Must-See Cult TV Shows

Nick Briggs / ITV for Masterpiece

Whether you’re a fan of ebullient musical numbers or
sleek period dramas, there’s never been a better time to love television.

If there’s a lesson to learn from the rise, fall and resurrection of Arrested Development, the sitcom centered on the lovably dysfunctional Bluth family that aired on FOX from 2003 to 2006, it’s that it pays to be a cult favorite. Though the show was a critical darling and attracted an impressive list of guest stars (Charlize Theron, Liza Minelli and Amy Poehler among them), the network canceled it after only three seasons, due to mediocre ratings. This didn’t deter the show’s fan base, which continued to grow in size and zeal until, after five years of clamoring, the powers that be relented. Onstage at the New Yorker Festival last fall, the ensemble cast—which includes Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and David Cross—and their director, Ron Howard, announced that the show will be returning in 2013 with ten new episodes, followed by a feature-length film. Fanatics everywhere chicken-danced with joy.

Arrested Development isn’t the only show that’s managed to attract a circle of ardent supporters; with “Gleeks” and “Downton Maniacs” commanding the spotlight, there’s never been a better time to love television passionately and unapologetically. Smash, NBC’s new drama chronicling the creation of a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe, is primed to capitalize on this enthusiasm: Its pilot drew 11.4 million viewers and a whirlwind of positive buzz. Fans are already arguing over which of the show’s two starlets would make a better Marilyn.

But with dozens of shows competing for attention and limited hours in a day, which are worth watching? We’ve trolled the airwaves for a list of television shows that, through charismatic characters, compelling plotlines and high production values, live up to the fan fervor. All tastes are accounted for, from Portlandia, IFC’s sketch-comedy show that riffs on the cultural quirks of the Pacific Northwest, to Homeland, the Golden Globe-winning terrorist psychodrama from Showtime, starring Claire Danes as an unbalanced CIA agent, to Downton Abbey, the BBC period drama that has secured veteran actress Maggie Smith a whole new set of acolytes. The only question is: Do you have a DVR?