Since the days of radio, families have looked forward to gathering around a storytelling device together. So once televisions became common in homes and sitcoms began to air, that fondness grew into an obsession. Over the years we’ve seen the evolution of in-home entertainment, not just visual effects or picture quality, but the content itself. Much of what’s on today would have been unacceptable 50-years ago and who knows what we’ll be watching 50-years from now...
There are always a handful of shows each decade that just outshine the rest. Some have become iconic by testing boundaries, revolutionizing their genre, providing insight into issues of their time, or by simply being the first of their kind. From old-school favorites to the must-sees of today, these are the top 50 television shows of all time.
Roseanne ran for nine seasons and centered on the daily lives of the Conner family. Mother Roseanne, father Dan, and daughters Becky and Darlene, and son D.J. Roseanne’s blue-collar realism broke all the stereotypes sitcom families were cast in before its time. There was no doting matriarch and father certainly did not always know best. The children were far from perfect and Roseanne’s hard-luck sister, Jackie seemed to have an endless cycle of men in her life. Audiences weren’t asked to accept plot holes or outlandish situations. It’s the realism that makes Roseanne one of the greatest sitcoms in television history.
Despite its short run, the original Star Trek is widely considered the most influential science fiction TV series ever produced. It’s spawned four spinoffs, an animated series, and the movies just keep coming. It may not have gained impressive ratings during its initial 1960s run but oddly enough, it gained popularity while in syndication.
One of the most famous sitcom families in television history are the Bunkers. All in the family was a groundbreaking show, depicting highly controversial topics of the time like racism, abortion, women’s liberation, homosexuality, religion, and even impotence. All topics previously considered inappropriate to air on network television.
Full of mystery and intrigue, the anthology series created by the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock Presents was a collection of dark tales from Hollywood’s brightest. Various writer, directors, and stars contributed to the show. Each episode would explore some strange macabre concept. Hitchcock himself even directed 20 episodes in addition to hosting over the course of its run. It was one of the most successful anthology series of all time.
M*A*S*H is hands down, one of the greatest shows of all time. It was also one of the longest running. The series finale was watched by a staggering 125 million people — making it the most-watched television episode in history. The dark, satirical war comedy was based on Robert Altman’s 1970 1970s film, which was based on Richard Hooker’s book of the same name. It followed the doctors and staff of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. So as can be imagined, the dark times were dark, but there was always brilliantly woven comedy to brighten the mood.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the genius work of Joss Whedon, some may say it was one of his best television endeavors. The supernatural comedy/drama centers around Buffy Summers, a teen girl chosen by destiny to stop the forces of darkness from swallowing the town of Sunnydale (and the world) into the Hellmouth. Together with the help of her “Scooby gang” she proves to be an unstoppable force that even the most fearsome creatures of the night fear.
The X-Files is so legendary they made follow up movies following its cancellation and recently went ahead and rebooted the show. The tenth-season revival only consisted of six episodes, in 2016 but Fox has officially announced it will be returning for an eleventh season of ten episodes. Mulder and Scully’s quest for the truth can’t be stopped.
Doctor Who is an iconic series in British pop culture that (thankfully) made its way to the U.S. and has become a massive cult hit here as well. The sci-fi series debuted in the early sixties and follows the misadventures of the time traveling renegade Doctor throughout the galaxy. The first run lasted 25-years, then it was revived in 2005. This resurgence brought the attention of the new generation back to the old series from the 1960s. Now both are legendary.
How could a show with one main star last this long? Well, the power of regeneration of course. The show has a built-in premise of a rotating the leading man. And while it’s the same Doctor, he’s still different in sense of style and peculiarities that even he must get used to.
One of the most charming dramatic comedies to ever see air time is The Gilmore Girls. It follows the life of witty "thirty-something" single mother Lorelai Gilmore and her brainy and ambitious teenage daughter Rory. They live in the kooky but close-knit community of Stars Hollow Connecticut among a charming bunch of eccentrics. The series originally ran for seven seasons but was revived on Netflix in 2016 with Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.
I Love Lucy, was the most watched show in the United States and was the first to end its run despite being at the top of the Nielsen ratings. Lucy is naïve but ambitious, with a desire stardom though she possesses no real talent for anything… well, she seems to have a real talent for getting herself and those around her into trouble. The show was run by comedic genius Lucille Ball and her husband/co-star Desi Arnaz. It won five Emmy Awards, received numerous nominations, and was the first scripted TV show to be shot on film in front of a live studio audience.
Cheers, the friendly neighborhood bar where everybody knows your name. The comedy ran 11-years and had an incredible cast keeping it alive. Ted Danson, Rhea Perlman, George Wendt, John Ratzenberger, Coach actor Nicholas Colasanto, and then later Woody Harrelson. The cozy Boston bar gave audiences just as big a sense of relief from the day as it did for the show’s characters. Many came to love and appreciate the series.
Known as a “show about nothing,” Seinfeld certainly managed to keep the masses entertained for nine seasons. Seinfeld focused on the truly bizarre misadventures of four friends (each incredibly neurotic) and the cast of colorful characters in their lives. Seinfeld was a cultural phenomenon which redefined what was acceptable for a modern comedy to tackle by taking topics once taboo and just putting them out there in front of millions of viewers.
From the neurotic mind of Seinfeld co-creator Larry David, came Curb your Enthusiasm. In it, David is portraying a somewhat fictionalized version of himself as he navigates daily life– which for him consists of thousands of little annoyances. He’s awkward, intolerant, and quick to share his own personal codes of conduct with others. It’s exactly what you’d expect from the man George Costanza’s character was based on.
Throughout the decades SNL has remained a tremendous talent farm. With a run spanning over three decades, it’s natural that SNL is where so many brilliant comedy stars got their start. And with writers like Tina Fey, Adam Sandler, and Eddie Murphy (among many, many other seasoned comedians writing for the show, it’s no wonder SNL is still going strong.
Not long after Alfred Hitchcock Presents came out, another anthology classic that has yet to be topped hit television. The Twilight Zone broke all kinds of boundaries for 1959. It questioned society, science, and the very fibers of reality. It planted deep seeds of insight within viewers through clever and often creepy twists. The Twilight Zone had proved to be timeless, the concepts it explored and the wisdom it imparted just as relevant today as they were nearly six decades ago.
Sex in the City was actually based on a best selling book by Candace Bushnell. It was the first cable show to win an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. No one had seen anything like Sex and the City before, it featured four single, professional women. Taking on life in New York while bluntly speaking of their active sex lives. It was a celebration of friendship and independence, it was a rare gem of a show that didn’t put emphasis on women “finding a man” to marry as an ultimate goal. Men would come and go but the girls stuck together.
Good Times was a spin-off of Maude, which was a spin-off of All in the Family. The show focused on an inner-city African American couple and all the challenges they faced while raising three children. The series tackled real-world issues with Jimmie Walker’s wildly popular J.J. Evans character serving as an over the top comedic element. He could pop in, shout his catchphrase “Dynomite!” and have everyone laughing no matter the surrounding circumstances.
It’s after neurotic neat-freak Felix Unger and sloppy, cigar-chomping, sportswriter Oscar Madison have both been given the boot by their wives that the two share a Park Avenue bachelor pad. Obviously, two grown men used to having spouses are going to have quite a few adjustments to make when moving in with each other–that’s where the hilarity ensues.
Happy Days was meant to be a television show of nostalgia. Filmed in the 1970s during difficult times, the show was set in the 1950s and followed the lives of the Cunningham family during simpler times. Through Richie Cunningham, Potsie, and legendary greaser Fonzie, audiences are given a glimpse into a teenage past full of milkshakes, sock hops, and jukeboxes. It was the show left a huge mark and spawned beloved spinoffs like Laverne & Shirley, Joanie Loves Chachi, and Mork & Mindy.
The Jefferson's was a spin-off from All in the Family. George Jefferson was essentially the black version of Archie Bunker. Both men were highly opinionated and set in their bigoted ways. As the theme song suggested, George and Weezy ended up with a whole lot of cash plopped in their laps and they spent it on a deluxe apartment in the sky… away from Archie Bunker and over on the east side.
The show Friends was one of those cultural phenomenons where pretty much everyone seemed equally obsessed with the characters and spoke of them as if they knew them on a personal level. Well over a decade after its last episode aired it’s still loved and playing in syndication on multiple channels at almost any given moment of the day.
The Wonder Years was a comedic drama and a coming of age story set during the tumultuous period of the 1960s. The Wonder Years was intentionally geared towards the baby boomer generation but had storylines that struck a powerful chord with viewers both young and old.
The fantasy genre has successfully been revolutionized through Game of Thrones. Once a genre with Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess as the pinnacle of small screen fantasy, now has all the mega budget grandeur of box office hits like The Lord of the Rings movies. The action, the politics, the incredible twists, and surprise deaths of main characters… Game of Thrones has not only revitalized fantasy (for television), but it completely raised the bar, altering the entire landscape of genre television.
The mysterious, mythology driven series Lost, forever altered network television. It centers around an ensemble cast of characters stranded on a stunning but often menacing island. Smoke monsters, character driven side stories, and a mysterious hatch that served as the Pandora's box of the island... The show was a pretty confusing and semi-stressful ride. But the good kind, like trying to piece together clues in an “escape room”.
Anyone looking for laughs and small town charm turned on The Andy Griffith Show. Griffith portrayed the single father who doubles as the wise sheriff in the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina. Sheriff Taylor is tasked with patiently solving the problems of town eccentrics, moonshiners, and the antics of his bumbling deputy Barney Fife, played by Don Knotts.
Mary Tyler Moore had already won hearts on The Dick Van Dyke Show, but she really cemented her iconic status with her self-titled sitcom. As a female-driven show, it was very different from what audiences of the 1970s was used to. It was groundbreaking really, it took on gender/workplace equality, premarital sex, and homosexuality with outstandingly well-written comedy in between.
The Golden Girls was an instant classic for so many reasons. Firstly, it was the rare gem that depicted a group of older women sharing a house when most of Hollywood liked to pretend that older actresses didn’t exist. Secondly, it was funny, yet took on serious issues such as elder care, AIDS, marriage equality, and discrimination. The Golden Girls was a ratings powerhouse, which considering how unique it was, should come as no surprise.
You’d think following a ratings bonanza like Cheers would be an impossible task, but that’s exactly what the series Frasier pulled off for 11-years. Kelsey Grammer’s character, Dr. Frasier Crane was introduced on Cheers and in this spin-off, he returns to Seattle after a divorce and takes on a job as a radio host for a call-in psychiatry show. He and his high-strung brother both have very high opinions of themselves and often clash with their blue-collared father who’s quick to put them both in their place.
At this point Law & Order isn’t even a show anymore, it’s a force of nature. The original series aired for two decades. NBC’s crime drama combined police procedural with courtroom drama, which was unlike any other show of its kind. It also spawned numerous spin offs within a shared universe thus creating its own franchise — Special Victims Unit and Criminal Intent. Followed by Law & Order Los Angeles, Law & Order Trial By Jury, and the newly announced Law & Order True Crime.
Matthew Weiner’s depiction of 1960s advertising executive, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), may not have sounded like a good idea but he proved to be one of the most fascinating characters on television. Mad Men was an all around brilliant show. The writing was smart, introspective, with the right amount of scandal and intrigue. The acting was superior to most, most notably supporting character Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), allowed a glimpse the obstacles constantly placed on women trying to ascend professionally in the 1960s.
Elmo, Big Bird, Snuffaluffagus, and Oscar the Grouch… these icons of the decade-spanning show Sesame Street almost surpass the show itself. Sesame Street showcased the puppetry genius of Jim Henson while giving kids an educational head start before they went off to Kindergarten.
With a run from 1969 to 2001, literally countless children grew up with a front row seat to the magic puppetry of soft spoken Fred Rogers in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Never before (or since) has there been such a kind hearted show on television.
Comedian Redd Foxx became a household name for his hilarious portrayal of the bitter and bigoted junk dealer Fred Sanford in NBC’s Sanford & Son. Also starring Demond Wilson as Fred’s son Lamont, the series was the first hit African American-based sitcom in television history, and it paved the way for classics like Good Times and The Jeffersons.
Very few dramas can be credited with contributing to the reshaping of modern-day television, like The Sopranos. First, it was rare in the 1990s to have a large cast of characters, let alone a large cast of extremely well-written and brilliantly depicted characters. They were memorable and complicated. The content was edgy and violent but it completely “de-dramatizing” the traditional Mafia mythos. It took bad-ass mobster Tony Soprano, dropped him in therapy sessions and showed him as an actual family man, not just a crime-family man. It's down-to-earth approach to shocking material is what made it one of the most-watched shows in television history.
The Simpsons is the longest running American sitcoms in history, with its two leads, Bart and Homer Simpson ranked high among the most recognizable figures of pop culture. Sharp, witty, insightful, The Simpsons was the first to inject social commentary into a primetime animated series, proving cartoons could still be enjoyed by clever adults. The Simpsons paved the way for shows like South Park, in fact, an astounding amount of comedies have admitted to taking inspiration from The Simpsons.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone's brilliant satirical cartoon, South Park took it upon themselves to break through any remaining barriers television had and continues to do so. They will gladly stir up controversy anywhere they can. Their political commentary is both sharp and timely. After 20 seasons South Park is still brimming with brilliant low-brow humor and will forever be one of the best shows of all time.
The U.S. version of The Office was based on the UK comedy of the same name, but it quickly found its own voice and its own fanbase. Aside from the spectacular writing, of course, much of the show's success can be credited to the cast, especially Steve Carell, Mindy Kaling, Jenna Fischer, John Krasinski, and Rainn Wilson. Although the final two seasons felt the loss of Carell’s character, The Office remains a legend in the land of comedy television.
Soap was a primetime comedy that served as a daytime soap opera parody. Just the premise alone makes you laugh. But taking on (already ridiculous) daytime TV tropes for comedic reasons only works with a strong cast–which is exactly what Soap had. Katherine Helmond, Richard Mulligan, and a young Billy Crystal rocked this hilarious show in ways that demand a revival.
All kidding aside, Soap could do well with modern audiences, it was ahead of its time. It dove into topics like homosexuality, prostitution, and murder. Not that these subjects were unheard of in the late 1970s but they were still pretty taboo. They also threw in alien abductions, demonic possession, and a little kidnapping for good measure. It was a bold show and earned itself a loyal fanbase.
Breaking Bad was another boundary breaker. Like the Sopranos they did an elegant balance between the double life of Walter White, a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher with a family at home and "Heisenberg" a meth making drug kingpin. Breaking Bad had everything going for it, impeccable writing, direction, and acting. Its timing was also perfect, coming out during American television’s decade-long anti-hero obsession.
OZ was a violent and sexually graphic depiction of the Oswald State Penitentiary and its inhabitants. It marked the beginning of HBO’s one-hour TV drama experiment that proved wildly successful. It tested what was possible for a premium cable network and they kept pushing the boundaries in one-hour increments with shows like The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and The Wire.
What made Six Feet Under so remarkable was how artfully it explored death and grief. It’s wasn’t (and still isn’t) common for a television show to put such emphasis on these topics, incorporate them sure, but focus on them? No.
The HBO drama was based on the Fishers, a family who run their own funeral home so death was really a major theme here. But it was beautifully created as can be expected with Alan Ball, writer of American Beauty behind the wheel. The cast was also fantastic; Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, and Lauren Ambrose were remarkable.
Will & Grace was going down in television history right from the start. In addition to being hilarious and charming, it was the first primetime television series that featured open gay main characters. Which makes the show of cultural significance not only for pop culture in general but as a mainstream representation of members of the LGBT community.
From the brilliant mind of cult filmmaker David Lynch, came the series Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks a compelling murder mystery that’s simultaneously quirky and sinister. It’s original run in the 1990s sparked a cult following yet it was left on a cliffhanger after two seasons. 25 years later, it’s back in all its unrelenting bizarre glory.
Late Show with David Letterman was the quintessential late-night talk show. David Letterman’s production company along with CBS produced the show which was the first in what became known as the Late Show Franchise. By 2002, TV Guide’s 50 Greatest Shows of All Time had ranked the Late Show at No. 7. Letterman ended up surpassing even Johnny Carson as the longest running late-night talk show host and when he retired in 2015, The Late Show torch was passed on to current host Stephen Colbert.
The West Wing was a political drama set primarily in the West Wing of the White House. It covers the fictitious Democratic administration of Josiah Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen). The West Wing had brilliant dialogue, memorable characters, and a strong cast that consistently delivered powerful performances.
30 Rock is the brainchild of the wondrously hilarious Tina Fey and loosely inspired by her experience working as head writer for Saturday Night Live. So it’s a behind the scenes look into a fictional sketch comedy show that’s based on a real sketch comedy show, with the same writer at the helm. It’s full of hyper aware meta observations and with players like Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski, and Tina Fey herself involved, how could it not be as wonderfully awkward as it is memorable?
Now, E.R. wasn’t the first medical drama on television but it quickly became the favorite and the gold standard by which all others are judged. E.R.’s ability to seamlessly merge medical and interpersonal drama not only kept interest, but it made viewers feel like they’d actually experienced what working in a downtown emergency room is like.
Legendary puppeteer Jim Henson created the beloved Muppets and made history. The Muppet Show was a whimsical comedy show predominately directed at children, but it still appealed to all ages. It featured skits, musical numbers, and celebrity guest.
The Honeymooners was based on a recurring sketch from star Jackie Gleason’s variety show and was one of the first comedies to put a bickering working class married couple on television (which obviously became a trend). It only lasted for 39 episodes, but The Honeymooners became one of the most influential sitcoms of all time.
Given recent accusations against Bill Cosby, a bit of a dark cloud looms over the memory of The Cosby Show. It’s especially challenging to look back on his performance as a goofy but loving father and doctor, Cliff Huxtable. But all that aside, The Cosby Show was an extremely popular, good-natured show and remains iconic today. Nothing Cosby did, will take away from the performances of the beautiful Phylicia Rashad as Clair Huxtable and little Keshia Knight Pullman as the adorable Rudy. The rest of the cast and The Cosby Show itself most certainly deserves a high ranking in family sitcom history.