There’s never been a creative boom for TV like the one we are living through right now. Ever since The Sopranos changed the game at the turn of the century, we’ve been in a gold rush that gives no signs of slowing down. What better moment to look back and celebrate the greatest shows in the history of the art form?
So we undertook a major poll – actors, writers, producers, critics, showrunners. Legends like Carl Reiner and Garry Marshall, who sent us his ballot shortly before his death this summer. All shows from all eras were eligible; anybody could vote for whatever they felt passionate about, from the black-and-white rabbit-ears years to the binge-watching peak-TV era. The ratings didn’t matter – only quality. The voters have spoken – and, damn, did they have some fierce opinions. On this list you’ll find vintage classics and new favorites, ambitious psychodramas and stoner comedies, underrated cult gems ripe for rediscovery, cops and cartoons and vampire slayers. You’ll find the groundbreaking creations of yesteryear as well as today’s innovators. (There was nothing like Transparent or Orange Is the New Black or Game of Thrones a few years ago, but who could imagine this list without them?) Our list is guaranteed to start plenty of loud arguments – but the beauty of TV is how it keeps giving us so much to argue about.
‘Eastbound and Down’
Danny McBride created a timeless American slob hero with the travails of Kenny Powers, a washed-up ballplayer who fought his way back to a trash redemption. Probably the only show in history with a fatal drug overdose set to "Walk Like an Egyptian." Testify, Kenny.
The HBO prison drama was a searing exposé of life in maximum-security Oswald State Penitentiary: the shankings, the sexual abuse, the racial warfare. Brutally frank in its violence, Oz was too shocking for its time – and remains shocking years later.
‘The Golden Girls’
Four sassy seniors share a party pad in Miami, where they romance the local gentlemen and share cheesecake on the lanai. All four Girls brought something special: Bea Arthur as cynical Dorothy, Betty White as sweet-but-stupid Rose, Rue McClanahan as sex bomb Blanche ("I'm jumpier than a virgin at a prison rodeo"), and Estelle Getty as the Sicilian avenging angel Sophia Petrillo, who summed it all up: "Sluts just heal quicker."
Portlandia sure arrived with a bang – the opening song, "The Dream of the Nineties Is Alive in Portland," was an instant legend bit of boho-baiting satire. ("Portland is a place where young people go to retire!") But who could have guessed the genius duo of SNL vet Fred Armisen and Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein could push Portlandia so far? Mocking the hipster aspirations of modern America is a topic that never runs out of comic juice for these two, whether it's pickle fetishes, artisanal shoelaces or the cult of kale.
Westerns were a staple of television's first half-century, with enduring sagebrush sagas from the Cartwrights of Bonanza to the Barkleys of The Big Valley. This Western lasted longer than any other drama of the pre-Law & Order era – 20 seasons – with James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon, pure frontier gravitas in a white hat.
‘Key & Peele’
Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key aren't merely masterful comics – they're culture burglars breaking into taboo areas of racial stereotypes, gender politics, food, work and the erotics of ass-slapping. But their deadliest weapon was the way they hit hilarious insights on male neurosis, the topic they know best, as in their attention-getting sketch about the word (looks around nervously) "biiiiiitch." And Obama's Anger Translator might be one of the things we'll miss most about Obama.
The longest-ruling, most ingeniously constructed, most endlessly playable quiz show of all time? What is Jeopardy!, Alex? Jeopardy! is the hardiest survivor from the old-school game shows (though many of us carry a torch for Charles Nelson Reilly-era Match Game and Paul Lynde-era Hollywood Squares), hosted by the dapper, though no longer mustachioed, Alex Trebek. You can still play along every night.
‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’
A janitor and his robot friends sit in the dark and heckle some of the worst B-movies ever made, from Rocket Attack U.S.A. to Jungle Goddess, adding their own commentary – it sounds simple, but Joel Hodgson's MST3K turned into one of the era's most enduring cult comedies.
The glitziest of singing competitions, it gave the world memorable freakazoids like Simon Cowell, the hostile judge in a V-neck, and Paula Abdul, the semi-coherent judge who just loved everybody for believing in their pitchiest dreams. Idol never recovered from losing its original judges, in 2009 – when it went bad, it went bad fast – but it found stars like Kelly Clarkson, Adam Lambert, William Hung and the "Pants on the Ground" guy.
Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer invent a new comedy sublime that we'll be seeing a lot more of in years to come: the two-woman stoner-slob hangout. These broads never learn or grow or achieve a thing; all they care about is each other, living their carpe day-umm lifestyle. When Abbi calls in the middle of a sex encounter to ask about pegging, Ilana's victory handstand dance is one of the most euphoric 10-second eruptions you'll ever see.
‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’
As the Petries, Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore were TV's answer to JFK and Jackie – comedy god Carl Reiner put his own experiences into this look at the life of a TV writer. The way Dick kept tripping over the same ottoman in his living room was a handy metaphor for domestic life in itself.
Claire Danes made a big comeback 15 years after My So-Called Life – as a CIA agent in a Showtime drama about terrorism. With its bonkers plot leaps (she sleeps with the terrorist who killed the vice president and gets promoted!), lots of crying jags and the soothing presence of Mandy Patinkin's beard, Homeland became an unlikely hit.
The great Lizzy Caplan and Adam Scott headed up a crew of caterers – you know, failing actors – who served hors d'oeuvres and despaired at porn-star conventions, high school reunions and other disasters. This masterwork never got anywhere near the attention it deserved. But for both laughs and pathos, the episode when they cater Steve Guttenberg's 50th birthday party can hold its own with any half-hour of TV comedy ever.
A science-fiction yarn that keeps thriving through the years, with the Doctor still traveling through space and time in his TARDIS time machine, a half-century after he debuted on the BBC. Like the Time Lord himself, the Doctor Who cult has the power to keep regenerating itself, with Peter Capaldi currently serving as the 12th Doctor.
The Evans kids grow up in the Chicago projects – keeping their heads above water, making a wave when they can. They remain one of the most relatable TV families ever, from the 1970s boom for superfly black sitcoms that also gave us Sanford & Son and What's Happening!! Good Times had the dy-no-mite Jimmie "J.J." Walker, long-suffering mama Esther Rolle ("Damn, damn, damn!") and black-power little bro Michael, surely the first kid on TV to get sent home from school for calling George Washington a slave owner.
‘The Real World’
This MTV petri dish hatched the reality-TV virus that soon swept the airwaves. The Real World was hugely influential as soon as it debuted in 1992, bringing together an apartment full of strangers to fight, cry and jump into bed, with the promise "This is what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real." (In 1992, not being polite meant ignoring a ringing landline – those were different times.)
‘Real Time With Bill Maher’
For the past 20 years or so, Bill Maher has been one of the most reliably caustic political wits out there, managing to piss off new enemies every time the regime changes, with his unfiltered attacks on religion ("New rule: If churches don't have to pay taxes, they also can't call the fire department"), military spending ("We waste 20 percent of our budget basically fighting Russia in 1978") and every other brand of sanctimonious bullshit.
‘House of Cards’
This Netflix political thriller puts the newfangled concept of "binge-watching" front and center – thanks to Kevin Spacey's magnificently slimy performance as Frank Underwood, a murderous D.C. politician whose soliloquies are so compelling, there is no way you can stop with just one.
Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford were the coolest customers on the block, a couple who were ruthlessly sarcastic yet perfectly matched. George and Weezy moved on up to their deluxe apartment in the sky, but never lost their street swagger. Originally the Bunkers' neighbors on All in the Family, they got 10 times funnier on their own.
Sue Ellen Ewing: "Tell me, J.R., which slut are you gonna stay with tonight?" J.R.: "Whoever she is, she's gotta be more interesting than the slut I'm looking at right now." Truly a marriage made in TV heaven. This sex-and-money blockbuster chronicled the spectacularly evil Ewings and their Texas oil empire, led by Larry Hagman's J.R. Dallas invented the prime-time soap tropes for family sagas from The Sopranos to Empire – as Hagman said proudly, "Even the mother was bad."
Dr. Richard Kimble got falsely convicted of murdering his wife – but after he broke loose, he went hunting for the real killer. The finale was a historic ratings smash as the whole country tuned in to see him catch the one-armed man.
‘In Living Color’
Keenan Ivory Wayans blew the roof off with this hit, bringing a hip-hop sensibility to sketch comedy. In Living Color had Homey the clown ("Homey don't play that"), the World's Hardest-Working West Indian Family ("I have 15 jobs!" "You lazy lima bean!") and a rubber-faced token white guy then-called James Carrey. (Whatever happened to him?)
The ultimate yuppies-in-love drama, as ad execs and their wives reckon with parenthood, marriage, work and real estate. Thirtysomething's white-collar suburbanites climbed the corporate ladder, looking for ways they could live with their compromises both at work and at home.
‘The Walking Dead’
The zombie apocalypse to end all zombie apocalypses, based on the Robert Kirkman cult comic book. AMC's The Walking Dead is a monster hit in every sense of the word, with a band of humans battling to survive the onslaught of the undead walkers, featuring some of the small screen's most viscerally repulsive violence.
‘Late Night With Conan O’Brien’
When a redheaded nobody named Conan was announced as the successor to Letterman, everyone assumed his talk show would bomb even faster than Chevy Chase's. But over the years, nobody could touch Conan for sheer comic velocity and masturbating-bear-worthy weirdness. Even now, exiled to TBS, Conan continues to give the world Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, which would be enough to seal his legend.
‘American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson’
Even after all Ryan Murphy has achieved, he proved he's still peaking with a 10-part miniseries of the O.J. murder case. With out-of-nowhere career performances from John Travolta, Sarah Paulson and David Schwimmer, it made the ultimate made-for-TV trial disturbing all over again.
‘The Ren & Stimpy Show’
In the post-Simpsons days, when everybody was watching to see where the next great animated comedy was coming from, it turned out to be John Kricfalusi's Nickelodeon toon about this lovable duo – a high-strung Chihuahua and his loyal cat pal. Happy happy, joy joy.
Jill Soloway's painfully compassionate drama was like nothing else the screen had seen before – and remains that way, with Jeffrey Tambor as the patriarch-unto-matriarch of a bitterly estranged family, transitioning from Mort to Maura on sheer nerve. Transparent hits emotional notes on every level – who can forget the Trans Got Talent show where Maura sings "Somebody That I Used to Know" to the empty chairs she reserved for her kids? Sing on, Maura.
Lena Dunham aspired to be the voice of her generation – or at least a voice of a generation – with this unflinching HBO sitcom about a quartet of acid-tongued young women failing their way through their twenties, striking out at relationships, rehab, careers, school and basically everything else they attempt.
What completely bizarre careers Bob Odenkirk and David Cross have had – and how bizarre that we first met them as the duo behind this wild-ass HBO cult sketch show, always erratic but often astounding, with future stars like Sarah Silverman in the crew. They excelled at high-concept stunts like their Jesus Christ Superstar parody, with Jack Black as the hippie messiah, or the gay metal band Wyckyd Sceptre. Best line: "I'm not talking to clouds on a sunny day!"
The lights go out. The Conner family just got their electricity cut off because they can't pay the bill. Out of the darkness, Roseanne's voice: "Well, middle class was fun." Roseanne came as a blast of Midwestern blue-collar grit that made all other Eighties sitcoms look like contemptible fluff as soon as it dropped. She was the unsaintly matriarch of this struggling heartland family, with biker husband John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf as her hard-luck sister, Jackie. Roseanne carried the torch during a truly wretched time for network comedies.
‘The Ed Sullivan Show’
The Ed Sullivan Show aired live on Sunday nights as America's big showbiz variety fest, presided over by a granite-faced host who didn't look more than a century or two old. Sullivan gave the Beatles their big U.S. debut, breaking ratings records in 1964 when 73 million Americans tuned in to see the moptops do "She Loves You." He was also the guy who censored Elvis from the waist down and ordered the Stones to change "Let's spend the night together" to "Let's spend some time together," which may help explain why he finally went off the air in 1971.
The MTV comedy show was a whiff of youthful arrogance in the early Nineties, with 11 college wise-asses running wild in manic sketches about monkey torture, Muppet-eating and the mailman who only delivers tacos. After three years on MTV, they jumped to a network – and got destroyed amid the corporate machinery. But their cult kept growing, especially after they masterminded Wet Hot American Summer.
‘The Odd Couple’
Tony Randall was neurotic neat-freak Felix; Jack Klugman was cigar-chomping sportswriter slob Oscar. Thrown out by their wives, they shared a Park Avenue bachelor pad, taking out all their midlife male angst on each other. Though based on Neil Simon's play, it worked even better in sitcom form, thanks to Randall and Klugman's negative chemistry and that perky theme song – their dance on a Central Park lawn is one of the truly romantic visions of New York.
Welcome to the aristocratic English countryside circa 1912, where Julian Fellowes' Crawley family acts out the decline and fall of the British Empire, from the bed-hopping elites to the downstairs schemes of the servants. Dame Maggie Smith steals the show as the delightfully nasty shade queen Dowager Countess, who does a better job than anyone else here at pretending the world isn't changing. Her best line: "What is a 'weekend'?"
R.I.P. to the late, great Garry Marshall. The sitcom maestro's opus was this 1970s hit set in the 1950s, with Henry Winkler as the Fonz, the leather-boy greaser who ruled Arnold's Drive-In with his nerd pals Richie, Potsie and Ralph Malph. It's easy to forget the Fonz had a dark introspective side – best seen in the surprisingly harsh episode where he stars in Richie's production of Hamlet ("I thought a couple of times about whether I wanted 'to be or not'"). Happy Days gave us Scott Baio as the Fonz's douche cousin Chachi, but that can be forgiven, as can the time Fonzie got on water skis for an aquatic stunt that invented the concept of "jumping the shark."
Comedy – it's a hell of a drug. Dave Chappelle was an electric madman genius who defied any attempt to predict his next move – sometimes his Comedy Central show was brilliant, sometimes it was crap, and he eventually decided it wasn't worth the money or the trouble. But it sent shock waves through pop culture, whether Chappelle was immortalizing Charlie Murphy's memories of Rick James ("He is a habitual line-stepper") and Prince ("This bores me") or playing the world's only blind black white supremacist. It's a celebration, bitches!
‘The Wonder Years’
Timed perfectly for the late Eighties, The Wonder Years depicted the childhood of baby boomers in the most nostalgic terms, as Fred Savage's Kevin Arnold grew up in 1960s suburbia and learned about life from the girl next door, Winnie Cooper – played by future mathematician Danica McKellar.
‘Sex and the City’
Or The Golden Girls: The Early Years. This shoe-porn Manhattan fantasy was ubiquitous, to the point where Jay Z could rap that Beyoncé wouldn't talk to him when Sex and the City was on. Nothing could stop fans from feeling the Carrie fever, as Sarah Jessica Parker and her clique – Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis, Kim Cattrall – date, shop and quip their way through a borough full of rich straight guys, eventually realizing their only true soulmates are one another. And maybe also Manolo Blahnik.
‘Your Show of Shows’
Sid Caesar perfected the sketch-comedy format in the Fifties, with legends like Carl Reiner and Imogene Coca. When Nanette Fabray replaced Coca in 1954, the title changed to Caesar's Hour, but the spirit remained the same. His writers' room broke in hungry young rookies like Mel Brooks, Neil Simon and Woody Allen. Flights like the 1955 opera Gallipacci still look fresh – especially when the manic Caesar whimpers "Just One of Those Things," in clown drag, blubbering in pure faux-Italian gibberish. Indescribably moving, not to mention seriously fucked up.
‘Beavis and Butt-Head’
Mike Judge captured the spirit of American adolescence, epitomized by two cartoon butt-munches who live for metal, nachos and breakin' the law (or at least putting poodles in the washing machine). It was liberating how cheap and crummy the animation looked, compared with the sophisticated rococo of The Simpsons or Ren & Stimpy, but Beavis and Butt-Head spoke their own kind of trash poetry, whether they were heckling MTV ("Stop in the name of all which does not suck!") or looking for wholesome fun: "This sucks. Let's go over to Stewart's house and burn something." And they hung with Daria, who got her own classic show. Kids, do try this at home.
‘Hill Street Blues’
A police show too adult to ever get much traction in the ratings but cherished at a time when network dramas were the pits. These cops were troubled people dealing with moral conflicts, urban corruption and their messy personal lives. Precinct captain Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) and public defender Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel) were secretly an item after hours – it was racy stuff in the Eighties to show an unmarried couple who liked to share a bathtub. So many landmark dramas came out of this precinct – the writers included everyone from Law & Order's Dick Wolf to Deadwood's David Milch, not to mention producer Steve Bochco.
Roots ran for only eight episodes, but it changed the way America saw its own history – the topic of slavery was an unspeakable taboo in U.S. culture until this miniseries brought the horrifying details to life. Roots set ratings records in January 1977 – a 100 million Americans tuned in live as it followed Alex Haley's family history from Africa to the slave ship to the plantation, without any attempt to water down the violence for mainstream appeal.
John Cleese based this most horrible of hotel owners on a resort where the Monty Python gang once stayed. Basil Fawlty is the nastiest piece of work Cleese has ever played – one of his most famous scenes features him snarling at a nun. But nobody infuriates him like his customers, especially the one inconsiderate enough to die in his room. "It does actually say 'hotel' outside, you know. Perhaps I should be more specific: 'Hotel for people who have a better than 50 percent chance of making it through the night.'"
Can Agent Jack Bauer save our nation? This adrenaline thriller starred Kiefer Sutherland as the Counter Terrorism Unit's most lethal weapon, leaving no principle of civil liberties unviolated in a cloud of ass-kicking and CGI effects. It also had that innovative real-time structure, each season another 24-hour crisis point and each episode another hour of Jack racing the clock.
‘Six Feet Under’
A California family with a funeral home to run – which means that mortality and grief are never far from anyone's mind. Every episode of Six Feet Under opened with a disturbing (or comic, or both) death scene. Alan Ball's dark yet tender HBO drama explored new terrain, and the closing episodes helped innovate the idea that a series finale should be an artistic epitaph, rather than just a death rattle.
‘The Muppet Show’
Jim Henson's Muppets became a global phenomenon in the 1970s – a hit only Statler and Waldorf could hate, starring Kermit, the Great Gonzo, the Tom Waits-esque piano dog Rowlf, the Swedish Chef, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and everybody's favorite, Beaker. (Meeeep!) The jokes were nonstop corn – "Fozzie, what are you carrying that fish for?" "Oh, just for the halibut" – with one-shot guests like Marvin Suggs and His All-Food Glee Club. Full of unforgettable music moments too, like Elton John doing "Crocodile Rock" with a choir of gators or Animal mangling the drums to "Wild Thing." Thanks to these characters, the gentle hippie spirit of Henson lives on forever. Play us out, Animal.
‘The Bob Newhart Show’
Newhart was already a comedy legend for his brilliant 1960s stand-up monologues – his albums routinely topped the charts. His button-down mind seemed too dry and cerebral for TV, but he hit the jackpot as a Chicago psychologist seeing one nut case after another – perfect for Newhart's unflappable deadpan. He could get laughs just clearing his throat. (Nobody ever was a throat-clearing virtuoso like this man.) Suzanne Pleshette was his wife – in one of the Seventies' most enduringly hot TV marriages.
‘The Colbert Report’
"Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you." With that mission statement, Daily Show correspondent Stephen Colbert set off on a whole new approach to fake news, playing a character named "Stephen Colbert" who happened to be a conservative twit, dedicated to the principle of "truthiness" and pushing the slogan "Blame America Last." "We want people to be in pain and confused," he told Rolling Stone in 2006. "I have no problem making things up, because I have no credibility to lose." The Colbert Report remains sorely missed, especially in an election year like this one.
Well, this was an obviously terrible idea – turning the Coen brothers' classic true-crime film into an FX series. Anybody could have told FX Fargo would never work. Yet Noah Hawley proved that terrible ideas often hold the seeds of greatness. The first season was a welcome surprise, but the real killer was the next chapter, one of the best seasons any drama has ever had, a small-town gangster tale involving state trooper Patrick Wilson, desperate housewife Kirsten Dunst and Bruce Campbell as the real-life Ronald Reagan.