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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.


‘Saturday Night Live’

Across parts of six decades, SNL has minted stars (John Belushi, Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, and too many others to name), made catchphrases go viral (from “We are two wild and crazy guys!” to “I live in a van, down by the river!” to “More cowbell!!!” to “This place has everything!”), brought down political candidates (people still think Sarah Palin, not Tina Fey-as-Palin, said, “I can see Russia from my house!”), and redefined TV sketch comedy many times over. It’s also been pronounced “Saturday Night Dead” on multiple occasions, and it’s a truth that everyone’s favorite SNL cast is the one from when they were in high school. But even when our expectations outstrip the show’s fundamentally uneven execution — as creator Lorne Michaels (who has run all but a handful of the 47-plus seasons) says, “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30” — the very idea of comedy being performed live from Studio 8H still feels intoxicating, no matter the era or ensemble making it.


‘The Leftovers’

This meditation on grief, depression, and the search for meaning in a meaningless world — in this case, a world where two percent of the population all vanished abruptly and at random, like an off-brand Rapture — is at times among the bleakest things ever put on TV. But in so many others, The Leftovers — adapted by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta from Perrotta’s novel of the same name — is as audacious, ridiculous, and even startlingly joyful as anything the medium has seen. It boasts incredible performances from its whole cast, including Justin Theroux as a suicidal police chief, Amy Brenneman as a woman who responds to the apocalypse by joining a doomsday cult, and — in an inner-circle TV Hall of Fame dramatic performance — Carrie Coon as a woman rebuilding her life after her entire family disappears while her back is turned. If we can’t laugh in the face of death — including one episode where God is devoured by a lion while disembarking from an orgy boat — what’s the point of any of this?


‘Twin Peaks’

The original run of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s mashup of gothic murder mystery, soap-opera melodrama, and supernatural horror was the weirdest goddamn thing most viewers had ever seen in the formulaic old days of everyone having only three or four TV channels. How did homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) wind up dead and wrapped in plastic in a seemingly peaceful Pacific Northwest logging town? Why was FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) so fixated on hot coffee and various flavors of pie? What does the phrase “The owls are not what they seem” mean, exactly? And how much of this are we meant to take seriously? The belated sequel season, Twin Peaks: The Return, arrived a quarter-century later in the far more creatively diverse and quirky Peak TV landscape, yet it somehow seemed even stranger, including MacLachlan playing at least three roles (if not more; it’s complicated), and the late David Bowie’s time-traveling agent character from the spinoff film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me reimagined as an enormous sentient tea kettle. Can we explain everything that happened in each season, or even most of it? Of course not. Did every inscrutable minute of it make us feel more deeply than all but a handful of other shows on this list? Absolutely.


‘The Larry Sanders Show’

No flipping! Has any show better understood the craven business of television, and the toxic stew of neurosis and ego that keeps the whole system afloat, better than Garry Shandling’s acidic comedy about the host of a second-rate late-night talk show? Larry Sanders is a man who can find no pleasure in life other than the one hour a night he’s on camera — only he often doubts himself about that, too. However middling Sanders’ show was supposed to be, Shandling’s was so smart and cutthroat that movie and TV stars were lining up to mock themselves on it, if it meant a chance to hang with Shandling, or with the late, great Rip Torn, who co-starred as Larry’s fearless producer, Artie.


‘The Americans’

“You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!” “Well, you got your peanut butter in my chocolate!” Only make it a TV show. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are Soviet sleeper agents posing as married suburban couple Elizabeth and Philip Jennings in Reagan’s America. Is it a riveting spy thriller or a quiet and nuanced examination of the compromises inherent to any marriage? As the meme goes, why not both? The suspense plots make the show’s family drama more exciting, and that character work in turn gives the espionage action more weight. The Americans smartly tracks the level of reality in each of its relationships, including Philip’s desire to make his fake marriage to Elizabeth into a real one, Philip wrestling with guilt over befriending his FBI-agent neighbor Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), and Philip and Elizabeth’s teenage daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), debating how to feel after learning the truth about her parents. The performances are sensational in matters both domestic and spy-related. And where many classics of this era have had divisive endings, its conclusion only made everything that came before feel better.



Selina Meyer’s stint as POTUS was so brief and inept that there’s no way she would ever be considered for a new Mount Rushmore lineup. The face of Veep star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, on the other hand, would have to be carved into any grand attempt to immortalize the very best of the best of TV comedy. As the foulmouthed, narcissistic center of Armando Iannucci’s savage Beltway comedy — in which Selina, her army of sycophants, and her many allies and rivals on the political stage are revealed to have no beliefs other than a craving for power and attention — Louis-Dreyfus somehow topped her Seinfeld work, creating a performance for the ages.


‘The Twilight Zone’

In TV’s first golden age, of the Fifties and Sixties, the anthology drama was king, and Rod Serling’s collection of fantastical stories — set in “the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition,” as Serling himself intones at the start of every episode — ruled them all. Before science fiction became dominated by adventure stories set in galaxies far, far away, the genre was often best used for biting social commentary on the world around us, just barely hidden beneath the trappings of alien invaders and deals with the devil. Some Twilight Zone installments functioned as commentaries on personal anxieties like fear of flying (William Shatner spotting a gremlin on the wing of his plane). Some leaned on the sorts of twists that TV would still be chasing more than a half-century later, like the famous “It’s a cookbook!” conclusion to the alien visit in “To Serve Man.” But a lot of the time, the series was looking at the world around us, and not enjoying what it saw, like using the suburban hysteria of “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” as an indictment of Cold War paranoia. The franchise has been revived multiple times, including a recent streaming attempt by Jordan Peele, but the original iteration towers above all the others.



Logan Roy (Brian Cox), patriarch of this blacker-than-black comedy about the ongoing battle for control of a Fox News-style media empire among his four entitled children — ineffectual Connor (Alan Ruck), wounded addict Kendall (Jeremy Strong), smug Shiv (Sarah Snook), and childish Roman (Kieran Culkin) — would probably look at its finish just outside our top 10 and tell all of us to fuck off. Considering how deftly Succession depicts the state of modern media (and how people like Logan harm the world for their own personal gain), finds ways to get the audience to understand members of the family like Kendall or the gawky and clueless Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), and continuously churns out scathingly funny dialogue, he may have a point.


‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’

Along with Cheers, it’s the gold standard for ensemble comedy, blending sparkling dialogue with unexpected heart and a cast of actors who seemed born to trade punchlines with one another. Four years after the end of her beloved run on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Tyler Moore returned to TV as both producer and star of this trailblazing series about a single woman reinventing herself in a new city, with new friends (Valerie Harper’s brassy Rhoda, Cloris Leachman’s self-absorbed Phyllis), new co-workers (Ed Asner’s crabby Lou, Gavin MacLeod’s witty Murray, Ted Knight’s dim Ted Baxter), and a belief that she was gonna make it, after all. Like Lucille Ball before her, Moore used the show’s success to build her own TV-production empire, responsible for other shows on this list, like Hill Street Blues. If the episode where Mary Richards struggles to not laugh at the funeral for Chuckles the Clown isn’t the funniest half hour ever, it is on a very short list.



After years on Community as white America’s favorite Black guy, Donald Glover code-switched to create and star in Atlanta, a show that freely sheds its own identity. One week, it can be a broad comedy about Al (Brian Tyree Henry) suffering the dumbest day of his life in an attempt to get a good haircut; the next, it’s a chilling haunted-house story about racial self-loathing. It can have Al, Earn (Glover), and Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) have surreal adventures in the titular city, and it can send Earn’s ex Van (Zazie Beetz) to Paris to savagely beat up a Frenchman with a stale loaf of bread while supplying a banquet for wealthy cannibals. No show should be able to do so many radically different things as well as Atlanta does routinely.



“It’s the night before my wedding, and I’m in the middle of a sweat contest,” Diane Chambers (Shelley Long) laments when she finds herself stuck at the titular Boston bar in the classic sitcom’s debut episode. But in those early seasons where the clever, pretentious, and fragile Diane was locked in an endless cycle of makeouts and breakups with cocky ex-jock bartender Sam Malone (Ted Danson), Cheers never let you see it sweat, as it effortlessly rewrote the book on TV romance, creating the will-they-or-won’t-they template seen decades later with couples like Jim and Pam on The Office. Jokewise, it had a far higher batting average than any player who ever faced off against Sam when he pitched for the Red Sox. Whatever spark the show lost when Long exited to make movies — to be replaced by Kirstie Alley’s more desperate and pathetic Rebecca — it compensated by leaning more heavily on one of the greatest collections of goofballs ever, including Kelsey Grammer’s pompous shrink Frasier Crane (eventually to get his own classic spinoff), Rhea Perlman’s hostile waitress Carla, Woody Harrelson’s guileless bartender Woody, John Ratzenberger’s insufferable know-it-all mailman Cliff, and George Wendt’s professional barfly Norman Peterson — or, as he’s known to the gang at Cheers, NORM! 


‘Mad Men’

What you’re reading here isn’t a blurb. It’s a time machine, taking us back to a place — in this case, the seven seasons in which we followed mysterious, charismatic Sixties ad exec Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and his irrepressible protégé Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) — where we ache to go again. A darkly funny workplace drama, a lavishly detailed chronicle of social change across one of the most turbulent decades of American history, and a nuanced character study of Don, Peggy, the indomitable Joan (Christina Hendricks), silver-tongued Roger (John Slattery), and a host of other unforgettable figures. What would TV be like without it? Not great, Bob!



When comedian Jerry Seinfeld and his neurotic, self-destructive best friend George Costanza (Jason Alexander) are developing a sitcom based on Jerry’s life in Seinfeld Season Four, George describes it as “a show about nothing.” The fictional head of NBC they pitch it to wonders why anyone would watch that. His real-life counterparts had no such questions, as Seinfeld became a phenomenon — and one of the most influential comedies ever — through its obsession with the minutiae of everyday life (double-dipping chips, regifting presents), the unsentimental “no hugging, no learning” mantra of Seinfeld and co-creator Larry David, its collection of New York characters like the Soup Nazi and George Steinbrenner (voiced by David), and the explosive comic chemistry among Seinfeld, Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus (as Jerry’s judgmental ex-girlfriend Elaine Benes), and Michael Richards (as his shiftless, gregarious neighbor Cosmo Kramer). Impeccably designed and endlessly quotable, like when the famous episode “The Contest” defined abstaining from masturbation as being “master of your domain.”



Sure, it’s rewarding when a TV show can provide dozens of hours of mirth across many seasons. Sometimes, though, the most satisfying experience comes from series that have a few things to say, say them perfectly, and then shake their heads and walk away before you can follow them into less-interesting story arcs. Never has that short-and-sweet approach been more impeccably executed than with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s tragicomic tour de force, where she played a self-destructive woman so lonely that her healthiest relationships were with her unseen television audience, and with the Hot Priest (Andrew Scott) with whom she fell madly in lust in the second season. And whether she was talking directly to us or not (in TV’s best-ever use of breaking the fourth wall), Waller-Bridge held the audience in the palm of her hand throughout. She made Fleabag as raunchy, as funny, and as sad — sometimes more than one of those at the same time — as she wanted it to be. And then she said goodbye.


‘The Wire’

Whenever you hear a contemporary showrunner refer to their work as “a novel for television” or “a 10-hour movie,” odds are they spent a lot of time watching David Simon and Ed Burns’ drama and mistakenly assumed that it would be easy to copy. It was an urban epic that gradually touched every corner of its fictionalized Baltimore, from cops and drug dealers to middle school students and politicians. The Wire preached that “all the pieces matter,” then put the concept into action, so that the slow pacing and narrative sprawl made all the show’s tragedies — visited upon one of the most amazing casts of characters ever assembled, from ambitious drug dealer Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) down to sweet junkie Bubbles (Andre Royo) and stickup artist Omar Little (Michael Kenneth Williams) — and all of its criticisms of the state of modern America, hit harder each time. Often imitated, never duplicated — not even by Simon on impressive follow-ups like Tremé or The Deuce. As D’Angelo Barksdale (Larry Gilliard Jr.) puts it while using chess as a metaphor for the drug game, “The king stay the king.”


‘Breaking Bad’

High school teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) tells his students that he likes to think of chemistry as “a study of change,” which conveniently is the major theme of the crime saga built around him. No series before or since has taken better advantage of the medium’s ability to track a character’s journey over a long period of time, while also crafting the kind of memorable individual installments that distinguish TV from movies. Breaking Bad travels step by agonizing step through Walt’s journey from lower-middle-class breadwinner to lord of his own crystal-meth empire, where he’s alternately helped and hurt along the way by former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), criminal lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), calculating kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), and even his own victimized wife Skyler (Anna Gunn). And the series is only as thrilling and as devastating as it is because it keeps methodically showing you how Walt and the others got from there to here.


‘The Simpsons’

What is there left to say about the best, longest running, most influential, most acclaimed TV comedy of them all? (Krusty the Clown, before spitting in disgust: “Acclaimed?!?!”) Should we offer loopy quotes at random, like when Abe Simpson had an onion on his belt, which was the style at the time? Should we push back against the bogus sentiment that The Simpsons hasn’t been funny in decades, since even in its 32nd season, it was able to put -together an episode as sharp as the Comic Book Guy-focused Wes Anderson tribute? Talk about Homer Simpson as an avatar of all that is great and terrible about the American male? Marvel at the wide range of tones and subjects it’s made room for, such that the poignant “You are Lisa Simpson” scene from the end of “Lisa’s Substitute” belongs on the same show where Homer went into space with NASA or once asked George Harrison where the Quiet Beatle got his brownie? Hum a few bars of the monorail song? Start ranking all of the guest stars, from Phil Hartman all the way down to the guy from Joe Millionaire? Or should we just admit that after all these years, The Simpsons’ genius speaks for itself?


‘The Sopranos’ 

The winner — and still undisputed champion — from North Caldwell, New Jersey, coming in heavy at 86 medium-transforming episodes filled with whacking, psychiatric analysis, and cunnilingus and fart jokes, it’s The Sopranos! Of course David Chase’s creation topped the list again, because we are still living in the new world of television ushered in by Mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini). As Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) helped Tony better understand himself and his relationships with wife Carmela (Edie Falco), mother Livia (Nancy Marchand), nephew Christopher (Michael Imperioli), and the dangerous idiots in his crew, Chase’s unapologetically dark examination of turn-of-the-century America took a torch to every written and unwritten rule that TV storytelling had been governed by since the days of Gunsmoke. Simplicity and holding the audience’s hand were out, and narrative and moral complexity were in, all the way through a final edit that we still can’t stop—