HOW DO YOU identify the very best series in a medium that’s been commercially available since the end of World War II? Especially when that medium has experienced more radical change in the nine years between the finales of Breaking Bad and its prequel, Better Call Saul, than it did in the 60-odd years separating Walter White from Milton Berle? The current Peak TV era is delivering us 500-plus scripted shows per year, many of them breaking boundaries in terms of how stories are told and who’s doing the telling. So, we decided to update our list of television’s all-time best offerings, originally compiled in 2016. Once again, we reached out to TV stars, creators, and critics — from multihyphenates like Natasha Lyonne, Ben Stiller, and Pamela Adlon to actors like Jon Hamm and Lizzy Caplan as well as the minds behind shows like The X-Files, Party Down, and Jane the Virgin — to sort through television’s vast and complicated history. (See the full list of voters here.) Giving no restrictions on era or genre, we ended up with an eclectic list where the wholesome children’s television institution Sesame Street finished one spot ahead of foulmouthed Western Deadwood, while Eisenhower-era juggernaut I Love Lucy wound up sandwiched in between two shows, Lost and Arrested Development, that debuted during George W. Bush’s first term. Many favorites returned, and the top show retained its crown. But voters couldn’t resist many standouts of the past few years, including a tragicomedy with a guinea-pig-themed café, an unpredictable comedy set in the world of hip-hop, and a racially charged adaptation of an unadaptable comic book. It’s a hell of a list.
The first of several movie-to-TV projects on this list. This one is a spinoff rather than an adaptation, though, since Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi have appeared on the show in the roles they played in the 2014 vampire rockumentary film. The FX version moves the action from Wellington, New Zealand, to Staten Island and focuses on three traditional vampires — preening warrior king Nandor (Kayvan Novak) and narcissistic, sex-crazed spouses Laszlo (Matt Berry) and Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) — who share a house with superhumanly dull “energy vampire” Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) and Nandor’s frustrated human familiar Guillermo (Harvey Guillen). Shadows is unspeakably raunchy, remarkably silly, and diabolical in the way it manages to be stupid and clever within the same breath.
Before The Wire, before The Sopranos, there was Oz, the canary in the coal mine for the idea of scripted dramas existing outside the broadcast network ecosystem. Created by St. Elsewhere and Homicide: Life on the Street vet Tom Fontana, Oz took place in a maximum security prison that housed some of the nastiest humans depicted on television, before or since. There was sadistic white supremacist Vern Schillinger (J.K. Simmons), menacing gang leader Simon Adebisi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), the predatory Chris Keller (Chris Meloni), and many more. The world of Oz was so vicious that even the relatively benign prisoners — audience surrogate Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen), Black nationalist Kareem Saïd (Eamonn Walker), or third generation inmate Miguel Alvarez (Kirk Acevedo) — would be tempted into heinous deeds over time. Yet in the midst of all the murder, torture, and psychological warfare, Oz was also a thoughtful, deeply experimental drama with a lot to say about the tension between punishing criminals and rehabilitating them, and what confinement does to good men and bad ones.
For seven seasons, The Good Wife was a fine example of how loftier creative ambitions could be smuggled into the formula of a broadcast network procedural drama. When that show ended, creators Robert and Michelle King built a spinoff designed for the lack of restrictions of the streaming universe. Not only could Christine Baranski’s legal grande dame Diane Lockhart now use words she was never allowed to say on Good Wife, but The Good Fight could go to much stranger and more ambitious places in terms of style and substance, as Diane wound up at a predominantly Black law firm and also struggled to accept the surreality of life under President Trump. Some creators benefit from working with some degree of limitation, but unshackling the Kings has unleashed their creative best selves.
The 1968 film version of Neil Simon’s play about a mismatched pair of divorced middle-aged friends sharing an apartment was a beloved, Oscar-nominated, box office hit. Yet the sitcom adaptation that debuted two years later has arguably left a larger cultural footprint than either the film or the many, many productions of the play. That’s just how divinely paired Tony Randall and Jack Klugman were as, respectively, anal retentive photographer Felix Unger (in many ways, the prototype for Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory) and slovenly sportswriter Oscar Madison. The two were so smashing together that their personalities took over not only much of the Odd Couple legacy, but of other series that briefly intersected with it. It’s impossible to think about the classic game show Password, for instance, without first thinking of Felix and Oscar competing together and arguing over Felix’s attempt to use “Aristophanes” as a clue for “bird.” Or to hear anyone else talk about the dangers of assuming without flashing to Felix delivering that lesson in a courtroom.
Rick Sanchez is a mad scientist whose many inventions allow him to go anywhere and do anything, from visiting parallel realities to turning himself into a talking pickle to get out of going to family therapy. The animated Rick and Morty, created by Justin Roiland (who voices the title characters) and Dan Harmon from Community, seems to be similarly without limits — not only in how disgusting and bizarre individual adventures can be, but in how easily the series can toggle from celebrating Rick’s unstoppable brilliance to pointing out what a toxic, emotionally abusive jerk Rick can be to his grandson and everyone else unlucky enough to cross paths with him.
The newest show on this list, and the only non-English one, Squid Game is emblematic of the way the streaming era has broken down content borders, so that your new obsession can just as easily be an Israeli drama about an Orthodox Jewish man who falls in love with a widow as it can be the latest Disney+ Marvel series. But beyond what it represents for the TV business, Squid Game — in which a group of financially desperate South Koreans compete in a deadly series of children’s playground contests with a huge winner-takes-all cash prize — is a gripping thriller, a ruthless socioeconomic satire, and a great showcase for actors like Emmy winner Lee Jung-jae.
The red-headed stepchild of the Must-See TV era, NewsRadio seemingly aired on every night of the week but Thursdays, even though the workplace sitcom’s strongest moments should have earned it a place in NBC’s all-star lineup alongside celebrated series like Seinfeld or Friends. Everything was slightly, amusingly off about this show. The creative team decided, for instance, to just let anxious station manager Dave (Dave Foley) and confident reporter Lisa (Maura Tierney) have sex in the second episode instead of stringing out the romantic tension in a manner typical of Nineties comedy. Stories could spin out of the strangest ideas, like arrogant news anchor Bill (Phil Hartman) becoming addicted to the disgusting sandwiches in the office vending machine, or eccentric station owner Jimmy James (Stephen Root) having his memoir translated from English to Japanese and then back into English, so that it was suddenly titled Jimmy James: Macho Business Donkey Wrestler. The fifth and final season, produced after Hartman was murdered, is bumpy, and it can be difficult now to watch scenes with Joe Rogan as the station’s electrician without thinking about who and what Rogan has become. But the series as a whole deserved so much better than it got from a network that never seemed to appreciate what it had in Paul Simms’ creation.
The primetime landscape used to be as dotted with private-eye dramas as it was with cop shows, hospital shows, and Westerns. By far the best and breeziest example of the whole genre starred the preternaturally relaxed James Garner as Jim Rockford, a low-rent detective living in a trailer on a beach in Malibu, working for anyone who will pay his rate of $200 a day plus expenses, and getting punched in the stomach every 10 minutes or so for his smart mouth. In addition to its staggering likability, Rockford also represents a cross-section of TV drama history. One of its creators was Roy Huggins, the man responsible for Fifties and Sixties classics like Maverick (also starring Garner) and The Fugitive. The other was Stephen J. Cannell, who would become one of the first celebrity showrunners on the back of a tidal wave of Seventies and Eighties hits like this, The A-Team, and 21 Jump Street. And within a few seasons, the show began employing writer David Chase, who would go on to create The Sopranos.
The variety show, once one of TV’s most thriving genres, was on its last legs by the mid-Seventies. (The deservedly short-lived variety-show sequel to The Brady Bunch also debuted in 1976.) Jim Henson and friends, though, gave the format one last, glorious burst of life through two choices. The first was to center itself around Kermit the Frog and brand new Muppet creations like inept comedian Fozzie Bear and the egotistical, violent Miss Piggy; simply having the Muppets as the performers gave all the familiar showtunes and comedy bits a feeling of everything old being new again. The second, and more crucial one, was to split the focus between the performances and the chaos backstage, as Kermit attempted to wrangle lunatic Muppets like Gonzo the Great while appeasing celebrity guests like Bernadette Peters and Mark Hamill. The most sensational, celebrational, Muppetational Henson project of them all.
Johnny Carson was the third of six hosts who’ve sat at the Tonight Show desk so far. But with all due respect to Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, and now Jimmy Fallon, Johnny’s 30-year tenure stands apart as its own entity. His cool, detached, self-deprecating persona — he was usually funnier in the aftermath of a joke bombing than when delivering the more successful punchlines — made Tonight appointment viewing regardless of NBC’s fortunes in primetime. The period in the early Seventies when the show had just moved from New York to Los Angeles stands out as the platonic ideal of the late-night talk-show format. Frequent A-list guests like Burt Reynolds were so comfortable with Johnny that it began to feel like the audience was eavesdropping on conversations that the participants didn’t know were being filmed. Johnny’s retirement was the beginning of the end of the monoculture, as audiences quickly fractured between Team Dave, Team Jay, and Team Arsenio, when no one had come close to successfully challenging Carson’s own supremacy.
The greatest Boomer nostalgia project of them all, before Boomer nostalgia threatened to overwhelm the entire world. A young Fred Savage played Kevin Arnold, a naive suburban kid running the gauntlet of adolescence at the same moment America was enduring the turbulence of the late Sixties and early Seventies. The Wonder Years was equal parts frothy and sad, bookended by a pilot where Kevin’s longtime friend (and frequent crush) Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar) learns that her brother Brian died in Vietnam, and a finale where the adult Kevin (the voice of Daniel Stern) tells us that Kevin’s father (Dan Lauria) will die not long after the events of the series. The show’s air of innocence was infectious, and that’s been ably captured by the current reboot (which was for a time produced by Savage, before colleagues at the show accused him of sexual harassment and assault), focusing on a Black family in the South in the same era, with one brief but powerful link to the original.
In the 1973-74 TV season, CBS rolled out arguably the greatest night of TV programming ever, with a five-show Saturday comedy lineup — All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Carol Burnett Show — that was all killer, no filler. Spoilers: All five shows are on this list, starting with the sketch series that would bring the evening to an uproarious close. Carol Burnett had been a variety-show and sitcom staple for most of the Sixties, most famously in her collaborations with pal Julie Andrews, but her talents weren’t fully unleashed until she was given her own series where she could parody movies (like the famous Gone With the Wind spoof featuring a dress with a curtain rod sticking out) or TV (the recurring fake soap opera “As the Stomach Turns”), try on accents, sing, and even expertly play the straight woman for co-stars like Vicky Lawrence, Harvey Korman, and Tim Conway. The comic energy of the show was so strong that it soon became as beloved for the moments where the actors would crack each other up mid-sketch as for the scenes that went off without anyone breaking character. At the end of each episode, Burnett would tug on her ear — a secret signal to her beloved grandmother that also told her audience to be thankful they had just spent three hours watching some of the best small-screen comedy shows ever made.
In the years leading up to this dramatization of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, Peter Morgan had written a number of films (most notably 2006’s The Queen) about the royal family and/or British prime ministers. With The Crown, Morgan got to dive deep into his favorite subjects, casting multiple actresses (Claire Foy, then Olivia Colman, and soon Imelda Staunton) to play Elizabeth at various ages, and depicting her complicated relationships with various prime ministers (especially Foy opposite John Lithgow’s Winston Churchill, and Colman opposite Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher). Morgan also mined rich dramatic terrain in the many times where Her Royal Highness felt she had to put the best interests of the monarchy ahead of the best needs of her husband Philip (Matt Smith, then Tobias Menzies, and soon Jonathan Pryce), her sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby, Helena Bonham Carter, Lesley Manville), and her son Charles (played in recent seasons by Josh O’Connor, with Dominic West about to take over), among others. The Crown walks a narrow tightrope — made perhaps even narrower in the aftermath of the real Queen Elizabeth’s recent passing — between criticizing the very nature of royalty and feeling great sympathy for the people living within the family’s tight strictures.
Thirty Helens agree: With apologies to Barenaked Ladies, this sketch-comedy Gen X touchstone was the best thing to come out of Canada in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson shared a gift for wringing enormous laughs out of premises that sound utterly incoherent on the page. A bitter man who sits in a folding chair on the sidewalk and pretends to crush the heads of people in the distance? A lonely, sex-obsessed half-chicken woman? A man whose refusal to shave his vacation beard threatens to ruin his life? None of this should be funny. Somehow, all of it is, including this year’s revival that lodged Seventies novelty hit “Brand-New Key” into the heads of everyone lucky enough to watch it.
Being the straight man in a comedy can be a thankless role. Bob Newhart, though, built an entire career out of making audiences laugh as the one sane man in an insane world. His first and best sitcom vehicle (though his Eighties hit Newhart had its charms) didn’t take that concept quite literally, but it was close. Newhart played Dr. Bob Hartley, a Chicago psychologist with a roster of eccentric patients, a sarcastic but loving wife in Suzanne Pleshette’s Emily, and a life overall that seemed designed to take Bob out of his very tiny comfort zone. Smart, sophisticated, and damned funny.
The first show to suggest the streaming era could make room for the kinds of characters and stories that TV had no place for, even in those heady post-Sopranos years on cable. Orange started with Taylor Schilling’s annoying, entitled Piper being sent to federal prison, where she was initially terrified by all the Black, brown, and/or lower-class women she met there. Quickly, though, the Jenji Kohan-created series opened the eyes of both Piper and the audience to the fact that her fellow inmates — mentally ill Suzanne (Uzo Aduba), trans hairdresser Sophia (Laverne Cox), wisecracking addict Nikki (Natasha Lyonne), maternal Gloria (Selenis Levya), justice-seeking Taystee (Danielle Brooks), and many more — were complicated human beings with interesting stories of their own. (Most of them, frankly, much more interesting than Piper’s, but even the writers seemed to understand that.) Orange took big creative swings that didn’t always connect, but had plenty of incredible moments, and opened up vast new possibilities for TV as a whole.
Why would anyone want to do this? Who would find it in any way a smart or useful idea to take Fargo, an Oscar winner for Best Picture, and perhaps the most beloved movie of one of the most idiosyncratic filmmaking teams of all time in Joel and Ethan Coen, and attempt to turn it into a TV show? Somehow, though, it’s worked. The masterstroke of Noah Hawley’s ongoing anthology is that it is not a remake or reboot of the film, but a kind of Coen Brothers remix, set in the same fictional universe as the adventures of pregnant Minnesota cop Marge Gunderson, and filled with allusions to other Coen films, but telling its own stories. There are characters meant to evoke the Coens, most notably Allison Tolman’s dogged investigator Molly Solverson in the first season, and actors like Billy Bob Thornton and Michael Stuhlbarg who have appeared in one or more Coen film. Mostly, though, what Hawley has managed to do (particularly in the first two seasons) has been to bottle some of the spirit of those movies while letting the TV series ultimately feel like its own offbeat thing, as well as a fabulous showcase for actors like Tolman, Patrick Wilson, Kirsten Dunst, Ted Danson, Bokeem Woodbine, Carrie Coon, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, David Thewlis, Glynn Turman, and more.
Steve Coogan has been playing Alan Partridge — an obnoxious, socially incompetent, insecure radio and TV presenter in complete denial of just how minor his celebrity is — for over 30 years, on the radio, on television, in films, podcasts, and even live stage shows. It’s not hard to understand why the English actor has made this the role of his lifetime, especially when you watch I’m Alan Partridge. In the wake of ruining his career and personal life at the end of his previous series (the talk-show parody Knowing Me, Knowing You), Alan retreats to a spartan existence as a local radio host manning the graveyard shift, living in a small hotel whose employees quickly grow tired of his special requests and desperate attempts to get to know them better, and struggling to make his way back to the BBC. Coogan and collaborators like Armando Iannucci (future creator of Veep) did not shy away from how difficult it was to be in the company of their title character, though they periodically gave glimpses of the great entertainer Alan believed himself to be, like his attempt to act out the entire opening sequence of The Spy Who Loved Me.
What is dead may never die, but for the most part, the TV titles that have been resurrected over the last several years have tended to belong to big hits that still had currency with contemporary viewers. So why is Starz in 2023 bringing back Party Down, a show whose audience in a given week could be written with only five digits, and that got no awards love to speak of in its two-season run? Does a comedy about cater-waiters frustrated that their bigger Hollywood dreams aren’t coming true really have the same cachet as, say, The X-Files or Will & Grace? But Party Down was just that great in its short existence — a wry, witty, well-crafted, and frequently filthy piece of entertainment, with a wonderful comic bond among an ensemble led by Adam Scott — that if the majority of the people involved the first time are willing to reunite for more misadventures, then it’s worth trying. Are we having fun yet?
For decades, the record for the longest-running live-action sitcom of all time was held by The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, an aggressively wholesome sitcom that debuted in the early Fifties and starred a real-life family playing idealized versions of themselves. That record was finally broken a few years back by Always Sunny, a grubby, uncouth, deceptively brilliant comedy that is such a stylistic and philosophical departure from Ozzie & Harriet in every way that the Nelson family would likely all faint at the sight of it. Sunny stars Rob McElhenney (who also created it), Glenn Howerton, Charlie Day, and Kaitlin Olson as four self-involved idiots who keep colliding with hot-button topics in the news, with financing and interference from Danny DeVito as Howerton and Olson’s grotesque father. Where most classic sitcoms are gasping for air by the time they hit their third or fourth season, Sunny has proved so improbably durable that it wouldn’t be a shock to eventually get to an episode called “The Gang Is Eligible to Join AARP.”
This and fellow HBO miniseries epic From the Earth to the Moon aren’t exactly Tom Hanks-produced spinoffs of his Nineties classics Saving Private Ryan and Apollo 13, respectively. But both suggest that Hanks realized those films only scratched the surface of their subject matters, and that television was the best place to go for a deeper dive. Based on the nonfiction book by Stephen Ambrose, Band follows a single company of airborne infantrymen in World War II, from the innocent days of training camp to the violent chaos of D-Day to the brutal endurance challenge of the Battle of the Bulge all the way to victory in the European theater of the war. And though many of the faces change as soldiers die and naive replacements arrive, the whole 10-hour journey is grounded by the presence of a young Damian Lewis as Easy Company’s humble and reassuring leader, Dick Winters. In 2001, it was the most expensive limited series ever made, and there is plenty of spectacle to be found as Winters’ men fight their way through France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany. But the parts that linger all these years later are the small human ones depicting the physical and psychological wounds Easy Company endured along the way to peacetime.
Part of the shock of Bob Odenkirk’s work on Better Call Saul was that he was so well known for comedy — and particularly for the sort of askew alt comedy that he and David Cross made for four epically weird seasons. Mr. Show was a series about commitment, even if the characters in each sketch tended to commit to the worst possible ideas, like Cross hosting a pre-taped call-in show where viewers are constantly asking about the previous week’s subject, or Odenkirk playing a mob boss who believes, with homicidal conviction, that 24 is the highest number. And from time to time — like Cross auditioning for an acting job with a monologue about auditioning for an acting job — those seemingly awful choices pay off beautifully for all involved.
As we cast our votes, we couldn’t help but wonder: Should we penalize the turn-of-the-century sensation for the sins of its movie spinoffs, and especially of its misguided sequel series …And Just Like That? But Sex and the City isn’t the only hit show in TV history — or even the only one on this list — to suffer from misconceived follow-up projects. (Netflix seasons of Arrested Development, we are looking at you.) And the original run (especially after Michael Patrick King replaced Darren Star as showrunner following the first season) did more than just set fashion trends or inspire countless games of “Are you a Charlotte or a Samantha?” It was a witty and smart look at four women at a particular moment in their lives, and a particular period in New York (even if its cross-section was almost exclusively white and straight) that was as much about the challenges of maintaining friendships as it was about figuring out the right romantic partner. Whatever mistakes came later, Sex and the City itself still deserves to walk proudly in its tallest pair of Manolo Blahniks.
On All in the Family, the arrogant George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) and his patient wife Louise (Isabel Sanford) lived in a blue-collar Queens neighborhood right next door to Archie and Edith Bunker. Hemsley was so instantly electric opposite both Sanford and Family star Carroll O’Connor that George and “Weezy” quickly graduated to their own sitcom. Even better for George, he got to move far away from Archie, to a dee-luxe apartment in the sky of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The spinoff broke new TV ground by making George and Weezy’s best friends the interracial couple of Tom (Franklin Cover) and Helen (Roxie Roker). And, like its parent series, it could get serious about race relations and other current events, such as in an episode where George accidentally attends a KKK recruitment meeting, or a flashback to George’s struggle to get a loan from a prejudiced banker, to open his first dry cleaning store. Mostly, though, the series was a relentless laugh machine, trusting that any combination of Hemsley, Sanford, and Marla Gibbs (as the Jeffersons’ brassy maid Florence) would make comedy magic together.
“You make me pull, I put you down.” Those eight words represent the pithy yet lethal code by which Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) —a U.S. Marshal reluctantly reassigned to the Kentucky field office close to the Harlan County community he had hoped to escape forever — lives his violent yet extremely entertaining life. Throughout Graham Yost’s adaptation of a character featured in several Elmore Leonard novels, Raylan would find ways to make himself judge, jury, and executioner by maneuvering bad guys into situations where his deadly use of force against them would be, well… you see the title of the show here, right? Olyphant’s wisecracking yet vulnerable performance commanded the screen, even as Yost and the other writers threw an army of colorful bad guys at him — Walton Goggins’ fast-talking explosives expert Boyd Crowder above all others. A rollicking ride from start to finish, by which point we all felt like we had dug coal together with Raylan and Boyd.
As Cheers was nearing the end of one of the most successful runs any sitcom has ever had, Kelsey Grammer’s arrogant shrink Frasier likely wouldn’t have been the betting favorite to lead a potential spinoff. But the fact that Frasier never really fit in at the bar made him the perfect candidate in the end. (What would a Norm-centric show have been about if he wasn’t sitting on his stool next to Cliff?) Instead, Frasier returned to his Seattle home to become a minor local celebrity as a radio call-in show host, to help care for his estranged and ailing father Martin (John Mahoney), and to reconnect with his even more repressed brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce), with help along the way from his producer Rob (Peri Gilpin) and Martin’s nurse Daphne (Jane Leeves). It was such a potent mix of characters, actors, and comic muses — more farcical and given to wordplay than Frasier’s adventures back in Boston — that Grammer wound up playing the role for 11 more seasons (after nine on Cheers). Not bad, Dr. Crane.
Consider the numbers around the original kitchen sink comedy: One season. Thirty-nine episodes. Four characters. One primary, extremely cramped set. Within those seemingly narrow confines, Jackie Gleason (as hot-tempered bus driver Ralph Kramden), Audrey Meadows (Ralph’s frustrated wife Alice), Art Carney (Ralph’s goofball best friend Ed Norton), and Joyce Randolph (Ed’s bossy wife Trixie) seemed capable of accomplishing almost anything. It was a broad, silly comedy, sending the studio audience into conniptions over how easily Ralph could be triggered, or how strangely Ed looked at the world. (Told during a golfing lesson to “address the ball,” Ed looks at it and cheerfully says, “Hello, ball!”) It was also a barely-disguised tragedy about a marriage between two people who had expected much more of themselves and each other. (Ralph’s constant threats to send Alice “to the moon!” play far more darkly today than they did in the mid-Fifties.) It was ridiculous, it was deep, and it was immortal — and not just because Gleason and Carney couldn’t resist continuing to play Ralph and Ed in sketches for another two decades. There’s a reason Gleason’s nickname was “The Great One.”
It’s become less fun to look back on this one in light of the many recent allegations of abusive behavior made against its creator, Joss Whedon. But if we can separate the art from the artist (a challenge with several shows on this list), Whedon’s do-over of an early-Nineties movie about a perky high schooler (played here by Sarah Michelle Gellar) who is secretly a warrior against supernatural evil is both a great show and a very influential one. It helped define several generations of both teen and fantasy drama, and its self-aware, cliché-puncturing sensibility wound up as the default mode of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not only that, the show’s use of creatures of the night as metaphors for real-life adolescent turmoil — Buffy loses her virginity to Angel (David Boreanaz), and he literally becomes a soulless monster as a result — remains incredibly potent.
Is this the best spinoff of a spinoff? That may depend on whether you classify, say, the Nineties Star Trek shows or the CW’s various Arrow-verse superhero dramas as spinoffs or as entries in a larger franchise. Either way, Good Times — which spun off from Maude, which had already spun off from All in the Family — has a good argument for the title. Esther Rolle and John Amos played Florida and James Evans, spouses trying their best to raise their kids right and keep them safe while living in a Chicago housing project. Amos and then Rolle would eventually leave the show, frustrated that their characters had been marginalized in favor of co-star Jimmie Walker’s broad antics as eldest son J.J. But Good Times managed to provide plenty of thoughtful, issue-oriented comedy around all the excuses for Walker to shout his “Dyn-o-mite!” catchphrase, including a classic episode where youngest son Michael (Ralph Carter) figures out that his school’s IQ test is racially biased, or another where the Evans family realizes their neighbor Penny (a very young Janet Jackson) is being physically abused by her mother.
The 2010s were the decade of the auteur dramedy: half-hour shows where one person wore multiple hats as creator, writer, director, and star, and where the tone and even genre could shift from episode to episode. Among the best of these was Better Things, a thinly autobiographical vehicle for Pamela Adlon (who co-created it with Louis C.K., before he departed due to his mistreatment of women), inspired by her life as a slightly recognizable actor raising three kids on her own. Adlon and company had such command of her world and its characters that Better Things often felt less like a story than an experience — and one that it was easy to keep returning to, week after week, season after season, until we understood every facet of Adlon’s alter ego Sam Fox.
When Lorne Michaels raided the Second City stage casts from Chicago and Toronto for the original Saturday Night Live lineup, it dawned on the people running the famed improv comedy group that perhaps they should make their own show, and fill it with other Second City stars like John Candy, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Joe Flaherty, Andrea Martin, and Dave Thomas. SCTV was built around the idea that everything we saw was being broadcast from the world’s smallest TV station, whether it was a talk show with Thomas and Rick Moranis as Canadian stereotypes Bob and Doug McKenzie; Flaherty and Levy as local newscasters; or Candy and Levy as the polka-playing Shmenge brothers. In time, SNL would wind up poaching several SCTV regulars (most notably Martin Short), and NBC even made the show (which was produced and broadcast in Canada) part of its late-night lineup for a couple of years. But despite the origins of its name, the sketches were first rate, and a great showcase for that incredible cast.
Another art-versus-artist mess. Dave Chappelle’s legacy has unquestionably been tainted by his commitment in recent years to hardcore transphobia. Can we still enjoy the sketch-comedy series that he and Neal Brennan created, and the ways that the show bearing his name mixed hysterical parodies of Black celebrities like Rick James, Prince, and Lil Jon with more nuanced but still funny ideas like the fake game show “I Know Black People”? As with several series on this list (and ones that didn’t quite pass muster with our voters, like Louie and The Cosby Show), perhaps it’s best to fondly remember the experience of watching it back in the day, rather than attempting to revisit and having to think more directly about the now controversial guy at the center of it.
John Cleese did his version of the Larry David deal with HBO long before anyone had heard of the Curb Your Enthusiasm star. A year after the end of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Cleese and his wife (and fellow Python vet) Connie Booth created Fawlty Towers, a sitcom about a small English hotel run by Cleese as the arrogant, easily offended, mostly idiotic Basil Fawlty. They produced six absolutely perfect episodes — most famously the one where Basil can’t stop himself from bringing up World War II when he and wife Sybil (Prunella Scales) play host to a group of German guests — and then just… stopped. And then four years later, they had the inspiration for another six, those were great as well, and then they stopped again, this time seemingly forever. But given how much of modern comedy — particularly the kind that makes you cringe like you’re watching a horror movie — owes a debt to this show, don’t count out the possibility of Basil Fawlty making a belated, uncomfortable return sometime soon.
We could try calling this cop show the missing link between the straightforward, good-versus-evil dramas that typified most of 20th-century television and the more morally ambiguous series that would come to define the medium in the 21st century. But that might suggest that any TV viewer on earth missed NYPD Blue, whose use of more graphic language and nudity helped make it a controversial, incredibly popular sensation from the start. And in Dennis Franz’s brutish, bigoted, alcoholic, and ultimately beloved Detective Andy Sipowicz, the series had an iconic character who helped prepare viewers for the likes of Tony Soprano and Walter White. Mostly, though, NYPD Blue was a great police procedural, filled with cleverly profane dialogue, memorable figures on both sides of the law (particularly in the years when Sipowicz was partnered with Jimmy Smits’ laid-back and soulful Bobby Simone), and a palpable understanding of the trauma that violence inflicts on all exposed to it.
The first three seasons of The Daily Show were primarily parodying the inanity of local TV newscasts. When Jon Stewart succeeded Craig Kilborn as host, the focus quickly expanded to a national, then international, scale. The tone, meanwhile, gradually shifted to one not of gentle satire, but righteous indignation at the terrible things our country’s politicians were doing and saying, and the even more terrible ways the traditional news media apparatus so often covered them. There was still plenty of room for antics from a murderer’s row of correspondents like Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, and John Oliver — all of whom eventually graduated to hosting their own terrific variations on the concept. But the Stewart incarnation as a whole developed such a potent reputation for speaking truth to power, surveys at the time suggested that younger viewers were more likely to keep up on current events via this fake news show than from the genuine article.
Some viewers saw this Lena Dunham-created series as a sharp, frequently funny, often poignant look at a group of young women at a precarious moment in their lives. Others saw the whole thing as a massive troll designed to make them angry with the myopia of characters like Dunham’s would-be writer Hannah, Allison Williams’ narcissistic Marnie, Jemima Kirke’s free-spirited Jessa, and Zosia Mamet’s eager Shoshanna. Our voters obviously took the former view, recognizing that Girls understood how often the members of that quartet were being ridiculous, even as it depicted them and their struggles with great empathy. (Though the show had its own blind spots, particularly in being yet another story about a virtually all-white New York.) Girls also effectively launched Adam Driver’s career, and he was wonderful as Hannah’s mercurial on-again, off-again boyfriend Adam. But to love Girls, you had to love its title characters. And we did, no matter how infuriating they could get.
In the days since Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty first played a quartet of older women enjoying their golden years in Miami, sitcom casts have on average gotten substantially younger. The theory, as many TV executives will tell you, is that younger viewers (the most valuable currency in the TV business) would rather watch characters closer to their own age. Yet ask almost any Eighties kid and teen about The Golden Girls, and odds are their faces will light up with memories of Getty’s Sophia insulting her housemates, White’s Rose telling another surreal story from her childhood home of St. Olaf, Minnesota, McClanahan’s Blanche vamping it up for another sexual conquest, or Arthur’s Dorothy destroying an opponent with just a withering stare and a slight change in inflection. When leads are as funny and likable as this group, age ain’t nothing but a number.
Decades before YouTube and TikTok stars were getting development deals, Trey Parker and Matt Stone were hired by a Hollywood executive to produce a profane animated Christmas card. The end result, pitting Jesus against Santa, went as viral as anything could in the mid-Nineties, and soon the characters from the short film — notably, Colorado elementary schoolers Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny — began starring in their own primetime cable show. A quarter century later, Parker and Stone are still telling irreverent South Park stories. Even more than The Simpsons or Beavis and Butt-Head, South Park was long treated by its detractors as the show that would bring about the end of civilization as we know it. To be fair, society’s not doing so great these days, though there remains spirited debate over how much blame should be laid on middle-aged men who grew up watching Kenny be brutally murdered every week. But as the show’s animation process has evolved from the original stop-motion construction paper approach used in the very first episode (titled, of course, “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe”), South Park can now be assembled so quickly that Parker and Stone can make fun of any current event practically within hours of when it happens.
The most enduring image of TV’s first great workplace sitcom is of its hero, variety show writer Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) tripping over his living room ottoman after coming home from a long day at the office. After a while, though, the series began to alternate Rob’s stumble with a version where he nimbly sidestepped disaster. While viewers were denied the chance to see Van Dyke’s flair for slapstick at the top of every single episode, the alternate version was in some ways truer to the spirit of one of the most graceful shows of them all. Van Dyke and a young Mary Tyler Moore (as Rob’s adoring and adorable wife Laura) were both gifted comedians, but they also projected an air of cool sophistication so strong that viewers and critics began comparing them to John and Jackie Kennedy, who moved into the White House around the same time we first met the Petries. Pair the two of them with old pros Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam, and feed all four of them the best jokes that the great Carl Reiner (who modeled Rob on his own experience working with Fifties variety star Sid Caesar) could give them, and you had an instant, seemingly effortless classic.
Barry Jenkins’ miniseries about slavery is the greatest technical achievement in television history. And with all due respect to Game of Thrones, the new Lord of the Rings series, or any of the medium’s other recent big-budget spectacles, it is not an especially close contest. Jenkins and collaborators like cinematographer James Laxton ensure that every frame is stunning and painterly in detail, no matter how horrifying (a slave being whipped, a house being burned with people inside) or beautiful (the titular railroad is an actual train line, borrowing from the magical realism premise of Colson Whitehead’s novel) the individual images are. No show has ever put as much effort and skill into its sound design, so that viewers feel as if they are standing in the hot sun with escaped slave Cora (Thuso Mbedu), surrounded by chirping insects. And, for that matter, few directors have elicited performances as naked and lived-in as what Mbedu, Joel Edgerton (as a ruthless slave-catcher), William Jackson Harper (as a free Black man trying to get Cora to accept the possibility of good in this world), and others deliver here. A knockout for all the senses, and for the heart.
Today, we marvel at comedies like Better Things or Reservation Dogs that are capable of radically transforming themselves from one episode to the next. Taxi was doing this 40-plus years ago, only it wasn’t nearly as overt, because it was being done in a traditional sitcom format with frequent punchlines and loud audience laughter. But within that structure — and within the seemingly limited setting of a cab company garage in Manhattan where most of the drivers (other than Judd Hirsch’s practical Alex) dream of better jobs — Taxi could accomplish a whole lot. It could go broad, bordering on surreal, as it leaned on characters like Christopher Lloyd’s hippie space case Jim Ignatowski or Andy Kaufman’s chipper immigrant mechanic Latka. It could go raw and small, like an episode where diminutive but cruel dispatcher Louie DePalma (Danny DeVito) talks about his humiliating annual trip to buy suits at the husky boys section of the department store. And sometimes, it could do both at the same time, like a grief-stricken Jim telling the empty suit of his late father the things he could never say during their long estrangement. Though the cabbies rarely got to achieve their dreams, Taxi could do almost anything it set its mind to.
At first, Key & Peele drew notice for how well-timed it seemed, as a sketch comedy in which biracial comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele explored the sometimes confusing borders between Black and white America, late into the first term of our nation’s first biracial president. And an early signature bit involved Peele playing an unflappable Barack Obama while Key lurked behind him as POTUS’ “anger translator,” Luther. Soon, though, what Key & Peele became known for was its fierce commitment to every bit. Their action movie parodies bore a stunning resemblance to the real thing, and seemingly lightweight ideas like Family Matters actor Reginald VelJohnson complaining about the show being taken over by Steve Urkel took incredibly dark turns. In hindsight, it’s not hard to see how Peele made the jump from this show to becoming America’s most famous horror-movie director. But he and Key were a wonderful pair for a while.
Most of the revered cable dramas of the early 2000s used familiar, action-packed TV genres (mobsters, cops, cowboys, etc.) as Trojan horses to smuggle in more challenging commentary about modern life. The anomaly was Six Feet Under, whose premise was built around the unglamorous place where many of those other kinds of characters would end up: a funeral home, run by the repressed, dysfunctional Fisher family. Starting off with the death of patriarch Nathaniel Fisher Sr. (Richard Jenkins, who stuck around in ghostly form), Alan Ball’s series studies the struggle his widow Ruth (Frances Conroy) and kids Nate (Peter Krause), David (Michael C. Hall), and Claire (Lauren Ambrose) had dealing not only with Nathaniel’s death, but with the inescapable knowledge that their own would come one day. That lack of a traditional TV “franchise” to help drive stories led to Six Feet being more uneven than its peers, but its highs — particularly the iconic final sequence, scored to Sia’s “Breathe,” that takes the show’s premise to its logical conclusion — were extraordinary.
Time travel! What a high concept! In the first season of this audacious sci-fi comedy, software designer Nadia (Natasha Lyonne, doing the best Columbo this side of Peter Falk) keeps violently dying, only to respawn in the bathroom at her 36th birthday party. In the second, she and her uptight friend Alan (Charlie Barnett) find themselves Quantum Leaping back in time to experience life as members of their family trees. In both seasons, Lyonne (who co-created the show with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland) managed to have enormous fun with the lengths to which each idea could be taken, while also using these reality-warping adventures to examine Nadia’s inability to change her own fucked-up life. More, please.
The first episode of this ensemble comedy involves a group of oddball community college students — disbarred lawyer Jeff (Joel McHale), pretentious Britta (Gillian Jacobs), pop culture-obsessed Abed (Danny Pudi), goofy ex-jock Troy (Donald Glover), overachiever Annie (Alison Brie), maternal Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), and intolerable boomer Pierce (Chevy Chase) —improbably becoming friends. The last episode has the remaining members of this group imagining various scenarios for what a seventh season of Community —which all of them, and not just Abed, seem to have on some level accepted is the TV show they are characters on —would be like. While gradually evolving from that relatively sane beginning to that meta conclusion, Dan Harmon’s creation managed to smuggle note-perfect film and TV parodies (most notably the action-movie-style paintball episodes) into the drudgery of life at Greendale Community College, and it treated the members of the study group as people, even in the midst of this self-aware madness. It was special.
“Computers aren’t the thing; they’re the thing that gets you to the thing,” salesman Joe McMillan (Lee Pace) explains early in this period tech-world drama. In the case of this show, the mercurial and mysterious Joe and his aggrieved partner Gordon (Scoot McNairy) were the first kind of thing: male antiheroes of the type that had become commonplace to the point of cliché in the years leading up to their introduction. But then Halt figured out how to make Joe and Gordon into the thing that got us to the thing: the story of how Joe’s ex-girlfriend Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) and Gordon’s wife Donna (Kerry Bishé) would eventually team up to be part of the birth of the internet. The men didn’t exactly vanish, and Pace and McNairy were great throughout, but the shift in POV to the women these kinds of shows generally ignored unlocked the series’ full potential, making it feel not like a Mad Men clone set in the Eighties and Nineties, but its own wonderful work.
Medicine has long been part of the holy trinity of TV professions, along with police work (whether in modern day or the Wild West) and the law. Yet of all the great doctor shows the medium has seen —St. Elsewhere, House, Scrubs and Grey’s Anatomy, to name just a few —the only one to make our list was this mid-Nineties juggernaut. Created by Michael Crichton and produced by John Wells, ER combined the structure of a hospital drama with the pace and adrenaline of an action movie. It expertly conveyed the chaos, the triumphs, the tragedy and even the comedy of life in an emergency room. It made a superstar out of George Clooney as rule-breaking pediatrician Doug Ross, and also had a pretty special cast around him that included Julianna Margulies, Anthony Edwards, Noah Wyle, Eriq La Salle, and many more over the course of 15 seasons. We need to intubate! STAT!
Near the conclusion of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s mockumentary masterpiece, Tim (Martin Freeman) philosophizes, “The people you work with are just people you were thrown together with. Y’know, you don’t know them, it wasn’t your choice. And yet you spend more time with them than you do your friends or your family. But probably all you’ve got in common is the fact that you walk around on the same bit of carpet for eight hours a day.” Viewers would ultimately spend a bit less than eight hours total with Tim, his crush Dawn (Lucy Davis), the repulsive Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), and, most notably, their horrible boss David Brent (Gervais). Yet the writing, the world-building, and the performances made it feel like we had been trapped on the same bit of carpet with them for years. One of the defining shows of 21st-century comedy, without which several others on this list would not exist — and not just the American remake. And if David’s self-aggrandizing antics could at times be painful to watch, Gervais and Merchant’s unflinching commitment to depicting the agonies of workplace drudgery paid off beautifully in the series-concluding Christmas special.
On this bleak, haunting comedy, SNL alum Bill Hader plays a hitman who stumbles into an acting class and discovers that he would rather kill on stage than do it with bullets. The premise could have easily devolved into a one-joke show about the blurry line between the two ruthless professions. Instead, Barry took its title character’s desire for a career change —and the implications of an emotionally stunted man having to explore his feelings, as part of the acting method taught by the self-aggrandizing Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) —very seriously. As a result, Barry can be both the funniest show on television (especially when Anthony Carrigan is around as cheerful Chechen mobster NoHo Hank) and the most tragic, often within a few beats of one another.
In the dank basement office to which the FBI has banished him for filing one too many reports about aliens and monsters, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) has a poster with a picture of a flying saucer and the slogan “I Want to Believe.” For a long time, Chris Carter’s exciting sci-fi procedural tried to play things down the middle, so that Mulder’s skeptical partner Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) could seem entirely reasonable in dismissing his conspiracy theories. But X-Files fans understandably wanted to believe in a lot of things: flukemen, shapeshifters, and, most of all, in the idea that Duchovny and Anderson’s insane chemistry would eventually lead Mulder and Scully into a romance. The show popularized the idea of a series having a “mythology” and an ongoing serialized story that you had to watch from the beginning to understand. But the majority of the episodes followed the “Monster of the Week” format, and it’s those that have held up best all these years later, especially after so many later shows did such a bad job of trying to create their own X-Files-style mythology.