The thriller has been a long-running genre on television for a simple reason: they’re exciting to watch. It even breaks down into sub-genres like crime thrillers, action thrillers, supernatural thrillers, conspiracy thrillers… You name it, there’s a thriller for it. Any show that uses suspense and tension to drive the narrative can be classified as a thriller.
Although a few recent attempts have been disappointing — for example, AMC’s "Rubicon" seems to lack the excitement normally provided by a thriller — the genre has been especially well served on television in recent years.
Crave Online has taken a look back at several TV series to assemble our list of the top ten thrillers to invade our TV screens. Just remember to trust no one and always wait for the twist…
10: "Prison Break"
Despite the ridiculousness that came in later years, the first season of "Prison Break" was a fantastically conceived story about a man named Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) who devices an elaborate plan to rescue his brother Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell) from death row. But the only way to do that was to get himself sent to the same prison for armed robbery.
After Michael convinced Lincoln to break out and prove his innocence, the rest of the season became about recruiting other prisoners to escape with them while trying to determine who they could and couldn’t trust. Not everybody made it out of Fox River Penitentiary alive, but the show was never better than when the Fox River 8 went over the prison wall in their quest for freedom.
While in the second season it was still exciting to watch the brothers try to stay free, it didn’t quite have the same magic of the first year. Which is something that the producers must have realized when they sent Michael back to prison (in a foreign country this time), where he spent most of the third season. And the less said about the fourth season the better…
On second thought, maybe I should warn everyone that in the fourth season, the surviving convicts are recruited to be black ops agents for an off-the-books CIA mission. Then when they were double-crossed, they were fugitives AGAIN.
Oh… and Lincoln and Michael’s mom was behind it all. Which is perhaps the strongest argument that "Prison Break" should have ended a lot sooner.
9: "The Fugitive"
This is the granddaddy of all TV thrillers from the late ’60s. Even if you’ve only seen the kick-ass Harrison Ford movie remake from the ’90s, you know the premise: Dr. Richard Kimple (David Janssen) is falsely convicted of killing his wife and escapes from death row during a train accident. For four seasons, Kimple desperately searched for his wife’s killer, the mysterious "one-armed man" (Bill Raisch) while being pursued by Philip Gerard (Barry Morse), a police officer obsessed with bringing him in.
While the series is solid throughout, the main reason "The Fugitive" still resonates is that it had a strong ending. In the final episode, just as Kimple closes in on the "one-armed man," Gerard finally catches Kimple. However, Kimple is able to convince his long-time adversary to give him one last chance to prove his innocence. In a climactic struggle, Gerard actually saves Kimple’s life during his final battle with the "one-armed man," which led to a witness at last coming forward to clear Kimple’s name.
If "The Fugitive" hadn’t wrapped up its main story, it’s highly doubtful that it would still be as fondly remembered. If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that audiences always prefer closure.
8: "Sleeper Cell"
After 9/11, there’s nothing America seems to fear more than another terrorist attack by extremist Muslims inside our borders.
"Sleeper Cell" crafted a story around those fears by following Darwyn Al-Sayeed (Michael Ealy), an FBI agent who has embraced Islam and is given a dangerous undercover assignment to infiltrate a domestic terror cell led by the charismatic Faris al-Farik (Oded Fehr). At times the series offered an extremely chilling view of those who sought to kill innocent people in order to further their ideological warfare.
The series also ran on consecutive nights, which helped heighten the suspense as the plans came together and Darwyn (along with his FBI colleagues) tried to thwart the terrorists. The second season pushed creditability by putting Darwyn undercover again, when another character might have been better suited to continue the story.
"Sleeper Cell" may be considered exploitative by some, but it’s also one of the few series tackle modern terrorism in a relatively nuanced way.
Back in the ’80s, "Wiseguy" was the pinnacle of TV thrillers. Created by Stephen J. Cannell ("The A-Team") and Frank Lupo, the series followed Ken Wahl as Vincent "Vinnie" Terranova, a deep-cover FBI agent assigned to bring down organized crime from the inside. "Wiseguy" was also innovative in its use of multi-episode storylines through each season, which not only allowed Vinnie to get deeper into the organizations, it also allowed for greater characterization for the supporting characters in addition to the lead.
Vinnie also felt the psychological impact of his job like few TV heroes before him. He was actually institutionalized at one point in order to deal with the guilt of betraying people that he had considered friends and surrogate family. His actions often had negative consequences both for himself and for those that he cared about.
The series also made terrific use of music to further set the mood of the show, a touch which has sadly been lost on DVD due to issues with the music clearance rights.
"Carnivàle" is one of the strangest period dramas to ever air on HBO. It was also one of the best.
In "Carnivàle," Daniel Knauf created an unusually epic storyline about the battle between good and evil set in the Great Depression during the ’30s. Featuring a strange, supernatural mythology throughout, the series had a memorable struggle between its hero, Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) and the villain, Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown).
What made their respective stories so entertaining was seeing just how much they struggled against their destiny. During the first season, Brother Justin senses the darkness in himself and desperately tries to stop himself from becoming a villain, while Ben rejected his healing powers and tried to avoid his hero’s path.
What other series has kept the hero and the villain from even meeting each other until the final episode? And when Brother Justin and Ben finally did confront each other, it was an epic battle worth savoring.
Sadly, the series ended after just two seasons with several mysteries unresolved.
"Millennium" is a criminally underrated series by Chris Carter, created in the wake of his previous show, "The X-Files." Taut and gripping from the start, the series starred Lance Henriksen as Frank Black, a former FBI agent with an almost psychic ability to get into the minds of killers. A pre-"Lost" Terry O’Quinn co-starred as Peter Watts, Frank’s contact in the mysterious Millennium group; which was comprised of several former law enforcement professionals.
While the series often downplayed the supernatural aspects inherent in "The X-Files," the second season introduced a sublime conspiracy angle to the Millennium group itself, both in terms of how long it had actually existed and what its true purpose was. The revelations that came ultimately set Frank against the group and sent him back to the FBI in the third season.
Although the series wasn’t able to match the intensity of its first two seasons, "Millennium" had a cinematic look and feel that is still above nearly everything else on television.
Although better known in the US as "MI-5," "Spooks" is a uniquely British spy series that has earned its reputation by not pulling any punches.
David Wolstencroft’s series set the tone very early in the show’s run, when a heroic character named Helen Flynn (Lisa Faulkner) was violently tortured to death in an attempt to extract information from her superior, Tom Quinn (Matthew Macfadyen).
Currently approaching its ninth season on the BBC, the show has developed a strong following worldwide thanks to its high production values and gripping storylines. It was recent picked up for an American adaptation by ABC.
3: "The X-Files"
Perhaps one of the most definitive shows of the ’90s, Chris Carter’s "The X-Files" brilliantly mixed urban legends, alien abductions and conspiracy theories to essentially create an anthology series that allowed him to tell almost any kind of story. Featuring star making turns by David Duchovny as Special Agent Fox Mulder and Gillian Anderson as Agent Dana Scully, the series invaded the American consciousness like few others have before it; leading to a feature film in the middle of the show’s run.
While the earliest years of the show featured "monsters of the week" mixed with occasional "mythology" episodes that explored a potential alien invasion, the series came to be defined by its conspiracy angles. "Trust No One," became a popular refrain, and even Fox Mulder came to doubt the truth of what he had experienced.
However, "The X-Files" is also a prime example of a series staying around long past its prime. With relatively few storylines wrapped up satisfactorily and Duchovny largely absent for two seasons, the show limped to its ending rather than finishing strong. It could have become the greatest sci-fi series of all time.
Instead, it’s simply one of the best. Even to this day there are imitators ("Warehouse 13," for example) that can’t even begin to recapture what this series had.
If anything made J. J. Abrams into the superstar director and producer that he is today, it’s "Alias." Running for five seasons on ABC, "Alias" followed Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) a young secret agent who was deceived into working for a shadowy group calling themselves SD-6, who had presented themselves to her as an offshoot of the CIA. Upon learning truth, Syndey joined her father Jack Bristow (Victor Garber) as a double agent for the CIA within SD-6 and received support from her CIA handler, Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan).
While some fans have complained about the sometimes fantastical elements within the series (such as the Nostradamus-like Milo Rambaldi predictions about Sydney herself), the series consistently delivered great action sequences and incredible cliff-hangers on a week-to-week basis during the first two seasons.
While the show was never fully embraced by the viewing audience (and it lost a few steps by trying to be less mythology driven), it is still the template and inspiration for several upcoming spy series.
"Alias" was also recently mentioned as a show that ABC is considering for a potential reboot as well.
I’m sure it’s been said before, but once you go Jack, you never go back.
When "24" debuted on Fox in 2001, it was a breath of fresh air for action thrillers. By combining the best elements of conspiracy stories and political intrigue with a literal ticking clock, Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran delivered a series that was clearly one of the best programs on TV from the very start.
The series followed Kiefer Sutherland as CTU Agent Jack Bauer, a man who would go to any lengths to defend his country and his family. The first few seasons were particularly impressive, as it seemed like almost anything could happen and there was a palatable intensity throughout.
Sure, "24" could get a little ridiculous at times. Like when Jack’s daughter Kim (Elisha Cuthbert) was menaced by a cougar or his wife Teri (Leslie Hope) developed convenient amnesia. But audiences were willing to overlook these elements because the show was almost always exciting to watch. Jack Bauer even became something of an action icon himself.
The only thing that ensured the demise of "24" was the constant recycling of plotlines in the later seasons. (How many times did Jack go rogue?!)
But even in the final season, "24" was still the most thrilling show on TV. And the gold standard by which others are still judged.