Like meth addicts jonesing for a fix, we’re all at a loose end since Monday saw the end of Breaking Bad and one of TV’s greatest ever productions finished its final cook. Nothing could ever replace Breaking Bad in our affections, but you needn’t go cold turkey entirely. Here are a few substitute shows with morally complex leads to help ease the pain during this difficult time.
If you have never had the privilege of watching Shawn Ryan’s unflinching portrayal of police brutality and moral ambiguity, there’s no better time than now. Oft compared to Breaking Bad – if only for the arc its central anti-hero – The Shield is also one of those rare shows that, like a fine vintage, gets better with age. Rather than lose momentum in later seasons it comes into its own, ending with what is arguably the strongest season. Inspired in part on the LAPD’s Rampart scandal, the show is utterly embodied by Michael Chiklis’ Detective Vic Mackey, the brutal but highly effective leader of Farmington’s gang-focused Strike Team. He doesn’t so much break bad as start that way and get worse, but this is A-grade, 99.6% pure entertainment and well deserving of your attention.
Set in the same universe as The Shield and sieved from the mind of long-time Shield veteran Kurt Sutter, Sons Of Anarchy has been called The Sopranos on two wheels. We have no idea why, because there’s little real synergy between the two shows bar the protagonists’ criminal enterprises. SoA is, rather, a leather-clad retelling of Hamlet with Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) as the VP of an outlaw motorcycle gang haunted (metaphorically) by the ghost of his father and at odds with stepfather and club leader, Clay (Ron Perlman). It’s a fascinating look at MC 1%er culture and a compelling dramatic exploration of the strict moral boundaries that can exist within an entirely amoral framework. Hard to sit through at times (almost of all of Sutter’s season openers contain an excoriating act of violence) and the Irish interlude was regrettable, but it's worth getting up to date before the seventh and final season airs next year.
Let’s just get this over with. You all know what The Sopranos is, you’ve all seen The Sopranos and we don’t need to recommend it to you. The only reason The Sopranos is on this list is because you can’t have a list of great TV (let alone great TV with anti-heroic leads) without including it. Despite its divisive finale and a final season of, shall we say, mixed quality compared to what preceded it, David Chase’s mob drama is still some of the best programming ever to grace the goggle box. Brush off your box set and have another watch. Next!
This is another show that should need no introduction, but given how few people actually watched it when it aired, we can’t take that for granted. When veteran newshound David Simon first took viewers to the seedy street corners of downtown Baltimore he made us work for it. Tired of television that let people sit, supine and idle as stories were spoon-fed to them, he wrought a show that required you to sit up, lean forward and engage in the story. Impenetrable street patois and a sprawling cast that went largely without introduction was enough to put off casual viewers, but for those who persisted the reward was a cutting social commentary, some peerless drama and a serious contender for most accomplished TV show of all time. None of the characters on either side of the law are without flaw – least of all Dominic West’s Jimmy McNulty – but none are irredeemable either, and all boast a verisimilitude rarely found on television. Make it to the ‘fuck’ scene in episode four of season one and you’ll be infatuated from there on in.
Based on the character from Elmore Leonard’s short story Fire In The Hole, Raylan Givens is a Southern-born, working class US Marshal. In a cowboy hat. Raylan's less a true anti-hero than an Old West-style lawman with a 19th century mentality, dishing out frontier justice with a charming Kentucky drawl. The show began with a rather patchy fugitive-of-the-week format when Deputy Givens returns to the Marshals’ field office in his native Kentucky after a dodgy shooting in Miami. But it show soon broadened into more arc-driven storytelling and now does a good job of exploring the Southern underbelly and positively revels in its portrayal of colourful criminals, noticeably Raylan’s mid-level goon father, Arlo (Raymond J. Barry) and buddy-turned-crime-boss Boyd Crowder (a never-better Walton Goggins). The second best show ever to put Timothy Olyphant in a cowboy hat.
The very best show ever to put Timothy Olyphant in a cowboy hat, this time as an actual Old West lawman. David Milch’s historic(ish) frontier saga may only have lasted three seasons before being summarily cancelled (in arguably the darkest chapter in HBO’s history) but what seasons they were. Olyphant himself is the moral compass of a show that takes place within the titular settlement’s lawless, morality-free borders. It’s beating heart, however, is Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen: saloon-owner, brothel-keeper, murderer, swindler and unlikely hero of the people. Milch’s flare for unorthodox sentence structure makes almost every line of dialogue a minor masterpiece, and as long as you’re not offended by a bit of profanity (the word ‘fuck’ is used 43 times in the first episode alone) this is an absolute must-watch.
While season two took this once very tense espionage drama and turned it into 24, season three looks like it might rein in the crazy. Either way, there’s a great deal to love about Homeland’s twisty-turny tale of terrorism in America. Damian Lewis’ militant convert is the focus of the conspiracy but it’s Claire Danes’ performance as bipolar intelligence analyst Carrie Matheson, and the constant stream of curveballs (double, triple, QUADRUPLE agents), that will blow your socks off. While we’re in an extremist state of mind, an honourable shout-out goes out to Sleeper Cell, which ran for only two seasons and was seen by almost no one. A gripping story of an agent embedded behind enemy dogma, that was especially notable for Oded Fehr's performance as charismatic terrormonger Faris al Farik.
Robbie Coltrane’s Fitz is perhaps the greatest character in British television drama. A hard-drinking, chain-smoking, compulsively-gambling, overweight womaniser with a penchant for verbally beating people to an intellectual pulp, Coltrane could carry this entire show on charisma alone. As it happens he doesn’t need to, because Jimmy McGovern’s scalpel-fine writing makes this a tour de force from end to end. Dripping with sarcasm, laser-targeted observation and some weighty criminal psychology, Cracker’s joy lies not in solving mysteries but in watching Fitz brutalise the perpetrators with his crushing intelligence, mentally fencing with suspects while manoeuvring them between a rock and a hardcase. Bonus props go to Robert Carlysle for his role as Ablie in To Be A Somebody – when the two of them go toe-to-toe trading football chants it’s nothing short of magnificent.
Currently run by Justified creator Graham Yost, this Cold War-era show follows two deep cover Russian agents (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) embedded in '80s America. On the surface they’re an all-American married couple with two kids, a station wagon and a cookie-cutter suburban life. In reality they’re carrying out missions for the Motherland right under the nose of the CIA. With heroes who double as villains, The Americans walks the cusp of moral quandary at every turn, presenting a pair of flawed protagonists who find themselves torn between their two worlds.
Despite often simply bellowing at people and using their first names an inordinate amount during conversation, John ‘Loo-fer’ is a magnetic screen presence. A DCI in the Met’s Serious Crimes Unit, Luther pursues the worst of London’s criminal sociopaths and proves that, as Nietzsche observed, you can’t stare into the abyss without it staring back into you. Nursing an inner darkness that bubbles to the surface in spectacular fashion (man vs door), he’s as unorthodox as he is single-minded, and the result is a show that bends the view of justice through Luther’s twisted lens. Idris Elba’s performance is the big draw here, but his relationship with malignant, narcissistic killer Alice Morgan (an outrageously over-the-top Ruth Wilson) is often Luther’s most compelling aspect.
Yes, you read that right. One of the nice things about living in the modern age is that TV shows are lovingly packaged in collectible box sets to be enjoyed again and again. If you’re itching for your Blue Sky fix, why not go right back to the start and remind yourself how it all began? Go on, say his name…