They say that we’re in the golden age of television, which makes sense as most of the talent has moved from the silver screen to the small screen as budgets tighten and big studios focus more on tentpoles and superhero films than smaller dramas to ensure maximum profits. Beyond that, the internet has revolutionized the way we consume media, incentivizing binge-watching and actually making television shows a more enticing way to consume media. With Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Video, veteran actors are finding more roles on the small screen, whether that screen is a television, tablet or smartphone, so let’s take a second to talk about the top 15 television shows of all time!
15. I Love Lucy
An oldie but a goodie, I Love Lucy forever changed the sitcom game and was so far ahead of its time that it still holds up today. The main couple in the show was a real-life married couple in Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and was based on the life of Ricky Ricardo (a Cuban bandleader) and his zany wife who had a penchant for causing all sorts of trouble. While they were married in real life, and the show, television standards were different at the time and thus Lucy and Ricky had to sleep in separate beds (something that stuck around for far too long). Beyond that, they also couldn’t use the word “pregnant” so they just randomly had “Little Ricky” mid-way through the show’s run. Talk about a different time. But the show holds up beyond that and is really great family-friendly entertainment, which is why a lot of kids today are familiar with it even if their parents weren’t born when the show was on the air.
14. The Walking Dead
Based on a set of equally amazing Comic Books, The Walking Dead is a pretty faithful adaptation. With the world completely overrun with zombies, The Walking Dead was (at the time of its premiere) a completely unheard of show that hit just at the right time (which it was arguably responsible for) the Zombie takeover of pop-culture that occurred in the mid-00’s. What makes the show great is the uncertainty behind it, a lot like Game of Thrones the show has never had a hard time killing off beloved or established characters (as long as they’re not named Daryl or Rick). While some would say that the show jumped the shark when it introduced a tiger, it’s something that came straight from the comics and was also something that people thought the people behind The Walking Dead wouldn’t do because of the cost associated with the CGI needed to make a believable Tiger. So, hats off to them for going for it and for also answering the question of what would happen if a hoard of zombies fought a tiger.
While Orange is the New Black is the prison show de jour right now, it really can’t hold a candle to the original prison show, Oz, which aired on HBO from 1996 to 2003 and was extremely dark and gritty. Named after the Oswald State Correctional Facility the show was based in, Oz was as bleak as it was brilliant which made a lot of sense as a lot of the people that are behind bars as we speak feel very little hope. And why should they? Outside of the fact that a lot of them will never be free men again, they’re constantly dealing with violence (both physical and emotional) and Oz did an amazing job of showing that. It also was a huge vehicle for the always (under)appreciated JK Simmons, who has only recently begun to get the shine that he’s always deserved. If you loved Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man films, check out Oz. Just make sure your kids are in bed.
12. The Twilight Zone
There are few shows that are as iconic as the Twilight Zone, so it may surprise you that the original show only ran for six seasons during mostly the early 60’s. Not surprisingly, television was a different game back in the late 50’s and because of that Rod Serling’s show really had its pick of writers (for the type of show that he wanted to do). The show basically aimed to explore universal concepts that everyone can relate to while also basically creeping everyone out in the process and it did an amazing job of that. Twilight Zone was able to combine popular ideals with big ideas and had it not succeeded it’s really not hyperbole to say that television as we know it may not exist right now. Also, it gets points because of Serling’s amazing (and creepy) intros.
11. West Wing
It’s been over a decade since West Wing left the airwaves so some people may not recall this, but there was a time in the television game where basically every working actor aspired to get a role on the West Wing because of the number of careers that either began or were elevated by a walk-on role on the hit NBC political drama. Writer Aaron Sorkin will get his scripts at least read and a lot of the times made because of The West Wing, a show that was as funny as it was smart and that basically showed what life was like in the West Wing of a fictional President (or Presidents). The show was extremely smart, with a ton of rapid-fire dialogue that showed that the writers really had to know what they were talking/writing about and considering the fact that the show was a great way to opine on those in charge at the time, and the timing of the peak of the show being during the early Bush Administration, one could argue that it’s one of the more important (fictional) television shows of all time.
10. Mad Men
Mad Men was a drama that surrounded an advertising agency in America in the 1960’s. That agency was Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and the main character was Jon Hamm’s Don Draper, a character that raised his profile as an actor to nearly the level of A-lister. The show was named after a now-disputed notion that advertising agency employees who worked on Madison Avenue in the late 50’s and 60’s referred to themselves as “Mad Men”, regardless of whether or not that’s true the show is a great slice of that period and the inherent problems that came with it (drinking during the day, treating women like dirt, etc.). While the show ended prior to the whole #MeToo movement, one could say that it’d look even better after the movement as it’s really a great way to show history, even if it’s a fictional history, as unless we realize our history we’re doomed to repeat it and while that’s not really what the show is about, it does reveal that it has been horrible to be a woman since, like… Forever.
9. The Office (US Version)
While the British version of the Office was a groundbreaker in terms of bringing a faux-documentary style show to the masses, it was the US version that perfected it. While that may be blasphemous to some people, the UK version of the Office simply didn’t have the same amount of star power that The US version did, with basically every character on the show having some experience on stage and screen and thus there never really being a wasted scene. Similar to shows like Cheers and The Simpsons, The Office does a great job of making you care about every person on the show, they just happened to work in the same Office in Scranton instead of a bar in Boston (or town in… Somewhere). While Sam and Diane from Cheers were the original “Will they/Won’t They” couple, Millenials will always remember Jim and Pam as that couple. What made The Office so great is the fact that it really makes you feel just as often as it makes you laugh, with characters that are so well done that you can actually identify with them as you’ve met them before. If you’ve never seen the office, do yourself a favor and start binge watching it now. It’d be a lot higher on this list if it had ended when Michael Scott aka Steve Carroll left and while the episodes after he left are a lot better than most sitcoms on TV today, it just wasn’t the same and because of that it fell out of the top 5 on this list.
8. Game of Thrones
Few shows on this list are still on the air and sadly for Game of Thrones fans, that won’t be the case much longer. As of the writing of this list, the final season of Thrones is being filmed and while it’ll be viewed in two parts (ie Breaking Bad) it’ll finally answer a lot of the questions that have been raised since the beginning of the show. Another notch in HBO’s belt, Thrones is based on a series of books by George HH Martin, and have really helped bring those books to the forefront of popular culture while also basically putting his mind on the same level as people like JR Tolkien. Following his books, which are actually known as A Song of Ice and Fire (the first of which is A Game of Thrones), the show follows the fantasy world of Westeros and Essos and is as well known for its large ensemble cast as it is its sex and violence. It also has a penchant for killing major characters, something that has set it apart in the world of television and has made the fact that it’s reached eight seasons (even if they’re pretty short) sort of amazing.
There are really two types of people, those that like Seinfeld and those that like Friends. Based on a group of friends (and some family) in New York, while the show wasn’t super realistic in terms of the size of the apartments or general cost of living in New York City, it really focused on really every other issue that comes across a group of friends or people in general and did it in such a way that really makes Friends a show that may never be replicated. Acting on a super popular show is a double-edged sword, as the actors can make a lot of money and become famous but at the same time those actors become so well known as one character that it’s hard to see them as anyone else (ie Michael Richards as Kramer… Although his racist tirade didn’t help). That wasn’t really the case with the cast of Friends, as most of the actors have gone on to have good careers afterward and that’s a testament to the following of the show but also because they really ended up playing regular people. The least normal were perhaps Chandler and Phoebe, so it’s not a huge surprise that Matthew Perry and Lisa Kudrow have struggled the most since the show ended. Luckily they’re making millions in residuals from the show and don’t really need the work.
6. The Wire
Police procedural dramas have been a staple of television really ever since the beginning of scripted television shows, but it was The Wire that came along and revolutionized the genre. Written by an actual former member of the Baltimore Police Department, The Wire basically follows every angle of the drug game from the people on the street, to the shot callers in gangs that call… Shots, to the police on the street and in the office to the politicians who use all of that to their gain. Never before had a television show actually showed you what it was really like to live in a drug-addled neighborhood, to sell drugs in one, to police one or to run a city with that problem and while there have been countless Wire clones since none do it as well, either. Great shows make stars out of character actors and while a lot of the actors on Wire still aren’t household names, they definitely had a shot at it and considering that one of them has a gigantic scar on his face in an industry that really only cares about beauty (and talent) should show you how great The Wire was.
5. The Simpsons
If The Simpsons ended in 1998 (the same time as Seinfeld) then there’s no debating which would have the top spot on this list. However, it didn’t and while those early years were so great (and to be fair recent years have been good too) that they’ll be included on every best list basically ever. A show that was as smart as it was funny, the prime Simpsons episodes had writers like Conan O’Brien that were all mainly from Harvard and did a great job bringing both laughs and complex topics like philosophy, economic theory and even high-level math. It’s hard to pick a perfect Simpsons episode because there was a time that each week’s episode was better than anything that’s been on TV in years these days (and we are living in the golden age of television), and a lot of that had to do with the fact that The Simpsons built an entire town full of characters that you actually recognized and laughed along with. Because of that, it was hard for the show to get stale, even if it eventually did by regressing to episodes about Homer or Bart and also basically treating those characters like caricatures of their former selves. The new Simpsons would be better off watching episodes like Homer and Apu and replacing the celebrity episodes with those, but even the great episodes of the Simpsons did celebrity cameos episodes, they just did it better by not selling out to the celebrity. Case in point, when they had Michael Jackson at the peak of him being Michael Jackson? They treated him like a patient in an insane asylum who thought he was Michael Jackson. That’s classic Simpsons.
While Mash was really a big show for a different generation, a lot of millennials still remember watching Cheers as a child. It was the biggest show at the time and its finale was one of the largest of all-time. Shows like The Office or most recently Superstore really have Cheers to thank for the whole “will they, won’t they” storyline that kept their viewers captivated as the original Jim and Pam was Sam and Diane. And while the actor who played Diane left the show during its peak, the show only got better by bringing in Rebecca Howe, played by Kirsty Alley. While she was the anti-Diane (a ditz who came from money as opposed to the hyper-smart self-made Diane) she was still the foil to Sam’s romantic inquiries and that’s what made the show so great. It also did a great job of establishing a group of characters that all got their equal shine, a lot like the Simpsons, the people at Cheers were people you all genuinely cared about and that’s also a part of why the show was so great. When Coach died, people felt for the group because they loved Coach too and that’s something most shows strive towards but never reach.
3. The Sopranos
The Sopranos was the show that made HBO into the television force that it was. Don’t get it twisted, HBO was already considered to be the most premium of premium movie channels, hosting a lot of comedy specials and movie debuts, but it wasn’t until The Sopranos that it actually SUCCESSFULLY delved into hour-long scripted television. The show, which followed the head of a mafia crew as he dealt with the full range of emotion that comes from a position like that in therapy. While the show got away from that concept eventually, it was the most human side of something that had been mostly portrayed as the action(s) of badasses and stone cold killers that made it so appealing. As you’ve seen (or will see) a lot of these series can be amazing but then falter upon their ending and get knocked down the list, so the way that The Sopranos ended also helped its cause as people are still attempting to break down what the ending meant and because it was the first to really stick the open-ended ending it gets a ton of points for that.
2. Breaking Bad
The top two shows on this list both basically went out on top in Seinfeld and Breaking Bad. With Game of Thrones entering its final season as well, it’s safe to say that the idea that Seinfeld started was improved upon by the people behind Breaking Bad. The show only got more and more popular as it went on and very well could be on the air today, but the people behind it decided that they had a story to tell and didn’t change how they wanted to tell it, which is commendable. Following the story of a terminally ill high school chemistry teacher, Breaking Bad delved into the seedy underbelly of meth dealership and was a bonafide pop culture phenomenon. It was also hard not to root for Bryan Cranston, who had a decades-long career but no gigantic roles under his belt before Bad debuted. The show catapulted him onto Hollywood’s A-List, which seems ridiculous in retrospect as he’s actually a large part of the top two shows in the history of the medium (in Breaking Bad and Seinfeld as the Dentist, Tim Whatley).
There are sitcoms and then there’s Seinfeld. The show about “nothing” was originally titled “The Seinfeld Chronicles” and was supposed to show where comedians get their material. If you closely watch each episode, that’s actually what is going on as, at least back when the show opened with Jerry doing a stand-up routine that routine was actually basically foreshadowing the topic of that episode. Regardless of what the show is/was about, one can’t deny the impact that the show had on the medium as it’s widely considered the greatest comedy show of all-time. Other shows may have been better at their peak (ie The Simpsons from seasons 3 – 9) but no show was as funny on average or went out on top like Seinfeld did and that’s something to celebrate especially as The Simpsons continue to limp along and further damage it’s once pristine name.