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The 100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time

A ranking of the most game-changing, side-splitting, tear-jerking, mind-blowing, world-building, genre-busting programs in television history, from the medium’s inception in the early 20th century through the ever-metastasizing era of Peak TV

Better Call Saul

Rhea Seehorn and Bob Odenkirk in 'Better Call Saul.'

Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Tel

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.



“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.


‘The Honeymooners’

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.”


‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ 

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.


‘Good Times’  

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.


‘Better Things’ 

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.


‘Chappelle’s Show’  

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.


‘Fawlty Towers’

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.


‘NYPD Blue’

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 Daily Show With Jon Stewart’

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.


‘The Golden Girls’

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.  


‘South Park’ 

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 Dick Van Dyke Show’

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.


‘The Underground Railroad’ 

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.


‘Key & Peele’

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.


‘Six Feet Under’

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.


‘Russian Doll’

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.


‘Halt and Catch Fire’

“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!


‘The Office’ (U.K.)

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.


‘The X-Files’

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.