've made a huge mistake," oft said by delusional ne'er-do-well Gob Bluth (Will Arnett). FYI, pronounced Job, as in "book of."

One to Watch
Series too layered for toe dipping, but seasons 1 to 3 are so good you'll prefer diving right in.

Photo: Credit Paul Schiraldi/HBO

The Wire (HBO, 2002–2008)
Troubled city of Baltimore as seen from several angles—police force, drug trade, port, schools, local government, newspaper—and through eyes of central characters (detectives, dealers, thugs, politicians—all roughly morally equivalent).<

Why It's Treated Like Shakespeare's Second Coming
Show had more ambition in one scene than most do in full series; tracked rises, falls of power players—legit and illicit—with clear-eyed compassion; popularized a vernacular (burner, re-up).

Cultural Touchstone
The immortal profanity of "Sheeeeeeeeeit." Intoned by state senator Clay Davis (Isiah Whitlock), means "give me a break." (And yes, it really does merit nine e's.)

One to Watch
Consider "Boys of Summer," season 4 opener, microcosm of show. Slice of life of four schoolkids reveals how series's main concerns—drug use, violence, crime's sirenlike pull— have heartbreaking roots in childhood.

Photo: Ben. Leuner/AMC

Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008–2013)
Broke chem teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) receives terminal diagnosis; fears for family's finances; uses smarts to make (lucrative) meth with former student, drug dealer Jesse (Aaron Paul).

The Point
None of us know what we're capable of. Over five seasons, Walter goes from squeamish dweeb to hardened, porkpie-wearing, cartel-quashing kingpin. Terrifying trajectory is show's lifeblood.

Cultural Touchstones
Walter's wife, now aware of his scheme, laments grave danger he's put himself, family in. Walter's growled, chilling response: "I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot.... I am the one who knocks."

If You See Only One
Start with pilot; if you're not thoroughly intrigued, we'll be stunned.

Photo: Courtesy of HBO

Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011–present)
Factions vie to rule Westeros, fantastical realm replete with dragons, sorcery, shape-shifting, gratuitous female nudity; series most closely follows Stark family's bid for dominance.

Utter ruthlessness of both characters and writers. Beloved protagonists killed off with abandon; guys bad and good commit heinous acts (patricide, regicide, castration). No one safe, nothing sacred.

Cultural Touchstone
"Winter is coming" catchphrase refers to long-foreshadowed arrival of dark times, thanks to frigid weather, zombies who thrive in cold.

One to Watch
"Baelor" (season 1) finds hero Ned Stark desperate to evade execution. Allies race to intervene. Crunch time finally arrives, and—well, let's just say series forcefully establishes disregard for dramatic convention.

Photo: John Johnson

Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO, 2000–present)
Seinfeld co-creator Larry David as himself, cringingly violating social mores.

Why It Endures
Show dares viewer to side with Larry (you do, discomfitingly). Improv format feels potentially explosive (often is). Guest stars—Ben Stiller, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Ted Danson, more—gamely portray exaggerated versions of themselves.

Cultural Touchstone
Larry's go-to accolade: "Prettay, prettay, prettay, prettay good."

One to Watch
"The Doll" (season 2). On Larry's watch, child cuts hair of porcelain doll, realizes permanence of act, freaks out; Larry hunts for new head, steals it from friend's kid's doll; kid's mom finds out, gives Larry profane, deserved chew-out.

Photo: Courtesy of AMC

Mad Men (AMC, 2007–2015)
Suave Don Draper (Jon Hamm) excels as '60s NYC adman while boozing, womanizing, concealing real identity.

Beating Heart
Thorny, tender affinity between Don and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), mousy secretary turned Draper protégé turned badass boss lady.

Cultural Touchstone
"Carousel scene": While pitching ad concepts to Kodak for new slide wheel, Don wrenchingly illustrates point about nostalgia's power with shots of his own forsaken family. Also, Draperism "If you don't like what's being said, change the conversation," now thoroughly meme-ified.

One to Watch
"The Suitcase" (season 4). Don loses sole friend he's honest with; Olson-Draper tensions culminate in stunning moment of connection. Unfolds at strange, haphazard pace of good fiction, real life.

Photo: Courtesy of PBS

Downton Abbey (PBS, 2011–2016)
In waning days of British aristocracy (show is set between 1912 and 1926), Crawley family clings to rigid rules upstairs as loyal staff toils downstairs.

Why It's Delicious
Tradition informs life's every facet, so any transgression— sex, interclass marriage, incorrect fork usage—elicits tingly thrills. Also: gorgeous costumes, opulent sets. Sure, soap opera–level dialogue, but no matter; could watch on mute and still be delighted. <

Cultural Touchstone
Maggie Smith—dowager countess, barb slinger, torchbearer of dying world view—steals every scene. Best quote: "What is a wheekend?"

One to Watch
Season 2 Christmas special, when longed-for romance finally materializes: "You've lived your life, and I've lived mine. And now it's time we lived them together." Saucy!

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Orange Is the New Black (Netflix, 2013–present)
Upper-middle-class girl Piper (Taylor Schilling), sold out by former crime/love partner, winds up in prison...with former crime/love partner. Series toggles between Piper's travails and beefs, vendettas, romances among fellow inmates.

Secret Sauce
Glorious cast of diverse former unknowns. (See: Laverne Cox.) Each gets full backstory treatment, thoughtful arc.

Cultural Touchstone
No plot point stung like a good-hearted character's sudden death in season 4's "The Animals."

Two to Watch
Well, "The Animals," of course, but also next one, "Toast Can't Never Be Bread Again," a dazzling flashback to the deceased in happier times.

Photo: Barry Wethcer/HBO

The Sopranos (HBO, 1999–2007)
Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini)—Jersey crime boss, family man—confronts existential dread in therapy; self-medicates with cured meats, mistresses.

What It's Really About
Daily grind's ability to devastate—or, as one character laments, "It's like just the fuckin' regularness of life is too fuckin' hard." Murder, feds, brushes with death don't faze Tony, but the mundane—marital spats, ducks fleeing his pool—can level him.

Cultural Touchstone
Final scene. Tony and family order onion rings at diner, play Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" on jukebox. Screen goes abruptly black. Was Tony whacked? Ask creator David Chase.

One to Watch
"College" (season 1). Tony takes teen daughter on campus visits in Maine, spies former crony turned FBI informant at gas station. Efforts to balance dad duty with need to take out snitch get at show's brutal central tension.