The 10 Best TV Shows of All Time

Best TV Shows of All Time

The History and Evolution of Great Television Television has come a long way since the first experimental broadcasts in the 1920s and 30s. What started as a novelty grew into a dominant form of entertainment and art in the 21st century.

The early days of TV were limited to only a few hours of programming per day, transmitted in black and white to small, blurry screens. Yet, visionary writers, directors and actors managed to create shows that captured audiences almost immediately.

As technology improved, so did the quality and variety of programming. Color TV became standard in the 1960s during a boom of mass entertainment. The 1970s and 80s ushered in more complex stories and antiheroes.

The rise of streaming in the internet age has led to a platinum era of high-quality serialized dramas along with more niche, experimental shows. Across all these eras, hundreds of shows have come and gone, but only a select few have stuck in the cultural consciousness as the best of the best.

Methodology For Choosing the Greatest Shows There are many factors that contribute to a great television show. For this list, shows were evaluated based on critical acclaim, ratings success, social impact, longevity, awards won, and how often they are referenced and recommended to new audiences in the modern day.

While subjective opinion always plays a role, these criteria help quantify greatness based on a show’s overall reception and lasting power.

Popularity and ratings are important but may favor more mainstream choices. Critical acclaim helps highlight artistic greatness. Cultural impact means viewers were influenced or affected in a meaningful way. Longevity and staying relevant decades later marks the true classics.

Awards and recommendations help select programs with expert approval that have cemented their place in history. Using this methodology focuses the list on the creme of the crop – the shows with highest overall praise, impact and recognition as the best of the best of all time.

The Top 10 Greatest Television Shows of All Time

  1. The Sopranos

This dark crime drama revolutionized television in the 2000s as a metaphorically rich, emotionally complex serialization. James Gandolfini’s iconic turn as anxiety-prone mob boss Tony Soprano anchored 86 brilliantly written episodes blending family drama and moral ambiguity against a backdrop of violence and betrayal.

It became an instant cultural touchstone that is still referenced constantly today for its shocking moments, psychological depth and antihero protagonist examining identity and “the American dream”.

The Sopranos

Widely regarded as one of the greatest shows of all time, The Sopranos received near universal acclaim throughout its 6 season run, winning 21 Primetime Emmy Awards and 5 Golden Globes including Best Drama. The show and Gandolfini were honored with countless other awards from the industry for their revolutionary impact on scripted television in the 21st century.

It also scored outstanding viewership numbers despite being on a premium network, signaling a new era where television writing and production quality could equal films. Showrunner David Chase created a one-of-a-kind series whose humanity, humor and memorable characters make it as compelling to watch today as ever.

  1. The Wire

Breaking Bad may be its most common modern comparison, but the pioneering crime drama The Wire transformed television first in the 2000s with its novelistic style, realistic world-building, and commentary on real urban issues.

Set in Baltimore, each compelling season focuses on a different city institution’s relationship with their drug trade – from dealers and cops to politicians, schools and the media.

Meticulously crafted and acted, The Wire earns plaudits for eschewing sensationalism and instead finding humanity, humour and drama in complex, fully realized characters on all sides of the game.

The Wire

Despite criminally low ratings when on air, The Wire has become a definitive critical darling often called the best show ever made. Lauded for its ambitious social themes, nuanced writing and lack of exposition that demands audience attention, The Wire represents what television can achieve as both entertainment and commentary on real world problems.

Creator David Simon’s authentic experiences as a Baltimore reporter infuse the entire show with a gripping realism about urban decay that ages disturbingly well. With unflinching storytelling and a diverse ensemble cast delivering incredible performances, The Wire is a monumental achievement in dramatic television.

  1. Breaking Bad

What started out feeling like a mid-life crisis tale twist into a harrowing 5 season transformation that cemented Walter White’s metamorphosis into morally bankrupt drug kingpin Heisenberg as one of TV’s most remarkable character studies.

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul deliver powerhouse performances in Vince Gilligan’s complex drama about identity, ego, and the wicked consequences of choosing darkness when life seems unfair.

Fantastically written and directed, Breaking Bad is a masterclass in tracking an ordinary man’s incremental corruption through ethical compromises for the sake of pride, masked as his family’s security.

Breaking Bad

What separates it is how impressively the story dwells in moral greys against the stark New Mexico backdrop, offering reasons to empathize with Walter through all his increasingly appalling choices.

From the cancer diagnosis that flipped his world to trafficking crystal meth with former student Jesse (Paul), to eventually becoming an antagonist so menacing it is near impossible to keep rooting for him – Walter’s spellbinding trajectory makes the downfall spectacularly devastating.

Even more impactful on rewatch, knowing his original intentions, Breaking Bad earns its enormous praise for delivering a modern Shakespearean tragedy for the ages.

  1. The Simpsons

Over 30 years since it first debuted, the original run of The Simpsons remains an untouchable masterwork of subversive wit and clever commentary through Springfield’s beloved dysfunctional family – Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie. Matt Groening built an entire absurdist world populated by characters so enduring that America can collectively reference them as shorthand today.

Mr. Burns embodies unchecked corporate greed. Ralph Wiggum perfectly distills youthful stupidity. Reverend Lovejoy is the judgmental church leader we love to hate.

But at the core is the Simpson family itself – struggling parents trying their best, rebellious son longing for attention, jazz prodigy daughter the unappreciated moral conscience, and pacifier-sucking baby adding occasional levity.

The Simpsons

Beyond the characters, The Simpsons delivered unparalleled satire of society itself for an astonishing 10+ peak seasons by blending highbrow jokes with vaudevillian slapstick into a lightning fast pace Phil Hartman once called reminiscent of “Action Painting”.

At the time, no other comedy dared to so sharply poke fun at real American culture and institutions. Loaded with gags most shows would take entire episodes to reach, the density of quality Simpsons during its golden years made the satire feel embarrassingly truthful. By cementing animation as not just for kids but an incredible vehicle for subtext on societal dysfunction, The Simpsons influenced countless shows since to follow their convention busting lead.

  1. Game of Thrones

Transporting viewers weekly to its sprawling world of political backstabbing, dynastic wars, magic and dragons for 8 seasons, Game of Thrones captured global popular culture this decade like few series ever have.

Anchored by Peter Dinklage’s stirring performance as witty and wine loving fan favorite Tyrion Lannister, the rich ensemble showcases an outstanding international cast portraying the rival families jockeying for Westeros rule.

Showrunners D.B Weiss and David Benioff adapted the book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin once deemed unfilmable for television.

Game of Thrones

But the panoramic production lends cinematic scope to the fantasy series with extravagant seasons budgeted over $100 million.

Expertly balancing palace intrigue with massive battles between warring kingdoms, Game of Thrones remains astonishingly adept at navigating distinct settings and fully fleshed-out character arcs centred around fascinating figures from cunning queen Cersei Lannister to idealistic princess turned conqueror Daenerys Targaryen.

While a poorly received final season dimmed enthusiasm slightly, years removed now, viewers again appreciate the show’s enormous ambition to bring such an immersive world to the screen.

Hitting highs that redefined appointment television with shocking moments like the infamous Red Wedding, Game of Thrones marries blockbuster thrills with Shakespearean drama, making it arguably the defining show of our peak TV era.

  1. Seinfeld

The iconic “show about nothing”, Seinfeld left an imprint on American culture and comedy unmatched by most TV series in history.

Co-created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, the 1990s sitcom leaned into microscopically examining the minutia of daily life and social conventions with Washington Heights stand in Manhattan as a backdrop.

Each episode braids four dovetailed plot threads focusing on selfish jerk characters that should be unlikable yet endear thanks to the universally relatable annoyance sparked by experiences like waiting in a Chinese restaurant, fighting over a jacket, or botching parallel parking – heightened via tight dialogue and incisively funny observations.

Seinfeld

Built around Seinfeld’s stand-up bits that usually tie stories together, the show’s structural novelty remains a bedrock of contemporary sitcoms. But the organic quirkiness arose from the creators themselves as commentary on the strange dynamics of city living from irritating neighbours like Kramer to the weird friends we put up with like needy George Costanza or unhinged ex Elaine Benes.

While labelled “dark comedy” now thanks to themes like narcissism, nihilism or cruelty – those qualities also reflect why Seinfeld stands the test of time as an authentic portrait of social dynamics and clashing egos.

We see a bit of ourselves in them while finding their first-world problems hysterical. Often called the greatest comedy ever made, the show about nothing changed everything for TV’s future.

  1. The Twilight Zone

While originating from 1950s anthology series dramas, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone still introduced mass audiences to provocative concepts like parallel universes, time travel and dystopias through smart, morality laced stories unlocking imagination.

Shining light on real world issues like nuclear war and conformity with a humanistic lens, the influential series feels equally poetic, whimsical and haunting.

Even when using sci fi, fantasy or horror storytelling, Serling fostered empathy and open minds during divided times. Premised on seeing people from walks of life enter “a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind”, the show challenged postwar American viewers to recognize our shared experiences and change destructive patterns.

The Twilight Zone

Featuring an outstanding array of guest stars each episode behind Serling’s memorable opening and closing narration, The Twilight Zone sowed seminal ideas reaping generations of acclaimed artists influenced by its social commentary and genre-bending anthology format.

From George Clayton Johnson’s thought-provoking “Kick the Can” to Charles Beaumont’s nightmarish “Living Doll” featuring Talky Tina, the series masterful blend of moral lessons and imagination still resonates for striking, compelling, contemplative and chilling tales in a dimension we still haven’t left behind.

  1. The Office

Recency bias can’t obscure the monumental impact The Office had on sitcom landscape since premiering in 2005. Originally adapted from a British show mocking realism style office documentary filmmaking, the long running upstairs/downstairs workplace comedy minted huge stars out of leads Steve Carell and John Krasinski.

Based on paper merchant Dunder Mifflin, Carell played bumbling regional manager Michael Scott as an insufferable yet pathetically endearing boss striving for popularity from employees.

Breathing cringey life into Scott for 7 seasons, Carell’s bravura balance of clueless callousness yet pronounced neediness for friends established his hall-of-fame comedy bonafide.

the office

Creator Greg Daniels and team managed week-to-week laughs from darker edges while carving out emotionally grounded characters seeking purpose and connection against a confined backdrop similar to a theatre stage production.

Beyond Carell, the ensemble boasts an array of fan favorites like sardonic accountant Oscar Nunez, sycophantic salesman Andy Bernard to Will Ferrell reprising his mockumentary chops as DeAngelo Vickers.

Allowing characters to organically grow new depths over long arcs culminated in a resoundingly heartfelt series sendoff. Coupled with meme-generating jokes and cultural staying power, The Office sitting among best written and performed sitcoms is anything but aReach.

  1. I Love Lucy

Pioneering power couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz made TV studio audiences laugh to the point of emphysema while playing fictional versions of themselves on I Love Lucy in the early 1950s as the medium expanded from households to millions nationwide.

Lucy Ricardo’s various attention-seeking ploys to escape her housewife predictability by stumbling into Lucille Ball level slapstick hijinks each episode ushered a golden age of comedy using vaudevillian roots into the boob tube age for nickelodeon levels of family laughs.

I Love Lucy

Whether stomping grapes, wrestling William Frawley or conveyor belt wrapping chocolates unable to keep up with conveyer speed efficiency, Ball’s elastic facial theatrics and dynamic physicality remain textbooks for future sitcom stars decades later.

Episodes play remarkably modern through Lucy’s antics, snaring tolerant Cuban bandleader husband Ricky Ricardo, who couldn’t stay mad for long. At the time, plots like Lucy giving birth to baby Ricky on the same night as Ball gave birth in real life drew record-shattering viewership, displaying the show’s impact.

As the first female sitcom lead, Lucy Ricardo established the blueprint for the flawed yet funny future. Desperate Housewives, Girls, and Broad City leading ladies alike owed to Ball’s courage to clown.

  1. The Larry Sanders Show

Before prestige cable dramas descent into moral outrage protagonists, ’90s groundbreaking HBO talk show satire The Larry Sanders Show deconstructed late-night TV darkness through self-absorbed host Larry losing his way amid the shifting Hollywood landscape. Arriving before disappointment culture, Larry Sanders eviscerated show business’ vain narcissism with empathy years ahead of its time.

Stand up pioneer Garry Shandling painfully exposed his own neuroses as Larry while coaxing killer guest turns from Billy Crystal, Jim Carrey, and David Duchovny as himself.

The Larry Sanders Show

Whirling show within a show format barely masks the aching sadly recognizable for creatives who similarly saw former late night great David Letterman struggling with relevance against viral videos destabilizing Hollywood gatekeepers.

The layers peel brilliantly through increasingly unhinged sidekick Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor), tragically self-serious producer Artie (Rip Torn) and Larry’s office interviews with celebrity guests playing grotesque versions of their own persona.

In many ways foisting the cringe-induced character studies perfected by UK’s The Office before internet takedowns preyed upon public figures, Larry Sanders captured celebrity culture’s rot when now viral missteps only erosion attention faster, Highlighting the petty jealousies between talk shows amid shifting viewership tastes, Shandling exposed entertainment industry’s outgoing tide ahead of the deluge demonstrating art lasting through understanding other’s flaws.  To this day, sitcoms thrive examining perceived imposters facing new world order they can’t comprehend but audiences relate to thanks to Sanders example that forging human connections remains last, best hope.