Mad Men: Sex, lies, cigarettes & liquor circa 1960 Madison Avenue ad agency.
Breaking Bad: Death, lies, sex, drugs & murder. An Albuquerque high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer becomes a meth manufacturer to provide for his family after he's gone.
Dexter: Some sex, but mostly lies & murder. A forensic blood spatter analyst by day, somewhat likable serial killer at night.
Rescue Me: Sex, lies, death, murder, cigarettes, liquor & drugs. Post 911 life for NYFD firefighters.
I know I'm far behind most of my readers, but on the small chance you've also been negligent in your TV viewing, I'd recommend all except Dexter. No spoilers follow.
Dexter is an almost likable serial killer who observes a strict code of conduct established by his father. He must kill regularly, but he only murders people who deserve to die. His murders are carried out in a disciplined, efficient manner.
In many reviews Dexter is described as a psychopath, but as-if personality is a better fit.
Of the other three programs it's difficult to pick a favorite. All three are addictive. The acting is superb in each, but for me Breaking Bad edges out the competition. I don't think I've ever seen acting that good on television. The cinematography is outstanding. The subject matter might be too unnerving for some viewers, but that's part of what drew me in.
Given the content of Dexter, you might imagine that it would be more unsettling than Breaking Bad, but Dexter isn't engaging enough to really get under your skin. Mad Men and Rescue Me deal with moral themes we've all encountered in real life. Love is redemption in Rescue Me, but getting there is incremental, messy and tragic. If you want a cultural trip back to Madison Avenue in the 50s and 60s, Mad Men will take you there. I know a woman who was the only female creative working at a big New York agency in the 60s. She says Mad Men is dead on.
Breaking Bad is an ongoing thought experiment exploring the pressures and conditions that might bring out the inner monster in people who otherwise appear to be decent and upstanding; it also looks at the decency residing in some people who've done awful things.
All are available at Amazon on DVD or streaming video on demand.