The Ultimate TV Series Guide: Unveiling the Best and Most Iconic Shows of All Time
Are you ready to embark on a journey through the greatest television series of all time? Get ready to be captivated as we delve into a world of remarkable storytelling, unforgettable characters, and groundbreaking moments. From the wild west of "Gunsmoke" to the gripping dramas of "Breaking Bad" and "Succession," and the hilarious antics of "Seinfeld" and "The Office," we're about to unearth what are the best TV series that have graced our screens. So buckle up, because this is going to be one binge-worthy adventure you won't want to miss!
25 Gunsmoke (1955-1975)
Television technically dates back to 1928, when General Electric tested their early 48-line TV system with a play called The Queen's Messenger. However, it was Gunsmoke that truly brought television drama to new heights. While there were other shows like The Texaco Star Theatre, Your Show of Shows, and You Bet Your Life, as well as sitcoms like Mama and dramas like The Lone Ranger and Martin Kane, Private Eye, it was Gunsmoke that found its stride on television.
The first episode was introduced by none other than John Wayne, who described it as "honest, adult, and realistic." The episodic western drama followed Marshal Matt Dillon and his sidekick Chester as they protected Dodge City from various threats.
Gunsmoke was considered "adult" for its time, addressing mature themes like brothels, murder, alcoholism, sexual assault, and featuring one of the first television antihero protagonists. It became a hit show, dominating television ratings for many years during its 20-year run and continues to be influential today.
7 M*A*S*H (1972-1983)
Originating from the Robert Altman film, M*A*S*H achieved unparalleled success. Its finale was watched by more people than any other scripted TV show in history. It seamlessly blended humor, drama, and sociocultural relevance, using its Korean War setting to reflect the realities of the Vietnam War.
M*A*S*H followed a group of likable medics stationed in South Korea. The show was resolutely anti-war and didn't shy away from acknowledging the atrocities of war, especially those committed by America's military-industrial complex.
With a mix of medical drama, romance, wit, and character studies, M*A*S*H remained a top show for a decade and is synonymous with the greatness of American TV.
17 The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977)
While I Love Lucy was widely loved, The Mary Tyler Moore Show marked a significant turning point in pop culture's recognition of second-wave feminism. The show defied norms with its poignantly funny and daring portrayal of an independent woman without a husband or children. Mary Tyler Moore's character was dangerously subversive at the time, inspiring women to pursue their dreams.
16 The Muppet Show (1976-1981)
Amidst a sea of programs targeting youth, The Muppet Show managed to capture both children and adults. It brought wit, charm, and a touch of irreverence that resonated with audiences. The Muppets weren't perfect role models, but their self-acceptance journeys encouraged kids to embrace their own uniqueness.
15 Roots (1977)
Roots captured the attention of 100 million viewers and received numerous Emmy Award nominations. It tackled the taboo topic of slavery and shed light on the horrific truths surrounding it. Roots' masterful storytelling and character development prompted the country to reflect on its past and consider atoning for its injustices.
6 Seinfeld (1989-1998)
Castle Rock Entertainment
Seinfeld, often hailed as one of the greatest sitcoms, stood out by defying traditional sitcom conventions. It showcased the mundane, often absurd aspects of everyday life in New York City. The show's ability to weave multiple storylines and mercilessly mock its characters made it a staple of popular culture. Seinfeld's postmodern, super-ironic approach to comedy remains timeless, despite some viewers finding the finale disappointing.
21 Married... With Children (1987-1997)
Married... With Children presented a stark contrast to the picture-perfect families typically seen on TV. The Bundys, a dysfunctional suburban Chicago family, brought biting humor and acidic comedy to the screen. The show explored the constant verbal sparring between the husband, Al Bundy, and wife, Peggy, as well as their struggles with money, success, and intimacy. Its relatability made it a memorable part of television history.
12 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' (1987-1994)
While the original Star Trek series holds a special place in fans' hearts, Star Trek: The Next Generation is often hailed as the best Star Trek show. It continued the legacy of Starfleet officers exploring the unknown, but in a more advanced and unpredictable sci-fi world. The series ran for seven seasons and delved into new challenges and character arcs. The Next Generation's success surpassed that of the original, solidifying its place in TV history.
11 'Twin Peaks' (1990-1991)
Image via ABC
Known for its wonderful strangeness, Twin Peaks was the brainchild of the visionary director David Lynch. The show combined elements of soap opera, comedy, fantasy, crime, and surreal horror to create a truly eccentric and unpredictable series. Despite its premature cancellation, Twin Peaks left an indelible mark on pop culture. It was later revived with a movie and a new season, proving that its legacy continued beyond its original run.
10 The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998)
Columbia TriStar Domestic Television
Garry Shandling created one of the most groundbreaking comedy series of all time with The Larry Sanders Show. It deconstructed the conventions of conventional sitcoms and dove into the behind-the-scenes world of late-night television. With its smart writing, absence of a laugh track, and an array of celebrity guests, the show elevated the comedy genre. The Larry Sanders Show remains one of the greatest comedy series ever produced by a premium cable network.
11 The X-Files (1993-2018)
The X-Files captured the spirit of the 1990s like no other show. Its blend of sci-fi, procedural investigations, and the unresolved romantic tension between FBI Special Agents Mulder and Scully made it a cultural phenomenon. With a treasure trove of talented writers, The X-Files remains a true classic in the science-fiction genre.
16 'ER' (1994-2009)
ER, spanning 15 seasons and over 300 episodes, stands as one of the best medical dramas of all time. Set in Chicago's County General Hospital, the show followed a multitude of characters as they navigated their personal and professional lives. Its large ensemble cast and compelling storylines made ER a seminal series in both TV and pop culture.
24 Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000)
Freaks and Geeks, a heartfelt comedy set in 1980s Michigan, captured the struggles of American adolescence with authenticity and humor. Though tragically short-lived with only one season, the show resonated with viewers through its relatable characters, rock soundtrack, and stellar cast, including future stars like Seth Rogen and James Franco. Its nostalgic charm and genuine portrayals make Freaks and Geeks a must-watch for fans of coming-of-age TV shows.
9 'Six Feet Under' (2001-2005)
Image via HBO
Six Feet Under delved into the topic of death with brutal honesty and occasional humor. Set in a family-run funeral home, the show explored the lives of its characters after the death of the patriarch. Balancing drama and comedy, Six Feet Under showcased a talented ensemble cast and delivered one of the greatest series finales of all time.
18 Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)
NBC Universal Television Distribution
The brilliant reboot of Battlestar Galactica reimagined the original series in a post-9/11 context. The show explored the consequences of a war between humans and artificial intelligence, weaving in themes of American imperialism and conflicts in the Middle East. With its taut storytelling, compelling characters, and timely allegorical commentary, Battlestar Galactica achieved lasting success and remains a standout science-fiction series.
13 'Deadwood' (2004-2006)
Image via HBO
Deadwood, an HBO production, is an extraordinary feat in TV production. It portrays the lawless town of Deadwood during the late 1800s, blending elements of historical drama, Western, and crime genres. The show's strong ensemble cast, profanity-laden dialogue, and beautifully crafted storylines set it apart. Despite its cancellation after three seasons, Deadwood remains a revered work of television art.
12 South Park (1997-)
If South Park may seem less edgy nowadays, it's because there are numerous copycat shows that have been influenced by its humor and approach. This can obscure the fact that South Park is truly significant, hilarious, and unique. Dissimilar to other scripted shows, Trey Parker and Matt Stone approach South Park like a news show, creating and animating each episode within a week to remain topical and current. It's a challenging and bonkers approach, as depicted in the documentary 6 Days to Air, but the result is a show that often tackles relevant cultural issues better than any other comedy.
South Park follows a group of perpetually young boys and their parents in a Colorado town. Over the past 25 years, the show has tackled a wide range of issues and ideas. The most controversial episodes of South Park remind us that we can still be shocked in the modern age. Despite the passage of time and the release of new specials on Paramount, such as the feature-length Streaming Wars, South Park remains boldly provocative, while also being thought-provoking, intelligent, and undeniably funny.
14 'Better Call Saul' (2015-2022)
Image via AMC
Better Call Saul, a prequel and spin-off of Breaking Bad, is often considered to have surpassed its parent show. The series focuses on the character of Saul Goodman before he adopts the persona audiences know from Breaking Bad. For the majority of Better Call Saul, he goes by the name Jimmy McGill, and the show explores his transformation into Saul Goodman.
The pace of Better Call Saul is slower compared to Breaking Bad, but it rewards patient viewers with gradually increasing tension, leading to a powerful sixth and final season. It has achieved similar popularity to Breaking Bad and stands as one of the few TV spin-offs that is on par, or sometimes even better, than its predecessor.
20 Hannibal (2013-2015)
Bryan Fuller's adaptation of Thomas Harris' famous novels, Hannibal, is an artistic and loosely-based series that aired on basic cable. It is known for its visually stunning cinematography, disturbing storylines, and outstanding performances. It's remarkable that Hannibal was able to come to life on television. The show remains one of the most daring and visually breathtaking series, delving into psychoses, obsessions, and aesthetics.
19 Arrested Development (2003-2019)
Arrested Development is widely regarded as one of the funniest shows ever created. It is known for its iconic running gags, brilliant ensemble cast, and narrated by Ron Howard. The show offers a rapid-fire, often absurd look into the lives of a once-wealthy family who have fallen from grace after the arrest of their patriarch. With its consistently brilliant sociopolitical commentary and silly puns, Arrested Development was canceled after three seasons on Fox but later revived on Netflix due to its dedicated fan base.
32 Orange Is The New Black (2013-2019)
- Seasons: 7
- Episodes: 91
- Episode Length: 51-93 minutes
- Cast: Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon, Danielle Brooks, Uzo Aduba, Natasha Lyonne, Jackie Cruz, Samira Wiley
- Stream on Netflix
24 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' (1997-2003)
Image via 20th Television
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although technically a drama series, excelled in combining action, fantasy, and romance. It also had its share of humor, thanks to its lovable and often hilarious main cast. The show follows the journey of the titular character as she fulfills her destiny as a demon fighter, navigates love and friendships, and transitions from high school to adulthood. While not every episode hit the mark, the best moments of Buffy the Vampire Slayer were unparalleled in terms of quality and impact.
18 'Justified' (2010-2015)
Image via FX
While Elmore Leonard adaptations are more common in film, Justified proved that his style translates well to serialized TV. The show, which ran for six seasons, follows a US Marshal who returns to his hometown of Harlan County and dispenses his own brand of justice. Justified stands out among the vast array of crime/thriller shows due to its compelling characters and superbly written dialogue. Each season explores a different storyline, while maintaining a core cast of characters, resulting in a believable and immersive world. Justified is currently receiving a reboot/revival in the form of Justified: City Primeval, which will show if it can live up to the legacy of its original six seasons.
22 The Office (2005-2013)
While The Office experienced a decline in quality in its later years, it remains one of the most beloved and influential sitcoms of all time. The show initially emulated its successful British counterpart but grew into its own unique entity over time. The Office captured the journey of Michael Scott's growth and the relatable struggles of office workers. It ushered in a new era of comedy that embraced kindness and genuine characters, inspiring subsequent shows to follow suit. The impact of The Office can still be felt today, even as the show's peak is now in the past.
13 Jeopardy! (1964-)
Merv Griffin Productions
Jeopardy! is a beloved game show that taps into our fascination with money and our desire to prove our knowledge. Unlike other game shows with lifelines and gimmicks, Jeopardy! celebrates our capacity to learn and recall information. The show has become a cultural phenomenon and a testament to the talent of its viewers. When Jeopardy! is on, audiences are captivated, eagerly guessing answers, and rooting for their favorite contestants.
14 Saturday Night Live (1975-)
Saturday Night Live has transcended being merely a TV show and become a cultural institution. Cast members have the unique opportunity to perform live sketches every week, crafting comedic moments and characters in a short span of time. In the era of streaming dominance and sports as the only remaining live television, SNL stands out as an exotic hallmark, even if its quality has wavered over the years. SNL has launched the careers of countless comedians and remains one of the most important shows in television history.
31 Succession (2018-2023)
- Seasons: 4
- Episodes: 39
- Episode Length: 56-70 minutes
- Cast: Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin, Matthew Macfadyen, Nicholas Braun, Alan Ruck
- Stream on HBO Max
23 Mad Men (2007-2015)
Mad Men took the television landscape by storm with its glamorously depicted 1960s New York City setting and its audaciously adult take on drama. The show revolves around the enigmatic Don Draper, portrayed by Jon Hamm, a man with a talent for shaping others' dreams and desires while struggling with his own loneliness. Mad Men explores themes of identity, deception, and the impact of advertising on American society. Its seductive style and masterful storytelling captivated viewers like few other shows before it.
25 'The Shield' (2002-2008)
Image via Sony Pictures Television
The Shield, running alongside another groundbreaking crime drama in the same year, pioneered a new kind of cop show. It offered a grittier, morally complex narrative with a protagonist who straddled the line between hero and villain. The Shield follows Vic Mackey, a corrupt cop who fights crime through brutal means while also profiting from illegal activities. The show excelled in its final seasons, delivering a memorable series finale. It remains a significant entry in the crime genre.
8 Breaking Bad (2008-2013)
Breaking Bad left an indelible mark on television and popular culture as one of the most culturally significant shows of all time. The series, created by Vince Gilligan, revolves around a seemingly ordinary high school chemistry teacher, Walter White, who turns to manufacturing and selling methamphetamine. Breaking Bad explores themes of transformation, morality, and the consequences of one's actions. It concluded after five seasons, defying the traditional rule of stretching a show's longevity, and inspired a new wave of masterful storytelling in the medium. While spin-offs like El Camino and Better Call Saul expanded the narrative, Breaking Bad stands on its own as a timeless masterpiece.
50 Downton Abbey (2010-2015)
- Seasons: 6
- Episodes: 52
- Episode Length: 47-93 minutes
- Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Jessica Brown Findlay, Laura Carmichael, Elizabeth McGovern, Phyllis Logan, Maggie Smith
- Stream on Prime Video & Peacock
37 This Is Us (2016-2022)
- Seasons: 6
- Episodes: 106
- Episode Length: 42 minutes
- Cast: Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore, Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy Metz, Justin Hartley
- Stream on Hulu
20 'Hannibal' (2013-2015)
Image via NBC
Hannibal may have been cut short, but it still left a lasting impact. The show presents a unique take on the iconic character Hannibal Lecter, exploring his complex relationship with the troubled FBI criminal profiler Will Graham. Though the first season may seem underwhelming at times, Hannibal gradually builds momentum, reaching great heights in its second season. While the show's future remains uncertain, its existing episodes are a testament to its brilliance.
The Leftovers (2014-2017)
One of the most thought-provoking and deep shows ever created, The Leftovers was created by Damon Lindelof (known for Lost and The Watchmen) and explores the aftermath of a peculiar event where millions of people suddenly vanished. The Leftovers mainly revolves around a troubled couple (played by Justin Theroux and the incredibly talented Carrie Coon) as they navigate strange cults, bureaucratic systems, and surreal spiritual encounters.
Despite its relatively short three-season run, The Leftovers combines the bleakest themes with breathtaking aesthetics. It brilliantly delves into spirituality and faith while offering detailed and profound character studies. The Leftovers remains an underrated masterpiece that must be witnessed to be fully appreciated (seriously).
Image via MGM Television
Fargo debuted in the same year as True Detective, shares the anthology format, and has a fifth season slated for 2023. The series is based on the acclaimed 1996 crime film by the Coen Brothers and aims to capture its essence while presenting different stories in each season.
Similar to True Detective, some seasons have garnered more praise than others, but Fargo's first and second seasons are widely regarded as excellent television. With a dark sense of humor, unpredictable narratives, and a willingness to push creative boundaries as the series progresses, Fargo undoubtedly ranks among the best TV anthology series of all time.
'The West Wing' (1999-2006)
Image via NBC
Considered one of the most idealistic drama series ever made, The West Wing may sometimes feel more like a fantasy than a grounded political drama. Spanning seven seasons and 155 episodes, the show follows a fictional U.S. President and his competent and morally upright staff as they navigate the challenges of the White House's West Wing, striving to make America a better place.
While it presents an optimistic view of how politics could operate at its finest, it's important to note that it doesn't necessarily reflect reality. Nonetheless, The West Wing is a captivating and enjoyable fantasy that appeals even to those with little interest in politics. It features likable characters, fast-paced dialogue, and a skillful blend of humor and dramatic moments.
'The Americans' (2013-2018)
Image via FX
Similar to Six Feet Under, The Americans is highly regarded for its impactful finale, with its final season being particularly lauded and its last episode leaving a lasting impression. However, the entire series is exceptional, following a pair of Russian spies posing as an ordinary American family in the 1980s, gathering intelligence for the Soviet Union.
The Americans is a suspenseful drama/thriller that takes its time, slowly building up tension and delivering satisfying payoffs. It boasts outstanding performances, compelling storytelling, and a consistent level of intrigue across its six gripping seasons.
The Crown (2016-Present)
- Seasons: 5
- Episodes: 50
- Episode Length: 47-61 minutes
- Cast: Claire Foy, Olivia Colman, Imelda Staunton, Matt Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, Vanessa Kirby, Emma Corrin, Josh O'Connor
- Stream on Netflix
With a diverse mix of genres and decades, this list of the best TV series offers something for everyone. From beloved classics like "Gunsmoke" and "M*A*S*H" to groundbreaking shows like "Breaking Bad" and "The Crown," each entry has left its mark on television history. Whether you're a fan of comedy, drama, or suspense, these series have captivated audiences and pushed the boundaries of storytelling. So grab some popcorn, settle in, and prepare to embark on an incredible journey through the world of television.
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