1. Downton Abbey
How many seasons you need to catch up on: Just three, folks, you can totally do this.
Why it’s important to start from the beginning: The Dowager Countess of Grantham’s quips are worth the watch alone! That and experiencing Lady Mary’s scandalous fall from prized single lady, to disgraced and damaged goods will give you heart palpitations.
2. Mad Men
How many seasons you need to catch up on: Season 6 just wrapped and, boy, was it a doozy!
Why it’s important to start from the beginning: Don Draper is a complicated man, and throughout each season he sprinkles details about his past, like breadcrumbs. In order to form a nearly complete picture of the broken man he’s become, you need to start from Season 1.
Plus, he’s had so many affairs at this point that it would be difficult to keep up if you don’t have some background.
3. The Wire
How many seasons: There were five seasons in total — super easy to blow through. (No drug pun intended.)
Why it’s important to start from the beginning: Each season of this show focuses on a different part of Baltimore — Season 1 centers on drug dealers, while Season 2 dealt with city port workers. And if you start out of order, not only will you have no clue who anyone is, but you’ll lose the intended effect of seeing how each group of people in a society has an often sobering impact on the others.
How many seasons you need to catch up on: 2
Why it’s important to start from the beginning: Because MANDY PATINKIN is awesome?! LOL. Just kidding, guys… except I’m totally serious. Also, if you start from the pilot you get to watch Sgt. Brody return home, and go through all of the is he or isn’t he a terrorist?! plot twists.
How many seasons: There are six in total.
Why it’s important to start from the beginning: Because of the mythology of Lost — things like the Smoke Monster, and The Hatch — it’s often hard to follow, even if you’ve been watching from the start. Besides, the ending that everyone complained about will be that much more powerful if you know about everything that came before.
How many seasons you need to catch up on: It’s about to start the eighth and final season of the series! [Insert tears of despair here.]
Why it’s important to start from the beginning: Dexter has had an enormous journey not just as a serial killer, but as a man struggling to find out if he can keep his life together while under the strain of this huge secret. (Hint: The secret is he kills people.) It’s definitely worth watching from the start to see his descent and eventual — I hope — redemption.
7. Battlestar Galactica
How many seasons you need to catch up on: Four epic seasons.
Why it’s important to start from the beginning: Even non sci-fi geeks can appreciate a show like BSG. The survivors of an apocalyptic fallout have to deal with the decline of the human race, and wrestle with major themes like religion, politics, and the challenges of married life. For all of those reasons — coupled with the crazy plot twists — this is a show best enjoyed from the start.
8. Friday Night Lights
How many seasons: 5
Why it’s important to start from the beginning: This show is all about Coach Taylor — a football coach who just relocated to a small Texas town and is tasked with getting the Panthers to the state championships. That being said, you need to start from the top so you can understand his relationship with the town, the town’s relationship to football, and the impact of what happens to quarterback Jason Street in the pilot episode.
How many seasons you need to catch up on: 15… Holy moly, guys.
Why it’s important to start from the beginning: Julianna Marguiles’ character has an enormous journey from where she starts in the pilot — on the verge of suicide — and ends in the series finale. (No spoilers, but if you watch from the beginning, that series finale will feel so incredibly earned.) This show tackled the drama of the ER, as well as some seriously epic romance. It’s worth the watch.
How many seasons you need to catch up on: 4
Why it’s important to start from the beginning: Harlan, Kentucky is a place where family feuds run deep, and when Deputy Raylan Givens returns to town, he digs up all of those old grudges. (Including many of his own.) Watching from the pilot will help you follow how each family views the other, and see exactly why Raylan can’t simply bring justice the old fashioned way.
How many seasons: 8 in total, making it the longest-running espionage series in TV history.
Why it’s important to start from the beginning: Starting in the middle of this show wouldn’t leave you completely lost, but you would miss the significance of certain recurring characters and plot lines — like Mandy, and the fact that she’s one of the few villains to survive multiple seasons. If you want to do right by Jack Bauer — trust me, you do — then watch from the pilot.
12. Game of Thrones
How many seasons you need to catch up on: Three so far, and hopefully one million more in the future.
Why it’s important to start from the beginning: Season 1 essentially sets up the cutting catalyst for why a group of four families — The Starks, Baratheons, Lannisters, and Targaryens — go to war. (Get it? Cutting catalyst? Because of Ned and his… Oh, never mind.)
Even if you’re a big fan of the book series, you need to watch Game of Thrones. That’s because the show doesn’t stick to the book at all times, it veers in very upsetting and unexpected directions. So, if for nothing else, you should watch these so you can bitterly lament how the writers have butchered George R. R. Martin’s work.
13. Breaking Bad
How many seasons you need to catch up on: Five glorious seasons of Walter White, and we’re currently in the final season. (It’s not too late to catch up!)
Why it’s important to start from the beginning: Walter wasn’t always a super duper meth dealer. In fact, once upon a time he was a great guy with a family to support, and not enough money to do that. Which is why you need to watch his downward spiral from chemistry teacher with a cancer diagnosis to drug lord — if for no other reason than because it’s fascinating and incredibly gripping.
14. Big Love
How many seasons: We got five seasons of polygamous Henrickson love.
Why it’s important to start from the beginning: The show begins with Bill, and his three wives, in what seems to be an unconventional but otherwise happy family. However, with each episode you see the small cracks begin to form and build into deep wells that the Henricksons can barely crawl out of. By the end of the series, it’s clear that all along this has been building to something explosive. If you don’t start from the beginning, you’ll miss those major plot twists, and drama between the wives. (And you’ll lose out on a lot of prairie dresses and long braids.)
15. The Sopranos
How many seasons: There are six seasons of Tony Soprano awesomeness.
Why it’s important to start from the beginning: Being a mob boss isn’t easy, and no one proves that more than James Gandolfini and his award-winning performance as Tony Soprano. From the beginning, you watch as Tony builds enemies, alienates his family, and tries to deal with the stress of handling the mafia through intense therapy sessions. That all builds to one of the most talked about series finales of all time. It’s one of Gandolfini’s most iconic roles, and one that he will forever be remembered for.
16. Six Feet Under
How many seasons: HBO dealt out five seasons of funerals.
Why it’s important to start from the beginning: This isn’t just a show about death — even though it deals a lot with death — but it’s also an unbelievably well done family drama. It’s worth seeing the dynamic of brothers Nate and David evolve from stiff bickering to one of mutual understanding. You also watch the slow evolution of David as he goes from a closeted gay man to being in a loving relationship, as well as Nate’s fear of death and how it influences everything he does. Because of all that, the series finale is one of the most compelling you’ll ever see.
17. Doctor Who
How many seasons you need to catch up on: In total, Doctor Who has had 26 seasons… but that just means they’re doing something right! The series originally ran from 1963 to 1989, and had a reboot in 2005.
Why it’s important to start from the beginning: There have been several Doctors — most recently David Tennant and Matt Smith — and there are so many amazing inside jokes. Sure, you could start in the middle, but that’s like being in a room where everyone’s laughing, and you’re left scratching your head. Hop in the TARDIS, and head back in time to the beginning.
18. Veronica Mars
How many seasons: 3, plus a feature film coming out in 2014!
Why it’s important to start from the beginning: This series does have a lot of stand-alone elements, but it’s really worth watching from the pilot. That’s because there are season-long mysteries in the first two seasons, and Kristen Bell as Veronica is everything. Everything.
How many seasons you need to catch up on: 2! So easy!
Why it’s important to start from the beginning: OMG this show! Listen to me very carefully when I say this: If you’re not watching Scandal, then I don’t know what you’re doing with your life. Start from the beginning, so you can catch every steamy and scandalous moment of Olivia and Fitz’s romance. It’s important, because their lust influences a significant amount of Olivia’s decision making, and Fitz’s actions as president as well.
20. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
How many seasons: Seven vampy seasons.
Why it’s important to start from the beginning: Joss Whedon, as we all know, is the master of all things geeky. Because of that, he built a little geeky world for Buffy and her slayer friends to exist in, filled with intricacies and rules that need to be watched in full to really appreciate. There’s also an epic love triangle between Buffy, Angel, and Spike, that if watched from the start will give you massive shipping feels.
21. The X-Files
How many seasons: 9, and a whole slew of films.
Why it’s important to start from the beginning: Mulder and Scully are perhaps one of the most underrated romances of TV history. It’s not a case of feeling lost, or confused, but this is a really fun show with wonderful recurring characters and symbolic images. Watching from the beginning helps you appreciate those later appearances, and feel like you’re part of Mulder and Scully’s supernatural hunting team. (Did I mention they’re adorable and cute together?)
22. The Wonder Years
How many seasons: The series ran until 1993, and ended after season 6.
Why it’s important to start from the beginning: Because this show spans Kevin Arnold’s childhood, and those crucial teen years, not watching from the start means you’ll miss the humble romantic beginnings with Winnie Cooper. It’s too cute to miss!
23. Arrested Development
How many seasons: 4, all of which are available on Netflix! Very convenient.
Why it’s important to start from the beginning: As Gob Bluth could likely tell you, not watching from the pilot would be a huge mistake. That’s because there are so many wonderful recurring jokes that you’d lose if you started in the middle. (I just blue myself. There’s always money in the banana stand. Never nudes. etc.)
24. Boardwalk Empire
How many seasons you need to catch up on: 3 seasons of life in the age of Prohibition.
Why it’s important to start from the beginning: Nucky Thompson has made a lot of friends, and even more enemies. But the real beauty of this show is how his relationship with certain characters radically evolves each season — his sordid relationship with Margaret, for example. To fully appreciate why so many people want to see this guy dead, you need to see the backstabbing he pulled right from the beginning.
25. The Good Wife
How many seasons you need to catch up on: 4
Why it’s important to start from the beginning: The Good Wife could easily pass for a procedural about a law firm solving cases that are stand-alone. However, because Alicia Florrick’s personal life is so complex, it’s best to start from the pilot. That way you get to watch her husband Peter Florrick’s epic political fall from grace, and see how his indiscretions cast a permanent shadow on his wife and children. It’s heartbreaking, but ultimately we get to experience Alicia’s return to triumph and strength. (You also won’t want to miss any of the guest stars.)