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Putting together of a list of recommendations for the best Showtime original series is tricky. The network’s programming has a reputation for starting off strong with audiences and critics before flaming out. Take Dexter, for example. It quickly became the network’s most buzzworthy show, but its widely mocked later seasons and finale make it hard to endorse. The same could be said for Homeland.
That said, here are our picks for Showtime’s most interesting, entertaining, and effective shows—and some recommended stopping points for you to get out while the shows are still on top.
The best Showtime original series
1) Twin Peaks: The Return
With so many shows being resurrected in one form or another to mostly diminishing returns, it’s only right that David Lynch returns to Twin Peaks to push the boundaries of what television can be. Again. The Return is everything fans expected: fascinating, horrifying, slyly funny, frustrating, and singular. Twin Peaks has the kind of versatility to be whatever it wants at any given moment, and that’s what makes it unmissable. Even at its low points, you’re still seeing things that you won’t forget. But at its best, The Return is as good as the form gets.
What Billions lacks in prestige it makes up for in terms of entertainment value. It’s a fun game of cat and mouse between Damian Lewis’ hedge fund banker and Paul Giamatti’s U.S. attorney. Billions strikes the right tone of melodrama and keeps the story moving. The show hit its groove in its recently concluded second season, setting expectations high for season 3. But sometimes it’s the simple pleasures that make a show worth watching. For Billions, that is Paul Giamatti’s intensity. When he takes things to 11, few actors are as amusing to watch
3) The Affair
Pretty people betraying each other. It’s about as standard issue as a drama premise gets. But The Affair makes the formula work to its advantage. The show explores an affair (obviously) and the way it affects the lives of the duplicitous couple (played by Dominic West and Ruth Wilson). The cast also includes Joshua Jackson and Maura Tierney, so basically it’s full of elite TV actors doing what they do best. The characters are well-developed, and the drama is incisive.
4) Penny Dreadful
Horror shows really have a short life, unless they go the anthology route. But that’s a cheat. Longform horror is as tough a task as there is in television. Penny Dreadful found that alchemy and churned out three seasons of the good stuff before surprising fans with an out-of-nowhere series finale. After the shock wore off, its was clear the creative powers that be made the right decision. Any show featuring Van Helsing, Victor Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll is destined to burn bright and fast. Come for the gothic horror, stay for Eva Green’s devilishly good performance.
5) This American Life
For a brief two-season run, Ira Glass and his team produced episodes of their iconic radio show for television. The burden of TV production ultimately proved to be too much, but the episodes produced feature all the hallmarks of This American Life: thoroughly researched and off-the-map stories told with a humanist touch. If you’re a fan of the radio show/podcast, these episodes are essential. If you’ve never tried This American Life, this is a good way to give it a shot.
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Michael C. Hall’s work as the serial-killer-killing serial killer Dexter is one of more indelible TV performances of the 2000s. The show is grisly (as you’d expect given the subject matter) and darkly funny. Dexter made a strong impression right off the bat, and produced several well-received seasons. The show peaked with season 4 and the Trinity Killer (John Lithgow) arc, before a rapid descent. Dexter went out with a whimper, including its widely ridiculed finale, but the show’s highs are still worth the journey (maybe just stop at season 4 to be safe).
Homeland is the best and worst of a Showtime show in one package. It debuted to acclaim from audiences and critics, but after the much-praised first season, the tide turned for everyone involved. The road grew bumpier and bumpier. Even though Homeland hasn’t reached the highs of that first outing, it has settled into a comfy middle ground mix of melodrama and action. Still, that first season remains top notch, with Carrie, Saul, and Brody at their most compelling.
8) Ray Donovan
The most consistent thing about Showtime shows are the performances, which tend to be strong even when the writing isn’t quite up to the actor’s’ efforts. In the case of Ray Donovan, though, Liev Schreiber has great material to work with even in the show’s current fifth season. Schreiber is great as Ray, a fixer who handles his clients’ problems while struggling with his own. It’s a tried-and-true setup, but Schreiber elevates the familiar into something more personal.
It’s kind of amazing that Californication ran for seven seasons and 84 episodes. There is a long history of lowbrow comedies hanging around forever, and when you add in pay cable’s penchant for nudity and language, you get Californication. David Duchonvy carried the show as Hank Moody, a writer sleeping his way through town. Californication was always more of a hit with fans than critics, proving that the show understood what it was and delivered the goods to a welcoming audience.
10) Twin Peaks
If we’re going to recommend Twin Peaks: The Return, then obviously we recommend the OG Twin Peaks. See how it all started, back when Laura Palmer’s body was found on the beach and Twin Peaks was just a dot on a map to Agent Dale Cooper. For all its oddities, it’s the emotional punches the show delivers that stick in your memory. Putting Twin Peaks on here is a cheat since it’s not an original Showtime production, but Twin Peaks doesn’t play by the rules and neither do I.
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.
Eddie Strait is a member of the Austin Film Critic Association. His reviews focus primarily on streaming entertainment, with an emphasis on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other on-demand services.