The 34 Best TV Shows of All Time

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Before DVR allowed us to watch a beloved sitcom or dramedy whenever we pleased, people used to plan their schedules around being home to watch their favorite shows. In other words, perhaps even more than baseball, television may be America's favorite pastime. But some shows (Game of Thrones) are just unquestionably better than others (Keeping Up with the Kardashians), so you can have the luxury of being selection when you spend hours of your life staring at a screen.

From the earliest days of network television to the must-binge streaming that awaits you online, here—in no particular order—are 34 of the best TV shows of all time.

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'Mad Men'

Original run: July 19, 2007 — May 17, 2015

Starring: Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks, Elisabeth Moss, John Slattery, January Jones

Premise: A story about an ad executive in the 1960s and the women in his orbit, Mad Men made Don Draper one of the most legendarily complicated characters in TV history. Bonus points for the series' finals reveal that the show was kind of about its female characters all along.

'Big Little Lies'

Original run: February 19, 2017 — Present

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Zoe Kravitz, Meryl Streep, Shailene Woodley

Premise: A group of well-to-do moms in affluent Monterey try to keep up appearances...until they're all involved in a murder. Is it too soon to call this being one of the best shows of all time, given that it's only just started its second season? That cast list suggests it can't really go wrong.

'Curb Your Enthusiasm'

Original run: October 15, 2000 — September 2011, then renewed with a ninth season that aired in October 2017 and a tenth season set to air in 2020.

Starring: Larry David, Cheryl Hines, Jeff Garlin, Susie Essman

Premise: The misanthropic creator of Seinfeld plays a much cringier version of himself as he adjusts to married life in Los Angeles.

'The Americans'

Original run: January 30, 2013 — May 30, 2018

Starring: Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys

Premise: Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are a perfect married couple, living in the sleepy Washington, D.C. suburb of Falls Church, Virginia in the 1980s. Oh, except they're secretly spies for the KGB who are deep undercover as they try to get the dirt on state secrets. Classic family stuff!


Original run: April 5, 2012 — April 19, 2018

Starring: Kerry Washington, Tony Goldwyn, Darby Stanchfield, Katie Lowes, Bellamy Young, Guillermo Diaz

Premise: Scandal was groundbreaking for a lot of reasons. First, it proved the Shonda Rhimes was a showrunning powerhouse who could make an entire night of television worth tuning into, at a time when networks were feeling a little passé. Second, Olivia Pope became an icon in women who get things done. And third, it showed that a diverse cast didn't pigeonhole a show, but in fact just made it more relevant to everyone who tuned in. And TV hasn't been the same since.

'Friday Night Lights'

Original run: October 3, 2006 — February 9, 2011

Starring: Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton, Taylor Kitsch, Minka Kelly, Jesse Plemmons, Michael B. Jordan

Premise: Who knew that a show about a high school football team in Texas would make for not only must-watch TV, but a show that's eminently binge-able even over a decade after it first aired? Friday Night Lights never garnered the audience it deserved during its original run, but its legacy lives on.

'Sex and the City'

Original run: June 6, 1998 — February 22, 2004

Starring: Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon

Premise: Four thirtysomething best friends in New York City talk frankly about friendship, family, and, of course, sex in this legendary HBO series.Though parts of it seem a little dated now, it opened the door to other shows that wanted to finally take women's lives seriously—and did it in style.

'Downton Abbey'

Original run: 26 September 2010 — 25 December 2015

Starring: Hugh Bonneville, Dame Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery, Dan Stevens, Lily James

Premise: A glimpse into the inner lives of an English estate during the sunset of the British aristocracy, Downton was a quiet show that occasionally broke your heart. Though it got a little melodramatic at times, if you had told someone in 2009 that everyone would spend the next few years talking about a Julian Fellowes period drama about a wealthy family and the servants that cater to them, you would have been pretty surprised. And yet here we are!

'The Daily Show'

Original run: July 21, 1996 — Present

Starring: Craig Kilborn, Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah

Premise: A daily satirical current events series that, sometime in the early 2000s when Jon Stewart was hosting, became the most trusted news show in America. Now under the leadership of Trevor Noah, it's proof that sometimes the most sane thing in politics is absurdity.

'Law & Order'

Original run: September 13, 1990 — May 24, 2010

Starring: Jerry Orbach, Sam Waterston, Chris Noth, Benjamin Bratt

Premise: The landmark procedural that lasted 20 seasons may have wrapped in 2010, but its offshoots like Criminal Intent and Special Victims Unit live on. Even though the O.G. aired over 400 episodes, it was always surprising to find out who actually dunnit.

'Freaks and Geeks'

Original run: September 25, 1999 — October 17, 2000

Starring: Linda Cardellini, James Franco, Busy Philipps, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel

Premise: This show from Judd Apatow followed two groups of kids in high school around the year 1980: Painfully nerdy Sam and his misfit older sister Lindsay. Both of them are just trying to get through high school without being too humiliated, and the results are hilarious, poignant, and sometimes a little beautiful.

'The Office'

Original run: May 24, 2005 — May 16, 2013

Starring: Steve Carrell, John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, Rainn Wilson, Angela Kinsey

Premise: Though it was initially just a remake of the Ricky Gervais-starring UK show of the same name, the Steve Carrell-starring version that aired in the U.S. took the premise of cringingly terrible bosses and the employees that suffer under them and injected it with a surprising amount of heart. Now if only we could get that reunion show...

'Twin Peaks'

Original run: April 8 , 1990 — June 10, 1991

Starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Joan Chen, David Lynch, Sherilyn Fenn, Lara Flynn Boyle

Premise: This movie is what happens when you let a film auteur like David Lynch play with a serialized format—a concept that seems like a no-brainer now, but which was somewhat unheard of in 1990. The story of FBI Agent Dale Cooper, sent to the Pacific Northwest to investigate the murder of teen girl Laura Palmer paved the way for a bunch of the other shows on this list—though we're still waiting for that gum we like to come back in style.

'I Love Lucy'

Original run: October 15, 1951 — May 6, 1957

Starring: Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance, William Frawley, and Richard Keith

Premise: We all know this one. Ricky Ricardo is the band leader at the Copacabana. His wife Lucy is an aspiring and usually overzealous wannabe entertainer. Cue mishaps. Cue Lucy crying. Cue laughter.

'The Twilight Zone'

Original run: October 2, 1959 – June 19, 1964

Starring: Various

Premise: Anthology series are enjoying a major comeback today, but nothing (nothing!) beats The Twilight Zone.

'Star Trek'

Original run: September 8, 1966 — June 3, 1969

Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley

Premise: The show follows the crew of the USS Enterprise as they explore the galaxy and "boldly go where no man has gone before."

'Saturday Night Live'

Original run: October 11, 1975 – present

Starring: So many talented comedians over the years, but currently: Beck Bennett, Aidy Bryant, Michael Che, Pete Davidson, Leslie Jones, Colin Jost, Kate McKinnon, Kyle Mooney, Cecily Strong, and Kenan Thompson

Premise: Hilarious live sketch comedy, delivered weekly.

'The Golden Girls'

Original run: September 14, 1985 — May 9, 1992

Starring: Beatrice Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty

Premise: Four older women live together as roommates in Miami and share adventures, memories, and lots (and lots) of cheesecake.


Original run: July 5, 1989 – May 14, 1998

Starring: Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael Richards, and Jason Alexander

Premise: Comedian Jerry Seinfeld plays comedian Jerry Seinfeld in a show that is literally about nothing. Seriously. Some of the best episodes are about things like waiting for a table at a restaurant and looking for a car in a parking garage.

'The Simpsons'

Original run: December 17, 1989 – present

Starring: Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria, and Harry Shearer

Premise: The longest-running animated series on television, The Simpsons follows a dysfunctional family and ruthlessly parodies American culture in the process.

'The X-Files'

Original run: September 10, 1993 — May 19, 2002 (and then again from January 24, 2016 – present)

Starring: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Robert Patrick, Annabeth Gish, and Mitch Pileggi

Premise: Two FBI agents—a skeptic and a believer—investigate paranormal cases. Also aliens. Lots of aliens.


Original run: September 22, 1994 — May 6, 2004

Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, and David Schwimmer

Premise: Six best friends hang out in New York, drink coffee, and live way beyond their apparent means. Could this show be any funnier?

'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'

Original run: March 10, 1997 — May 20, 2003

Starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nicholas Brendon, Alyson Hannigan, Charisma Carpenter, Anthony Stewart Head, David Boreanaz, Seth Green, James Marsters, Marc Blucas, Emma Caulfield, Michelle Trachtenberg, and Amber Benson

Premise: High school is hell—but, like, literally—and Buffy has to juggle the terrors of adolescence with the terrors of the supernatural.

'The Sopranos'

Original run: January 10, 1999 – June 10, 2007

Starring: James Gandolfini, Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Dominic Chianese, Steven Van Zandt, Tony Sirico, Robert Iler, and Jamie-Lynn Sigler

Premise: Tony Soprano is just a guy trying to balance his home life and job. And that job happens to be the mafia.

'The West Wing'

Original run: September 22, 1999 — May 14, 2006

Starring: Rob Lowe, Moira Kelly, Dulé Hill, Allison Janney, Richard Schiff, John Spencer, Bradley Whitford, and Martin Sheen

Premise: A look inside the inner workings of the Oval Office and the role POTUS' senior staff plays in running the government.

'The Wire'

Original run: June 2, 2002 — March 9, 2008

Starring: Dominic West, John Doman, Deirdre Lovejoy, Wendell Pierce, Lance Reddick, Sonja Sohn, Seth Gilliam, and Domenick Lombardozzi

Premise: Season by season, The Wire focuses on different groups in Baltimore, from drug dealers to the press.

'Arrested Development'

Original run: November 2, 2003 — February 10, 2006 (and then again in May 2013)

Starring: Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Alia Shawkat, Tony Hale, David Cross, Jeffrey Tambor, and Jessica Walter

Premise: When it comes to dysfunctional family comedies, no one does it better than Arrested Development. Also notable: AD kicked off the trend of Netflix bringing back beloved canceled shows.

'Veronica Mars'

Original run: September 22, 2004 – May 22, 2007

Starring: Kristen Bell, Percy Daggs III, Teddy Dunn, Jason Dohring, Amanda Seyfried, Francis Capra, and Enrico Colantoni

Premise: Veronica Mars is a teen private eye (you know, like many teens are) working to solve the mystery of her best friend's murder. The first season is pitch perfect.

'30 Rock'

Original run: October 11, 2006 — January 31, 2013

Starring: Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski, and Jack McBrayer

Premise: A hilarious comedy about what goes on behind the scenes of a sketch comedy show filmed at 30 Rockefeller Plaza (NBC's real-life headquarters).

'Breaking Bad'

Original run: January 20, 2008 — September 29, 2013

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Giancarlo Esposito, Jonathan Banks, Laura Fraser, and Jesse Plemons

Premise: An average high school chemistry teacher gets diagnosed with cancer and turns to a life of crime—cooking meth. You know, normal.

'Parks and Recreation'

Original run: April 9, 2009 — February 24, 2015

Starring: Amy Poehler, Rashida Jones, Aziz Ansari, Nick Offerman, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Pratt, Adam Scott, Rob Lowe, Jim O'Heir, Retta, and Billy Eichner

Premise: A chronically optimistic city employee named Leslie Knope works tirelessly to help make her apathetic hometown of Pawnee a better place.

'Modern Family'

Original run: September 23, 2009 — present

Starring: Ed O'Neill, Sofía Vergara, Julie Bowen, Ty Burrell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet, Sarah Hyland, Ariel Winter, Nolan Gould, Rico Rodriguez, and Aubrey Anderson-Emmons

Premise: The series follows three branches of the same family and hilarity ensues. Yes, "family comedy" is a tried and true premise in television, but Modern Family's execution of it is next-level.

'Game of Thrones'

Original run: April 17, 2011 — present

Starring: Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, and Gwendoline Christie

Premise: An epic battle for the Five Kingdoms, complete with political intrigue, a startling amount of incest, ice zombies, and not enough dragons.

'The Good Place'

Original run: September 19, 2016 — forever, hopefully

Starring: Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, D'Arcy Carden, Manny Jacinto, and Ted Danson

Premise: A not-so-nice woman is mistakenly sent to the Good Place (basically heaven) when she dies and has to try to figure out a way to stay. Pretty much every episode ends with a twist.

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