In the past few decades, television went from being seen as a detriment to intellectualism to becoming a new kind of literacy, at least in terms of the amount of time very smart people now spend watching screens. Just as literary classics like Pride & Prejudice or The Grapes of Wrath can spend years on people’s lists without them ever actually reading the literature, ‘prestige’ TV has become simultaneously treasured and laborious to the average viewer who used to just unwind after work with a sitcom. Now, with different new series like Squid Game and Mare of Easttown dominating the cultural landscape seemingly every week, keeping up with television can almost become a chore. Regardless, certain shows that have stood out from the ever-expanding televisual territories have done so through pure artistry, innovation, or cultural influence (or have simply perfected a traditional form), earning their prized positions in culture just as murals on the Santa Maria delle Grazie or athletic games in the Colosseum have in the past — they’re what we as a society revolve around at their point in time, and what reflects us.
Does a person need to watch these shows? No. Are these series culturally significant, and do they give people a wider experience of the human condition, as well as being entertaining? Yes. There are quite literally more hours of television to watch than someone would have in numerous lifetimes (with the number of actually well-spent hours increasing yearly), so a viewer might as well watch the best of the best. A list like this is an invitation to get upset; there are obviously countless TV shows that could be included here because all of this is subjective. Game of Thrones, Star Trek, Babylon 5, Columbo, Veep, Deadwood, Friday Night Lights, Homicide: Life on the Street, The West Wing, Cheers, The Outer Limits, Star Trek: Next Generation, Batman: The Animated Series, Happy Days, All in the Family — every one of these shows deserve immense acclaim and have been important in staggering ways.
Instead of lamenting what isn’t presented here or where a certain title is located on the list, though, let’s celebrate what is actually included. Excluding news- and sports-related programs, these are some of the best American television series of all time.
Updated on October 22nd, 2023, by Ben Hathaway: This article has been updated with additional content to keep the discussion fresh and relevant with even more information and new entries.
Television technically goes back to 1928, when General Electric was testing their extremely early, 48-line TV system with a one-act play called The Queen’s Messenger, but it arguably wasn’t until Gunsmoke that the television drama had its first masterpiece. Yes, there were variety programs like The Texaco Star Theatre, Your Show of Shows, and You Bet Your Life, sitcoms like Mama, and even dramas like The Lone Ranger and Martin Kane, Private Eye, but it really wasn’t until Gunsmoke transitioned from its gritty, surprisingly dark radio roots to television that the medium found its stride.
The first episode was introduced by none other than John Wayne (“No, I’m not in it. I wish I were, though, because I think it’s the best thing of its kind that’s come along, and I think you’ll agree with me. It’s honest, it’s adult, and it’s realistic,” Wayne said). The episodic western drama followed Marshal Matt Dillon of Dodge City and his good-natured sidekick Chester, who protect their town from a variety of threats. The show certainly was “adult” for its time, as Wayne alluded to — brothels and prostitution, murder and alcoholism, sexual assault and the first television antihero protagonists stood in stark contrast to the televisual world of The Honeymooners and Leave it to Beaver. The show was a hit, dominating television as the most-watched show for numerous years throughout its legendary 20-year run, and remains endlessly influential to this day.
Gunsmoke is available to stream on Paramount+ and Pluto TV
The Bundys could certainly stand on the Mount Rushmore of sitcom families. There has never been another brood quite like them, before or after their hugely successful 11-season run. Arriving before the long-running series The Simpsons, Married with Children built Fox into the fourth network, which in the ’80s only consisted of ABC, NBC, and CBS. The flipside of the loving Cosby Show family, Married … With Children focused on the Bundys, a suburban Chicago family who would rather eat nails than say a kind word to one another.
Al Bundy, the patriarch, is a misogynistic shoe salesman whose wife, Peggy, is a housewife who does no work around the house. To say that their children, Kelly and Bud, do not have a lot going for them would be an understatement. This biting, acidic comedy focuses on the couple’s constant verbal sparring over their slacker kids and each other, and their lack of money, success, and intimacy. In this way, it was much more relatable than the picture-perfect families on television.
Married… with Children is available to stream on Hulu and Pluto TV
Paul Feig and Judd Apatow truly captured the agonies of American adolescence in this in heartfelt, laugh-out-loud comedy set in a Michigan town in 1980. Freaks and Geeks tragically lasted only one season, but all 18 episodes hit home, with a rock soundtrack and a cast of future legends.
The beloved characters, played by Martin Starr, Jason Segel, and especially Linda Cardellini are simply kids who don’t fit in, craving a place they might belong. If nothing else, tune in to see other A-listers, such as Seth Rogen and James Franco, at a young age — plus, the throwback references are aplenty, with the show embracing the concept of nostalgia long before it became practically obligatory. For lovers of TV shows that perfectly capture a certain “back in the day” era, check out Pen15 as a lovely follow-up to Freaks and Geeks.
Freaks and Geeks is available to stream on Prime Video, Hulu, and Paramount+
Mad Men became a sensation as soon as it appeared, partly because of its glam ’60s NYC surface, but mostly because it was an audaciously adult drama staking out new territory. Jon Hamm’s womanizing Don Draper is a genius at shaping other people’s dreams and fantasies, but he can’t escape his own loneliness — he’s a con man who stole the identity of a dead Korean War officer and built a new life out of lies.
Don can reduce a room to tears pitching the Kodak Carousel, even though the happy family memories he’s selling are a fraud. There was hardly anything on TV as seductive as Mad Men before.
Mad Men is available to stream on AMC+
While certainly faltering in its later, post-Carell years, The Office remains one of the most important, beloved, and funniest television series of all time. Yes, the series initially just copied its brilliant British counterpart, but over the years it became its own sort of surprising juggernaut, one markedly different from Ricky Gervais’ classic.
Gradually detailing the maturity of Michael Scott and the humanity of office drones, the American Office initiated what could be called The New Sincerity in comedy — humorous shows that don’t rely on cruelty, bitter sarcasm, or nasty conflicts to get a laugh, but rather good-hearted, sweet characters trying their best. This kind of humor would proliferate, with shows like Parks and Recreation, The Good Place, Joe Pera Talks With You, and the innovative How To With John Wilson embracing kindness in comedy.
The Office is available to stream on Peacock Premium
A trailblazing series for comedians and women alike, I Love Lucy is an obvious classic that benefited greatly from the real-life professional and personal relationship of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez, who created and starred in the series as a married couple in the entertainment industry.
It’s a bit dated by now, but it’s always a delight to see what ridiculousness Lucy will get into. Ball’s gift for physical comedy remained mostly unparalleled throughout her life, and the casting of Vivian Vance and William Frawley is pitch-perfect.
I Love Lucy is available to stream on Paramount+
Bryan Fuller’s utterly brilliant (and loose) adaptation of the famous Thomas Harris novels was perhaps the most artistic show on basic cable before, during, and after its three-season run. Directed and photographed like an art film, with deliciously perverse performances and equally disturbed storylines, it’s actually amazing that Hannibal aired on television at all.
Hannibal remains one of the boldest, most uncompromising series about psychosis and obsession ever made, and one of the most aesthetically, visually stunning shows of all time.
Hannibal is available to stream on Hulu
One of the funniest shows ever made, Arrested Development featured some of the most iconic running gags in television history. Led by an incredible ensemble cast playing now-iconic characters (Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Tony Hale, Michael Cera, David Cross, Alia Shawkat, Jessica Walter, and many more) and narrated by an ironic Ron Howard, the series was a rapid-fire, often absurdist look at a once-wealthy family reduced to rubble after the arrest of their patriarch.
Featuring consistently brilliant sociopolitical commentary, along with just blatantly silly puns, the show was canceled after three seasons on Fox but later revived on Netflix for adoring fans.
Arrested Development is available to stream on Netflix
The brilliant reboot Battlestar Galactica took the intriguing premise of the original series but updated it into the times of post-9/11 anxiety. Concerning a group of human survivors after a war with artificial intelligence that can mimic humans, the incredibly tense series fleshed out amazing characters and nail-biting scenarios while also being a subtle allegory for the Iraq War, conflicts in the Middle East, and American imperialism.
Few sci-fi shows have been so brilliantly scripted and laid out as Battlestar Galactica. While it could be argued that one of the many Star Trek series or especially Babylon 5 are better, more popular shows, Battlestar Galactica captured the cultural zeitgeist like few others, and never devolved into silliness or complete nerdiness, still holding up to this day.
Battlestar Galactica is available to buy on Amazon
Sure, I Love Lucy was America’s sitcom, but The Mary Tyler Moore Show was so poignantly funny and daring that it can be recognized as one the most important turning points in pop culture’s acknowledgment of second-wave feminism.
She didn’t have a husband, a dependent, or a care in the world, and was dangerously subversive because of it; she was going to make it, after all. It could be said that if Mary Tyler Moore wasn’t making America laugh so hard, they would’ve been shooting at her. She made it after all.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show is available to stream on Hulu
Everyone was trying to win the youth market on both Saturday mornings and after school, but only one program was talented enough to earn viewership from adults as well. Where Sesame Street instilled unconditional empathy, The Muppet Show instilled wit. Where Mr. Rogers taught kindness, Beaker taught loss (again and again).
The Muppets were charming but certainly not saints, and in so many ways, it made Gonzo’s regular journeys to self-acceptance all the more vital for the kids who found themselves more like daredevils than good neighbors to love themselves as well.
The Muppet Show is available to stream on Disney+
One hundred million people tuned in to Roots, which would go on to garner 37 Emmy Award nominations, shattering records for a show some believed was destined to fail. Slavery was a taboo topic in every possible regard; to so much as mention its existence in front of a viewing audience (on the same channel as such cheery fluff as The Love Boat and Three’s Company, no less) was to invoke the plague. Not only did Roots display slavery, but it also gave every horrific truth a chance to be told.
Roots has become a show of legend for its mastery of storytelling and character, as well as its triumph in getting a country to consider atoning for its past properly, if for just a moment. Yes, Roots is a great miniseries rather than an actual TV show, and there are countless other miniseries that could be considered here. However, Roots became less and less of a miniseries over time, as new seasons appeared (with Roots: The Next Generation in 1979, Roots: The Gift in 1988, and the 2016 remake all expanding on or elaborating on the original series), so it’s fairly safe to include this as a television series.
Roots is available to buy on Amazon
SNL stopped being a show a long time ago: it’s a medium. Just as you can bring a painter to a canvas and see how they do, Saturday Night Live presents the unique opportunity for cast members to craft live sketches in one week, perform them just once for a real audience, and then do it all over again immediately. As streaming continues to dominate and sports become essentially the only live television around, SNL seems more and more like an exotic institution, even if it has genuinely sucked for years.
At its best, SNL has been comedy in its most expert concentration; at its worst, it’s utterly embarrassing. However, maybe the results shouldn’t be analyzed by how many sketches are hits or misses, but rather how the show vetted and matured nearly every major comedian for almost half a century. As such, it remains one of the most important TV shows, even if its greatest seasons are in the rearview mirror.
Saturday Night Live is available to stream on Peacock Premium
Great game shows play on the societal salivation for money and the desire to prove oneself. On Match Game, you needed to be witty and charismatic as celebrities to earn the dough. On Press Your Luck, you just needed to be destined for wealth. But on Jeopardy, you as a viewer were just as much of a talented winner if you knew the right trivia.
There were no lifelines, gimmicks, or reliance on communicating a password to a blindfolded partner; just a celebration of what we as people are willing to learn. The best part about Jeopardy! isn’t just that it encourages knowledge, but that when it’s on, nobody looks away from the screen, and everybody guesses to win.
Jeopardy! is available to stream on fuboTV and Pluto TV
If South Park may seem a bit tame today, that’s because there is a veritable sea of copycat shows influenced by its humor and approach, obfuscating the fact of just how important, hilarious, and unique South Park truly is. Unlike practically any other scripted show, Trey Parker and Matt Stone approach South Park as if they’re producing a news show, writing and animating each new episode within one week in order to stay topical and current. It’s a bonkers approach, ridiculously difficult (as seen in the documentary 6 Days to Air), but the result is a show that’s frequently more relevant and culturally attuned than any other comedy.
South Park follows the misadventures of an eternally youthful group of boys and their parents in the titular Colorado town, and has tackled a plethora of issues and ideas over the course of its quarter of a century on TV. The most controversial episodes of South Park remind us that, yes, we are still capable of being shocked in this postmodern day and age. Even after all this time, and with new specials on Paramount+ (like the excellent feature-length Streaming Wars), South Park is still provocatively bold but thoughtful and intelligent, and just damn funny.
South Park is available to stream on Max, DirecTV, and fuboTV
Few television series captured the 1990s quite like The X-Files, and with ’90s nostalgia on the rise, the classic sci-fi procedural drama feels downright prophetic. Its themes of deep-state conspiracies and unexplained phenomena would lead to scores of television series over the years that incorporated science-fiction, fantasy, and horror elements into their otherwise normal genre proceedings. While it obviously owes a debt to Twin Peaks, it was this more straightforward show that led to tons of copycats.
Combining episodic police procedural aspects with overarching character arcs and storylines, The X-Files followed FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully as they investigate the unexplained and navigate one of the greatest will-they/won’t-they relationships in TV history. Featuring a treasure trove of some of the best writers to have ever worked in television, The X-Files is a true classic.
The X-Files is available to stream on Hulu and Freevee
Garry Shandling made one of the most pioneering comedy series of all time in 1986 with It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, a meta masterpiece of awkwardness and ’80s humor that tore down the rules of conventional sitcoms. He followed that very early premium cable show with a more mature, but still hilarious, series that broke even more ground — The Larry Sanders Show.
While it wasn’t the first series to go behind the scenes of a television show and focus on the nature of celebrity, media, and artifice, it’s arguably the best. Shandling played the titular Larry Sanders, a famous talk show host, and the show revolved around the weekly process of casting, writing, producing, and filming late-night television. With more celebrity guests than you’d ever imagine, the show ditched the laugh track, went for an hour, and was smarter than just about any other comedy at the time. The Larry Sanders Show probably remains the best comedy series on a premium cable network like HBO or Showtime.
The Larry Sanders Show is available to stream on Max
Originating as an excellent, typically rambling Robert Altman film, M*A*S*H found success like no other show — literally. The finale was watched by more people than any other scripted TV show in history (106 million in America, and roughly 125 million worldwide), outdone only by the Super Bowl, the moon landing, and Nixon’s resignation speech. That’s because M*A*S*H was like no other show at the time, ostensibly a sitcom but one that fused its humor with truly powerful drama and immense sociocultural relevance, using its Korean War setting to reflect the realities of the Vietnam War.
M*A*S*H followed an extremely likable group of medics stationed in Uijeongbu, South Korea. The show, while appealing to people of all ideological backgrounds, was resolutely anti-war, frequently acknowledging the atrocities committed in wartime, especially by America’s military-industrial complex during the Korean War. M*A*S*H felt like many things at once; interspersed throughout the great medical drama was wonderful romance, hilarious wit, and intimate character studies. Remaining in the top 20 shows on television for a decade, M*A*S*H will forever be synonymous with perhaps the greatest American export — TV.
M*A*S*H is available to stream on Hulu
One of the most directly theological and philosophical shows ever made, The Leftovers came from the brilliant mind of Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Watchmen) and considered the aftermath of a strange event in which millions of people simply disappeared one day. The Leftovers is told largely from the perspective of a self-destructive couple (played by Justin Theroux and the absolutely incredible Carrie Coon) as they navigate wicked cults, strange bureaucracies, and spiritual experiences they barely believe.
The Leftovers combines some of the bleakest material on television with some of the most beautiful. It’s a surprisingly moving meditation on spirituality and faith, as well as containing some of the most detailed, poignant character studies in television history despite its relatively short three-season run. The Leftovers remains an underrated masterpiece which must be seen to be believed (please).
The Leftovers is available to stream on Max
Breaking Bad was so culturally significant that even actual meth dealers dyed their product blue to keep up with the popularity of Vince Gilligan’s brilliant portrayal of American servitude. One of the last cable television shows to really feel like a massive watercooler moment in American culture, the show is not just an analysis of how classist systems breed crime, but how the most innocent, even pathetic man in the world, once put under the exact right pressures, can become a notorious American monster.
Breaking Bad finished after five seasons, breaking studio rules of running the car until you’re out of gas; it instead inspired other shows to be masterful until the last drop, and to stop driving when the destination is reached. Yes, El Camino and the great Better Call Saul continued or elaborated the story in different ways, but Gilligan proved that a spin-off could be its own distinct entity and still succeed.
Breaking Bad is available to stream on Netflix