Television has been around for a long time now, and most of what is on there these days is, frankly, garbage. It’s all reality TV shows that follow around some spoilt, vapid, teenage brats and talent competition shows that have no talent on them and soap operas with laughable writing and rehashes of old shows that aren’t a tenth as good as the originals. But there are still some gems out there. In fact, we’re actually in what is known as “the Golden Age of Television” right now. So, here are the 10 greatest television series of all time, period.
10. Twin Peaks
David Lynch has never really been able to attract big crowds to his movies. His weird sensibility and proclivity for shrouding every story in mystery and throwing red herrings and unanswered questions at the audience don’t exactly make for a good time at the movies. But his endless streams of mystery and oddball character creations have proven to be perfect for the small screen. From the very first moment that Laura Palmer’s cold, dead body washes up into frame, we are gripped. The show takes unexpected turn after unexpected turn in its serialized plot (which was kind of revolutionary for the time). This series somehow manages to be a sly satire of soap operas and an earnest portrayal of a group of people and their relationships and a creepy, spooky, frightening horror show all at the same time. The recent reboot series that brought the show back after its cliffhanger ending more than two decades ago didn’t quite live up to the original, but it was still enjoyable and did offer closure on some of the loose ends that season 2 left off with. And on the whole, Lynch’s dark, paranormal, spooky murder mystery is still one of the finest accomplishments in television history.
9. The Larry Sanders Show
When Garry Shandling first pitched his idea to do “a show about a talk show,” he had nothing to compare it to. If you were pitching that show today, you could say it was like 30 Rock or Curb Your Enthusiasm or Extras – but that’s only because all of those shows were influenced by Shandling’s hysterical masterpiece. He created a whole new genre of comedy! The show is a brilliant satire of late night talk shows that exposed the horrors of everyday life in a very real and very funny way by taking us behind the scenes of the most vain, superficial thing on television. Shandling said, “I thought I could make the talk show look very real so the audience would buy that part and then slowly suck them into the realities of life once Larry goes behind the curtain.” The idea came out of Shandling being offered to host his own talk show. He was too smart and creative and funny and idiosyncratic for that – instead, he launched a satirical attack against talk shows and it ended up being one of the funniest shows in the history of television. As one commentator put it, “Shandling turned down hosting a network late night show to do a brilliant cult hit sitcom about a version of himself who took the deal.”
War does not sound like it would make for a good setting for a sitcom, but sure enough, one of the greatest sitcoms of all time is set during a war. It’s set during the Korean War, to be exact, a war which lasted for four years, and the show was on the air for eleven seasons, which is a testament to its popularity. The show has kind of a dark, nihilistic sensibility, which is, suffice to say, not the norm for network comedies going for mass appeal, especially back in those days. That sensibility shows even in the theme song, which is called “Suicide is Painless,” a three word semi joke that pretty much sums up the attitude of the entire show. This show has the highest rated series finale episode in television history and that record stands even to this day with more than 120 million viewers. The success of the story of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital is all down to timing. The same goes for the Robert Altman movie that it’s based on. When the show was made, all of the kids who had been drafted to fight in Korea had grown up, become family men, and spent their evenings after work watching television. The show used humor to bring people together, which is the whole point of humor in the first place.
7. Monty Python’s Flying Circus
The influence that this show and the sketch comedy group at its center have had on the world of comedy simply knows no bounds. Everyone from Matt Groening to David Cross has been inspired in their work by the Pythons. They’ve been called “the Beatles of comedy” and there’s a good reason for that – you can see their influence everywhere in all the comedy from the past fifty years, just the same as you can see the Beatles’ influence in all the music from the past fifty years. Classic bits like the “Dead Parrot” sketch or the “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch will always be hilarious. They weren’t just funny for the ‘60s – they’re timelessly hilarious and will never get old. And some of the sketches, like the one that tackles the kitchen sink dramas of the day by flipping their perspectives on their head, did actually capture the zeitgeist of the time – but what’s brilliant about them is that they either exist as a document of the show’s place in history or they’re still funny even if you don’t quite understand the targets of the satire. This show is truly comedy at its finest and should be required viewing for anybody who considers themselves to be a comedy fan.
6. The Twilight Zone
Rod Serling’s masterpiece was an anthology series that was, at times, science fiction or horror or fantasy or supernatural – but it was always socio-politically relevant. Those things don’t seem like they lend themselves to each other, but Serling always found away. He sent his characters into a dark, twisted, spooky, paranormal world where their deepest flaws would be tested in the strangest, creepiest ways. Every episode of the show ends with a shocking or ironic plot twist. For example, there’s that one about the bookworm who wants nothing more in life than to read, but his boss at work and his wife at home won’t let him. Then he’s the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust (remember that this show was made at the time when this was an actual possibility in the real world) and he has all the time in the world to read, so he makes a huge pile of books on the steps of the library – and then his glasses break. You can’t win. Poor guy. This is emblematic of the show at large. Another thing that made this show so great was how timely it was. Race relations were as tense as ever, the Cuban Missile Crisis raged on, the President of the United States was shot in the head – it was a crazy time, and Serling held a mirror in front of that society.
5. The Wire
It’s become kind of a cliche to call this show one of the best ever made. Yeah, we get it, it’s great. But it is! It simply is that great! David Simon’s masterpiece is more than just a crime drama about cops and crooks going at it. It is a contemplative study of the American city. It is a portrait that captures the heart and soul of Baltimore and examines the paradoxes that come along with the pursuit of the American dream. Over the course of five incredible seasons, Simon tackled the flaws in the law, the media, the government, race relations, the education system, the prison system – pretty much everything that makes America what it is and everything that’s wrong with it. Simon had been right on the frontline of this stuff for years as an investigative reporter. When he got the chance to make a cop drama for HBO, it was no hackneyed, case of the week, bubblegum procedural. It was a deep, dark, intricate, complex, agonizingly detailed, rich, realistic tapestry of crime and drugs and law and order and the blurry line between right and wrong. It really is as amazing and groundbreaking as everyone says it is.
4. Breaking Bad
A TV show about a chemistry teacher who becomes a meth lord when he is diagnosed with lung cancer so that he can pay his medical bills and leave behind some money for his family to get by is a tough sell. If it hadn’t been executed properly, it could’ve been really sucky. But creator Vince Gilligan and his team of writers told the story so honestly – they told the story of a real family and a real marriage and a real surrogate father/son, mentor/mentee relationship and the more spectacular elements of the plot seemed more real as a consequence. And credit has to go to the unparalleled brilliance of the cast – Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul and Anna Gunn all played their roles with such ingenuity and depth. The show is somewhat cartoonish in its premise, but in its execution, it is one of the most powerful and touching and moving TV series ever made. It’s a character study about one man’s transformation from an innocent pillar of the community to one of the most evil men on the face of the Earth. Gilligan set out to tell the story of Mr. Chips becoming Tony Montana and that’s just what he did and it was glorious.
This devilish little creation by standup comics Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David was conceived as a show about how a comedian gets his material from the events in his everyday life. However, as the seasons went on, it basically became the darker and more cynical version of Friends. Whereas that show presented a fake, bubblegum version of the world, this show presented a surreal, yet harsh reality that resonated with a huge audience. The show brought beautifully dark and edgy comedy to the traditionally safe genre of broadcast network situation comedy. It was termed “a show about nothing,” but really, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, a lot of the show’s episodes and gags and jokes may have focused on exposing things that we may not have considered before about the tiniest minutiae of daily life – but on the whole, the show is a portrait of our society and of human behavior, pointing out everything that is hilariously unusual or wrong about it. The combination of sharp writing (both in its jokes and dialogue and in its storytelling as a whole) and unparalleled acting by the cast (particularly by Michael Richards and Jason Alexander) make this the single greatest sitcom ever made.
2. The Sopranos
There’s never been a work of mafia fiction quite like this seminal HBO drama series from David Chase, and yet, it is the defining work of mafia fiction. Chase was inspired by the movies of Martin Scorsese to make his series, but it has an identity entirely of its own. You can see from the very first episode that this is going to be something different. If this guy is supposed to be some kind of fearsome gangster who kills people and beats debts out of people, then why is he standing in his bathrobe, looking at some ducks? The easy relatability of the show was summed up perfectly by HBO boss Chris Albrecht: “This show is about a guy who’s turning forty. He’s inherited a business from his dad. He’s trying to bring it into the modern age. He’s got all the responsibilities that go along with that. He’s got an overbearing mom that he’s still trying to get out from under. Although he loves his wife, he’s had an affair. He’s got two teenage kids, and he’s dealing with the realities of what that is. He’s anxious, he’s depressed – he starts to see a therapist, because he’s searching for the meaning of his own life. I thought, the only difference between him and everybody I know is he’s the Don of New Jersey.” This series was named the greatest television series of all time by TV Guide magazine and the best written TV show ever made by the Writers Guild of America. It singlehandedly kicked off the so called “Golden Age of Television” that we’re currently in, and as much as other shows might try to emulate it these days, it never has been and likely never will be topped.
1. The Simpsons
There’s a good reason that this was named the greatest TV show of the 20th century by Time magazine and “television’s crowning achievement regardless of format” by The AV Club. That reason, really, is simply that that’s what it is. That’s an accurate description of the show. What began as a brilliantly accurate portrait of family life has gone on to become a pitch perfect satire of everything under the sun – from religion to politics to sports to technology to history – with a totally idiosyncratic and unique sense of humor that is absurdist and silly and oh so funny. As a whole, this show is both a skewed depiction of society at large and a sweet, heartfelt study of the American family. No other show can claim to have such a broad, sweeping take on the world and also have such a sharp focus on character. Okay, some people might say that the show’s quality is in decline or it is past its “Golden Age” or whatever, but there is no denying that, on the whole, with over 600 episodes under its belt and countless iconic characters, moments, quotes, and episodes, this is and probably always will be the greatest TV show ever made.