Home Movies Movie Lists

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.


‘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.