The Top 20 Thriller TV Shows of All-Time

I wondered why is the difference between a Thriller TV Show and a Suspense TV Show. As it turns out, they are technically the same, which is a bit of a disappointment. Thriller seems to have more potential for an upbeat ending, while suspense opens the door for a climactic downer. You can disagree with me, but when I put this list together I had to come up with a way that separates it from 100 similar lists that are copied and pasted for your annoyance.

One thing that I found consistent with those annoying lists is that there are very few, if any, TV series from before 2000 that voters or critics decided were worthy of a spot on the All-time Thriller list. Either most of the voters and critics were born after 1995 (a possibility) or TV just sucked when it came to writing great thriller/suspense genre TV shows. Feel free to comment on what you think why the vast majority of All-Time Thriller TV shows came after 2000.

Now here is my take on it in two words — cable TV. Most of the shows that made my list were seen or can be seen on regular old cable stations. USA, Showtime, and HBO to name a few (and no, I didn’t stop Netflix shows from making the list). That may say a lot about the future direction of TV because it is actually getting better. More choices, more opportunities for avoiding network TV sitcoms and half-hearted attempts at producing quality shows.

As for who made this list, I decided to eliminate the shows that do not have a lone major character who, if they got killed, that would be the end of the show. TV series such as Dexter, 24, and Narcos made the list because obviously, if you kill off the main character it is a show stopper. Also, the series must not be episodic, meaning that every weekly show cannot dilute the main character because of the storyline. This requires a bit of explanation.

Law and Order, that interminable TV drama that has 100 spinoffs, is actually the definition of the reverse of a thriller. Nobody watches the show and cares what happens to McCoy or Schiff or Briscoe. We only care about if they got the bad guy. How do you think Law and Order SVU can drone on for decades? All they did was replace the detectives, who no one really cares about, and focus on a popular topic that virtually everyone agrees on. Changing assistant DAs on the original series didn’t slow down its ratings.

Enough of my droning. On to the list (which is not in any particular order).

1. Dallas — the 1978 version

Yes, a 40 year old show. They tried to do a remake which ended up a failure. Why? Larry Hagman, who played J. R. Ewing, died during the production of Season 2. The show was cancelled after season 3. The original 1978 version focused on what was the next plot J. R. was hatching, which were never ending. When you think he is down for the count, he gets up. The 1980 episode, “Who Done It,” is still the second highest rated prime-time show in television history. In 1980 there were 100 million fewer people living in the United States. It was water cooler talk in most offices. You may see critical and intellectual claims that Dallas was “an ensemble cast” but everyone knows without J. R. Ewing there is no show.

2. 24

Like J. R. Ewing, without Jack Bauer there is no 24. They tried a reboot using a different character and that lasted all of one season. The show was the first of its kind, an experiment of sorts, to use a real time clock to pace the show and the events. Like Dallas, everyone around Jack Bauer was along for the ride. There is no doubt that every episode of 24 left people watching and talking about what would happen to Jack. It also embodies a special quality of many of the TV shows on this list — it knows when to quit. Kiefer Sutherland, who played Jack Bauer, decided to quit 24 after the 8th season, though a movie was made a few years after.

3. Breaking Bad

We all know Walter White died, right? That essentially ended the Breaking Bad series that actually was gaining viewers during the last two episodes. Writer Vince Gillian who did a special after-show interview with cast members when the final episode concluded said the show was only written to be 5 seasons long. Like 24 it had gone out on a high note, even though the end of that note was tragic (for viewers as well). There is no show without Walter White, and the original premise that he is dying of cancer has every episode leaving the question: Will it return? There were so many ways Walter could have been caught or killed, and the series kept us guessing at the end of every week.

4. Dexter

Dexter is the kind of thriller that is morally ambiguous, something that has become more common in both TV and movie storylines. The premise of a traumatized child who has his psychopathic tendencies funneled into a channel that exacts revenge on the worst types of criminals (this smacks of Law and Order SVU) found a popular following, though it was not consistent from season to season. The thing about this thriller is that it seemed many viewers wanted to see how it would end. In its 8th and final season, the last episode drew more than 2.8 million viewers, the most Showtime had ever drawn for a single show. The question is whether its viewers were drawn by the creative acts of revenge or the desire to see how a professionally trained psychopathic killer would inevitably have his past come full circle.

5. Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks is a classic example of why thriller TV series need to avoid the major networks. ABC first grabbed on to the idea and cancelled after 2 seasons (stoopid). Showtime picked it up and it has been one of the best shows around in its 3rd season. There is a dispute that the series ended prematurely after a 23rd season, in part because while the show was getting solid ratings it could not put off revealing the answer to the murder mystery without diluting the quality of the show. It seems unfair to evaluate the quality of a TV series based on it longevity. But FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper could only play dumb for so long. Plus, there was a 25 year break between the 2nd and 3rd seasons. That in itself says a lot for this TV series.

6. Hannibal

When we mention the name Hannibal there is only one name that comes to mind — Hannibal Lecter of the Silence of the Lambs epic serial killer film. It was natural that there would be sequels and prequels, and the obligatory TV series. Give credit to NBC for turning out what ended up being an award winning, 3 season TV thriller and meeting the FCC standards of public television sensibility by maintaining the thriller aspect while avoiding the face chomping, club beating dimensions of the character. Critics praised the acting of Hugh Dancy, while simultaneously giving a lot of praise to the show’s creativity. Can 3 seasons be the magic number for a successful TV thriller?

7. Bates Motel

This TV series thriller deserves a special, but odd, place on this list because the end of the show after 5 seasons was not necessarily due to a show ending finale but because the network that aired the series, A&E said that it would no longer be doing originally scripted programming. Though the show had lost viewers during season 5, it still attracted more than 1.3 million fans. Like the follow up to the success of Silence of the Lambs, Bates Motel followed on the storied footsteps of Alfred Hitchcock’s longtime favorite Psycho. Much attention was given to Bates’ mother played by Academy Award nominee Vera Farminga (Up in the Air) and the prequel would not have been nearly as effective without her presence.

8. The Blacklist

This is a show that may reinforce the stereotype presented in this list that in today’s modern TV era, it is very difficult to keep an audience interested for more than 3 or 4 seasons. The Blacklist has been nominated for several awards, yet had shown a consistent decline in viewership over its 5 seasons. Wanted and captured criminal mastermind Raymond “Red” Reddington played by James Spader is the center of attention and weaves his way through a number of plots, but perhaps once the secret attraction to FBI agent Liz Keene was revealed the series turned episodic in nature. Again, though the series is excellent, it may have made a fatal mistake by becoming a week-ending storyline instead of a continuous one.

9. Monster

The anime genre needed to be represented in this list, and Monster is definitely a worthy choice. Airing on the SyFy cable network, it was seen on Ani-Mondays and like its comic book original, received international recognition for its ability to take a thriller themed storyline and inject into it a solid dose of love and hope. Both eternal concepts, love and hope are challenging to imbibe into the basic storyline of a relationship between a surgeon and one of his former patients, who is to be revealed as a psychopath. TV show thriller storylines about psychopaths commonly show up in these lists, but Monster has elements of politics, revenge, and the opportunity to make amends for an earlier mistake.

10. Person of Interest

If you have never seen this show before, you will have to decide whether the person of interest is the creator or a supercomputer — or perhaps the terrorist that is being sought — not very long into the series. The original plot was changed only a few episodes into the first season, when the supercomputer was merely a plot device and had to real say-so within the storyline. Once the supercomputer became part of the story, it transformed Person of Interest into more than just a good guy-bad guy TV show but one where the issue of morality and the use of knowledge computers bring to us ran through every episode. Through its 5 seasons, only the last one reflected any viewer drop off. The other 4 seasons never saw an audience viewership of less than 12 million per week. There may be some debate as to whether Harold Finch or the supercomputer itself were the lead actor, but computers can’t act, can they?

11. Millennium

Yet another 3 season show, but this one ended due to lack of audience interest. The ratings fell off considerably after season 2, and though the show was cancelled by Fox unexpectedly at the end of season 3, they brought closure to Millennium in an X-files seventh season episode aptly named “Millennium.” Of course, the question is how did the show make the list if it was unceremoniously cancelled. The answer, once again, comes from the inability of major TV networks to understand the nature of the thriller genre. According to one source, the show wasn’t cancelled solely on a decline in ratings but by “pessimistic forecasts from industry insiders.” What is frustrating to fans is the 3rd season ended with a cliffhanger. What sense does that make?

12. Mr. Robot

A good majority of the thriller TV shows come from a movie. With Mr. Robot the reverse is true. It almost was made into a film first. The main character, Elliot Alderson, is a hacker who suffers from social anxiety disorder and clinical depression. Now that is as real as it gets, no? Why limit it to a 100 minute movie? When writing the first act had begun by Sam Esmail, it suffered from a common writer’s dilemma — the expanding script. Sometimes it pays to leave well-enough alone, so rather than spend hours trying to condense the script, and the character, Esmail ran with the superfluous writing. Another USA network thriller, this is one that has been greenlighted for a 4th season beginning in October, 2017. You have plenty of time to find out if Alderson and the fsociety can rid the world of debt — at least temporarily.

13. Narcos

Narcos contains the word “narc” and so we have the drug empire theme. But this one is based on the real life story of Pablo Escobar who was shot and killed by police in 1993. Unlike many TV thrillers, Narcos is one where you already know the end from the beginning. So keeping the suspense up through 4 seasons is definitely a challenge. Netflix is currently airing season 3, with a 10 episode season 4 under contract. The interest may be in the fact that drugs (for better or worse) are imbibed in the American culture, or that it reflects a cruder model of Dallas in its lust for money and the lifestyle that goes with the pursuit of money. Narcos proves that a well-written thriller can adapt to any medium.

14. Sons of Anarchy

The prevailing theory about why men and women join gangs is the need for family. Sons of Anarchy explores this idea in a different way, creating a conflict between a leader in a motorcycle gang, Jackson “Jax” Teller, with Teller’s father whose vision for the gang was much different than the drug running, porn film-making activities that were going on. Jax is hell-bent on changing the ways of the gang, but since he is only the number 2 man and has to contend with the other members as well, it is not obvious just how he is going to be able to see his father’s vision realized. You might see it as a dilemma as to how to find a way to return to your true family’s roots. But it definitely is not a romantic thriller (is there such a thing?)

15. Death Note

I didn’t say there was only one anime TV show on the list. Death Note was crazily popular at one time because the premise, that a supernatural book existed that could determine the death of whoever’s name was written in it, was actually practiced by students in some schools. The idea is to rid the world of evil, but exactly how does one determine who is evil? This moral conflict is what gives continued conflict from episode to episode, never knowing when — or if — the name writing will end.

16. Luther

Another detective story, but the twist in this one follows along the lines of “I have become the thing which I have sought to destroy. The main character, John Luther, is someone who has a very dark side that parallels the criminals he is seeking. In fact, their darkness sometimes consumes him. The idea that the very people we trust to protect our lives and security can, as has been observed from time to time, end up being just as dark or darker is what energizes this series. The question of how deep that darkness can grow or whether someone can save us from that darkness constantly hovers above.

17. Taboo

This series, set after the War of 1812, is set in Britain. It is a series about the dangers of power and money, and the desire of others who are willing to go to any lengths to either steal that wealth or murder you to get it. The time period just after the War of 1812 is central to the series, as James Keziah Delaney, the main character, has to negotiate with both Britain and America to navigate a solution.

18. Stranger Things

This is one of the most talked about and popular TV thriller shows on the screen today. The first season aired in 2016 and laid the foundation for the future dilemmas faced by the characters. Its major attraction is that it combines the supernatural, a popular theme in many TV thriller series, with the sensitive, natural nature of children. Experiments are being done to investigate supernatural phenomenon in a nearby laboratory, but unknown to the researchers their discovery is having an unexpected effect on the nearby town. If you’re asking how can this be included in this list of “all-time” TV shows, it is because I am an optimist.

19. The Mentalist

If there is one thing that has been said about The Mentalist it is that it makes you think. This is what separates it from many other of the cop-turned-hunter TV series where the cop is using his previous experience and knowledge to hunt down a serial killer. In this TV show, the serial killer has murdered his wife and daughter. But there is the added dimension of this cop previously being a con man and can decipher body language to dig up facts that would be ignored by most investigators. The show makes you constantly think because, in part, you are trying to see what he sees before the show tells you what he sees.

20. Banshee

Finally, Banshee takes an upside down look at the cop-chasing-criminal storyline and turns it into a drug lord-chasing an ex-con. But more than the chase, the ex-con takes on the identity of a murdered sheriff to hide from the drug lord. That opens the door to trying to follow who will find out what — and when. If that doesn’t get you to follow the series, add the fact that the ex-con is trying to reconnect with his former love, who just happens to be the drug lord’s daughter. While it may seem complicated at first, once you have the basic premise in mind, Banshee is quite a show to follow.

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