The Golden Age of TV shows no signs of ending anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean that every single one of the best shows ever have made their debut in the 21st Century.
As a medium, television has a long and illustrious history that’s given rise to cultural phenomenons, cult classics, zeitgeist-grabbers, multi-season epics, hilarious comedies and so much more.
Narrowing it down to just 50 is no easy task, and art is an entirely subjective medium, and trying to settle on the very best of the very best in an arduous undertaking that saw many classics just fail to make the cut.
50. Freaks and Geeks
It seems incredible to think that Freaks and Geeks lasted for just one season and eighteen episodes given how heavily the talent involved would go on to influence Hollywood comedy the following decade.
Created by Paul Feig and executive produced by Judd Apatow, the series starred James Franco, Seth Rogen, Linda Cardellini and Jason Segel, with countless other future stars appearing including Martin Starr, Busy Phillips, Jason Schwartzman, David Krumhotlz and Shia LaBeouf.
Essentially a teen drama with heavy lashings of comedy, Freaks and Geeks was well ahead of its time, but left behind a legacy as a severely underrated gem that ended far too soon.
49. All in the Family
Sitcom legend Normal Lear delivered arguably finest work with All in the Family, which dominated the airwaves for nine seasons and well over 200 episodes between 1971 and 1979.
Working class hero Archie Bunker may rub some modern audiences the wrong way, but the show was surprisingly progressive in its approach to things like gentrification and the clashes between boomers and proponents of counterculture, which still rings true today.
A cultural juggernaut at the time, All in the Family is still widely quoted and often parodied today, over 40 years after it left the airwaves, which is a testament to the sitcom’s enduring popularity.
48. Mystery Science Theater 3000
Mystery Science Theater 3000 was well ahead of the curve when it come to meta TV shows poking fun at other aspects of popular culture, and fully deserved its status as an instant cult favorite.
Smart, subversive and satirical, wrapping a critique of terrible movies in a sci-fi comedy show was an ingenious concept, although it did lead to two cancellations before another revival on Netflix.
Not only did it encourage viewers to seek out the titles that were being parodied, but the riff-heavy style has become a key component in countless other TV projects and YouTube channels that owe their success to Mystery Science Theater 3000.
47. Downton Abbey
Rich people doing rich people things hardly sounds like appointment viewing, but Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey far outstripped its stuffy origins to become a global phenomenon.
The 52 episodes to date have been greeted with almost unanimous critical acclaim, while every element of the production from the set design to the costuming is of the very highest quality.
A feature film was released five years after the final episode aired and went on to earn almost $200 million at the box office, which just goes to show the continued appeal of the prestige drama.
46. Peaky Blinders
Creator Steven Knight has admitted in the past he plans on making seven seasons of Peaky Blinders, which unfortunately means that there’s only two more to go.
Impeccably crafted, often relentlessly violent, stylishly shot and effortlessly cool, Peaky Blinders is an anachronistic marvel that manages to shoot a period crime drama like a slick blockbuster movie.
Initially and unfairly referred to as a ‘British Boardwalk Empire’, Peaky Blinders has long since outstripped those notions to become a critically-acclaimed favorite on its own merits.
45. Parks and Recreation
When Parks and Rec first arrived it faced unfair comparisons to The Office, but after an inconsistent first season it swiftly evolved into one of the greatest sitcoms of the modern era.
Mid-level local politics doesn’t seem like the type of source material that would generate huge laughs, but the ensemble cast pitched every one of their character to perfection and did justice to some incredible writing.
Seven seasons, 126 episodes and a reunion special later, and Parks and Rec is unarguably one of the most popular and beloved comedy shows of the 21st Century, with endless re-watch value.
Hugh Laurie’s unconventional medical genius burst onto the television landscape like a tornado, and in no time at all the title character was established as a small screen revelation.
Medical dtamas were everywhere, but few if any of them were as complex and morally ambiguous as House, which dominated the airwaves for almost its entire 177-episode run as one of TV’s highest-rated shows.
The leading man may have taken most of the headlines and awards season glory, but House was a collaborative effort that relied on a huge number of moving pieces all pulling in the same direction, especially as the plots became increasingly convoluted in the later seasons.
During the height of ER’s popularity, the medical drama was pulling in an average of over 20 million viewers per season, and those figures only dropped below 10 million for the penultimate run of episodes, which is an incredible achievement for a show that ran for fourteen years.
Racking up over 120 Emmy nominations, launching countless careers and roping in some esteemed guest directors, during ER’s peak it was required viewing for tens of millions of viewers around the world.
As is the case with any long-running show, the quality was often all over the place, but as a whole ER will always be remembered as a monolithic entry in the over-saturated arena of medical drama.
42. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Joss Whedon’s supernatural action drama was more than just a cult favorite, enjoying strong ratings throughout all seven seasons and generating just as much interest from academics and scholars as it did from fans.
Smart, funny, self-aware and more than happy to subvert expectations, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a breath of fresh air when it first hit the airwaves in 1997, and maintained a high level of quality even as the narrative became more and more outlandish.
The show still has a huge dedicated following, and streaming services have only seen the show’s fanbase increase over the last seventeen years.
Fargo is lauded as one of the Coen brothers’ best movies, and the anthology series directly inspired by the 1996 crime classic has proven to be just as popular with critics and audiences.
With each season tackling a different era and a different format with only minor overlap, creator Noah Hawley is free to put his own spin on a familiar genre, one that’s yielded phenomenal results so far.
There are plenty of references to other works by the Coens, but the small screen Fargo has more than established itself as not just a worthy continuation of the name, but one of the most gripping and engaging black comedies on television.
40. I Love Lucy
I Love Lucy was one of the most-watched shows on television during the 1950s, and established many of the tropes that are still regular fixtures of the small screen sitcom to this very day.
Lucille Ball brought all of the natural charm and charisma that had made her a movie star to her role as Lucy Ricardo, and the classic show’s influence has lasted for over half a century.
A colorized version of the 1951 special drew in over eight million viewers when it aired in 2013, proving that audiences had lost none of their appetite for I Love Lucy, even after 62 years.
39. 30 Rock
Tina Fey’s biting satire balanced autobiographic elements with almost every conceivable approach to comedy from sketches and absurdism to dark humor and one-liners, and it almost always worked.
Often surreal and frequently hilarious, no aspect of Hollywood culture was safe from 30 Rock’s scattergun approach to taking down the uniquely bizarre world of television production.
A regular fixture of the awards season circuit, 30 Rock scooped up countless prizes for its acting, writing and directing, yet somehow always seemed to be struggling in the ratings despite such an enthusiastic critical response.
Incredibly, Cheers was almost canceled during its first season after an alarming drop in ratings, but went on to run for eleven seasons and 275 episodes, becoming a sitcom touchstone in the process.
The setup is hardly a complex one, following the trials and tribulations of the patrons of a local bar, and one note from the iconic theme song is all it takes to have fans singing the rest.
Not only is Cheers one of the finest TV shows ever made, it also spawned a spinoff that was even more acclaimed and arguably much better, extending its reach and influence in the annals of sitcom history.
37. The Prisoner
The Prisoner ran for just a solitary season, but had enough of an impact on sci-fi that it has comfortably ascended into the pantheon of all-time greats, complete with the requisite cult following.
An intelligence agent is abducted and placed in a mysterious village, leading to all sorts of surrealist and existential adventures for Patrick McGoohan’s Number Six, with the leading man also co-creating, co-writing and directing several episodes of the series.
Despite the controversially open-ended conclusion, The Prisoner’s mix of espionage, sci-fi, allegorical themes, drama, psychological tangents and counterculturalism have seen its influence reach far and wide over the decades.
Roots may have been a miniseries that totaled just eight episodes, but 37 Emmy nominations and nine wins is a pretty substantial return for a landmark project in the realms of television.
The influence of the multi-generational story had led to two small screen sequels and a remakes, but nothing can come close to recapturing the haunting magic of Alex Haley’s adaptation of his own novel.
An average of over 30 million viewers tuned in for each consecutive night that Roots was on the air, and while it may have faced some legal challenges in the aftermath, it remains a seminal work of television.
From a technical standpoint, Friends is as basic as television gets, following the standard sitcom template almost to a tee. However, thanks to the chemistry of the six leads it remains one of the most-watched shows on the planet despite wrapping up sixteen years ago.
The small screen equivalent of comfort food, you can easily line up one episode of Friends and find yourself having watched ten or twelve without it even realizing that it happened.
Short-lived spinoff Joey only proved that the formula doesn’t work unless the whole gang were present, and even after a quarter of a century Friends shows no signs of going out of fashion.
HBO’s first hour-long dramatic series still remains one of the best, and is comparable to any of the network’s output that’s arrived in the subsequent seventeen years.
Set in a fictional men’s prison, the references to The Wizard of Oz come thick and fast, but the gritty and violent show is anything but whimsical, and many scenes were difficult to watch.
However, the raw and realistic aesthetic set Oz apart from TV’s much safer roster of dramas at the time, as the balance of power and social and societal dynamics in the prison shift in nerve-shredding fashion over the course of six acclaimed seasons.
33. Six Feet Under
A drama set in a funeral home doesn’t sound like the most exciting of concepts, but Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under thrived on taking the audience’s expectations and subverting them.
One of the most well-acted shows in television history, each member of the ensemble is nothing short of sublime in their respective roles, and the writing was more than sharp enough to match.
Not only is Six Feet Under one of the greatest shows of the modern age, it ended on an impeccable high note, with the finale one of the best and most impactful endings that any small screen series has been fortunate enough to enjoy.
32. Friday Night Lights
Sports dramas are more prone than most TV genres to falling into formula and cliché, but Friday Night Lights thrived on hitting familiar story and character beats in unexpected fashion.
Following the trails and tribulations of a high school football team in a small rural community for five seasons and managing to constantly keep it fresh is an impressive achievement, with the show generating a loyal following.
Friday Night Lights wasn’t a ratings juggernaut, but always had a reputation as one of the most little-seen and sorely underrated shows on the small screen the entire time it was on the air.
31. The Office
American remakes of hit British sitcoms have a very spotty track record, but the U.S. Office ended up becoming a bigger and more popular entity in its own right than Ricky Gervais’ original.
Admittedly, the quality of the latter seasons began to slide downwards after Steve Carrell moved on, but the supporting cast still provided plenty of memorable moments up until the finale.
The Office is still one of the most-watched TV shows in the world, and the fact it launched a billion-dollar bidding war over the streaming rights just goes to show the size of Dunder Mifflin’s global fanbase.
30. Monty Python’s Flying Circus
A groundbreaking series that went on to spawn some of the greatest comedy films ever made as well as inspiring an entire generation of filmmakers, Monty Python’s Flying Circus was the launchpad for some of the most bizarre and surreal sketches ever put to film.
Absurdist, packed with innuendo and sight gags but always observational and incredibly intelligent, it was unlike anything audiences had ever seen before, both pushing boundaries and reinventing the wheel at the same time.
The Pythons wanted Flying Circus to defy conventions and not be pigeonholed into any single category, and on that front they definitely succeeded because the sketches are still being pulled apart, analyzed and dissected to this day.
29. Arrested Development
The Bluths established themselves as powerhouses of modern comedy during the first three seasons of Arrested Development, but despite universal acclaim the show was still canceled by Fox.
Five years later, Netflix revived the series and while it hasn’t managed to hit the same heights it did serve to grow the size of the audience after becoming available on the world’s biggest and most popular streaming service.
Dense, erratic, oddball, completely unique but entirely accessible, Arrested Development defined the more idiosyncratic approach to comedy that more and more similar projects would adopt throughout the rest of the decade.
28. Star Trek: The Original Series
It seems hard to believe that the original run of Star Trek only lasted for three seasons given that it remains one of the most beloved shows in television history over 50 years after it was taken off the airwaves.
As well as launching several careers, a movie franchise and several small screen spinoffs, Star Trek’s influence on sci-fi at large is monumental, and history will always remember Gene Rodenberry’s creation as one of the genre’s monoliths.
It helps that the show itself was daring, groundbreaking, innovative, action-packed, humorous and frequently ingenious, resulting in an all-time classic that’s still a sci-fi touchstone with fingerprints all over modern interpretations of the standard tropes.
27. The Twilight Zone
The Twilight Zone has been brought back three times since 1964, most recently with Jordan Peele at the helm, but none of the revivals have been able to hold a candle to Rod Serling’s iconic original that would spawn 156 episodes.
As host, narrator, head writer and executive producer, the anthology series was a true labor of love for Serling, and made it clear that the multi-hyphenate was an incredible creative talent with imagination in endless supply.
Some of the most legendary moments in the history of television hail from The Twilight Zone, and the show’s influence over the sci-fi genre at large simply cannot be understated, and the monologues are still widely replicated and parodied to this day.
26. The X-Files
Mulder and Scully became pop culture icons thanks to the overwhelming popularity of the X-Files, which was one of the biggest shows on TV throughout its initial nine-season run between 1993 and 2001.
The two feature film spinoffs and two revival seasons may have failed to hit the previous heights, but they nonetheless acted as solid additions to a canon that fans have been obsessing over for close to 30 years.
Driven by two charismatic and compelling leads that could sell even the most ridiculous plotlines and story contrivances with a straight face, The X-Files is entertaining genre TV of the highest order.
25. Curb Your Enthusiasm
Larry David became one of TV’s most unlikely megastars when he created Curb Your Enthusiasm, and the fictionalized version of himself that played the lead role became indistinguishable from the man himself.
Generating big laughs from situations that sound so painfully tedious on paper was an ingenious idea, and the series reveled in transforming the mundane into the hilarious, especially with David on phenomenally curmudgeonly form.
A genuine cult classic, an eleventh season was ordered in the summer, guaranteeing that the verite-inspired shenanigans will continue for at least one more run of incredibly awkward episodes.
24. Doctor Who
Few TV shows in history have ever generated the same kind of fervent following as Doctor Who, which has admittedly suffered many ups and downs over the years, but the unwavering loyalty of the fanbase has never been in question.
With over 860 episodes and counting, Doctor Who offers no shortage of variety either, with both newbies and longtime Whovians having plenty of options to choose from when dipping into the extensive back catalogue.
No matter which incarnation of the titular hero the audience prefers, and that particular debate will never end, Doctor Who has inspired and influenced countless generations of filmmakers with Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Tom Hanks, Edgar Wright, Tom Hanks, Robert Downey Jr., Johnny Depp all noted fans of the sci-fi classic.
23. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
The longest-running live-action comedy series in American television history will be back for a record-breaking fifteenth season, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia shows no signs of slipping into decline.
Dennis, Dee, Mac, Charlie and Frank are all terrible people who do terrible things, and the show’s razor-sharp skewing of Americana and jet black takedowns of everyday life have seen it become one of the most beloved shows on the air.
A lot smarter and ambitious than a single-camera R-rated sitcom has any right to be, fans will be hoping It’s Always Sunny continues for at least a few more seasons yet.
22. Band of Brothers
The Saving Private Ryan dream team of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks brought World War II to the small screen in stunning and visceral fashion in the undisputed classic miniseries Band of Brothers.
The names assembled for even the smallest roles makes for incredible reading when viewed today, with the dramatized history of the 101st Airborne Division becoming appointment viewing for the entire ten-episode stint.
The spinoff of Robert Altman’s 1970 movie went on to exceed the feature film as the definitive interpretation of and approach to Richard Hooker’s 1968 novel.
M*A*S*H was so popular that the eleven-season sitcom lasted three times as long as the Korean War that served as the basis for the entire concept, and was one of the highest-rated shows on television almost the entire time it was on the air.
Telling an allegorical story about war under the guise of a semi-dramatic comedy series was a difficult tightrope to straddle, but based on the overwhelmingly positive reception to almost every one of the show’s 256 episodes it seemed to come easy to the creative team.
Armando Ianucci has built an impressive career as one of the industry’s foremost purveyors of political satire, and Veep managed to outstrip his similarly acclaimed The Thick of It in terms of adulation.
The halls of power have never been so hilarious, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus delivering one of small screen comedy’s all-time great performances as Selina Meyer, the anchor holding Veep’s crazy world together, often by a thread.
Dreyfus may have regularly dominated the awards season circuit, but the entire cast were showered with praise as Veep quickly gained a reputation as one of the best comedies on TV and then proved it over the course of seven seasons.
19. Better Call Saul
As a prequel spinoff to one of the most acclaimed TV shows in history, Better Call Saul came burdened with almost impossibly high expectations from almost the second it was first announced.
Focusing on the slow-burning transformation of good-natured lawyer Jimmy McGill as he begins his moral decline into becoming the slimy Saul Goodman, the core concept immediately promised an altogether different type of drama from Breaking Bad.
Set in the Breaking Bad universe without being beholden to it, Vince Gilligan showed that lightning can definitely strike twice, and Better Caul Saul is without a doubt one of the most gripping and expertly crafted shows currently on the air.
18. South Park
South Park has maintained its standing as one of the most topical shows on TV because Trey Parker and Matt Stone somehow manage to bring an episode from the idea stage to the airwaves in less than a week.
That incredible dedication to remaining on top of current events while mercilessly skewering them through the signature blend of social commentary and crude humor has seen the series long since blow past cult favorite status to become a television institution.
With over 300 episodes and counting and the 25th anniversary less than two years away, South Park’s eccentric cast of characters will be fixtures on Comedy Central for a long time to come.
17. The Americans
Joe Weisberg’s Cold War-era thriller took a different approach to the espionage genre than many other shows, with the focus remaining on the characters rather than the action.
Throughout the six seasons, the web slowly closes in on the Jennings clan as their cover frequently comes perilously close to being blown, matters that aren’t helped by the CIA agent next door who doubles as a close family friend.
Many critics named The Americans as the best show on TV while it was on the air, and it definitely deserves to be under consideration. Few dramas were as relentlessly nail-biting and fueled by nerve-wracking tension, with the stellar cast leaving the audience questioning their own loyalties.
Frasier Crane returned to Seattle to build a new life as a radio show host, and the spinoff series would go on to gain the sort of critical acclaim that Cheers could only dream of.
37 Emmys later, and Frasier had more than secured legendary status, with the somewhat dry setup and highbrow characters hardly an obstacle when it came to finding the widest possible audience.
The TV spinoff by which all TV spinoffs will forever be measured, Frasier somehow managed to turn a rote concept into consistent excellence for all eleven seasons of smartly-written sitcom shenanigans.
From a purely visual standpoint, Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal is one of the most unique and attention-grabbing shows ever seen on television, and the creator had the narrative ambitions to back it up.
More than five years after being canceled, fans are still calling for a fourth season to be picked up by somebody, whether it be a network or a streaming service.
Haunting, dazzling, graphic and never anything less than a masterclass in technical filmmaking from the costumes to the set via the performances and the score, Hannibal was far too good to be pulled from the airwaves when the story had barely scratched the surface of its potential.
A noir-infused Western set in backwoods Kentucky, Justified sees a big city U.S. Marshal return to his home turf to enforce his own unique and distinctive brand of justice.
For six seasons, Timothy Olyphat’s laconic and charismatic Raylan Givens faced a huge number of threats, but Walton Goggin’s incredible work as Boyd Crowder made sure that the lawman only had one arch-nemesis.
The acting, directing, writing and production design were all of the very highest quality, marrying old-fashioned action and melodrama with a light touch that made it ideal viewing for those who wanted an entertaining and weighty series that didn’t have any airs or graces.
Many people point to 24 as one of the forebears to the current Golden Age of television that we’re still in the middle of, with Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer becoming a cultural icon, dammit!
Although the plot twisted and turned itself into knots, which was to be expected given the concept, and things got increasingly more ludicrous the longer 24 went on, it was pure adrenaline-fueled television at its finest.
Every episode was a race against time, taking the episodic format and reinventing it for the shorter attention spans of 21st Century audiences, and the result was a landmark achievement that struck the ideal balance between action and drama.
12. The Simpsons
The Simpsons may have peaked two decades ago, and constantly faces accusations of coasting by on former glories, but Matt Groening’s brainchild has done more than enough to become deified within the realms of both animation and scripted television.
Almost every small screen comedy regardless of genre or format owes a debt of gratitude to The Simpsons in some fashion, and the show’s influence stretches far and wide across the entire entertainment industry.
Despite the well-noted shortcomings of the last 20 or so seasons, every now and again and episode comes along that reminds you why The Simpsons is held in such high regard.
11. Game of Thrones
Fans may have unanimously rejected the eighth and final season, but the first seven were more than enough to elevate HBO’s Game of Thrones to greatness.
Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss faced accusations that they ran out of ideas once the show moved ahead of the books, but the Shakespearean drama set in a distinct fantasy world had already given birth to a worldwide phenomenon.
Huge in scope, scale, spectacle and ambition, 59 Emmys later and Game of Thrones left behind a monumental legacy as the most popular fantasy series ever seen on the small screen.
10. The Shield
An elite team of LAPD officers prove themselves to be just as bad as the criminals in Shawn Ryan’s classic series, which paints almost every major character in shades of grey and blurs the lines between enforcing the law and breaking it.
Corruption, violence, gang activity and drugs are rife on the streets, but Vic Mackey’s Strike Team are the most dangerous of all, utilizing questionable methods in an effort to dish out street justice, risking plenty of blow-back in the process.
Antiheroes have become a fixture of high profile TV shows over the last decade, but it was The Shield that first popularized the idea of having the main character straddle the line between determined and despicable.
David Milch’s fantastically foul-mouthed Western ended all too soon after three seasons and 36 episodes, but was concluded in suitably epic fashion with a movie that finally arrived thirteen years after the show was canceled.
As the titular town continues to expand and deal with the advances of time and technology, the interweaving plot threads mix historical truths with fictional narratives, creating a complex and satisfying web of mystery and drama.
Deadwood boasts some of the finest writing ever seen on television, and it would have been a travesty had the feature film not tied things up after it was initially canceled long before its time was up.
180 episodes is a fantastic return for a show that was famously about nothing in particular, and Seinfeld somehow transcended the tropes of television to become the most highly regarded sitcom in history.
Focusing on the mundanity and minutiae of everyday life instead of focusing on trivial things like story arcs and character development was a breath of fresh air, and Seinfeld’s unique brand of comedy remains as watchable now as it was over two decades ago.
With Netflix having recently shelled out a fortune for the exclusive screening rights, look for Seinfeld to gain a whole new audience when it hits the streaming service next year.
7. Twin Peaks
Trying to describe Twin Peaks and do it justice is almost impossible, which is exactly what Mark Frost and David Lynch had in mind when they created the hybrid of mystery, drama, horror, thriller and surrealism.
Canceled after two seasons, Twin Peaks made a triumphant return 26 years later, and showed that it had lost none of its edge as a singularly bizarre entry into television canon.
Now viewed as a landmark in television’s gradual shift towards cinematic quality, a lot of people didn’t know what to make of it at the time, but the eccentricity and general insanity have made it impossible to define but hard not to fall in love with.
6. Battlestar Galactica
The third time was definitely the charm for Battlestar Galactica after the 1978 original and 1980 revival both failed to catch on, before the 2003 miniseries served as a successful backdoor pilot to what would soon become one of the greatest sci-fi shows in history.
The series delivered some of the richest subtext and allegory to be found on the small screen, reflecting modern day fears and issues in the guise of an enthralling intergalactic drama packed with big action and relatable characters.
Battlestar Galactica is a triumph whichever way you look at it, either through the lens of a sci-fi adventure, a political thriller, a suspense-fueled drama or just a fantastic work of television.
5. The West Wing
Politics has never been as exciting as it was on The West Wing, with the constantly-changing dynamic in the corridors of power making for riveting viewing throughout the show’s seven seasons.
Quite possibly the best-written series in history, the sprawling ensemble cast proved more than game when it came to chewing on Aaron Sorkin’s incredible dialogue, wringing every ounce of tension and drama from even the most simple of exchanges.
Enough superlatives have been thrown in The West Wing’s direction, and while the quality noticeably dipped after Sorkin left following the fourth season, audience goodwill alone was more than enough to power the remainder of the show’s run.
4. The Wire
With virtually no recognition from major awards bodies and ratings that could be described as average at best, it wasn’t until after The Wire concluded in 2008 that it really gained awareness among the general public.
The saga of Baltimore unfolded in slow-burning and painstakingly realized fashion, with the plot always moving forward despite each new season taking a different approach and focusing on a new aspect of the city.
The drug trade, the seaport, the city government, the education system and print news all got their moment in the sun, and the entire 60-episode arc coalesces in stunning fashion that added the sort of realism and authenticity to city life that had never been seen on television before.
3. The Sopranos
The argument could be made that no single TV show has had as much of an impact on the small screen as The Sopranos, which reinvented the way television was embraced, adopted and created as an art-form.
Ambitious storytelling, complex characters and intricately woven narratives are commonplace these days, but David Chase’s six-season epic set the bar that very few manage to reach never mind exceed.
It also went a long way to establishing HBO as the go-to place for prestige dramas, as the Soprano family saga unfolded in spectacular fashion from the opening frame to the divisive ending, and the show’s legacy is so vast that the finale is still being discussed thirteen years later.
2. Mad Men
Don Draper is one of TV’s most memorable protagonists, but despite being the leading man he was far from the only key ingredient in Mad Men’s success. Glitz, glamor and high fashion were the order of the day, but it was the subtext and thematic explorations that provided the meat of the story.
Identity, family, gender, sexuality, alcoholism racism and counterculturalism were all big parts of the show, which was largely set in the swinging 60s and reflected the values of time period, but was also subtly progressive in the way it approached the big themes.
Slick, light and breezy it certainly was, but there was also a pervasive undercurrent of darkness that was always bubbling just below the surface, and the ability to jump between the two was one of Mad Men’s greatest strengths.
1. Breaking Bad
Vince Gilligan’s hybrid of crime drama and neo-Western told the story of mild-mannered chemistry teacher Walter White, who is most definitely a man of almost unspeakable evil, but one that audiences couldn’t help but rood for.
Every frame of Breaking Bad was packed with moral ambiguity, which was one of the show’s hallmarks. Walt wants to protect his family, but his methods are more than questionable and leave a trail of death and destruction in his wake.
After a relatively slow first season, the series exploded into life and dominated the zeitgeist for the remainder of its run, scooping up plenty of awards and winning the sort of critical raves that very few projects in television history have ever received so rapturously.