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.
When it comes to this game show that requires answers in the form of a question, we have to ask: What is an early-evening institution we took for granted until beloved host Alex Trebek was diagnosed with cancer three years ago? With the loss of the reassuringly affable Trebek, these past two seasons have been tumultuous for Jeopardy!. But the format, the challenging and diverse array of subjects, and the enthusiastically nerdy contestants remained addictive even during the bumpy transition that eventually led to actor Mayim Bialik and former champ Ken Jennings splitting Trebek’s old job.
What if they chose an earlier title, like Six of One? What if Hank Azaria had in fact been hired to play Joey, or Nancy McKeon had been cast as Monica? The success of Friends was so miraculous, and so dependent on every piece of it existing in total harmony with every other piece — most of all, the chemistry among the six pals (Courteney Cox’s uptight Monica, Jennifer Aniston’s pampered Rachel, Lisa Kudrow’s spacey Phoebe, Matt Le Blanc’s goofy Joey, Matthew Perry’s sarcastic Chandler, and David Schwimmer’s mopey Ross) — that it could have failed if any one thing was changed even slightly. But all the ingredients came together in the right proportions, leading to a show so warm it’s been embraced by a younger generation that has no frame of reference for Chandler’s “I think this is the episode of Three’s Company where there’s some kind of misunderstanding” joke.
The creative revolution kicked off by The Sopranos and Sex and the City might have stayed limited to HBO if not for the quick success of The Shield on a barely noticed stop on the basic-cable channel guide. Michael Chiklis was so instantly magnetic as brazenly corrupt LAPD detective Vic Mackey that it kicked off a rush of other cable channels and, eventually, streaming services, finding their own signature series. But even beyond historical importance, the show (created by Shawn Ryan) is pretty great, blending network cop-drama tropes with Sopranos’ antihero framing and mature content. It also surrounds Vic with a worthy group of allies (Walton Goggins’ reckless Shane), wary colleagues (CCH Pounder’s tenacious detective Claudette; Glenn Close for a season as Vic’s new boss), and outright enemies (most notably Forest Whitaker’s erratic internal-affairs cop Jon Kavanaugh, but eventually even Shane himself). And for as much as The Shield seemed to be celebrating Vic’s swagger early on, the series always understood exactly who and what he was, culminating in the devastating “Family Meeting” chapter, which is the best drama finale ever.
Like Freaks and Geeks, it’s a one-season wonder about high schoolers who don’t run with the popular crowd. This one, though, has a lyrical, intimate tone reflective of Claire Danes’ remarkable debut performance as Angela Chase, a teenager rebelling against her family and friends’ good-girl expectations, but too lost in her own head to understand exactly what she’s doing and why. Created by Winnie Holzman and produced by the Thirtysomething team of Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, My So-Called Life has no peers in its ability to re-create that distinctive adolescent mix of terror and abandon.
The past few years of American life haven’t been kind to this White House drama’s innate belief that anyone can be swayed on any political issue if presented with a cogent argument. Yet that belief is in many ways more appealing in this time of great division than it was when West Wing debuted at the end of the Clinton administration — especially when accompanied by the crackling dialogue and soaring rhetoric of creator Aaron Sorkin, and delivered by lovable characters like eloquent President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), pragmatic White House chief of staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer), idealistic speechwriter Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), and harried press secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney).
Each Columbo episode follows the same structure: A rich and powerful person commits what they think is a perfect murder that can’t possibly be traced back to them. Lt. Columbo turns up, and his rumpled appearance and distracted, deferential manner convinces each killer that he’s an easily manipulated fool. Instead, he is shockingly tenacious and clever, talking each of these would-be masters of the universe into incriminating themselves, often for missing an incredibly minor detail, like a pair of shoelaces being tied the wrong way or a ribbon being left in a typewriter. A show this formulaic only works with a hugely likable lead, and this one fortunately had the benefit of the superhumanly charming Peter Falk in the title role.
Letterman’s version of Late Night was defined as much by what it wasn’t as what it was. It was a talk show hosted by a man with only a passing interest in talking with celebrities (even though he had memorable interviews over the years, like the time Crispin Glover nearly kicked him in the face). It featured comedy bits that still defy explanation, like Letterman climbing into a vat of liquid while wearing a suit filled with Alka-Seltzer tablets. But his disdain for talk-show and comedy norms only made every segment funnier, and helped define the ironic sensibilities of generations of comedy writers who grew up watching him. When Letterman lost the post-Carson Tonight Show job to Jay Leno, he left NBC to start over under the old Late Show title. His CBS years were ever so slightly more traditional, but Letterman’s trademark comic indifference could still appear when you least expected it.
The 2010s were a good decade for creators of web comedies to level up to TV. Some have been straightforward translations, like the stoner buddy comedy of Broad City or the extremely Canadian content of Letterkenny. Insecure co-creator and star Issa Rae, meanwhile, took some elements of her popular web show The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl with her when she made the leap to premium cable, even though she was playing a (somewhat) new character. Over the course of five seasons of incisive comedy and character study, Rae’s Issa Dee struggled to figure out relationships of various kinds as she exited her late twenties and had to accept the burdens of unequivocal adulthood. Would she end up with on-again, off-again boyfriend Lawrence (Jay Ellis), or one of the many charismatic men who wander into her life? Would she ever feel comfortable as a Black woman in a well-meaning but patronizing white-run nonprofit that helps children of color? Would she and best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji) be able to prioritize each other with so much drama in their lives? And most important, would Issa ever make peace with the face in the mirror that questioned every choice she made? By the end, both Insecure and Issa had all the answers we wanted from them.
When you remake a classic, there is nowhere to go but down. The smarter play is what happened here, when Star Trek vet Ronald D. Moore transformed a corny late-Seventies Star Wars rip-off into a gripping sci-fi allegory about 9/11 and the never-ending War on Terror, where the religious fundamentalist killers happen to be robots (like Tricia Helfer’s vivacious but multifaceted Number Six) who can pass for human. Cool space battles peacefully co-exist with grounded character stories, played by a superb cast led by Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell. The new BSG proved to be such a revelation that there’s already another remake in the works, which brings us back to the warning in this blurb’s first sentence.
None of the pieces of this animated comedy have any business fitting together. It’s set in a world where humans live and work alongside animals that walk on two legs, talk, and wear clothes. Its title character (Will Arnett) is a washed-up Nineties sitcom star struggling with substance abuse, depression, and an inability to stop hurting anyone who cares about him, including his daffy roommate Todd (Aaron Paul), manager/ex-girlfriend Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), and biographer/friend Diane (Alison Brie). BoJack is filled with silly wordplay, Hollywood satire, and dumb humor presented in brainy fashion. But it’s also a poignant, tragic character sketch where the character just happens to be a horse-man — a parody of antihero dramas that ask you to empathize with assholes, yet one that succeeds in making you empathize with this asshole. And somehow, all of these disparate elements combine for by far the best show Netflix has ever made.
This metaphysical comedy from Parks and Recreation co-creator Michael Schur makes several big assertions as part of its premise: Heaven is irreparably broken. The universe is without meaning. Life is just a series of petty little tortures. Are you laughing yet? Somehow, The Good Place finds hilarity in every corner of its version of hell, which has just admitted four new arrivals — Kristen Bell’s unrepentant con woman, Eleanor Shellstrop; William Jackson Harper’s anxious philosopher, Chidi Anagonye; Jameela Jamil’s narcissistic do-gooder, Tahani Al-Jamil; and Manny Jacinto’s deeply stupid Florida man, Jason Mendoza — as part of a plan by demon-in-disguise Michael (Ted Danson, having the time of his life) to emotionally hurt people rather than using the traditional fire-and-brimstone approach. As Eleanor and the other dum-dums figure out that they are really in the Bad Place, and begin (with help from D’Arcy Carden’s all-powerful Janet, who is both not a robot and not a girl) journeying back and forth among death, life, and various cosmic realms, The Good Place taps endless reserves of silliness in its debates about the purpose of existence, along with a stubbornly optimistic belief that the world we know, and the people in it, can all be better. Humor and special effects can be a dangerous mix, but The Good Place strikes a healthy balance between the two. It is a comedy bursting with imagination and heart, all the way to the surprisingly profound use of “Take it sleazy” in its final scene.
The unspoken theme of Curb is the fictionalized Larry David’s struggle to find something to do with his life that will live up to co-creating Seinfeld. But the actual David has somehow turned his follow-up show into a Seinfeld sequel, a remake of it, and a rebuttal to it, posing an argument that the show about nothing might have been even funnier if George Costanza had been fabulously wealthy and able to curse up a storm. All these years later, the familiar Seinfeld-esque convergence of subplots at the end of episodes still pays huge comic dividends, whether the stories were familiar (like Jerry, Larry winds up befriending a key participant from the 1986 World Series) or wildly different (Larry hires a sex worker so he has an excuse to drive in the carpool lane and avoid freeway traffic). And if Curb has proved more uneven than its predecessor, its best moments (say, Larry’s love of Palestinian chicken and wild sex conflicting with his pride in his Jewish heritage) surpass even Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer at their peak.
This ensemble cop series blended pieces of several seemingly incompatible genres — the serial storytelling of daytime soaps, the raw camerawork of documentary films, the social consciousness and twisted sense of humor of Seventies independent movies — into something that felt wholly new. Throw in a squad room full of memorable characters, including sensitive captain Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti), his public-defender sparring partner — and secret lover — Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel), perp-biting undercover officer Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz), troublemaking alcoholic J.D. LaRue (Kiel Martin), and bruising detective Norm Buntz (Dennis Franz), and you had the blueprint for most of the dramas that followed it in TV’s second golden age of the Eighties and Nineties, including some, like L.A. Law and NYPD Blue, that came from Hill Street co-creator Steven Bochco.
Mitchell Hurwitz’s Iraq War-era farce, about a family of rich morons forced to fend for themselves after the patriarch goes to jail, is as dense with jokes as a neutron star is with stellar matter. Every scene is packed with running gags, callbacks, impossible names, slapstick, and more, the impact of each building and building to irresistible payoffs. So when mama’s boy Buster (Tony Hale), for instance, tries to escape the controlling yoke of his mother, Lucille (Jessica Walter), he stubbornly ignores warnings that a loose seal is about to bite off his hand. That approach made Arrested impenetrable to newcomers after a few episodes, but viewers who were there from the start of the Fox seasons were consistently rewarded with the kind of richness the Bluth family had just lost access to.
In a ranking of the most important series in television history, this seminal comedy would probably finish ahead of even The Sopranos. Simply put, no show has been more influential or imitated than the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz vehicle that created the multicamera sitcom (shot on a stage in front of a raucous audience) as we know it. The gender politics haven’t aged well, as much of the series involves Arnaz’s nightclub bandleader, Ricky Ricardo, paternalistically dismissing the dreams of Ball’s Lucy each time his wife’s ambition to be anything other than a housewife gets her in trouble. But the slapstick genius of Ball — on display in iconic sequences like Lucy and best friend Ethel (Vivian Vance) struggling to keep up with a candy-factory conveyer belt, Lucy getting into a brawl while stomping grapes during a trip to Italy, Lucy getting drunk while filming a TV commercial, or Lucy re-creating the Duck Soup mirror scene with Harpo Marx — sure has.
Dangers ranging from a runaway polar bear to . . . an immortal smoke monster? As one of the castaways asks early on, “Guys, where are we?” For much of its run, a civil war waged both within and without the sci-fi survival story about which was more important: solving the island’s many mysteries, or exploring the rich and diverse cast of characters trapped there (including Terry O’Quinn’s stubborn survivalist Locke, Josh Holloway’s reforming con man Sawyer, and Jorge Garcia’s unlucky Hurley). The greatest pleasures of the experience ultimately came from the whole messy, exciting, bizarre emotional journey of it, rather than the destination that so many of the “I just want answers, dammit!” crowd was hoping to visit.
When Rolling Stone last asked our experts to rank the best shows ever, NBC’s Office remake finished behind the British original. Six years later, their positions have flipped. (The U.K. version landed just outside the top 50.) Perhaps it’s a testament to how much easier it is to feel affection for Steve Carell’s inept but lonely boss, Michael Scott, despite his countless failings as a manager and as a person, than it is for Ricky Gervais’ more hostile David Brent. Or perhaps it’s that there’s so much more of the American show to love, with more than 200 episodes versus a baker’s dozen for the Gervais series. Yes, Office U.K. was more consistent, but that’s easy to do in such a small sample size. Office U.S. has some terrible lows, especially after Carell left and the show unwisely promoted Ed Helms’ obnoxious Andy to replace him. But it offers so, so many comic and romantic highs along the way, from Dwight (Rainn Wilson) staging a disastrous, heart-attack-inducing fire drill to the slow-burning courtship of Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer).
Never mind the bollocks, here’s the punk-rock sextet of sketch comedy. Together, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin exploded long-held beliefs about how comedy should function. Python could be simultaneously high- and lowbrow, like the slapstick-heavy government-satire sequence suggesting Britain had a Ministry of Silly Walks. Sketches could start and/or stop in midscene, abruptly segue into animation or meta-commentary, and go to comedic places bordering on the surreal. And for all the formal experimentation, Python still made you laugh until it hurt.
A terrible idea accidentally executed in astonishing fashion. Breaking Bad required no spinoff, especially not one built around a fun but one-dimensional character like Bob Odenkirk’s slick attorney Saul Goodman. Even Saul creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould struggled to find a direction for the prequel, assuming they would spend a little time on Saul’s true identity as sweet but mostly harmless grifter Jimmy McGill, then quickly move him into the familiar strip-mall office where he met Walter White. Instead, the creators and the audience fell in love with Jimmy — with a lot of help from Rhea Seehorn’s magnificent performance as his devoted partner, Kim Wexler — and suddenly no one was in any hurry to call Saul. The series also evolved into essentially two shows in one, each offering something to appeal to fans of Breaking Bad: The lawyer show with Jimmy and Kim delivered a Heisenberg-esque story of incremental moral descent, while the cartel show focused on Jonathan Banks’ unflappable fixer Mike Ehrmantraut got to fill in a lot of blanks in the franchise’s history, and to provide the type of explosive action not present while, say, Jimmy was discovering he had a talent for elder law. By the end, Better Call Saul eventually managed to match, and at times exceed, its parent series.
Welcome to the blockbuster age of television, as kicked off by this lavish adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novels set in a parallel version of England circa the War of the Roses. Thrones would eventually become known for its jaw-dropping spectacle: fire-breathing dragons burning armies into ash, a horde of icy zombies overwhelming a fishing village’s defenses, or an angry giant crashing through a castle’s gates. But all of that came later. What made Thrones a phenomenon in the first place was not only its willingness to brutally kill off major players like Sean Bean’s noble Ned Stark, but also its absurdly deep bench of colorful characters — fast-talking imp Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), aspiring young killer Arya (Maisie Williams), and towering warrior Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), to cite just three — that allowed the show to be so ruthless with some of them, while the rest remained locked in thrilling physical or verbal combat with one another.
So many of the comedies on this list are built on pain and anxiety. Parks and Rec rests on a happier foundation, taking its cues from its heroine, Amy Poehler’s can-do civil servant Leslie Knope. The series deployed Leslie’s unbreakable hopefulness (and Poehler’s own bottomless reserves of energy) as a weapon, not only against intractable governing problems, but also against the cynicism of colleagues like mustachioed libertarian Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman, hilariously understated) or over-it intern April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza). A series as capable of making you feel as good as it was of making you laugh at jokes like the town of Pawnee’s infatuation with a tiny horse called Li’l Sebastian, or a flu-ridden Chris (Rob Lowe) telling himself to stop pooping.
This landmark adaptation of Alex Haley’s novel about slavery was an event, unfurled over eight consecutive nights in front of an audience that at its peak comprised more than half of all Americans. As viewers sat mesmerized by the story of enslaved Mandinka warrior Kunta Kinte (played first by LeVar Burton, then by John Amos), Roots put our nation’s original sin back into the public conversation. It wasn’t just the terrible story itself, but the confident way it was told, including the tactic of casting endearing TV actors like Ed Asner, The Waltons patriarch Ralph Waite, and Robert Reed from The Brady Bunch as slave owners and slave traders. Roots almost single-handedly created the “prestige TV” notion that the small screen could debut projects as compelling as what audience members previously had to pay to see in a movie theater.
Witness a study in beliefs in conflict with one another. Friday Night Lights is a show about high school football that was adored by people with no stomach for real sports; a teen drama revered by people who hate teen drama; an adaptation made by the movie’s writer-director (Peter Berg) because he thought the film would have been better in long form; and a series that struck such a chord across demographics that in 2012, both the Obama and Romney campaigns used its “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” catchphrase. That deep love is a testament to the unbridled emotion created by Berg’s cinema-verité technique, and to the ways it unleashed spectacular performances from all its actors — including future stars like Michael B. Jordan and Jesse Plemons — but especially from Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, as Eric and Tami Taylor (a.k.a. Coach and Mrs. Coach), the devoted spouses at the heart of so much turmoil. TV writers often argue that happy couples ruin shows. Obviously, those writers haven’t seen the Taylors in action.
The sacred and the profane came together in transcendent fashion in David Milch’s talkative Western, which used the lawless Dakota territory of the late 1800s as a case study for how communities and civilizations are built. Deadwood mixed historical figures like volcano-tempered lawman Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and cutthroat bartender Al Swearengen (the fantastic Ian McShane) with fictional ones like wealthy widow Alma Garret (Molly Parker) and defiant sex worker Trixie (Paula Malcomson). More impressively, its dialogue placed harsh profanity that would make Gary Cooper blush alongside some of the most poetic language ever written for the screen, big or small. (Swearengen, in the midst of evolving from vicious mob boss to the series’ improbable moral center, offers this as a pep talk to an upset colleague: “Pain or damage don’t end the world. Or despair or fuckin’ beatings. The world ends when you’re dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man, and give some back.”) Television in recent years has grown cluttered with unnecessary revivals of treasured old shows that already had proper finales. Deadwood, though, ended abruptly after a third season. Thankfully, the 2019 TV movie provided necessary closure for the characters and the audience who grew to love all those hoopleheads and cocksuckers.
A televisual rite of passage across multiple generations. The human cast keeps changing; the demise of actor Will Lee, who played store owner Mr. Hooper, led to the show using Big Bird to discuss the concept of death in terms preschoolers could understand. And Jim Henson’s Muppet creations have come and gone, with Kermit spinning off to hang with Fozzie and Miss Piggy, while the anxious Grover eventually took a back seat to the more eager and cuddly Elmo. (Cookie Monster remains a constant, even if the producers sometimes struggle to reconcile his addictive personality with the overall tone of the show, leading to well-meaning but misguided songs like “A Cookie Is a Sometime Food.”) But the mission remains the same: to educate and entertain both its young target audience and their exhausted parents through a mix of songs, sketches, and a voice that speaks to kids rather than at them. It’s a balance Sesame Street has long since mastered.
The United States’ involvement in the Korean War lasted about three years. M*A*S*H stuck around for more than a decade, including a supersize finale that is and will likely always be the most-watched single episode of television ever. That elongation of the core concept gave the show about Army doctors and nurses plenty of chances to reinvent itself. At the beginning, it was an anarchic anti-establishment comedy in the spirit of the Robert Altman movie it adapted, with Alan Alda’s Dr. Hawkeye Pierce staging wild pranks as a means of protesting the violence around him. By the end, it had become a sensitive drama about the physical and emotional toll of war, with former comic-relief characters like Jamie Farr’s cross-dressing Max Klinger or Loretta Swit’s imperious nurse, Margaret Houlihan, now taken as seriously as Hawkeye or Harry Morgan’s dignified Col. Potter. And a few lovely periods in between managed to straddle those tonal extremes.
The future of Hollywood comedy was assembled on one incredible show, and NBC was too blind to see it. Created by Paul Feig, produced by Judd Apatow, and featuring a murderers’ row of up-and-coming stars like James Franco, Seth Rogen, and Jason Segel, Freaks and Geeks went back to suburban Michigan in the 1980s for tales of high school outcasts, with frequent crossover between the teenage burnouts convinced that they have no future (newly joined by Linda Cardellini’s embittered good girl Lindsey) and the nerds just hoping the world will one day believe they’re cool (led by John Francis Daley as Lindsey’s awkward little brother, Sam). At times painfully funny, at others just painful, it showed great empathy for these kids, even as it was willing to put a spotlight on all their mortifying adolescent awkwardness. The network didn’t understand the show, it lasted only one season, and Feig et al. were set free to make their fortunes on the big screen. None of them have topped their work here, though.
We live in the age of IP, where familiar titles are adapted again and again, simply because of that familiarity, and not because anyone has an original thought about them. Then there is Watchmen. The original mid-Eighties comics masterpiece by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons proved impossible to adapt for decades. The 2009 Zack Snyder film managed to re-create most of the plot while utterly missing the point of the endeavor. Lost and Leftovers alum Damon Lindelof went a different way when the property fell into his hands, using the world Moore and Gibbons built to tell a fanciful yet raw story about the ugly history of American racism, as seen through the eyes of Sister Night (Regina King), a police officer who, like her colleagues, dons a mask and special uniform so she can do her violent work with impunity. (When some cops in our world began wearing masks while dealing with the post-George Floyd protests, the show proved unfortunately prophetic.) Sister Night finds herself at the center of a swirling narrative that incorporates the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, multiple trips to one of Jupiter’s moons, time travel, a space dildo, and a costumed hero whom cops dub “Lube Man.” Yet all those wildly disparate elements — including an all-time musical score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, plus terrific performances by King, Jean Smart, Jeremy Irons, Hong Chau, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II — feel of a transfixing piece with one another, and also with the elusive source material.
What creator Gene Roddenberry pitched as “Wagon Train to the stars” instead built a legacy far greater than any classic TV Western. The voyages of the starship Enterprise, captained by the swaggering, impulsive James T. Kirk (William Shatner), created the modern concept of fandom as we know it. And with his pointy ears and retro-future haircut, Leonard Nimoy’s half-alien science officer, Mr. Spock, became the face that launched a thousand ‘ships (a.k.a. fan fiction about the sorts of relationships the show did not feature). Since the original series, there have been 13 Trek movies, seven live-action spinoffs, and three animated series. Many of these follow-ups have offered their own magic, from Patrick Stewart’s thunderous lead performance on The Next Generation to the serialized political epic Deep Space Nine to the powerful empathy of the current Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. And some of them have been much more consistent than the adventures of Kirk, Spock, and the irascible Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley). But the dramatic highs of the Sixties show, and its audacious world-building, made the entire franchise — and the larger sci-fi/fantasy/fan ecosystem — possible.
Norman Lear’s generation-gap comedy had such a finger on the pulse of an increasingly divided nation that President Nixon was caught on tape in the Oval Office complaining about an early episode. And the show — in which racist, sexist, reactionary blue-collar slob Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) and his liberal son-in-law Michael “Meathead” Stivic (Rob Reiner) fought constantly as their respective spouses Edith (Jean Stapleton) and Gloria (Sally Struthers) tried to calm things down — could create a divide of its own, between viewers who took Archie for their hero and the ones who understood that Lear considered him a fool. In many ways, the original antihero series, and the inspiration for a brief halcyon age of network sitcoms — many of them spinoffs of this show, such as The Jeffersons, Maude, and Good Times — that managed to weave thoughtful discussion of the issues of the day around a lot of bawdy humor.
The old adage to “write what you know” has few examples better than 30 Rock. Tina Fey, fresh off a beloved run as SNL head writer and Weekend Update co-anchor, created and starred in a show on which she plays Liz Lemon, the head writer of an NBC sketch-comedy show that sounds a lot like SNL. Show-within-the-show TGS became part of a much broader satire of both television (including Tracy Morgan and Jane Krakowski as TGS’ pathologically needy stars) and corporate America (exemplified by Alec Baldwin, as supremely arrogant exec Jack Donaghy), mixed in with some of the silliest names ever put onscreen, like Chris Parnell’s Dr. Spaceman (pronounced “spuh-CHEH-men”) or Krakowski’s Jenna starring in The Rural Juror. (Try saying it aloud.) Yet, as eager as 30 Rock was to bite the hand that fed it, in the most ludicrous ways possible, there was also a palpable affection for the business that made these shenanigans possible. As Kenneth (Jack McBrayer), the ageless, unnaturally chipper NBC page, put it in the very first episode, “I just love television.” So did 30 Rock.
A genre-bending tour de force that was written, co-directed by, and starred Michaela Coel as a rising young author whose life and career are rent asunder as she realizes she was drugged and raped. I May Destroy You is at times harrowing, at others unnervingly funny and odd, and as much about the writing process — and the stories we invent about ourselves to help work through problems — as it is about the trauma that Coel’s Arabella has to learn to live with. A singular, mesmerizing limited series.
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.
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?
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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!
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.
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.”
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.
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 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—