Television is often criticized as a brain drain. Watching the hordes of reality garbage and canned sitcom “humor” that comes our way, it’s sometimes tough to argue the point. However, there are a few shows that one might classify as “smart.” The following are 10 of the best TV programs to make you think. And when you think about them, they get even better.
#10 How I Met Your Mother
While HIMYM has traded in some of its clever, time-bending storytelling for popularity in recent years, the non-linear format still pops up to give us a surprise. But seriously, go watch classic episodes like “The Pineapple Incident” or “Three Days of Snow” if you want a master class in audience manipulation via story.
Summer 2011’s surprising best new show never lets its characters or its audience take the easy way out. Photographic memory is a skill, not a gimmick. The lawyers’ victories are complicated enough to justify their enormous salaries. Viewers have to come to terms with their love of Harvey Specter, a truly despicable human being. Plus, there are all those cool movie references!
Viewers can take most of Fringe’s pseudoscience on faith, but the sci-fi series’ manipulation of parallel universes and time travel requires some thought. From the detailed differences between the worlds (Eric Stoltz in Back to the Future? Zeppelins?) to the possibility of erasing a beloved character from existence, you can’t even follow Fringe if you don’t want to think.
It’s an art-house film, full of commentary on life and philosophy, disguised as a sitcom. If you like your brilliance subversive, Louie is the way to go.
#6 Breaking Bad
What makes Breaking Bad so entertaining to watch is how often viewers try to figure out the next move. Walter White’s journey from a chemistry teacher with cancer to a meth kingpin has come with plenty of obstacles — and trying to guess what’s next is half the fun. Also, if you’re looking for a quick chemistry lesson, Walt has a habit of explaining everything in complex chemical terms.
#5 The Big Bang Theory
Any show that makes jokes about Schrodinger’s cat (and then revives those jokes several episodes later) expects you to use your brain. But how could you not want to think when watching a bunch of misfit geniuses?
#4 Mad Men
Mad Men is more than just a history lesson. Although constantly framed by its historical period, Mad Men is a complex and often brilliant glimpse into the minds and lives of deeply-flawed individuals like Don Draper.
#3 South Park
The funny little paper cut-outs only partially mask a social commentary that forces the observant viewer to constantly question both society and his or her own beliefs. Also, there are fart jokes.
#2 The Daily Show and The Colbert Report
Millions of Americans get their news from these paired shows — for good reason. Biting journalistic commentary combined with brilliant interviews and then turned into actual entertainment? Why wouldn’t you want your news from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert?
There’s a reason why so few people watch what is probably television’s best comedy: It’s not easy. Even when you keep up with the rapidly evolving humor, you never get to rest easy when watching Community. The show challenges the very bases of comedy formatting, forcing viewers to question what a “sitcom” even is.
When you add this to extra-weird premises like paintball (“Modern Warfare,” “A Fistful of Paintballs” and “For a Few Paintballs More”), fake flashbacks (“Paradigms of Human Memory”) and even alternate realities (the recent and excellent “Remedial Chaos Theory”), the questioning turns to brilliance. Watching an episode of Community can be exhausting. But it might be the best exhaustion you could ever feel.